A Middlesex muddle

In the last post I talked about Massachusetts court records in general. Now let’s look closer at some examples from Middlesex County.

For the earliest records, the easiest entry point is the abstracts made by Thomas Wyman in the mid-nineteenth-century that are available as a database on AmericanAncestors, under the Category “Court, Land and Probate Records,” and database “Middlesex County, MA: Abstracts of Court Records, 1643-1674.” Wyman abstracted all the names that appear in the records and basic information about the cases, but otherwise no details. An example (members may need to log in) can be found here.

At the top of this page is a notation “Seventh File.” The date of the individual document appears on the left, and you will find under “#2” a record dated “1656.1.23” (i.e., 23 March 1656[/57]) concerning “John Slater an apprentice who has been wronged by being sold to one and another.”

No “minutes” were kept of court proceedings, but the original documents – written testimony, verdicts, fines, correspondence, wills, deeds, etc. – were saved in “packets” arranged by court session. If we look at the FamilySearch catalog for Middlesex Court Files we see: “Court papers – Folios 1-26 1648-1661,” which certainly looks like it might contain Wyman’s Seventh File, but once we look at Folio 7 we find it does not coordinate at all. It would seem the packets have been rearranged and renumbered between when Wyman saw them circa 1850 and when they were microfilmed in the twentieth century.

It would seem the packets have been rearranged and renumbered between when Wyman saw them circa 1850 and when they were microfilmed in the twentieth century.

So we now go, instead, to: “Card index to court papers, S-Wi 1636-1785,”[1] and using the “Browse multiple images” selection, just hunt and peck our way through the images (there are 5705 in this file), which are arranged, more or less, alphabetically, until we find “John Slater.” A fun game to play to “narrow down the image we want” is to start by typing in random number, say image 1000 – nope, this brings us to Smith. Next a lower number, perhaps 900 – nope, too far back, we are now among the Simpsons. Continuing the game of back and forth, we will eventually find the index card for John Slater on image 944.(IMPORTANT: Always note the image number of every item you locate, otherwise you will be hunting and pecking all over again to locate it a second time.)

The index card gives John Slater’s name and describes the case as “To have wrongs righted.” In the upper right corner are the numbers “1656-19-4.” 1656 designates the year the document was made, but the “19-4” is not a date, it refers to Folio 19, Group 4.

Returning to the main catalog page, we scroll down again to: “Court papers – Folios 1-26 1648-1661,” but this time we are looking for Folio 19. Each Folio begins with an inventory of the documents in the folio. Hunting and pecking again, we find the inventory for Folio 19 on image #473. This image is very light, but by enlarging it on screen, we can just barely find under “Group IV” the entry “q: John Slater wrongs righted in court.”

It would, of course, be nice if the documents had been microfilmed in the same order they appear on the Inventories. More hunting and pecking – this time made even more difficult by the “scrapbook” arrangement of the original documents which were pasted on large pages, arranged any which way the most could be squeezed in per page, left, right, or upside down. On the good side index cards describing the case to which the document belongs are pasted close to the document. On the bad side, the writing on these index cards is often the least legible on the page.

I finally found the entry for John Slater on image #499: at the top of the right side of the page is a very light image of Gov. Richard Bellingham’s summons to the constable of Concord to bring John Slater, apprentice, to the next court for the purpose of righting his alleged wrongs. There is no index entry for any succeeding court proceedings, nor a verdict to tell us the outcome of this action, which is not unusual. The case may never have gotten to court.

Now, what if you cannot read the documents at all, either because of the faintness of the image or the difficulty of the handwriting? In the next post, we will look at the “copy book” versions of the documents, and of the nineteenth-century copy books of the copy books, to see where we might find more legible images.


[1] With the caveat that many of the index cards, and some documents, were lost or even stolen before the collections were microfilmed.

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.

15 thoughts on “A Middlesex muddle

    1. Yes, I learned it in math class, though I couldn’t tell you what it was called. It was about my limit in understanding math.

  1. Luckily I find the game you describe fun to play. Which helps because there are many sources available online that are not indexed and require a version of this game. The most annoying Files I have found are those that are organized alphabetically by first name.

      1. I just read recently about the David Library of the American Revolution…which is organized by the order in which materials were acquired! At least it has been until now. It is moving from its original emote location to Philadelphia, where it will join with the American Philosophical Society and lose many of its quirks.

        1. Pamela, I have encountered collections numbered by acquisition date, but they usually have a card index or something to names. Good to know this one is getting some attention.

  2. Your discussion about browsing images on FamilySearch is good, especially noting the image number when you finally find the page.
    I have this week been slogging through York Co. Maine Land Records that are only available at a FHL library or affiliate. They are indexed, but I recommend taking the hours of time to go through these images one by one at least by year. Why? Because the indexes do not cover every name. For instance, that the grantor purchased the property from a named individual and sometimes a year. That has given me some great ah-ha moments.

    1. Carole, Excellent tip. Same thing holds true for probate as well as court records. Indexing was by principle parties only. Just something more to make us dig deeper.

      1. Hi, Thanks for this information. I have found that my distant great grandfather, John Moore (1611-1674) is listed in the abstracts as having given testimony about the Indians. Vol. 2, page 5 Colonial Court papers. I went to the MA Archives in 2017, but this record was not found. I have long wondered what his testimony was about. This was just prior to King Philip’s War. Do you think it likely I could this method to search for this entry? I’d have to do this some month when I have more time! I hope I don’t lose this information!

        1. Maureen, Much of the same system will work for your search, although the card index will not be any help in the case of Thomas Moore, because it does not index names of those who gave testimony, etc., just the principals in the case.

          Presumably, the case will be among those kept in the folios for 1647-1672 (https://www.familysearch.org/search/film/007902664?cat=210946), so it is probably a matter of hunting and pecking until you spot the date or some of the other names on the abstract page.

          Good luck.

  3. I have a question about Middlesex Court Records for the readers of this blog.

    In the Michael S. Hindus guide to Massachusetts Bay records, there is usually one entry for each type of court in each county.

    But in Middlesex County, there are two different entries for Court of the General Sessions of the Peace and three different entries for the Court of Common Pleas, each describing records of different date ranges.

    Can anyone help me understand what’s really out there for Middlesex County?

    1. Jeff, apologies for being late in answering. I think what you are talking about is different copies of the same records. There are the originals and later transcriptions, such as done by David Pulsifer. Middlesex is quite a mess to work with.

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