Lucky Essex County

I have always suspected that people with ancestors in Essex County, Massachusetts, do not know how lucky they are. I used to enviously wander among the stacks of published Essex County records at the NEHGS library – probates, court, town, church, deeds. Wow, Essex County has it all.

At the core of this treasure trove was the Essex Institute in Salem, which between 1859 and 1993 published 130 volumes of the Essex Institute Historical Collections [EIHC] – but the material in each volume varies widely from issue to issue resulting in information from the same record sets being spread among many years of issues. Each volume was indexed separately and consolidated indexes were created – Vols. 1-22, Vols. 1-40, Vols. 1-67, Vols. 68-85, and Vols. 86-105 – but while the first three indexes overlap, they are not equal (e.g., you cannot rely on the index to Vols. 1-67 having all the detail of the indexes to 1-22 or 1-40). All six consolidated indexes still need to be consulted.

The transcriptions of primary records published in EIHC are so valuable that a great many have been extracted and re-printed. First came the periodical, The Essex Antiquarian, 13 vols. (Salem: 1897-1909), which contains all types of records and articles from EIHC, with a full index to all volumes. That and the fact that The Essex Antiquarian is one of the publications available to NEHGS members on AmericanAncestors makes it the go-to source to begin Essex County research.

[The] fact that The Essex Antiquarian is one of the publications available to NEHGS members on AmericanAncestors makes it the go-to source to begin Essex County research.

After that, reprints from the EIHC were included in more specific publications: Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Massachusetts, 1636-1686, 9 vols. (Salem, 1911-75), The Probate Records of Essex County, Massachusetts, 3 vols. (Salem, 1916), Vital Records of Salem, Massachusetts, to the End of the Year 1849, 6 vols. (Salem, 1916-25), and The Records of the First Church in Salem, Massachusetts, 1629-1736 (Salem, 1974). This does not begin to exhaust the research published in the EIHC.

Until very recently, the major drawback to using the EIHC was that few libraries have a complete collection, and it was not available in electronic form online. Raise a glass to HathiTrust Digital Library, which now has all the EIHC volumes available in full search. Enjoy the drink, though, because although this is a great leap forward, it still does not fully solve all the search problems.

One way of searching[1] is to use the Advanced Search. Enter Full-Text Fields as “this exact phrase” any personal name of interest. Enter Title as “this exact phrase” as “Essex Institute historical collections” and click on [Advanced Search] button.

However, if you are searching for names that are plentiful in Essex County, the result of this advanced search can be discouraging, because it includes hits for multiple “copies” of the same volumes submitted to HathiTrust by multiple libraries, and the hits are not organized by volume number, which repeatedly leads the researcher back to the same volumes further down the list. There are even multiple versions of the catalog for the EHIC, some with only a few volumes, to be picked through. To find the full catalog list for the EHIC, go here.

My own preferred search method is to first go to the six “consolidated” index volumes and print the pages with the names relevant to my search. For big searches, I create an Excel spreadsheet so I can sort by volume and page, and as I check a volume, I mark my sheet; then, when I come across the same volume again and again, my sheet will tell me I have already seen it. Trust me, this saves a lot of hair pulling. I may then also use the Advance Search to compare.

Next time we will start looking in more detail at each of the specific types of Essex County records, beginning with probate.


[1] Thank you to Perry Streeter, who posted this in the comments to “Clustering Salem."

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