Monday, September 28, 2015

Here Yesterday, Gone Today: the New Jersey Wills and Probates 1656-1801 Records

After I posted What Happened to the 1656-1785 New Jersey Probate Records on on Friday (25 September 2015), I received a number of comments and emails.  Here are some of them pertinent to the discussion:

1)  Michelle Tucker Chubenko (author of the Jersey Roots Genealogy blog) emailed saying:

"A quick note to let you know that this is one of those situations of 'here today, gone tomorrow' on the Internet.  The digitized will book that you found Thomas' will in is no longer online within the collection.  Unfortunately, the NJ State Archives did not grant digital permission to Ancestry for the Pre-1901 (NJ) Secretary of State estate packets and libers.  Thus, those name entries and images have been removed from the database collection!!"

Michelle followed up today saying:

"I've received my info directly from Joseph Klett, Chief of the Archives, NJSA. This situation happened in January of 2013 when FamilySearch released the collection -- New Jersey, Probate Records, 1678-1980. See my blog post...

"Bottom line is that all those colonial and original wills before 1900 were removed from the online collection. However, the Calendar of Wills 1678-1817 and Index to Wills 1678-1900 can still be found on line. This is in addition to the county level Surrogate's Court records.

"I'm working on a blog post to explain this in more detail. Should be online by  Thursday."

My response:  Thank you, Michelle, for the quick, authoritative and succinct summary of the reason for the removal of these records.  We will look forward to the blog post.

Read Michelle's blog post from 2013 noted above - FamilySearch had this problem also!

2)  Reader stluno commented on my earlier blog post, saying:

"Many thanks for posting this information so promptly. I made the same discovery late Friday morning, having spent a good deal of the past three weeks working with the new probate material. You probably noticed, as I did, that the transcription of names and the organizing of images was, well, let's say slipshod, but no matter: the records were online at last! Of course there was no online explanation. The "Updated" term was applied to the new listing on the Ancestry home page. If in the past we've ever wondered exactly what "Updated" means, we now know that one of the meanings in "Deleted." So I called the Ancestry 800 number immediately. Well, not quite, because it's no longer available on the home page, which has no "Contact us" prompt. I got through by calling the 800 number of the Ancestry genealogists-for-hire page. I reached a typically courteous representative, who knew nothing; put me on hold to explore the issue; and returned, still knowing nothing. So all we can do is hope, at this point. And put salve on our wounded pride, wounded from such crude mistreatment from the powers-that-be at Ancestry."

My response:  The phone number has always been 1-800-ancestry.  It appears that they had no choice.

3)  Reader Marian Koalski commented on my earlier blog post, suggesting:

Possibly you can use any index information that you acquired earlier to find the the images on FamilySearch among its browsable images:
New Jersey Probate Records, 1678-1980

"This situation compounds my worries about how Ancestry does business."

My response:  Nope - these same records were removed in early 2013.  

My guess is that FamilySearch provided Ancestry with the digital images in early 2013, and they included the pre-1801 probate records.  Ancestry was probably assured that FamilySearch had obtained the requisite licensing permissions, and Ancestry indexed the records.  After they were released on 5 September 20`15, someone at the New Jersey State Archives learned they were indexed and available on, contacted, and demanded that they be removed from the collection.

I wonder if requested permission to display the documents for every state, or relied upon the permissions granted to FamilySearch in years past.

4)  Reader Sharon shared on my previous blog post:

"As of Friday, Sept. 25, ALL of the probate records for Morris County were GONE. I have been working on Morris County estates as fast as I could, but I was far from done.

"I know there are many gaps in these records. I discovered the same with Morris County records. Certain rolls of film were not included in the digitized records on Ancestry. Some of the indexing was pretty poor, and the breaks between records were often not right. But since Morris County was not included in the FamilySearch collection at all, I figured I was still ahead of the game with Ancestry's collection -- until yesterday. 

I will be very interested to know what you hear from Ancestry about this. Are they working on it and it will be back up soon? I sure hope so."

Sharon added information about the New Jersey Probate Records:

"Prior to 1804, estates were handled by the State. In 1804 county surrogates offices were set up for handling estates. It appears that any records in the possession of the State (which includes all records prior to 1804, and original wills, inventories, etc. up to 1901) are now gone. Although some of the county books may be labeled with dates starting in 1785, there are probably no records as far back as that date. The county records from 1804 to late 1800's are missing many years, many records, and are not well indexed. Looks like this long-touted collection is pretty much a bust for New Jersey researchers."

