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The 1911 State Library Fire And Its Effect On New York Genealogy

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by Harry Macy, Jr., F.A.S.G., F.G.B.S.

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.   To Top of Page

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.

Indeed, during 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.   To Top of Page

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.   To Top of Page

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 Top of Page

The introduction to the 1911 list (pp. 426-27) contains a useful summary:

The manuscript 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 and topics.

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).   To Top of Page

The following are some of the records affected by the fire that are particularly useful to genealogists:

State Census: 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)   To Top of Page

Marriage Bonds: 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).   To Top of Page

Colonial Manuscripts: 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 destroyed.

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).   To Top of Page

Council Minutes: 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.   To Top of Page

Colonial Commissions: 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.

Another colonial 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 Top of Page

Records Relating 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. (1921-65).   To Top of Page

Rensselaerswyck 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)   To Top of Page

Revolutionary 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).    To Top of Page

Other Records. 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 preserve them.

About one-quarter 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.   To Top of Page

Genealogies: 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.   To Top of Page


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