Records of the Essex County Quarterly Courts for the period 1636-86, from which this database originated, have been abstracted and published in a series of nine volumes, produced by the Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts. The Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Massachusetts, Volumes 1-9 (Salem, Mass.: The Essex Institute, 1911-75) was reprinted in a limited run by Parker River Researchers of Newburyport, Massachusetts in 1988. A typescript version of the original papers and minute books was produced for the period through 1692, but the years between 1686 and 1692 have never been published. The original documents remain for the most part in compressed bundles under the jurisdiction of the Judicial Archives. Although the original documents have not been microfilmed, the typescripts are available on film at the Massachusetts Archives. The database includes names of deponents and their ages, which were required at the time of the deposition.
For many decades, it was common practice for people making depositions to identify themselves by name, title (if any), and age. But this format was not always followed, unfortunately, and phrases like "of lawful age" could be substituted for an exact number. Often, when a person well-known to the officers of the court came forward to depose, the formality of stating an age was dispensed with entirely. Sometimes, it is clear that the court clerk merely guessed at the deponent's age, and consequently, it is important to view ages that look like rough estimates with some suspicion. For instance, in the same court appearance, a deponent speaking more than once could have more than one stated age. People also can age very erratically from deposition to deposition, further illustrating how often an estimate was used.
In a few cases, husbands and wives came forward together to depose, and while the husband's full name was given, his wife's name might not be, as in the case of "Robert Lord aged 70 and his wife, aged 65." In such cases, the wife is indexed as "goodwife." In an attempt to make it possible for persons using this index to find all appearances of an individual, an effort has been made to standardize the spelling of names. Court clerks in this time period were very inventive and often phonetic in their spelling, and sometimes it is not possible to know for certain what name was meant. When in doubt, a true transcription of the name as the clerk spelled it is preserved. The user is urged to consider all possible spellings of a name when using this index.
Only those depositions in which the deponent's age is stated are indexed here. Children as young as 8 years old and seniors as old as 102 were brought to Essex court to bear witness in matters as diverse as swearing and murder. While most court cases dealt with debts or trespass, it is sometimes possible to predict with some accuracy the nature of the case based on the age of the deponent. Women over 50 were most frequently called to depose in matters of childbirth. Very elderly men were most often called to depose about property boundary lines or land use. Young children were sometimes the only witnesses to violent crimes such as rape or assault, but were also relied upon to identify cattle or horses.
Several other kinds of records in these courts included stated ages for individuals. In a number of cases, when minor children were left to the county at the death of a parent, the court clerk recorded the children's ages. For this reason, there is one entry for a child as young as 3 months old in this index. Another notable instance of ages stated in non-depositions was the 1678 oath of allegiance signed by adult men in Newbury, Massachusetts. As in other Essex County towns, the Newbury clerk recorded a list of the men who signed, but uniquely, he included the age of every man.