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Collection of Essex County (Mass.) Court Records

Collection of Essex County (Mass.) Court Records

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Collection Summary

Repository:The Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum 161 Essex Street Salem, MA 01970 Phone: 978-745-9500 Fax: 978-948-6012
Title:Collection of Essex County (Mass.) Court Records
Quantity:19.5 linear feet (27 boxes, 1 flat file)
Abstract:This is an artificial collection; it was created by compiling material from or relating to Essex County courts from various collections over many years.
Collection Number:EC 43

Series List

SERIES I. General Court Records
SERIES II. Superior Court of Judicature Records
SERIES III. Court of Common Pleas Records
SERIES IV. Court of General Sessions Records
SERIES V. Justice of the Peace Records
SERIES VI. Supreme Judicial Court Records
SERIES VII. Court of Insolvency, Police Court, and Notary Public Records
SERIES VIII. Court of Insolvency, Police Court, and Notary Public Records

Scope and Content Note

This is an artificial collection; it was created by compiling material from or relating to Essex County courts from various collections over many years. For the ease of organization, the materials have been organized according to court, when the court has been identified, and chronologically by year within each court. This collection has been divided into nine series.

Series I. General Court Records contains records from the General Court that was established under English Common law in 1630, until the Charter was abandoned in 1684. The General Court was reestablished in 1692. This series includes the county courts that were held during the General Court.

Series II. Superior Court of Judicature Records contains records from the records from the Superior Court of Judicature which was established in 1687, and later renamed the Supreme Judicial Court. The notebook of court cases (box 1, folder 3) also contains notes on cases in the Court of Common Pleas.

Series III. Court of Common Pleas Records contains records from the Court of Common Pleas, sometimes referred to as the Inferior Court of Common Pleas, which was established around 1687. The Court of Common Pleas records include a number of folders with pension applications and declarations for pensions from Revolutionary War veterans, which have been arranged alphabetically by last name.

Series IV. Court of General Sessions Records contains records from the Court of General Sessions, sometimes referred to Court of General Sessions of the Peace.

Series V. Justice of the Peace Records contains records from the offices of the Justices of the Peace. Included in this series are records created by individual Justices of the Peace. Also included in this series are indentures, apprenticeships, warrants, notices of debt, appointments to offices, accounts, and bills.

Series VI. Supreme Judicial Court Records contains published testimonies and court proceedings from the Supreme Judicial Court.

Series VII. Probate Court Records contains probate records, including estate papers, record books, and hand copied records. Some of the estate papers have been organized by individual; this is because they were grouped this way in the scrapbooks in which they were pasted.

Series VIII. Court of Insolvency, Police Court, and Notary Public Records contains records from the Court of Insolvency, Land Court, Police Court, and Notary Public.

Series IX. Other contains materials not easily identified as belonging to the various courts listed above, or not relating to Essex County. This series has been divided into two subseries. Subseries A. Unidentified Court(s) contains materials that do not have a specific court listed on them. The jury list index (box 17, folder 8), was found with a note that states it is possibly an index to Volume II (1803-1806) of the Court of General Sessions, which is housed at the County Engineer’s office; it is unknown when this note was written or by whom. Included in this subseries are documents in the case of John Proctor vs. Giles Cory (box 23, folder 1). Subseries B. Courts Not in Essex County contains material relating to the courts or legal matters in places other than Essex County, Massachusetts. This includes other counties in Massachusetts, other states, and England.

Historical Sketch

The Massachusetts judicial system can trace its history back to the first English settlement in 1630, and English common law. The General Court was a legislative body, composed of freemen, which met quarterly. The Charter authorized the General Court to "make, ordain, and establish all manner of wholesome and responsible orders, laws, statutes, and ordinances, directions, and instructions not contrary to the laws [of England…and settle] the forms and ceremonies of government and magistracy fit and necessary" (Menand 7). Each town elected deputies to represent them in the General Court. These elected officials later became known as magistrates. Within a decade of the first English settlement, a three tiered judicial system had been set up comprised of magistrates, county courts, and a Court of Assistants (the chosen leaders of the General Court—governor, deputy governor, and eighteen assistants). Under the Charter, the Court of Assistants not only had the powers of a justice of the peace, they also had "full and absolute power and authority to correct, punish, pardon, govern, and rule" (8-10).

