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Genealogical Research in Massachusetts

Genealogy Research Massachusetts

Massachusetts has one of the oldest histories in the United States, and as such is rich in genealogical materials. Records have been generated since 1640, newspapers published from the mid-eighteenth century, and the oral histories of its native inhabitants passed on for thousands of years. As you can imagine there is a wealth of genealogical resources in Massachusetts. What we aim to do in this guide is to tell you:

  • What they are
  • Where to find them
  • How to use them

These valuable resources can be found both online and off, so we’ll introduce you to some online databases and indexes, as well as the many brick-and-mortar repositories, societies and organizations that will help with your genealogical research in Massachusetts. In order to give you a more comprehensive understanding of these records, we’ll also give you a brief history of “The Bay State”, a state that has inspired its inhabitants to heroic acts of patriotism and national pride.

A Brief History of Massachusetts

Before the Europeans arrived, Massachusetts was populated by a number of small Native American tribes, numbering around thirty thousand. The first European settlement was established on the arrival of the Mayflower, which landed near Plymouth carrying 120 passengers and approximately 30 crew. Soon fishing and trading posts were established in the surrounding area, one of which would become the infamous Salem, the original capitol of Massachusetts.

The Native American tribes soon grew to resent the Puritan expansion, and rebelled beginning the Pequot War in 1637. Four New England colonies banded together to form the New England Confederation, which finally ended all Indian resistance.

Massachusetts Bay, Maine, and Plymouth were incorporated into a single colony in 1691. The colony had grown from its humble agricultural beginnings by the middle of the eighteenth century, and soon fishing and lumber production added to the national product.

War against the British exploded in April of 1775 when the Massachusetts militia (warned by Paul Revere during his famous ride) engaged the British army at Lexington and Concord. Patriots from other colonies flocked to Massachusetts to join the fight, and at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, the soon to be first president of the United States George Washington took control of the patriot troops. The rest as you can say is history, and when a new constitution was drafted by a constitutional convention in 1780, a new era in Massachusetts and United States History had begun.

Rapid industrial expansion occurred after the Civil war in Massachusetts and throughout the United States. Many of the nation’s new railroads were financed by Massachusetts capital, and though many residents left to head westwards, many more arrived from Europe.

  • Important Genealogical Dates in Massachusetts History
    • 1620 - Colony established at Plymouth after Mayflower Voyage
    • 1628 - Colony established at Salem
    • 1632 - Boston becomes Capital of Massachusetts Bay Colony
    • 1634 - Four Year War With Pequot Begins
    • 1638 - Slave Ship Desire Arrives at Salem
    • 1641 - Province of New Hampshire merged into Massachusetts Bay Colony
    • 1680 - Province of New Hampshire Separated from Massachusetts Bay Colony
    • 1692 - Salem Witch Hysteria Begins
    • 1711 - Great Boston Fire, nearly 400 Buildings Destroyed
    • 1721 - Small Pox Epidemic at Boston, 844 People Die
    • 1741 - Final Separation of New Hampshire from Massachusetts
    • 1754 - French and Indian War between France and England until 1760
    • 1756 - North American War expands to Europe as Seven Years War
    • 1775 – Revolutionary War gives birth to United States of America
    • 1788 – Massachusetts Admitted to Union
    • 1820 - Final Separation of Maine from the State of Massachusetts

Famous Battles in Massachusetts

The information contained in accounts and other documentation of famous battle can be very effective in uncovering the military records of your ancestor. They can tell you what regiments fought in which battles, and often include the names and ranks of many officers and enlisted men. Following are some of the most famous battles fought in Massachusetts and links to useful information about them.

Battles of Lexington and Concord, 1775

Battle of Chelsea Creek, Suffolk County, 1775

Battle of Bunker Hill, Charlestown, Massachusetts, 1775

Common Massachusetts Genealogical Issues and Resources to Overcome Them

Boundary Changes: Boundary changes are a common obstacle when researching Massachusetts ancestors. You could be searching for an ancestor’s record in one county when in fact it is stored in a different one due to historical county boundary changes. The Atlas of Historical County Boundaries can help you to overcome that problem. It provides a chronological listing of every boundary change that has occurred in the history of Massachusetts.

Name Changes: Surname changes, variations, and misspellings can complicate genealogical research. It is important to check all spelling variations. Soundex, a program that indexes names by sound, is a useful first step, but you can't rely on it completely as some name variations result in different Soundex codes. The surnames could be different, but the first name may be different too. You can also find records filed under initials, middle names, and nicknames as well, so you will need to get creative with surname variations and spellings in order to cover all the possibilities. For help with surname variations read our instructional article on How to Use Soundex.

