Massachusetts Vital Records
Birth, Marriage, and Death Records
The original vital record resides in the town or city where the event occurred (in colonial times, a family group of birth can include events from other towns). The recording of these records was ordered by the government as early as 1639, though not all places followed the law. Both Massachusetts Bay Colony and Plymouth Colony started to collect these records in a central location, but the practice died out by the mid-17th Century. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts was the first state to create a permanent, statewide recording system starting in 1841. It is notable that the city of Boston lagged behind in reporting to the state and its records do not show up in the state system until a tougher regulation was implemented in 1850 (though the city did record these records locally). The only vital records closed to the public are the original births of amended records and those can be opened by a judge.
The original record still is found with the clerk of the town or city. All these records back to the earliest settlement of a town can always be viewed at the town or city clerk’s office. Most all town and city vital records have been microfilmed by the Family History Library and microfiched by the Holbrook Research Institute of Oxford, Mass. [now Archive Publishing of Provo, Utah]. This tends to be the most complete record of the event. Since 1841, there should be a second copy with the state and sometimes has abbreviated information from the original. This second copy is the most widely available source for researchers. It has been preserved by the same two vendors listed above and can be found on online in a variety of places and forms as listed below.
Before 1900, a few towns started publishing their own vital records in book form. The records were usually re-arranged into alphabetical order but separated by births, marriages, and deaths. Church and private records were added to get a more complete record and were clearly noted. The Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants published a few of these volumes along with the Systematic History Fund (a state fund); Essex Institute in Salem; Topsfield Historical Society, and others. The greatest number were published by the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston, in part from their Eddy Town-Record Fund. About two-thirds of the state (roughly 236 towns) has been published from the original town records and a few still are being released today. Check the Mass. Town Pre-1850 Published Vital Records Guide for a listing of the towns published so far. There are links to some online versions below. A search in Google will reveal many town / region specific sites that have reproduced the volumes online or pdf versions available for downloading.
- Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850
[Not complete, but list available by "volume" menu]
- Massachusetts Town Birth Records
- Massachusetts Town Marriage Records
- Massachusetts Town Death Records
[Only a handful of volume have been uploaded]
- Massachusetts Marriages, 1633-1850
[extracted from FHL films of original records, not complete, but extensive]
- Frederic W. Bailey, Early Massachusetts Marriages Prior to 1800 [church records only]
1841 - 1920
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts was the first state to create statewide vital records in the modern sense starting in 1841. It is notable that the city of Boston lagged behind reporting to the state and its records do not show up at the state until about 1850 (though the city maintained its own records before then). The original state records are held by:
Visitors can make their own copies from the microfilmed copies or request certified copies per their rules. The archives only has the amended records up to v. 42 (1900). They have an online index to the records for 1841 to 1910 that is searchable for first name, last name, town, start year, end year, and type of record. Note that this is exact spelling searches only. Records can be ordered by email. No more than five requests per order and they are billed with your photocopies.
These records can be viewed online in two locations:
New England Historic Genealogical Society
99 - 101 Newbury Street
Boston MA 02116
The NEHGS has two online databases at their American Ancestors website for 1841 to 1910 and 1911 to 1915. You must be a member of the Society to access these indexes and the actual records which are linked from this index. The records are searchable in the same manner as the Mass. Archives above, though the last name can be searched by Soundex. If you go to the library, there are book indexes in five-year blocks for births, 1900-1950, marriages, 1900-1955, 1966-1970, and deaths, 1900-1980. They also have the amended birth records indexes for to 1929 (1 v.) [going back to 1841], to 1944 (2 v.), to 1962 (3 v.), to 1965 (1 v.), and to 1968 (1 v.). These indexes beyond 1920 are not generally available elsewhere.
- Massachusetts Vital Records, 1841-1910 ($)
[all indexes, records, and amended births]
- Massachusetts Vital Records, 1911-1915 ($)
[all indexes, records, and amended births]
Family History Library
35 North West Temple Street
Salt Lake City UT 84150
This library and its many branches (where you can borrow the microfilm for a small fee) will have all the same records as listed above. You can access online for free:
- Births, 1841-1915
[index and records from 1909 to 1915 ONLY]
- Marriages, 1841-1915
[index and records from 1905(?) to 1915 ONLY]
- Deaths, 1841-1915
[index and records from 1910(?) to 1915 ONLY]
- Massachusetts State Vital Records, 1841-1920
[ACTUALLY, only 1916 to 1920, browsable by volume and page only]
1921 - present
The original state records are held by:
This office only makes certified copies of vital records. There are several ways to purchases copies both online and in person. This office also has the amended birth records after v. 42 (1900) and a statewide index to divorces from 1952 to the present (though the record itself will be with the probate court). There is a computerized index for the most recent records and five-year block indexes for births, marriages, and deaths onsite.
Every five years, another block of five years is transferred to the State Archives and at the same time is made available through the New England Historic Genealogical Society and to the Family History Library. This office restricts access only by the fact that they are the only ones with the records. These records are open to the public. The original town copies are always open to the public.
Ancestry.com has the following index only:
Divorce records have been handled by the probate court system since 1922 and commonly filed where the couple last lived together. These are public records (with minor exceptions). There is a statewide index that starts in 1952 at the Registry listed above. Before that, the county Superior Court had jurisdiction. From 1786 to 1887, all cases were administered through the Supreme Judicial Court. All these records are held at the Judicial Archives in the Mass. Archives facility. The earliest divorce records are scattered through a variety of courts who held joint jurisdiction.
