Searching Early Massachusetts Deeds from Home — For Free!

Deed Search Image 0 Old OrdinaryIf you are curious about property your Massachusetts ancestors or other persons of interest might have owned, there is a way to locate deeds online. All it takes is a free familysearch.org account and a little patience.

I have been researching The Old Ordinary, the Hingham Historical Society’s 1686 house museum at 21 Lincoln Street (aka “the road to Broad Cove”) in Hingham, and its former owners and have found on-line resources such as FamilySearch helpful.  I’ll use The Old Ordinary as my example for how to search early deeds on-line.

In order to set up an account, go to familysearch.org, where you will be asked to provide an email address, set up a password, and choose a userID.  (Make sure to write these down.) You will also be asked to provide some basic information to start “your” family tree but rest assured that information on any living persons remains private, and you don’t have to continue creating a family tree to do research on the site.

You will get a confirming email which you must respond to promptly, and you’re all set.

FamilySearch menus can be deeply nested. Rather than go through all of the menu items to find the deeds, just use your browser to search for: familysearch massachusetts deed search

Screen Shot 2020-04-21 at 9.19.09 AM

From the menu of results, choose: Massachusetts Land Records, 1620-1986 — FamilySearch.org

Click and on the next screen choose: Browse through 5,766,135 images.

Don’t be daunted!  On the next screen, you are presented with a list of the Commonwealth’s counties. When searching deeds, it’s important to know which county a town was in when it was registered.  For instance, Hingham was in Suffolk County from 1643 until 1803, at which point it became part of Plymouth County.   If I am researching the early years, I need to choose Suffolk County.

I am now presented with a long list of links arranged in two columns in the following order:

  • Deed indexes (grantee), grouped first by time period and then alphabetically by surname in successive volumes
  • Deed indexes (grantor), grouped first by time period and then alphabetically by surname, again in successive volumes
  • Deed books, containing the actual deeds, organized by years and volumes.

(A little terminology:  “grantors” are the sellers and “grantees” are the buyers.)

Deed Search Image 1The grantee and grantor index books help you locate a deed more quickly within a certain set of deed books.  As you will see below,  using them on-line is a little bit more cumbersome than using the physical index and deed books, but you do get to search from the comfort of your home and on your own schedule.

An advantage to researching older deeds is that the index books cover a huge span of years, so you don’t have to know exactly when a property changed hands.  For purposes of my example, I know that Francis Barker owned The Old Ordinary in the mid to late 1700s. He was both a grantee when he bought the property and a grantor when he sold.

To find the record of his purchase, I need the grantee index for the period 1639 to 1799 for grantees whose last names start with B

  • Deed index (grantee) 1639-1799 vol 1-2, A-B

A click on the link brings up image 1 of the index book. Now it’s a matter of jumping around in the book until I find Francis Barker. Surnames are listed alphabetically at the top of the page, and given names are listed in the second column.  I like to jump about 50 images at a time until I get close.  I find that records for Francis Barker start at image 211 and end at image 215.  Happily, the one I am looking for is the first entry, which shows that on 5 Jan 1741 Francis Barker (grantee) purchased from Samuel Gill (grantor) a property in Hingham on the Highway to Broad Cove one acre in size. For the actual deed I am directed to consult Deed Book 62 page 171.

Deed Search Image 3I navigate back to the main page for Suffolk County by clicking at the top of the page and find myself at the long list of index books and deed books,  I look for Deed Book 62 and choose the link for

  • Deeds 1740-1741 vol 61-62

Deed Search Image 2This file of 619 images has two volumes, so Volume 62 probably starts halfway through about image 310.  Now, I need to find page 171.  A little browsing shows that each “page” is actually the front and back of a sheet.  Page 171 is, in fact, on images 495 and 496.  There, you can see “Gill to Barker” in the left margin of the left page of image 496. I can read the deed on my screen and/or download or print it.

