Sanditon and Buffalo’s Black History

Portrait of Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield courtesy of the New York Public Library

Wait, what? How are PBS’s Sanditon series, now in its 3rd and final season, and Black history in Buffalo connected? In the episode that aired last night, Arthur Parker invites American soprano Elizabeth Greenhorn to perform in Sanditon, a fictional fishing village turned resort town, for the King, who ends up giving his regrets. She decides to go on stage anyway, and we learn that she is African-American.

This character is based on real-life American soprano Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, who was born into slavery in Mississippi around 1820 and began her career in 1851. When you’re writing fiction like Sanditon, which is set around 1815, you may use artistic license.

Greenfield was emancipated as a child by her enslaver, a woman, possibly Quaker, who raised and educated her in Philadelphia. In Buffalo, Greenfield was invited to stay in the home of a Mrs. Gen. P., who supported and encouraged her musical education. According to the anonymous author of “The Black Swan at Home and Abroad, or, A Biographical Sketch of Miss Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, the American Vocalist,” (Philadelphia: Wm. S. Young, 1855), Greenfield’s host was Gen. (and Mrs.) Potter. This was most likely Judge Heman Potter (1786-1854), who lived on Niagara Square and was called General Potter. According to FindaGrave, Mrs. Potter was Electa Miller Potter (1790-1854).

Greenfield made her stage debut in Buffalo at Townsend Hall, corner of Main & Swan, on October 22, 1851. At this time, she was nicknamed The Black Swan, a name that followed her for the rest of her musical career.

Buffalo Daily Republic, October 18, 1851, Page 3

Her repertoire consisted of opera and classical composers, defying the expectations of white audiences of the day, who assumed that such music was beyond the capacity of Black performers.

After her debut, Greenfield performed in Rochester, Lockport, Utica, Albany, Troy, Boston, Columbus, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Toronto, Syracuse, Brattleboro, and other North American cities. In 1853, she went on tour in Europe and on May 10, 1854, sang for Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. She was the first African-American to perform before British royalty.

After calling Buffalo home at the beginning of her career, Greenfield settled in Philadelphia, where she operated a music studio and died in 1876.


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Making a Buffalo-Specific Search Engine

Just for fun, I played around with a Google Programmable Search Engine and made this. It is an unadorned search box; no bells, whistles, graphics, or logos. It drills into over 45 websites and digital collections that feature Buffalo buildings, old newspapers, genealogy, events, and other local/historic stuff.

One of these days, I’ll pony up for the full business-class subscription to WordPress so I can use a plug-in to embed this thing. Feedback welcome. It is a work in progress.

Finding Buffalo Orphanage Records

Illustration of St. John’s Protectory and St. Joseph’s Asylum, better known today as Father Baker’s, from the F.W. Beers Atlas of Erie County, 1880, courtesy of the New York Public Library. At the time, Lackawanna, NY had not yet been established as a city, so this institution was in West Seneca.


Cholera and other epidemics, maternal mortality, military service, dangerous factory conditions, fires and floods, diseases that are curable today: there are many reasons why children lost one or both parents in 19th century Buffalo.

In response, men, women, and religious congregations and orders established asylums to house and care for orphaned infants and children.

Below is what we’ve been able to find about orphanages that existed in Buffalo and Erie County, N.Y and their records. We focused on institutions that were authorized to place children in new families with new identities. We omitted residential facilities who served children but preserved their birth family relationships. Did we omit one? Are there records that we missed? Names or nicknames that these institutions were also known as? Other errors? Please let us know!

No Records Found means that we were unable to identify any public repositories with surviving records of the children served by this institution. These records may have been discarded or they may be in the hands of an organization with private archives. Sometimes by-laws, constitutions, minutes, and annual reports are the only records that survive.

The era of residential orphan homes ended around World War II, to be replaced by the foster care system.


Related links:

Is Buffalo the Most Segregated City in the US?

