Massachusetts, one of the original 13 colonies, has a rich and storied history that has greatly influenced the United States as a whole. An intellectual, cultural and educational hub, the state is home to some of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning, and has birthed several renowned scientists, innovators and authors, from Henry David Thoreau to Louisa May Alcott to Benjamin Franklin. As a colony, Massachusetts played a significant role in the American Revolution, with events like the Boston Tea Party and the Battle of Bunker Hill becoming iconic moments in the fight for independence. Massachusetts’ history and culture are deeply intertwined, forming a dynamic tapestry that reflects its significant contributions to American society. This guide covers how to research your ancestors from this hallowed commonwealth.
What is now Massachusetts was inhabited for thousands of years before European arrival. By the 1600s, notable tribes included the Wampanoag, Massachusett (from whom the commonwealth gets its name), Nauset, Pocumtuc and Nipmuc. Today, Massachusetts is home to two federally recognized tribes that are engaged in cultural- revitalization efforts: the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).
Europeans explored New England decades before attempting to settle it. Italian Giovanni da Verrazzano, sailing under a French flag, explored the coast in 1524 and may have entered Massachusetts Bay. Englishman Bartholomew Gosnold sailed along the Massachusetts coast in 1602, named Cape Cod, and established a short-lived settlement on an island near present-day Cuttyhunk. Pilgrims aboard the famous Mayflower landed in 1620 and founded Plymouth, the first permanent English settlement in the region. They were followed 10 years later by John Winthrop and his band of Puritan settlers, who sought religious freedom and created a theocratic society at the Massachusetts Bay Colony near modern Boston. The Massachusetts Bay Colony grew rapidly (eventually overshadowing neighboring settlements), with more Puritans migrating from England. They established towns such as Salem, Cambridge and Roxbury. “The Great Migration,” as it was called, is of keen genealogical research value for well-established New England families. These early settlements drew attention from the Wampanoag, who played a crucial role in helping the struggling English colonists. Though initially a peaceful alliance, relations between the Wampanoag (led by Chief Massasoit) and English settlers eventually broke down, leading to conflict and land disputes.
A LAND OF HISTORY
In 1675, tensions erupted into a conflict known as King Philip’s War. Massasoit’s son, Metacom (known to the English as King Philip), led an alliance of Native American tribes against the English settlers. Fifty-two English towns were attacked, and a dozen were destroyed. More than 2,000 colonists died. Great Britain reorganized its New England colonies in 1691. It issued a new charter for the royal colony of the Province of Massachusetts Bay that included both Plymouth and the Massachusetts Bay Colony (as well as Maine).
Massachusetts played a crucial role in the American Revolution, and was home to key figures such as Samuel Adams and Paul Revere. The Boston Massacre (1770) and Boston Tea Party (1773) were two early flashpoints between colonists and Great Britain. And the first shots of the Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord in 1775, followed by a surprisingly strong Colonial military effort at Bunker Hill that summer. Massachusetts delegates played a prominent role in advocating for Colonial rights at the Continental Congress.
Post-independence, Massachusetts officially joined the Union in 1788. John Adams, the nation’s first vice president and its second president, wrote the Massachusetts constitution, which pre-dates the US Constitution and remains the oldest functioning constitution in the world. The 19th century saw significant industrialization and urbanization in Massachusetts, with the growth of textile mills, manufacturing and maritime commerce. The fishing industry expanded in iconic small cities like Gloucester and New Bedford.
Irish immigration to Massachusetts began in the colonial period with the arrival of predominantly Protestant migrants from what is now Northern Ireland. However, in the mid-19th century, the population of Boston and eastern Massachusetts exploded with Irish Catholic immigrants. Neighborhoods like Boston’s North End and later Charlestown and South Boston were dominated by Irish immigrants, and remained predominately Irish into the 20th century. Boston was nicknamed the “next parish over” from Ireland due to the familial connections between Ireland and Boston. Irish enclaves were characterized by tight-knit communities, Irish-Catholic churches, and social organizations.