In email, Sharon added these comments on 27 September:

"In looking through the records, I actually found NO original wills or inventories.  There are recorded copies of some records for some counties, but not the originals.  The originals were there last week.  This leads me to guess that the records that the NJ State Archives has (the original signed wills, etc.) have been removed.  What remains is whatever was obtained from individual counties -- along with (perhaps) a few miscellaneous state records that they missed in this purge.  Since the records from the Morris County Surrogate's Office were never on FamilySearch (the only county totally missing), they are not available anywhere.    Thus the explanation that this database contains records for ALL counties is incorrect."


"There are 90 reels of Morris County probate records in FHL catalog.  All the numbers are followed by the letter N, which leads me to believe that they are the State (in other words, original) records, not the Morris County Surrogate's records.  So with the state records gone, there is nothing for Morris County."

"I find it hard to believe that Ancestry posted all these records without permission.  And even harder to believe that NJ will not grant permission.  They surely aren't making a financial killing by making a few copies of these wills for researchers at $10 a clip.  

"If all the state records for all of NJ are gone (as it certainly appears), this is a big blow to this database.  Without the state records, there isn't much left for many counties, as you already discovered with Sussex.  My guess is that all Ancestry will have is just what is on Family Search, which is a patchwork of dates, books and places for sure. "

My response:  See Michelle's note above, and my conjecture in response.  

Thank you for the insight on New Jersey probate records.  So it appears that Morris County, like Sussex County, "Records of wills, 1740-1900" have the State wills on FHL microfilm for Morris County.  For persons with a local FamilySearch Library, or visiting the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, using the microfilmed copies would be easier than visiting Trenton, I guess.

As we;ve seen, received the document images from FamilySearch, and the value added was the indexing.  

4)  Reader Geolover commented on my previous blog post:

"There have been times when parts or all of some databases were removed by accident, but since Ancestry went to the trouble of changing the name of the database this occurrence seems to be on purpose."


"Even more NJ estate records have been removed by Ancestry from the misnamed Wills and Probate Records collection. It is named 'New Jersey, Wills and Probate Records, 1785-1924' (the word Probate should be Estates), but just try to find anything prior to 1804 now."

My response:  Thank you for pointing out that the database name changed from ...1656-1999" to "...1785-1924."  

I wonder if I should go back and change all of my source citations to reflect the new database name.

5)  Well - that is disappointing, but I think we all have to live with the reality of the situation.

Sharon raises the question about why won't the State of New Jersey permit the inclusion of these records in the and FamilySearch collections.  My guess it's because they make "some" money from the fees for the requests for copies and don't want that to end I wonder how many persons are employed to respond to these requests).   Perhaps they don't want to "make money" from their records, although I think that's a specious argument because these documents are such a small part of the overall collection set with over 32,000 databases.

Why didn't release a statement that said something like "we erred, and published these records, but we didn't have the required permissions to publish them so we had to remove them."?

There is a lesson learned here:  When you see a new collection appear on Ancestry, MyHeritage, FamilySearch, Findmypast Mocavo, etc., go search it the best you can for records that you are seeking.  You never know when "here yesterday, gone today" will be the case.

I did that with these New Jersey wills and probate records - I downloaded, renamed and filed about 20 of the estate files from the now-missing years.  I'm glad I did.  I will continue to transcribe them and publish my transcriptions of these 20 files in hopes that other researchers can benefit from my work.

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Geolover said...

You wondered if you should change your source-database name for what you found. Regrettably, since what you found is not in the renamed database, that would not be in accord with present reality. Your original citations with old database name(s) is where you found them, and in accord with "cite what you are seeing/using."

I personally think your annotation noting they are not there any more was a good idea and will be helpful for subsequent readers. This could be an occasion for a bit more explanation in the footnote.

Thanks for your efforts regarding this records adventure.

Marilyn S said...

I was at the NJ Archives a few weeks ago and was getting info & mentioned something about them being on and they told me that Ancestry had done it without their permission, so it looks like it isn't the first time. I know it wasn't wills, because I haven't started researching them yet.

Jan Murphy said...

It seems to me that Ancestry could solve problems like this, and those of the deleted databases, by displaying a page that says the content you had previously viewed is no longer on Ancestry, along with the source notes about where the original records had come from. This would allow their customers to contact the original repository (in the case of these records) or to find the information elsewhere (in the case of books which had been available to read on Ancestry but have since been removed because they're available so many other places).

I have tried to save my own copies of everything I saw on Ancestry, FamilySearch, or other sites, but like many other hobbyists, I was not very organized when I was first starting out, and I may have missed things. This is one of the reasons I want to review everything now.