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Source Information

Ancestry.com. Essex County, Massachusetts Probate Records, 1635-1681 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2002.
Original data: George Francis Dow, ed. The Probate Records of Essex County, Massachusetts. Vol. I-II. Salem, MA, USA: Essex Institute, 1916-1920.

About Essex County, Massachusetts Probate Records, 1635-1681

This database contains probate records (legal records associated with the dividing up of a deceased person's property) from Essex County, Massachusetts for the years 1635-81. In 1628, a "Greate and Generall Court" was organized in the colony of Massachusetts. This court met four times every year and held all the judicial powers of the colony. In 1635, quarterly courts were established and kept in several of the larger towns of the colony. Salem and Ipswich, which are today part of the county of Essex, where two of those towns chosen to hold this type of court. Quarterly courts were given power over probate matters, even though for some time probate business was still taken to the Great and General Court. In 1643, the colony of Massachusetts was divided into counties. The towns of Amesbury, Haverhill, and Salisbury, which today are all part of Essex County, were then included in Norfolk County. They remained part of Norfolk County until 1679, when the county boundaries changed. In 1692, probate courts were organized in each county. These county courts remain in existence today. Records found in this database come from the following original sources:

Records of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (shurtleff), Boston 1854 Vol. 6

  • Massachusetts Archives
  • Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County and Old Norfolk County
  • Old Norfolk County Deeds
  • Ipswich Deeds
  • Ipswich Town Records
  • Suffolk County Probate Records
  • Records and Docket of the Probate Court of Essex County

Wills are printed in their entirety excluding the preamble, which does not state any material fact. This sort of omission is noted by an ellipsis. Names are spelled exactly as they were found in original sources. Each volume has an index of the estates and the years in which they were probated.

The probate process transfers the legal responsibility for payment of taxes, care and custody of dependent family members, liquidation of debts, and transfer of property title to heirs from the deceased to an executor/executrix (where there is a will), to an administrator/administratix (if the person dies intestate - without a will), or to a guardian/conservator if there are heirs under the age of twenty-one years or in cases where a person has become incompetent through disease or disability.

Probate records can provide an intimate glimpse into the lifestyle of an ancestor and specific facts about the family. From wills, you can discover how often the men on your pedigree entrusted their assets to a wife, whether all sons inherited equally, how the daughters fared in comparison, whether a man distributed his property to his children before his death, and who was instructed to care for the widow and younger children or for incapacitated or handicapped family members. Servants were sometimes released by will and slaves freed.

Also revealed in a will is biographical information: title, occupation, religious affiliation, age, place of residence, place of property ownership, associates of the family, and relationship to prominent families in the area.

The probate inventory gives other insights into your family's life and how your family compared to others in the community. If items are listed room by room and the rooms labeled, you know who slept where. A man was often judged by the kind of bed he slept in, so inventories usually listed bed and bedding in considerable detail: bed curtains imply a canopied bed to keep out cold drafts. Featherbeds, sheets, coverlets, blankets, and spreads may also be listed separately.

A comparison of inventories from one generation of the family to another will show improvements in living conditions - from fireplace cooking to stoves, from enclosed bedsteads to heated bedrooms, from wooden platters to china. Glass in windows, unless bequeathed as heirlooms to a family member, could be sold separately from a house, so panes may be listed in the inventory as well.

An inventory is also useful for distinguishing between persons of the same name by matching inventory contents, such as horses, cattle, and pigs, with tax rolls and agricultural census entries. You can also prove the relationship between a man and his children with property, real or personal, listed in inventories and wills from one generation to the next.

Taken from Chapter 7: Research in Court Records, The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy by Arlene H. Eakle; edited by Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking (Salt Lake City, UT: Ancestry Incorporated, 1997).