When you are trying to locate a person or family in a specific place and time
period, all three of these kinds of records can work together. Fortunately,
federal census records for Massachusetts are available from 1790 to 1920, with
the exception of the 1890 census, which burned, and part of Suffolk County in
1800. In addition, we have state census records for 1855 and 1865. Then there
are many tax records, in particular a published collection for 1771 and the
Direct Tax of 1798, which is available on microfilm. When census indexes are
incomplete, city directories can often guide us to the right page on the right
film. But they also work well in their own right, filling us in with details for
the years between censuses.
The Federal Census, 1790-1920With the beginning of the nation, the
federal government decreed that a census should be taken every ten years,
beginning in 1790. Each census has its own features. Perhaps the most important
thing a new researcher should know is that the 1850 census is the first one in
which the name of each individual (at least each white individual) in the
household was listed. Before that, from 1790 to 1840, the census taker recorded
only the name of the head of household and followed it with a series of marks in
various age categories and usually a few categories describing race or
occupation, e.g. agriculture or manufacturing.
Census records are available on microfilm in many places:
When searching, remember that indexes from 1790-1870 must be searched for
each possible different spelling. From 1880 we have Soundex indexes. Also
remember that the index includes only the head of household and, beginning in
1850, others in the household with different surnames. Thus if you are looking
for a wife or child, you will need to know the name of the family head. The
exception for Massachusetts is the new index to the 1870 census, which seems to
include every individual. However, the indexers evidently took some shortcuts. I
found, for example, that "Jos. Page" in the index turned out to be "Joseph Page"
in the census itself. A new index to the 1880 census should be available at
FamilySearch.org sometime in 2001.
The 1910 census for Massachusetts presents a special challenge, as there is
no index. Some volunteers started out to do it, but the project was too large
and soon stopped. For a place of any considerable size, it would be helpful to
sit down with city directories from, say, 1908 to 1912, locate the family's
address and ward and then use a detailed town map of surrounding streets while
rolling through the film. See the bibliography below for three helpful
Mortality SchedulesThe 1850 to 1880 mortality schedules, taken
along with the federal censuses for those years, should perhaps have been
included in the previous column on vital records. This record of deaths, which
includes ages and cause of death, for the year previous to each census, that is,
for example, from 1 June 1849 to 1 June 1850, is found on National Archives
microfilm T1204, cataloged at the Family History Library as 1421015-023.
An index, which appears on both microfiche at many Family History Centers and
on Family Archives CD #164, does not include Massachusetts (and is incomplete
for the states it does cover).
The 1890 Veterans' CensusMassachusetts is among the states for
which the special veterans' census of 1890 survived, National Archives number
M123. Massachusetts is on FHL films #338170-175. However, Worcester Co. is
missing. Not only is this census on microfilm, it has been indexed. See Bryan
Lee Dilts, 1890 Massachusetts Census Index of Civil War Veterans or their
Widows (Salt Lake City: Index Pub., 1985). It is important to look at the
actual census film, because the entry will give a great deal of information
which can lead you to various war records, particularly of the Civil War, but
also occasionally of the War of 1812 or the Mexican War.
The State Censuses of 1855 and 1865The original schedules of these
censuses are at the Massachusetts State Archives. However, even there one must
use the microfilm. NEHGS has copies of the 68 films, which are also available at
any LDS Family History Center.
Most towns are unindexed, but Ann S. Lainhart has transcribed, indexed, and
published some 73 towns. Copies are at many libraries. Search the NEHGS library
catalog by author's name and town here or the Family History Library Catalog by author's name for a list.
The 1771 TaxOriginal schedules for about half of the towns in the
state survive and are in the State Archives, but Betty Pruitt has published a
massive computerized index volume available in many libraries. Not only does
this give the name of the landowner, it also lists buildings, livestock, and
produce. See Betty Hobbs Pruitt, The Massachusetts Tax Valuation List of
1771 (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978).
The 1798 Direct TaxThis federal tax identifies both owner and
tenant of each individual property, plus some additional descriptive
information. Only parts of Norfolk and Suffolk Counties are missing. The
original schedules for this federal tax are owned by NEHGS and were filmed by
them in 1978, along with an index and guide. They are available on microfilm at
the Family History Library but are not available for circulation to Family
History Centers. However, the film may have been purchased from NEHGS by other
libraries. See also Michael H. Gorn, ed., An Index and Guide to the Microfilm
Edition of the Massachusetts and Maine Direct Tax Census of 1798 (Boston:
NEHGS, 1979). The Boston list was published in volume 22 of the Boston Record
Commissioners series of city records.
Other Tax RecordsEvery town compiled tax lists every year. There
were town, church, school and county taxes as well as colony or state taxes.
These may sometimes be found among the town records, often on microfilm. Not
only do these lists give some idea of the individual's real estate and wealth
relative to other townsmen, they may indicate how many males over 21 were in the
household. In fact, many individuals were only taxed on their polls, so they
provide a good check on the birth year when a young man appears for the first
Many lists other than those for 1771 are at the State Archives. Look also
under the category "taxation" in the Family History Library Catalog (FHLC) as
well as under "town records" for the town being searched. Copies of most, if not
all, of the microfilms of Massachusetts town records in the FHLC are at the
State Archives on Columbia Point.
Other lists appear in various places. The Massachusetts State Library has
some lists from 1780 to 1811 in their Special Collections in Room 55 in the
basement of the west wing of the State House. See the bibliography below for
some specific published records.
Brøderbund's Family Archive CD #136, the old GRS version, has records,
probably mostly tax lists, for many Massachusetts towns. Unfortunately it does
not identify the list itself beyond giving the year and the place. On the other
hand, these old GRS CDs can be searched by given name and played with in ways
the newer search engine does not permit. The new version is CD #310, ambiguously
labeled Census Index: Colonial America, 1607-1789. At Genealogy.comone can see a
description of it and see how many entries it contains from each of twelve
Massachusetts counties. One still does not know exactly what records it was
compiled from, but it is nevertheless useful. Ronald Vern Jackson, Records
Indexed by AIS ([Salt Lake City]: Corporation of the President of the Church
of Jesus Christ of L.D.S., c1984, c1983), FHL microfiche 6067399, may contain
the answer needed.
City DirectoriesAs noted above, city directories can be a great
help in locating individuals, particularly in the 1880 and 1910 censuses, but,
since indexes are not perfect, they may also prove useful when someone cannot be
found in 1900 or 1920. NEHGS has a large collection of Massachusetts city and
town directories on microfiche. A joint project with Ancestry.com will put these
on-line over the next few years.
Of course, one must have an inkling of what town to look in, but once one
does, an individual can be followed from year to year (sometimes at two-year
intervals). Not only does this provide a name and address, it often gives the
occupation, the place of business as well as the home, the deceased husband of a
widow and sometimes even information about death or removal to another town!
Don't overlook other features of these directories. Use the street directory
to pinpoint between which cross streets a house number falls and the description
of wards to identify which census microfilm to consult. Look at the business
directories, advertisements and other supplementary pages, which may differ from
year to year and publisher to publisher.
City directories are available in many places: NEHGS to begin with, also the
Boston Public Library, the Massachusetts State Library, local libraries and the
Family History Library, The American Antiquarian Society in Worcester and the
Library of Congress.
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