There are any number of reference books with information about when and how the towns of Massachusetts were incorporated. One is Historical Data Relating to Counties, Cities, and Towns in Massachusetts, by Paul Guzzi, Secretary of the Commonwealth, published in 1975. My copy is well worn and loved, but at the moment it is hiding from me (I know that all the books come out at night and move themselves around). Since I am trying to compose an article about the settlement of Cape Cod and really need the resource, I turned to the Internet to find an online copy. The 1975 book is not available as an ebook, but the earlier edition, published in 1920, is available for download.
A case of no loss without some gain
I don’t think I have used this edition before and so I was particularly happy to discover that it arranges the towns by county (whereas the 1975 edition presents them all alphabetically). Thus I only had to make copies of four pages for my research – definitely a case of no loss without some gain.
The towns are arranged alphabetically within the counties, with the date they were first mentioned in the records or when they were incorporated. A third column gives detailed information about how the town was established, sections of it divided into other towns, parts of other towns that were annexed to it, boundaries established and re-established, etc. For example, Eastham’s name was established from the common land called “Nawsett” in 1651; 1678: “Eastham and purchasers on both sides to settle the bounds”; 1763: part established as Wellfleet; 1772: part of Harwich annexed; 1797: part of Eastham established as Orleans, and so forth.
A geographical Rubik’s Cube, so to speak
This is typical for all towns in old New England that began as large chunks of land and were gradually pared down into manageable towns, often with plenty of boundary disputes – in 1867 the bounds between Eastham and Orleans were re-established and part of each town annexed to the other town, for example.
These subtleties of town name and boundary changes can be mind numbing, but they are among those extremely important facts one needs to know when trying to track records – early Orleans records are with the Eastham records, Dennis was part of Yarmouth, Brewster was part of Harwich – a geographic Rubik’s Cube, so to speak.
I definitely recommend adding the 1920 edition of Historical Data for your e-library.
 The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Historical Data relating to Counties, Cities and Towns in Massachusetts, prepared by the Secretary of the Commonwealth, Division of Public Records (Boston, 1920), download available through archive.org.
20 thoughts on “Massachusetts towns”
Terrific, Alicia! I have spent many hours tracking down some of the strings of information you found in this book Thanks!
Ellen, glad to help.
Determining the geographic location of our ancestors at various points in time is clearly the foundation of tracing their migration paths. But, where were they administratively? Which town or county had administrative control over civil record keeping? The answer to that question varied through the years as you have pointed out through your interesting blog. County and town boundaries — and thus the administrative responsibility for record keeping — changed through time due to adjustments in administrative boundaries. Luckily, as you have pointed out, there are several reference sources available to help make us aware of boundary changes. Thank you for providing us with a reference to the 1920 e-book you found to be particularly useful.
Another online, downloadable source I have found to be useful in this regard comes from the digital resources and publications available at Chicago’s Newberry Library at . In particular, a helpful chronology of boundary changes to individual Massachusetts county boundaries (including a reference to the laws or other references where the changes are codified) appears at .
Thanks for another interesting blog, Alicia.
Jack, thanks for the reference.
Thank you Alicia. I just love to browse those kind of resources…also Gazeteers!
What e-resources would you recommend as the top 5 for research from 17th century Massachusetts to present Commonwealth? The hardest group is the post 1940 census groups. Anything you can suggest?
Judith, I’ll have to do some investigation. E-sources change so frequently. Probably a good topic for a post.
Thanks! This is great!
Thank you, Melissa
The most recent edition of the same book was issued in 1997 by William Francis Galvin, who was then and still is the Secretary of the Commonwealth. It was published by NEHGS. Its arrangement is similar to the 1975 edition.
I would like to see one improvement: usually the only county listed for each town is the one it belonged to at the time of publication. Not only did this change for some towns over time, but the earliest towns originally had no county jurisdiction at all until 1643. I have often wished that Historical Data made it plain when the counties assumed jurisdiction over each town and unincorporated plantation.
Austin, the 1997 edition is out of print but talks are in progress to update.
Thanks Alicia! You may have relieved some teeth gnashing on my part. I will pose the same question that was posted above but change the state. What do you consider the best e-resources for 17th & 18th century Maine?? Any suggestions would be most appreciated.
Ann, same answer as Judith, I will see what I can come up with.
Thank you! Found and printed. Huge help.
Thank you. It was a very timely comment. FYI the 1975 edition is online through a link from the Family Search catalog. They don’t have the 1920 edition though. Are there maps anywhere that show the changes in town lines?
Shirley, check “Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research, 5th Ed.” Available from NEHGS store if not in your library.
I appreciate your post. My books do the same thing. I used to think it was my cat wandering around at night. Maybe your advice will help in my search.
I bought NEHGS’s 2014 reprint of John Warner Barber’s 1839 “The History and Antiquities of Every Town in Massachusetts.” One reason I bought it was on the assumption that the older the book, the more likely it was to have information about the early days of Massachusetts towns. Rowley, Essex Co, was originally settled in, I believe, 1638 or 1639, by, among others, my Jewett ancestors. I was disappointed to find that Rowley didn’t show up at all in the book. While I’ve never been able to visit, the town still shows up on current maps, and a friend summers on Martha’s Vineyard and is familiar with Rowley. So why isn’t it listed in Barber’s book? Or is it there, and is the book organized in a way that means I’m missing it?
Thanks for this post, among all your others. I always learn something, even if I didn’t think the topic was one I was looking for.
Doris, I will take a look.
I found a PDF on Familysearch.org. The URL for the PDF is https://dcms.lds.org/delivery/DeliveryManagerServlet?dps_pid=IE7663834&from=fhd
but I’m not sure it if you can access without going through the catalog.
Randall, Great, thank you.