City Guide: Boston

By Sunny McClellan Morton Premium

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Boston was just a tiny peninsula when Puritans settled there nearly 400 years ago. Over time, Bostonians tripled the land area by leveling rocky hills and filling in the shoreline to create new neighborhoods where water once stood. Whether your ancestors contributed to the city’s growth as Irish laborers or “Boston Brahmin,” you’ll find them in records charting the rise of this City on a Hill.

Beantown backstory
In fall 1630, a group of Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans claimed the site of Boston for their ideal city. Protected from Indian attacks by land and welcoming to visitors by sea, Boston soon overtook the nearby Pilgrim settlement of Plymouth as the colony’s dominant port.

Boston grew steadily before the Revolutionary War as English settlers trickled in. In the 1800s, Boston became one of the world’s wealthiest and most popular ports. Irish arrived in droves: 100,000 between 1846 and 1849 alone. Significant numbers of Italians and Jews also lived in Boston by 1900, followed by African-Americans, Syrian- Lebanese and Puerto Ricans in the 20th century.

Public landfill projects employed many 1800s immigrants; others worked in mills and factories. Some became community leaders, bankers and merchants. But social and economic leadership resided mainly with long-established English families, the elitist “Boston Brahmins.”

By the mid-1700s, Bostonians were leaving to settle points inland and along the coast. After the Revolutionary War, a steady stream of New Englanders left for newly opened lands in the Midwest. Still Boston grew, from 25,000 residents in 1800 to more than 500,000 in 1900. The city’s population peaked around 800,000 in 1950 before gradually returning to the half-million mark at the close of the century.

Boston research hints
With 400 years of history to explore, you’ll find plenty about your Boston ancestors. Note that Suffolk County exists only as a geographic area. Its county government was abolished in 1999; the state took over most functions.

  • Vital records: Boston’s vital records date to 1630. Initially, town clerks recorded only marriages consistently. Births often were recorded just at churches. The state mandated birth and death record-keeping in 1841, but Boston didn’t comply until 1848. Official records before 1849 contain only about two-thirds of marriages and 7 percent of births and deaths, with the greatest holes in the 1700s.

    Both the city and state have vital records offices. Request records from the city for any year, or the state for 1916 on. The Massachusetts Archives has vital records for 1841 to 1915 (indexes at

    Almost all Boston vital records are indexed and available to rent on microfilm through your local FamilySearch Center, a branch of the Family History Library (FHL) Nearly 40 volumes of pre-1850 vital records are searchable on Google Books; search for Report of the Record Commissioners of the City of Boston. Subscription vital records databases are also available through the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) and .

  • Church records: Boston church records are a key source of vital statistics. Michael Leclerc of NEHGS recommends consulting marriage records for the officiant’s name and denomination, and using city directories to find the church nearest your ancestor’s home. The state historical society, NEHGS and FHL have Boston church records. NEHGS members can access an online database of about 140,000 records.
  • City directories: Boston city directories start in 1789, with some gaps in the early years. The 1800 city directory is an excellent surrogate for Boston’s missing federal census. NEHGS has a reprint of the first directory, annotated by a 19th-century Bostonian. The Boston Public Library has the full run of directories. Browse or search many directories at Boston Streets The 1890 Boston directory is also on
  • Cemetery records: The City of Boston opened its first cemetery in 1630. Local genealogist Robin C. Mason searches the city’s free headstones database for familiar surnames, then consults Find A Grave, the Farber Gravestone Collection or NEHGS’ Old Cemeteries of Boston online database (members only).
  • Passenger manifests: More than a million people entered the Port of Boston in the second half of the 1800s alone. Passenger records begin in 1820; from 1848 to 1891, the state kept passenger lists for each vessel with name, age, gender, occupation, birth country and arrival date.

    Customs passenger lists prior to 1883 were destroyed by fire; but transcriptions or copies exist for many of those years. has 5.7 million searchable, digitzed records of Boston passengers and crew (1820 to 1942). Search an in-progress database of 1820-to-1891 arrivals from the state archives’ card file at

  • Newspapers: Boston newspapers have proliferated for centuries. Obituaries and marriage notices are most easily and often found in the Boston Herald (since 1846), Boston Globe (1872), and Columbian Centinel (1784), but it’s worth tracking down ethnic and neighborhood papers such as the Jewish Advocate (since 1902, with a free obituary database

    The Boston Public Library houses the city’s best newspaper collection, with obituary and marriage indexes dating to the 1700s. It also hosts a free database of recent obituaries Although it doesn’t provide research services, the library will do specific lookups upon request. At NEHGS, you’ll find indexes to several Boston newspapers and members-only access to a Boston obituary index (1704 to 1930) with more than 15,000 entries. Ask your local library about accessing other historical newspaper databases.

