Today’s post is in honor of all those who served our great country. I hope you’ll find the following collection of hidden gems helpful in your family research. I’m wondering how many of us really take the time to review all the options on any given website. Do you take the time to look at collection titles that may not have immediate or apparent interest? When using the New Jersey State Archives (NJSA) website, my guess is that most of us choose “Search the Collections” from the main webpage.
FamilySearch has made great strides in providing digital records collections available freely for researchers and currently, there are eleven New Jersey Historical Records Collections. The focus of ‘Part B’ in the comparison of Ancestry vs FamilySearch is the collection – New Jersey Probate Records, 1678-1980. It has been online since June 2014. The collection is comprised of digitized images from the microfilming of the County Surrogates’ Courts in the early 1970s. The records available include a variety of components: wills, administrations, bond, receipts, indexes, adoptions and more.
Researching families in colonial New Jersey through early statehood can be challenging and researchers often need to look at a variety of record sets. An often overlooked group of records is that of petitions to the government – governor, legislature, etc. These letters from the citizens of the province reflect sentiments ranging from taxation, hunting, war and even opposing expressing opposition to elected officials.
The compilation — New Jersey Petitions by John D. Stemmons — is comprised of 5 volumes spanning 1740, 1745-1794 and utilizes the petitions found within the manuscript collection of Legislative Records at the New Jersey State Archives. Researchers will find over 20,000 entries of inhabitants in New Jersey that cannot be replicated by any other record set for the time period.
In preparing these volumes, the compiler chose to use petitions that generally had more than 10 names and a location given. Those petitions with less than these criteria are excluded from the abstracts.
In the beginning of each volume contains a List of Petitions or inventory of documents with a basic description that was used to extract the signers’ names. All name entries are presented in alphabetical order by surname. Due to the recording clerks’ interpretation of surnames, it is important to check variant spellings.
Benefits of Petitions/Memorials
Beyond the obvious boon of locating your ancestor’s name on a petition for a known locality, other positives include seeing original signatures or lack of by using their ‘mark’, familial relations (son of), and even marital status of female signers.
Where to find Volumes 1-5
A quick search of WorldCat shows that the Allen County (IN) Public Library, Wisconsin Historical Society, Houston (TX) Public Library, Library of Congress (DC) and the Family History Library (Salt Lake) have the complete set. This is in addition it being in the collections of the New Jersey State Archives in Trenton and Rutgers University Alexander Library in New Brunswick.
Unfortunately, if you are looking to add this set to your home library, you will have to look very hard. The publisher cannot be located online and using AbeBooks.com, I could not locate used copies for sale.
Overall, the compilation is a wonderful resource to use for mid-18th century New Jersey research. If you have not consulted the set, I urge you to do so.
 Department of Education, New Jersey State Library, Bureau of Archives and History, Manuscript Collection, 1680s-1970s (Series #: SEDSL006); BAH: Legislative Records, 1724-1796 (Boxes 1-12 to 1-16); New Jersey State Archives, Trenton.
 Unlike its sister colonies in New England, the Province of New Jersey did not continue the practice of recording births, marriages and deaths with town clerks. Also, the US Federal censuses for 1790-1820 are not extant and church records for the early to mid-1700s may not be complete for early congregations due to records loss.
 Memorial – A document presented to the legislative body, or the executive, by one or more individuals, containing a petition or representation of facts. (Black’s Law Dictionary, 4th Edition, page 1136).
For an intimate revelation of social conditions in New Jersey during the first sixty-five years of English supremacy it would be difficult to imagine a volume richer in material than this. From about 1680 it was the general practice to deposit wills with the Provincial Secretaries, by whom they were filed or recorded—usually both,—together with inventories of estates, accounts of executors and administrators, and other papers pertaining to such matters, and many odd documents having no apparent relation thereto—as ante-nuptial contracts, marriage licenses, and the like. These records were brought together in 1790 or shortly thereafter, in the office of the Secretary of State at Trenton, where they are now carefully arranged and preserved.
~ William Nelson, Introductory Note on the Early Testamentary Laws and Customs of New Jersey, 1901
Although the Governors’ appointments for Surrogates’ within the counties came to be though the law giving them their posts for a 5-year term, their duties were limited. In 1784, “An Act to ascertain the Power and Authority of the Ordinary and his Surrogates &c” was passed to further define the duties of Surrogates and extended duties to granting the Probates of Wills, Letters of Administration, Letters of Guardianship and Marriage-Licenses, and to the Hearing and determining of estate disputes. The common practice for the county surrogates to send wills which they had proved to the Register of the Prerogative Court to be recorded. No original wills or inventories were kept locally with the Surrogate.
For researchers, it is often a rare occurrence to “run” into appointed officials and actually begin to take a liking to them. In this case, I’m going on record and saying that Secretary of State Samuel D. Dickinson is fast becoming a favorite. He was appointed in 1902 and remained in office until 1912. During his tenure, I can credit his office with two accomplishments for which genealogists today are most thankful – the enumeration format for the 1905 State Census of New Jersey along with the conservation and arrangement of the pre-1901 estate files.
Upon taking office in 1902, Secretary Dickinson found that he inherited a collection of records that were overused and in disarray. He charged his deputy, J.B.R. Smith, to the task of inventorying the estate records and forming an arrangement system. And what a task he had! Mr. Smith grouped the estate files into four distinct groups: