Filling in the Gaps, when Vital Records don’t exist
New Jersey officially started collecting vital records in 1848. Some towns and counties did have vital records collected, but it is not consistent and varies from locale to locale. I have found the period of 1820-1848 to be some of the most difficult records to track down. This is when you really need to go to alternate sources. Some are easier to obtain than others, and creative problem solving as well as analyzing the quality of the sources is imperative.
Church records and cemeteries are usually my first starting point. I try to find a historical association for that area, check out their website, or pay an in-person visit. Quite frequently they will have a list of churches active at the time, or even some of the church records. I visit cemeteries and that certainly can yield information, but not everyone has a tombstone when interred, or they can be damaged with age. You can even inquire at a particular church to see if they have records, or look on family search (LDS) if you have a family history center near by and order the tapes.
Bible records are another source of vital statistics. It was a long-held tradition to write the births, deaths and marriages in the family bible. The Genealogical Society of New Jersey has an extensive collection of bible records. They are housed at the Rutgers University in New Brunswick, Alexander Library Special Collections room. Like anything else bible records need to be reviewed with objectivity. Does the handwriting meet the period? Or does this look like something added a century later? Is this your ancestor, or one with the same name? In some cases this may be the only data you will ever find on an ancestor so bible records can be a very important source.
Bible and church records are some of the more obvious sources of data, but there are some obscure records that you will need to be creative to obtain. This is where local history, libraries or genealogy groups come into play. I had one ancestor that I couldn’t pin down the date of death; I searched in her county of last residence but no luck. I did know the family used a specific undertaker, a town over (and in another county) so I was hoping to find his records at a historical society. I ended up finding them at the town library, in records room that was rarely visited. Not only did I pin down my ancestor’s death date, but also two children that were born and lost at an early age. The journal indicated what was ordered for each funeral, how much it cost, where their grave was and many times cause of death. The information not only provided the basic dates, but also gave a brief glimpse of life, as they knew it.
A good genealogist does not take every record at face value and assume it is correct. A certain amount of analysis needs to be deployed. This is true even with official vital records. My one brick wall ancestor his death certificate has the same date for birth as well as death, but listed old age as cause of death. That is obviously incorrect even though it is what was gathered when the certificate was issued. The same is true of less traditional sources of records, proceed with caution, if at all possible having multiple independent sources of information is the best bet.
Following is a list New Jersey groups/libraries I have found that have historic holdings. Most are located in my areas of research Hunterdon, Morris and Somerset Counties. I’m sure there are more out there, but this is the short list:
Bernardsville Public Library – 1 Anderson Hill Rd, Bernardsville NJ
Bernardsville Library has a local history room, but limited to specific hours. Vertical files, Local books, pictures, and copies of the Bernardsville News 1932 onwards.
Bernards Township Library – 32 S Maple Ave Basking Ridge NJ
Although it’s not listed on it’s website there is a room with historical records. You need to approach the Reference Desk to get access. They don’t generally want you poking around in there alone. This library has a free genealogy group that meets the 4th Tuesday of most months. They usually have a program/lecture at these meetings and a mingling period.
Long Hill Township Public Library – 917 Valley Road, Gillette NJ
There is a local history room open Weds 1-3. I have yet to get there in that time so can’t speak to the holdings, which are not in their online catalog.
The Historical Society of Somerset Hills – 15 West Oak Street, Basking Ridge NJ
This society’s main interest is Bedminster, Bernards Twp, Bernardsville, Far Hills, Peapack & Gladstone. I have not yet been able to get there in-person but there is a library with some genealogical items. Limited hours, check the website beforehand.
Hunterdon County Historical Society – 114 Main Street, Flemington NJ
I plan on trying to make a visit shortly; it appears there is quite a bit of data for genealogists.
The Tewksbury Historical Society – 60 Water Street Tewksbury NJ
Very small, but contains quite a bit of information on the town of Tewksbury (New Germantown).
North Jersey History and Genealogy Center – (Morristown and Morris Township Library) 1 Miller Rd, Morristown NJ
This is probably my favorite place to visit. Quite a few holdings, great facility and very generous hours.