Genealogy & Local History in Buffalo, NY

 Is There a Buffalo in Your Family Tree?

By Cynthia Van Ness, ©2006
Originally published in New York Researcher, vol. 17 no. 2, Spring 2006: 23-25

When the Erie Canal was completed in 1825, linking New York City to Buffalo, a small frontier village became the second largest city in the Empire State. Waves of European immigrants arrived and many stayed for a few years or a few generations. Buffalo’s strategic position at the conjunction of lake, canal, river, and rail transportation transformed it into a commercial and industrial colossus.

By 1900, Buffalo was America’s eighth largest city and according to local legend, boasted more millionaires per capita in 1900 than any other city in the United States. Forward-thinking leaders hired the best architects in America, and the result is that Buffalo is the only city on Earth with masterpieces by Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Henry Hobson Richardson, Frederick Law Olmsted, Eliel Saarinen, Richard Upjohn, who designed Trinity Church in New York, and Minoru Yamasaki, who designed the World Trade Center.

Buffalo’s libraries benefitted greatly from this wealth. Books were expensive and scarce in the young city, so in 1836, the Young Men’s Association (YMA, not to be confused with the YMCA) was founded as a private, subscription lending library. It soon became the dominant cultural institution of 19th century Buffalo. In 1897, the YMA generously donated its book collection to the citizens of Buffalo as the nucleus of the newly-formed Buffalo Public Library. The YMA’s other offspring evolved into what are now the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Buffalo Museum of Science, and the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society.

The growing city was also remembered in the will of Seth Grosvenor (1786-1857), a New York merchant who lived here in his youth and surprised Buffalo with a generous bequest that funded a private research and reference library, the Grosvenor (pronounced GROVE-ner), which opened in 1871.

Fast forward to 1953, when the Buffalo Public and the Grosvenor Libraries legally merged, becoming the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library and laying the groundwork for a physical merger. In 1964, this goal was accomplished by constructing a new Central Library in downtown Buffalo with 400,000 square feet and two million volumes. The Central Library spans two city blocks and is the largest public library in New York State outside of New York City.

This history matters for genealogists because in 1915 the well-funded Grosvenor Library established a pioneering Local History and Genealogy Department. This department was routinely listed among the most important genealogical collections in the Northeast. The collection, offering many rare and out-of-print titles, survives today in the Grosvenor Room (GR) at the Central Library. The GR is the premier genealogical destination in Western New York. In addition to the collection of the Western New York Genealogical Society, of which more will be said below, the GR offers:

  • 25,000 Local History Volumes

In wealthier times, the library acquired local histories from across New England and the Great Lakes region. Most of these date from 1850 to1950. Today, fiscal constraints require the GR to focus its limited budget on documenting the people, places, things and events of Buffalo, Erie County, and Western New York. The Buffalo collection alone offers over 5,000 volumes, some of which date back to the period of earliest European settlement.

  • 5,500 Published Genealogies

The bulk date from 1850 to1950 and center on Anglo-American and Colonial surnames. Many are rare and out of print. New additions are few, but feature increasingly diverse surnames and families.

  • 850+ State and Federal Census Microfilms for Erie County and Upstate/Western New York

The Library has microfilm of every surviving state and federal census for Erie County. For 19th century censuses, surrounding counties are also available.

  • 45+ Volumes of Federal Census Indexes for Upstate New York from 1790 to 1910

The Library has print indexes for New York State federal censuses from 1790 to1860. For 1880, GR has Soundex films. For 1870, 1900, and 1910, print indexes focus on upstate New York. State censuses, performed mostly in years ending in five, are largely unindexed. Accordingly, GR has only a partial index of Erie County for 1855. Some counties and towns around New York State are represented by stand-alone census indexes.

  • 400 Buffalo History Scrapbooks

Library staff and patrons treasure these scrapbooks with good reason. Created in-house circa 1900 to1970, volumes are organized by subject (Biographies, Churches, Clubs & Charities, Homes, Industries, Military Affairs, Parks, Schools, etc.) and are packed with well-preserved local newspaper articles and occasional photographs and ephemera. The scrapbooks are heavily consulted for obituaries, and all volumes are indexed in the Local History File (see below).

  • 175+ Years of Buffalo City Directories, 1828 to the Present

GR offers original, hard copy volumes of most years of Buffalo city directories for public perusal, though photocopying is forbidden. For copy purposes, microfilm versions are available.

