The 1911 State Library Fire And Its Effect On New York Genealogy|
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by Harry Macy, Jr.,
Originally published in
The NYG&B Newsletter, Spring 1999
In the early morning
hours of March 29, 1911, a fire raged through the New York State Library,
destroying or badly damaging hundreds of thousands of books and manuscripts.
Unless otherwise indicated, the story of the fire has been summarized from
the account in Cecil R. Roseberry, A History of the New York State Library
(Albany, 1970), especially pp. 85-96. The author wishes to thank James
D. Folts, Head of Research Services, New York State Archives, for supplying
copies of the three bibliographical sources; and James Corsaro of the State
Library and Roger Joslyn, FASG, for their assistance
in obtaining the State Library photographs. Today's researchers should be
familiar with this tragic event, for it explains some of the gaps that exist
in the documentation of NewYork's history and genealogy.
At the time of
the fire the Library was housed in the State Capitol, the same monumental
building which is home to the Governor and Legislature today. The structure
was begun in 1869 and not completed until 1899, after years of acrimonious
debate over ever-increasing costs, and design changes. The Capitol's architecture
is a mix of Renaissance Revival, Romanesque, and other styles popular in
the period. Leopold Eidlitz, Henry Hobson Richardson, and Frederick Law Olmstead
were among those involved in its design. For a brief account see Mariana
Griswold Van Rensselaer, Henry Hobson Richardson and His Works (1888,
reprinted New York: Dover, 1969), pp. 73-77. The Library moved into temporary
space in the building in 1884 and into permanent quarters there in 1889.
By the beginning
of the 20th century the New York State Library was the fifth largest library
in the United States and one of the twenty largest in the world. Since there
was no separate State Archives, it was the repository for many state government
records, some dating back to the days of New Netherland.
The Library quickly
became too large for its space in the Capitol, and plans were made to move
it to the new Education Building, scheduled to open January 1, 1911. But
construction took longer than expected, and the move was postponed to September.
Otherwise, the Library might have escaped the catastrophe of March 29.
The fire that broke
out after midnight on that date began in the Assembly Library, on the same
floor as the State Library. When the Fire Department arrived, the Assembly
Library was totally engulfed, and flames had burst through the adjacent corridor
into the State Library. By 4 a.m. the fire was described as "a total inferno."
Despite the hour, crowds gathered to watch. Sheets of scorched paper from
books and historical manuscripts filled the sky over Albany "like snowflakes,"
and would drift to earth over a 20-mile radius. After sunrise, when the fire
had been brought under control, smoke continued to pour from the windows.
The firefighters had saved much of the building, but the Library appeared
to be a total loss.
the conflagration not a single book could be rescued from the Library proper.
The fire destroyed 450,000 books, 270,000 manuscripts, and the entire catalog
of almost 1,000,000 cards. It was truly one of the greatest library disasters
of modern times.
What caused this
awful event? A popular rumor blamed a cigar butt carelessly discarded in
the Assembly Library, but the weight of evidence pointed to defective wiring.
The electrical system in that part of the Capitol dated from 1886, and could
already be described as antique.
In the morning
the State Militia surrounded the building, to prevent looting, and a massive
salvage operation began. Two men whose names should be well known to researchers
today took charge of rescuing the manuscripts that had survived. A.J.F. van
Laer, who had been the State Archivist for twelve years, was joined by the
noted antiquarian I.N. Phelps Stokes, who came to Albany as an emissary from
the New York Public Library. In his history of the Library, Roseberry describes
the painstaking rescue process in detail. In October 1912 the Library re-opened
in its new quarters in the Education Building. After the State Archives was
organized in 1971, custody of government documents was transferred from the
Library to that body. Both the Library and Archives subsequently moved to
their present home in the Cultural and Education Center, part of the Empire
State Plaza complex.
What exactly was
destroyed, particularly in terms of genealogical resources? Despite the loss
of the card catalog, we have considerable knowledge of the Library's manuscript
holdings before the fire. This comes from three sources, photo-copies of
which are now available in the NYG&B; Library:
1. "Annotated List
of the Principal Manuscripts in the New York State Library," University of
the State of New York, State Library Bulletin-History No. 3 (Albany,
1899), pp. 209-27, which also contains handwritten annotations made after
the fire by Peter Nelson (van Laer's assistant) and others. At pp. 228-32
of the same is "Partial bibliography of matter [mostly official reports]
relating to the manuscripts in the N.Y. State Library."