Irish immigrants played a crucial role in Massachusetts’ burgeoning industrial economy. They labored in factories, built railroads and worked in construction. Irish politicians began to displace the old Yankee power structure in Boston and led to conflicts like the Broad Street Riot in 1837. Other immigrant groups such as Italians and French Canadians settled in smaller numbers.
Today, the commonwealth’s cultural landscape is diverse, with a blend of traditional New England charm and modern influences. Boston, the capital and largest city, is known for its rich history, picturesque neighborhoods, and prominent landmarks such as the Freedom Trail, Fenway Park and the Massachusetts State House. World-class museums draw art lovers, and coastal regions offer beautiful beaches and charming towns. The western part of Massachusetts is characterized by scenic mountains and rural landscapes.
1620 Pilgrims arrive in
New England aboard the Mayflower and found
Plymouth 1630 John Winthrop founds the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony
1636 Harvard College is
founded in Cambridge 1675 King Philip’s War devastates the New
England colonies 1691 The Province of Massachusetts Bay is formed
1775 “The shot heard
‘round the world” at Lexington and Concord
begins the American Revolutionary War 1788 Massachusetts
becomes the sixth state to ratify the
Constitution 1812 Hampden County is created from Hampshire County, the last major change to Massachusetts’ county boundaries
1820 Maine splits from
Massachusetts to become its own state 1845 The Great Famine
begins, driving immigration from Ireland to the
Vital records have been maintained at the town level since Colonial times, with copies mandated by the commonwealth since 1841. (Massachusetts was the first state to create a permanent, statewide vital record-keeping system.) Even better, the state imposes no restrictions for access, making Massachusetts the most open vital record state in the country. Ancestry.com has a comprehensive collection of town records dating up to 1988. Vital records from 1931 to the present can be obtained from the state vital records office. Records from 1841 to 1930 are at the state archives; earlier records are only documented at the town level.
Massachusetts has been recorded in every US federal census, the first of which was taken in 1790. Records of the decennial census are available through 1950 at sites such as FamilySearch, Ancestry.com and MyHeritage. Note that all of Massachusetts’ records from the 1890 census have been lost, and Boston and most of Suffolk County are omitted from the 1800 census. Records of state-level censuses survive for 1855 and 1865. You can find them at FamilySearch, Ancestry.com and American Ancestors.
Massachusetts’ first city directory was published in 1789 for Boston. The Boston Public Library has a guide to online directories, plus a small collection of its own. Ancestry.com has a collection from the New England Historic Genealogical Society as well as a large collection of directories from around the country. City directories can be used to great advantage to fill in address gaps from the loss of 1890 federal census returns.
Boston was a prominent port of entry for immigrants. You can find passenger lists from 1820 to 1963 at Ancestry.com, and lists from 1848 to 1891 at the state archive. Note that passenger lists weren’t required by the US government until 1820; early immigration might have been documented in Filby and Meyer’s Passenger and Immigration Lists Index and other published sources.
Naturalization papers could have been filed in local, state or federal courts. The state government website has a helpful overview of how to find naturalization records. The state judicial archives hold post-1906 records from the state superior courts, and the National Archives holds post-1906 records from federal courts. Pre-1906 records from all courts were registered in a Soundex index in the 1930s; find a searchable version at FamilySearch. Copies of some records are available at the National Archives at Waltham (Boston) or the state archives.
The state archives hold records of militia/National Guard personnel up to 1940 and active duty records of Massachusetts servicemen and women from 1861 to 1919, as well as records from early colonial wars and the American Revolution. Many of these records have been digitized by FamilySearch. The multi-volume “Massachusetts Soldiers, Sailors and Marines in the Civil War” on the state library’s website is the most-complete list of Massachusetts
residents who served in the Civil War.
Land was initially distributed by colonial authorities to proprietors, who eventually divided it up to individual families. Given the proliferation of vital and other town records, land records are less critical in Massachusetts than in other states. Still, FamilySearch has a large collection of grants, patents, deeds and mortgages dating to 1620.
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