  • 100s of City Directories for Places Other than Buffalo

The GR also offers city directories from most major and minor Northeastern cities and a few Midwestern and Western ones. Most date from 1850 to1950. New York State is very well represented.

  • 117 Drawer Grosvenor Card Catalog

Begun in 1915 and unchanged since 1964 with the physical merger of the two libraries, the card catalog represents the local history and genealogy collection during its period of greatest expansion. Look here for surnames, place names, and record types such as births or marriages. GR’s pre- and post-1964 monograph and serial acquisitions are also searchable in the Library’s online catalog (see Online Resources).

  • 110 Drawer Card Index, the Local History File, which Cites Articles about People, Places, and Things in the Buffalo Area

This remarkable file, containing about 110,000 index cards, offers citations for an estimated 200,000 newspaper and periodical articles, including obituaries and biographies of prominent residents as well as articles about architecture, businesses, churches, ethnic groups, hospitals, neighborhoods, organizations, schools, streets, wars, and major and minor events. Most date from the 20th century. The scrapbook collection is indexed here, as are selected local magazines and significant Buffalo and Erie County histories.

  • 90+ Reels of Local Church Records on Microfilm

GR has copies of the local church records available through the Church of Latter-Day Saints plus unique films and printed records not found elsewhere. The best-represented denominations are Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, and Roman Catholic.

  • 75+ Subscriptions to Genealogical and Local History Magazines and Newsletters

GR subscribes to the newsletters of local genealogical and historical societies and carries popular and scholarly titles such as Everton’s, Family Chronicle, National Genealogical Society Quarterly and The American Genealogist.

  • 32 Reels of WWI Draft Cards for Buffalo and Erie County on Microfilm

  • 28 Local Newspapers on Microfilm, 1842 to the Present

Like most cities, Buffalo has had multiple newspapers. In addition to English-language dailies, GR offers German and Polish papers. The leading local dailies, The Buffalo News and the Courier-Express, were systematically indexed in the Local History File (see above) from about 1930 to1982, with more selective entries for earlier and later years.

  • 20 Reels of Naturalization Index Cards on Microfilm

These reels cover the 17 westernmost counties of New York State from 1907 to 1966.

  • 20+ Reels of Local Cemetery Records on Microfilm

These tend to be small rural cemeteries. Some are indexed.

  • 20+ Free Handouts on Researching Various Ethnic Backgrounds and Local Topics

Librarians have prepared helpful guides about resources for African-American, Canadian, German, Irish, Italian, Native American, and Polish ancestry, plus how-to handouts on passenger lists, Civil War soldiers, and vital records.

  • Ethnic Resources

Erie County has the largest per capita population of Polish Americans in the United States. Buffalo is also a few miles from three major Seneca Indian reservations. Collecting efforts today concentrate on these and other large ethnic groups in the area, namely residents of African, Canadian, German, Hispanic, Irish, Italian and Jewish ancestry.

  • Maps & Atlases

GR offers a complete set of Buffalo ward maps, which are essential when searching an unindexed census. Also of interest to genealogists are the Sanborn fire insurance atlases for Buffalo, which show diagrams of houses and buildings in ancestral neighborhoods that may no longer exist. Buffalo Sanborns date from 1880 to 1963. Other Buffalo atlases, usually published one per decade from 1870 to 1920, show individual structures in smaller scale, sometimes with names of property owners. GR also offers pre-World War II atlases from the nations that supplied the most immigrants to Buffalo: Germany, Ireland, Italy and Poland.

  • Online Resources

GR holdings of books, periodicals, and some microfilms are searchable in the library’s free online catalog, available at: http://web2.buffalolib.org/. Look here to see what the Library owns on your surnames, ancestral towns and record types such as births or marriages. The online catalog shows when books are in the closed stacks, which is often the case for older, fragile or infrequently-used titles. Stack items are happily retrieved by staff and are usually delivered in minutes.

The Library’s Reference Desk (http://www.buffalolib.org/refdesk/index.asp) offers librarian-selected websites on all subjects. To see the genealogical offerings, click on History, Society and World Cultures and then on Genealogy and Local History. Several of these websites offer in-depth information about local genealogical resources.