2. Charles W. Spencer
and Walter H. Nichols, comps., "Description of manuscripts found in the ms
room of the State Library, Albany, N.Y.," a typescript dated July 12, 1900.
3. University of
the State of New York, Journal of a Meeting of the Board of Regents .
. . June 22, 1911, pp. 421-47, which contains a "List of the Principal
Sets of Manuscripts in the New York State Library Prior to the Fire of March
29, 1911, with Approximate Extent of Salvage from Each Set." Includes a section
on the [proposed] "Rebuilding of the State Library" (pp. 438-47). The NYG&B;
photocopy contains handwritten annotations by Peter Nelson and others. A
condensed version of this report was also published in the New York State
Library Annual Report for 1911.
to the 1911 list (pp. 426-27) contains a useful summary:
collection in the New York State Library, which was partly destroyed by the
recent fire in the Capitol, constituted the largest and, from the point of
view of the historian, the most important body of archives in the possession
of the State. The manuscripts were acquired by gift, by purchase, and by
transfer from various State offices during a period of 65 years and embraced
practically all that had been preserved of the executive, legislative and
judicial records of the administration of the province under the Dutch regime,
1630-64, 1673-74; the executive and legislative papers, other than land papers,
of the English colonial administration, 1664-73, 1674-1783; the executive
and legislative papers of the provincial administration during the Revolution,
1775-78; the legislative papers from the formation of State government in
1777 to 1910; the papers of the Council of Appointment, 1777-1821; the election
returns, 1777-1905; the census returns, 1801-1905; the correspondence of
Sir William Johnson and of Governors George Clinton and Daniel D. Tompkins;
the archives of the manor of Rensselaerswyck from its first settlement in
1630 to about 1870; a large collection of papers relating to Vermont, known
as the Henry Stevens papers; several series of transcripts from foreign archives
and a number of miscellaneous books and papers relating to special persons
Of this general
collection of manuscripts a large and important portion remains, owing to
circumstances that two years ago a number of the most valuable manuscripts
were removed . . . to a safe . . . where they were not exposed to any danger
from the fire, and that other important and early records were saved by being
buried during the fire under a large mass of legislative papers which fell
from the mezzanine floor above. The most serious losses occurred among the
executive records of the English colonial period, the Sir William Johnson
manuscripts, the Clinton papers, the Tompkins papers and the early Senate
papers, which stood in a double-faced case and were exposed to the fire on
both sides. . . .
Among the materials
that were lost were many of the transcripts from foreign archives mentioned
above, but in almost every case the originals survived in those archives.
Many of these were also among the records that had been published in some
form before 1911. Genealogists would have suffered an even greater loss from
the fire had it not been for these publications, which included some of the
colonial records most useful for genealogy. It should also be remembered
that many state records had not yet been given to the Library at the time
of the fire. Besides the documents placed in a safe as noted above, the Secretary
of State's office still held many of its colonial and 19th century land records,
the Adjutant General had extensive 19th century military records, and various
state courts retained probate and other legal records, resources that are
all now in the State Archives. For an overview of the Archives' current holdings
see Guide to Records in the New York State Archives (Albany, 1993).
The following are
some of the records affected by the fire that are particularly useful to
The 1899 list (p. 227) notes the existence of 650 volumes of state census
reports, "being the original work of the state enumerators, in folios, 1801-92,
the earlier volumes incomplete" [the meaning of the last comment not determined].
The 1911 list (p. 435) described "State census returns for 1801, 1807, 1814,
1821 and 1850( sic)-1905," 750 volumes, the additional 100 volumes
presumably representing the 1905 census. One might assume from these entries
that the Library had complete runs of the state census, or at least those
from 1855 on (since both descriptions refer to the state census,
the 1850 date may be an error, unless there were some state copies of federal
returns as well).
