Background Sources for Massachusetts

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This entry was originally written by Alice Eichholz, Ph.D., CG, for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.

This article is part of
the Massachusetts Family History Research series.
History of Massachusetts
Massachusetts Vital Records
Census Records for Massachusetts
Background Sources for Massachusetts
Massachusetts Maps
Massachusetts Land Records
Massachusetts Probate Records
Massachusetts Court Records
Massachusetts Tax Records
Massachusetts Cemetery Records
Massachusetts Church Records
Massachusetts Military Records
Massachusetts Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections
Massachusetts Archives, Libraries, and Societies
Massachusetts Immigration
Massachusetts Naturalization
Ethnic Groups of Massachusetts
Massachusetts County Resources
Massachusetts Town Resources
Map of Massachusetts


Colony, town, county, and state histories abound for Massachusetts. An exhaustive list of even the most helpful would be beyond the scope of this book. The book loan program at the New England Historic Genealogical Society publishes a catalog in book and online formats of what circulates from its collection, with an extensive listing for Massachusetts. Periodical sources (see Periodicals) contain a wide variety of material on families, customs, and history of the state and New England in general.

Two comprehensive series provide a good background of understanding about both the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth Colonies: Nathaniel B. Shurtleff and David Pulsifer, eds., Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England, 1620–1691, 12 vols. (Boston: W. White, 1855–61), and Nathaniel B. Shurtleff, ed., Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay, 5 vols. (Boston: W. White, 1853–54). Eugene Aubrey Stratton, Plymouth Colony: Its History & People 1620–1691 (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1986) provides a good social history with a genealogical perspective and includes biography, customs, history, and annotated bibliography on printed material covering the colony. For later periods and locations, social history publications by Gloria L. Main and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich are important.

The following will be helpful in developing a more comprehensive history of the Bay State:

  • Hart, Albert Bushnell, ed. Commonwealth History of Massachusetts, Colony, Province and State, 1605–1930. 5 vols. 1927–30. Reprint. New York: Russell and Russell, 1967. Provides an excellent history from disputed colonial claims through the last major immigration period in the twentieth century.
  • Haskell, John D. Massachusetts: A Bibliography of Its History. 1976. Reprint. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1983. Somewhat dated, but it surveys a broad scope of local historical material including those published in academia. Family genealogies are not included.

Following list includes three classic compilations of genealogical material for the state:

  • Anderson, Robert Charles. The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England, 1620–1633. 3 vols. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1996. A continuing project of comprehensively researched details of families of the earliest immigrants to the colonies. Available in CD-ROM version.

­*___ et al. The Great Migration: Immigrants to New England 1634–1635. 3 vols. Boston: New England Genealogic Biographical Society, 1999–2003. Extends the ongoing project through 1635 and surnames beginning with “H.” Future volumes are planned.

  • Pope, Charles Henry. Pioneers of Massachusetts, a Descriptive List, Drawn from the Records of the Colonies, Towns and Churches and from Other Contemporaneous Documents. 1900. Reprint. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2003. Similar to Savage (below) with important differences. The introduction is essential reading.
  • Savage, James. A Genealogical Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England, Showing Three Generations of Those Who Came Before May 1692. 1860–62. Reprint. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1986. Arranged alphabetically by male settlers in New England before 1692. Some documentation is provided for original sources and it is cross-indexed. Now available on CD-ROM (Digital Editions, 2000) and open access online at www.usgennet.org/usa/topic/newengland/savage.
  • Society of Mayflower Descendants. Mayflower Families Through Five Generations: Descendants of the Pilgrims Who Landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts, December, 1620. 21 vols. Plymouth, Mass.: Society of Mayflower Descendants, 1975-present with addenda. See www.mayflower.org/book.htm. Not all passengers or their descendants have yet been covered in this ongoing series. Volume 3 is known to be quite unreliable. Recent publications by the society include Mayflower Families in Process, a series of four-generation booklets for each Mayflower passenger. Issued by surname of the passenger, they can be obtained from the society (see Massachusetts Archives, Libraries, and Societies). A few of these have been extended to five generations in separate publications.

In addition to those already cited, a very limited list of other examples of social history includes:

  • Cook, Edward M. The Fathers of the Towns: Leadership and Community Structure in Eighteenth-Century New England. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1976.
  • Jones, Douglas Lamar. Village and Seaport: Migration and Society in Eighteenth Century Massachusetts. Hanover, Mass.: University Press of New England, 1981. A study of Beverly and Wenham in Essex County.
  • Lockridge, Kenneth A. A New England Town: The First Hundred Years, Dedham, Massachusetts, 1636–1736. New York: W.W. Norton, 1985. A good example of use of historical material for understanding social history.
  • Thompson, Roger. Sex in Middlesex: Popular Mores in a Massachusetts County, 1649–1699. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986. Informative study on the American family.

In addition to Melnyk’s Handbook discussed under Vital Records, research guides for the state include:

  • Blatt, Warren. Resources for Jewish Genealogy in the Boston Area. Boston: Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Boston, 1996.
  • Crandall, Ralph J., ed. Genealogical Research in New England. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, Co., 1984.
  • Davis, Charlotte P. Directory of Massachusetts Place Names, Current and Obsolete. Lexington, Mass.: Bay State News, 1988. Compiled by the state DAR, this lists 4,000 cities, towns, villages, and other sections, all cross-indexed.
  • Galvin, William Francis. Historical Data Relating to Counties, Cities and Towns in Massachusetts. 5th ed. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1997. This substitutes for a place-name index for towns and cities, indicating towns no longer in existence and those that spawned new towns by division.
  • Gardner-Wescott, Katherine A., ed. Massachusetts Sources, Part I: Boston, New Bedford, Springfield, Worcester. Boston: Massachusetts Society of Genealogists, 1988. This is the first part of an excellent series detailing each repository and the extent of materials held. Both public and private records are included.
  • Hanson, Edward W., and Homer Vincent Rutherford. “Genealogical Research in Massachusetts: A Survey and Bibliographical Guide.” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 135 (July 1981): 163-98. Covers in good detail many of the abnormalities in the Massachusetts public records, and lists some basic town histories as well as single and multi-ancestor genealogies.
  • Lainhart, Ann S. A Researcher’s Guide to Boston. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2003. An excellent guide to obvious and surprise sources for researching in this important port city.
  • Sibbison, Wendy. Directory for Research on the Pioneer Valley, Massachusetts: Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden Counties. Greenfield, Mass.: Greenfield Community College, 1983. Focuses on western Massachusetts.
  • Wright, Carroll D. Report on the Custody and Condition of the Public Records of Parishes, Towns and Counties. Boston: Wright & Potter, State Printers, 1889–1910.
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