Monday, December 9, 2013

Essex County, Massachusetts Probate Packet Files Now on

I received the Fall 2013 issue of American Ancestors magazine from the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) last week, and perused it over the weekend.   NEHGS is, of course, a membership site, and access to their website is limited to society members.  Many researchers are familiar with their flagship publication, the quarterly, peer-reviewed, The New England Historical and Genealogical Record.

I always look for the NEW Searchable Databases page first in each American Ancestors magazine  ... for the obvious reason!  On the list in this issue was the "Essex County, Mass.: Probate File Papers, 1638-1840."  The description of this collection is:

"This collection contains over 30,000 probate cases, with over 400,000 individual images of wills, guardianships, and other probate cases.  The original materials are held by the Archives of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts."

Over the past 25 years, I have collected photocopies from microfilms of probate packets for many of my ancestors from Essex County.  I transcribed quite a few of them (some are in my Amanuensis Monday Posts list here), but I have not digitized them to date - mainly because I have to find them in my piles of papers and notebooks in my bookcases (I really need a genea-genie to sort that mess out!).  Since NEHGS has put these papers online in a digital format, there is the opportunity to obtain digital images of these documents, probably with a better quality image, for my ancestral probate files.

The really neat thing is that these files are from the probate packets - they are the original handwritten wills, inventories, accounts, distributions, guardianships, etc.  That brings special problems, of course, because the handwriting and paper quality will vary widely, especially for 17th century documents.

I remembered that I had never found the probate records for my ancestor Richard Norman (1623-1683) of Marblehead, and his wife, Margaret (Flint) (Norman) Goodwin (1642-1705).  So I went hunting today in these Essex County Probate Records.  Here is the process I used:

1)  After logging into the NEHGS website, and clicking on the "Advanced Search" link, I saw the "Advanced Search" form.  I wanted to narrow the search down to just Probate records, so I selected "Court, Land and Probate Records" from the "Category" dropdown list:

Having selected a "Category," now I can select the Database I want from the "Database" dropdown list:

I selected the "Essex County, MA: Probate File Papers, 1638-1840."  Then I entered the name "Margaret" "Norman" into the name search fields.

Note that I could have included a year range, a record type, a country, state/province/county, or county/city/town also into the search fields above.  The NEHGS search form permits wild cards for names (with three characters given).

2)  I clicked on the "Search" button and there was one match for Margaret Norman:

That is the one I want!  I clicked on the blue "View" link and saw the first paper in the probate file linked to Margaret Norman (two images shown):

The probate file is identified as number 19567 (identified with Richard Norman), and their are 23 images available for this file.  Here is the screen capture for page 2:

At the bottom of the area with the image inside of the window are icons to Print, Save, Rotate, Magnify, or go Full Screen.  There are links to go to the Previous or Next page in the collection.  The user can edit the page number to go to a specific packet or page also.

3)  I saved the 23 pages in this Probate Packet to my computer file folder for Richard Norman and Margaret Flint, and will transcribe some of the pages for Amanuensis Monday.  The transcriptions will eventually end up in my family tree database with source citations, and some of the page images will be included in the Media collection for Richard and Margaret Norman.

I have many more probate packets in Essex County to search for, capture, name, review, transcribe and attach - this should keep me busy for awhile!

4)  If you are an NEHGS member, then you have access to almost 3,000 online databases on the website.  You can see the list of categories on the first screen capture above, and the list of court, land and probate databases available in that category.  There are a lot of very useful databases, and NEHGS is adding new collections on a quarterly basis.

You can see the list of all of the databases available at at, and there are some FREE collections listed at  There are also several external databases available - see

I am in these databases almost every day as I search for more records for my ancestral families, especially page images from the vital record books to attach to persons in my family tree database.

I find that AmericanAncestors is a fantastic resource!  

The URL for this post is:

Copyright (c) 2013, Randall J. Seaver

Disclosure:  I am an annual member of NEHGS, and have been since the early 1990s.  I have not received any remuneration for this blog post.


Heather Wilkinson Rojo said...

I spent a few nights searching this new database and I found a lot of goodies about my Essex County ancestors. It's a great resource at a wonderful website. Thanks for the reminder about always checking to see what is new.

Dale H. Cook said...

Although the new site, launched several months ago, is an improvement in some respects, it has taken a dramatic step backwards in one respect - the quality of the images of contemporary documents on the site is significantly worse than on the previous site. Compare, for example, this image of a page from the state copies of Massachusetts vital records, saved from in 2010:

with the currently available image of the same page:

There is a distinct loss of detail in the images currently available on the site. Compare those images with the same page from

Although the image is not of as high a resolution as the 2010 image it is still significantly better than the current image at

It is only a matter of time until has the Essex Co. probate files available. They currently have the Plymouth Co. probate files and part of the Worcester Co. probate files online. When the Essex Co. probate files become available at I will replace the images from downloaded in the last several months in order to have images of the best quality available to me.

Dale H. Cook, Member, NEHGS and MA Society of Mayflower Descendants;
Plymouth Co. MA Coordinator for the USGenWeb Project
Administrator of