The 1911 list states
that "Portions of the returns for 1801, 1814 and 1821 were saved; all
the other returns, which were not in the manuscripts room but on one of the
upper floors of the library, were completely destroyed." (emphasis added)
What we have today,
in the microfilm collections at the State Library as well as NYG&B; and the
FHL, are county copies of the state census, preserved by the county clerks.
Some clerks had saved every census for their county and some none at all,
while many had incomplete holdings. Hence the frustrating gaps that we find
in our present-day collections.
The 1801-21 censuses
were primarily censuses of electors; they are inventoried in the 1900 list
(p. 34) which says there was also a volume for 1795. According to the 1911
report portions of 1801, 1814 and 1821 were saved, but an annotation to the
1899 list describes these as small fragments, which a recent observer says
are badly charred. (New York City copies of 1816-21 electoral censuses survive,
see Newsletter 3:27)
A resource heavily used by genealogists is the index to marriage licenses
issued by the colonial governors of New York, published in 1860 with a supplement
in 1898, and reprinted with further additions in 1967 as New York Marriages
Previous to 1784. Most of the index entries were created from bonds,
posted by applicants for marriage licenses 1752-1783 and preserved in 41
volumes at Albany. The index did not include some data from the bonds, such
as places of residence, occupations, and names of the bondsmen. Unfortunately,
the fire inflicted heavy damage on these volumes (see 1899 list, 221; 1900
list, 7; 1911 list, 431-32). Twenty-two volumes were totally lost, and the
top portions of the rest "hopelessly charred," as Dr. Kenneth Scott explained
in the introduction to his New York Marriage Bonds 1763-1783 (1972),
in which he abstracted pertinent data from the surviving portions of the
bonds. The licenses themselves were not retained by the government but were
given to the prospective brides and grooms who turned them over to the clergymen
who married them; some licenses have survived in private collections (e.g.,
see Record 119:226).
There were 103 volumes in this series, containing records from 1638
to 1800 (see 1899 list, 215-17; 1900, 3, 4, 6; 1911, 428-29). All but the
last two volumes had been indexed in the Calendar of Historical Manuscripts
in the Office of the Secretary of State, part 1, Dutch, 1630-1664, and
part 2 , English, 1664-1776, published in 1865-66. According to the 1911
list "The Dutch part . . . was contained in volumes 1-19 and 23, which were
all saved with the exception of volume 1 [the first Register of the Provincial
Secretary, for which a translation by O'Callaghan survived]." While many
of the other Dutch volumes were charred at the edges, they survived because
they had been kept on shelves close to the floor, below the English volumes.
When the fire caused the shelves to collapse, the Dutch books were buried
under the English ones, which suffered far greater damage, many being completely
The surviving 17th
century Colonial Manuscripts are being transcribed, translated and published
in two series commenced in 1974, New Netherland Documents (formerly New
York Historical Manuscripts: Dutch) and New York Historical Manuscripts:
English. Not all of the volumes in these two series are based on the
Colonial Manuscripts. Some were compiled from other manuscripts seriously
affected by the fire, such as the Books of General Entries and the records
of the Court of Assizes, as well as volumes that survived the flames, like
the Dutch Land Papers. See the introductions to the respective published
volumes. Introductions to these volumes give further details as to fire damage.
The English volumes
of Colonial Manuscripts included censuses, assessment lists, muster rolls,
and other items useful to genealogists, almost all of which were destroyed
by the fire. Fortunately, much of this material had been published in E.B.
O'Callaghan, Documentary History of the State of New York, 4 vols.,
1849-51 (excerpts reprinted in 1979 as Lists of Inhabitants of Colonial
New York); in vols. 12-14 of Documents Relating to the Colonial History
of the State of New York; and (muster rolls) in 2nd and 3rd Annual
Reports of the State Historian (1896-97).
These are the English council minutes from 1668-1783 (those of the Dutch
period were part of the Colonial Manuscripts described above). All 28 volumes
survived, though half were in fair or poor condition. Portions are in print
as Journal of the Legislative Council of the Colony of New York 1691-1775,
2v. (1861); Calendar of Council Minutes 1668-1783 (1902); and
Minutes of the Executive Council of the Province of New York-Administration
of Francis Lovelace 1668-1673, 2v. (1910). See 1899 list, 218; 1900,
6; 1911, 429-30.
