At the height of the famine, the Irish Emigrant Society of New York City saw the need for a bank catering to the Irish entering the port of New York. Their response, in 1850, was the formation of the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank. Here, immigrants could bank their New York earnings and have their account made available to family at a branch office in Dublin.

The bank's mandate for transfer of funds and the illiteracy of many early account holders prompted the management to keep a set of personal ledgers of remarkable detail. These ledgers, called "Test Books," were used as a test of identity. A New York depositor who lost his or her passbook could obtain a replacement only after resupplying personal information kept in the Test Books. By design, the information was genealogical, so that the recipient families in Ireland could also reproduce it. It appears that the bank maintained the Test Books until 1880, but unfortunately only 1850-1866 are still in existence.

The Emigrant's current management, realizing the historical value of their surviving ledgers, donated them to the Manuscripts and Archives Division at the New York Public Library. These have been transferred to microfilm and are now available to the public. The location of one's ancestor in Emigrant's Test Books can be a genealogical breakthrough of the highest order.

The format of a Test Book entry:
  • Date account was opened (they were logged into the Test Book in chronological order)
  • Depositor's Account number (cross referenced to index books)
  • Name of account holder (later entries bore signatures and "marks".)
  • Current occupation of account holder
  • Current residence (street name or, in more rural areas, town)
  • Street number
  • A free-text section headed "Reference and Remarks" containing
    • Birth info: variously consisting of year, town or townland, barony, parish, county of birth.
    • U.S. arrival date, ship name and point of departure. Most earlier entries state "arrived N.Y." "N.Y." was dropped later.
    • Parents names, if alive or dead, in old country or US; generally the mother's maiden name.
    • Siblings: names and whether they are in the U.S. or overseas
    • Name of spouse
    • Names of children.
The information in the "Reference and Remarks" section was transcribed by a clerk in a loosely standardized format. As with any memory-dependent and verbally transmitted information, it should be verified in the standard sources. There was opportunity for mishearing and misspelling, especially as regards townlands. Further, some of the information was requested years after the fact.

Example: I found accounts for three ancestors, each of whom named specific ships and times of arrival. All were inaccurate in some respect. I have yet to find a trace of the first in New York ship indexes. It may have been completely misremembered, or he may have come into another port.

The second and third accounts named the correct ship but incorrect dates. Two standard cross-references* led me to the correct ships, but similar allowances have to be made throughout.

In short, there's no reason to believe the information is more sound than a census listing or a death certificate. The stakes are just higher.

* "Passenger Ships Arriving in New York Harbor, 1820-1850", Bradley W. Steuart. Bountiful, UT: Precision Indexing, Inc., 1991+) A cross reference of NYC arrivals by date and by ship name.
"Famine Immigrants: Lists of Irish Immigrants Arriving at the Port of New York, 1846-1851", 7 volumes ( Ira A. Glazier, ed.. Baltimore:, 1983-86). Transcribed and indexed passenger lists.
The films are not yet in wide distribution. The full set of 59 microfilms is available only in the New York Public Library's Rare Book Room at the 42nd Street branch.

The first ten reels (the most important to genealogists) are available to the public at the National Archives Northeast Regional Center at 201 Varick Street in lower Manhattan.

The first ten reels and some of the detail ledgers are also available (to members only) at the N.Y. Gen & Biog. Society

A full set of films has been acquired by the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston. As far as I know, none of these places search Emigrant records on request, but for-hire NYC genealogists will do it for a fee.

New Yorker Monica Bennett has been transcribing and posting records online in the New York section of Genexchange. At last count (October 2000) there were roughly 4,000 accounts (out of 66,000). These are searchable by surname of account holder.

I've restricted my remarks to the contents of the first ten films. For a User's Guide to the first 39 films, see the NYPL's write-up at

If you are planning a field trip to gain access and have a common surname or several surnames, my advice is to set aside at least a day to spend with them. Unless you get lucky, or have an uncommon name, they are not a quick search. The all-important Test Books were indexed, but chronologically within only the the first letter of the surname. The handwriting is the equivalent of a well-penned census from the 1850 period.

For each surname, you will have to search the entire appropriate letter index, noting the account number for each mention of the name.

You then find the Test Book corresponding with each account number and check the entry for each account, which may or may not be yours. my rejection rate was between 50% and 100%.

If you have a common name to search, the more prior knowledge of your ancestor, the better. City directories and the 1850 and 1860 Federal Census are worthwhile preparation. A bit of advice for those who find an entry: the three repositories I named also have several of the tools needed to verify immigration and stateside material.

Gauging your likelihood of success:

  • An informal survey: Paging through a Test Book, you'll see that an overwhelming majority of the depositors lived in lower Manhattan and were Irish. Nevertheless, I found two g-g grandfathers who didn't fit the profile: an Irishman in Queens and an Englishman in Manhattan. Many nationalities - even native New Yorkers - are represented, albeit in small numbers. Though not a majority, there were a significant number of woman's names on every page: domestics, teachers, boarding-house owners.
  • There were 66,756 accounts booked between 1850 and 1866. The 1855 N.Y. State census counted roughly 175,000 Irish-born in Manhattan, 50,000 in Brooklyn and 3,000 in what is now Queens. ("The New York Irish", Baltimore: John's Hopkins Univ. Press, 1996)
  • Though Manhattan dominated, you'll find entries from Brooklyn, Queens, N.J., Conn. and other states scattered throughout.
  • Depositors covered a wide range of occupations: housemaids, laborers, clerks, clergy, merchants, professional people and on and on. Don't let the lowly profession of an ancestor keep you from searching the records.

A brief outline of the record groups:

  • Reels 1, 2, 3 - Indexes to the Test Books. These are chronological lists within first letter of surname and give only name and account number. Reel 1 (Index for 1850-1866) is the most important, since the early test books have the most information. Much of Reel 2 (1867-77) and Reel 3 (1878-80) reference accounts for which the ledgers have been lost.
  • Reels 4-10 - Test Books for 1850 through August 1867, the ledgers in which all the genealogical information was entered. Accounts numbered 1 through 66,756.
  • Reels 11-14 - Transfer, Signature and Test Books 1850-1883 with a gap between Sept. 1877 and July 1881. These record changes in account and the account holders' signatures.
  • Reels 15-20 - Deposit Account Ledgers - the actual transactions.
  • Reels 25-34 - Bond and Mortgage Records(indexed on Reels 40-41)
  • Reels 31-34 - Bond and Mortgage Ledgers
  • Reels 35-39 - Real Estate Loans
  • Reels 40-41 - Index to Bond and Mortgage records. The first is by name; the second by street.
  • Reels 42-47 - Minutes to the Board of Trustees 1841-1933
  • Reels 47-49 - Minutes of the Finance Committee 1866-1907
  • Reels 50 - Account Ledger 1906-1922
  • Reels 51-55 - Bond and Mortgage Principal and Interest
  • Reels 56 - Minutes of the Auditing Committee Mar 1922-Dec 1929
  • Reels 57 - Bank Building's Financial History ca. 1953
  • Reels 58-59 - Statement of Bonded Securities and Misc. Papers
Sample entries
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