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Massachusetts Genealogy Guide  
 
Massachusetts Genealogy Guide  
  
''[[United States]]'' [[Image:Gotoarrow.png]] '''Massachusetts'''  
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''[[United States]]'' [[Image:Gotoarrow.png]] '''Massachusetts'''<br>
  
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This is a genealogical and historical guide to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and its state-level records. You will find help with state vital records, histories, church archives, newspaper collections, genealogical libraries, understanding the court system, military records, and immigration and naturalization records.<br>  
  
 
== Massachusetts History  ==
 
== Massachusetts History  ==
  
 
=== Massachusetts Brief History  ===
 
=== Massachusetts Brief History  ===
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This region of New England was home to many Algonquian-speaking Indians. They had been visited by British and other European countries' fishermen for more than a century before the first permanent European settlement. Not long before this first settlement began, the native population was decimated by a European-borne disease, likely smallpox, that left many of their villages empty. The Separatist Pilgrims were the first to arrive in 1620 to establish [[Plymouth Colony|Plymouth Colony]] at [[Plymouth Massachusetts genealogy|Plymouth]]. There were several early and later attempts for settlement up the coast into [[Maine|Maine]] (which would be part of Massachusetts until statehood in 1820). The second permanent settlement was by Puritans who arrived in 1629 to establish the [[Massachusetts Bay Colony|Massachusetts Bay Colony]] at [[Salem, Massachusetts|Salem]].<br>
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These two colonies coexisted for many years, but geography and politics were on the side of the Massachusetts Bay. The Royal Province of [[New Hampshire|New Hampshire]] was created in 1680 that separated the District of Maine off from the center of population of the colony now firmly established at [[Boston Massachusetts genealogy|Boston]]. The British colonies developed more independent practices regarding trade, religion, and governance. King Charles II finally rescinded the charter for Massachusetts Bay in 1684. This action was implemented by King James II. The colony continued as it was until Sir Edmund Andros arrived to become the Royal Governor of the newly created [[Dominion of New England|Dominion of New England]] effectively in 1686. This united the colonies of Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth. Soon New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Haven, New York, and New Jersey would be added to the Dominion with the government seated at Boston. Andros quickly moved to take away most liberties colonists enjoyed and thus his rule was extremely unpopular. When King James II was overthrown in late 1688 by William and Mary, colonist at Boston overthrew Andros and his administration there in 1689. For lack of guidance by England, the colonies resumed their previous form of governments through 1691.<br>
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The next major geo-political event was the merger of the Massachusetts Bay and the Plymouth Colony into the newly rechartered Royal Province of Massachusetts Bay in 1691 that began its new government under Sir William Phips in 1692. The territory included what is Maine and the Elizabeth, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket Islands (the islands removed from the control of New York). Major border disputes were settled as follows: New Hampshire (1740), Rhode Island (1746 - succeeded towns of Barrington, Bristol, Little Compton, Tiverton, Warren, and the newly created Cumberland to R.I.), Connecticut (1749 - succeeded towns of Enfield, Somers, Suffield, and Woodstock to Conn.), New York (1773 - twenty miles west of the Hudson; 1853 - Boston Corners section of Mount Washington to N.Y.), and Maine (1820 - succeeded as new state in Missouri Compromise).<br>
 
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<div style="width:147%">
 
=== Massachusetts Historical Data  ===
 
=== Massachusetts Historical Data  ===
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The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is divided into fourteen counties. It is there that most court and land records are found. The most of the other commonly used records will be at the town level. Use the guide below to link to the county you want:<br>  
 
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is divided into fourteen counties. It is there that most court and land records are found. The most of the other commonly used records will be at the town level. Use the guide below to link to the county you want:<br>  
<center>[[Barnstable County, Massachusetts|Barnstable (1685)]] - [[Berkshire County, Massachusetts|Berkshire (1761)]] - [[Bristol County, Massachusetts|Bristol (1685)]]<br>[[Dukes County, Massachusetts|Dukes (1683/1695)]] - [[Essex County, Massachusetts|Essex (1643)]] - [[Franklin County, Massachusetts|Franklin (1811)]]<br>[[Hampden County, Massachusetts|Hampden (1812)]] - [[Hampshire County, Massachusetts|Hampshire (1662)]] - [[Middlesex County, Massachusetts|Middlesex (1643)]]<br>[[Nantucket County, Massachusetts|Nantucket (1695)]] - [[Norfolk County, Massachusetts|Norfolk (1793)]] - [[Plymouth County Massachusetts genealogy|Plymouth (1685)]]<br>[[Suffolk County, Massachusetts|Suffolk (1643)]] - [[Worcester County, Massachusetts|Worcester (1731)]] </center>  
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<center>[[Barnstable County, Massachusetts|Barnstable (1685)]] - [[Berkshire County, Massachusetts|Berkshire (1761)]] - [[Bristol County, Massachusetts|Bristol (1685)]]<br>[[Dukes County, Massachusetts|Dukes (1683/1695)]] - [[Essex County, Massachusetts|Essex (1643)]] - [[Franklin County, Massachusetts|Franklin (1811)]]<br>[[Hampden County, Massachusetts|Hampden (1812)]] - [[Hampshire County, Massachusetts|Hampshire (1662)]] - [[Middlesex County, Massachusetts|Middlesex (1643)]]<br>[[Nantucket County, Massachusetts|Nantucket (1695)]] - [[Norfolk County, Massachusetts|Norfolk (1793)]] - [[Plymouth County Massachusetts genealogy|Plymouth (1685)]]<br>[[Suffolk County, Massachusetts|Suffolk (1643)]] - [[Worcester County, Massachusetts|Worcester (1731)]] </center><br>  
 
Massachusetts was created from two colonies in 1691. So records before that time would be part of:<br>  
 
Massachusetts was created from two colonies in 1691. So records before that time would be part of:<br>  
<center>[[Massachusetts Bay Colony|Massachusetts Bay Colony (1628)]] - [[Plymouth Colony|Plymouth Colony (1620)]] </center>  
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<center>[[Massachusetts Bay Colony|Massachusetts Bay Colony (1629)]] - [[Plymouth Colony|Plymouth Colony (1620)]] </center><br>  
 
Other extinct jurisdictions:<br>  
 
Other extinct jurisdictions:<br>  
  
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*Joseph H. Smith, ''Colonial Justice in Western Massachusetts (1639-1702)'' (Cambridge, Mass., 1961).<br>[http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/345561 WorldCat (Other Libraries)]; {{FHL|537167|item|disp=FHL book 974.4 P2c}}.  
 