After the first Charter was abandoned by the Crown in 1684, the judicial system saw some changes. The General Court and Court of Assistants were replaced by a Governor and Council, both of whom were appointed by the Crown. The Council held "appellate jurisdiction and the highest trial authority" until a Superior Court of Judicature was established in 1687 (10-11). Superior Court judges were appointed by the Governor with the Council’s consent. The county courts were divided into two jurisdictions: Court of Common Pleas for civil issues, and Court of General Sessions for criminal cases. The Court of Common Pleas, also referred to as the Inferior Court of Common Pleas, acted as the main trial court in Massachusetts until 1859 (Hindus). Also at the local level, were Justices of the Peace who were appointed by the Governor and Council, and who exercised authority previously held by the magistrates (Menand 11).

In 1692, a second charter was established, making the colony a royal province, reestablishing the General Court, and establishing a house of representatives and a council elected by the house (11). The three tier system continued, with the Justice of the Peace being at the lowest tier, administering local justice, hearing civil cases of less than 40 shillings, misdemeanors, and "bound over" other criminal defendants for the grand jury. The Courts of Common Pleas and General Sessions remained in the middle tier, hearing civil and criminal cases, as well as appeals from the Justices of the Peace (12). Appeals from the middle two courts went to the Superior Court, the highest tier, which also oversaw capital cases and cases where damages exceeded ten pounds. Cases involving more than 300 pounds sterling could be appealed to the Privy Council (13). "Each court established its own rules and appointed its own clerk, who was required to maintain its records" (15). In 1827, the Court of General Sessions was dissolved.

After the Revolution, and the adoption of a state constitution, the established court system continued, the only changes were the renaming of the Superior Court of Judicature to the Supreme Judicial Court, which gained jurisdiction over divorce, and to "put probate on a statutory footing by establishing a court in each county with appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court…" (16). In 1804, the first published reports of Supreme Judicial Court decisions appeared, which allowed for the development of a more modern system of case law (16). In 1859, a statewide Superior Court was created. The new Superior Court had a seat in each county, replacing the Court of Common Pleas at the middle tier, but also had concurrent jurisdiction with the Supreme Judicial Court over actions of law above specified minimums (18).

While courts in Massachusetts have always performed probate functions, it was not until after the Revolutionary War that a Probate Court was established. The Probate Court was to "[probate wills, administer] estates of the deceased, [appoint] guardians for minors and ‘distracted persons’, and [examine] guardians, executors and administrators" (75). From 1856 to 1858, a separate Insolvency Court was established to serve as the court of record that had jurisdiction over cases of insolvency. In 1858, Insolvency Court was combined with the Probate Court (82). In 1898, the legislature created the Court of Registration, which later became the Land Court. The Land Court’s jurisdiction includes "nearly every aspect of litigation affecting real property other than specific performance of contract". Prior to the establishment of the Court of Registration, land deeds fell under the purview of the General Court (87).

Index Terms

This collection is indexed under the following headings in Philcat. Researchers desiring materials about related topics, persons, or places should search the catalog using these headings.

Appleton, Isaac
Chandler, James, 1706-1789
Cheever, Abijah, 1760-1843
Cleeves, Robert
Cory, Giles
Curwen family
Dana, Samuel, 1778-1864
Dimon, James
Evans, Amos
Evans, Thomas
Gage, Mehitable
Gilman, Elizabeth
Gould, Elizabeth
Hackett, Anne
Hale, Benjamin
Hoyt, Thomas
Hutchinson, Robert
Jackson, Joshua, 1696-1745
Minot, Stephen
Ober, Richard
Parker, Benjamin, -1747
Parsons, William, 1700-1755
Perkins, John
Proctor, John, 1632-1692
Raymond, Benerges
Rutland, Benjamin
Saunds, John
Searles, Mary F. S.
Sewell, Joseph
Shapleigh, Samuel
Skinner, John
Sprauge, J. E.
Stone, John
Trask, Joshua Phippen, 1805-
Walden, Nathaniel
Waldron, John, active 1733
Wetmore, William, 1749-1830
Whipple, William
White, Daniel Appleton, 1776-1861
White, Leonard, 1767-1849
Woodberry, Isaac
Essex County (Mass.) Court of Common Pleas
Essex County (Mass.) Court of Sessions
Massachusetts. Circuit Court of Common Pleas (Middle Circuit)
Massachusetts. Court of Common Pleas (Essex County)
Massachusetts. Court of General Sessions of the Peace (Essex County)
Massachusetts. Court of Insolvency (Essex County)
Massachusetts. General Court
Massachusetts. Justice of the Peace Court (Essex County)
Massachusetts. Police Court (Salem)
Massachusetts. Probate Court (Essex County)
Massachusetts. Superior Court of Judicature
Massachusetts. Supreme Judicial Court
Court records
Estates, administration of
Military pensions
Public records
Trust indentures
Warrants (Law)
Barnstable County (Mass.)--Court records
Bristol County (Mass.)--Court records
England--Court records
Hampshire County (Mass.)--Court records
Hartford County (Conn.)--Court records
Ipswich (Mass.)--History
Louisiana--Court records
Maine--Court records
Massachusetts--History--Colonial period, ca. 1600-1775
Massachusetts--Politics and government--To 1775
Middlesex County (Mass.)--Court records
Missouri--Court records
Nantucket County (Mass.)--Court records
New Hampshire--Court records
Norfolk County (Mass.)--Court records
North Carolina--Court records
Plymouth County (Mass.)--Court records
Rhode Island--Court records
Salem (Mass.)--History
Suffolk County (Mass.)--Court records
United States--History--Revolution, 1775-1783
Worcester County (Mass.)--Court records
Account books
Legal petitions