Deed Search Image 4

[A bonus is that the document immediately prior to this is the deed by which Samuel Gill—Francis Barker’s grantor—himself acquired The Old Ordinary from Baruch Jordan!]

To find the deed for the sale of the property, I would go back and look at the grantor index books and repeat the process.

Not all deeds were registered in a timely fashion, and some land transfers were not registered at all. Some property passed through wills and other means. But most are listed, and you can often learn a lot about an ancestor by searching to see what land holdings he (or sometimes she) might have had.

Some of the terms in land records are archaic. For help understanding them, see: http://www.directlinesoftware.com/legal.htm

For help in understanding deeds and other property records in general, see: https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/U.S._Land_Records_Class_Handout

Happy hunting!

Black History Month: Did You Know . . .

1630    Slavery was present in Massachusetts almost from the the colony’s inception. As early as 1630 the Massachusetts Bay Colony instituted a fugitive law that allowed for runaways to be protected if they ran away to escape abuse by their masters. Enslaved people included both Africans and Native Americans.

1641    Massachusetts became the first American colony to legalize slavery.

1700    Judge Samuel Sewall (known for his involvement in the Salem witch trials) published “The Selling of Joseph,” the first anti-slavery pamphlet published in New England.

1722    During an epidemic, the first smallpox inoculations in America were administered in Boston. The idea of inoculation came from Cotton Mather’s slave, Onesimus, who described how African tribes had used inoculation. The procedure, administered by Zabdiel Boylston, helped save many lives.

1760    Briton Hammon, owned by General John Winslow of Marshfield, published a captivity narrative, “The Uncommon Sufferings, and Surprizing Deliverance, of Briton Hammon, a Negro Man,” considered to be the first autobiographical work by an African-American.  General Winslow moved to Hingham in the 1770s; it is thought that Hammon fought in the Revolution as part of a Hingham-Cohasset regiment.

1764    The first colonial census showed that Hingham had 77 slaves, one for every thirty-two persons, a high ratio compared to the whole colony. The population of Hingham at the time was 2,506.

1773       Enslaved African-American artist Prince Demah solicited commissions for portrait work, advertising in the Boston News-Letter that he “takes Faces at the lowest Rates.” Prince was owned by Henry and Christian Barnes of Marlborough, who were Loyalists, and after they fled to England in 1775, Prince enlisted in the Massachusetts militia as a free man. He died in 1778. Prince’s portraits of Henry and Christian Barnes, the earliest documented paintings by an African-American, are at the Hingham Historical Society.

440px-Mumbett701781    Elizabeth “MumBet” Freeman became the first enslaved African American to file and win a freedom suit in Massachusetts in the case of Brom and Bett v Ashley.

1783    Massachusetts became the first state to effectively abolish slavery when Quock Walker sued his owner for his freedom. The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that slavery was inconsistent with the Declaration of Rights in the Commonwealth’s new Constitution of 1780.  Prominent attorney Levi Lincoln, Sr., who argued the case for Walker, was born in Hingham. Chief Justice William Cushing, who decided the case, was from Scituate.

1801    James Tuttle (ca 1780-1847) married Rebecca Humphrey in Hingham. He founded 34687605614_5abbd89128_mthe small neighborhood of Tuttleville at the intersection of High and Ward Streets, whose residents worked in Weymouth’s shoe factories and farmed. His son James King Tuttle (1834-1906) is credited with leading the effort to build a small church in Tuttleville in the 1870s.

17463952823_a80d5f6137_m1806    Hingham’s Third Congregational Society (New North Church) on North Street was constructed with segregated galleries for people of color, men in one section and women in another. This “architectural lucretia leonardsegregation” ended in the church in 1841 when the Thaxter sisters insisted that their long-time servant, Lucretia Leonard, join them in their pew.

