Ease of use

In my work on the current “Watertown Cluster” for the Early New England Families Study Project, I am getting a heavy refresher course in the records of Middlesex County, Massachusetts. In the olden days, I would get on the Green Line and go to the Middlesex County Court House in Cambridge to access probate records. Today, I find online access is both a blessing and a curse.

AmericanAncestors.org has images of Middlesex County probate files, but in my search on William Parry/Perry of Watertown, I found that the image of his original will from these files is indecipherable (to me, at least).[1] In such cases, the next step is to access the copy book versions of the records, images of which are accessible on FamilySearch.org.[2] You won’t, however, find these records in the usual “Search-Records-Find a Collection” page. Instead, you will need to use “Search-Catalog-Subject” for “Middlesex County Probate”; use this link.

This should take you to a list with two Middlesex County probate collections on top. The first is the collection of “Probate Packets,” which are the images from the original files arranged chronologically. The second is called “Probate Records,” and includes the images from the “Docket Books” with cases arranged alphabetically, giving both the case file number and the citations to the copy books. The main advantage of copy books is that they were written by clerks with better handwriting than the originals. When you choose the “Probate Records” option, you get this result.

The main advantage of copy books is that they were written by clerks with better handwriting than the originals.

For my search on William Parry, I accessed “Probate docket Pa-Ri” and found on page 151 the entry for "No. 17251 William Parry of Watertown" (some readers will need to log in here). I already knew from accessing the image on AmericanAncestors.org that the case number was 17251, and if I needed to, I could see the same images here using “Probate papers 17249–17365,”[3] but I was looking for the citations of copybook volumes and pages. In this case it tells me that the “Will & Memo recorded” is in copy book 6, page 154, and “Inventory (Anna Perry Extrx)” follows on page 157.[4]

Next, I backed up and did a search in the main list for “Probate records (copies) v. 6*”[5] and found “v. 6-7 1682–1705.” (If I had not found v.6* I would have tried 5*, 7* or 8*, for example, as there are usually two to three volumes on each microfilm roll. Otherwise, you will have to scroll down a long way to find what you need.) This tells me those records are on microfilm #52178, and digital image #7554520.

I click the little camera icon for the digital images. Using the thumbnail view option, I hunt and peck until I find page 154.

And here, at last, I am brought to a wonderful nineteenth-century copy of Will. Perry’s will that surprises me with a codicil I had no idea was on the original. (I will now use the copy to see if I can read the original any better with it as a crutch.) It was so much easier in the Court House when one could just pull the volumes off the shelves!

In my next post, I will attempt to make some sense of the notorious Middlesex County Court records.


[1] Middlesex County Probate File #17251.

[2] The same images are on Ancestry.com, but are more difficult to use there.

[3] The case numbers on these records do not match the numbers on the “Packet” files.

[4] There is also an added note (“See also Miscellaneous Index & Records Page 319”), which I was unable to locate.

[5] Not “Probate records (originals).”

Alicia Crane Williams

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.View all posts by Alicia Crane Williams