*Joseph H. Smith, ''Colonial Justice in Western Massachusetts (1639-1702)'' (Cambridge, Mass., 1961).<br>[http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/345561 WorldCat (Other Libraries)]; {{FHL|537167|item|disp=FHL book 974.4 P2c}}.  
 
*Eugene Aubrey Stratton, ''Plymouth Colony: Its History &amp; People 1620-1691'' (Salt Lake City, 1986).<br>[http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/15349442 WorldCat (Other Libraries)]; {{FHL|513087|item|disp=FHL book 974.4 H2s}}.<br><br>
 
*Eugene Aubrey Stratton, ''Plymouth Colony: Its History &amp; People 1620-1691'' (Salt Lake City, 1986).<br>[http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/15349442 WorldCat (Other Libraries)]; {{FHL|513087|item|disp=FHL book 974.4 H2s}}.<br><br>
<center>[[#top|Top of Page]] || [[#court00|Top of Courts]] || [[#court17|Top of Bibliography]]</center>
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<center>[[#top|Top of Page]] || [[#court00|Top of Courts]] || [[#court17|Top of Bibliography]]</center>  
 
 
 
=== Massachusetts Military  ===
 
=== Massachusetts Military  ===
  

Revision as of 15:49, 17 April 2013

Massachusetts Genealogy Guide

United States Gotoarrow.png Massachusetts

This is a genealogical and historical guide to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and its state-level records. You will find help with state vital records, histories, church archives, newspaper collections, genealogical libraries, understanding the court system, military records, and immigration and naturalization records.

Massachusetts History

Massachusetts Brief History

This region of New England was home to many Algonquian-speaking Indians. They had been visited by British and other European countries' fishermen for more than a century before the first permanent European settlement. Not long before this first settlement began, the native population was decimated by a European-borne disease, likely smallpox, that left many of their villages empty. The Separatist Pilgrims were the first to arrive in 1620 to establish Plymouth Colony at Plymouth. There were several early and later attempts for settlement up the coast into Maine (which would be part of Massachusetts until statehood in 1820). The second permanent settlement was by Puritans who arrived in 1629 to establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony at Salem.

These two colonies coexisted for many years, but geography and politics were on the side of the Massachusetts Bay. The Royal Province of New Hampshire was created in 1680 that separated the District of Maine off from the center of population of the colony now firmly established at Boston. The British colonies developed more independent practices regarding trade, religion, and governance. King Charles II finally rescinded the charter for Massachusetts Bay in 1684. This action was implemented by King James II. The colony continued as it was until Sir Edmund Andros arrived to become the Royal Governor of the newly created Dominion of New England effectively in 1686. This united the colonies of Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth. Soon New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Haven, New York, and New Jersey would be added to the Dominion with the government seated at Boston. Andros quickly moved to take away most liberties colonists enjoyed and thus his rule was extremely unpopular. When King James II was overthrown in late 1688 by William and Mary, colonist at Boston overthrew Andros and his administration there in 1689. For lack of guidance by England, the colonies resumed their previous form of governments through 1691.

The next major geo-political event was the merger of the Massachusetts Bay and the Plymouth Colony into the newly rechartered Royal Province of Massachusetts Bay in 1691 that began its new government under Sir William Phips in 1692. The territory included what is Maine and the Elizabeth, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket Islands (the islands removed from the control of New York). Major border disputes were settled as follows: New Hampshire (1740), Rhode Island (1746 - succeeded towns of Barrington, Bristol, Little Compton, Tiverton, Warren, and the newly created Cumberland to R.I.), Connecticut (1749 - succeeded towns of Enfield, Somers, Suffield, and Woodstock to Conn.), New York (1773 - twenty miles west of the Hudson; 1853 - Boston Corners section of Mount Washington to N.Y.), and Maine (1820 - succeeded as new state in Missouri Compromise).

Massachusetts Historical Data

Massachusetts Counties

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is divided into fourteen counties. It is there that most court and land records are found. The most of the other commonly used records will be at the town level. Use the guide below to link to the county you want:

Barnstable (1685) - Berkshire (1761) - Bristol (1685)
Dukes (1683/1695) - Essex (1643) - Franklin (1811)
Hampden (1812) - Hampshire (1662) - Middlesex (1643)
Nantucket (1695) - Norfolk (1793) - Plymouth (1685)
Suffolk (1643) - Worcester (1731)

Massachusetts was created from two colonies in 1691. So records before that time would be part of:

Massachusetts Bay Colony (1629) - Plymouth Colony (1620)

Other extinct jurisdictions:

  • Old Norfolk, 1643-1680, which was all that north of the Merrimack River and south of the Piscataqua River being then the settled part of what became the royal province of New Hampshire in 1680 (except for roughly two to three miles above the Merrimack River).
  • Dominion of New England, 1686-1689, a brief consolidation of several British Colonies into one that was very unpopular and it collapsed.
  • Maine, records for this region called the District of Maine with counties of its own will all be found under Maine. Only high court and legislative records will be found under their Massachusetts headings.