Map of racial distribution on the Niagara Frontier, 2010, based on U.S. Census figures. Each dot is 25 people. Blue = Black; Red = White. I do not have a more current version of this map. Courtesy of Wikiwand.com.


In the days following the horrific May 14, 2022 massacre at the Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York, lots of claims about the extent of racial segregation in Buffalo were shared via broadcast, print, and social media. We are the most segregated city in America, some said. We’re the 4th or 6th most segregated. We’re the 17th.

Which is it? Below are some segregation rankings, with screen captures and links back to each article. I decided to compile them because of encountering some very victim-blamey rhetoric that sounded like Buffalo wouldn’t have been targeted if it wasn’t so segregated. As if we deserved to be punished for our sins.

Please note that I am not a demographer or statistician. I am not qualified to judge the methodology behind these rankings or declare which one is correct. For one thing, some appear to be counting the population strictly within the city limits of Buffalo, while others count the population in the larger Buffalo-Niagara Falls metropolitan area. Some rely on outdated 2010 census figures; some rely on 2020 figures.

These rankings are presented in the hopes that someone who does have demographic and statistical expertise will be inspired to offer some knowledgeable analysis. And to urge everyone to cite their sources when making claims about segregation in Buffalo. Did I miss a ranking that differs from the ones below? Let me know.

Following these disparate findings, keep scrolling for some observations about what is missing from them.

Regardless of our ranking, let me confirm that racism and segregation are real in Buffalo. That is not in dispute. Here is a reading list for those who want to study Buffalo’s history of racism and segregation in greater depth.


In no particular order, some Buffalo segregation rankings

Based on 2020 census data, the Othering & Belonging Institute ranks Buffalo as 17th most segregated in the US.

“Most to Least Segregated Cities,” Othering & Belonging Institute, University of California at Berkeley, 2022.
Screenshot captured June 12, 2022

USA Today

In an article published in July 2019, USA Today ranked the Buffalo-Cheektowaga-Niagara Falls metropolitan area as the 21st most segregated in the US.

Comen, Evan. “Detroit, Chicago, Memphis: The 25 most segregated cities in America.”
USA Today, July 20, 2019. Screenshot captured June 12, 2022.

World Population Review

The World Population Review published a list of the ten most segregated cities in the US in 2022. Buffalo does not appear on this list at all.

“Most Segregated Cities in America 2022.” WorldPopulationReview.com, no date.
Screenshot captured June 12, 2022.

City Observatory

In 2020, counting up from the bottom (most segregated), City Observatory ranked Buffalo as 4th most segregated.

Cortright, Joe. “America’s least (and most) segregated cities.” City Observatory, August 17, 2020.
Screenshot captured June 12, 2022.

PRB.org

After the 2010 census figures were released, the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) ranked the Buffalo-Niagara Falls metropolitan area as 6th most segregated. Now that 2020 census figures are available, these 2010 rankings should be considered outdated.

Scommegna, Paolo. “Least Segregated U.S. Metros Concentrated in Fast-Growing South and West.” PRB.org, September 7, 2011. Screenshot captured June 12, 2022.

American Communities Project

Brown University’s American Communities Project has census figures from 1980 to 2020 in tables that you can refine and sort. The column on the right has the 2020 ranking. Using their Black/white dissimilarity (segregation) index for the 200 largest cities in the US, their 2020 figures put Buffalo at 159th least segregated or 41st most segregated. Least dissimilar/least segregated cities are at the top of the list, so I counted up from the bottom (most dissimilar/most segregated). I am not sure that I filtered or sorted these figures correctly, so please let me know if I made an error.

“Diversity and Disparities.” American Communities Project, Brown University, no date.
Screenshot captured June 12, 2022.

Business Insider

In 2013, Business Insider ranked the Buffalo-Niagara metropolitan area as 5th most segregated. While this measurement includes Asian and Hispanic populations, now that 2020 census figures are available, these 2010 figures should be considered outdated.

