Disclaimer: This primer assumes that the reader understands the actions of probating a will and the administration of an estate.
As genealogists, we all know that research rarely is straight-forward and it often throws us curve balls whenever it can. Understanding the hierarchy and collections of estate files (aka probate records) can be daunting for many doing New Jersey research. The first key factor beyond location is timeframe. Folks, it is extremely important to remember that New Jersey has been keeping these types of records since 1670!
We can track New Jersey’s growth from the New Netherlands’ (Dutch) and New Sweden (Finnish and Swedish) settlements in the early 1600s to its birth in 1664 through an English royal grant as “Nova Cæsarea” and to the Quintipartite 1676 deed, where the colony was split into the “twin provinces” of East and West Jersey, right up through statehood in 1787. This multi-faceted evolution of today’s New Jersey had a large impact on the record-keeping of estate records.
And, while we won’t get into a deep discussion of the nuances of the historical governmental structure of the East and West Jersey Proprietor’s Boards or shared Governors along with royal oversight; as researchers, you need to know that estate records are primarily found on two levels of governmental structure – colony/state and county.
The Province of West Jersey has the honor of being first in passing legislation regarding wills on 3 March 1676/7. East Jersey followed suit on 21 March 1682/3. Both laws required the will to be recorded or registered with the Secretary of the Province – Perth Amboy or Burlington. The Board of Proprietors both East and West Jersey held the duty of all governmental functions subject only to the Crown until 1702. Their rights were surrendered to the Crown and the duty transferred to the Governor and commander-in-chief of the Province. From 1702 to 1738, New Jersey shared its Governor with the colony of New York. The governing period of Royal Governors lasted through the American Revolution with the arrest of Gov. William Franklin in 1776.
Surrogates – Who were they and why were they needed?
It was recognized by those colonial Governors that they could not be readily accessible to their citizens for the probating of wills and other estate proceedings. Can you imagine having to figure out where your Governor was presiding in order to conduct estate affairs? Having twin capitals and a shared Governor were cumbersome facets of the colonial governmental structure! In some instances, it is found that a surrogate was authorized to act in the stead of the Governor. It wasn’t until 1693 when Thomas Gordon was officially appointed the “Surrogate for East Jersey” for the duty of “taking the probate of last wills”.
The regular appointments of Surrogates in the place of the Governor did not take begin until Gov. Colonel Robert Hunter [of New York & New Jersey] acceded to the New Jersey Assembly’s request for the creation of the office. The Surrogates appointments grew from a singular responsibility to the divisions of “East Jersey” and “West Jersey” to handling specific counties within the Colony of New Jersey. Their duties included proving or probating wills brought before them and appointing administrators for intestate estates. All proceedings were filed at the respective capital of the Division in which the actions took place – Burlington or Perth Amboy. It was not until 1790 when Trenton was established as the state capital, that the estate records for colonial New Jersey were brought together within the Secretary of State’s office.
- Records Collections – What exactly are the Secretary of State Pre-1901 Estate files?
- Surrogate’s Courts – Why is the year 1804 so important?
- Using the Online Collections – Ancestry vs. FamilySearch
 New Jersey Charters and Treaties, The Grant to Berkeley and Carteret, 1664 (http://www.njstatelib.org/slic_files/imported/Research_Guides/Historical_Documents/nj/NJDOC6.html : accessed 2 October 2015). The Quintipartite Deed of Revision, Between E. and W. Jersey, July 1, 1676 (http://avalon.law.yale.edu/17th_century/nj06.asp : accessed 2 October 2015).
 William Nelson, Lex Testamentaria: The Law and the Practice of New Jersey from the Earliest Times Concerning the Probate of Wills, the Administration of Estates, the Protection of Orphans and Minors, and the Control of Their Estates; the Prerogative Court, the Ordinary, and the Surrogates (Paterson, NJ: Paterson History Club, 1909), 37.
 Ibid, 38.
 Surrender from the Proprietors of East and West New Jersey, of Their Pretended Right of Government to Her Majesty, 1702 (http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/nj13.asp : accessed 2 October 2015).
 During this period, a number of New Jersey wills were probated in colonial New York and may be found within those records.
 East Jersey Commissions, Liber C:189 as published in the series New Jersey Archives, XXI, 215.
 Nelson, Lex Testamentaria: The Law and the Practice of New Jersey, 53-4.