New Jersey Estate Records: Surrogate’s Courts – Why is the year 1804 so important?

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.[1] The common practice for the county surrogates to send wills which they had proved to the Register of the Prerogative Court to be recorded.[2] No original wills or inventories were kept locally with the Surrogate.

Change in the System of Recording Wills

In November 1803, legislation enacted outlined a new method and instructed the county Surrogates to record all wills, letters of guardianship, letters testamentary and administrations granted, and inventories.[3] Also, the law gave these recorded documents the same validity as an original, if attested to by the Surrogate. These new recording and record-keeping duties were deemed so important that by December 1804, the State Legislature enacted a law that counties had to provide for a ‘suitable offices’ for the retention and safe-keeping of the books and records.[4]

While the new law gave new direction for recording specific estate filings or creating ‘copies’, original documents were still required to the filed on a quarterly basis with the Registry of the Prerogative Court.[5] Remember, these originals were arranged into four groups and were not ‘rearranged’ until the 20th century into one large collection.

Can you use the Pre-1901 Estate Index to cross-reference to the County Surrogate’s Court estate filings?

Hmmm, the answer is kind of, sort of… As that publication is an index of what was filed with the Provincial Secretaries and later, the Registry Office and Secretary of State, if the Surrogate did not forward the document for *state-level* filing, an entry would not be found in this compilation. Each county Surrogate’s Court has a docket or estate index for all proceedings that the court handled since 1804. So, you may be pleasantly surprised to find estate filings that are not included in that Pre-1901 index.

What’s a Researcher To Do?

Remember 1804! Researchers must change their approach to locating estate records for any decedents after 1804 whether or not an entry is found in the 3-volume publication “Index of Wills, Inventories, Etc. in the office of the Secretary of State Prior to 1901”. You must use both the collections of the Secretary of State Pre-1901 Estate files and the respective county Surrogate’s Court filings. For those pre-1804 estate files, the packet can hold the original copy of will, filed inventory and other sundry original documents forwarded to the Provincial Secretaries or Registry Office. However, beginning in 1804 it’s those sundry documents that may be found within the county Surrogates’ Court loose papers estate packets to be consulted along with the recorded copies of wills and inventories. Also, I have found that post-1830 intestate filings to the State drop off considerably, and you may only find the proceedings with the *county-level* Surrogate’s Court.

Again, don’t skip this step! It is important to not rely solely on the state-level Pre-1901 estate packet or only on County Surrogate’s filings for those who died 1804 and later. You need to use BOTH!

Let’s look at a case that illustrates this point… It was known that Cornelius Norwood of Essex County died sometime after the 1850 and before the 1860 US censuses. However, he was not listed in the “Index of Wills, Inventories, Etc. in the office of the Secretary of State Prior to 1901”. When a search was made in the Docket Index of the Essex County Surrogate’s Court, an entry was found referring to the liber for Letters of Administration.[6] A review of the liber located the record of the appointment of his estate’s Administrator on 12 April 1859.[7] In an instant, a ten-year death time-frame is reduced to 6-12 months preceding April 1859.

Next Installments…

  • Using the Online Collections – Ancestry vs. FamilySearch
  • Take A Closer Look: Examining NJ Estate Records, 1600s – 1700s – 1800s


  • Prerogative Court: This court held pre-1948 jurisdiction over estate disputes and probate of estates with property in more than one county.
  • Orphans Courts (filings under Surrogates Offices): Held jurisdiction over probate and estate-administration controversies, guardianship and adoption. The court was presided over by a Common Pleas judge; administration, along with filing of estate-related documents, was vested in the County Surrogate.


[1] Acts of the Ninth General Assembly of the State of New Jersey [16 December 1784] (Trenton: Isaac Collins, 1784), p135-141, chapter 70, “An Act to ascertain the Power of the Ordinary and his Surrogates; to regulate the Jurisdiction of the Prerogative Court and to establish an Orphan’s Court in the several Counties of the State.”

[2] 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), 78.

[3] Acts of the Twenty-Eighth General Assembly of the State of New Jersey [9 November 1803] (Trenton: James J. Wilson, 1804), p226-32, chapter 42, “An Act relative to the Probate of Wills, granting Letters of Administrations and Guardianship.”

[4] Acts of the Twenty-Ninth General Assembly of the State of New Jersey [1 December 1804] (Trenton: James J. Wilson, 1804), p431-2, chapter 152, “An act concerning the surrogate’s office in several counties of this state.”

[5] 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].

[6] Essex County Surrogate’s Court, Surrogate’s Docket Index, Liber “N-Re”; Cornelius Norwood, #8691 (1859), page 1731; Essex County Surrogate’s Court, Newark, New Jersey.

[7] Essex County Surrogate’s Court, Surrogate’s proceedings docket #7057-11705 (1854-1869); Cornelius Norwood #8691; Essex County Surrogate’s Court , Newark, New Jersey.

[8] New Jersey State Archives, Judiciary Branch ( : 20 October 2015).

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