Harrison Jacobs, Andy Kiersz, and Gus Lubin. “The 25 Most Segregated Cities In America,” Business Insider, November 22, 2013. Screenshot captured June 12, 2022.

Now Let’s Look at the Whitest Cities in the US

The shooter allegedly targeted Tops on Jefferson Avenue in Buffalo after Googling the Blackest zip codes in New York State and finding 14208. I thought I would Google the whitest zip codes in New York State and the US. Here is what I found.


ZipAtlas.com

ZipAtlas has an undated ranking of whitest cities, towns, and villages in New York State, 16 of which are 100% white. Erie County has four towns in the top 100: Elma at #57; Marilla at #69; East Concord at #71; and East Aurora at #74. None of these towns appear on any Most Segregated lists.

“Cities with the Highest Percentage of Whites in New York.” ZipAtlas.com, (c) 2022.
Screenshot captured June 12, 2022.

World Population Review

World Population Review has a table of the ten whitest cities in the US, with Hialeah, FL topping the list.

“Whitest Cities in America 2022.” World Population Review, (c)2022. Screenshot captured June 12, 2022.

Wikipedia

Wikipedia has a List of United States cities by percentage of white population, which puts Laredo, TX at the top, followed by Hialeah, FL.

“List of United States cities by percentage of white population,” Wikipedia.com. Screenshot captured June 12, 2022.

IndexMundi.com

IndexMundi has an undated table with Laredo, TX at the top of whitest cities in the US, followed by Hialeah, FL.

“Top 100 Cities Ranked by White Population Percentage,” IndexMundi.com, no date.
Screenshot captured June 12, 2022.

Did Anyone Notice Anything Odd About These Two Sets of Figures?

When you search for Most Segregated Cities, you get a few sets of city names and rankings, as shown above.

When you search for Whitest Cities, you get an entirely different set of city names. Hialeah and Laredo are apparently the whitest cities in America but do not appear on any Most Segregated rankings.

Why is is that the American cities, towns, and suburbs who have most successfully blocked, repelled, or chased out people of color; Black, Hispanic, or Asian, do not appear on any Most Segregated lists? Apparently, all you need to do to satisfy demographers that your virtually all-white community is not segregated is to make sure that your tiny number of Black or brown households are in different census tracts or zip codes.

Conklin, NY, where the alleged shooter grew up, is 91.9% white, 7.6% Hispanic, and 0.6% Black. That’s less than one percent Black. It appears on zero Most Segregated lists.

Meanwhile, Buffalo, which is 47.1% white, 35.2% Black, and 12.2% Hispanic, is stigmatized as segregated. We are a city that, in spite of our failures and inequities, has a better record of striving for equality, justice, and multicultural democracy than any all-white community.

If we agree that place is a factor in this shooting, then segregation in Conklin, not Buffalo, is responsible. Conklin, not Buffalo, is where everyone should start their May 14 essays and examinations of racism and white supremacy. Our whitest cities and towns are long overdue for some moral scrutiny.

A Tedious Essay About Government Record-Keeping Practices

A man stand at a counter, surrounded by enormous stacks of paper.
New York State Assembly Document Room, 1914, courtesy of the New York State Archives

One of the most obscure departments in New York State government, unless you are a historian or genealogist, is the New York State Archives (NYSA or State Archives). Even its own homepage does not convey to the casual visitor what, exactly, it does.

The NYSA does not, for example, collect cool stuff about New York State and its communities from wherever it may be found: books, newspapers, maps, scrapbooks, letters, diaries, your attic. That is the role of the New York State Library (NYSL).

While you might learn a lot about businesses, nonprofits, families, and more at the State Archives, it does not collect records created by businesses, nonprofits, families, or any other non-governmental entities. This distinction is important.

The primary role of the State Archives is to house and make available the records of New York State government after they are no longer needed for everyday business.

The primary role of the State Archives is to house and make available the records of New York State government after they are no longer needed for everyday business. There are about 3 centuries of government records from the colonial era to the present in the State Archives.

