These records are very valuable to New England genealogists because they are nearly a complete record of vital record events during that time period, with the exception of the first ten years or so, when the records are not as complete as the records after 1850.
The genesis of these records are really the town records that every Massachusetts town kept in a ledger book. In about 1840, the State of Massachusetts requested town clerks to make a copy of their records for each year on a standard form and forward them to the State, with a separate sheet(s) for births, marriages and deaths. The State Archives eventually took all of these records, and put each type of record in a book for each year. Eventually, it took several books, separated by Counties, for each year. At some time, name indexes were created for each of these vital record books, and the indexes and the books themselves were microfilmed. That's how I started using them at the local Family History Center, and at the New England Historic Genealogical Society, back in the late 1980s and all through the 1990s.
In recent years, the vital record books were digitized, and a searchable index was created, and are currently available on the NEHGS' AmericanAncestors.org website. I've been using them there for the past five years or so. They are invaluable, but a user has to have an NEHGS membership to access them.
Now these records are indexed and in digital form on Ancestry.com. The indexed information includes names, event date, approximate birth date, town, and parents names. That indexed information is more extensive than the indexed information on the NEHGS site.
Here is an example from the Massachusetts Death Records, 1841-1915 collection:
1) I searched for the death record of my great-great-grandfather, Isaac Seaver (1823-1901). Here is the search fields in "New Search." I stated out with his full name (restricted to exact), and only the "Exactmatch" box checked:
2) There were only 7 matches, so they were easily checked in the "Categories" tab:
My Isaac Seaver is the third one down the list.
3) I clicked on the "View Record" link beside his name, and saw:
The record summary above provides the indexed information about this death event, plus the source information and data description.
I could save this record to my computer (the orange button). In the "Page tools" list on the left-hand column, I can "Save the record to someone in my tree," "Save record to my shoebox," and several other tasks.
4) I clicked on the "View image" link (just below the thumbnail of the record image on the screen above) and saw the image:
The basic Ancestry.com Viewer allows me to zoom in using the mouse scroll wheel (which I like) and provides the source citation information on the right of the image (if I've clicked on the small arrow).
What does this record for Isaac Seaver tell me? Here's what I have extracted from this record (with indexed information denoted with an [I]):
* Town: Leominster, Worcester County, Massachusetts [I]
Year: 1901 [I]
* No. 40
* Date of Death: Mar. 12  [I]
* Full Name of the Deceased: Isaac Seaver 3d [I]
* Sex: Male [I]
* Condition: Mar.[ried]
* Age: 77 [years] [I]; 4 [months]; 26 [days]
* Disease, or Cause of Death: Cancer of Stomach
* Residence; Place of Death; Place of Burial: Leominster; Leominster, Leominster - Evergreen Cem.
* Occupation: Blacksmith
* Place of Birth: Westminster, Mass. [I]
* Names and birthplaces of Parents of Deceased: Benjamin Seaver [I], Westminster, Mass.; Abigail (Gates) [I], Gardner, Mass.
* Date of Record: 12 Mar 
These records are excellent finding aids for the birthplace and the parents of the deceased, and the use of the death date with the age at death provides a clue to the birth date.
The Ancestry.com source citation reads:
Ancestry.com. Massachusetts, Death Records, 1841-1915 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2013.
That source citation provides only the information about the record providers...and doesn't provide any indicator of the year, town, Volume, or page number, of the specific entry.
Here is the source citation I created for this record when I captured it from the NEHGS website:
New England Historic Genealogical Society, Massachusetts Vital Records, 1841-1915, indexed database and digital images, American Ancestors (http://www.AmericanAncestors.org : accessed 12 May 2011), Deaths, Volume 507, Page 371, Leominster, 1901: Isaac Seaver 3d entry.
A source citation crafted for the Ancestry collection might be:
Ancestry.com, Massachusetts, Death Records, 1841-1915, indexed database and digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.Ancestry.com : accessed 3 July 2013), 1901, Leominster, image 1724 of 2724: Isaac Seaver 3d entry.
Note that there is no Volume or Page number for the record in the Ancestry.com indexed information. If I didn't have access to Ancestry.com or AmericanAncestors.org, I would have to go though some hoops to determine which volume and page in order to look in at the Massachusetts State Archives or on FHL microfilms. I much prefer my NEHGS source citation above.
If I want to use the Web Link for the record summary in my RootsMagic software, it is: http://search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?indiv=1&MS_AdvCB=1&db=MADeathRecords&rank=1&new=1&MSAV=2&msT=1&gss=angs-d&gsfn=isaac&gsfn_x=1&gsln=seaver&gsln_x=1&uidh=5r8&pcat=34&fh=2&h=2907628&recoff=8+9+44 Hmm, that's a mouthful...no one's ever going to type that in! Will it always be exactly that URL?
I think that the Ancestry.com search and image are much more convenient, are easier and faster to use, and I can attach the record to my Ancestry Member Tree. I will probably stick to the AmericanAncestors.org site and the citations for records there, because the source citations seem more complete to me. I've done over 560 source citations for that master source in my database already, and don't want to change the master source. There are always tradeoffs on time, convenience and completeness, it seems.
The URL for this post is: http://www.geneamusings.com/2013/07/massachusetts-vital-records-1841-1915.html
copyright (c) 2013, Randall J. Seaver