NEWBURYPORT — What do you think of when you hear the words “probate records”?
Quite likely, an image of dusty, dry, obscure papers floats into your mind. Actually, though, probates can be experienced as buried treasure, particularly for genealogists and those interested in the history of old homes. Frequently, the information does indeed seem to be buried; but with diligence, rare informational treasure can be brought to light.
Researchers have used them to locate the death date of a relative lost at sea, to document changes of spouses in the 1800s, and to find where their relatives owned property. If the vital records are not forthcoming, the probates can be used to find missing relatives.
Probates are invaluable for conducting research on your house and also to view broad sociological trends. An example of the latter was published in one of the Dublin Seminars for New England Folklife entitled “Early American Probate Inventories.” The article, written by Peter Benes was “Sleeping arrangements in Early Massachusetts: The Newbury Household of Henry Lunt, Hatter.”
An astute researcher located a reference to these in a footnote. From this I was able to contact Mr. Benes, who let us copy these for our collection. These essentially list the household goods of the first settlers. These are paper copies and are less easy to use than the microfilmed probate records; as always, though, with persistence, much is revealed.
The acquisition of these records took four years. Did you know that the Mormon church has intellectual control of many records in many towns and cities in the United States? One needs permission from this organization to buy microfilmed copies of these records. Then one must get permission from the originating body of the records. In this case, the original records are housed in the in the Essex County Court House, Registry of Probate in Salem, and in the Division of Archives and Records Preservation in Boston.
After a formal proposal was made and permissions granted, there was still the ever-present reality of operating within the budgetary constraints of the archives. It took two exceedingly generous donations to manifest these valuable records. Heartfelt thanks go to James Baker and Bill Plante for their extreme generosity and vision in providing the funds to purchase this information, making it available to researchers of the Newburyport Archival Center. Both Baker and Plante have been inspired and thoughtful supporters of the archives through the years.
The recently purchased probates extend our previous collection from 1808 to 1863. The archival center has indices for 1638 to 1881 and records from 1671 to 1863.
Jessica Gill is the archivist at the Newburyport Public Library.