Massachusetts Histories and Genealogies

Massachusetts Genealogy Records

Massachusetts Vital Records

The original vital record resides in the town or city where the event occurred (in colonial times, a family group of birth can include events from other towns). The recording of these records was ordered by the government as early as 1639, though not all places followed the law. Both Massachusetts Bay Colony and Plymouth Colony started to collect these records in a central location, but the practice died out by the mid-17th Century. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts was the first state to create a permanent, statewide recording system starting in 1841. It is notable that the city of Boston lagged behind in reporting to the state and its records do not show up in the state system until a tougher regulation was implemented in 1850 (though the city did record these records locally). The only vital records closed to the public are the original births of amended records and those can be opened by a judge.

The original record still is found with the clerk of the town or city. All these records back to the earliest settlement of a town can always be viewed at the town or city clerk’s office. Most all town and city vital records have been microfilmed by the Family History Library and microfiched by the Holbrook Research Institute of Oxford, Mass. [now Archive Publishing of Provo, Utah]. This tends to be the most complete record of the event. Since 1841, there should be a second copy with the state and sometimes has abbreviated information from the original. This second copy is the most widely available source for researchers. It has been preserved by the same two vendors listed above and can be found on online in a variety of places and forms as listed below.

Quick Links to Vital Records
Pre-1850 Pre-1850 (online)
1841-1920 1921-present
Divorce Records Adoption Records
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Pre-1850

Before 1900, a few towns started publishing their own vital records in book form. The records were usually re-arranged into alphabetical order but separated by births, marriages, and deaths. Church and private records were added to get a more complete record and were clearly noted. The Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants published a few of these volumes along with the Systematic History Fund (a state fund); Essex Institute in Salem; Topsfield Historical Society, and others. The greatest number were published by the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston, in part from their Eddy Town-Record Fund. About two-thirds of the state (roughly 236 towns) has been published from the original town records and a few still are being released today. Check the Mass. Town Pre-1850 Published Vital Records Guide for a listing of the towns published so far. There are links to some online versions below. A search in Google will reveal many town / region specific sites that have reproduced the volumes online or pdf versions available for downloading.

Pre-1850 Online

AmericanAncestors.org ($)

Ancestry.com ($)

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1841 - 1920

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts was the first state to create statewide vital records in the modern sense starting in 1841. It is notable that the city of Boston lagged behind reporting to the state and its records do not show up at the state until about 1850 (though the city maintained its own records before then). The original state records are held by:

Massachusetts Archives
220 Morrissey Blvd.
Boston MA 02125
Phone 617-727-2816
Email archives@sec.state.ma.us
Hours and Directions

Visitors can make their own copies from the microfilmed copies or request certified copies per their rules. The archives only has the amended records up to v. 42 (1900). They have an online index to the records for 1841 to 1910 that is searchable for first name, last name, town, start year, end year, and type of record. Note that this is exact spelling searches only. Records can be ordered by email. No more than five requests per order and they are billed with your photocopies.

These records can be viewed online in two locations:

New England Historic Genealogical Society
99 - 101 Newbury Street
Boston MA 02116
Phone 888-296-3447

The NEHGS has two online databases at their American Ancestors website for 1841 to 1910 and 1911 to 1915. You must be a member of the Society to access these indexes and the actual records which are linked from this index. The records are searchable in the same manner as the Mass. Archives above, though the last name can be searched by Soundex. If you go to the library, there are book indexes in five-year blocks for births, 1900-1950, marriages, 1900-1955, 1966-1970, and deaths, 1900-1980. They also have the amended birth records indexes for to 1929 (1 v.) [going back to 1841], to 1944 (2 v.), to 1962 (3 v.), to 1965 (1 v.), and to 1968 (1 v.). These indexes beyond 1920 are not generally available elsewhere.

Family History Library
35 North West Temple Street
Salt Lake City UT 84150
Phone 866-406-1830

This library and its many branches (where you can borrow the microfilm for a small fee) will have all the same records as listed above. You can access online for free:

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1921 - present

The original state records are held by:

Registry of Vital Records and Statistics
150 Mount Vernon St., 1st Floor
Dorchester MA 02125
Phone 617-740-2600
Email vital.recordsrequest@state.ma.us
They have limited research hours

This office only makes certified copies of vital records. There are several ways to purchases copies both online and in person. This office also has the amended birth records after v. 42 (1900) and a statewide index to divorces from 1952 to the present (though the record itself will be with the probate court). There is a computerized index for the most recent records and five-year block indexes for births, marriages, and deaths onsite.

Every five years, another block of five years is transferred to the State Archives and at the same time is made available through the New England Historic Genealogical Society and to the Family History Library. This office restricts access only by the fact that they are the only ones with the records. These records are open to the public. The original town copies are always open to the public.

Ancestry.com has the following index only:

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Divorce Records

Divorce records have been handled by the probate court system since 1922 and commonly filed where the couple last lived together. These are public records (with minor exceptions). There is a statewide index that starts in 1952 at the Registry listed above. Before that, the county Superior Court had jurisdiction. From 1786 to 1887, all cases were administered through the Supreme Judicial Court. All these records are held at the Judicial Archives in the Mass. Archives facility. The earliest divorce records are scattered through a variety of courts who held joint jurisdiction.

