Lucky Essex County

I have always suspected that people with ancestors in Essex County, Massachusetts, do not know how lucky they are. I used to enviously wander among the stacks of published Essex County records at the NEHGS library – probates, court, town, church, deeds. Wow, Essex County has it all.

At the core of this treasure trove was the Essex Institute in Salem, which between 1859 and 1993 published 130 volumes of the Essex Institute Historical Collections [EIHC] – but the material in each volume varies widely from issue to issue resulting in information from the same record sets being spread among many years of issues. Each volume was indexed separately and consolidated indexes were created – Vols. 1-22, Vols. 1-40, Vols. 1-67, Vols. 68-85, and Vols. 86-105 – but while the first three indexes overlap, they are not equal (e.g., you cannot rely on the index to Vols. 1-67 having all the detail of the indexes to 1-22 or 1-40). All six consolidated indexes still need to be consulted.

The transcriptions of primary records published in EIHC are so valuable that a great many have been extracted and re-printed. First came the periodical, The Essex Antiquarian, 13 vols. (Salem: 1897-1909), which contains all types of records and articles from EIHC, with a full index to all volumes. That and the fact that The Essex Antiquarian is one of the publications available to NEHGS members on AmericanAncestors makes it the go-to source to begin Essex County research.

[The] fact that The Essex Antiquarian is one of the publications available to NEHGS members on AmericanAncestors makes it the go-to source to begin Essex County research.

After that, reprints from the EIHC were included in more specific publications: Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Massachusetts, 1636-1686, 9 vols. (Salem, 1911-75), The Probate Records of Essex County, Massachusetts, 3 vols. (Salem, 1916), Vital Records of Salem, Massachusetts, to the End of the Year 1849, 6 vols. (Salem, 1916-25), and The Records of the First Church in Salem, Massachusetts, 1629-1736 (Salem, 1974). This does not begin to exhaust the research published in the EIHC.

Until very recently, the major drawback to using the EIHC was that few libraries have a complete collection, and it was not available in electronic form online. Raise a glass to HathiTrust Digital Library, which now has all the EIHC volumes available in full search. Enjoy the drink, though, because although this is a great leap forward, it still does not fully solve all the search problems.

One way of searching[1] is to use the Advanced Search. Enter Full-Text Fields as “this exact phrase” any personal name of interest. Enter Title as “this exact phrase” as “Essex Institute historical collections” and click on [Advanced Search] button.

However, if you are searching for names that are plentiful in Essex County, the result of this advanced search can be discouraging, because it includes hits for multiple “copies” of the same volumes submitted to HathiTrust by multiple libraries, and the hits are not organized by volume number, which repeatedly leads the researcher back to the same volumes further down the list. There are even multiple versions of the catalog for the EHIC, some with only a few volumes, to be picked through. To find the full catalog list for the EHIC, go here.

My own preferred search method is to first go to the six “consolidated” index volumes and print the pages with the names relevant to my search. For big searches, I create an Excel spreadsheet so I can sort by volume and page, and as I check a volume, I mark my sheet; then, when I come across the same volume again and again, my sheet will tell me I have already seen it. Trust me, this saves a lot of hair pulling. I may then also use the Advance Search to compare.

Next time we will start looking in more detail at each of the specific types of Essex County records, beginning with probate.


[1] Thank you to Perry Streeter, who posted this in the comments to “Clustering Salem.”

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.

27 thoughts on “Lucky Essex County

  1. Your preferred method of search sounds like a good indexing project for NEHGS to undertake. Thank you, Alicia for this valuable information.

  2. Alicia, you have made my day! My maternal grandfather’s line is my only line that I can trace back here in this country as my other three grandparents arrived here in the late 1800s from Ireland and Italy. Grandfather Vincent’s line is from Marblehead and Essex County and no one, I mean NO ONE left Marblehead and Essex County for good. It’s like they were tethered to the land and the ocean. Even my maternal grandfather moved to New York to work in a large advertising firm in the 1930s and 40s and then moved back to Rockport in the 1950s.

    Trying to trace back some of the family members has been so easy and with others it has been difficult because of the ocean-going ways of the men. My DAR Patriot was easy to find in that he was already recognized in the DAR database, but any others are mariners and sailors and were gone for long periods of time.

    This information will be so helpful to me in establishing more facts about these ancestors and I really appreciate this “how-to” article. Since I’m at home so much right now, I can’t wait to start digging in to Hathi Trust Digital Library!! Maybe I can even find a link to some Mayflower ancestors as well, but I won’t hold my breath on that! I’ll be happy with some DAR Supplemental Patriots for now!

    Thanks for a very helpful article!

    1. Mary, Essex Co was a lot like Cape Cod, other than going to sea, they never left the land.
      Good hunting.

  3. Thank you!!! I read this column often and learn and enjoy, however this s the BEST so far! I have many ancestors in the Essex area and am hoping with this great description of the collection I will find lots go great resources. Thank you!!

    1. Maureen, thank you, so glad people are getting useful information! Good luck in your hunting.

  4. Thank you for the unnecessary but appreciated acknowledgement.

    With the goal of getting lucky in Essex County, here is a challenge for your fan base…

    Q. Who were the parents of John Watts and Mary Caryl who were both of”Salem Village” when they married in Marblehead on 20 February 1694?

