Mixing it up in Middlesex

At the end of my last post on locating digital images of Middlesex Probate Court records, I promised to deal with the topic of other “Court Records.” Pull up a chair, this may take some time.

For this discussion, for the sake of simplicity, I will only be talking about records in Massachusetts Bay Colony. In the beginning, a “General Court” was established in Boston for the entire colony. These colony records have long been published in Nathaniel B. Shurtleff, ed., Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England, 1628–1686, 5 vols. in 6 (Boston, 1853).

Massachusetts Bay Colony, however, grew so fast that the legislature was obliged to begin establishing court locations away from Boston, such as Salem, to save travel expenses and hardship for citizens of outlying towns. That soon also proved inadequate, and in 1643 Massachusetts Bay Colony established four county jurisdictions: Suffolk, Middlesex, Essex, and “Old Norfolk.” The latter has nothing to do with the Norfolk County we know today. It included some towns in the north of what later became Essex County, and some towns in southern New Hampshire, all of which were eventually absorbed into either Essex or New Hampshire county courts. We are not going to talk about “Old Norfolk Country” in this discussion, but I direct you to Wikipedia.

[In] 1643 Massachusetts Bay Colony established four county jurisdictions: Suffolk, Middlesex, Essex, and “Old Norfolk.”

Each of the jurisdictions had two basic types of “Inferior” courts. These were the Courts of General Sessions and Courts of Common Pleas, which had full authority in civil and criminal cases “except for divorce and crimes involving life, limb or banishment,” which were still handled by the General Court in Boston. Each jurisdiction assigned magistrates who lived in the respective counties.

“General Sessions” dealt with criminal activity, prosecuting those who had broken the law. “Common Pleas” dealt with civil suits between individuals or groups, for such things as debt, trespass, or damages done by your hogs running wild in your neighbor’s corn field.

Those of you who have ancestors in Essex County are undoubtedly familiar with the lovely series Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Massachusetts, 1636–1686, 9 vols. (Salem, Mass.: 1897–1909). These are available in hard copy at many libraries, and digital versions of the books can be viewed and/or downloaded from such providers as www.archive.org and www.hathitrust.org. In addition, digital images of some of the earliest original records are also available here.

For those of you who have ancestors in Suffolk County, you may not be aware of a similar publication, although covering a much shorter period of time, in volumes 29 and 30 of the Collections of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts: Records of the Suffolk County Court, 1671–1680. Until recently these books have only been available in libraries, but the Colonial Society of Massachusetts has recently made available on their website OCR scans of all of their published works. Again, digital images of original Suffolk County records 1629-1797 are also available here.

Middlesex County, on the other hand, has never had any of its court records published, although “Middlesex County, Massachusetts, Abstracts of Court Records 1643-1674” compiled by Thomas Bellows Wyman sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, is among the NEHGS member databases; it presents short descriptions of the type of case and names of individuals that appear in the record files for that case, but no details. Otherwise, access to Middlesex county’s court records, even today, is limited to poorly-indexed, fuzzy and confusing digital images accessible here.

Next time, the Middlesex Muddle.

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.

8 thoughts on “Mixing it up in Middlesex

  1. Hi Alicia,

    Thank you for your article! I have been trying to decipher court records that have to do with my Moore family from Sudbury, Middlesex County. The writing is tremendously difficult to read! I only understand certain words, and fail miserably to pick up a lot of it. I found these records at the Massachusetts Archives a few summers ago and took pictures of them. I didn’t find everything I was looking for, so will check your link above. I am very interested in reading your next post!

    Also, I have a few questions: Do you know in what building the Middlesex General Court was held? Is that building still standing? Are there, by chance, any drawings of the inside of the courtroom?



    1. Hi Maureen,

      In those early days there was no court “house” and the records do not state specifically where any of the courts were held. They would have been held where there was room for everyone, in some cases the magistrate’s home, but more often at the “meeting hall”/church of the town, perhaps rotating among towns.

    1. John, thank you. You are correct on the publication dates. I had not found full digital access to Vol. 9, so thanks for the Virginia link too!

      1. All Plymouth Colony Records as published by Shurtleff are also available as a searchable database, with a host of other documents of genealogical interest, at the following project site:

        Click on the one word link to get to the document choice site, which is presented visually as the main floor of a very large colonial house:

        Why the 1st link that came up on Google was to U. of Illinois, I’ve no idea. Under the direction of James Deetz, this was originally supported by the U of Virginia and should still be found through the main page of the link John cites above. And I don’t know what the status is of the original idea to get online essential colonial records of the 17th century. Last changes for the PC main page are dated 2007.

        But do visit each of the rooms; you’ll recognize what they have and what they don’t have. (i used this online publication for the PC records I used in those several re-writes of the EB2 article I floated 10+ years ago.)

        1. Thanks for the interesting information on court records. I looked up images of the original Essex Court records. In general, it is not easy to read. However, in some cases the writing is not even in English – it can only be described as shorthand. Is this possibly the case? If so, what system did they use? I can send an example if needed.

        2. Bob, a belated thank you for the reminder about this site, which I hadn’t thought about in a long time.

  2. Phil, I have not encountered it, but I would not be surprised if there was “court short hand.” Theoretically, there should also be a transcription from the shorthand in the papers. too. Can you e-mail the link to one of those pages at alicia.williams@nehgr.org .

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