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The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Researching the Early History of Black Lives in the Connecticut River Valley


Probate records, generated by the courts as part of “settling an estate after someone's death,” are rich historical records. They date from the 1600s in Massachusetts, Wills and other probate records exist "for persons in America in periods and places when there are few other records." These resources divide property after an individual’s death, so they mostly document the lives of property owners. Researchers can study the records of enslavers to find evidence of enslaved people’s lives and history in the Early Connecticut River Valley.

Probate records are usually filed at the Registry of Probate in the county where the decedent lived at the time of their death. Probate files can contain a single record or a combination of records such as wills, inventories of assets, lists of heirs, appointments of executors or administrators, documentation of the distribution of assets, assignment of dower, indentures, claims, receipts, and guardianship petitions. Wills can clarify relationship information and may reveal how the decedent felt about certain family members and property. 

Of special interest to researchers interested in  African American history are the documentation of enslaved peoples, as probate records can show the lineage of an enslaved person’s path through the legal system. From materials and records, probate documents can show the economic status and values of a property owner and deduce how those values were reflected in the lives of enslaved people. In some cases, estate inventories refer to material culture relevant to enslavement, e.g. “negro cloths,” or “negro bed.”

In the Connecticut River Valley, since the whole Massachusetts section of the Valley was at one time a single county (Hampshire, created in 1662), which was later subdivided with creation of Hampden (1812) and Franklin (1811; Berkshire County to the west was split off in 1761), the early records are likewise separated.  Records in the current Hampshire County Registry include probate records from towns in the present Hampden County before its formation in 1812.

Selective List of Materials in the W.E.B. Du Bois Library

Digest of the probate laws of Massachusetts, relative to the power and duty of executors, administrators, guardians, heirs, legators, and creditors. To which is subjoined an extensive appendix of forms. also, an appendix containing all the additional laws relating to probate concerns to, and including those of the winter and June sessions of the legislature, A.D. 1831 - Prescott, Joshua
Call Number: Special Collections KFM 2544 P8 1832
Designed "to bring together in a digested and systematic form all the statute laws relating to wills, and the descent and distribution of intestates estates, to legatees, devisees, and heirs, executors, and administrators with their respective rights and duties, as found scattered through varioius parts of our statute books; and also the decisions of the Supreme Judicial Court." Refers to wills, legacies, dower,  executors' and administrators' rights and duties, etc. Contains sample forms and an index.

[Equity and probate dockets index [microform]/Supreme Judicial Court].
Call Number: Microfilm A 1185a (1 reel)
Microfilm of name indexes to the Court's Dockets from April, 1862 - October, 1870 (Volumes 1-18).

The Flint and Lawrence Family papers, 1642-1798.
Call Number: Special Collections MS 273
"Personal, financial and legal papers of Flint and Lawrence families of Lincoln, Massachusetts, including wills, estate inventories, indenture documents, receipts of payment for slaves and education, correspondence, and records of town and church meetings, town petitions and receipts relating to the construction of the meeting house." The legal transactions also include estate settlements.

Great Barrington historical documents collection - Taylor, Charles James
Call Number: Special Collections MS 104
A collection of 600 items compiled by Charles Taylor, author of the 1882 Great Barrington town history. Series 3 Estate Records (1755-1811) includes "scattered estate inventories, wills, and executor's expenses for seven estates. Of particular interest are the documents of three Ingersoll family estates, and the detailed will and inventory of Hewitt Root."
"Great Barrington is also important as the birthplace of W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois' maternal ancestors, the Burghardts, were long-time residents of the town."

Index to the probate records of the County of Suffolk, Massachusetts: from the year 1636 to and including the year 1893.
Call Number: Reference KFM 2544 A85 S9 Volumes 1-3
                    Microfilm A 426 (1 reel)
An alphabetical name index to the First Series of Suffolk County Probate materials. Shows the year, the type of case, and the docket number. One then refers to the docket to locate the volume and pages for the actual records.

Index to the probate records of the County of Suffolk, Massachusetts. From the year 1894 to and including the year 1909.
Call Number: Microfilm A 427 (1 reel)
Volume 2 of the index "contains appointment of officers, etc., public administrators' balances, performances of duties, general matters..." Two brief volumes entitled "Probate miscellaneous docket" follow this second volume.

