Know Your History

Sometimes we think we have the knowledge we need to research in a location. But beware the hidden surprises lurking in history that can cause problems in your research. One example of this is the history of Norfolk County, Massachusetts.

Those researching their Massachusetts ancestors know that Norfolk County was created in 1793 from Suffolk County. So what happens when you find a reference to your ancestor living in Norfolk County . . . in 1670?

In 1643, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was split into four shires:1

  • Suffolk: Boston, Braintree, Dedham, Dorchester, Hingham, Nantasket, Roxbury, and Weymouth
  • Middlesex: Cambridge, Charlestown, Concord, Lynn Village (today Reading), Medford, Sudbury, Watertown, and Woburn
  • Norfolk: Dover, Exeter, Haverill, Hampton, Salisbury, and Strawberry Bank (today Portsmouth, N.H.)
  • Essex: Cochichawick (today Andover), Enon (today Wenham), Glocester, Ipswich, Lynn, Newbury, Rowley, and Salem

This county was in existence for more than 35 years. It gained an additional town in in 1668 when the town of Amesbury was formed from Salisbury.

On 22 January 1679/80 New Hampshire became a royal province. The four northern settlements, Dover, Exeter, Hampton, and Strawberry Bank, became part of that colony.2 This left only three towns in Norfolk County, all north of the Merrimack River. In the session of 4 February 1679/80, the General Court (the Massachusetts legislature) passed the following act:

This Court, being sencible of the great inconvenienc & charge that it will be to Salisbury, Hauerill, & Amesbury to continue their County Court, now some of the tounes of Norfolke are taken of, and consideringthat those tounes did formerly belong to Essex county, and attended at Essex Courts, doe order, tht those tounes that are left to be againe joyned to Essex, and attend publick buriness at Essex Courts, there to implead and be impleaded as occasion shallbe; their records of lands being still to be kept in some one of their oune tounes on the north of Merrimack; and all persons, according to course of law, are to attend in Essex county.3

For an excellent review of the county’s records, see David Curtis Dearborn “The Old Norfolk County Records” The Essex Genealogist 3 (1983): 194–96.

From this point on, Norfolk County effectively ceased to exist. The name, however, was resurrected more than a century later. In January 1792, the General Court ceded all towns in Suffolk County outside of Boston and Chelsea to the new county of Norfolk, with Dedham as the shire town “till otherwise ordered by the General Court.” 236 years later, Dedham is still the shire town.

 

  1. Nathaniel B. Shurtleff, Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England (Boston: Press of William White, 1853) 2:38.
  2. “Old Norfolk County Records” The Essex Antiquarian 1 (1897):20.
  3. Nathaniel B. Shurtleff, Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England (Boston: Press of William White, 1854) 5:264.

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