[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.