History & Facts of Massachusetts Counties

Massachusetts Counties  •  Massachusetts Extinct Counties  •  Massachusetts Burned Courthouses

Massachusetts County records vary widely from county to county in either quality and quantity. Some happen to have been very carefully preserved and some have been substantially mistreated and overlooked. Many Massachusetts records have merely disappeared. For genealogists performing research in Massachusetts there is no effective replace for an on-site search of county court house records.

Massachusetts, officially the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, one of the states of New England. Massachusetts entered the Union as the sixth of the original 13 states. When still a colony, it had become an important intellectual center, known for Harvard College and the cultural institutions of Boston. Many events in Massachusetts, including the Stamp Act riots (1765), the Boston Massacre (1770), and the Boston Tea Party (1773), were precursors to the American Revolution (1775-1783). The first battles of the revolution were fought in Massachusetts, and its role in colonial history can be seen in the many well-preserved landmarks in such historic places as Plymouth, Boston, Lexington, and Concord.

Massachusetts is divided into 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.

Massachusetts Counties

The district or county seat is generally home to the "Registry of Deeds," which should be contacted for any land records. Some of those registries have online records, while others do not. In some cases, the Registry of Deeds was also divided because the registries needed to be closer to the land in question.

Researchers must be sure that they have pinpointed the appropriate geographic location and time period, as well as the right district, before searching for records relating to land. Probate records can be obtained from the Probate Court Clerk. Civil court records can be found at the Clerk of Courts. However, there are also many county records available at the New England Genealogic Historical Society.

Many early records from Massachusetts town meetings have been published. The Boston Public Library holds those records for Middlesex County. They can also be found at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. A guide that was created in 1976 for that collection is also available.

Generally, the vital records for a given Massachusetts town go back to whenever that town was founded. However, some towns broke off from other towns. So, records in the original, or parent, towns may need to be consulted. Most county clerks have vital record indexes available, but some important town records have not been indexed and must be searched at the town office or on microfilm. Those may include poor account overseers records, voting lists, hog and cattle marks, freeman's lists, tax lists, town officer lists, school records, and warnings out.

County Date Formed Parent County County Seat
Barnstable June 2, 1685  Plymouth Colony Barnstable
Berkshire April 21, 1761 Hampshire County Pittsfield
Bristol June 2, 1685  Plymouth Colony Taunton
Dukes November 1, 1683 Dukes County, New York Edgartown
Essex May 10, 1643 Massachusetts Bay Colony Salem & Lawrence
Franklin June 24, 1811 Hampshire County. Greenfield
Hampden February 25, 1812 Hampshire County. Springfield
Hampshire May 1, 1662 Massachusetts Bay Colony Northampton
Middlesex May 10, 1643 Massachusetts Bay Colony Cambridge & Lowell
Nantucket June 22, 1695 Dukes County, New York Nantucket
Norfolk May 10, 1643; March 26, 1793 Suffolk County. Dedham
Plymouth June 2, 1685 Plymouth Colony. Plymouth & Brockton
Suffolk May 10, 1643 Massachusetts Bay Colony Boston
Worcester April 2, 1731 Hampshire, Middlesex and Suffolk Counties Worcester

Massachusetts Town Genealogy

Nearly all of the vital records have been microfilmed and are available either through the FHL, Massachusetts State Archives, Berkshire Athenaeum, or Boston Public Library. Early records of town meetings have been published for a number of Massachusetts towns.

The researcher should assume that vital records, whether in separate books or in town records, begin with the formation of the town, as do the town records. See parent towns for earlier records; and the county for beginning dates of deeds, probates, and court records. Clerks respond to inquires regarding vital records, since most have indexes available, but unindexed town records with details of town life - officers, tax lists, freeman's lists, cattle and hog marks, voting lists, warnings out, overseer's of the poor accounts, school records - must be searched in person either through microfilm or at the town's office. See also Massachusetts City and Town Incorporation and Settlement Dates.

Massachusetts Extinct Counties

Massachusetts seems to have counties that no longer are in existence. They were set up by the state, provincial, or territorial governing administration. Most of these counties were created and disbanded within the 19th century; county boundaries have evolved very little since Nineteen hundred in the vast most of states. These counties really should be considered when doing genealogy research. Pay close attention where the courthouse records went to if the county was eliminated or consolidated with a different county.

  • Cornwall County: Was a county of the former Province of New York, established on September 5, 1665 from 25,100 Square Miles of land that had been granted to the Duke of York in modern Maine. As established, the grant ran all the way from the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean,and produced what today is most of Aroostook, Piscataquis, Washington, Hancock, Penobscot, Waldo, Knox, Lincoln, Kennebec, Somerset, and Sagadahoc Counties. On October 7, 1673, 200 Square Miles of this grant along the border with then existing Massachusetts was partitioned to form Devonshire, Massachusetts. The remainder of this grant was lost to the Abnaki Indians in a war in the Autumn of 1675. Cornwall County was recreated on November 1, 1683, conforming to the original grant, still part of New York. Cornwall continued unchanged until the Spring of 1687, when Cornwall was transferred to the expanded Dominion of New England. Cornwall County was transferred to Massachusetts in 1692 and called Yorkshire. Much of this region became part of Maine when that state was admitted in 1820.
  • Devonshire County: District of Maine, Massachusetts Bay Colony was a short-lived county formed during the colonial territorial disputes between the Province of Massachusetts and the Province of Maine. The county existed from 1674 to 1675.
  • Dukes County: Dukes County, New York was formed on November 1, 1683 by New York from the Elizabeth Islands, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket Island, all beyond the eastern end of Long Island in the Province of New York. It was formed at the same time as Kings County, Queens County and Dutchess County, New York. The entire county was transferred to the newly formed Province of Massachusetts Bay, where it formed Dukes County and Nantucket County.
  • Norfolk County: One of the original four counties created in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The county existed from 1643 to 1679. In 1680 the towns of this county were divided between Essex County, Massachusetts and the newly formed state of New Hampshire so that the county ceased to exist. The former Norfolk County is often referred to as "Old Norfolk County." A new county was established as Norfolk County, Massachusetts from most of the southern portion of Suffolk County in 1793.
  • York County: A county in what is now Maine. In 1760, it was divided into three counties: York, Cumberland and Lincoln counties. In 1778, the Continental Congress divided the District of Maine, the northernmost of three districts in Massachusetts.

Massachusetts Counties with Burned Courthouses

The damage to Massachusetts courthouses tremendously has a bearing on family historians in each and every way. Not only are these historic buildings ripped from all of our lifetimes, so are the documents they housed: marriage, wills, probate, land records, as well as others. Once destroyed they're destroyed forever. Although they have already been put on mircofilm, computers and film burn up too. The most tragic aspect of this is the reason why virtually all of our courthouses are destroyed as a result of arsonist. However, don't assume all records were damaged or lost. Many Massachusetts counties have suffered a loss of records due to courthouse fires, floods, and theft.

  • Barnstable County - Fire destroyed nearly all the early deed books and probate files, but probate books survived. Although the official deed books only begin in 1827, many deeds were pre-recorded back to about 1783, though these are far from complete.
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