Massachusetts Archives.
Call Number: Microfilm A 180
Probate records appear among the 328 bound volumes held by the Massachusetts Archives at Columbia Point. Some volumes include name indexes. The following volumes, containing "property settlements and other probate matters," are available in the W.E.B. Du Bois Library:
Volume 15B Estates  1636-1671
Volume 16   Estates  1671-1697
Volume 17    Estates  1697-1742
Volume 18    Estates  1742-1753
Volume 19A Estates  1753-1774
Volume 19B Estates  1753-1774

Personal wealth in colonial America [microform]: explorations in the use of probate records from Maryland and Massachusetts, 1650-1720 - Main, Gloria Lund
Call Number: Microfilm 3447
This dissertation is "based on the inventories and accounts of over 5,000 estates found in the probate records of Suffolk and Hampshire counties and six counties of Maryland." Explores "the measurement of wealth and welfare through the contents of estate inventories" and compares Maryland, "Rural Massachusetts," and Boston.

Plymouth Colony probate guide: where to find wills and related data for 800 people of Plymouth Colony, 1620-1691 - Sherman, Ruth Ann Wilder
Call Number: F 63 S53 1983
Notes the town of residence, relationship to a Mayflower passenger, ship name, year the will was signed, name of the spouse or closest relative, and sources of information for more than 725 men and 75 women, all Plymouth Colony residents who left probate records from 1633 to 1691.

Plymouth County Massachusetts probate index, 1686-1881 - Wood, Ralph V.
Call Number: F 72 P7 W66 1988
A finding aid for those working with Plymouth County probate records. Arranged alphabetically by name, showing the year, place, category (will, intestate proceedings, guardianship, adoption, etc.), and docket number.

The probate directory; or, an assistant to probate courts, executors, administrators, and guardians, being the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, respecting the estate of testators, intestates, and wards - Freeman, Samuel
Call Number: Special Collections KFM 2544 A65 F7 1812
A compilation "of the laws of this Commonwealth respecting the estates of deceased persons" in the hopes that it will "render the settlement of estates less troublesome than it commonly is." 

Probate docket.
Call Number: Microfilm A 428 (36 reels)
Microfilms of 94 volumes of original records for 1636-1901. Arranged by the docket number found in the index. Lists proceedings (inventory, appraisal, etc.) and provides volume and page numbers for the records.

Probate records.
Call Number: Microfilm A 429 (380 reels)
Microfilms of 769 volumes of original record books in the office of the Register of Probate of Suffolk County, one of the original four counties in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Cover 1641-1899 with some fragmentary records for 1628-1640 in Volume 2. Many volumes are not in chronological sequence.

The probate records of Essex County, Massachusetts.
Call Number: F 72 E7 M42
"Wills and inventories are provided in full transcription, while all other documents, including letters of administration, estate settlements and the like, appear in full or in abstract." Each volume contains a "List of Estates" and a name and subject index. 
Volume 1  1635-1664
Volume 2  1665-1674
Volume 3  1675-1681

Probate records of Nantucket Indians - Little, Elizabeth A.
Call Number: KFM 2905.6 P7 L58
Reproduces transcriptions and facsimile copies of 10 detailed inventories of the real and personal estates of Nantucket Indians. Offers comparisons of Nantucket Indians, Nantucket English, and Lincoln (Massachusetts) English ("Seaport Town vs. Inland Farming Town.").

[Probate records [microform]/Supreme Judicial Court].
Call Number: Microfilm A 1189 (1 reel)
Microfilm of two volumes of original manuscript court records covering 1760-October term 1870.

Probate records [new series].
Call Number: Microfilm A 430 (20 reels)
Microfilms contain the "new series" of probate Record Books (compiled in the 1890s) of previously unrecorded papers, Volumes 1-42 (1636-1766).

Report of the record commissioners of the City of Boston.
Call Number: F 73.1 B74 Volume 10  1886
Volume 10 contains the "Will of Robert Keayne, 1653." A wealthy merchant tailor and philanthropist, Keayne was born in England in 1595 and died in Boston in 1656. He assisted the Plymouth Colony, helped found the Massachusetts Colony, served as a representative in the state legislature, organized the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts, donated to Harvard, and left a legacy that established the Boston Latin School. Keane's will is "one of the longest on record in the United States."

Suffolk County wills: abstracts of the earliest wills upon record in the County of Suffolk, Massachusetts: from the New England Historical and Genealogical Register.
Call Number: F 72 S9 S93 1984
These abstracts represent approximately the first thirty years of Suffolk County's estate records. Includes a name index.

A view of the jurisdiction and proceedings of the courts of probate in Massachusetts, with particular reference to the county of Essex - White, Daniel Appleton
Call Number: Special Collections KFM 2544 W5 1822
Covers such topics as the probate of wills, guardianship of minors and spendthrifts, the widow's allowance, and the assignment of dower.



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Probate law and practice - Massachusetts

Probate records - Massachusetts

Probate records - Massachusetts - Essex County

Probate records - Massachusetts - Nantucket Island

Wills - Massachusetts - Suffolk County