More accessible (and legible) probate records

Probate 2 Will of Thomas Nelson of Rowley, 1719

As the majority of the probate record research I do is at NEHGS and on microfilm, I’ve gotten used to what is often a multi-step process in viewing the records. This varies state by state and county by county, but some relatively recent digitization efforts have made access to some of the records significantly easier.

The county I will discuss in this post is Essex County, Massachusetts. For this case, my usual process for accessing records involved checking a book index first, which would provide the name, year, town of residence, and docket number. Then I would check the microfilm index to dockets, and see an outline of the given docket with the various volumes and pages on which the probate record was transcribed. Then I would get each particular probate record volume to examine each record. This involves several steps and occasionally the quality of microfilm can vary. Had the dockets themselves been microfilmed for Essex County (as they are for Middlesex County, Massachusetts), the process would be much faster, and now it is: in recent years digital versions of the original file papers for Essex County that were stored the Supreme Judicial Archives have been made available on, rendering the two counties comparable.

For Essex County, I had been using the old system when researching The Nelson Family of Rowley, Massachusetts. (The first batch [1638–1840] of this database became available in October 2013, about two months after my final draft of Nelson went into post-production.) If I had these digital file papers then, this would have saved me a tremendous amount of time, as the probate record is grouped together and online, and not in multiple volumes and different rolls of microfilm. When getting copies of some of the older wills, the microfilm version of the records versus the digital file papers is substantially different. One example is the will of Thomas3 Nelson (Thomas2-1) of Rowley who died there 20 May 1719. His brief sketch is included on page 101. When I looked for his probate I found he died testate from the book index, and then referred to the docket index here:

Probate 1

When I went to volume 312, the copy was fairly illegible. Regardless of negative or positive exposure, portions of the will could not be deciphered:

Probate 2 Will of Thomas Nelson of Rowley, 1719

However, after this book was published, and our collection of the digital file papers became available, I was amazed at the contrast:

Probate 3a Re-scanned images of Thomas Nelson will. Click to expand them

Probate 3b



Since then, I have done a large amount of the research behind our annual dinner presentations for Doris Kearns Goodwin (2014) and James Carville and Mary Matalin (2015). Both Goodwin and Matalin had significant amounts of ancestry in Essex County. Having this database made the process of getting their ancestors' probate records faster and with more decipherable documents, which allowed for more substantial biographical narrative to be incorporated into their genealogies. If you have put off your Essex County ancestors in the past, I suggest you check this database out when you have the chance!

Christopher C. Child

About Christopher C. Child

Chris Child has worked for various departments at NEHGS since 1997 and became a full-time employee in July 2003. He has been a member of NEHGS since the age of eleven. He has written several articles in American Ancestors, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and The Mayflower Descendant. He is the co-editor of The Ancestry of Catherine Middleton (NEHGS, 2011), co-author of The Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2011) and Ancestors and Descendants of George Rufus and Alice Nelson Pratt (Newbury Street Press, 2013), and author of The Nelson Family of Rowley, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2014). Chris holds a B.A. in history from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.View all posts by Christopher C. Child