Massachusetts Courthouse records change extensively from county to county in both level of quality and volume. You will find different kinds of court records that are most likely to possess information related for your genealogical research below.
Massachusetts Court Records
Records For Plymouth Colony: Plymouth Colony, which is also called Old Colony, was its own unique area for a large portion of the seventeenth century. In 1692 it was merged with the Massachusetts Bay Province. Towns that are currently part of the counties of Bristol, Barnstable and Plymouth were originally part of Plymouth Colony. The Plymouth County Commissioner’s Office, which is located in Plymouth, maintains the wills, deeds and other original Plymouth Colony records. Manuscript transcriptions of those records can also be found at the Massachusetts Archives. The records for the Commissioners of the United Colonies and some of the Plymouth Colony records have been published in a collection called Records of Plymouth Colony (Boston: 1855-1861). It can be found at both the State Library and the Archives.
Some earlier court records for the state have been printed. Others are available in other ways. In 1629, the General Court was established. It met once per quarter and established peaceful, religious government. The General Court was established with a deputy, a governor and several assistants, who were deemed the Court of Assistants. All members were selected from the colony’s freemen. The Court of Assistants met on a regular basis to hear jury cases and conduct business for the General Court. Some of the individual members acted as justices of the peace to hear civil cases. Later, as the town’s population increased, the General Court began to elect representatives as well.
About a decade after that point, each county acquired inferior quarter courts of first instance. These were run by magistrates who overheard common please, civil actions and criminal cases in general sessions courts. This crated a system with three levels, beginning with individual magistrates and then county courts and then the top tier, which was the Court of Assistants. When reorganization occurred, in 1692, the system was changed again and courts of general sessions and common pleas in every county. A superior court of judicature was also established and over saw the entire colony’s judicial systems from 1692 until 1780. After 1780, the Supreme Judicial Court replaced it. It handled all appeals sent up by the lower courts of the area. The common please and county sessions were later turned into county superior courts. That occurred in 1859.
Both the Massachusetts Bay records for 1628 to 1686 and the Plymouth Colony records for 1633 to 1691 have had their county court records published. The records for Hampshire County for 1639 to 1702, Suffolk County for 1671 to 1680 and Essex county for 1636 to 1683 have also been published. So have the Plymouth Country records for 1686 to 1859, but they have not been indexed. The record books at the Pilgrim Society supply the court records for Plymouth County. They are being indexed currently.
Many towns issued “warnings out” to the poor because they didn’t want to take responsibility for those people. However, even though towns issued those warnings, the county seat recorded the records of them. Worcester County “warning out” records are published and easily accessible.
The Court of Assistance issued divorces up until the Governor and Council took over that responsibility, in 1692. In 1785, the Supreme Judicial Court took over issuing divorces. In 1887, the responsibility was given to the county superior courts and then probate courts shared some of that responsibility beginning much later, in 1922.
At the time of the Great Migration, probate proceedings became common for anyone who had any personal property located in England. Some Puritans followed suit, but it wasn’t a universal occurrence. Complete probate proceedings didn’t automatically take place, whether the person had a will or not.
Currently divorce and many other issues are handled by the Probate and Family Court. Some of those issues include: Parental Rights Termination, Custody, Child Support, Paternity, Adoption, Visitation, Abuse Prevention, General Equity, Name Changes, Conservatorships, Guardianships, Wills and Administrations
Any civil actions totally $25,000 or more are overseen by the Superior Court. That same court also oversees matters of equitable relief and injunctive relief suits that involve labor disputes. In addition to that, it can convene medical malpractice tribunals, as needed.
All first degree murder cases and other crimes are overseen by the Court. It presides over all felony cases. However, the Trial Court Departments assist in presiding over some crime cases. Not only that, but the Superior Court handles some administrative proceedings and has appellate jurisdiction.
