State Research Guide: New Jersey

By James M. Beidler Premium

New Jersey’s Garden State nickname may seem an anomaly to some, what with towns such as Trenton and Paterson driving the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s, and the surrounding East Coast “BosWash” megalopolis triggering the state’s 1900s suburban boom.

Even the state government says there’s “no definitive explanation for New Jersey’s nickname.” Perhaps it’s the early farms, the southern interior’s wooded Pine Barrens, the northeastern Meadowlands or the flowerbeds in all those neighborhood backyards. Or just maybe it’s the potential for your New Jersey family tree to grow like a weed — thanks to the resources we’ll show you.

Garden State plots

During the early 1600s, Swedes and Dutch were the first Europeans to settle in New Jersey, then part of the Dutch colony of New Netherland. Due in part to Gov. Peter Stuyvesant’s glaring lack of popularity, colonists barely resisted in 1664 when British Col. Richard Nicolls sailed into what’s now New York Harbor and claimed the region for England.

The Duke of York granted the land that would become New Jersey to his friends Sir George Carteret and Lord Berkeley of Stratton. Both then provided grants to settlers; surviving records are microfilmed at the New Jersey state archives <>.

Berkeley sold his piece to a group of Quakers in 1673. From then until 1702, New Jersey was governed as two provinces, East Jersey and West Jersey, with capitals in Perth Amboy and Burlington, respectively. In 1702, Britain united the provinces under a royal governor. But the two capitals continued to record land conveyances in their jurisdictions until the Land Act of 1785 transferred the job to counties. These Secretary of State’s Deeds are on microfilm at the state archives and the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City <>. You can borrow FHL microfilm through your local branch Family History Center; see <> for locations. The deeds are indexed in the unpublished Colonial Conveyances: Provinces of East andWest New Jersey, 1664-1794 (available at the state archives).

When looking for post-1785 deeds and other county records — many of which are on FHL microfilm — pay attention to the county boundary realignments that came with the second state constitution in 1844.

Census harvest

Early on, English and Dutch migrants arrived from New England, and Scottish immigrants came from abroad. Later residents included French Huguenots, Palatines and other Germans. Though New Jersey participated in the US census starting with statehood in 1787, its schedules from 1790 through 1820 are lost except for the 1800 Cumberland County count. This and enumerations from 1830 to 1930 (including fragments of the mostly destroyed 1890 census) are on microfilm at large public libraries, the FHL and National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) <> facilities. You can search censuses online at < > <> ($155.40 per year) or HeritageQuest Online (free through many libraries).

State censuses, taken every 10 years from 1855 through 1915 (but incomplete for 1855, 1865 and 1875), also are on FHL and state archives microfilm, as well as at

Tax records, which date from 1773 to 1822, will help you get around those missing early censuses. They name heads of households, landowners and single adult males, though only the 1784 listing shows the household size. They’re arranged by township at the New Jersey state archives, with microfilm at the FHL. Kenn Stryker-Rodda used early tax lists to compile his Revolutionary Census of New Jersey (Hunterdon House).

Vital records patch

Though a Colonial New Jersey law requiring towns to record births and deaths was largely ignored, researchers there still have a distinct advantage when it comes to vital records. The Garden State was second in the nation to require statewide registration, in 1848, and it has the earliest vital records in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Order post-1878 vital records from the state health department (see resources). Birth records are restricted for 80 years after creation, marriage records for 50 years, and death records for 40 years.

Request records dating May 1848 to May 1878 from the state archives (see its FAQs Web page for instructions). You’ll have to visit the archives to use its microfilm of births from 1878 to 1923, marriages from 1879 to 1940 and deaths from 1878 to 1940. The archives and the FHL also have microfilmed vital indexes from various towns and counties, as well as about 10,000 marriage licenses and bonds dating mostly between 1728 and 1790 (the licenses and bonds are indexed on the Colonial New Jersey Source Records,1600s-1800s CD (Genealogical Publishing Co.).

Sowing church records

Baptismal certificates, member directories, marriage banns and other church records can stand in for missing vital records and fill gaps in your ancestral timeline. New Jersey was one of the most religiously diverse colonies, with faiths including Reformed, Quaker, Congregational, Anglican, Puritan, Presbyterian and other Protestant sects. Later settlers added Catholicism and Judaism to the mix.

Many records have been published in books such as Early Church Records of Atlantic and Cape May Counties, New Jersey by Barbara Epler Wright (Colonial Roots), and in genealogical society journals (see Through the Garden State, right). Some such publications have been reproduced in’s databases and on FHL and state archives microfilm.

To find published records, search the FHL and New Jersey Historical Society <> online catalogs for your ancestor’s church, denomination or county name. You might also try contacting the church or its denominational headquarters. Quakers, in particular, were known for diligent record-keeping; see <> for advice.

Seeds of victory

Several decisive Revolutionary War battles took place in New Jersey, including the 1776 Battle of Trenton, when Gen. George Washington and the worn-out Continental Army crossed the Delaware River from Pennsylvania on Christmas night and surprised a garrison of Hessian troops. See the Official Register of the Officers and Men of New Jersey in the Revolutionary War by William S. Stryker (digitized on the state library Web site < publications>), which contains information from Adjutant General’s Office index cards. Similar published indexes cover the War of 1812, Mexican War and other conflicts. The original index cards are located at the state archives, as are New Jersey militia lists, muster rolls, paymaster accounts and citizens’ Revolutionary War damage claims.

Revolutionary War service records are online at the subscription site Footnote <> ($79.95 per year). You can request military service and pension records for veterans of the Revolutionary and later wars through NARA’s Order Online system <>. That includes the Civil War, for which roughly 80,000 New Jerseyans fought on the Union side — search for their names in the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System online index <>.

Through the Garden State

Among the family papers, diaries and letters at the New Jersey Historical Society library in Newark is the Charles Carroll Gardner manuscript collection, which contains Gardner’s research on mostly northeastern New Jersey families from the Colonial era to the mid-1800s. Gardner’s later work is in the Genealogical Society of New Jersey (GSNJ) <> collections, housed at the Rutgers University library <>.

GSNJ also has gravestone transcriptions; you can check a cemetery inventory on its Web site and order copies. Its Genealogical Magazine of New Jersey contains some of those transcriptions plus tax lists, church records and more. Genealogical Magazine of New Jersey: A Subject-and-Author Index by Donald A. Sinclair (GSNJ) covers the first 35 volumes. In Trenton, visit the New Jersey State Library for its excellent collection of newspapers, city directories, Sanborn fire insurance maps and family histories. We’ve mentioned many of the records available at the nearby state archives, but surf the archives’ Web site, too, for databases of marriages, the 1885 state census, photos and more. With a little care and sunshine, you’ll soon harvest a bounty of Garden State ancestors.

From the November 2008 Family Tree Magazine