A visit to this second floor office of a 1960s-era state building in Trenton seems the last place one would consider starting a personal journey — as many do over the holiday break.
The silent main room has a half dozen bare reading tables surrounded by shelves of dull-looking books. So does the smaller adjacent room with just a few tables but with rows of bulky gray metal machines — manufactured way before digital technology.
And what about entering the building that is also serving as a temporary office for the governor of New Jersey? I pass through a metal detector, sign in at the first floor desk, sign in again on the second floor, register, and get a patron card, and then surrender my book bag before going in to the room where I expect to sit down and wait.
It is like going through airport security.
Yet while one doesn’t go anywhere geographically over the next few hours, a type of traveling takes place here at the offices of the New Jersey State Archives: time traveling.
The destinations? Arriving at the answer to a mystery, picking up an historic detail, or — as many visitors here do — landing in one’s own past.
And with 37,000 cubic feet of paper records and 32,000 reels of microfilm, it is a genealogist’s paradise — or more to the point a New Jersey genealogist’s paradise.
“The records are older than the state legislature,” says archivist Catherine Medich, sitting down with me at one of the tables.
Sounding tonally proud of the collection that she oversees, Medich goes through a brief inventory of documents that go back to the 1664 British colonization of New Jersey. “We have all the enrolled laws. There are some municipal and some county records, but primarily state vital records, laws, and governors’ records starting from the late 1800s.
“And we have a fair amount of newspapers on microfilm from all over the state, starting in 1776 with some going into the 1980s and ’90s.”
Thinking about it, she qualifies the collection, “It can’t be a complete picture. But we would have potentially anything a government can create.”
So what’s the best way for someone to start a genealogy hunt? Medich has a suggestion that emphasizes two words: start with a question or a detail.
“If you walk in with a very generic idea, it is hard for us to help because we may point you to something you don’t actually want to know. So we conduct a reference interview. Are you looking for info about people or buildings? We try to narrow how to answer their questions,” she says.
Since most requests deal with vital records — births, marriages, and deaths — Medich says the best thing for a person to have is “a name and approximate life dates, something to latch onto to begin with. If a family lived in New Jersey for a reasonable amount of time, they left a paper trail. The easiest (way to retrieve information) is when someone says, ‘We need a death certificate in 1847 for this person.’ It’s very direct and on point.”
That leads to a simple process of looking up a name or date in a publication or online resource and then retrieving the document.
What doesn’t work, she adds, is looking for information on things that happened in other states or for narrative texts about a specific person or family. “We have the original documents used to complete that family file,” she says.
She says the amount of time needed to complete an investigation depends on how ambitious the visitor is. “If your list has five things and you have pretty decent dates, it should take a couple of hours. If you have 40 things, it could take all day.”
To accommodate morning researchers who use the search systems to find they need to view an actual manuscript, the archive staff designated the afternoon to retrieving and sharing materials not on microfilm and stored in banker boxes or volumes stored in a nearby area or in the lower floor storage area.
“If you come in as researcher in the morning and need a map, you can see it in the afternoon,” she says. That process involves having the researcher sit at one of these tables and the staff arriving with boxes to go through.
If photos are involved, the researcher may need to use gloves to protect the object. Protection against damage and theft is also the reason for the “luggage” check-in. Pencils and notebooks are allowed. So is a camera. But nothing that can leave a permanent mark on a document or take one away — and when I inadvertently went into the room carrying my brief case, verbal alarms promptly sounded.
Asked to give an idea of how much it would cost a visitor to do a casual investigation, Medich says, “Making a paper copy is 50 cents from the microfilm. Normal cost is $2.50. If you’re doing a will of many pages, it could be $25. There is no entry fee, and if you bring a non-flash camera you can take a picture on the microfilm screen. Visitors can pay with check or cash only. We can take credit cards on the website,” she says referring to NJ State Archives Searchable Databases and Records Request Forms.
It all sound good, but what about complications related to family members changing names or moving to different states and countries? “Back track to the person’s life,” she replies. “Family research is a building block process. You find one record and it leads to you to another and another. But it may lead you to a brick wall. I have a cousin who described genealogy as a puzzle without the edge pieces. I always founds that an apt analogy.”
