New Jersey Estate Records: What exactly are the Secretary of State Pre-1901 Estate files?

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.[1] 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:

  • Estates filed prior to 1795 or “unindexed wills” as filed with the Provincial Secretaries of East and West Jersey
  • Estates filed between 1795 and 1804 as filed in the Department of State
  • Estates filed between 1804 and 1830
  • Wills filed between 1831 and 1900 as filed separately under the County of origin

The work was compiled into a multi-volume set entitled Index of Wills, Inventories, Etc. in the office of the Secretary of State Prior to 1901 in which researchers will find over 186,000 entries. This index provides researchers with the ability to look up not only the testator and intestate but gives reference to all proceeding records found — inventories, orders, petitions, receipts, etc.

Researcher’s Caveat: It should be noted that colonial and early statehood administration proceedings can be found within this compilation, but post-1804 administration filings to the State diminish greatly.

About the same time as Mr. Smith’s work, another set of manuscripts entitled “Calendar of New Jersey Wills, 1670-1730” was being compiled by William Nelson under the auspices of the New Jersey Historical Society for inclusion within the series for Documents Relation to the Colonial History of the State of New Jersey. The “Calendar of Wills” series was first published in 1901, but the last volume was not in print until 1949.  This monumental work abstracts all estate records on file at the Secretary of State’s office and published them in alphabetical order by decedent within the time-span of the volume.  Also, each volume has an all-name index for persons mentioned in the abstracts — witnesses, executors, bondsmen, etc.

In the preface of Volume I, the committee writes of the manuscript covering 1731-1750 that was completed and then lost to the Paterson fire in February 1902.[2] The manuscript for the third volume was saved from the fire. One could only guess at what other obstacles may have prevented a more regular publication schedule.  Today, New Jersey researchers should consult both of these multi-volume sets in their search for their ancestors’ estate records as well as their ancestors’ involvement with friends, acquaintances, and neighbors’ estates.

Published Resources:

  1. Index of Wills, Inventories, Etc. in the office of the Secretary of State Prior to 1901
  1. Documents relating to the colonial and revolutionary history of the State of New Jersey – Calendar of New Jersey Wills, Administrations, Etc.

Documents relating to the colonial, revolutionary and post-revolutionary history of the State of New Jersey, – Calendar of New Jersey Wills, Administrations, Etc.

  1. “New Jersey, Abstract of Wills, 1670-1817” Ancestry.com ($)

 

Next Installments…

  • Surrogate’s Courts – Why is the year 1804 so important?
  • Using the Online Collections – Ancestry vs. FamilySearch
  • Take A Closer Look:  Examining NJ Estate Records, 1600s – 1700s  – 1800s

 


 

[1] State of New Jersey, Index of Wills, Inventories, Etc. in the office of the Secretary of State Prior to 1901 [3 volumes] (New Jersey, 1912), preface [p.5].

[2] William Nelson, editor, New Jersey Historical Society; Documents relating to the colonial and revolutionary history of the State of New Jersey; Calendar of New Jersey Wills, Administrations, Etc., Volume I, 1670-1730 (Paterson, NJ: The Press Printing and Publishing Co., 1901), vii.

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2 thoughts on “New Jersey Estate Records: What exactly are the Secretary of State Pre-1901 Estate files?

    • Sarah,
      The abstracts of Colonial and early statehood estates have been abstrated (1670-1817) and these are the links that I’ve provided in this post. In the next three blogs, I will begin discussing how to access/order estate files for 1800s-present.

      Happy Searching!
      Michelle

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