There are many different types of cases heard by the District Court. Those include:Juvenile Cases, Mental Heath Cases, Criminal Cases, Civil Cases
Any felony that is punishable by up to five years in jail is handled by the District Court. Some other cases with bigger penalties are also handled, along with misdemeanors and any crimes or infractions that violate the by-laws or ordinances of a town. The District Court can also instigate probable cause hearings in cases that aren’t within its jurisdiction. Those hearings will determine whether not a case should proceed to the Superior Court. Criminal complaints, arrest warrants and probably cause hearings to determine if someone can be arrested without a warrant are all handled by District Court magistrates. Administrative and criminal search warrants can be issued by magistrates or judges.
In any cases where the recovery is not likely to be more than $25,000, District Court judges preside. Those cases may or may not include a jury. Initially, any small claims for $2,000 or less were handled by a magistrate, but they are now handled by the District Court. The Appellate Division consists of 15 judges and they sit on three judgment panels when they need to review civil cases. Those panels are arranged according to districts.
Evictions, inquests and special proceedings are also handled by the civil jurisdiction of the District Court. Among the many issues that the District Court manages are medication orders, supervision of criminal defendants that are deemed to be mentally incompetent and restraining orders. Motor vehicle infractions are typically handled by a magistrate, but can be sent to a judge for an appeal. The District Court’s civil jurisdiction can also handle unemployment compensation cases and firearms license infractions. Many other miscellaneous civil matters are handled by the District Court’s civil jurisdiction as well, including small claims general equity jurisdiction and civil money damage actions.
Massachusetts has some excellent records, but there can still be some missing records, gaps and problems with record research. There are too record groups to be concerned with. Some were recorded in probate books for each county and some are original records, such as wills, affidavits and receipts. Although a lot of people died without putting their estates through the probate process, there are many of those sorts of records for the state of Massachusetts. See Also Research In Court Records.
- U.S. Circuit Court Criminal Case Files, 1790-1871 (search.ancestry.com)
- Massachusetts Applications of Freemen, 1630-91 (search.ancestry.com) In early colonial America, requirements to vote and hold public office included owning land and being declared “free” from bondage. This database is a collection of records from Massachusetts for men who applied to be designated “free” by colonial courts.
- Massachusetts Name Changes, 1780-1892 (search.ancestry.com)
- Ages from Court Records, 1636-1700 (search.ancestry.com) From thousands of court cases in Essex, Middlesex, and Suffolk Counties, Massachusetts, dating from 1636 to 1700, Melinde Sanborn has extracted the names of all deponents and witnesses whose ages are given in the court records of those counties.
- Massachusetts Court Record Books (amazon.com)
Massachusetts Land Records
Massachusetts land was generally owned first by the colony, then by proprietors. Finally, it was passed into the private hands of individual land owners. England granted patents or charters to Massachusetts Bay Colony and Plymouth Colony trading and business partners. Each colony’s general court had legislative powers and used those powers to create towns through the granting of land to proprietors. That land was granted in blocks. The proprietors were then given the task of distributing the land to settlers according to the wealth or family size of those settlers. However, some land was held for common use of the townspeople.
In order to show who was a proprietor of each piece of land, surveys and plats were made. However, the land was not sold until towns were fully developed. In many cases, those who had a house lot and farming acreage also had a right to proprietorship over division of the land within the town. The Native Americans in the area often gave up their land rights, allowing the colonists to create towns in areas that they deemed fit for farming, hunting, or trapping.
Town land was often divided at different times, depending on family growth and new settlers coming to the town. For example, the period of time from 1620 to 1643 was known as the Great Migration. During that time, people needed more land and also had disagreements over social, religious and political views. That wound up leading to several new towns breaking off from the existing towns. People petitioned the general court for the right to become proprietors of land in a new town. The colony records for Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay contain records from before the time of county formation in each colony, which was 1685 for Plymouth Colony and 1643 for Massachusetts Bay Colony. The county kept records of all land transactions after the county was formed. Land was sold from proprietors to individuals and then individuals sold land to other individuals. However, some “common and undivided lands” were held by the proprietors and records were kept by the proprietors for a long time after that. In fact, some of those records were kept until the 1800s.
The earliest county records include records of deeds. Many of those records have been published, including:
- Suffolk County (1640 to 1697)
- York County (Maine) (1641 to 1737)
- Plymouth Colony (1620 to 1651)
The Mayflower Descendant has the abstracts for those records from Plymouth Colony.