She then gives some good advice: think creatively and follow different clues. That includes people translating their names from one language to another, as in the case with the Italian surname Bianco — it can be translated to English as White. Or some names using spelling variations — either to differentiate one family member from another, changed by local officials, or for other reasons.
When I bring up the idea that my Irish grandfather’s name was changed by Ellis Island officials, Medich dismisses the idea with a shake of her head and a frown. “A lot of the time the name changed after you hit the ground in America. Ellis Island had staff that spoke the languages. It wasn’t as capricious as people have said.” In addition, she says, there was a passenger list with the names spelled out.
Another difficulty with names involves New Jersey slaves. “If you were a slave you did not have a surname. You were ‘Tom’s slave.’ If you became a free man you chose your own name and chose any one you wanted,” she says. “In the (early 1800s) a slave child was given its mother’s name. A lot of people are coming in to research on free blacks and slaves. There was more record keeping of children born of slave women. And because New Jersey had a large Quaker population, there are lots of recording of manumissions (the act of freeing slaves). They are recorded on the county level,” says Medich.
What about individuals changing gender and names to reflect that change? “That’s not something we have to worry about,” Medich says. “Our records are more historical. We’re not good for current people, we’re good for your grandparents.” Current people, she says, generally leave a digital trail.
Another situation related to name and physical changes is related to regions. New Jersey was originally East Jersey and West Jersey with capitals in Perth Amboy and Burlington. Mercer County was created from Burlington, Hunterdon, Middlesex, and Somerset counties. Lawrenceville was once Maidenhead. And so on. Once again the researcher has to think beyond today and mentally travel back in time to the way it was.
Since a serious family investigation can take a lot of time, the thought of professional genealogist comes up.
“There are professional researchers who do that work. We have people in here regularly. But we don’t recommend anyone,” she says, noting it is state policy not to represent any specific business.
“There is an association,” she says, “the Genealogical Society of New Jersey. They have on their website a researcher. There is also a chapter in New Jersey of the Association of Professional Genealogists — APG.”
What about online genealogy research groups like Ancestry.com? “It is very complicated with Ancestry in that they have put some of our documents up and gave us an institutional (relationship), but we don’t have a quid pro quo. How do you pay for things as public records?”
She says a lot of online information came from another site, Familysearch.org. It was developed by the Church of the Latter Day Saints (aka the Mormons). “For years they microfilmed records all over the place. We allowed them to microfilm our wills and country records,” says Medich.
The State Archives is now one of Family Search’s Family History Center and Affiliate Libraries. “If you as a visitor can’t get (the information) at home then you can potentially see it at the State Archives.”
She adds that the Mormons opened up their records after they stopped microfilming and moved into digitalization. “Family Search is free. You have to create an account, but they don’t do anything with it. It is more to keep track of who is using the records.”
When I ask if the state will do what the Mormons did and digitize the state’s miles of microfilm, Medich says it’s something that has been discussed, but so too is a related problem. It would require keeping up with ongoing changes in computer technology that require ongoing upgrades of systems to share the information and then ongoing strains on staff and budgets.
That could also disrupt the roughly 500 requests per month via in-person visits, telephone calls, and mail. Most are calls regarding vital statistics.
Evaluating overall operations, equipment, and tools to address taxpayers’ needs, Medich says the office’s best resource is the staff of three full-time and three part-time employees. “It’s a ‘we’ve-been-there-done-that type of thing.’ We can take the question and point the person to the record or to the right place to find the record. We try to help but not do it for you. Then you have the fun of finding things. I’ve had people cry because of finding stuff.”
Although Medich has been with the state archives for 20 years, she is from another “new” state, New Hampshire. She came to the Garden State when her father brought his expertise of working with racehorses first to Liberty Park in Philadelphia and then to the New Jersey Department of Agriculture’s NJ Sire Stakes program.
“I knew I wanted to study history when I was 12,” she says about her studies at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. “My father taught history. My mother was a grade school teacher. So it kind of came through osmosis.”