The secondary role of the State Archives is to oversee and standardize government record-keeping practices in the counties, cities, towns, villages, school districts, police & fire departments, etc., in New York State. They have additional duties, but today we’re going to focus on their role regulating local government records.

Let me pause here to make a distinction between a record and a publication.

Let me pause here to make a distinction between a record and a publication.

For the purpose of this essay, a record is the kind of stuff those of us with office jobs generate all day long: emails, spreadsheets, schedules, budget proposals, payrolls, memos, statistics, sign-in sheets, strategic plans, procedural manuals, Powerpoints, databases, and so on. These are not usually designed for public consumption, so we can also call them unpublished records. New York State is proactively putting a lot of born-digital records online (publishing them) at its Open Data Portal. Plus, the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) enables citizens to request unpublished records from their governments.

A publication or government publication is a document designed and released by a government department for public comment and consumption, such as an annual report, a budget, a revitalization plan, a recycling guide, council meeting minutes, an environmental impact statement. Unlike records, publications issued by state & local governments and commercial publishers end up in the New York State Library.

Let’s look back to 1971. This is when the State Archives was established as an official department of New York. The state of New York had no formal, centralized government record-keeping function until 50 years ago, making it a relative newcomer in Albany. Here is the condition of record-keeping in New York in 1912.

The state of New York had no official, centralized government record-keeping department until 50 years ago, making it a relative newcomer in Albany.

When the State Archives was founded, it was authorized to develop records retention schedules: legally binding rules about how long certain kinds of government records must be kept. For example, vital records must be kept in perpetuity. Your mileage log, if you have a government job that requires travel? Probably not in perpetuity. These record retention schedules apply equally to all counties, cities, towns, and villages in New York.

Before 1971, elected and appointed officials and civil servants in New York more or less decided on their own what to keep or toss. Even today, there are people in local government who are not well-trained in the record-keeping requirements pertaining to their job or department and they unilaterally delete or discard files.

Say you work in a public school somewhere in NY State and you find an ancient attendance ledger in a closet. You might be inspired, with the best of intentions, to offer it to the nearest historical organization. And you’d be wrong. Your school district has a records management officer who must first be consulted about that ledger, because it is public property and isn’t yours to dispose of. In cities, towns & villages, the city, town, or village clerk is the records management officer.

This is a very long way of explaining why local government offices might not have the records you are expecting to find. And why “there must have been a fire” is a convenient explanation, even when it is false. Sometimes it means Oops, someone threw that stuff out.

Why You Need an Archive.org Account

Disclaimer: I have no connection to Archive.org beyond than having a free account and being acquainted with one of their employees.


Most of my readers already know about Archive.org, also known as the Internet Archive, as a place to find cool old stuff online. While I spend my time with their full-text, online books, Archive.org also offers audio and video, including TV, films, and concert tapes. Patents. Podcasts. Census microfilms. Outdated software. Plus the magnificent Wayback Machine, which has been crawling the web and saving websites for 25 years.

Here’s another service they offer: community uploading. Anyone may register for a free account and start contributing their stuff. From their Help screen:

Having an Archive.org account allows you to:
Upload files to the site
Have collections for your uploads (50 items minimum required)
Borrow books from the lending library
Leave reviews
Participate in forums
View and use some items that are restricted
Receive monthly newsletters and event notices

excerpt From: Accounts – A Basic Guide

Why is this important? A lot of individuals and groups — now that we all create and accumulate digital property without even trying, let’s call ourselves collectors — are turning to libraries, educational institutions, historical organizations, and museums, asking them to put the collector’s stuff online. It might be photos, letters, or home movies that have or have not been digitized. It might be original essays or artwork by the collector. It might be by-laws, minutes, spreadsheets. It might be articles and downloads that are still protected by copyright.

