Massachusetts Vital Records
This entry was originally written by Alice Eichholz, Ph.D., CG, for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.
No state in the Union can boast the depth and breadth of vital records sources that are available in Massachusetts. Starting with the arrival of the Pilgrims, vital events have been diligently, if not completely, recorded, preserved, and published. Spurred by legislative order, over 200 (out of 364) towns had all their vital records to 1850 published. The volume (or volumes) in this Systematic Series for each town is divided into births, marriages, and deaths, then alphabetized by surname and, finally, given name.
Some town vital records published before and after legislative order were printed verbatim, and then indexed, making them more valuable than those in the Systematic Series for research purposes since original family groupings remain as recorded. Other towns’ vital records have been published or microfilmed since the Systematic Series. Original manuscript volumes of the Systematic Series are at the Massachusetts Archives at Columbia Point. Transcriptions of vital records for several western Massachusetts towns are in the Corbin Collection and those for the Braintree area are in the Sprague Collection, both at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. The latter’s website and online store provide access to this material either through membership subscription to the online database or for purchase on microfilm or CD-ROM.
A listing indicating which towns have published vital records is that by Hanson and Rutherford in their chapter on Massachusetts research (see Background Sources for Massachusetts). A code for locating vital records throughout different collections, individual publications, or the Systematic Series can be found in Marcia D. Melnyk’s Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research (4th ed.; Boston: The New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1999). Several towns, however, have published vital records since these lists were created. The year in which vital record registration begins for a town is indicated in the Town Resources section.
Microfiche of vital records for more than 275 towns can be purchased from Archive Publishing (formerly Holbrook Research Institute), 1462 W. 1670 N., Provo, UT 84604. Those fiches of original records are listed in a microfiche eighth edition (2000) of “Bibliography of Massachusetts Vital Records 1620–1895,” available from the company’s website, which provides complete information on this periodically expanding resource. Microfiche of individual towns’ published Systematic Series is also available from the company. Even though recording of vital events in towns was widespread in Massachusetts, the practice was still not universal. Most of the Systematic Series of published vital records additionally relied on documented material culled from other sources, such as church records, cemetery inscriptions, and family Bibles.
No statewide index exists that includes all the towns’ records for vital events before 1841. This makes it necessary to know the appropriate town in which to locate a record before that date. However, the [[IGI] (see pages 12-13), the membership online database for New England Historic Genealogical Society, and the subscription database at Ancestry.com (see page 17) have extensive collections of Massachusetts vital records from the Systematic Series and other sources offered through their websites. These sources cannot be considered complete, but using them may be helpful in locating or eliminating towns as potential targets for vital records research when the only information known is simply “born in Massachusetts.”
Some early vital records were filed by county instead of town for Suffolk, Middlesex, Essex, Plymouth (marriages only), and Hampshire (from private papers). See Michael S. Hindus’ The Records of the Massachusetts Superior Court and Its Predecessors (Boston: Archives Division, Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth, 1977) for a listing.
Beginning in 1841 the state mandated that a copy of each event recorded in a town or city be sent to the Secretary of the Commonwealth, which means that two sources exist for each event after that date: the town (or city) and the state. However, some towns were not in compliance until the late 1840s. At present, the indexes for 1841 to 1910 are in bound, ledger-style books, arranged in five-year periods, except for the first, which covers 1841 through 1850. The records are available at Massachusetts Archives. Boston records after mandatory recording do not begin in the ledger books until 1848, but all the city’s vital records from 1630 are extant at Boston City Archives, 30 Millstone Rd., Hyde Park, MA 02136 <www.cityofboston.gov/archivesandrecords>. Published Boston vital records include births, deaths, marriages (1630–99); births (1700–1800); and marriages (1700–51, 1752–1809); and deaths (1700–99) (as Deaths in the Town of Boston [Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1999], two volumes compiled by Robert J. Dunkle and Ann S. Lainhart using multiple sources). A CD-ROM version of Clifford L. Stotts’ Vital Records of Springfield, Massachusetts to 1850 (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2002) includes the town vital records, twenty-one cemeteries, ten churches, and eleven newspapers, among others.
As of 1 January 1896, the Massachusetts Registry of Vital Records and Statistics, 150 Mt. Vernon St., Dorchester, MA 02125-3105 is the repository for copies of town or city recorded vital records. The facility is open to the public, but marriage and birth records may be restricted. As with the bound ledger-style volumes for the 1841 to 1910 period, indexes continue in five-year periods, separated into births, marriages, and deaths. Records and indexes are transferred to the Massachusetts Archives every five years. Until individual death certificates were used in the 1900s, the name of the cemetery does not appear in the state copy, but it may be found in the town or city copy.
The 1841 to 1910 vital records ledger books and indexes for the state are open to the public and available on microfilm and in book form at the New England Historic Genealogical Society and through the Family History Library (FHL). Still, verifying the original copy at the town clerk’s office is extremely important since the bound books are secondary sources and therefore subject to errors in transcription or omission from the original.
A statewide index to divorces after 1952 is available at the Registry of Vital Records and Statistics, but no records are kept there (see Massachusetts Court Records for location of divorces prior to 1922 and Probate Records for those filed after that date). A descriptive sheet entitled “Massachusetts Divorce Records,” by Roger D. Joslyn, which originally appeared in the  Massachusetts Genealogical Council Newsletter, may still be available from the council at P.O. Box 5393, Cochituate, MA 01778-5393.