She says she enjoys helping people with their genealogy. “I just always loved it. That cousin who had the puzzle pieces analogy really delved into genealogy heavily in the 1970s. For fun he did the genealogy on my dad’s line and the bug hit me. I got really interested.”
Regarding her own family, she says she and her electrical engineer husband live in Lawrence and have a daughter. “I work here and can’t look anyone up. I have no family in New Jersey.”
But I do have family, and I wanted to test the archives by looking for some family information.
The first involved the family of my wife, Elizabeth Roszel. Her family has been in the central New Jersey since the 1700s. Yet as time passes, so too does personal history. A book on the Battle of Trenton and Princeton offered a note about a Roszel’s mill in Maidenhead and family interest was stimulated.
When I bring it up, Medich takes me into the next room. “We’ll look at the tax list. Mills are taxed as an item. So you can look up Roszels and see which one is taxed as a mill around the Revolutionary War era. You need to hang onto someone or a particular branch of the family.
“Lawrence Township published a map of landowners in 1776 and there is a book of landowners in the area,” she says picking a book up off a shelf. “Lawrence is a phenomenal town in the area to do Revolutionary War-era research because someone had taken the time to publish it.”
Talking as she moves, she notes that while hunting for Colonial-era information in New Jersey has its challenges for reasons already noted, the Garden State was way ahead of most states in having its documents together.
She says information on tenant farmers and people who didn’t own land is hard to find, and it takes more time to locate wills and other records.
Medich lays the book down on the table and points to a section for me to read as she heads over to one of the microfilm machines.
As I do I muse on the variations of the spelling of the name: Roszels and Rossels. Two different names? Two different families? A deliberate variation for a particular reason? A name change by mistake?
A few minutes later Medich appears with a photocopy of a 1778 tax form on Roszel’s Mill. She sets it down and points out various holdings. “It looks like it includes three slaves,” she says, moving her finger over a column and showing the ugly truth of slavery being a common practice in central New Jersey — as noted in the recent Princeton University Slavery Project, Morven Museum’s inclusion of slavery in its exhibitions, and Trenton namesake William Trent’s involvement in the slave trade.
While it is unclear if there were slaves and if there is a direct family connection, the revelation supports something Medich mentioned earlier: A researcher never knows where a family history will go. To illustrate the point, she told the story of a Lambertville man who during his research discovered that his grandmother’s behavior was not always what one would consider grandmotherly.
Nevertheless, I had a fact and a piece of a puzzle that I could continue to build on, but I decided to search for something related to my own family.
I was creating a paper trail that documented my lineage to an Irish grandfather who had immigrated to Philadelphia in the early 20th century. A missing piece of that trail was my deceased parents’ marriage certificate, where their parents were also listed.
While my parents lived in Philadelphia (where I was born), they were married in New Jersey. And all I could recall was the town, Stone Harbor, and an approximate year, 1946 or ’47.
Medich nods, sits down at a computer station, and begins typing while telling me that the New Jersey Department of Vital Statistics has given the State Archives the right to duplicate marriage filings, found on an All New Jersey Index with filings from 1901 to 2016.
Instantly I see my father’s last name on the screen. “It was 1946,” Medich says as the record appears on the screen with my grandparents’ names listed on it. “If you want an official copy, you’ll have to contact Stone Harbor,” she says as she prints out the copy.
As she lingers at the screen I notice the electronic trail of my family after moving to New Jersey in the 1950s.
“New Jersey is always a crossroads,” she says, mentioning migrations and people adjusting to economic and social changes that have resulted in a state made up of various cultures and ethnic groups.
“It’s a challenge and a strength,” she says.
With this morning’s search results — one document that brings up more questions and one that answers another — I go to the archive receptionist, pay for my copies, and pick up my bag.
And as I leave I feel like I’ve actually been somewhere and think of Medich’s comment regarding the genealogy bug. I’ve just been bitten.
New Jersey State Archives, 225 West State Street, Trenton. Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. Manuscripts and retrieved materials can be viewed beginning at 1 p.m. 609-292-6260 or www.nj.gov/state/archives.