Friday, July 06, 2012

Tour of Westchester County Archives and Record Center

Tucked into the pretty little Village of Elmsford, N.Y., not far from the Hudson River and historic Sleepy Hollow, is the very large records building that houses the Westchester County Archives and Records Center. Shown above is the sizable reading room that the Archives shares with the Westchester County Historical Society. The archives holds the official history of the county dating back to the beginning of its recordkeeping in 1683. The collections include photographs, maps and atlases, architectural drawings, naturalization records, court book minutes, marriage records, supreme court records, land records, licenses and permits, voter enrollments, incorporations, World War I military naturalization petitions, state census records, the Department of Public Works’ records, some of Rye Playland’s early records, and much more.

The Archives’ Reading Room Manager is the very knowledgeable and easy-going Jackie Graziano. We met while attending the remarkable “Exploring Maps: History, Fabrication and Preservation” conference at the Center for Conservation of Art and Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia last November, and became fast friends. Recently, Jackie treated me to a tour of the archives and showed me some of its most valued and most used items. I was impressed by the depth of the collections and by the quality of recordkeeping at the site.

Note: Due to state law, I was unable to photograph the interior of the vaults. However, Jackie kindly pulled select items from the collections for me to photograph and share with you.

About the Archivist

Jackie is shown above holding The Guide to Genealogical Research for Westchester County, New York, (2003) compiled by Marjorie C.H. Renino, previously the Director of the Archive’s volunteers. It contains information on local cemeteries, churches, and town clerks, among other useful facts. She referred to it twice during my visit to answer questions I raised, so it was easy to see why she called it the “Bible” of the Reading Room.

For nearly five years, Jackie has been working at the Westchester County Archives, answering all the incoming research questions. She also scans fragile records for preservation -- currently the early incorporation records of religious societies and large, historic maps from the Department of Public Works. Most of those maps are concerned with land acquisitions of parklands, and contain valuable information for surveyors. Her favorite collections are the maps and atlases. “Most are beautifully drawn and tell a particular story about a part of the county at a particular point in time, and they provide context and scope to other types of records. When someone comes in to research a family, I usually take them to the 1858 map of the county on the wall in the Reading Room and ask them to show me where the family lived. The location sometimes helps me determine which series of records will be of use to them,” says Jackie.

She also likes the early Parks Department Annual Reports from the 1920s. She says, “They tell a large part of the story of how 20th century Westchester developed, why the county looks the way it does now, why certain populations migrated to certain areas, and why areas developed the way they did.”

When I asked her why she became an archivist, she replied, “I have a passion for the written word (one of the pillars of our culture) and its history, how it shapes and is shaped by the culture. I want to be part of the tradition of the sharing of the written word and its preservation, and I like playing with old books.” It should come as no surprise that Jackie was an English literature/history major in college. She received her MLS from Queens College, with a certificate in Archives and Records Management. She recommends the Queens program highly, and suggests that folks interested in the field should volunteer and learn from established archivists. Previously, she served as a librarian in local libraries in Dobbs Ferry, Peekskill, and Montrose, New York. The part of her job she enjoys the most is learning “something new every day.”

About the Archives
Since 1985, the Westchester County Archives has collected non-active records from county departments, if they are determined to have historical value. Personal papers are not collected, unless they originate with a prominent county employee and pertain to their work for the county. The vaults mainly contain the county’s official archives, however, some space is dedicated to the collections of the Westchester County Historical Society.

While I can’t show you photos from within the vaults on site, I can tell you that the collections are vast. More than 6,000 cubic feet of records, 60,000 photographs, and approximately 75,000 maps are preserved onsite. In my work at Plainfield Public Library, I’ve seen what 14,000 sets of architectural drawings (stored in boxes) look like, but seeing row upon row of archivally tubed and labeled maps along the length of two stories of the Westchester County Archive was impressive, to say the least.

Ten full-time staffers and three archivists care for the records housed on site, and they are supported by 30 volunteers per week. The Archives are used by genealogists, journalists, county employees, local historians, teachers, students, surveyors, and individuals researching their land. Typically, 9-10 visitors come per week. “We [also] have one student with a summer project who is researching relations between the African-American and Irish populations in Westchester in the 19th century,” says Jackie.

