Essex (1638-1881) and Middlesex (1648-1871) County Probate records first to go online; race to preserve Hampshire County Probate records starts with Innovation Grant. 

Thousands of probate cases, each a unique, historic time capsule, will be preserved in digital form and available online, thanks to the combined efforts of the Supreme Judicial Court's division of Archives and Records Preservation, the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), and FamilySearch.org, a genealogical online service. The three organizations joined forces to create searchable databases with close to 1.7 million images that will make historic probate documents from the 1600s - 1800s available for free online. The NEHGS website currently hosts the searchable databases, and the FamilySearch website will host them in the future. The first steps of an archival effort have begun at the Hampshire County Probate & Family Court, thanks to operational funding awarded through a Trial Court Innovation Grant.

The recording of court cases has always been a complex process. Registers of Probate tri-folded and carefully compiled and stored the hand-written documents submitted for each case file in numbered envelopes. Millions of cases were carefully numbered and recorded this way for more than 200 years. The case files, originally stored in the Probate Offices, were moved into off-site storage in the Judicial Archives in the 1980s.

In a world before standard-size 8.5” x 11” paper and MassCourts, original probate case documents consisted of handwritten documents and forms. As a case progressed, the smaller-sized scraps of paper pertaining to the case were tri-folded and tucked inside envelopes. Each piece of paper helps to unravel the entire story of a probate case, from original filing of the Petition for Probate to final settlement.

Probate Tri-Fold Case
A typical tri-fold, with documents related to the case tucked inside.

 

The probate documents, filled with signatures, wills, red wax seals, lists of household items, and other details provide fascinating glimpses of what life was like for regular citizens seeking justice in the Commonwealth.

These court records are often surprisingly well-preserved. Early documents were produced on cotton and linen rag paper but were often stored in corrosive acidic envelopes from the Victorian era. “The courts always used good quality paper, so we’ve been lucky that way,” said Bruce Shaw, Director of SJC Archives and Records Preservation. FamilySearch volunteers carefully unfold each piece of paper, scan and record the contents for search functions and viewing. The newly digitized images contain all of the file papers from each case.

Twin projects, one goal. For the first project, a FamilySearch.org team worked with the SJC Archives staff to compile and link the Essex Probate metadata to the digital images of the original file papers. That project, started over seven years ago, is now finally complete. Those searchable Essex County file papers are now online at AmericanAncestors.org.

“I suggested starting off with Essex because it wasn’t a terribly large county population-wise; it’s a historic, old county, and it had an accurate, scannable index, so it was fairly easy for FamilySearch volunteers to link the digital images that FamilySearch scanned with the metadata index,” Mr. Shaw explained.

In 2011 NEHGS, a genealogical organization in Boston, contacted the SJC Archives for permission to work with the Middlesex Probate records from 1648 to 1871. Middlesex was the only county with 978 reels of 100 foot-long microfilm of probate file papers, and FamilySearch transferred the images to digital at the time of NEHGS’ request. Over the last two years NEHGS worked with the FamilySearch images to link them to the index provided by Mr. Shaw and post them on AmericanAncestors.org.

The searchable databases have been public since early August 2014. There are about 668,000 digital images in the Essex County probate database and 995,000 images in the Middlesex County database.

Genealogical gold. “These databases feature an incredible number of detailed historical records and genealogical information available for free to the public—and they will grow as more records are digitized,” Mr. Shaw said. “We insisted the records be free because they are public records, and NEHGS was happy to agree, as probate records are considered ‘genealogical gold.’”

Once FamilySearch completed the Essex and Middlesex County probate records, they turned to Plymouth’s Probate Court. The Plymouth images are now done, and NEHGS volunteers are in the process of linking the index with the images. Worcester County’s probate records are currently in the process of digitization, which should be completed in about a year.

These four counties were chosen because they had printed indexes which could be converted to searchable data links to the images. The original Worcester index, printed in 1898, runs from 1731-1881 and contains over 1,000 pages. The brittle pages of the original index had to be individually photocopied by hand and run through an Optical Character Recognition scanner to produce the metadata that will ultimately be online to search and view.

The SJC Archives and Preservation department receives 50-60 requests a week from the general public and academics. These digital collections will help improve access and preserve these one-of-a-kind documents. You can search through these historic documents on NEHGS’ American Ancestors and FamilySearch websites.

Innovation grant helps Hampshire Court preserve the past. Meanwhile, initial efforts are now underway at the Hampshire Probate & Family Court to preserve the case records of everyday citizens and prominent figures such as Joseph Hawley, Revolutionary-era patriot and Northampton lawyer. With support from operating funds obtained through the Innovation Grant program, a group of volunteers, led by Barbara Fell-Johnson, retired Head Librarian of the Hampshire Law Library, have completed sorting, labeling, flattening, and re-filing over 50 boxes of court records to acid-free folders, many of which date back to the late 1600s. The volunteers have their work cut out for them: some 600 metal storage boxes remain, many crammed with hundreds of tri-folded documents. Once preserved, the documents will ready to be scanned at a later date.

In addition to Ms. Fell-Johnson, members of the Hampshire Probate & Family Court innovation project include First Justice Linda S. Fidnick, Register Michael J. Carey, and Mark Ames, Head Administrative Assistant. Robert Cox, Head of Special Collections at the University of Massachusetts, provides advice. The Daily Hampshire Gazette covered the Court’s efforts; click the link to see photos and read more about this ongoing project.