    1. Perry, my instinct tells me not to touch that one with a ten foot pole as it must be your brick wall! Luckily I can say I am presently confined to the 1640s.

  5. My thanks too! My mom’s family never strayed far from Essex County, and seemed to always return. And one of my best childhood memories was taking the train to Salem with my grandmother to visit the Essex Institute and reacquaint with all the family lore stored there.

    1. Linda, I was never in the Essex Institute, unfortunately — I have absolutely no Essex County ancestors. The photographs make the library look quite impressive.

  6. Great news, and I know it’s REALLY great news when you, Alicia, say it’s so! It whets my appetite to look into my maternal grandfather Moulton’s line back many generations to Salem and Wenham, and an early marriage with a Roger Conant granddaughter.

    1. Judy, I remember doing the Moultons all these many years ago, you should find a lot of interesting stuff.

  7. Thanks for this, Alice. Very helpful indeed. Is the Essex Antiquarian index consolidated or just found at the end of each year? Kathleen

    1. Kathleen, good question. The Essex Antiquarian books, themselves, are only indexed in each volume. It is the AmericanAncestor’s database of the EA that provides the full consolidated indexing.

  8. Bookmarking this article for when I get a chance to revisit my Essex Co. ancestors. New resources available online are always welcome. Also reminded I haven’t checked out HathiTrust in a while. Thank you for letting us know about this.

    1. Amy, keep checking with HathiTrust on a regular basis, I am always finding something new — which usually takes me off on a side trip, but is a lot of fun.

  9. Thank you, Alicia.

    When I got started in genealogy over 25 years ago, I started with my Yankee paternal grandmother, as I was living in Quincy, Mass. at the time and figured resources to trace her, using the National Archives in Waltham and libraries in the region, would be closer at hand (my paternal grandfather was a first-generation American born to British parents, and my maternal ancestors were from Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey). A helpful fellow researcher pointed me to a manuscript at the Maine Historical Society, and that brought Nana’s paternal ancestry back to Abraham Spiller of Ipswich, and I quickly discovered the wealth of Essex County resources available, and my connections to the Days, Hathornes, Porters, Jewetts, Wallises, Bradstreets, Emerys, Goulds, Giddings, Hodgkins, Newmarches, Mannings, Kimballs and many others.

    But through all this wealth of resources, while I was aware of the Essex Institute, I never went there, and was not aware of the depths of their collection. Now I know where to go to fill in the missing information (like Amy, when I get through my current project, tracing my paternal grandfather’s English roots).

    1. James, as I mentioned above, I never got to the Essex Institute either, but I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time in the NEHGS library with rows and rows of EIHC volumes.

  10. I found this collection years ago at the Stanford University library. It was fascinating and invaluable. Unfortunately, I was unable to visit often enough to exhaust its usefulness. I still have my index printouts, and am going to make the spreadsheet you suggested and try it in the Hathitrust Digital Library. Will have to do some more index searches, as I have more names now. And Lee is always a fun name, with so.many mentions of Robert E. Lee’s family, and English General Charles Lee. I have only a couple Roberts, but many Charles.

      1. A relative of mine named Joseph Rutherford [born 1769] was a commercial sea captain operating out of Newbury[]possibly Newbury Port].
        I was directed to a WPA project done in the 1930ies] which compiled his sailings.

  11. Just as a helpful comment. To find the indices you mention, I used your very clever advanced search technique, and instead of entering “personal name” I entered index and then filled in the title field as you indicated. Result: up popped the Hathi Trust records of the indices..

  12. Good Morning Alicia. It is great to have you around these days. I have close links to Haverhill, Mass. My Dad was born in Haverhill in 2001. His Parents were from Carleton, Yarmouth Co., Nova Scotia, Canada and were living in Haverhill for short time -5 -6 Years. I am working on the Maverick links and many other Essex Co. families too. Thanks to Chris Childs and yourself and so many other friends from NEHGS, I have found numerous links to some great Ancestors. Many of the passengers and Cree of the Mayflower are links to my family. There are 22 know connections so far. Genealogy is a fascinating study and I work on things almost every day. My Dad was Smith Albert Hilton, his Mom and Dad were Don Carlos
    Flanders Hilton and Margaret Archibald and my Mom was connected to the Morris Family and she was born in Wallis, Nova Scotia in 1899. Thomas Morris and her Mom was a Forschner. They owned a farm in Carleton, Yarmouth Co., Nova Scotia. The Archibald family is very large in Number. Thanks for giving me a chance to learn so much of the local history of the fabulous area of the Americas. Sincere Best Wishes, Paul Morris Hilton, Harvey Station, New Brunswick, Canada. I was born in Nappan, Nova Scotia, Canada near Amherst, N.S.

  13. I’m another of your fans, Alicia. I’ve found a 9th great-grandfather and 2 10th great-grandfathers – William Bassett, Sr.; Henry Collins, Sr., and Richard Johnson. I won’t be surprised if I uncover more! Thank you for your work on Essex County! I’m an NEHGS member because of it!

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