Almost from the time they set foot on shore, Massachusetts settlers began
keeping vital records. Unlike most other states, these records are kept in the
towns. There was no statewide registry until 1841. Even then, some towns were
slow to submit copies. Boston did not comply with the new law until
Perhaps because it was a deliberate legal act, marriages were the
most likely to be recorded. Births far outnumber deaths in the official civil
records. But births were not necessarily recorded at the time or even in the
same town where they occurred. Sometimes one can tell by looking at the original
records that a father probably visited the clerk and recounted the vital events
for his whole family at one time, often including his and his wife’s birth,
their marriage date, and children born at a previous residence. If we are lucky,
he brought the family Bible along to assist his memory.
Where does one
find these records? What indexes exist? Which records are in print or manuscript
copy or on microform? Remember that the original records are always in the town
or city clerk’s vault. Divorce records are kept in the probate courts and will
not be discussed here.
Think in terms of three periods of time:
- 1906 to the present
- 1841 to 1905
1906 to the Present
Almost all vital records are open to
the public. The only exceptions are out-of-wedlock and sometimes abnormal births
(when there has been a physician’s report filed) and marriages. Corrected
records filed later will be in a different place, and the original will not be
accessible. If you know the town where the vital event occurred, you can go
there or write to the clerk for a copy. Call ahead for hours and fees if you
need a certificate. The clerk who answers may even look to see whether they have
the record you want. If you do not know the town, look in the state
Microfilm copies of the indexes to 1971 are at the State
Archives and a few other places (see the list in the next section). The original
index volumes are at the State Registry of Vital Records and Statistics. This is
now at 150 Mt. Vernon Street, Dorchester, MA 02125-3105. Telephone: 617-740-2600
-- not far from the Massachusetts State Archives. Unless procedures change at
the new location, you can get a certified copy for $6, or go there and search
for $3 per hour on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday from 9-12 and 2-4:30.
The indexes are in volumes for five-year periods. Be sure to check spellings
imaginatively. Fill out a slip for each entry you want to examine, and hand
three at a time to the attendant when he calls for them, every fifteen minutes
or so. He must check each birth or marriage entry to see whether it is all right
for you to look at it. Some are in books and some on microfilm. If you have
looked up the references ahead of time, and it is not crowded, you may be able
to examine up to six records in half an hour.
Every five years another five-year segment of the records is
transferred from the State Registry to the State Archives, and microfilm becomes
available for purchase from the Family History Library (FHL), but only by
institutions and with written permission from the state. The next five years of
records will probably be transferred sometime in 2001. Bills before the state
legislature, S345 in the Senate and H122 in the House, if passed, would provide
for the transfer of marriages and deaths through 31 December 1955 and births
through 31 December 1915 to the State Archives.
Presently both indexes
and records for 1841-1905 are available at the State Archives, across the
parking lot from the JFK Library on Columbia Point. A free shuttle bus runs
every 20 minutes from the JFK subway stop on the MBTA red line. The mailing
address is 220 Morrissey Boulevard, Boston, MA 02125.
libraries also have these films:
- Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield, 1841-1905 (plus death indexes to 1971)
- Boston Public Library,
Microtext Dept., has the indexes only, 1841-95. They also have the Holbrook
microfiche for Boston and many other towns
- Connecticut Valley Historical Museum in Springfield, 1841–1905
- Family History Library in Salt Lake City, accessible through Family History
Centers (plus death indexes to 1971)
- Haverhill Public Library, 1841-1900
- Mogan Center, University of Lowell, 1841-1905
- New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1841-1905 (plus death indexes to
1976, marriage indexes to 1935 and birth indexes for some years to
Except for 1841-50, the indexes are in five-year segments. The spelling
of surnames is exactly as it appears in the record, so check all possible
The State Archives will search for and issue certificates for
$3 for each event. If an approximate date is known, they will search
approximately three index volumes, i.e., fifteen years. It is a good idea to
narrow down the time by using census or other records first. Surprisingly, only
about 40% of the approximately 150 requests per week that the archivists receive
can be found in the records. So give all relevant information, including date,
place, spouse, parents, and age -- whatever you already know. When there is a
common name, if both the year and at least the general area are known there is a
much greater chance of success.
