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Overheard in GenForum: Lost Woodworth Family
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

September 07, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I am looking for the family of my Great Grandmother, Mabel Blanche Woodworth b. 21 Aug 1876. All the information I have on her is a list of siblings with their birth/death dates, and the initials of her parents' names. They are as follows: Parents of Mabel Blanche Woodworth: PB or AB and M. E. Woodworth. Siblings of Mabel Blanche Woodworth and children of PB or AB and ME Woodworth: Aubre Chester Woodworth b. 24 Sept 1878, d. 21 July 1879, Gracie Belle Woodworth b. 16 Oct 1879 d. 18 Jul 1880, Lorena Irena b. 16 Jun 1883. I do not know what county these were born in or married. All the info I have is that Mabel Blanche Woodworth was born in MA. She married Dr. Arthur North, but I do not know where this event took place. -- Jennifer

A: Massachusetts, like most of the New England states, records the majority of its records on the town level. It has been doing this since the 1600s.

The fact that the records go back so far is a great benefit to researchers. However, determining where in the state to get records can sometimes be difficult when you don't know anything other than the fact that she was in Massachusetts.

Massachusetts, like other New England states, records the majority of its records on the town level.

Vital Records

Massachusetts is one of the few states that can trace the recording of its vital records back to the 1600s. And of all the states, it appears to have the best record of continuously recording the births, marriages, and deaths of its residents.

While they probably had a similar reason and just thought of it earlier, vital records in most states were not recorded until they felt a need for them. In most states, you will find that marriage records trace back further than the births and deaths.

Marriage records were important when the husband died, so that the wife could prove her relationship to the deceased. This was necessary during probate so that the widow could claim her right of dower. As states began to grow, they became concerned with statistics to help track things like cause of death and the number of births in a given year. However, most states didn't have the recording of these records in place already, so they would begin to record them when they decided to track this type of information.

Massachusetts' towns have recorded births, marriages, and deaths since the beginning of each town. Some of these records have been published either in one of the various genealogical periodicals for the area or in a book. They have also recently begun to appear on CD-ROM.

Published Vital Records

Approximately 220 towns in Massachusetts have had their vital records published up to about 1850. This publishing has been undertaken by individuals, some of the societies in the state and the state itself. There is a bounty of vital records. However, again, if you do not know the town where your ancestor was from, it is a daunting task to think you must search all of these volumes. And then to realize that they are only about half of the towns, which means there are still more towns to search.

These published volumes can be found in genealogy libraries, such as the Family History Library, along with selected public libraries with genealogical departments. As was mentioned, a number of these published volumes are now on CD-ROM. This does help as the CD-ROMs, available through Search & Research Publishing Corporation, tend to group the towns together by county. And you can then do a search of the CD and find all entries for the county.

The published volumes have also found themselves extracted to the International Genealogical Index available at the Family History Library and local Family History Centers as well as at the online site, FamilySearch.org.

Vital Records Beyond 1850

While the above records will prove useful to you once you have determined the names of Mabel's parents, to start with you will need to turn your attention to those records from the Division of Vital Statistics for the state of Massachusetts. Those prior to 1900 have been moved to the state archives, but you can also find them on microfilm through the Family History Library and therefore at your local Family History Center.

The microfilmed records actually overlap those of the published records

  • Births - 1841 to 1895
  • Marriages - 1841-1895
  • Deaths - 1841 to 1899

These records also have a statewide index. The indexes go up through 1905 for births and marriages and through 1971 for deaths. They are arranged alphabetically in five-year increments. You would need to order two reels of microfilm to cover the births of all the children. Then once you have gone through the index, you would then need to order the appropriate volumes to see what information can be found for each birth record. At the very least, you should be able to pick up the full names for the parents.

In Conclusion

You had mentioned the census as a possible aid, and that is definitely something you should look at. The 1880 census, which is soundexed for families with children 10 and under will give you some information about the family unit as it was at that point. The census would also give you an indication as to where in Massachusetts the family was settled.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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