Each county’s Registry of Deeds is in charge of deed records for that county. Indexes for grantees and grantors are are available and organized by dates. Occasionally, some records are organized according to town or location as well. The registry office has an every-name index of all original deeds up until 1799. Those indexes include all names listed on deeds, including abutters and witnesses, as well as grantors and grantees. Researchers should note that the Massachusetts Archives basement holds most of the original deeds from Suffolk.
Most deeds in Massachusetts (and other New England states) generally list the occupations and residences of both parties. They also usually list a description of the land in metes, bounds, divisions, or lot numbers. Some deeds also list abutters as well. There are also records of legal transactions (conveyances) for other purposes, including: Property, Personal Possessions, Pews in Churches, Sale and Manumissions of Slaves, Indentures, Mortgages, Prenuptial Agreements, Dower Rights.
Transaction records from the 1800s and 1900s may also include cemetery plot information.
Each county seat holds deeds, which may be original or microfilmed copies. Most of those county seats have a general index of deed books as well. However, some deed books may have individual volume indexes. Researchers should keep in mind that some of the bigger counties were split into districts, so some of the deeds may not be at the county seat. Records from the time of the early settlers until the middle of the 1800s can be found on microfilm at the FHL and at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Some records for later years are also available in those locations. See Also Guide to U.S. Land Records Research
Massachusetts Probate Records
Wills, administrations, guardianships, inventories, appraisals, and settlements are a couple of the records connected to a person’s estate or probate record. Probate records is usually an outstanding resource of genealogical information. Probate records are created at the time of an individual’s death, and are also designed to identify the legality of a will. In probate records, you can find the will, that will tell you what sorts of assets the deceased possessed. They also generally include the names of survivors, and their connection to the deceased.
Probate courts are divided into jurisdictions according to county borders. Essex county’s probate records for 1635 to 1681 have been published, as have all of the following:
- Bristol County Probate Records (1687-1745; 1745-1762)
- Indexes For Essex County (1638-1841)
- Indexes For Norfolk County (1793-1900)
- Indexes For Middlesex County (1648-1909)
- Indexes For Worcester County (1731-1910)
- Indexes For Suffolk County (1636-1910)
- Wills For Suffolk County(1639-1670)
There are record books for every probate court and each record book generally features file numbers in an index. The original probate files for Middlesex County (1648-1871) and Suffolk County (1636-1894), however, are on file at the Massachusetts State Archives. Original files for mid-nineteenth century probate cases are located in the state offices or the probate court office, available through the FHL on microfilm. The Middlesex County records are also available from the FHL on microfilm.
Both the probate court of a county and the superior court could handle divorce cases, starting in 1922. Although, almost all of the cases of divorce were handled in probate court. Superior court had concurrent jurisdiction, but didn’t often exercise that power. See Also Guide to U.S. Probate Records Research
- Massachusetts Probate Record Books (amazon.com)
Massachusetts Tax Records
Both state and local levels have tax records available. The tax returns spanning from 1768 to 1771 are located at the Massachusetts State Archives. There are also incomplete tax records for 1775 to 1778 located there. The tax records for many other years can be found at the Massachusetts State Library. Those years are: 1780, 1783, 1784, 1791, 1792, 1793, 1800, 1801, 1810 and 1811.
There are also some earlier tax records for certain towns available. The town office may have some tax lists. The records for 1798 are hard to come by, but some of the surviving records are available through the FHL at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. See Also Guide to U.S. Tax Records Research
- Massachusetts Tax Record Books (amazon.com)
Massachusetts Immigration & Naturalization Records
Hundreds of millions of people sought refuge in Boston over the years, whether for land, food, religious freedom or political freedom. So, it’s not surprising that the state of Massachusetts has so many immigration and naturalization records. The eighteenth century records are not easy to access, but the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries are both well represented in organized record systems.
There are many passenger lists from the nineteenth century that have been indexed. There was a massive population boom around that time due to a huge influx of immigrants to the area.
