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.
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:
Armchair research for New Jersey probate or estate files?
Yup!! In August 2012, a new digital resource became available for New Jersey researchers at FamilySearch.org — New Jersey, Probate Records, 1678-1980. The initial digital image uploads for this Historical Record Collection were comprised of *two* different records groups. The first part (state-level) was the Pre-1901 Secretary of State Estate File packets and the second part (county-level) was respective County Surrogate’s Court records.
Unfortunately, due to the licensing agreement with the New Jersey State Archives (NJSA), FamilySearch did remove the Pre-1901 Secretary of State Estate File images in November. However, the Surrogate’s Court records for the counties have remained online. At this time, only the County of Morris Surrogate’s Court is not represented. This is due to the fact that they have not allowed FamilySearch to microfilm their records.
It is important for researchers to remember that the estate packets differ from the County Surrogate’s in a major way. The state-level Pre-1901 Secretary of State Estate File packets contain the original documents filed – wills, public notices, inventories, etc. Whereas the County Surrogate’s Court is charged with maintaining “copies” aka transcriptions of the filed papers , so you are not as likely to find the copies of the public notices or other miscellaneous filings.