There is no master statewide index to records before 1841.
However, a large percentage of birth and marriage (not death) records are in the
International Genealogical Index (IGI). Many have been submitted by members of
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the Family History
Department of the Church has also extracted records from most of the published
books and from some original records. Thus the IGI serves to a large extent as
an index. Nevertheless, it is well to bear in mind that member submissions have
been taken from a myriad of sources, such as genealogies, town histories, and
unpublished family compilations. The place given for the event may have been
carefully researched or may have been a guess, usually based on a known
Family Tree Maker’s Family
Archives CD #231, Marriage Index: Massachusetts, 1633-1850, contains
marriages from about 227 towns. Many of the original records for the some 351
towns in Massachusetts have been microfilmed and are in the Family
History Library Catalog (FHLC). About 150 towns’ records have been produced
on microfiche and may be purchased from the Holbrook Research
Institute, Locust St., Oxford, MA 01540.
Early in the 20th century,
vital records for many towns were published in the “Systematic Series.” The
Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research , described in the
previous column for Massachusetts on this website, contains a list of towns with
a column titled “CODE.” The official series books are coded as “POS.” (See a
similar list in Red Book , or see PERSI .) These volumes are in nearly
every public library in Massachusetts, and many other libraries have at least a
selection of them. The compilers arranged the names in alphabetical order. While
this makes searching easier, the original order has been lost. Items from church
and cemetery records and others, such as Bible records and newspaper notices,
have usually been included. If there was a town record of birth, a baptism was
not included unless it added information. The same would be true for other types
of records as well.
Records of many towns have been published in
independent volumes or in the Register or the Mayflower Descendant
(see the New England Handbook, Redbook or PERSI). Sometimes these too are
alphabetical; other times they follow the original order and are then
There are many unpublished transcriptions of town vital records.
Some are on FHL microfilm. NEHGS has, for example, three different manuscript
copies of Hatfield records. The Walter Corbin Collection, now on NEHGS
microfilm, contains many such transcriptions, as does the Rollin H. Cooke
Collection at the Berkshire Athenaeum (Pittsfield Public Library). Contact local
libraries and historical societies for others.
The published records are
also turning up on the Internet. Ancestry. com and genealogylibrary.com have
some. Town clerks’ addresses and some links to town sites are provided at vitalrec.com. Many of the
published records are on a series of CD-Roms published by Search and ReSearch
Publishing Corp. available in this site's store. These include towns in
Barnstable, Bristol, Essex, Middlesex, Norfolk, Plymouth and Suffolk Counties.
Newer volumes, still under copyright, are not included. The indexes on the CDs
are confusing and are often just to the surname. The query procedure also does
not find many of the names that appear in the images of the books.
period from roughly 1632 to 1795 most early towns reported marriages, and
sometimes births and deaths, to the county courts. (See the Register 135
(1981): 170n for a list of these.) These are on FHL microfilm, catalogued under
the county name and the topic “Vital Records.” Most, but not all, of these
records have been included in the publications for the relevant towns, and many
of the marriages were published by Frederic W. Bailey in Early Massachusetts
Marriages Prior to 1800, 3 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1898-1900; reprint,
Other Helpful Resources
Bowen, R. L.
Massachusetts Records: A Handbook for Genealogists, Historians, Lawyers, and
Other Researchers (Rehoboth, MA, 1957). CD3291/ B6 at
Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts: Law in
Colonial Massachusetts 1630-1800 (Boston, 1984). F61/ C71/ v.
Historical Records Survey, Guide to Public Vital Statistics
Records in Massachusetts (Boston, 1942). No copy at NEHGS.
Carroll D. Report on the Custody and Condition of the Public Records of
Parishes, Towns, and Counties (Boston, 1889). CD3290/AZ.