Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850: Are they really?

Most people upon hearing the term “vital record” instantly assign it a credibility that it may not deserve.  For example, Massachusetts has a series of vital records books affectionately called “the tan books” also known as Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850. The books are organized by town and as one would expect, they list births, marriages, and deaths from colonial times to 1850.

If you have done research in other locations besides Massachusetts, you know that records can be difficult if not impossible to find for this time period.  For the novice researcher with early Massachusetts ancestry, these books seem like a dream come true, and to a certain extent they are – if you’re careful with the information that they contain.

One general rule of thumb for using any type of published resource is always read any introductory material before you begin looking through the book.  This will not only save time in the long run, it may even give clues to further research that you may miss if you don’t understand how the entries are set- up.  For example, in the marriage section of Foxborough’s  vital records, the following listing was found:

Page 166:

PETTEE, Cyrenius and Mehetebel [int. Mahitable] Clapp, _________ [int. Nov. 9, 1804]. [Cyrenos and Mahitable Clap, m. Feb. 25, 1805, C.R.I.]

What does this entry mean?  On the surface, it appears that Mehetebel Clapp and Cyrenius Pettee married on February 25, 1805 in Foxborough, Massachusetts.   For the novice researcher, this might appear to be enough information – mission accomplished.

But, there is much more information here than meets the eye if time is taken to decipher what the significance is of the different portions of the text.  First, this is obviously the marriage record of Cyrenius and Mehetebel (Clapp) Pettee.  The first bracketed expression “[int. Mahatable]” lets the reader know two things:  first, there was a marriage intention on file at the civil level that was available at the time these records were compiled.  Second, on the published marriage intention, the bride’s first name is spelled Mahitable not Mehetebel.

The blank line where the marriage date would be after Clapp indicates that in the civil records from which this information was compiled initially, there was no marriage record available, only the intention.  The second bracketed expression “[int. Nov. 9, 1804]” indicates when the intention was filed.   But how can there be no marriage date if there is a marriage intention?  What about the date February 25, 1805?   The key lies in the abbreviation “C.R.I.” after the marriage date.  This is where reading the introductory materials including any key to abbreviations will come in handy.  On page five of the volume for Foxborough vital records is a key – that key includes a definition of this abbreviation:

“C.R.I. –church record, Orthodox Congregational Church”

Wow!  So now the true origins of the marriage record have been discovered – it was not filed with the clerk’s office, but was recorded in the church records – and not any church but the Orthodox Congregational Church, one of two churches in town.  In addition, another set of name variants listed in the marriage are given.

This one entry that initially was perceived as “Cyrenius and Mehetebel (Clapp) Pettee were married February 25, 1805 in Foxborough, Massachusetts”  has now exploded to include the date the intention was filed, spelling variants listed in the records, and most importantly which church the couple (or at least the bride’s family) attended.

Other items of interest in these books are entries taken from gravestones that tell the name of the cemetery (“G.R.” entries) and personal records that have been given to document town occupants that could have been family members (“P.R.” entries).  Most of the Massachusetts vital records from the tan books are available online for free and we have put a page with links to them on our website.

Happy searching!

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