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.

The Massachusetts Real Estate Atlas Digitization Project

Maps are a vital part of genealogical research. Recognizing their historical and genealogical value, the Massachusetts State Library initiated a major project to digitize a part of their collection.

The Massachusetts Real Estate Atlas Digitization Project, supported by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, is working to digitize the collection of about 200 atlases. These volumes provide 6,500 maps of areas throughout the Commonwealth.

To date the project has digitized 167 of the 200 volumes; almost 85% of the collection! The earliest published volume digitized to date is an atlas of plans to subdivide the estates of William C. Barstow in East Boston, created in 1857. The earliest maps, however, are much earlier. In 1894 an atlas of Boston was published with maps created in 1819–20. This excerpt shows the Granary Burying Ground (labeled simply Burying Ground), and the house on Unity Street (at the corner of the alley just up from Love Lane) built by Benjamin Franklin’s sister and brother-in-law, later owned by Franklin himself.

The largest part of the collection is comprised of 50 atlases of various parts of the city of Boston in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The most recent of all the materials in the online collection is a 1938 atlas for Back Bay and the central part of Boston.

Maps are not limited to Boston, however. You can find towns across the state in these atlases. This small section of a map of the town of Seekonk in an atlas of Bristol County published in 1895 shows the eighteenth-century farmhouse where my family lived while I was in high school.  No names are present, but the small black squares on the mapeach represent a building.

The files are available in both PDF and jpg format. While neither is searchable, it is very easy to browse both versions. The PDF files are on the DSpace platform that holds all of the digital collections of the library. The jpg files are on Flickr. If you have ancestors in Massachusetts, visit the library’s page for the Massachusetts Real Estate Atlas Digitization Project and check out these resources.