Library visitors can consult two commercial genealogical databases, AncestryLibrary and Heritage Quest, which offer searchable federal censuses and other ancestral resources. The Buffalo News Full Text database has articles from 1989 to the present, including obituaries, but not death notices. The New York Times Historic database has full text news articles from 1851 to 2001, including obituaries. These four databases are available for on-site use only, and printing is $.10 per page.

For those with laptops, the Central Library offers free, wireless internet access. Visitors without laptops may get Internet-only library cards and log on to the Library’s Internet workstations.

  • Passenger and Immigration Indexes

GRO collects only published passenger and immigration indexes. GR offers the complete Filby set, plus Italians to America, the Wuerttemberg Index, the Famine Immigrants, and many more.

  • Vital Records

GR is a depository for the New York State Vital Records indexes on microfiche. This collection indexes births, marriages, and deaths in New York State, other than New York City or Brooklyn. All but a few cities have coverage from 1881 to the mid-20th century. Picture ID or B&ECPL library card is required to use this collection and photocopying is not permitted.

The GR collection is broader than space here permits.

Also available are extensive English parish records; DAR records and lineage books; the Boston Transcript genealogy columns in original hard copy; an almost-complete set of the New York State Adjutant General’s Report listing men from New York who served in the Civil War; a heraldry and crest index; a Buffalo business file which indexes articles about local industry and economic conditions; and a thorough collection of genealogical atlases, bibliographies, dictionaries, encyclopedias, how-to books, indexes, gazetteers, and other reference works.

Western New York Genealogical Society (WNYGS)

A bonus for researchers in GR is the collection of the WNYGS, whose primary interest is in the eight counties of Western New York: Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie, Genesee, Niagara, Orleans, and Wyoming. The Society, founded in 1974, publishes a quarterly journal and schedules a volunteer on duty in GR at least once a week.

While there is some overlap with items owned by GR, the Society offers several unique holdings:

  • Ancestor Charts & Family Group Sheets of Members

Most are indexed

  • Bible Records

Collected, submitted and indexed by members

  • Birth Certificates on Microfilm from City of Buffalo, 1881 to 1913

Unindexed but in rough chronological order

  • Card Catalog of Authors, Titles and Subjects

  • Church and Cemetery Records on Microfilm

Includes several local churches and cemeteries not filmed elsewhere

  • Census Records from the Eight Counties of Western New York

Includes films not owned by GR

  • Published Genealogies

About 500 compiled family histories

  • Passenger List Indexes

Includes a complete set of Germans to America, which GR does not own

  • Local Histories, Family Histories & Genealogies

  • Marriage Records on Microfilm from Erie County, 1877 to 1935

Includes an index.

  • Military Records

  • Vital Index of Early Western New York Families

A card file comprised of an estimated 120,000 names drawn from microfilm, print, and archival sources in the WNYGS collection and around Western New York.

Though the city has recently seen remarkable new investments, Buffalo’s well-known economic difficulties took their toll. Thousands left the area as jobs evaporated. There are now former Buffalonians in all 50 states. In some cities, Buffalo expatriates are numerous enough to form clubs. Today, researchers everywhere have a Buffalo in the family tree. A rich library collection and an architecturally dramatic and increasingly vibrant city await those who plan a genealogical homecoming.

Planning Your Visit


Grosvenor Room


Buffalo & Erie County Public Library


1 Lafayette Square

City, State, Zip

Buffalo, NY 14203-1887

Phone number


Fax number





Hours are subject to change. Check with the Library before traveling.

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday: 8:30-6

Thursday 8:30-8

Sundays, September-May: 1-5 pm

Sundays, May-September: Closed

Library website


GR website


Online catalog


Reference desk


WNYGS website


Accommodations in the Grosvenor Room

8 microfilm reader-printers, $.20 per copy

4 microfiche readers (but not printers)

3 microfilm readers (but not printers)

2 dual black & white and color photocopy machines

Policies to know about

Library is fully wheelchair-accessible

No appointments necessary unless using Rare Book Room

No use of cameras or scanners without permission

No food or drink in the department

Materials may not be removed from the Grosvenor Room

Library cafe

Fables Café offers soups, salads, sandwiches, pastries and hot and cold beverages. Open Monday-Saturday, 8:30-3:00 pm.



Travel, lodgings, and more


Buffalo Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau

Offers information on accommodations, attractions and events

Updated 24 January 2011