New England Town Records Demystified
May 01, 2015
by Marian Pierre-Louis
Medway, Massachusetts Town Record book, 1811. From Ancestry.com's Holbrook Collection (Medway Town Records, image 352).
Last week I wrote about how to Navigate Local Town Hall Research, specifically vital records such as birth records. Before leaving the topic I'd like to explore the different types of New England Town Hall records.
Often when people think of Town Hall records they either think of vital records (births, marriages and deaths) or they conjure up the image of the old time chronological town records where all the information was kept in one book.
The truth is New England town records are more complicated than that. There are four important concepts you need to understand. First, there is no one set type of record book. In fact, there are many. Second, the record books and how information is recorded will be different depending on the time period. Third, all those original record books might not be "original." Last, not all town record books are currently found in the town hall.
Original town record books
Let's tackle the issue of original town record books first. New England records started to be recorded in some part of New England in the 1620s. That's nearly 400 years ago. Over the course of that time books have gotten damaged, gone missing or been exposed to flood or fire. As a result, over the years some Town Record records have been copied into new books. In some case, this is to preserve older copies and in other cases it was to make information more accessible.
The key thing to check for is the handwriting of the information. Is chronological information all in the same handwriting with the same color or "weight" (heavy or light) of the pen? True original records should have been written as the events happened and therefore each entry should look slightly different. Is there a note at the front of the book explaining provenance? Some town clerks will make a note at the front of the book as to when the records were copied and by whom.
There is nothing wrong with using town record books that are not originals. They may still be very old! You simply need to be aware that any derivative copy may have introduced errors. So be on the alert if anything looks incorrect. If it does, scan the page (or several pages) from top to bottom and see if you can discover where the town clerk went amiss.
Types of Record Books
There are and were many different types of Town Hall record books. The oldest books were often chronological records containing every bit of town record information from votes to taxes to births, marriages and deaths and even animal markings. The details were written as they happened but be aware that no blank space was spared. Some information will be written in the margins and if a book ran out of space, a Town Clerk might go back to find an empty spot to cram in some later information. Therefore be on the lookout for information tucked away in unusual spots. These town record books are the least likely to be digitized (though they are microfilmed) or indexed.
As the years went by and town government became more organized, individual record books were introduced. You will find separate books for town business and vital records. You many also find books for marriage intentions completely separate from recorded marriages.
Some books you may never have heard of such as warning out books (where non-residents were warned against attempting to settle in town) and strangers taken in books (where residents had to notify the town if a non-resident was staying with them for a longer period of time).
There were also poor records, tax books and accounts books listing all the financial transactions of the town. The accounts books are a particular treasure because they might make reference to payment for grave diggers or coffin makers for deaths that otherwise went unrecorded.
Some town halls, particularly in states like Connecticut, Vermont and Rhode Island, where information is recorded at the town level rather than the county level also have deeds and probate records.
How information is recorded
You are most likely familiar with census records. You know that the oldest census records hold the least amount of information and as you come forward in time, you find greater details. Town record books are like that as well. There are three basic types of recorded information: long form chronological text, register style and certificate style.
The earliest records were written long form with little separation by topic except perhaps by headers or a note in the margin. In the 1800s register style took over. Here you find information such as births, marriages and deaths in a list with many people on one page. The information is standardized into columns. As we head into the 20th century, life event information is recorded certificate style in individual certificates such as a modern birth or death certificates.
Finding Town Records Books
You would think that all town record books are located in the local town hall but that is not the case! Some record books were moved so that they could be better protected or preserved. Other books were moved, such as account books, because they were no longer deemed critical by town clerks. You will often find these books in the care of the local historical society or the historical room of the local library. To find them, check online card catalogs when you can, call the historical society or ask the town clerk.
In other, more unusual cases, town record books might be found in the home of the local town clerk. This is a very old fashioned practice which is not the case in most places. However, some very small rural towns may not have a lot of space and therefore the books get moved to make room for modern records.
If you'd like to learn more about New England Town Records here are some further resources:
Benton, Josiah Henry. Warning Out in New England. Boston: W.B. Clarke Company, 1911.
Friend, Esther L. “Notifications and Warnings Out: Strangers Taken Into Wrentham, Massachusetts, Between 1731 and 1812.” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register Vol. 141(1987): 179-188. [This provides a good summary of "strangers" before getting into the detailed Wrentham information.]
Gutman, Robert. “Birth and Death Registration in Massachusetts. I. The Colonial Background, 1639-1800.” The Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly Vol. 36, No.1 (Jan. 1958): 58-74
Herndon, Ruth Wallis. Unwelcome Americans: Living on the Margin in Early New England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
Lainhart, Ann S. Digging for Genealogical Treasure in New England Town Records. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1996.
Marian Pierre-Louis is the Social Media Marketing Manager for Legacy Family Tree. She is also the host of The Genealogy Professional podcast. Check out her webinars in the Legacy library.
What an excellent post. Somehow I missed the one before this and will go look for it. This information is something that will assist those researching in New England. Thank you for sharing your wealth of knowledge.
Posted by: Susan LeBlanc | May 04, 2015 at 11:02 AM
According to his (Richard ASHWORTH) Obit, My great grandparents were married in Jan 1857 in Massachusetts. No city listed.
I've searched every possible site and library in MA
with no luck.
If they had been married by a JP, am I just out of luck finding their record?
Posted by: Paul Ashworth | May 04, 2015 at 07:54 PM
The marriage should be recorded in the town vital records regardless of how they got married. My first guess would be that there was a typo or misreading of the original text in the indexing process.
Posted by: Marian Pierre-Louis | May 05, 2015 at 05:50 AM