Tracing Your Roots

Montgomery County Department of History and Archives plays host to thousands of visitors each year

By Dianne Nevich

This article appeared in The Sunday Leader-Herald, on August 22, 1999, Section C, page1.  It is transcribed here with her permission and with grateful acknowledgement of the Leader-Herald newspaper.



Montgomery County Department of History and Archives in Fonda is a treasure trove of old documents.  And as the third largest collection of indexed genealogical records in the state of New York, it is a magnet for people from around the world to trace back information on the family lineage.

The reason goes back to colonial times, when upstate New York, considered a wilderness, was divided up into a few huge land grants.  Montgomery County (renamed a few years after the American Revolution for war hero Gen. Richard Montgomery) was formed from Albany County in 1777.

Although 34 counties were eventually formed from the original tract of land, Montgomery County retained all the original records.

Jackie Murphy, Montgomery County historian, said there are "an awful lot of people in this county who don't realize what we have here."

Although there has always been an interest in genealogy, the historians report a recent resurgence in tracing one's roots.  Another important reason to trace a family line is to obtain a medical history.

The huge collection of vital records, including birth, deaths and marriages, court papers and civil records, are today housed three floors of the historic old courthouse, itself dating back to 1838.

They are a depository of numerous cemetery, military, church records that are vital for researchers, according to Kelly Yacobucci, assistant county historian.

According to Yacobucci, the church records are very important, since the state of New York did not begin keeping birth, death, or marriage records until 1880, and then things were still unorganized for several more years.

The (federal) census records in the Montgomery County Archives date back to 1790, and they also have copies of the state census' that were performed on years ending with 5.  although the state no longer collects this information, it is a good source of local data from the 1800s.  They even have the original census from 1815 to 1860.

Yacobucci said they also house numerous family folders, tracking down genealogies fro various families that have been donated to the department.  Another good source for information is the family newsletter and information from family associations that people send them to be kept on file.  Another good source is from people themselves who come through the archives.  Often they have uncovered some helpful facets in their own research, which they are glad to share with other researchers.

The staff has also compiled historical and genealogical folders.

They have a collection of bound copies of the Amsterdam Recorder going back to the 1860s.  Although the public does not have access to the original papers, the information is also available on microfilm.  In fact, all public records are duplicates, which contributes to the storage problems, since all information is a=doubles.

Another source of information is their large collection of loyalists records, according to Yacobucci, who noted that many local families splintered during or after the Revolutionary War, when many residents loyal to the king of England immigrated to Canada.  There are also many reference books, such as Sir William Johnson papers or text on colonial law.

Montgomery county Archives also has a large collection of county histories from various other counties across the state.

Amateur historian Gaal Rathburn of Johnstown has devoted more than 20 years of his own ongoing collection of unique information, which is housed in the archives.

Since 1977, he has been cutting out obituaries, and 50th wedding anniversaries from the (Gloversville) Leader Herald.  Listed in alphabetical order, it is easy to locate the information of the cross-indexed data.  The Johnstown library also has a copy of his work.

Yacobucci said Rathburn's collection is a very handy tool for researchers, who's only complaint is that it only goes back to 1977.  The printed obituaries often contain such information as former marriages, siblings and personal information not found in official municipal records.

Although they house many valuable old items, Yacobucci said the main value is through the documented information they contain.  "We are more of a library than a museum", she said.

The Montgomery County Archives gets 3,000 visitors a year, according to Yacobucci, averaging 20 visitors a day during April through November.

"This department has a pretty good reputation,  But what's interesting is that we get many more people from out of state than from this area," Yacobucci said.  "Many (local) people don't even know we are here."

Yacobucci said they are a little slower in the winter, which gives the historians a chance to spend their time on other projects.

The county department has two full-time historians, one part-time historian, one staff member supplied by the Montgomery County Office for the Aging and two volunteers.

"And we need all the help we can get," Yacobucci said.

She said the archives department is constantly updating its collection, although this contributes to one constant problem - where to put everything.

"We are always looking for room," Yacobucci said.  They often have to clear out items not pertinent to the collection to make room for something new.

The first floor is the historical research library and the second floor is devoted to inactive records.  The third floor is a huge, open storage room, with rows and rows of numbered boxes lined up on steel shelves under rafters.

The county department has several ongoing projects, including a recent grant to help preserve a large donated collection of glass plate negatives; ongoing work to put some archival information onto a data base; and a grant they are working on for the Montgomery County towns to help preserve their important archival records.  The archival records initiative, offered by the State Archives and Records Administration, has money available for grants to help governments gain better control over archival records.  Murphy said the municipal clerks in Montgomery county who want to get involved should contact her.



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Copyright 2000, Dianne Nevich
Copyright 2000, The Leader Herald
Copyright 2000, Jeanette Shiel
All Rights Reserved.

Last updated Tuesday, 13-May-2008 13:13:54 PDT