"Few areas in this country or the British Isles equal the
Commonwealth of Massachusetts for the quantity and quality of its
historical records," stated Edward W. Hanson and Homer Vincent Ruther in
their 1984 book, Genealogical Research in New England. What they
said almost twenty years ago remains true today. In fact, the access to
these records has only increased with time thanks to the Internet.
Rather than focus on specific town records that are useful only if you
know the name of the town, let's survey county level materials.
Researchers in Massachusetts are fortunate in that there is an amazing
amount of genealogical and historical information available for the
state's counties. Listed below are five different avenues to explore to
discover more about your family.
Know Your CountyAs colonists began spreading out from the
original settlements and acquiring new land it became necessary to
divide the state into counties. Even parts of New Hampshire were once
under the jurisdiction of Massachusetts from 1641/2 to 1679. In order to
access county records, you first need to identify the correct one based
on where your family lived and when. For instance, Suffolk County
originally included land now found in Norfolk and Worcester Counties. If
your ancestor lived in Dedham after 1793 then they were in Norfolk
County rather than Suffolk County. Thomas Galvin's Historical
Data Relating to Counties, Cities and Towns in Massachusetts, 5th
Edition(NEHGS, 1997) helps sort out the details.
Date County FormedBarnstable 1685Berkshire 1761Bristol
1685Dukes 1683Essex 1643Franklin 1811Hampden 1812Hampshire
1662Middlesex 1643Nantucket 1695Norfolk 1793Plymouth
1685Suffolk 1643Worcester 1731
Land and Probate Records In Massachusetts, these records
are located on the county level rather than in town halls. In larger
counties this may be further broken down so that records are divided
between two repositories. Consult Marcia Melnyk's The
Genealogist's Handbook for New England Research(NEHGS, 2001) to
find out where materials exist for the county you are interested in.
The good news is that many land records are now online and available
for various fees. Below is a list of websites that offer such
records.The Essex County Registry of Deeds www.salemdeeds.com offers
free access to land records.
The Probate Records of Essex County, Massachusetts, 1635-1681 (1880-1906)
is one of the many examples of probate records that have been
published. Printed indexes also exist for the counties of Middlesex,
Norfolk, Suffolk and Worcester. The Family History Library of the Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) has microfilmed probate records
available for loan or you may arrange LDS loans through the NEHGS
library. With the exception of Suffolk and Franklin Counties, microfilms
of probate documents are available on the 4th floor of the NEHGS
library. Of course, researchers can also use original records by
visiting research facilities on the county level.
County Histories and Biographical CyclopediasDid you know
that published histories exist for every county in Massachusetts?
Besides being a wonderful resource for historical information, many
county histories also feature genealogical data on prominent families.
Biographical encyclopedias, also known as "mug books" due to the number
of photographs of prominent citizens in them, became popular civic
endeavors in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Individuals
invited to participate in these encyclopedias often wrote their own
biographies or genealogical statements. Be sure to verify all the
material mentioned in one of these publications in case your relative
hadn't done their research. Consult P. William Filby's A Bibliography
of American County Histories (1985) or John Haskell's comprehensive
Massachusetts: A Bibliography of Its History (1976) for titles
and locations. The Committee for a New England Bibliography periodically
updates Haskell's work and you can search the latest volume (nine) online.
Genealogical and Historical SocietiesNo genealogist should
ever overlook the holdings of local historical and genealogical
societies. These organizations collect material specific to a particular
area and may have the very genealogical data you seek. Researchers of
Massachusetts can find historical societies and even genealogical groups
in most cities and towns. Here is a list of some larger organizations
that also collect county information.
Online ResourcesDon't forget that message boards have
sections devoted to posting queries about specific localities including
counties. Check out the Massachusetts county pages at Rootsweb or the general Massachusetts
message board on Genealogy.com
Here you will find individuals who are looking for specific family
members, others requesting help with resources, and some that even offer
their genealogical information--accurate or not--for all to see. Cyndislist.comhas
links to mailing lists for each county. Be sure to independently verify
all information gathered from these sources!
The United States GenWeb project features individual pages for each
county in a state, which are sponsored and kept up by volunteers. The
quantity and quality of information found in each page vary accordingly,
but you may very well discover information specific to a locality that
would be otherwise difficult to find.
GenWeb contains links to all county pages.