Some large and well-funded organizations might store or host your digital assets. Smaller organizations, though, rarely have enough server space to digitize collections they already own and have title to. Under the circumstances, they may be simply unable to commit the time and server space to additional stuff.

While server space is definitely cheaper than bricks and mortar storage space, it is not free. Neither is the labor, software, and hardware needed to do all of the processing that makes digital files findable and usable online. Whether it is tangible objects in boxes or digital files on hard drives, we all simply own more stuff than our institutions can possibly house and care for in perpetuity.

Here’s where Archive.org comes in. You or your organization can take out an account and scan and upload. Here’s why I recommend Archive.org:

  • Archive.org is a non-profit, so your stuff won’t get monetized for stockholder benefit
  • No ads or paywalls
  • No intrusive and unnerving suggested content pop-ups
  • Superb access options for those with vision limitations
  • Accepts files in almost any format
  • Your stuff joins an international community of individuals and organizations who have already shared bazillions* of collections for public access and benefit

If you join and start contributing, please donate what you can to offset their server, software and labor costs. Here’s where to sign up.


*A technical term that roughly translates as More than I can count

Who wants to crowdsource Buffalo place names?

Anyone up for crowdsourcing Buffalo-area place names? By which I mean neighborhood nicknames such as Elmwood Village or The Hooks, and names of features on the landscape. At this time, I am not thinking of street names or building names, which could be separate projects unto themselves.

Here’s a Google sheet that I set up for anyone to add to. Notice there are two tabs: one for the City of Buffalo and another for Erie County, for those with village or town-specific knowledge.

What nicknames are we seeking?

  • Landscape features such as creeks, canals, or hills
  • Entire city nicknames, such as Queen City or New Amsterdam
  • Names of real estate developments, such Nye Park
  • Parks that aren’t there anymore or changed names
  • Picnic groves. So often in Buffalo newspapers I see so-and-so’s grove as the location for an event, with no address. It was assumed that readers knew where it was.

Some data entry suggestions to maximize the value of the spreadsheet:

In the location column, use contemporary street/road names.

Please cite your sources. If you find a source online, pasting in the URL is excellent but insufficient. The link you found today may be invalid or paywalled a few years from now. Please add enough info (author, title, date, page number, etc.) that a future researcher can seek out for the source if the link is 404.

Consider having mercy on readers and use a link-shortening service.

Print sources that are not online are perfectly fine!

You don’t have to give your full name as a contributor if you’d rather not, but at minimum, initials would be good. Credit where credit is due and all.

Okay, have at it, people! Please let me know if you’re having trouble entering data.


Map of New York County place names from Reddit/r/Buffalo.

A Prediction About “Draft Dodger” Discourse

Buffalo is a border city. From the observation deck at the top of Buffalo City Hall, you can look across the Niagara River to Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada. We even fly the Canadian flag in front of City Hall.

Ferry service between Buffalo and Fort Erie began around 1795, to be replaced by the opening of the Peace Bridge in 1927. Many Buffalo families own vacation homes on the Canadian shore of Lake Erie. Before 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic, a daily summer commute across the Peace Bridge was common and casual.

This easy border access positioned Buffalo to be an important stop on the Underground Railroad. which I have already written about. Historians and laypersons continue to seek evidence of the efforts and lives of freedom seekers and their allies.

In my own lifetime, Buffalo was likewise well-positioned to enable another movement of fugitives. I refer to young American men who avoided the draft during the Vietnam War and settled in Canada, either permanently or until President Carter granted amnesty. Most entered Canada illegally. The legend is that Ontario understood what was going on and the officers at the border turned a blind eye. I don’t know if this legend is true or false.

There is a lot I don’t know about how the mechanics of how these men entered Canada. For example:

  1. Did they act independently and take their chances at the border?
  2. Or did they have help from friends or relatives?
  3. Or did they get advice or assistance from organized groups on how to get past customs & border officers? If so, who were these groups? Do their records survive?
  4. What communication networks informed those deciding to leave the US at this time?
  5. What were the most heavily-used crossing points?
  6. Once they were in Canada, what assistance did they find?