  • Land records: The Suffolk Registry of Deeds maintains original or microfilmed deeds since the early 1600s. To request copies, you’ll need a volume and page number from on-site printed indexes (the registry doesn’t do lookups). The earliest Boston deeds also appear in Suffolk Deeds 1629-1697 (search Google Books). Older deeds are also at the Massachusetts Archives. Deeds filed since 1975 are indexed at
  • Probate: Boston probate records since the 1630s are at the Massachusetts Archives, mostly in the Judicial Archives section. Dockets are indexed by county, and most of the time you’ll be searching microfilm rather than originals. The first 30 years of county estate records are in Suffolk County Wills, published by NEHGS. Several volumes index Suffolk probate records from 1636 to 1958.
  • Maps: Boston’s shape has changed dramatically over time due to landfill projects and border shifts. For example, most of original Suffolk County split off from Boston and Chelsea in 1793, and Boston annexed several towns from Middlesex County around the turn of the 20th century.
  • Use historical maps to pinpoint an ancestor’s location. You’ll find excellent collections at the Boston Public Library and Massachusetts Historical Society. View Boston atlases at the Boston Streets website for free; NEHGS members can view digitized Sanborn maps on its website.

Fast Facts

  • Settled: 1630
  • Incorporated: Sept. 17, 1630
  • Nicknames: Athens of America, Beantown, Cradle of Liberty
  • State: Massachusetts
  • County: Suffolk (county government abolished in 1999)
  • Area: 42 square miles
  • Motto: Sicut Patribus Sit Deus Nobis (Latin for “God be with us as he was with our fathers”)
  • Primary historical ethnic groups: Irish, English, Italian, Jewish, Syrian, Puerto Rican
  • Primary historical industries: trade, fishing, manufacturing, education
  • Famous sons & daughters: Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Lloyd Garrison, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Paul Revere, Henry David Thoreau

Tip: Learn about more helpful resources for tracing Bostonians at




  • Historical Data Relating to Counties, Cities and Towns in Massachusetts by William Francis Galvin (NEHGS)
  • Memorial History of Boston including Suffolk County, Massachusetts, 1630-1880 edited by Justin Winsor (online at
  • A Researcher’s Guide to Boston by Ann S. Lainhart (NEHGS)
  • Resources for Jewish Genealogy in the Boston Area by Warren Blatt (Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Boston)

Archives & Organizations

1625: William Blaxton settles Boston Common alone
1630: Puritan colonists establish Boston
1635: Harvard College becomes first American university
1660: Mary Dyer hanged for being a Quake
1770: Boston Massacre
1773: Boston Tea Party
1872: Great Boston Fire causes $60 million in damages
1879: Mary Baker Eddy founds Christian Scientist faith
1919: Boston Molasses Disaster kills 21, injures 150
1942: Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire kills 492 people
2004: Boston Red Sox win their first World Series in 84 years

Records at a Glance

Birth records

  • Begin: 1630
  • Privacy restrictions: Only those named in records of out-of-wedlock births may request the records.
  • Research tips: Request by mail from city for $15, plus $10 research fee if before 1870. An application form is online


  • Federal: begins 1790 (1800 schedules were lost)
  • State censuses: 1855 and 1865
  • Research tips: The state censuses are similar in content and format to the federal census.

Church records

City directories

  • Begin: 1789
  • Research tips: Many years searchable for free online.

Death records

  • Begin: 1630
  • Research tips: Request by mail from city for $15, plus $10 if before 1870. Application form is online (see Birth).


  • Begin: early 1600s
  • Research tips: Need volume and page number, found in printed indexes on-site. Request copies in person or by mail at 50 cents per page.

Marriage records

  • Begin: 1630
  • Privacy restrictions: If bride or groom was born out of wedlock, only he or she may request.
  • Research tips: Request by mail from city for $15, plus $10 if before 1870. Application form is online (see Birth).

Related Resources

Top Five Historic Sites

1. Bunker Hill Monument and Museum
43 Monument Square, Charlestown, MA 02129,
At the site of the first major battle of the American Revolution, visit a 221-foot granite obelisk at the crest of the hill and tour a museum honoring the famous battle.

2. Freedom Trail
Boston Common Visitor Information Center, Boston, MA, (617) 357-8300,
Take a self-guided tour or walk with a costumed interpreter along this trail linking many of Boston’s most famous historic sites, including the Old North Church and burial grounds dating to the 1600s.

3. The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Columbia Point, Boston, MA 02125, (866) 535-1960,
This museum overlooking Boston Harbor shares the legacy of President John F. Kennedy through multimedia exhibits and period settings.

4. Old State House Museum
206 Washington St., Boston, MA 02109, (617) 720-1713,
Built in 1713, the Old State House was the backdrop for much of the drama leading to the American Revolution. Now Boston’s oldest public building, it shares the stories of Samuel Adams, John Hancock and others.

5. USS Constitution
Charlestown Navy Yard, Boston, MA 02129,
The oldest commissioned warship in the world that’s still afloat, “Old Ironsides” launched in 1798 and became famous for its performance in the War of 1812.

From the March 2011 Family Tree Magazine.