Massachusetts Essex County Probates (FamilySearch Historical Records)

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This article describes a collection of records scheduled to become available at FamilySearch.org.
Essex, Massachusetts, United States
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Location of Essex, Massachusetts
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Location of Massachusetts
Record Description
Record Type Probate
Collection years 1638-1880
FamilySearch Resources
Related Websites


What is in This Collection?

This collection includes county probate records for the years 1638 to 1880.

Probate records were court documents and may have involved loose papers and/or bound volumes. These records were generally known as an estate file or probate packet. These files included all documents related to estate settlement, including settlement papers, inventories, receipts, wills, and other records pertaining to the estates, including accounts, administrations, appraisals, minutes, bonds, petitions, guardianships, inventories and settlements.

What Can These Records Tell Me?

Probate records include petitions, inventories, accounts, decrees, oaths of executors, forms about guardians and other court documents. Genealogical facts in entries include:

  • Name of testator or deceased
  • Names of heirs such as spouse, children, and other relatives or friends
  • Names of witnesses
  • Residence of testator
  • Lists of belongings, property, and so forth
  • Document and recording dates. (Sometimes the date of death will be given. Recording dates are also used to approximate event dates, i.e. a letter of administration was usually written shortly after the time of death.)

Collection Content

Sample Images

Essex County was created on May 10, 1643 and was formed as an Original County with its county seat in Salem. Probate records, including the administration of estates, probate of wills, and the appointment of guardians, have been under the jurisdiction of the courts since the 1630s. County courts and later, county judges of probate were responsible for these functions until 1783, when the probate courts were established. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the probate and family courts were given jurisdiction over adoptions, divorces, name changes, and domestic relations.

The county was divided into two districts in 1869 with the "parent" county seat, at Salem remaining as the probate office for the county.

Probate records are used to legally dispose of a person’s estate after his or her death. The probate process transfers the legal responsibility for payment of taxes, care and custody of dependent family members, liquidation of debts, and transfer of property title to heirs from the deceased to an executor or executrix if the deceased had made a will, to an administrator or administratrix if the deceased had not made a will, or to a guardian or conservator if the deceased had heirs under the age of twenty-one or if heirs were incompetent due to disease or disability.

How Do I Search the Collection?

Before searching this collection, it is helpful to know:

  • The name of the deceased
  • The place of residence
  • The approximate death or probate date

View the Images

View images in this collection by visiting the Browse Page:

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What Do I Do Next?

When you have located your ancestor’s probate record, carefully evaluate each piece of information given. These pieces of information may give you new biographical details that can lead you to other records about your ancestors. Add this new information to your records of each family.

I Found the Person I Was Looking For, What Now?

  • Use probate records to identify heirs and relatives.
  • Use the document (such as the will) or the recording dates to approximate a death date.
  • Use the information in the probate record to substitute for civil birth and death records since the probates exist for an earlier time period.
  • Use the birth date or age along with the residence or place of birth of the deceased to locate census, church, and land records.
  • Use the occupations listed to find employment records or other types of records such as military records.
  • You may be able to use the probate record to learn about the following:
Adoptions or guardianship of any minor children and dependents.
Land transactions.
  • Compile the entries for every person who has the same surname as the deceased, this is especially helpful in rural areas or if the surname is unusual.
  • Continue to search the records to identify children, siblings, parents, and other relatives who may have died in the same county or nearby. This can help you identify other generations of your family or even the second marriage of a parent. Repeat this process for each new generation you identify.
  • When looking for a person who had a common name, look at all the entries for the name before deciding which is correct.
  • Wills are more likely to be found in rural communities than in larger cities and industrial areas.

I Can't Find the Person I'm Looking For, What Now?

  • Check for variant spellings of the surnames.
  • Check for a different index. There are often indexes at the beginning of each volume.
  • Search the indexes and records of nearby counties.

Citing This Collection

Citations help you keep track of places you have searched and sources you have found. Identifying your sources helps others find the records you used.

Collection Citation

"Massachusetts Essex County Probate Estate Files, 1638-1880." Database with Images. FamilySearch. http://FamilySearch.org : accessed 2017. Citing Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. Massachusetts State Archives, Boston.

Image Citation:
When looking at an image, the citation is found on the Information tab at the bottom left of the screen.

How Can I Contribute to the FamilySearch Wiki?

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