The Supreme Judicial Court created a fact sheet for the public in 2004 and the summary of it is below:

Dates Description
1639-1692 Divorce petitions were filed in a variety of courts, including the county courts, the General Court, and the Court of Assistants. Records of the General Court and the Court of Assistants have been published. The Original records are available in the Suffolk Files Collection, the Massachusetts Archives Collection, and in the county courts.
1692-1775 Divorces were heard by the Governor and Council (from 1755 to 1757, six petitions were heard by the General Court). The original records are found in the Massachusetts Archives Collection, Suffolk Files Collection, and the county courts.
1775-1785 The Council had jurisdiction then. Search for them in the Massachusetts Archives Collection and the Council records.
1785-1796 The Massachusetts Acts and Resolves granted jurisdiction over divorce to the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC). These original records are in the Suffolk Files Collection. Check the microfilm "county index" in the Archives reading room. They will refer to various SJC Record Books. See the chart below for these record books.
1796-1887 The divorce will be in the Supreme Judicial Court in the county in which the couple was residing. Most of the Record Books are indexed (see location chart below). These records will have a summary of the grounds for divorce, date and place of marriage, where the couple lived until the divorce, and sometimes the names and ages of the children. The file papers are generally in the year and term that the divorce was finalized (i.e. six months after it was granted) and arranged by docket (case) number. Post 1860 file papers are in off-site storage. See the Judicial Archivist for information to see these records.
1887 Jurisdiction over divorces was moved to the Superior Court. These records are indexed chronologically in separate divorce docket books. The Judicial Archives (in the same building with the Mass. Archives) has divorce indexes and/or docket books on microfilm in the Archives reading room for all counties except for Barnstable, Dukes, and Nantucket counties. Those are in their respective Superior Court.
1922 The Probate and Family Court began hearing divorce concurrently with the Superior, though most came to this court. Each probate court kept alphabetical indexes to these records. There is a statewide index since 1952 at the Registry of Vital Records and Statistics (listed above).

For the location of the records, use the chart below that was created by the Supreme Judicial Court Archives in 2004:

Location of Massachusetts Divorce Records
County Supreme Judicial Court SJC Microfilm Superior Court SC Microfilm
Barnstable All records in courthouse n/a n/a n/a
Berkshire SJC Record Books in the Judicial Archives and microfilm available at the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield n/a SC records and index card file in Judicial Archives 1888-1927 in Archives Reading Room
Bristol SJC Record Books in the Judicial Archives 1862-1889 in Archives Reading Room SC Divorce dockets in the Judicial Archives. The file papers in the Superior Court, Taunton Divorce Dockets in Archives Reading Room
Dukes n/a n/a n/a n/a
Essex SJC Record Books in courthouse, Salem, and file papers in off-site storage. A consolidated index, 1785-1904, on microfilm in Archives Reading Room 1797-1820 in Archives Reading Room 1887-1927 SC Divorce indexes in Judicial Archives and file papers in off-site storage.
Probate Court Divorce Index, 1922-1944, in Judicial Archives and file papers in off-site storage
See consolidated index in Archives Reading Room
Franklin SJC Record Books in Judicial Archives and file papers in off-site storage 1872-1887 in Archives Reading Room SC Divorce Record Books in Judicial Archives. The index is at the courthouse in Greenfield. The file papers are in off-site storage In Archives Reading Room
Hampden SJC Record Books in Judicial Archives and file papers in off-site storage SJC Divorce Index in Archives Reading Room SC Divorce Dockets and file papers in off-site storage Divorce Index in Archives Reading Room
Hampshire SJC Record Books and file papers in Judicial Archives n/a SC Divorce Record Books in Judicial Archives and file papers in off-site storage n/a
Middlesex SJC Record Books in Judicial Archives 1807-1887 in Archives Reading Room SC Divorce Dockets in Judicial Archives and file papers in off-site storage 1887-1938 in Archives Reading Room
Nantucket All records in courthouse n/a n/a n/a
Norfolk SJC Record Books in Judicial Archives n/a SC Divorce Dockets in Judicial Archives and file papers in off-site storage n/a
Plymouth SJC Record Books in Judicial Archives 1813-1889 in Archives Reading Room SC Dockets and index in Judicial Archives and file papers in off-site storage Dockets and index in Archives Reading Room
Suffolk SJC Record Books and file papers in Judicial Archives 1760-1786 in Archives Reading Room and 1786-1804 in Suffolk Files Collection SC Divorce Record Books and index in Superior Court Civil Clerk's office and file papers in off-site storage 1887-1916 in Archives Reading Room
Worcester SJC Record Books in Judicial Archives 1797-1887 in Archives Reading Room SC Divorce Dockets (1887-1890 vol. missing) and index in Judicial Archives and file papers in off-site storage 1887-1936 Docket Books and index in Archives Reading Room
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Adoption Records

Like most all states, Massachusetts seals the records of adoption that include the original birth certificate with the biological parents. These records stay sealed unless opened by court order. Who can see this sealed information is limited by law. There is no way a person can know they are adopted without being told by someone. There are several registries online set up to assist adoptees and biological parents help find each other. To order your pre-adoption birth certificate, download the instructions and form.

To learn more about the history of adoption in Massachusetts, see Joseph Ben-Or, "The Law of Adoption in the United States: Its Massachusetts Origins and the Statute of 1851" in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, 130 [1976]: 259-269, and online at American Ancestors ($).

Thanks to the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants for their contributions to this page
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Massachusetts Land Records

Massachusetts Court System

Understanding the Massachusetts Court System

This is the history of the court system. It is broken up into historical periods and then a discussion of special courts, records, legal definitions, and bibliography. Realize that except for the upper courts, all records and actions were on the county level. To find detailed information regarding a particular county's courts, see that county page from the links provided above.