These questions are critically important to answer now, while so-called draft dodgers are still living and can be interviewed. Why does this matter?

Because we’ve seen what happens when participants in major events begin dying off. This is when popular culture worship and wishful thinking begin. Underground Railroad efforts began to be romanticized in the 1920s and 1930s, 60+ years after the end of the Civil War, when few witnesses were left to refute anyone’s stories. This is when some claims about Underground Railroad sites first appear in print, to be treated as gospel truth ever after.

Across the Northeast, when people discover that a building predates the Civil War, they are eager to claim it for the Underground Railroad, without being expected to produce any evidence.

Vietnam-era draft evaders are due for a romantic revival in popular culture. When it happens, I predict that we will see the same phenomenon with automobiles that we see with old houses. Everyone near the Canadian border with a 1960s or ’70s junker in the garage will be eager to claim that it was used to sneak draft dodgers into Canada. Everyone who opposed the war will be claimed as a Draft Evasion Agent.

The best way for historians to head off these retroactive bids for glory is to find and interview draft evaders now, and get detailed accounts of the process of crossing the border, while they can still speak for themselves.

Do you know of oral history interviews with draft evaders? Suggested reading? Please drop it in the comments.


Photograph of Peace Bridge by By Óðinn, 2008 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3621392

Who Was Buffalo’s First Woman Property Owner?

I don’t recall anyone ever identifying the first woman to acquire property in the city of Buffalo so I set out to find her. The Holland Land Company, which had title to what are now the eight counties of western New York, began selling lots to settlers in 1801. Many Buffalonians reading this will find the name of one of the principals of the Holland Land Company on their deeds. Often it is Wilhelm Willink.

What makes women property owners unusual at this time is that once they married, they could not buy, hold, or sell property under their own names. On their wedding day, by law, husbands automatically acquired all right and title to whatever land or fortunes women brought to the marriage.

This did not change in New York State until the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1848. This law granted married women the same right as unmarried women to buy, hold, and sell property in their own names. No longer were husbands able to take control of wives’ land or money. New York was the first state to pass such a law and it was an important landmark in the emancipation of American women.

The first place I looked for our woman property owner was Tobias Witmer’s Deed Tables…in the County of Erie, originally published in 1859 and reprinted in 1981. I wish it was online for free, but it is not. Our link shows which libraries have a copy. Here is a list of more early lot holders in Buffalo.

The first feminine name I found was Letitia M. Ellicott (1782-1864), daughter of Andrew Ellicott and niece of Joseph Ellicott. On May 6, 1811, at the age of 29, she purchased a half acre in one of Buffalo’s inner (downtown) lots, next to Juba Storrs. It is likely that she did not spend much time in Buffalo; she was reportedly born and died in Pennsylvania.

Witmer, Tobias. Deed tables…in the county of Erie, as sold by the Holland Land Company, the Farmers’ Loan and Trust Company, and the State of New York. Knightstown, IN : The Bookmark, 1981, 1859, p. 4

Letitia’s half-acre was on lot 48, between what is now Main (Van Staphorst), Eagle, Clinton (Cazenovia), and Pearl (Cayuga). Today it is the site of the Main Place Mall.

Map of Buffalo in 1805, drawn by the Matthews-Northrup Company, probably in the 20th century
Map courtesy of Buffaloah.org and Picture Book of Earlier Buffalo, based on the original drawn by Juba Storrs

Her parcel was still vacant just before the burning of Buffalo in 1813.

Letitia Ellicott married John Bliss at West Point in 1819. He served as a captain in the U.S. Army during the War of 1812. His military career took them to several cities but she must had a fondness for Buffalo because she is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery with her husband. I was unable to find a portrait of Letitia.