Notably, the archives are funded through the county’s IT department budget. The county archives are preserving information, so why shouldn’t they be funded under the Information Technology line? Further, the amount of digitization that takes place at the county is quite large, therefore having IT support at that level is more seamless than you might see elsewhere. But when it comes to complex conservation and preservation efforts, the Westchester County Archives sends their materials up to the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Mass.

About the Collections
The most popular collections in the Westchester County Archives are the naturalizations, marriages, and surrogates (wills and estate files). Jackie says, “People get very excited over the naturalization records, because they link generations, and the records after 1906 provide a good amount of information on the person.” Below is an example of bound naturalization papers from 1865-1885.

Modern naturalization papers include more information and include Declarations of Intention. An example from 1922 is shown below.

Jackie mentioned that marriage records in the county are based locally and issued by the town clerks’ offices. In 1908, the state mandated that counties would receive a copy of marriage records, but not birth and death records. The law was repealed in 1926, but Westchester County kept collecting them until 1935. Because these records also include parents’ names, marriage records are used very frequently in genealogy. Shown below are some of the Archives’ most famous marriage records, Norman Rockwell’s first marriage license (1916) and Lou Gehrig’s marriage license (1933), respectively. Both are kept in a safe location that I am not permitted to reveal here.

Wills, estate inventories, and other land records also are of great importance to genealogists. These documents provide evidence of their ancestors’ lives in a location, and often name other family members. Sometimes, they reveal more about a family, such as slave ownership. One example Jackie showed me was a facsimile of Edward Pell’s estate inventory from 1787. Pell was a descendant of Thomas Pell, for whom Pelham, N.Y. is named. The photo below shows that the inventory includes two young slaves.

Another will in the collection was written by Washington Irving at his Sunnyside estate in 1858. Jackie said that Irving was “the Ben Franklin of his time.” Most people think of Irving only as the folksy author of short stories such as “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” however, he was a true cosmopolitan, who served as ambassador to Spain and negotiated trade deals between England and the United States. Irving’s will is shown below.

The oldest records in the collection are within A Booke of Recordes for the County of Westchester, spanning 1683-1688. The Westchester County Clerk’s Office was created in 1683, and the earliest records kept by the office are now within bound volumes (also called “libers”) lettered A to Z, as you can see in the photo below.

Jackie said that she doesn’t pull the book out often because it has been microfilmed and a transcription is available to the public. (This book is an example of records the county keeps in a fireproof safe within the vault.) The fragile leaves have been conserved by the Northeast Document Conservation Center. Most of the records in the books are deeds, but this volume also includes three marriages and a divorce. Additionally, the county has a separate series for wills beginning after the Revolutionary War. Speaking of the War, researchers can find land sale abstracts of property confiscated from loyalists after the war within the Commissioners of Forfeiture. Jackie has scanned the book, and the index to these early records is available digitally on the Archives’ web site. The volume shown below dates from 1783-1785.

The Westchester County Archives also holds the some of the records of the County Poor House, otherwise known as the Alms House. It operated from 1830 to the 1940s. The County has its records up to 1908, and the N.Y. State Archives has them for other counties' Alms Houses. What makes these materials so interesting is that they tell a much more detailed story about an individual down on his/her luck than you might find elsewhere. For example, in the photo below (from the 1875-1880 Alms House book), you can see how long the “inmate” stayed in the Alms House, where his/her parents were born, if they practiced temperance (or not), why he/she was an inmate (destitution or disease), and much more.

In some cases, the stories are quite tragic. Inmates leave, then return multiple times due to alcoholism or mental disorders, or injuries that prevent them from working. If you are interested in seeing some of these, but are unable to visit Westchester County Archives, you can find a selection of records from N.Y. State Archives on

There are many, many more records and record types at the Westchester County Archives than the sample I’ve shared with you here. I encourage you to visit the web site (, explore the collections, and visit Jackie and her colleagues. The Archives is open to the public on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Contact Information
Jackie Graziano
Westchester County Archives
2199 Saw Mill River Road
Elmsford, NY 10523
Tel: (914) 231-1500
Fax: (914) 231-1510