The Supreme Judicial Court created a fact sheet for the public in 2004 and the summary of it is below:
|1639-1692||Divorce petitions were filed in a variety of courts, including the county courts, the General Court, and the Court of Assistants. Records of the General Court and the Court of Assistants have been published. The Original records are available in the Suffolk Files Collection, the Massachusetts Archives Collection, and in the county courts.|
|1692-1775||Divorces were heard by the Governor and Council (from 1755 to 1757, six petitions were heard by the General Court). The original records are found in the Massachusetts Archives Collection, Suffolk Files Collection, and the county courts.|
|1775-1785||The Council had jurisdiction then. Search for them in the Massachusetts Archives Collection and the Council records.|
|1785-1796||The Massachusetts Acts and Resolves granted jurisdiction over divorce to the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC). These original records are in the Suffolk Files Collection. Check the microfilm "county index" in the Archives reading room. They will refer to various SJC Record Books. See the chart below for these record books.|
|1796-1887||The divorce will be in the Supreme Judicial Court in the county in which the couple was residing. Most of the Record Books are indexed (see location chart below). These records will have a summary of the grounds for divorce, date and place of marriage, where the couple lived until the divorce, and sometimes the names and ages of the children. The file papers are generally in the year and term that the divorce was finalized (i.e. six months after it was granted) and arranged by docket (case) number. Post 1860 file papers are in off-site storage. See the Judicial Archivist for information to see these records.|
|1887||Jurisdiction over divorces was moved to the Superior Court. These records are indexed chronologically in separate divorce docket books. The Judicial Archives (in the same building with the Mass. Archives) has divorce indexes and/or docket books on microfilm in the Archives reading room for all counties except for Barnstable, Dukes, and Nantucket counties. Those are in their respective Superior Court.|
|1922||The Probate and Family Court began hearing divorce concurrently with the Superior, though most came to this court. Each probate court kept alphabetical indexes to these records. There is a statewide index since 1952 at the Registry of Vital Records and Statistics (listed above).|
For the location of the records, use the chart below that was created by the Supreme Judicial Court Archives in 2004:
|County||Supreme Judicial Court||SJC Microfilm||Superior Court||SC Microfilm|
|Barnstable||All records in courthouse||n/a||n/a||n/a|
|Berkshire||SJC Record Books in the Judicial Archives and microfilm available at the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield||n/a||SC records and index card file in Judicial Archives||1888-1927 in Archives Reading Room|
|Bristol||SJC Record Books in the Judicial Archives||1862-1889 in Archives Reading Room||SC Divorce dockets in the Judicial Archives. The file papers in the Superior Court, Taunton||Divorce Dockets in Archives Reading Room|
|Essex||SJC Record Books in courthouse, Salem, and file papers in off-site storage. A consolidated index, 1785-1904, on microfilm in Archives Reading Room||1797-1820 in Archives Reading Room|| 1887-1927 SC Divorce indexes in Judicial Archives and file papers in off-site storage.
Probate Court Divorce Index, 1922-1944, in Judicial Archives and file papers in off-site storage
|See consolidated index in Archives Reading Room|
|Franklin||SJC Record Books in Judicial Archives and file papers in off-site storage||1872-1887 in Archives Reading Room||SC Divorce Record Books in Judicial Archives. The index is at the courthouse in Greenfield. The file papers are in off-site storage||In Archives Reading Room|
|Hampden||SJC Record Books in Judicial Archives and file papers in off-site storage||SJC Divorce Index in Archives Reading Room||SC Divorce Dockets and file papers in off-site storage||Divorce Index in Archives Reading Room|
|Hampshire||SJC Record Books and file papers in Judicial Archives||n/a||SC Divorce Record Books in Judicial Archives and file papers in off-site storage||n/a|
|Middlesex||SJC Record Books in Judicial Archives||1807-1887 in Archives Reading Room||SC Divorce Dockets in Judicial Archives and file papers in off-site storage||1887-1938 in Archives Reading Room|
|Nantucket||All records in courthouse||n/a||n/a||n/a|
|Norfolk||SJC Record Books in Judicial Archives||n/a||SC Divorce Dockets in Judicial Archives and file papers in off-site storage||n/a|
|Plymouth||SJC Record Books in Judicial Archives||1813-1889 in Archives Reading Room||SC Dockets and index in Judicial Archives and file papers in off-site storage||Dockets and index in Archives Reading Room|
|Suffolk||SJC Record Books and file papers in Judicial Archives||1760-1786 in Archives Reading Room and 1786-1804 in Suffolk Files Collection||SC Divorce Record Books and index in Superior Court Civil Clerk's office and file papers in off-site storage||1887-1916 in Archives Reading Room|
|Worcester||SJC Record Books in Judicial Archives||1797-1887 in Archives Reading Room||SC Divorce Dockets (1887-1890 vol. missing) and index in Judicial Archives and file papers in off-site storage||1887-1936 Docket Books and index in Archives Reading Room|
Like most all states, Massachusetts seals the records of adoption that include the original birth certificate with the biological parents. These records stay sealed unless opened by court order. Who can see this sealed information is limited by law. There is no way a person can know they are adopted without being told by someone. There are several registries online set up to assist adoptees and biological parents help find each other. To order your pre-adoption birth certificate, download the instructions and form.
To learn more about the history of adoption in Massachusetts, see Joseph Ben-Or, "The Law of Adoption in the United States: Its Massachusetts Origins and the Statute of 1851" in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, 130 : 259-269, and online at American Ancestors ($).