Massachusetts Genealogical Organizations and Archives

Genealogical resources include not only records, but the organizations that house them, or can direct you to them. These institutions include: Archives, Libraries, Genealogical Societies, Family History Centers, Universities, Churches, and Museums.

Massachusetts Archives

  • Following are links to their websites, and a summary of the records.

Massachusetts Genealogical and Historical Societies

Genealogical and historical societies have access to extensive catalogues of genealogical data. They are also able to offer expert guidance for genealogical researchers. Many members are professional genealogists who are most willing to share their expertise in finding ancestors. 

Massachusetts Genealogical Society – census, vital records, religious records, city directories, military records, family histories
6000 Douglas Ave.
P.O. Box 7735
Des Moines, IA 50322
Telephone: 515-276-0287

Old Fort Genealogical Society – cemetery records, township maps, old settlers list
Ft Madison Public Library
1920 Ave E
Ft Madison, IA  52627

Massachusetts Family History Centers

Additional Massachusetts Genealogical Resources

Massachusetts Mailing Lists

Mailing lists are internet based facilities that use email to distribute a single message to all who subscribe to it. When information on a particular surname, new records, or any other important genealogy information related to the mailing list topic becomes available, the subscribers are alerted to it. Joining a mailing list is an excellent way to stay up to date on Massachusetts genealogy research topics. Rootsweb have an extensive listing of Massachusetts Mailing Lists on a variety of topics.

Massachusetts Message Boards

A message board is another internet based facility where people can post questions about a specific genealogy topic and have it answered by other genealogists. If you have questions about a surname, record type, or research topic, you can post your question and other researchers and genealogists will help you with the answer. Be sure to check back regularly, as the answers are not emailed to you. The message boards at the Massachusetts Genealogy Forum are completely free to use.

Massachusetts Newspapers and Periodicals

Many genealogy periodicals and historical newspapers contain reprinted copies of family genealogies, transcripts of family Bible records, information about local records and archives, census indexes, church records, queries, land records, obituaries, court records, cemetery records, and wills.

Historical Massachusetts Maps and Gazetteers

Maps are an integral part of genealogical research. They help us to locate landmarks, towns, cities, parishes, states, provinces, waterways and roads and streets. They also help us to determine when and where boundary changes might have taken place, and give us a visualization of the area we’re researching in.

For locating place names, a gazetteer is the best possible resource for any genealogist. Gazetteers are also sometimes called “place name dictionaries”, and can help you to locate the area in which you need to conduct research.

Massachusetts Genealogical Records

Birth, Death, Marriage and Divorce Records – Also known as vital records, birth, death, and marriage certificates are the most basic, yet most important records attached to your ancestor. The reason for their importance is that they not only place your ancestor in a specific place at a definite time, but potentially connect the individual to other relatives. Below is a list of repositories and websites where you can find Massachusetts vital records

Some county clerks kept vital records as early as 1838. The Family History Library has microfilm copies of these documents for many counties which can be accessed at Massachusetts Family History Centers. Existing originals are found in the county clerk’s office or in the Massachusetts Regional Archives Depository (IRAD) for that county.

Original copies of Massachusetts Vital Records for death, birth, marriage, and divorce may be ordered from:

Massachusetts Department of Public Health
Division of Vital Records
605 West Jefferson Street
Springfield, IL 62702-5097
Telephone: (217) 782-6553
Fax: 217-785-3209

The Massachusetts Archives has an Massachusettswide Marriage Index, 1763–1900 which contains one million marriages, or two million names.

Census Reports

Census records are among the most important genealogical documents for placing your ancestor in a particular place at a specific time. Like BDM records, they can also lead you to other ancestors, particularly those who were living under the authority of the head of household.

Federal census records for Massachusetts exist from 1800 to 1990. Unfortunately the 1800 census was lost, and the 1810 census contains only a few names from Randolph County. The 1890 census was destroyed, though a few names from Mound Township in McDonough County remain.

Massachusetts Church Records

Church and synagogue records are a valuable resource, especially for baptisms, marriages, and burials that took place before 1900. You will need to at least have an idea of your ancestor’s religious denomination, and in most cases you will have to visit a brick and mortar establishment to view them.

Most church records are kept by the individual church, although in some denominations, records are placed in a regional archive or maintained at the diocesan level. Local Historical Societies are sometimes the repository for the state’s older church records. Below are links archives that maintain church records, as well as a few databases that can be viewed online.

