Massachusetts Family History Research

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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


Map of Massachusetts

History of Massachusetts

The Pilgrims landed on the outermost reaches of Cape Cod in 1620, considerably north of their original destination in Virginia. Providence would have it that they would create their colony based on the experimental ideals of religious freedom and self-government in a colder climate than they had expected. Plymouth Colony’s development, and that of its neighbor to the near north, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, established ten years later, set a course for new models regarding the concept of community, political life, and records. During the “Great Migration” between 1620 and 1643, an estimated 20,000 people left England and settled in these two colonies that eventually merged, in 1691, to become the Province of Massachusetts.

Massachusetts was the stepping-stone for numerous other settlements that developed along the New England coast and for thousands of immigrants who came in waves across the Atlantic over the next four centuries. Settlements grew first along the shores, then along the riverbanks, and later out of the forests rich with furs and lumber. These settlements existed in contrast to those of the native inhabitants, and contained within themselves festering differences of opinion regarding religious and political views.

Some of those who dissented from their neighbors’ views set out to begin their own communities, moving farther and farther west in the colony and sometimes immigrating to other locations, including most of the Eastern seaboard. They often took with them ideas about government and record keeping from their former Massachusetts communities.

Settlement continued steadily based on the mostly peaceful accord between natives, represented particularly by agreement with Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoags, and settlers. All that changed in 1675 when Massasoit’s son King Phillip (Metacom) declared open warfare, raiding fifty towns in southeastern and central settlements. A year later, the resulting death (including King Phillip’s) and destruction in towns ended the warfare, but confidence in settlement was not restored. The Peace of Utrecht in 1713 brought sweeping changes to the political and economic enterprises in Europe, marking the beginning of Great Britain’s colonial and commercial power, and stepping up the pace of immigration again.

In the next two decades more and more towns were established as the population grew in all of lower New England. Warfare reared its influence again in a long series of French and Indian wars throughout all the colonies, sending settlers scrambling for safety back from the frontiers to the more securely established towns.

By the time of the American Revolution, nearly everyone still in Massachusetts could trace their ancestry to one of those 20,000 people in the first major immigration. Many of the French Huguenots, Irish, and Scots-Irish who had emigrated before the American Revolution married into the English families who had arrived earlier. There were also a few Portuguese and some Germans in the early development of the colonies, but it was not until later that these ethnic groups immigrated in large numbers.

Long known for disagreements with the Crown, Massachusetts, with its ideals and strong voice, became a catalyst for the American Revolution. Minutemen and Loyalists, sometimes in the same family, served their respective causes, supported on both sides by family members and former neighbors who had settled throughout the New England colonies. The conclusion of the war found some former New Englanders in the provinces of Canada or the Port of New Orleans for their loyal opposition, and an even larger number of patriots moved to the newly developing frontiers in northern New England and New York. Maine, which remained part of the state of Massachusetts even after the colonies gained their independence, became a separate state in 1820.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts was soon in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, which brought people with more cultural and linguistic differences to the growing state economy. A glimpse of this expanding immigration could be seen as early as the mid-seventeenth century when hundreds of Scottish prisoners—cheap labor for the ironworks in Braintree and Lynn—arrived in Boston’s harbor. A steady stream of immigrants to Boston’s port continued over the next two centuries, fueled by the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s and 1850s, which provided the Industrial Revolution with a labor force previously unavailable in New England. Many other ethnic groups soon followed.

Massachusetts citizens were catalysts for another war of Northern ideals. The state sent its sons, and some daughters, to the southern battlefields of the Civil War. Industrial development continued to flourish, but by the end of the nineteenth century, New York City eventually outdistanced Massachusetts as a port for immigration. Despite that fact, the industrial development and ethnic diversity of Massachusetts have had a profound impact on life in New England, leaving records of a rich history.

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