There were five volumes, covering 1680-1770 (1899 list, 218; 1900, 8;
1911, 430). Only fragments were saved, but E.B. O'Callaghan had prepared
a calendar which was published by The New-York Historical Society in 1929
as Calendar of New York Colonial Commissions 1680-1770. Thirty-three
similar volumes covering 1770-1822 were in the Secretary of State's office
at the time of the fire, and are now in the State Archives.
military source completely lost in the fire was 39 rolls of the Provincial
Militia 1745-60, purchased by the Library in 1906 (1911 list, 431).
to the Frontier and the Native People of New York: The three lists include
many items in this category that were lost, such as 2 vols. of Indian traders'
bonds; 2 of 3 vols. of Records of Indian Agency; 1 vol. of letters on Indian
affairs including journal of missionary Samuel Kirkland; and 7 boxes of Indian
Treaties. The 26 volumes of Sir William Johnson manuscripts 1738-90 (1899,
210; 1900, 13, 15; 1911, 432-33) were relevant to both the Indians and the
frontier in general. The Calendar of the Sir William Johnson Manuscripts
in the New York State Library had been published in 1909. Half the volumes
were saved in good or fair condition, and published (along with related material
from other repositories) in the Sir William Johnson Papers, 14 vols.
Manuscripts: The Library had more than 200 volumes of papers of the
Van Rensselaer family and their Manor Rensselaerswyck, of which a considerable
part were saved. Also saved were two sets of "Van Rensselaer Bowier Manuscripts,"
copies of original records in the Netherlands. Of the latter, one set had
been published by the Library in 1908. (1900 list, 38f; 1911, 428, 438)
War and Its Aftermath: Almost 150 volumes fell into this category, including
the papers of Governor George Clinton. Some 100 volumes were lost or survived
in fragments, although many of the lost portions had been published. Rather
than attempt to describe all these series here, we refer the reader to the
excellent Guide to Records Relating to the Revolutionary War held in
the New York State Archives (Albany, 1993).
A great variety of other manuscripts were damaged by the fire. Genealogists
should be aware of these resources, even if they are less likely to consult
what remains of them. The careful researcher will study the 1899, 1900 and
1911 lists for items of possible interest. Examples from the colonial period
are financial records of the Treasurer and quit rent accounts; records of
boundary disputes between New York and New England (which extend into the
post-revolutionary period); and records relating to shipmasters and shipping.
The Library had
extensive records of the State Legislature, including over 100,000 unbound
papers of which only some 2,000 survived, and those in bad condition. These
are the materials mentioned earlier, which had been stored on the mezzanine.
When that structure collapsed they fell to the main floor, covering many
of the older manuscripts which had been stored there and thus helping to
of Governor Daniel D. Tompkins' papers were saved, largely in bad condition,
but portions had been published. Some other post-Revolutionary and 19th century
records: Tax Lists 1814, 1 vol. (saved); Common School Returns 1821-22, 1
vol. (saved); N.Y. Society of Associated Teachers' minutes 1794-1807, 1 vol.
(saved, fair); Treasurer's Accounts, 69 ledgers (saved); Meteorological reports,
36 vols. (majority saved). Of 21 vols. relating to disputed property claims
in the Military Tract in Onondaga County, only two were saved, and those
in bad condition.
The Library had
some local Albany material, such as one volume each of the Albany Mayor's
Court, Mechanics' Society, and Philharmonic Society, all saved in fair or
good condition. A volume of Schenectady retailers' records was also saved.
This article has dealt with manuscripts, but we conclude with a statement
in the 1911 report (p. 441) regarding the book collection [emphasis added]:
"Our former collection of American genealogies was undoubtedly the best
in the country. Including the works on heraldry, it contained nearly
ten thousand volumes. It will require assiduous labor for years, and probably
$75,000, to make a new collection of genealogies of equal worth." The destruction
of the card catalogue leaves us ignorant of the titles in this lost collection,
and we can only wonder what treasures it held.