Monday, November 14, 2011

Using the Massachusetts Vital Records 1841-1915 Databases - Then and Now

At my OASIS (senior Adult Education) class on "Beginning Computer Genealogy" today, one of my nine students asked about finding Massachusetts Vital Records in the 1850 to 1930 time period. 

She had only a 1930 Census entry from with her ancestor's name (Joseph), age (31) and birthplace (Mass.), and she knew the name of two siblings (Charles and John) and Joseph's birth date (4 December 1897).  We couldn't find him in the 1920 census, but we found him in the 1910 Census on with the two siblings, other siblings and parents.

From  the available information, we weren't sure that we had the right family.  I immediately thought of the New England Historic Genealogical Society site at, which I knew had the Massachusetts Vital Records, so we searched there for the birth of her Joseph using my subscription.  We found him easily with the right birth date, and the parents were the ones in the 1910 Census record.

From there, we found the marriage record of the parents in 1885, which gave their ages and  birthplaces and the names of their parents and parents birthplaces.  The students thought all of that was pretty cool!  Just search a database and get two new generations ... but is a subscription website.

From this jump start, my student should be able to go back several more generations in these records, and should be able to find the children of each family by carefully searching these records and comparing the information with information from other records (for example, the census).

When I got home, I realized that these records are also available for FREE on the FamilySearch historical collections site (  The search capabilities on FamilySearch are better than on the American Ancestors site IMHO (e.g., wild cards, spouse names, parents names, etc.). 

I told my students how we used to do this in the "old days" - meaning before what, 2004?  The process in San Diego, 2,500 miles from Boston, was:

*  Check the Family History Library Catalog (FHLC), and order the microfilms for the Birth, Marriage and Death indexes for the surname letters of interest.  for instance, for Seaver, the "S" films.  Wait two or three weeks for them to arrive.
*  Review the microfilms, print out the index pages of interest, note the index entries that might be the persons of interest in the Births, Marriages and Deaths, and record the Volumes/Pages for the entries..
*  Check the FHLC for the different Volumes/Pages, and order the microfilms for the specific Volumes/Pages of interest.  Since each year was on different films (and Birth, Marriage and Death records were on different film series), this required a number of films to be ordered and reviewed.  Wait two or three weeks for each microfilm order batch.
*  Review the microfilms, print out  the pages of interest, or extract the information on the pages, and determine if the index entries were the right ones, etc. 
*  Do it all over again...

For just one entry in these records, it would take five to six weeks to obtain the record!

Between 1994 and 2000, I spent many Saturdays at the Family History Center ordering, reviewing and extracting information for ALL of the Seaver/Sever entries (there were hundreds of them) in these indexes and records, plus records for selected other ancestral families.  I don't know how many films I ordered, but I'm sure it was in the hundreds!  At only $3 each in those days.  I was happy to support the local FHC and the FHL!  This was typical of Genealogy in the late 20th Century.

I was ecstatic when the NEHGS put these indexes and records online - they are a priceless resource for researchers with roots in Massachusetts.  As an NEHGS member, I have used them extensively while filling out related families, and in my Seaver, Dill and Buck one-name studies.

Now these records are available online for FREE at FamilySearch in:

Massachusetts Births, 1841-1915

Massachusetts Marriages, 1841-1915

Massachusetts, Deaths, 1841-1915

It took me all of five minutes to find my student's ancestor's birth record and the parents marriage record.  While the class watched.  That's Genealogy in the 21st Century in spades!

I told my students several times in the four class sessions that the Internet is wonderful for genealogy research - but that not every record is indexed or digitized, and that you still have to double check against all known information, and then again when more information is available later, in order to assure that you have the right persons and relationships. 

My students were happy to be working on their genealogy and family history, and they received a 50 page syllabus for their continuing education.  It was a fun day at OASIS, plus I got paid to do it.


Root Digger said...

I use NEGHS databases often also. I had no idea that the 1841-1915 databases were free now on This is good to know. This is a great post. Thank you.

Heather Wilkinson Rojo said...

I didn't realize the Mass VRs were on either. I've been using the NEHGS website so long that I never even thought about it being elsewhere. I'm poking around tonight to see what else fell off my radar...

Scott Jangro said...

Hi Randy. Being from Massachusetts, preceded by 13 generations from here, I read this with interest.

I didn't do much research in the "old days" but I can't help but wonder if people's research was better back then, more meticulous and thought through because we were forced to slow down, and every bit of information was savored.

Now there's so much information so easily found and dumped into our databases with a click of the mouse that we find family members and accept them as such without a second thought about who they are, or if they even really belong there.

Many of us could probably use to slow down more than a little bit in our speed-of-light world of genealogy research.

Anonymous said...

I note on the NEHGS site, wild cards are available and it appears you search by spouse name too, at least for marriages.


? matches any single character
* matches any number of characters
+ requires words to appear together
~ ~ between two years will search that year range, inclusive

One character is required before using a wildcard.