The Family History Library contains many church records from a variety of denominations on microfilm.

The Massachusetts Archives collected some early Massachusetts church records that are now held by the Massachusetts Library.

St. Clair County Genealogical Society (SCCGS) has compiled the Index to Bethel Baptist Church Minutes and Membership Lists, 1809 - 1909 for St. Clair County, Massachusetts

Central Repositories for Denominational Records

Most of the records of individual denominations are kept in central repositories.

Massachusetts Military Records

More than 40 million Americans have participated in some time of war service since America was colonized. The chance of finding your ancestor amongst those records is exceptionally high. Military records can even reveal individuals who never actually served, such as those who registered for the two World Wars but were never called to duty.

Massachusetts Cemetery Records

As convenient as it is to search cemetery records online, keep in mind that there are a few disadvantages over visiting a cemetery in person. They are:

  • Tombstone information is not always accurately transcribed
  • The arrangement of the graves in a cemetery can be crucial as family members are often buried next to each other or in the same grave. This arrangement is not always preserved in the alphabetical indexes that are found online.
  • Databases that can be searched online for Massachusetts Cemetery records

Massachusetts Obituaries

Obituaries can reveal a wealth about our ancestor and other relatives. You can search our Massachusetts Newspaper Obituaries Listings from hundreds of Massachusetts newspapers online for free.

Massachusetts Wills and Probate Records

The documents found in a probate packet may include a complete inventory of a person’s estate, newspaper entries, witness testimony, a copy of a will, list of debtors and creditors, names of executors or trustees, names of heirs. They can not only tell you about the ancestor you’re currently researching, but lead to other ancestors. Most of these records must be accessed at a county court or clerk’s office, but some can be found online as well. You can obtain copies of the original probate records by writing to the county clerk.

Since 1964, the circuit court in each county has custody of the earlier court records including those of the former Cook County Superior Court and a few other Chicago area courts. They can be found at:

Clerk of Circuit CourtArchives Room 1113
Richard J. Daley Center
50 W. Washington St.
Chicago, IL 60602
Telephone: 312- 603-6601
Fax: 312-603-4974

The Massachusetts Regional Archives has a huge database of court and county records for the entire state of Massachusetts

Family Search – has an online collection of probate records, which includes will, indexes, dating from 1819-1970

Massachusetts Immigration and Naturalization Records

The naturalization process generated many types of records, including petitions, declarations of intention, and oaths of allegiance. These records can provide family historians with information such as a person's birth date and place of birth, immigration year, marital status, spouse information, occupation, witnesses' names and addresses, and more.

US National Archives – Immigration and Naturalization records for the entire United States

Family Search has two searchable online indexes, the Massachusetts, Northern District (Eastern Division), Naturalization Index, 1926-1979, and the Massachusetts, Northern District Naturalization Index, 1840-1950

Massachusetts Native American Records

Massachusetts City Directories

City directories are similar to telephone directories in that they list the residents of a particular area. The difference though is what is important to genealogists, and that is they pre-date telephone directories. You can find an ancestor’s information such as their street address, place of employment, occupation, or the name of their spouse. A one-stop-shop for finding city directories in Massachusetts is the Massachusetts Online Historical Directories page which contains a listing of every available city and historical directory related to Massachusetts.

Missing Matriarchs – Resources for Researching Female Massachusetts Ancestors

Looking for female ancestors requires an adjustment of how we view traditional records sources. A woman’s identity was often under that of her husband, and often individual records for them can be difficult to locate. The following resources are effective in locating female ancestors in Massachusetts where traditional records may not reveal them.

Marriage and Divorce Records

Marriages have been recorded in Massachusetts towns and in the early colonial records since 1620. The Massachusetts Archives holds marriage records on microfilm from 1841-1901 (film 0961262 ff.) and from 1901-1905, (film 2057533 ff.)

The State Registrar of Vital Records and Statistics holds microfilmed county records from:

  • Essex County Court – 1636-1795 (film 0877432 ff.)
  • Middlesex County Courts – 1600-1799 (film 1420474)

Divorce records were first administered by the Court of Assistants (Massachusetts Bay Colony) from 1639 and it continued to grant divorces until 1785. Probate courts were given final jurisdiction in 1920. The following records are all available on microfilm at the Massachusetts Archives.

  • Massachusetts Council Divorce Records, 1760-1786 (film 0946895)
  • Supreme Judicial Court index cards to divorce records, 1812-1867 (film 2027325 ff.)

