18 June 2010

Lucky the Massachusetts Genealogist When It Comes to Vital Records

Genealogical research in Massachusetts can be so easy, it feels like cheating. We've got many sources of original information which have been duplicated in various forms through the years. But using them wisely and efficiently takes experience. Analysis of evidence includes considering when, how and by whom a record was created. Who provided the information, and how close in time to the event being documented? What was the author's motive and how many times it has been duplicated or transcribed? The only problem we have in the Bay State is that we need to be careful not to grab the first available source, but to ferret out the best one. And that can get tricky.

It's Vital to Start Early
From the earliest days of settlement, we've been diligent about recording vital records and noting town business. The first step in establishing a town was usually for a group of proprietors to petition the Crown or General Court for permission to settle. They were then ordered to gather "a church," "call" a minister and raise a meeting house. So the minister and church clerk books start up very early in the life of a town, right along with the town clerk's records. We've been ahead in the record-keeping game since the Pilgrims landed.

In Mourt's Relation, Edward Winslow sent home glowing reports to England, trying to put a positive spin on the Plymouth colony, and gave us some insight into the very earliest of activities here. Later, of course, William Bradford wrote Of Plimoth Plantation, which is the source of a great deal of information on "decreasings and increasings" (deaths and births) of the "first comers" and their progeny, mostly gleaned from his own contemporaneous notations.

A Funny thing Happened on the Way to the Church
Marriages in the early Plymouth church were celebrated by magistrates––not clergy as in England––a practice which the Pilgrims had discovered during their stay in Holland. As Bradford says, they had adopted the "laudable custome of the Low-cuntries, in which they had lived, [which] was thought most requisite to be performed by the magistrate, as being a civill thing, upon which many questions about inheritances doe depende." He then goes on to say, "The practice hath continued amongst, not only [the Plymouth church], but hath been followed by all the [Congregational] churches of Christ in these parts to this time, Anno: 1646." [William Bradford, History of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647, ed. Worthington C. Ford, 2 vols. (Boston, 1912), 1:218.] Eventually marriages were noted both in the church registers and in the town records, so we have a second chance at finding those elusive connections.

Is That Legal?
By 1672 the Colony had published very specific laws on this aspect of government, considering it a necessary administrative function which allowed those in charge to monitor population and trends, and as Bradford indicated, to keep track of the legality of inheritance.

"It is therefore Ordered by this Court and Authority thereof; That no person whatsoever in this Jurisdiction, shall joyn any persens together in Marriage, but the Magistrate, or such other as the General Court, or Court of Assistants shall Authorize in such place, where no Magistrate is near."

Couples were married by the Magistrate, or Justice of the Peace, and though this was a civil process, it was not seen as ungodly or irreverent. A newly married couple's first visit to meeting on Sunday morning was celebrated with great fanfare, and often the bride was allowed to select a Bible passage upon which the sermon would be based. And to add to the multiplicity of records available to the lucky Massachusetts genealogist we have banns of marriage, or publishments, and marriage intentions:

"Nor shall any Magistrate or other person Authorized as aforesaid, joyne any persons together in Marriage, or suffer them to joyne together in Marriage in their presence, before the parties to be Married have been published according to Law [1646]."

Cause of Death Leads to Longer Lives
By the nineteenth century Massachusetts was in the vanguard of the public health field, thanks to Lemuel Shattuck. A schoolteacher and bookseller earlier in life, Shattuck was grieved by several deaths in his family caused by communicable diseases. He realized that in order to control these diseases, a systematic study of public health statistics was required, and so he was instrumental in creating a system by which to study and track public health. Following the lead of England and Wales, Massachusetts passed the first state vital registration law in the United States in 1842. Shattuck was later summoned to Washington to design five of the six census schedules in 1850, which then enabled agencies to track health and demographic trends and start to improve sanitary conditions. So, by the 1850s, just in terms of vital records, Massachusetts had town records (births, deaths, marriages), church records (baptisms, publishments, marriage intentions and marriages with an occasional burial), state records (births, deaths, marriages). There can be considerable overlap and duplication in these records, or there can be absolutely nothing at all!

In the early twentieth century the "official" series of vital records books was published. They are sometimes called "the tan series," because most were bound in tan cloth. These included vital records from about 200 of the 351 towns and were compiled using town clerks' records, church registers, gravestones, family bibles and other private records. The individual towns compiled them and they were published individually, though most of the manuscripts were deposited at the State Archives. Towns that are missing from this series, especially in the western part of the state, may be found in the Corbin Collection, which has its own set of pitfalls.

The mid-twentieth century brought us microform publications, and thanks to the Family History Library microfilms and Jay Mack Holbrook's series of microfiches, many of the original town and church records are available. Of course, the New England Historic Genealogical Society is probably the third largest genealogical library in the country, so that is an enormous benefit to the Massachusetts researcher, as is the American Antiquarian Society.

But now we find ourselves in the twenty-first century facing a multitude, of both source types and source media to consult. Many of the above sources exist not only in original and printed form, but in microform, on CD ROMs or in subscription (or free) databases somewhere on the vast worldwide web. Because many people know about the abundance of records here, and that they have been published and widely distributed, it is assumed that genealogical research will be easy. This is sometimes true and makes genealogy more accessible to amateurs and the casual family historian. But  as in every state, courthouses burned, basements flooded, messy scribes used highly acidic paper and ink that burned right through the page. Four hundred years of small town life has provided many opportunities for purging of unsavory family records. Attempts at consolidating information have fallen short of the ideal, and the professional is left to sift through hundreds of sources. Sources found online can be frustratingly vague when stating their own provenance, even when they are digital images of originals.

Source Overload: Consult me! No, Look at Me! Over Here, Read Meeeee!
A survey of the existing literature isn't always so quick in Massachusetts. You can't, for instance, just jump into "the tan series" of published vital records and expect to find the a birth in Easton in 1833, because Easton did not participate in the official series publications. Therefore, neither should you search in NewEnglandAncestors.org's "Mass Vital Records to 1850" database. The FamilySearch pilot site has a database with Easton vital records, but does not give detailed source information. The Family History Library has filmed some records, and Holbrook has done a fantastic job of filming and breaking the information into reasonable sections. In addition, Jay Lucas and David Lambert have been transcribing the Easton vital records for years in the Mayflower Descendant. You have to know how the literature was compiled and not just go by the title of a book, series or database. All can be misleading.


But pain is relative, so when the going gets tough and casual family researchers gets stuck, they call upon professionals to help them break through their brick wall. While we are fortunate to have a plethora of sources to consult, we must take care! There are conflicts in different versions of these records, and segments that have been lost, so that a diligent search turning up no information is not necessarily a negative result. It is easy to get side-tracked, but it is always best to search out the original form of a record, and the derivative copies can lead you right to them.

Massachusetts is abundant in the usual genealogical sources like probate, land, diaries, family letters, account books, tax lists, census, military records, naturalization, and more., But nothing can beat those direct evidence tidbits and dear friends, vital records: originals, clerk duplicates, later clerk copies, DAR compilations, extractions, transcriptions, photocopies, typescripts, index cards and more iterations than you can name. Just remember, it's not as easy as it may seem!

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