The Port of Boston passenger lists for 1848 to 1891 are listed alphabetically in a name index. It is called the state list. Other passenger list indexes are located in Washington D.C., at the National Archives. Those records include passengers from 1902 to 1920. The National Archives is also home to the indexes of passenger lists for Boston arrivals from 1899 to 1940 and to the actual passenger lists for the years 1891 to 1943 inclusive.
It is also important to recognize that there were many ports of entry for immigrants in Massachusetts, not just the city of Boston. There are microfilm copies of federal passenger lists located at the Boston Public Library. Those lists start at 1820 and come with other material that could be valuable in your genealogical research.
Many of New England’s court systems also have indexes of naturalizations. They are federal, state, county and city court-based. They were developed by the WPA and they cover a period spanning from 1786 all the way to 1906. They are available at the National Archives on microfilm and soundexed.
Abstracts for both local and state courts from 1885 to 1931 are located at the Massachusetts State Archives. There are also annual indexes located there, along with the 1901 to 1982 naturalization records for Essex County. Federal court index cards and current petitions can be found at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S. Department of Justice, JFK Federal Building, Government Center, Boston, MA 02203, if desired. See Also Guide to U.S. Immigration Records Research
- Massachusetts Immigration Project (usgwarchives.net)
- Massachusetts, Boston Passenger Lists, 1820-1891 (familysearch.org) Index and images of Boston Passenger Lists for 1820 through 1891. There is a nine-year gap between March 31, 1874 and April, 1883. Corresponds to NARA publication M277: Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Boston, Massachusetts, 1820-1891.
- Petitions and Records of Naturalizations of the U.S. District and Circuit Courts of the District of Massachusetts, 1906-1929 (fold3.com) Petitions of the U.S. District Court, September, 1906 to June, 1929; military petitions for the US District Court, January to July, 1919; and petitions for the former US Circuit Court, October, 1906 to December, 1911. In many cases copies of the declaration of intention and copies of the certificate of arrival are included with the petitions. The petitions are arranged chronologically by the date the petition was filed in the court, and numbered consecutively.
- Massachusetts, Naturalization Index, 1906-1966 (familysearch.org) Card index to naturalization petitions of United States and District Courts for the District of Massachusetts, 1906-1966. Original NARA Title is Index to Petitions and Records of Naturalizations of the U.S. and District Courts for the District of Massachusetts, 1906-1966.
- Massachusetts, Boston Passenger Lists, 1891-1943 (familysearch.org) Boston Passenger Lists for 1891 through 1943. Corresponds to NARA publication T843: Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at Boston, Massachusetts, 18-1891-1943.
- Massachusetts, Petitions and Records of Naturalizations, 1906-1929 (search.ancestry.com) This database contains an index to naturalization records created in the U.S. District and Circuit Courts of the District of Massachusetts, 1906–1929, including certificates of arrival, Declarations of Intention, Petitions for Naturalization, and other documents.
- Massachusetts Immigration Records Description (ancestry.com) from Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.
- Massachusetts Immigration Record Books (amazon.com)
Massachusetts County & City Government Links
Massachusetts contains 14 counties, with 39 cities and 312 towns. Massachusetts has abolished eight of its fourteen county government, leaving five counties with county-level local government which are Barnstable, Bristol, Dukes, Norfolk and Plymouth counties. See also Massachusetts City and Town Incorporation and Settlement Dates. The date in is the year the government waas abolished.
The links in the table below link to county and city government offices and is limited to government-maintained websites. If you know of a Massachusetts county that has an official government web site but is not linked, or if the link is in error, please contact us so we may edit our database. Massachusetts State Government is located in Boston.
|State of Massachusetts County & City Government Links|
|CountyGovernment||County SeatGovernment||CountyGovernment||County SeatGovernment|
|Berkshire (2000)||→||Pittsfield||Middlesex (1997)||→||Cambridge & Lowell|
|Essex (1999)||→||Salem & Lawrence||Plymouth||→||Plymouth & Brockton|
|Franklin (1997)||→||Greenfield||Suffolk (1999)||→||Boston|
|Hampden (1998)||→||Springfield||Worcester (1998)||→||Worcester|