Massachusetts Land Records
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This entry was originally written by Alice Eichholz, Ph.D., CG, for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.
Massachusetts is a State-Land State.
Land ownership in Massachusetts descended initially from colony to proprietor and eventually to private ownership by individuals. The colonies of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay were legally based on charters or patents from England to a company of business or trading associates. The general court for each colony (see Court Records), acting as a legislative body, established towns by granting blocks of land to a group of proprietors. The primary obligation of the proprietors was to divide the land among the settlers in the town based on family size, wealth, or both. Part of the land was held by town proprietors for the common good. See Roy Akagi, The Town Proprietors of the New England Colonies (1924; reprint, Gloucester, Mass.: P. Smith, 1963), or the Great Migration Newsletter (see Massachusetts Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections) for a discussion of the role of local proprietors in the development of towns.
Land was surveyed and plats drawn to identify who had a proprietorial share in each piece of land in town. The land itself was not actually sold in the early stages of town development. Having the use of a house lot and acreage for farming included a proprietorial right in the enterprise of the town and to further divisions of town land. See Stratton, Plymouth Colony, and Lockridge, A New England Town (both cited in [Background Sources for Massachusetts]), and Great Migration Newsletter (see [Massachusetts Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections]) for examples of the land acquisition process in individual towns. Native Americans, with a different concept and understanding of land from that of the colonists, often relinquished their land claims to colonists who found the land a desirable location for a town or useful for hunting, trapping, or farming. For an excellent discussion of differing perceptions of land, see William Cronon, Changes on the Land (see Ethnic Groups of Massachusetts).
Successive divisions of town land occurred, since not all the land was divided at one time. As families grew and newcomers arrived, shares of additional divisions were allocated to more people. Influx of the Great Migration period (1620–43), overcrowding, the desire for more land, and disagreements among inhabitants over religious, social, and political concerns all forced the development of new towns, and the process of land acquisition was repeated. Those who wished to form a new town petitioned the general court and the land was granted to the proprietors to divide as fit the needs of the new town. Published grants before county formation (1643 in Massachusetts Bay, 1685 in Plymouth) are found among the records of the colony (see Shurtleff and Pulsifer, Records … New Plymouth, and Shurtleff, Records … Massachusetts Bay, cited in Background Sources for Massachusetts).
When a county system became established, land transactions became part of the county’s records. Eventually, land was sold by proprietors to individuals and between individuals. Proprietors continued to keep records on “common and undivided lands” in a town, some well into the nineteenth century.
Deeds are recorded in the earliest records of the counties. Those for Suffolk County (1640–97), York County (Maine) (1641–1737), and some of Plymouth Colony (1620–51) have been published. A series of abstracts for the latter continues in the revived Mayflower Descendant (see Massachusetts Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections). Essex County Registry of Deeds has put images from its first ten volumes available online at www.salemdeeds.com.
Deeds are the purview of the county registry of deeds. Grantor and grantee indexes are available with date of recording, and sometimes the location (or town) is listed in the index, although this practice is not uniform. The first fourteen volumes of Suffolk County deeds, entitled Suffolk Deeds (1640–97) (Boston: City Printers, 1880–1906) have, in addition to the grantor and grantee indexes, an every-name index. Original deeds through 1799 have an every-name index at the registry office. These every-name indexes indicate all names in addition to grantors/grantees found in the deeds, such as witnesses and abutters. Most of the original Suffolk deeds are now in the basement at the Massachusetts Archives instead of the registry office.
In New England fashion, deeds generally indicate the residence of, and sometimes occupations for, both sets of parties and describe the land in either lot numbers, divisions, metes, and bounds, or abutters—sometimes all four. There are conveyances, or legal transactions, for property, personal possessions, pews in churches, sale and manumissions of slaves, indentures, mortgages, pre-nuptial agreements, and dower rights. Some conveyances for cemetery plots can be found in nineteenth- and twentieth-century transactions.
Deeds are available at the relevant county seat, usually on microfilm if not the originals. There is usually a general deed index across deed books, although early deed books may also have their own index in each volume. While the usual location for deeds is the county seat, larger counties were later divided up into districts to make the registry more convenient to the seller. The County Resources section below clarifies the later divisions in counties. The New England Historic Genealogical Society and the FHL have large microfilm collections of land records from early settlement through mid-nineteenth-century and later for some registries.
A frequently overlooked solution to genealogical problems, particularly in New England states, is the use of information in land records. Articles for such problem-solving abound in major periodicals (see Massachusetts Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections). For two excellent examples of this technique using Massachusetts records, see the following articles:
- Dearborn, David C. “The Family of William Curtis of Danvers, MA.” In A Tribute to John Insley Coddington, edited by Neil D. Thompson and Robert C. Anderson, 31-46 (New York: Association for Promotion of Scholarship in Genealogy, 1980).
- Greene, David L. “Salem Witches I: Bridget Bishop,” The American Genealogist 57 (1981): 129-38.