Quick Links to court history
Plymouth Colony Massachusetts Bay Dominion of New England
Provincial Period Commonwealth Period Lower/Trial Courts
Special Courts
Admiralty Court Coroners Court Boston Municipal
Probate Court Land Court Juvenile Court
Housing Court
Records Legal Age Bibliography

Colonial Period (1620-1686) – Plymouth Colony

The Peirce Patent was a charter from the Virginia Company issued to the Merchant Adventurers in 1620 for the settlement of the Pilgrims in the northerly part of the Virginia territory. This patent was never in use because the Pilgrims settled outside this territory. Thus, the adult male passengers created the document they called a “combination” and now called the “Mayflower Compact” to give a governance structure to the Plymouth settlement. The Second Peirce Patent was issued in 1621 from the Council for New England for the area they settled. The Bradford Patent of 1629 (of “purchasers”) gave the settlers legal status as residents, but did not create a basis for laws as royal charters would did for other colonies.

Though having no legal authority to do so, but in the best interest of the settlers, the “combination” was an agreement of the adult males of the settlement to establish a “civil body politic” and make just laws, acts, etc. for the general good of the colony. From this single act, the group elected a governor and several assistants to govern them (though we do not have knowledge of how that was decided). On 17 December 1623 (but recorded in 1627), the first order of the Court was that all criminal acts, matters of trespass, and debts between men would be tried by a jury of twelve honest men. Historians have determined that they cobbled together Common Law and filled it in with Mosaic Law. The laws were first codified in 1636 and revised in 1658, 1672, and 1685.

By 1636, the Governor and seven Assistants were elected annually by the freemen of the colony for the term of one year according to the former custom and that constables and other inferior officers also were chosen. The Governor, Board of Assistants (being seven freemen of the colony), and the freemen of the colony met quarterly as the General Court (1623-1692). They functioned as the legislature and court. They heard capital cases of treason, rebellion, willful murder, conversing with the devil by way of witchcraft, burning of ships or houses, sodomy, rapes, and buggery. The Magistrate Court (1623?-1692) heard cases of fornication, swearing, lying, stealing, embezzling, drunkenness, gaming, lascivious carriage, burning fences, defacing boundary markers, using tobacco, setting fires in the woods, forgery, stealing public records, denying the Scriptures as the rule of life, being absent from church, and keeping the Sabbath. The Court of Assistants (1623-1692) was the meeting of the Governor and at least two Assistants and handled all cases under £40 penalty.

County Courts (1685-1692) were established when the counties were created following the model of Massachusetts Bay Colony.

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Colonial Period (1629-1686) – Massachusetts Bay

The Charter of 1629 issued by the King established the General Court (1629-1692) that met quarterly to make, ordain, and establish all manner of wholesome and reasonable orders, laws, statutes, and ordinances, directions, and instructions not contrary to the laws of England and to settle the forms and ceremonies of government and magistracy fit and necessary so that the people may be religiously, peaceably, and civilly governed. All the freemen met and acted as the General Court. The court chose annually the governor, deputy government, and eighteen assistants who acted as the Court of Assistants (1630-1692) when the General Court was not in session and with its full authority to correct, punish, pardon, govern, and rule. Members of the Assistants were given the powers of Justices of the Peace and called Magistrates. These magistrates could hear civil suits under than 20 shilling (increased to 40 shillings in 1647) and handle misdemeanors such of profanity or drunkenness in their own towns.

The Inferior Quarter Courts were established in 1639 as a circuit county court composed of the county magistrates where the court was sitting with a jury in Ipswich, Salem, Cambridge (Newtown), and Boston. This court took over all the cases of the Court of Assistants except those with damages over £10, divorce, and cases of life, member, and banishment. These courts were renamed County Court (1636-1692).

This three-tiered system was in place throughout the colonial period. It focused on the magistrates who controlled the legal affairs. When they sat alone in their town, they handled all the minor cases for the town. The more serious cases rose to the level where all the magistrates of the county sat together with a jury to decide the cases. The most serious issues were handled the eighteen magistrates assembled together (called the “Assistants”) with the Governor and Deputy Governor, or with the freemen of the colony, to pass judgment on the major cases of the day.

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Dominion of New England (1686-1689)

The charter of Massachusetts Bay was revoked in 1684 by King Charles II who tried to reign in this theocratically ruled colony while also streamlining the administration of several other nearby colonies. Initially, the Dominion comprised Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth Colony, Province of New Hampshire, Province of Maine, and the Narragansett Country of present-day Washington Co., R.I. Formal change did not occur until 1686 with the arrival of Joseph Dudley in Boston and the assent of King James II. Dudley added the colonies of Connecticut and Rhode Island before Edmund Andros arrived at the end of the year. Andros attempted to design Dominion laws to more closely mirror those in England. By 1688, Andros added the provinces of New York, East Jersey, and West Jersey to the Dominion though governance of these areas was weak because the distance from the seat at Boston was too great even with a satellite office in New York City. King James II was overthrown in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. This news traveled back to Boston where the local mob jailed Andros in April of 1689 which officially ended the Dominion.

During this period, the General Court was abolished and the Court of Assistants replaced by a Governor and Council (1686-1689) appointed by the Crown. A Superior Court of Judicature (1686-1689) was established as the highest authority. The County Court was split between the Court of Common Pleas for civil cases and the Court of General Sessions for criminal cases. Magistrates were replaced by Justices of the Peace with the same powers. All this ended in April of 1689 and the former colonies and provinces returned to their former structure until new royal charters were issued in 1692.

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Provincial Period (1692-1780)

In 1692, the General Court was restored as the legislative body with jurisdiction over all of Massachusetts Bay Colony (that comprised present-day Massachusetts and Maine). The province maintained the three-tiered court system. It immediately established the Governor and Council (1692-1780) that had authority over divorce and probate appeals. The Superior Court of Judicature (1692-1780) was the highest appellate (i.e. appeals court) and the trial court for capital criminal cases, civil cases over £10, and some equity matters. It was a circuit court moving between counties with a grand jury and at times two trial juries.

