For almost 400 years, a vast number of people have passed through Boston. Some have stayed only a few days or a few years, while others have lived in Boston for generations. Even those who stayed only a short time may have left records, and the purpose of these series of columns is to help you find those records. In this, the first of three columns on researching people who lived in Boston, I will cover vital records and church records (both published and unpublished) and offer a selection of histories and guides pertaining to the Boston area. Part two of the series will cover town records and annexed lands, while the third part will provide information about probate records, land records, cemeteries, and other sources.
Histories and Guides:
Vol. 9, "Check-List of Boston Newspapers 1704-1780"
Vol. 29 & 30, "Records of the Suffolk County Court 1671-1680"
Vol. 46, "Boston Prints and Printmakers 1670-1773"
Vol. 48, "Boston Furniture of the Eighteenth Century"
[An upcoming volume of Almshouse Records will contain much information on the residents of the almshouse including many deaths. The introduction will give a great amount of information on life in Boston.]
The Boston Record Commissioners published many volumes of Boston records, including four that contain vital records. The first of these volumes covers the seventeenth century and is the most comprehensive as it includes records from both the town clerk and the First Church. The other volumes cover primarily the eighteenth century and contain only the records of births and marriages from the town records (the town did not keep death records during this time period). Marriages are the most complete of these records since they were considered a civil function that could be performed by justices of the peace as well as ministers. Both justices of the peace and ministers were required to send information on the marriages they performed to the town clerk. As the eighteenth century progressed, fewer and fewer births were being recorded with the town clerk in Boston and baptism records from the many Boston churches became a very important source for researchers.
Vol. 9, Births, Baptisms, Marriages, and Deaths, 1630-1699 (1883).
Vol. 21, Births From A.D. 1700 to A.D. 1800 (1894).
Vol. 28, Marriages From 1700 to 1751 (1898).
Vol. 30, Marriages From 1752 to 1809 (1903).
Vol. 1, Deaths Within Boston, A-Z
Vol. 2, Deaths Outside Boston, A-Johnson, Chloe
Vol. 3, Deaths Outside Boston, Johnson, Daniel-Z
The death notices and obituaries for those outside of Boston generally are for people who were well known or those who died an unusual death as the following examples show:Loring, Nicholas, Rev. at North Yarmouth, left wid. & 10 ch., 31 July 1763McClure, Thomas, of Brookfield, murdered by Jabez Green during a quarrel, 6 Oct 1741Owens, Morgan, killed by Indians near Walkie, Orange Co., NJ, 28 Feb 1756Reed, William, born in Londonderry, Ireland, executed for piracy at Newport, RI, 19 July 1723, ae35y.Robbins, Wife of Wait, of Weathersfield, CT, killed in a tornado with her 10 year old boy, 25 Aug 1787.Strong, Supply, at Litchfield, CT, ae 90y, was the 2d male child born in Lebanon, 1 Nov 1792Strowbridge, son of Seth, at Stoughton, from the bite of a rattlesnake, 23 July 1791, ae 9y.Viets, Luke, of Synesbury, a young man mistaken for a deer and shot in the woods near No. 4, 20 Oct 1757.Vining, John, Hon ., in Salem Co., PA, speaker of the House of Assembly, 13 Nov 1770.
As I previously noted above, the number of births recorded in the Boston town records had significantly declined during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Therefore the baptisms recorded in Boston churches become very important to researchers. Church records may also have admissions and dismissions that can help track where a family came from and where they went. Within the records of the New North Church from 1719 to1799 are many admissions and dismissions to and from other Boston churches and from churches in 48 other towns. Most of these towns were in Massachusetts in the counties of Essex, Middlesex, Worcester, Bristol, and Barnstable. However, also included were towns in Connecticut, Maine, and New Hampshire as well as Huntington, Long Island, and Marietta, Ohio. And then there was William Downs who was received by dismission from a church in London. Others in these records had comments associated to them such as "was removed having joined the Baptists," "had gone over to the Church of England," and "formerly of the English Church."
Robert J. Dunkle and NEHGS are preparing a CD that will include the baptisms, admissions, dismissions, marriages, and deaths from the following Boston churches that were organized before 1800: Hanover Street Methodist Episcopal Church, Second Baptist Church, First Baptist Church, New South Church, New Jerusalem Church, First Presbyterian Church (now Arlington Street Church), Second Church, Christ Church, Hollis Street Church, King's Chapel, New Brick Church, New North Church, Old South Church, and Third Church of Roxbury. Be sure to watch for the announcement of its release.
Vols. 18 & 19, New Brick Church (incomplete) Vols. 91, 92, 93, & 94, West Church
In John Hayward’s A Gazetteer of Massachusetts (1849), there is a section titled " Boston Churches and Ministers" which gives a brief history of each church in Boston and a list of their ministers to that date. Often the name of the minister who married a couple is listed in town's marriage records. This list will help identify which church he served and may just lead you to the church to which your ancestors belonged. For the colonial period, Frederick Lewis Weis' The Colonial Clergy and the Colonial Churches of New England (1936) will help you identify with which church a particular minister was connected at a particular time.
In 1889, Carroll D. Wright published his Report on the Custody and Condition of the Public Records of Parishes, Towns, and Counties which surveyed the records of both existing and extinct churches in Massachusetts. This publication may help you determine what records were then available for a particular Boston church and whether there may be records for an extinct church to which your family may have belonged. If your family belonged to a Congregational church, then check Harold Field Worthley’s An Inventory of the Records of the Particular (Congregational) Churches of Massachusetts (rev. ed. 1975). Worthley gives a brief history of each church, what records exist, which records have been published, and where the unpublished records may be found (still with the church or in an archive or historical society). For Boston, he covers the following churches:
Also in Boston are the following church archives that may hold the records of a church of their denomination:
Denomination Guides and Histories
The following guides or histories are published for the different denominations: