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Massachusetts History and Research Overview

By Family Tree Editors Premium

Massachusetts is one of the earliest US settlements, but it was actually two separate colonies for most of the 17th century. Plymouth Colony was founded by Pilgrims in 1620, and it eventually expanded to include Plymouth, Barnstable and Bristol counties. Reverend John White and his New England Co. arrived at Cape Ann in 1628 and established the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which consisted of the towns north of the Merrimack River, plus New Hampshire and Suffolk Counties. In 1691, a charter united the two colonies and added parts of Maine and Nova Scotia. Those following religions different from the original settlers left voluntarily or were banished to other parts of New England.

Military conflicts characterize Massachusetts’ colonial period, from King Philip’s War (1675 to 1676) between settlers and the Narragansett Indians, to European campaigns fought on American soil, such as the French and Indian War. Massachusetts residents sparked the American Revolution with the Boston Tea Party; they also hosted first skirmish of the war. Massachusetts became the sixth state in 1788.

Trade for goods produced in Massachusetts was a critical part of the economy throughout the colonial period, but the state’s economy became global in the 19th century with markets including South America and the Orient. The Industrial Revolution gave rise to textile and shoe factories that employed farm girls and later, immigrants from Europe, especially Ireland, Italy and Germany. By the 20th century, newcomers from all over the world sought business, educational and cultural opportunities in Massachusetts.

(click to enlarge)
Massachusetts state map with county outlines


  • Before delving into local records, explore major research repositories, such as the Massachusetts State Archives
  • Take advantage of the wealth of published histories, genealogies and records of Massachusetts before venturing into unpublished manuscripts in state and local collections.
  • Boundary and land disputes can affect where your ancestor’s records are. They may even be in a neighboring state.


  • Federal census: 1790, 1800, 1810, 1820, 1830, 1840, 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930
  • Federal mortality schedules: 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880
  • State census: 1855 and 1865
  • Special census of Civil War Union veterans and widows: 1890


  • Baptists in Massachusetts by John Woolman Brush (Judson Press, 1970)
  • The Bay Colony: A Civil, Religious and Social history of the Massachusetts Colony and its Settlements from the landing at Cape Ann in 1624 to the Death of Governor Withrop in 1650 by William Dummer Northend (filmed by the Library of Congress Photoduplication Service, 1988)
  • Bibliography of the Local History of Massachusetts by Jeremiah Colburn (University Microfilms, 1989)
  • Biographical History of Massachusetts by Samuel Atkins Eliot (Massachusetts Biographical Society, 1911-1918)
  • Card Index to the Massachusetts Archives by the Massachusetts State Archives (filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1972-1973)
  • Catalog of Manuscripts of the Massachusetts Historical Society (G.K. Hall, 1969)
  • Chronicles of the First Planters of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay from 1623 to 1636 by Alexander Young (C.C. Little and J. Brown, 1846)
  • Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers of the Colony of Plymouth, from 1602 to 1625 by Alexander Young (C.C. Little and J. Brown, 1844)
  • Commonwealth History of Massachusetts: Colony, Province, and State; with the Cooperation of an Advisory Board of forty-two learned bodies, 5 vols., by Albert Bushnell Hart (States History, ca. 1927-ca. 1930)
  • Encyclopedia of Massachusetts, Biographical-Genealogical (American Historical Society, ca. 1916)
  • The English Ancestry and Homes of the Pilgrim Fathers: Who Came to Plymouth on the “Mayflower” in 1620, the “Fortune” in 1621, and the “Anne” and the “Little James” in 1623 by Charles Edward Banks (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1962)
  • English Origins of New England Families: From The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, first series by Gary Boyd Roberts (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1984)
  • The Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, 1784-1984 by Mark J. Duffy (Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, 1984)
  • Families of the Pilgrims by Huber Kinney Shaw (The Society, ca. 1956)
  • A Genealogical Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England by James Savage (filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1961)
  • Genealogical and Personal Memoirs Relating to the Families of the State of Massachusetts by William F. Adams and William R. Cutter (Lewis Historical Publishing Co., 1910)
  • Genealogical Research in New England by Ralph J. Crandall (Genealogical Publishing Co., ca. 1984)
  • Genealogies of Mayflower Families: From The New England Historical and Genealogical Register by Gary Boyd Roberts (Genealogical Publishing Co., ca. 1985)
  • Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research by Marcia Wiswall Lindberg (New England Historic Genealogical Society, ca. 1993)
  • A Guide to the History of Massachusetts by Martin Kaufman et al. (Greenwood Press, ca. 1988)
  • A Guide to Massachusetts Local History by Charles A. Flagg (Salem Press Co., ca. 1907)
  • Historical Collections by John Warner Barber (Dorr, Howland, 1839)
  • John Winthrop and the Great Colony, or, Sketches of the Settlement of Boston, and of the more prominent persons connected with the Massachusetts Colony by Charles K. True (filmed by the Library of Congress Photoduplication Service, 1989)
  • King and People in Provincial Massachusetts by Richard L. Bushman (University of North Carolina Press, ca. 1985)
  • Massachusetts, 1620-1930 (Broderbund, ca. 1998, CD-ROM)
  • Massachusetts Bay Connections: Historical and Biographical Sketches of the Towns and Communities of the Massachusetts Bay Colony by Judy Jacobson (Clearfield Co., ca. 1992)
  • Massachusetts, A Bibliography of its History by John D. Haskell (University Press of New England, ca. 1983)
  • Massachusetts Biographical Dictionary (American Historical Publications, 1988)
  • Massachusetts Episcopalians, 1607-1957 by Dudley Tyng (Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, ca. 1960)
  • Massachusetts Genealogical Research by George K. Schweitzer (G.K. Schweitzer, ca. 1990)
  • Massachusetts and Maine Families: In the Ancestry of Walter Goodwin Davis (1885-1966) by Walter Goodwin Davis (Genealogical Publishing Co., ca. 1996)
  • Massachusetts Research Outlines by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (online at
  • Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants: the Bowman files by George Ernest Bowman (Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, 1983)
  • The Mayflower Reader: A selection of articles from The Mayflower Descendant by George Ernest Bowman (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1996)
  • Pilgrim Genealogies and Histories (Broderbund, ca. 1999, CD-ROM)
  • The Pilgrim Republic: An Historical Review of the Colony of New Plymouth by John A. Goodwin (filmed by the Library of Congress Photoduplication Service, 1986)
  • The Pioneers of Massachusetts: by Charles Henry Pope (filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1973 )
  • Plymouth Colony, Its History & People 1620—1691 by Eugene Aubrey Stratton (Ancestry Publishing, ca. 1986)
  • The Plymouth Scrap Book: The Oldest Original Documents Extant in Plymouth Archives Printed Verbatim, Some Reproduced, with a Review of Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation by Charles Henry Pope (C.E. Goodspeed, 1918)
  • Preliminary Edition of Guide to Depositories of Manuscript Collections in Massachusetts by the Historical Records Survey (The Survey, 1939)
  • Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts (The Society, 1895)
  • The Quaker Invasion of Massachusetts by Richard P. Hallowell (Heritage Books, 1987)
  • Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England edited by Nathaniel B. Shurtleff (Heritage Books, 1998)
  • Report on the Custody and Condition of the Public Records of Parishes, Towns, and Counties by the Massachusetts Commissioner of Public Records (Wright & Potter Printing Company, 1889)
  • The Rich Men of Massachusetts by Abner Forbes (filmed by the Library of Congress Photoduplication Service, 1989)
  • A Surname Guide to Massachusetts Town Histories by Phyllis O. Longver (Heritage Books, ca. 1993)

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From the Family Tree Sourcebook
Also available: the State Research Guide Book, State Research Guides CD and The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy.