[Editor’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 8 March 2016.]
When researching a family, one can quickly become focused on names, birthdates, and death dates. It is easy to get caught up on going as far back as possible until reaching the metaphorical brick wall, and being left with a “well, what do I do now?” mentality. Seventeenth-century immigrants can be incredibly difficult to trace and track, but learning about them in public records can help add meaning to and information about their lives.
Our database Middlesex County, MA: Abstracts of Court Records, 1643-1674, digitized from the Society’s R. Stanton Avery Special Collections, can provide interesting information about seventeenth-century New Englanders beyond their vital records.
These records also depict the struggles and challenges of living in early New England.
Though some of the records are brief, such as a one-line abstract indicating that an individual gave testimony, other records are more detailed. On 20 April 1654, 28-year-old Robert Twelves appeared before the court to state that though he came to New England to serve as an indentured servant to a Mr. Hobson for three years, he was able to pay off his term after a year and a half.
These records also depict the struggles and challenges of living in early New England. In 1654, an indentured servant, Roger Touthaker of Medford, filed a complaint of abuse against a Thomas Martin of Cambridge while he was working in Malden for his master, a Mr. Eldred.
Recently, I used the court abstracts to provide a possible answer to a research question. George Lillie of Reading in Middlesex County married Hannah Smith in Reading in 1659. According to previous genealogies compiled by the Lillie family, Hannah was the daughter of Francis Smith of Watertown and Reading. However, Great Migration series author Robert Charles Anderson provides evidence that she was likely not Francis’s daughter. That left the question: who was Hannah (Smith) Lillie?
The Middlesex County, MA: Abstracts of Court Records, 1643-1674 database provided a potential solution to this question. On 10 July 1654, fourteen-year-old Hannah Smith, servant of Mr. Samuel Haugh of Reading, gave testimony before the court about an assault on her by Francis Flashigo. On 31 May 1656, Hannah Smith, aged about 16, appears in court to state that she was living with Goodman Press.
If this Hannah Smith was fourteen in 1654, she would have been about nineteen in 1659, when she married George Lillie. This is about the average age of a first marriage in the seventeenth century, and her residence in Reading makes it possible that she is the first wife of George Lillie. Though these court records do not firmly link this Hannah Smith to George, the court records provide potential solutions to brick walls as well as insights into the lives of early Middlesex County settlers.
3 thoughts on “ICYMI: Middlesex County court records”
This is excellent advise! I just tried out searching for Thomas Carrier – and found a fascinating story of his having confessed to fornication with Martha Allen in May of 1674, and subsequently marrying her. Their child was born about 2 months later.
In later years, Martha was one of the women executed for witchcraft.
I have recently been thinking about decision points in my own life. Our ancestors made many such decisions. Why and how they made them will not be easy to learn, but could be very useful.
How do you access the court records? I am actually researching Hannah Smith and George Lillie. They are my mother-in-law’s ancestors. From my online research, I can find no concluding evidence that Hannah had any living relatives in New England when she married George Lilly. I am in Seattle and do not have resources for researching in person in Massachusetts. I don’t believe that the name Flashigo was transcribed correctly. Would love to find the actually court trial records. Do they exist, still? What was Hannah Smith doing alone with a married man? Where was Mrs Flashigo? Could the servant Hannah Smith have been black? If anyone wants to chat about this, please email me at