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The first European settlers of Massachusetts Bay Colony were stragglers from elsewhere. Some had resided briefly in the older Plymouth Colony to the south (see the “Plymouth Colony” section on the next page); others had tried to establish settlements to the south of Boston and moved into Massachusetts Bay. The first well-organized settlement was at the site of Salem, where a group of fishermen sat down after a brief residence on Cape Ann.
The Massachusetts Bay Company, recently organized in London, sent out a small flotilla in 1628, which augmented the settlers at Salem. Then, in 1630, a much larger party of nearly a thousand settlers set out under the command of John Winthrop. These settlers landed at Salem and then Charlestown, and soon built new plantations at Boston, Dorchester, Roxbury, and Watertown. Migration to Massachusetts Bay Colony was heavy throughout the 1630s. Many new towns were founded, mostly in the easternmost parts of the colony, but some further to the west, including such towns as Springfield and Northampton on the Connecticut River.
Massachusetts Bay created four counties in 1643: Suffolk, Middlesex, Essex, and Norfolk. The northernmost of these counties, Norfolk County, included the four towns that would eventually form the core of New Hampshire: Portsmouth, Dover, Exeter, and Hampton. (When New Hampshire was established in 1679, Norfolk County was dissolved. The name was used again in 1793, when the southwestern portion of Suffolk County was set off as Norfolk County.)
As the 1640s and 1650s proceeded, Massachusetts Bay also assumed jurisdiction over the communities further east, such as Kittery, York, and Wells. The county of York was established in 1651 to accommodate these settlements. This region remained an integral part of Massachusetts until 1820, with other counties being established there in the interim. Thus, when studying Down East ancestry for the entire colonial period and beyond, genealogists should also resort to Massachusetts colony records in addition to searching the town and county records of Maine.
In 1692, upon the issuance of a new charter after the Glorious Revolution in England, Massachusetts Bay Colony absorbed Plymouth Colony, and the three recently erected counties of that colony became Massachusetts counties.
Plymouth Colony came into existence when the Mayflower made landfall off Cape Cod near the end of 1620. The small band of colonists struggled to survive at the town of Plymouth for a number of years. With the arrival of spillover immigrants from Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s, a number of other towns were settled, and the colony began to grow. Over the next few decades, new towns were founded on Cape Cod and to the north and west of the town of Plymouth, toward the borders with Massachusetts Bay to the north and Rhode Island to the west.
For much of the existence of Plymouth Colony, there was a single registry for deeds and probate at Plymouth. In 1685 three counties were erected (Plymouth, Bristol, and Barnstable), which were barely established before Massachusetts Bay Colony absorbed Plymouth Colony in 1692, and these counties became Massachusetts counties.
Most of the records of Plymouth Colony were published in the nineteenth century Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England, edited by Nathaniel B. Shurtleff and David Pulsifer.6 The best modern guide to Plymouth Colony history and genealogy is Eugene Aubrey Stratton’s Plymouth Colony: Its History & People, 1620–1691.7
Certainly among the New England colonies, Massachusetts is abnormal in its normality. Unlike Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, Massachusetts very early erected a strong county system. For the most part, deeds and probates are easily located in those jurisdictions, with very few losses over the centuries. The colony records of the Massachusetts Bay General Court, which carried out both legislative and judicial activities, are well-preserved. The minutes of the General Court have been published in Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England, 1628–1686, edited by Nathaniel B. Shurtleff.8
Even with this regularity, there are some peculiarities of the record-keeping system in this colony that require special attention, most importantly the early transition from town-based to county-based recording of land transfers. Before the creation of the first four counties in 1643, all land records were maintained at the town level. This included both proprietary grants from town to individual and, later, transfers from individual to individual. The General Court required the early towns to submit to the colony the inventories of the landholdings in each town. These inventories survive for a number of communities, including Boston, Watertown, Charlestown, and Cambridge. These documents are sometimes referred to as the “Book of Possessions” for the town.
These town land inventories were sometimes employed also as town deed registers. Towns for which such inventories do not survive also recorded brief entries that may be interpreted as deeds, even for many years after the creation of the counties in 1643. As a rough rule, the more distant the town from the county seat, the more likely that the early deeds for that town were still entered in the town records, even after other towns were using the county deed registry for this purpose. The town of Dedham is a good example. For instance, on 10 February 1650/51, thirty-five brief items of the following form were entered in the first volume of town records: “Elea. Lusher sell to Joh[n] Fraery 2½ acres upland. 2 of swampe together abutting east street east[,] brooke in the swampe west[,] Pet. Woodward south[,] Joh[n] Fraery north.”9 As brief as this entry is, it provides sufficient data to establish this link in the chain of title.
Robert Charles Anderson, “The Daughters of Simon Eire of Watertown and Boston, Mass.,” American Genealogist 65 (1990): 13–23. Several problems in the Watertown families of Simon Eire and Nicholas Guy are resolved through careful analysis of the grants of large farm lots in Watertown (recorded in the Watertown town records) and analysis of how those lots were disposed of by their original proprietors.
Robert S. Wakefield and Alice H. Dreger, “The Wives and Children of James Cole (circa 1625–1709) of Plymouth Massachusetts,” American Genealogist 67 (1992): 243–45. The authors sort out a number of difficulties in this family, using court and land records of both Plymouth Colony in the seventeenth century and Plymouth County after its establishment in 1685 and on into the eighteenth century.