Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Ancestry.com Adds Original Massachusetts Vital Records

The big news for me today was that Ancestry.com has added their "Massachusetts, Town Vital Records, 1620-1988" record collection.  Crista Cowan wrote about it today in Got Massachusetts Ancestors? on the Ancestry.com Blog.  Crista described the collection as:

"After searching town records for their own relatives, Jay and DeLene Holbrook, realized that the majority of towns in Massachusetts had little to no knowledge of the condition or even the location of their vital records collections. To catalog and preserve the state’s rich history, the Holbrooks traveled town by town through Massachusetts in a 30 year effort to meticulously compile a complete collection. They often found themselves in town vaults organizing and inventorying untidy stacks of records, sometimes making copies of them on-site when the town clerk would not allow the records to be removed from the building. In some instances, it took years of return trips to get permission to access the records, and in the case of the state’s largest cities, weeks and months to duplicate the records. To date, this amazing couple has visited 315 of the state’s 351 towns and cities to film their holdings of vital and town records.

"Now, in partnership with Ancestry.com, they are making this entire collection available online for the first time ever! This database includes original images of Massachusetts town records with details such as names, birth dates, birth places, baptism records, parents’ names, marriage records, courthouse records, and death records."
Looking at the database a bit this afternoon, I saw the original handwritten town clerk vital records from before 1850.  I also saw the vital record registers for the 1841 to 1915 time period.  There are some towns with records up until 1988.
The above implies that: all of the records for a specific town are available.  In reality, the beginning year and ending year for town records depend on town formation and when the last town book ended.  For instance, the handwritten Leominster town records start in 1768 and go through 1845.  The vital records register books start in 1846 and go through 1900.  
The only way to determine the coverage for a given town is to browse the pages for the town.  If you start at the  "Massachusetts, Town Vital Records, 1620-1988" record collection page, there is a dropdown menu on the right sidebar to determine the towns included in the collection, as shown below:


I selected "Leominster" from the dropdown menu, and the first image in the collection for Lreominster appeared.  There are 1140 pages for "Leominster Births, Marriages and Deaths."  Here is the first image:


The first image with actual information is Image 2, which starts the alphabetical index list of the handwritten town records with the letter B:


Browsing forward to image 180, there is the first image of the actual handwritten town records starting in 1768:


Browsing forward again, image 590 shows the first image of the yearly vital records register starting in 1846 until 1900.  This apparently was all in one register book:


The last image, number 1140, is the last page of the vital records register for 1900:


It is important to determine the extent of the records in this database - both the towns available and the years available for a specific town.  An unsuspecting user might search the whole database, not find their target person, and conclude that they are not in any of the Massachusetts Vital Records.  They may be in the records that are not included in this record collection.
For example, I went looking for some of my ancestral towns; Boston, Worcester, Marblehead, Dedham, Westminster, and Sterling are included, but Medfield, Eastham, Wellfleet, Salem, Concord and Sudbury are not.  
The announcement by Ancestry.com leave many questions unanswered, including:
*  Will the collection have more records added to it?
*  Will there be a list that summarizes the towns covered with the years available?
This collection contains images of original handwritten records from the record books kept by town clerks in each town.  As such, they are usually the earliest, and most reliable, records for the towns.  The published "Vital Records of [insert town] to the Year 1850" series of books used these town clerk records as one of the sources for the records.  
These records have been indexed, but like all handwritten records, the indexing is not perfect.  The searcher of names in this collection is advised to use wild cards to get around spelling variations or indexing errors.  
Copyright (c) 2012, Randall J. Seaver

2 comments:

Heather Rojo said...

Does anyone have a list of the towns NOT covered?

Taco Goulooze said...

Apart from this comment at the end of the 'about' section, saying "Note: The initial release of this database is missing records for towns Abington–Barnstable. These will be added later.", I can't find any reference to missing towns.

Secondly, as I posted on G+, the transcription of dates has gone very wrong, making it pivotal to check the images of the originals every time.