Ease of use

In my work on the current “Watertown Cluster” for the Early New England Families Study Project, I am getting a heavy refresher course in the records of Middlesex County, Massachusetts. In the olden days, I would get on the Green Line and go to the Middlesex County Court House in Cambridge to access probate records. Today, I find online access is both a blessing and a curse.

AmericanAncestors.org has images of Middlesex County probate files, but in my search on William Parry/Perry of Watertown, I found that the image of his original will from these files is indecipherable (to me, at least).[1] In such cases, the next step is to access the copy book versions of the records, images of which are accessible on FamilySearch.org.[2] You won’t, however, find these records in the usual “Search-Records-Find a Collection” page. Instead, you will need to use “Search-Catalog-Subject” for “Middlesex County Probate”; use this link.

This should take you to a list with two Middlesex County probate collections on top. The first is the collection of “Probate Packets,” which are the images from the original files arranged chronologically. The second is called “Probate Records,” and includes the images from the “Docket Books” with cases arranged alphabetically, giving both the case file number and the citations to the copy books. The main advantage of copy books is that they were written by clerks with better handwriting than the originals. When you choose the “Probate Records” option, you get this result.

The main advantage of copy books is that they were written by clerks with better handwriting than the originals.

For my search on William Parry, I accessed “Probate docket Pa-Ri” and found on page 151 the entry for “No. 17251 William Parry of Watertown” (some readers will need to log in here). I already knew from accessing the image on AmericanAncestors.org that the case number was 17251, and if I needed to, I could see the same images here using “Probate papers 17249–17365,”[3] but I was looking for the citations of copybook volumes and pages. In this case it tells me that the “Will & Memo recorded” is in copy book 6, page 154, and “Inventory (Anna Perry Extrx)” follows on page 157.[4]

Next, I backed up and did a search in the main list for “Probate records (copies) v. 6*”[5] and found “v. 6-7 1682–1705.” (If I had not found v.6* I would have tried 5*, 7* or 8*, for example, as there are usually two to three volumes on each microfilm roll. Otherwise, you will have to scroll down a long way to find what you need.) This tells me those records are on microfilm #52178, and digital image #7554520.

I click the little camera icon for the digital images. Using the thumbnail view option, I hunt and peck until I find page 154.

And here, at last, I am brought to a wonderful nineteenth-century copy of Will. Perry’s will that surprises me with a codicil I had no idea was on the original. (I will now use the copy to see if I can read the original any better with it as a crutch.) It was so much easier in the Court House when one could just pull the volumes off the shelves!

In my next post, I will attempt to make some sense of the notorious Middlesex County Court records.


[1] Middlesex County Probate File #17251.

[2] The same images are on Ancestry.com, but are more difficult to use there.

[3] The case numbers on these records do not match the numbers on the “Packet” files.

[4] There is also an added note (“See also Miscellaneous Index & Records Page 319”), which I was unable to locate.

[5] Not “Probate records (originals).”

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.

11 thoughts on “Ease of use

  1. Excellent step by step instruction. “Copy books” were a new twist to the research for me. I’ve not seen them in other counties such as Plymouth MA, and many in Maine.

  2. The Miscellaneous Index & Records reference in the Docket books are to a volume “compiled and written by Mrs. Alice E. Busiel who was for many years a faithful and efficient clerk in the Probate Office for the County of Middlesex” made in April 1917 and “contains copies of papers and records and some abstracts from papers prior to the appointment of a Judge of Probate in 1692.” This volume is on FHL film 0,385,974. For those estates probated by June 1676, the information from this volume by Mrs. Busiel is included in the 3 volumes of “Middlesex County in the Colony of the Massachusetts Bay in New England: Records of Probate and Administration” by Robert H. Rodgers.

  3. Oh, Alicia, I had such hope. I didn’t expect to find my George Phillips (he died in 1644), but perhaps one of his children? Your instructions let me precisely to the dockets for Phillips, but none of his children were there. Still, the exercise was extremely valuable, and I really appreciate the tutorial!

  4. Not only was it “easier in the Court House when one could just pull the volumes off the shelves” but it was also much more satisfying as one tugged on the heavy volumes wiith their thick board covers, feeling the weight as it slid along the rollers and dropped into your waiting arms. Opening the huge green covers to reveal lined pages full of 150-year-old writing that detailed secrets and substance of your ancestors was exciting and … delicious. I highly recommend the experience to everyone!

  5. I was a bored child when I pedaled to the town Hall to do an invented research project. I was allowed to go through the musty old file books resting on polished wooden shelves that smelled so good and full of history. Kathryn is right when she remembers the challenge. I got to see death records and what people died from in the earlier days. I still have the notes I made as a child.
    When I went back down memory lane, the records had been “preserved” in plastic stuff that didn’t feel at all like turning the old pages and smelling that old library smell. You are right, those days are gone. I am accepting the challenge of computer based information, and it’s good to see photocopies when they are legible.

  6. Great information! Now hopefully I can use these steps to find my elusive Hazeltine/Haseltine ancestors. Thank you!

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