Try These Five Simple Tricks to Get Research Assistance

What we want to do here is help you, the person with local history, family history, or house history questions, get help from libraries, archives, museums, colleges & universities, historical organizations, government record offices, and genealogical societies; all the organizations that might have old stuff. Especially those located somewhere other than where you can visit in person. We’ll refer to them collectively as repositories.

What you think of as a simple request for information is actually a request for labor. If everything was digitized and online, then your search engine results would suffice. The repository you contact probably has to do in-person, by-hand retrievals and searches of pictures, letters, microfilm, maps, or other offline, undigitized stuff to find your answer. Fortunately, they often know of online resources that aren’t found by search engines and may be able to refer you to stuff that you didn’t know was online. Large institutions can tap into proprietary databases to which they subscribe.

Most historical & genealogical organizations are small and have no paid staff. Sometimes they don’t have enough volunteers to keep up with inquiries. Their volunteers may be staying home in the pandemic.

Having a big budget doesn’t always solve this problem. Large, high-profile institutions get a correspondingly high volume of requests. Their staff may be laid off or working from home during the pandemic. We know of an Ivy League university who rations the time librarians spend on outside inquiries to 20 minutes per request. They actually use timers.

The desire for free labor will always exceed the supply. Here are five simple tricks to make the most of the limited time that someone can commit to your question.

Reach out by email if possible.

The tweet below explains why Calling a repository on the phone may
not be the ideal way to get the information you are seeking.
“My whole professional life until I learned to speak the truth–I can’t effectively listen,
participate, and take good notes at the same time.” –Christin Driscoll

Try This Rationale
1. Reach out by email if possible. The information you seek probably has to be delivered electronically anyway, so you might as well start out electronically. Google the repository and use their Contact Us page. The repository will then have a legible, searchable written request to work from. They will have the correct spelling of your name and the names of the people or things that you’re researching. It prevents bouncing emails because someone incorrectly spelled out or wrote down an email address over the phone.When you call with a complex request, you’re not only asking for someone to analyze your needs and determine on the spot if their repository can be of help, you’re also asking them serve as your stenographer. Save the telephone requests for the computer-naive, people with disabilities, and those without internet access. A repository can always ask to speak with you on the phone if it would work better for them.
2. Not sure who can help you at an organization? Pick up to three likely-sounding departments or staffers to send your inquiry to. Trust them to forward it if a co-worker can better answer your question. And give it a few days. Some questions take more time than others. No one has an empty In box.We understand the temptation to Cc everyone at the Contact Us page as an insurance policy, but it increases the chances that your inquiry will land in spam folders. It also creates extra labor for the person whose help you need. Now they have to acknowledge all the forwards from peers & superiors, which cuts into the time they could be using on your inquiry.
3. Repositories need to figure out what you don’t know about X, not what you do know, in order to determine if they can help you. You do not have to have a lengthy family history narrative ready. Reach out when you’ve identified which gap(s) in your knowledge you hope to rectify.Government record offices which require next-of-kin relationship to release certain records will let you know. At non-governmental organizations, the individual you’re researching can be your ancestor, or not. The building you’re researching can be your property, or not. No personal connection or recitation of the forebears is required.
4. Focus on up to three life events, or up to three names, or up to three documents per request. For example, “Do you have obituaries for John & Mary Smith?” “Do you have pictures of these three addresses?” Less is more when it comes to getting your request filled.No one is born knowing how to do family or house history research. Repositories know that and want to help you anyway. But if the only way you can answer questions about what you’re trying to find out about X is “Anything, anything!”, then we suggest starting out with a researcher for hire.
5. When you can finish the sentence, “Well, what I’m really looking for is…”, then you’ve greatly increased the chances that someone can help you. You may even get a hug.Example: if you want to learn where a factory was located and when it closed down, we encourage you to skip impossibly broad openers such as “Do you have anything on old businesses?” Indirect questions produce indirect answers.

Bonus tip: Our Guide to Vital and Archival Records in Buffalo and Erie County will help you identify which repository has what you’re looking for.