1830   Free African-American emigres founded the Wilberforce Colony north of present-day London, Ontario, Canada, where they were allowed political autonomy.  Sisters Vilana, Rosana, and Salome Quacum of Marshfield, Mass., whose family had ties to Hingham’s black and Native American community, moved north with their husbands and children to join the colony.

1835    The Hingham Female Anti-Slavery Society was founded. Some of the women from this original group joined the Hingham Anti-Slavery Society formed in January 1838. The Thaxter sisters were among the members.

1838    John Quincy Adams, who after his Presidency represented a Plymouth County Congressional district (including Hingham), introduced 350 antislavery petitions in the House of Representatives. This violated the “gag rule” in which no bills could be introduced to debate the issue of slavery.

Motto_frederick_douglass_21841    Frederick Douglass gave his first important public speech in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Douglass settled in New Bedford in 1838 after escaping slavery in Maryland. This speech at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society’s annual convention in Nantucket launched his career as an abolitionist speaker and writer.  Later that same year, Douglass spoke in Hingham at the quarterly meeting of the Plymouth Anti-Slavery Society; the editor of the Hingham Patriot likened him to Spartacus and noted, “A man of his shrewdness, and his power, both intellectually and physically, must be poor stuff . . . to make a slave of.”

1843    Jairus Lincoln of Hingham published his song book, “Anti-Slavery Melodies: For the Friends of Freedom” for the Hingham Anti Slavery Society. The book included some of his own original songs. It was a featured element at an 1844 anti-slavery picnic and subsequent anti-slavery events.

The same year, Sydney Howard Gay left Hingham for New York City to become editor of Portrait-Sydney-Howard-Gay-205x300the National Anti-Slavery Standard.  He was an active participant in the Underground Railroad. Records recently discovered at Columbia University suggest that, in the 1840s and 1850s, Gay and his colleagues, including black freedmen William H. Leonard and Louis Napoleon, helped over 3,000 slaves to escape north to Canada.

1844    Hingham hosted the largest anti-slavery picnic in the United States in Tranquility Grove, now known as Burns Memorial Park. Thousands paraded from Fountain Square through the town and along Main Street to the grove. Frederick Douglass spoke at the event, for which Jairus Lincoln was the Grand Marshall. Unfortunately, the massive crowds caused so much damage to the property that the Thaxters, who owned the grove, vowed never to have a public event there again!

1915.1.1-5DIII_20170113_2698-Catalog Copy.jpg

1848    John Albion Andrew (1818-1867), a leader of the Massachusetts Free Soil Party in the 1840s and 50s and governor of Massachusetts during the Civil War (1861-1866), john-albion-andrewmarried Eliza Hersey of Hingham and considered the town his true home. Four of his five children were born in Hingham.

robert-gould-shaw-memorial1863    After a long effort lobbying the Lincoln administration to allow free men of African descent to enlist in the Union Army, Governor Andrew was allowed to form the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiments. Their impressive performance, particularly the 54th’s at Fort Wagner under the leadership of Robert Gould Shaw (1837-1863), garnered further Northern support for abolition. David Henry Champlin (1835-1886) was a Hingham resident who enlisted in the 54th as a substitute soldier and quickly rose to the rank of corporal. Following the war he convinced Hingham to provide his family the same level of town aid that was granted to white soldiers.

Free Christian Mission

1873    A group of Tuttleville residents, led by James King  Tuttle, petitioned the Town to build an evangelical chapel at the corner of Ward and High Streets. The chapel, which also functioned as a school, was called the Mt. Zion Chapel or Free Christian Mission and had an official membership of thirty, although at times up to 100 people worshiped there.

Selected Sources/Resources

Hart, Lorena Laing and Francis Russell. Not All Is Changed: A Life History of Hingham. Hingham: The Hingham Historical Commission, 1993.

Hingham Public Library, Local History & Special Collections.

Emma Ryan, Tranquility Grove: Standing Up to Slavery. 2017.

Matthew Johnson, Timeline of Events Relating to the End of Slavery.