The county Court of General Sessions (1692-1827) heard all criminal cases before a bench of justices of the peace. They also had authority over county affairs (levying taxes, highways, licenses for liquor, jails, and administration of poor laws). Its partner, the Inferior Court of Common Pleas (1692-1859), heard the civil cases of the county. These courts met quarterly and handled no cases under £40 unless it was on appeal from the lower court. The lowest court was the Justice of the Peace (1687-present) and these justices were appointed by the governor. The justices heard criminal cases (drunkenness, rioting, and violations of Sabbath) and civil cases under £40. This court sat in the justice’s house where he kept the minutes and collected the fines. Defendants appeared by summons via the county sheriff or town constable.

Note that though there were interruptions on the courts sitting in Boston in 1775 and 1776, the court’s jurisdiction and process remained unchanged.

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Commonwealth Period (1780-present)

The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 created a separation of powers and allowed that the other branches may require an opinion from the Supreme Judicial Court on questions of law. This was one of the few instances where advisory jurisdiction was given in the country and is found nowhere at the federal level. The highest courts from other states needing to rule on a Massachusetts state law that had not been previous rendered could send the question to the court for their ruling. Judges for the Supreme Judicial Court were allowed to hold their office as long as they “behaved themselves” and all current appointments prior to the Constitution were continued thus keeping the legal authority of this court from its establishment as the Superior Court of Judicature in 1692, but renaming it as the Supreme Judicial Court (1780-present). Its jurisdiction was codified in 1782 as taking cases by appeal, writ of error, capital offenses, and “every Crime whatsoever that is against the public good” [St.1782, c.9].

Divorce was moved from under the Governor and Council to the Supreme Judicial Court in 1785 [St.1785, c.69]. The court continued as a circuit court, sitting in various counties by mandate of the legislature. To this point, all records were recorded and maintained by the clerk in Boston (Suffolk County). Starting in 1797, the records were recorded in the county the court sat by the clerk of that county’s Court of Common Pleas (being made a clerk of the Supreme Judicial Court for that county when the court was in session there). The exception to that rule was that Suffolk County recorded the sessions held in Nantucket County; Barnstable County recorded the sessions held in Dukes County; and Lincoln County recorded the sessions for Lincoln, Hancock, and Washington counties. [St.1796, c.95]

There were two sessions of the court. One heard capital offenses, appeals from probate, and all issues in law that were tried by three or more judges (the number of judges varied over the years between four and seven) and the other heard all other actions (i.e. cases not being appealed by a lower court) and was tried by a single judge that was subject to review by the whole court. This was also the year that the Reports of Supreme Judicial Court started publishing annually [St.1804, c.105]. This practice of taking actions not on appeal was called nisi prius (Latin for “unless first”), meaning it became the court of original jurisdiction. A second trial on the facts on appeal to this court was abolished in 1817. The legislature clarified the jurisdiction between the Supreme Judicial Court and the then statewide Court of Common Pleas in 1840 [St.1840, c.87] that remained in effect until the reorganization of the court system in 1859.

The changes in 1859 did not affect this court as the streamlining generally reshaped the lower courts. Over time, the Supreme Judicial Court’s focus was narrowed (see Menand’s book, pages 39 to 41, cited in the references). Divorce was removed to a lower court in 1887 [St.1887, c.332]. An Appeals Court (1972-present) was added with the Supreme Judicial Court to help with the backlog of cases and covers all the state, but normally sits in Boston [St.1972, c.740]. The Supreme Judicial Court is the superintendent over all inferior courts and maintains full authority over all court records.

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Lower Courts (i.e. Trial Courts)

The middle tier courts continued to function as before the Constitution. Specific jurisdictions shifted back and forth between the two middle-tier courts. Boston and Suffolk County developed a separate court system in this tier. In 1799, the Municipal Court of the Town of Boston (1799-1859) had been given authority over all criminal cases in Boston [St.1799, c.81] and renamed the Municipal Court of the City of Boston in 1822 [St.1822, c.13]. The Boston Court of Common Pleas (1813-1820) was created to handle all civil case that would have gone to the Suffolk County Court of Common Pleas in 1813 [St.1813, c.173]. After Maine separated from the Commonwealth in 1820, the Circuit Court of Common Pleas and the Boston Court of Common Pleas was replaced by a Court of Common Pleas for the Commonwealth (1820-1859) that heard both civil and criminal cases [St.1820, c.79]. The Court of General Sessions was phased out and by 1827 ceased to exist in all counties. A Superior Court for Suffolk County (1855-1859) was established in 1855 to handle all civil cases in that county [St.1855, c.449].

This entire system was reorganized in 1859 and born out of this was the new Superior Court (1859-present) that combined the powers of all the previous courts into one. The court sat four, instead of two, times to accommodate both the criminal and civil case load. There were tweaks to this system along the way. The major changes were bringing general equity jurisdiction to the court in 1883 [St.1883, c.223], having Middlesex and Suffolk counties keep a separate docket for this in 1892 [St.1892, c.439 – though changed with uniform civil procedures in 1974], and the court having exclusive original jurisdiction over capital crimes in 1891 [St.1891, c.379]. See Menand’s book, pages 53 to 57, for further details on jurisdiction changes and description of the Appellate Division (1943-present) and the court reorganization in 1978.

The lowest court as discussed above was the Justice of the Peace. The powers established in 1687 were continually eroded away and now they only have the authority to perform marriages, acknowledgements (i.e. notary), administer certain oaths, take depositions, and call meetings of various proprietor groups and corporations. These were technically court records though the justice sat in their own dwelling, the records often passed off as personal papers that are commonly found in historical societies and university libraries. The Boston Police Court (1821-1866) was established as the first police court in the Commonwealth with the authority of the Court of Commons Pleas for the Commonwealth in Suffolk County [St.1821, c.79 and St.1822, c.109]. More such police courts were created starting in 1831 with separate parameters for each of them. In every instance, the police court exclusively assumed most of the powers from the Justice of the Peace. Criminal cases were removed from the justices in 1856 [St.1856, c.138] and civil cases in 1877 [St.1877, c.211].

