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Finding the original or official vital records in Massachusetts

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Vital records are often considered original sources for the events they represent, but that doesn’t mean the records themselves are truly the original.

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Before Massachusetts changed over to preprinted, individual forms for each person, town clerks used large, bound ledger books for vital records. In addition to the event date, there’s another column specifically for the date of record or when the entry was submitted by the informant (clergy, medical doctor, justice of the peace, etc.). You may find the event dates are mixed up, with March following June, to account for the different sources.

The town clerk is not the witness to an event, just the recorder. It’s the doctor or clergy who made weekly, monthly, or annual visits to the town clerk, providing information on who was born, married, or died. It could be data from scraps of paper in an itinerant preacher’s pockets or mildew-stained ledger books that had been used for decades, possibly gnawed on by a church mouse. Words can smudge, rips and tears happen. Let’s also not forget that events sometimes were written hours or days afterwards, when one’s memory may be slightly askew, especially if the informant didn’t know the family well. For instance, the groom’s name could be mistaken for his father’s or the birth date may mistakenly fall on one side of midnight, instead of the other.

You may be able to track down those original records from doctors and clergy, so make sure you take note of the informant’s name and address. But remember, not everyone had record-keeping skills like midwife Martha Ballard (1735-1812) of Massachusetts and Maine, who recorded 816 deliveries in 27 years in her diary.

Town and State Records

Before digital access, the Vital Records to 1850 series, by the New England Historic Genealogical Society and others, was one of the most widely used sources in Massachusetts. You’ll find the series referenced in many genealogy books and journals as well as DAR applications. These are transcriptions of town records—including church, cemetery, and family records such as Bibles—usually listed alphabetically by surname (or, in some cases, by multiple spellings of the same/similar name), not date. John Slaughter’s web site includes records from these so-called “tan books.” Not all towns and cities in Massachusetts were covered. If you had relatives from the Berkshires, luckily Blanche C. Stockwell transcribed records from several towns and deposited her manuscripts at the Berkshire Athenaeum. Her transcriptions for Sheffield and a few other towns are available online.

Jay and Delene Holbrook filmed records from 315 towns and cities in Massachusetts, now available on subscription site Ancestry.com as “Massachusetts, Town and Vital Records, 1620-1988.” FamilySearch.org has images of “Massachusetts, Town Clerk, Vital and Towns Records, 1579-2001,” with some indexes already available.

Starting in 1841, Massachusetts required town clerks to copy their birth, marriage, and records and send them to the state. The town clerk’s copy is considered the original, and it sometimes has more details than the state version, but the most widely available records tend to be the state’s version (except as noted above in Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org collections). It’s often difficult to tell the two versions apart. No doubt the state requirement was much easier after the invention of the mimeograph, carbon paper, photocopiers, and scanners.

When looking at records online, pay attention to the source, whether it’s from the town/city or state. If you can’t read a record or if you want to verify its accuracy, contact the town clerk.

Records of Today

If you’ve been to a town clerk for a Massachusetts marriage license, you already know the prospective bride and groom must show up at the town hall together, with their birth certificates, and each fills out separate paperwork. The couple then brings the clerk-issued license to wed to the clergy or justice of the peace, which the officiator signs and returns to the town clerk after the ceremony. (The bride and groom also may sign the church ledger and receive a wedding certificate from clergy. Another resource to check!) Afterwards, the couple orders a copy of their official marriage certificate.

For births, the mother or the parents fill out a form, then the hospital inputs the data using Electronic Birth Certificate software. For deaths, the informant fills out the form, which is entered onto the official form, before being signed by the doctor.

Birth, marriage, and death records today are submitted to the town or city in which the event occurred, and sometimes to the place where a person lives/lived, as well as to the state. Since the records are done electronically, there’s no variation among the town and state versions. The bonus, of course, is that the documents are perfectly legible.

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