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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Understanding Massachusetts Published Vital Records
by Rhonda R. McClure

November 30, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Genealogists are fortunate when they discover they have lines that trace into Massachusetts. The records have been kept since the 1600s, and as a result, researchers of Massachusetts lines are quite fortunate.

Among other projects, the vital records for about half of the towns and cities have been published through the year 1849. These published volumes have been found in many libraries with genealogy collections.

Those with Massachusetts lines are quite fortunate.

The Act of 1902

The Vital Records Act of 1902 was signed into law by the Governor of Massachusetts on 11 June 1902. This Act encouraged the printing of vital records for the towns of Massachusetts. While there had been a few towns' vital records published prior to this Act, the Act was designed to bring a consistency to these records.

One of the reasons for the cutoff date at the end of the year 1849, was because in that year the town clerks were required by law to send copies of their vital records to the State House in Boston. These copies were indexed, making them easy to use. It was only the vital records prior to this time that were difficult to use. Such a concerted effort would make them more available.

This Act was the direct result of some involvement by the New England Historic Genealogical Society. They saw the need for such record preservation.

The Volumes Are Published

The volumes of town records would be published from 1902 through 1918. In all, 169 volumes would be published. These would represent 149 of the towns of Massachusetts. A detailed list of the towns that have been published under the 1902 Act can be found in Volume 73 of the New England Historic Genealogical Society's Register. The article, "The Publication of Vital Records of Massachusetts Towns" details the Act of 1902 and then lists the towns of each county. It identifies those that were published and also those that have not been published.

While these published vital records all look alike, there are some significant differences that may prove important to your research.

Recognizing the Differences

The content of the volumes varies. Some of the volumes included only those records abstracted from the town records. Sutton is one of the towns that followed this interpretation of the Act. Others exhausted all possible records including the town records, church records, court records, cemetery inscriptions, and private records such as Bibles. Beverly was one of the towns to publish their vital records in this manner.

The easiest way to determine how complete the vital records for a town are, is to check the front of the volume for the list of abbreviations. At the end of the various entries, you will find abbreviations. These abbreviations indicate from where the information came from originally.

In Conclusion

While the 149 towns were all published under the Act of 1902, there are differences in the number of records abstracted in compiling these volumes. Once you locate your ancestors in the published volumes, you may want to read a little further and see if you can locate the original records.

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

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