The court reorganization of 1859 standardized the work and function of the police courts. The District Court concept started in Berkshire County with the District Court of Central Berkshire that had jurisdiction over Pittsfield and seven adjacent towns with the powers of a police court centralized over a larger area [St. 1869, c. 416]. The rest of Berkshire County was divided into two more districts in the following year and this style of the lowest court spread across the Commonwealth. By 1921, the remaining thirteen police courts were renamed and the establishment of the District Court (1921-present) was solidified and uniform across the entire Commonwealth [G.L.1921, c.218]. These courts had jurisdiction over crimes punishable by jail sentences up to five years and some felony crimes up to ten years, and some juvenile matters where Juvenile Courts did not exist. They shared responsibility over probate matters involving children. The court sat for small claims and civil actions where the plaintiff did not wish to have a jury trial. An Appellate Division (1922-present) was added for civil actions.

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Special Courts

The Massachusetts court system has maintained a three-tiered system for most of history. As the case load of special area grew, the Commonwealth created special courts for these cases while preserving the basic structure.

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Admiralty Court

These maritime cases were first heard by the Court of Assistants in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Under the second charter in 1692, this court was pulled out as a separate civil law court with judges appointed by the King and not part of the provincial court system. During the Revolution and after, this court was established in Plymouth, Ipswich, and North Yarmouth. These courts ceased with the adoption of the federal constitution in 1786 and these matters transferred to the new U.S. District Court. The records of these courts are part of the Suffolk Files Collection.

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Coroners Court

Appointed coroners along with a jury made inquests on deaths and reported their findings to the County Court. After the second charter in 1692, the findings were reported to the Court of Assize and the Court of General Sessions.

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Boston Municipal Court (1866-present)

Though basically a district court, it is administered separately [St.1866, c.279]. It is the heir of the Boston Police Court (1821-1866) which met daily for criminal cases and bi-weekly for civil cases. The jurisdiction extends over all of Suffolk County for certain cases (see Menand’s book, pages 71 to 73, cited in the references). An Appellate Division was created in 1912 [St.1912, c.649]. With the court reorganization of 1978, it became the Boston Municipal Court Department of the Trial Court [St.1978, c.478].

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Probate Court (1783-present)

This type of court case has always been present and the records reach back unbroken to the settlement of the two colonies, but it was first the County Court and then the Governor and Council who handled probate cases. The Constitution of 1780 mentioned probate judges, but the legislature codified the scope as the probate of wills, administration of estates, and appointment of guardians for minor and “distracted persons” [St.1783, c.46]. It is a court of equity, not common law, and provides remedies. Because of legislation, the probate courts have added jurisdiction over adoption (1851), divorce (1887/1922), change of name (1854), and domestic relations. Marriage was never based in common law in Massachusetts and was performed by magistrates. As such, it has always been a civil contract. The Royal Charter allowed for marriages to be performed by justices of the peace or by a settled minister in 1692 [P.L.1692-3, c.25], but it remained a contract. All issues relating to marriage are handled by the probate court, such as women’s petitions for separate estates, annulment, and affirmation of marriages. The names of this court have evolved from Probate Court (1783-1858) and that had an Insolvency Court (1856-1858). These two combined to be called the Probate and Insolvency (1858-1978). The court reorganization in 1978 renamed it to Probate and Family Court (1978-present).

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Land Court (1898-present)

The Court of Registration (1898-1900) was legislated to register title of land to deal with real and personal property (generally of deceased persons) while simplifying land transfers [St.1898, c.562]. The name was changed to the Court of Land Registration (1900-1904) and then the present Land Court in 1904. The court normal sits in Boston, but can sit in other locations and covers the entire Commonwealth. The court oversees foreclosures, redemption from tax titles, recovery of freehold estates, petitions to try, and determines the validity of encumbrances and discharges of mortgage. It has authority over interest in real estate and petitions to determine boundaries of flats, county, city, town, or districts, can enforce restrictions, and validate municipal zoning ordinances and bylaws. Appeals from zoning board decisions are handled here.

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Juvenile Court

Children were identified as a special class tracing back to 1641 in Massachusetts Bay Colony. The probate wing of a court first handled children and then these family matters fell under the Probate Court. The first specialized court was the Boston Juvenile Court (1906). Young offenders were to be treated as children in need of aid, not as a criminal. A delinquent child was defined as between seven and seventeen years who violated a town ordinate or committed an offense not punishable by death or life imprisonment. Courts have been since been opened in Springfield (1969), Worcester (1969), and New Bedford (1972). These courts were reorganized in 1978 as the Juvenile Court Department.

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Housing Court

Matters relating to State Sanitary Code, building regulation and inspection, fire precaution, rubbish disposal, landlord and tenant disputes, and any other law concerning health, safety, or welfare of any occupant of any place of human habitation are handled by District Courts. A Boston Housing Court (1971), Hampden County Court (1973), and Worcester Housing Court (1983) [to which Bellingham was added in 1985] were created for these areas. They are now all divisions of the Housing Court Department of the Trial Court.

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Records

The records from the above courts are reviewed on the Massachusetts, Massachusetts Bay Colony, Plymouth Colony, and appropriate county pages. All records are under the authority and control of the Supreme Judicial Court.