The Superior Court in Northampton has the Hampshire County Superior Court index to divorces 1758-1960 on microfilm (film 2027325 ff.), while the General Court colony records, 1629-1777 are on microfilm (film 0954385 ff.) are at the Statehouse in Boston.


  • Obligation and Opportunity: Single Maritime Women in Boston, 1870-1930, Mary E. Beattie (University of Maine Press, 1994)
  • A Little Commonwealth; Family Life in Plymouth Colony, John P. Demos (Oxford University Press, 1970)
  • The Women of the Mayflower and Women of Plymouth Colony, Ethel Noyes, (Gryphon, 1971)
  • A Research Guide to the Massachusetts Courts and Their Records, Catherine S. Menand (Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Archives and Records, 1987)
  • Maiden Names from the Essex County, Massachusetts General Sessions, Melinde Lutz Sanborn (New England Historical and Genealogical Register CXLIV, January 1990)

Selected Resources for Massachusetts Women’s History

Fall River Historical Society
185 Salisbury St.
Worcester, MA 01609-1634

Plymouth Public Library
132 South St.
Plymouth, MA 02116

Library of the Boston Athenaeum
10 Beacon St.
Boston, MA 02108

Sophia Smith Collection
William Allan Nelson Library
Smith College
Northampton, MA 01063

Common Massachusetts Surnames

The following surnames are among the most common in Massachusetts. The list is by no means exhaustive. If your surname doesn’t appear in the list it doesn’t mean that you have no Massachusetts connections, only that your surname may be less common.

Abbott, Abell, Agar, Alcock, Aleworth, Andrew, Archer, Aspinwall, Audley, Baker, Balston, Barsham, Bartlett, Bateman, Baxter, Beamsley, Beecher, Belcher, Bendall, Benham, Biggs, Black, Boggust, Boswell, Bosworth, Bourne, Bowman, Bradstreet, Brand, Bratcher, Brenton, Bright, Browne, Buckland, Bugby, Bulgar, Burnell/Bunnell, Burr, Burroughs, Cable, Cakebread, Chadwick, Chambers, Chase, Chauner, Cheesebrough, Child, Church, Clarke, Clough/Cluff, Coddington, Colbron, Colby, Cole, Converse, Cooke, Cowlishaw, Crabb, Crafts, Cranwell, Cribb, Crugott, Dady, Deekes/Dix, Devereux, Dillingham, Dixon, Doggett, Downing, Dudley, Dutton, Edmunds, Eggleston, Ellis, Elston, Eyens/Ijons/Irons, Fayerweather, Feake, Finch, Firman, Fitzrandolph, Fox, Foxwell, Freeman, French, Frothingham, Gage, Garrett, Gibson, Glover, Goldthwaite, Gosnall, Gosse/Goffe, Goulworth, Gridley, Gyver, Haddon, Hale, Hall, Hammond, Harding, Harris, Harwood, Hawke, Hawkins, Hawthorne, Hesselden, Hoames, Hough/Hoffe, Hopwood, Horne, Hosier, Howlett, Hudson, Hulbirt, Hutchins, Hutchinson,  James, Jarvis, Johnson, Jones, Kidby, Kingsbury, Knapp, Knower, Lamb, Lawson, Learned, Leatherland, Legge, Lockwood, Lynton, Lynn, Masters,Matson, Mayhew, Millett, Mills, Morey, Morley, Morris, Morton, Moulton, Mousall, Munt, Nash, Needham, Nowell, Paige, Painter, Palmer, Palsgrave, Parke, Parker, Pattrick, Pelham, Pemberton, Penn, Penniman, Perry, Phillips, Pickering, Pickworth, Pierce, Pond, Porter, Pratt, Pynchon, Rainsford, Ratcliffe, Rawlins, Reade, Reading, Reynolds, Richardson, Royse/Ryse, Ruggles, Sales, Saltonstall, Sampson, Sanford, Saxton, Scott, Seaman, Seely, Sharpee, Simpson, Smead, Smith, Smyth, Squire, Stearns, Stileman, Stoughton, Sumner, Swaddon, Talmadge, Taylor, Tomlins, Turner, Tyndal,  Underhill, Vassall, Wade, Walker, Ward, Warren, Waterbury, Waters, Webb, Weed, Weldon, Weston, Wilbore, Wilkinson, Williams, Wilsby, Wilson, Wilton, Winthrop, Woods, Woolrich, Wright.

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