New Jersey State Archives (NJSA), Trenton, New Jersey
By Michelle D Novak, MI
This series highlights local repositories and underutilized resources that may be of interest to Bergen County genealogists. If you have a repository or library you would like to see included in this series, please send your suggestions to the Editor of The Archivist.
When I start researching for a repository tour article, I like to ask the same question of the Librarian or Archivist manning the information desk: “What are the top-five things that I absolutely must see?” At the New Jersey State Archives (NJSA), it seems that you can ask that same question each time you visit and get a completely new answer.
“Vital records are, of course, first-up,” said Senior Reference Archivist, Bette Epstein, “trust marriage over death; wills; naturalizations.” She recommends marriage over death records as “those who filled out the form were more likely to get their names and those of their relatives right—those filling out a death record may get a lot of this wrong.” Epstein continued, “Sometimes you find a woman on a census of marrying age and she disappears. You don’t know whether she died, or was married, or to whom. We have a bride’s index through 1945 which lists brides by their maiden names so if you don’t know the name of the husband, or it might be spelled differently, you can still find them.” The vital records are microfilmed by surname so if the spelling is a little off, you can usually find them just by browsing. “We can’t do this with mail orders, we can only search the spelling you give us, so it’s always better to come in person if you can.” (Or find a researcher to do the lookups for you.) “And most people completely forget about the Chancery Courts…” It’s a lot to take in.
But this is the kind of advice that’s makes the drive (or GSBC carpool) to Trenton worthwhile—and vitals are only the tip of the iceberg. Getting familiar with the NJSA might help you, as it did for me, knock a brick or two out of that stubborn wall.
On my first trip to the NJSA, I immediately got busy collecting all the imaginatively-spelled vital records for my father’s family who immigrated from Galicia in 1911. By the end of the day, I had accomplished more in one day than I had in years of searching online. Each time I visit, I’m able to peel back another layer of my family’s history, learn something new about the times they lived in, and, sometimes, can even hold a letter that they wrote 200+ years ago! In short, the more you search, the more there is to discover.
Following is information about collections most used by family history researchers—and a great place to start exploring the resources at NJSA.
IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT ACCESSIBLE DATES:
Nearly all Vital Records are on a timed release from the authority agency to the Archives, which can range from 70 to 100 years after the event.
Each January, a new set of records is transferred from the respective authority agency (for example, the Department of Health) to the Archives. The newly-received series are then processed by staff and are usually available to researchers by the end of the first quarter to mid-year. Please check the NJSA’s website for the most recent schedules and feel free to reach out to them with any questions you have—they are always very knowledgeable and helpful.
The dates in the article below were published in 2016 and are not reflective of the current available dates of records.
The available record dates “tick up” every year as new records are released.
What are the “Must-use Resources”?
When you think of a state archive, you think of vital records (e.g., births, marriages, deaths)—and access to records at the NJSA does not disappoint.
Vital records are released to the NJSA 100 years after the event year. These records may be ordered via mail or e-mail (no phone orders). All microfilm is easily accessible to on-site researchers.
- 1 May 1848–31 Dec 1915 (or more than 100 years from event year)
Copies from microfilm may be ordered online or via mail; all microfilmed records in Microfilm Room cabinets for on-site use.
Other records are more current but these can be used only in person at the Archives or ordered from the NJ State Department of Health.
- 1 January 1916 (or less than 100 Years from event year)–Today
- The NJSA contains microfilm copies of Department of Health Certificates for on-site use only (no orders) for:
- Births: 1 January 1916–31 December 1924
- Marriages: 1 January 1916–31 December 1941
- Deaths: 1 January 1916–31 December 1955
- For years more recent than the years listed above, order records from the NJ Department of Health; photo ID and proof of relationship to subject may be required
The NJSA contains a rich collection and records exist back the earliest settlers of the state. In general, records were collected at the state level (usually in the form of copies of County Clerk ledgers) beginning 1 May 1848. Certificates were initiated at the State level on 1 June 1878.
Vital Records / Birth Records
- Microfilmed records are available from 1848–1915 (in-person and orders) and 1916–1924 (in-person only).
- Some early birth records, 1848–1900, were refiled as “Birth Corrections” due to errors in the original records.
- There is also a separate collection of “Delayed Birth Filings” for those individuals who later discovered that there was no birth record on file.
- Pre-1848, no birth records were filed at any government level, except for children born to slaves who were recorded at the County level after the 1804 Manumissions Act (gradual abolition of slavery).
Vital Records / Marriage Records
- Microfilmed records are available from 1848–1915 (in-person and orders) and 1916–1941 (in-person only).
- The records are organized by year and then by the groom’s surname.
- Any legal name changes, or adopted alternate spellings, are usually recorded in the same microfilm roll so that the marriage return accurately reflects the name in use at the time.
- A typical marriage record may contain a wealth of information including parents, addresses, ethnicity, birth dates, etc..
- Marriages pre-1848 were recorded by the County Clerk. The NJSA holds the original County registers from eight New Jersey Counties.
- Marriage bonds from 1711–1795 and marriages from 1848-1878 are indexed online. (See links at end.)
Vital Records / Marriage Records / Bride’s Index
- In addition to the above marriage records (which are filed by groom’s surname) the NJSA also maintains a separate index organized by the bride’s maiden name. This can be helpful if the married name is not known or if the married name was later changed.
Vital Records / Death Records
- Microfilmed records are available from 1848–1915 (in-person and orders) and 1916–1955 (in-person only).
- Death records contain an interesting amount of information and many include the cause of death, or at least as it was known at the time.
- In most cases, a death certificate (deceased after 1 June 1878) was filed with the State of NJ—even if the NJ citizen died out-of-state.
- Inquisitions of the Dead, indexed by name, 1688–1798.
Estate and Legal Records
Wills, Inventories, and Estates Records
- The Manuscript Room at the NJSA contains an extensive card catalog index of wills and estate inventories, 1670–1953.
- All wills in the collection are available on microfilm. (Originals may be pulled where microfilm in unreadable, at the staff’s discretion.)
- Original wills are available for those prior to 1900.
- After 1900, the State only keeps original wills for individuals of note (e.g., governors), others were destroyed after microfilming. These records do not usually contain inventories.
Duplicates of County records of legal name changes, indexed by original name and new name, 1876-1947.
County Surrogate Offices
Records from all NJ counties (except Morris County), 1785-1900. Surrogates qualify executors and trustees named in wills, handle estates for those who die without a will, appoint guardians, oversees contested estate matters, and processes adoptions.
Prerogative Court Records
Records from orphans’ court and from estates where property spanned more than one county, 1830s–1948. (Keep in mind the County border fluctuations prior to the 1900s!)