The court records have three general types of records: docket books, record books, and file papers. Docket books for civil actions outline the actions heard by the court in chronological order. Cases are routinely continued to another term of the court. In criminal cases, these books are called minute books. Record books are summaries made at the end of a case about the plaintiff, defendant, the action, damages sought, and the history of the case. The file papers are the original documents submitted to the court. There are rarely more than a few documents in the case before the nineteenth century. All documents provide an insight into the case, but genealogists tend to look for the summaries, depositions from witnesses (to learn more about the witness more than the parties to the case), and warnings out.

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Legal Definition of Age

This series of definitions of the age someone can legally do something comes from Giles Jacob, A New Law-Dictionary (Savoy, 1750):
Man:

12: take an oath of Allegiance to the King.
14: “age of discretion” so that he can consent to marriage and chose a guardian.
21: may alien his lands, goods, and chattels.
24: can be ordained a priest.
30: can be a bishop.

Woman:

09: is dowable, i.e. able to have / receive a dower.
12: may consent to marriage.
14: “age of discretion” and may chose a guardian.
21: may alien her lands, goods, and chattels.

Person:

14: may dispose of goods and personal estate by will, though not of land until 21. They are generally not punishable for crimes, but must pay damages for trespass. They may be witnesses in any court action or function, and in some ages give evidence by age 9.
21: full age to contract and manage for themselves, and can be executor of a will before this time. They can be a member of Parliament.


A person becomes of age at the end of the day preceding the day of their birth. A minor person may purchase something, but arriving at 21 can disagree to it. Age Prier is an action being brought against a person under age for lands which he has by descent. He may petition the court to stay the action until he is of full age (21) to which a court general agrees, but this does not hold for if the minor is the purchaser of the land.

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Bibliography


Guides | Records | References

Guides:

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Records and inventories:

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References:

  • Viola F. Barnes, The Dominion of New England, a study in British Colonial Policy (New Haven, Conn., 1923).
    WorldCat (Other Libraries); not at FHL.
  • Zechariah Chafee Jr., “Colonial Courts and the Common Law” in David F. Flaherty, ed., Essays in the History of Early American Law (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1969).
    WorldCat (Other Libraries); not at FHL.
  • Daniel R. Coquillette, ed., Law in Colonial Massachusetts 1630-1800 (Boston, 1984), being v. 62 of the Publications of The Colonial Society of Massachusetts.
    WorldCat (Other Libraries); FHL book 974.4 P3L.
  • James Deetz and Patricia Scott Deetz, The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony (New York, 2000).
    WorldCat (Other Libraries); not at FHL.
  • Alan J. Dimond, The Superior Court of Massachusetts: Its Origin and Development (Boston, 1960).
    WorldCat (Other Libraries); not at FHL.
  • Julius Goebel Jr., “King’s Law and Local Custom in Seventeenth Century New England” in David F. Flaherty, ed., Essays in the History of Early American Law (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1969).
    WorldCat (Other Libraries); not at FHL.
  • George L. Haskins, Law and Authority in Early Massachusetts: A Study in Tradition and Design (New York, 1960).
    WorldCat (Other Libraries); not at FHL.
  • George L. Haskins, “Reception of the Common Law in Seventeenth Century Massachusetts: A Case Study” in George Althan Billias, ed., Law and Authority in Colonial America (Barre, Mass., 1965).
    WorldCat (Other Libraries); not at FHL.
  • George L. Haskins, “The Legal Heritage of Plymouth Colony” in David F. Flaherty, ed., Essays in the History of Early American Law (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1969).
    WorldCat (Other Libraries); not at FHL.
  • George L. Haskins, “The Beginnings of Partible Inheritance in the American Colonies” in David F. Flaherty, ed., Essays in the History of Early American Law (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1969).
    WorldCat (Other Libraries); not at FHL.
  • Hendrik Hartog, “The Public Law of a County Court; Judicial Government in Eighteenth Century Massachusetts” in American Journal of Legal History, 20 [1976]: 282-329.
    Digital version online at Jstor ($).
    WorldCat (Other Libraries); FHL book 973 B2ajL v. 20.
  • George D. Langdon Jr., Pilgrim Colony: A History of New Plymouth, 1620-1691 (New Haven, Conn., 1966).
    WorldCat (Other Libraries); not at FHL.
  • William E. Nelson, Americanization of the Common Law: The Impact of Legal Change in Massachusetts Society, 1760-1830 (Cambridge, Mass., 1975).
    WorldCat (Other Libraries); not at FHL.
  • John Noble, “A Few Notes on Admiralty Jurisdiction in the Colony and in the Province of the Massachusetts Bay” in the Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 8 [1905]: 3-38 and Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts: Transactions, 1902-1904, 8 [1906]: 150-186.
    Digital versions at Internet Archive and Google Books.
    WorldCat (Other Libraries); FHL film 844521.
  • Russell K. Osgood, ed., The History of the Law in Massachusetts: The Supreme Judicial Court 1692-1992 (Boston, 1992).
    WorldCat (Other Libraries); not at FHL.
  • D. C. Parnes, Plymouth and the Common Law, 1620-1775 (Kingston, 1971).
    WorldCat (Other Libraries); not at FHL.
  • Plymouth Colony Archives Project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, “Legal Structure” at www.histarch.uiuc.edu/plymouth/ccflaw.html.
  • Edwin Powers, Crime and Punishment in Early Massachusetts, 1620-1692: A Documentary History (Boston, 1966).
    WorldCat (Other Libraries); not at FHL.
  • Joseph H. Smith, Colonial Justice in Western Massachusetts (1639-1702) (Cambridge, Mass., 1961).
    WorldCat (Other Libraries); FHL book 974.4 P2c.
  • Eugene Aubrey Stratton, Plymouth Colony: Its History & People 1620-1691 (Salt Lake City, 1986).
    WorldCat (Other Libraries); FHL book 974.4 H2s.

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