Restrictions on Access

This collection is open for research use.

Administrative Information


Request for permission to publish material from the collection must be submitted in writing to the Manuscript Librarian in the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum.

Preferred Citation

Collection of Essex County (Mass.) Court Records, EC 43, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.


This material came from a variety of sources. Four documents from the Court of Sessions, a warrant, receipt, and petition, dated 1793-1812, were purchased April 30, 1980 (formerly MSS 0.028). A plea of ejectment between Joseph Sewall and Amos Evans from the Court of Common Pleas, dated 1817, was donated December 4, 1983 (formerly MSS 0.035). Two account books of court expenses, dated 1771-1772, including charges to lawyers, lists of cases, and more were found in the collection (formerly Fam. Mss. 292). An undated index to a jury list and miscellaneous court documents were removed from Salem Court House Records ( EC 44) and added to this collection. A notebook of court cases from the court of Common Pleas and the Superior Court dated 1744-1760, was added to this collection (formerly EC 56). Essex County Probate Records (formerly EC 44) were added to this collection. Fam. Mss. 867, Salem, Mass. Court Records, was added to this collection. Two boxes of Revolutionary War pension applications and declarations ( EC 46) were added to this collection.

An inventory of the estate of Ebenezer Poor, undated, was purchased April 17, 1950. A number of judgements of debt, dated 1879 to 1884, and a bill of sale between Lew K. [Straug] and [J. M. M. Raymond], dated May 19, 1880, were donated by M. A. Battes on May 27, 1949. A docket book for an unidentified court, belonging to F. Howe, dated 1815-1830, was donated by Mrs. Robert Saltonstall on November 22, 1916. A volume of abstracts of Essex County court records, dated 1875, was donated by Ezra S. Woodbury on August 29, 1907. A 1752 apprentice indenture between Jeremiah [Hutchance] and Richard Whittier, was a gift of J. L. Mackensie. A May 12, 1772, indenture for a lease between J. Southwick and William Southwick was donated by Kenneth S. Dornett, May 24, 1949. An April 1, 1850, indenture between William and Joseph Nichols and Samuel Noah, was donated by Lawrence W. Jenkins on February 14, 1949. A May 13, 1809, indenture for marriage between Abigail Benson and John Daland was donated by Robert S. Rantoul.

A number of Salem police court records were donated by L. W. Jenkins on August 21, 1956. Harry F. Waters donated a volume of Salem police court records from 1844, in 1902. An index to C Court Docket, undated, was donated by the estate of Andrew [Dunlap]. A volume of Samuel Shapleigh’s law notes was donated by P. K. Foley. A number of blank legal forms were donated by by E. C. Bolles on January 26, 1880. A memo book belonging to Sheriff J. E. Sprauge, dated 1830-1834, was donated by H. C. [Sayss], in 1900. A minute book belonging to Justice of the Peace Joseph Bowditch, dated 1753-1762, was donated by David H. Flaherty.

Two record books were originally part of the Curwen Family Papers; these were purchased in 1914. An undated will for Francis Peabody of Middleton was donated by the estate of Abbie W. Towne in 1950. One volume of hand copied probate court records from 1815-1840, was donated by Mrs. Walter Harris on July 19, 1915. An index to probate papers of Essex County from 1638-1701, and a hand copied volume of probate records from 1649-1705, both were compiled by Alfred Poore. An undated will for William Putnam was donated by Mrs. Eben Putnam on March 6, 1945. A will belonging to Joseph Southwick of Danvers, undated, was donated by Mrs. Frederick C. Munroe on August 22, 1957. A will belonging to Elias Hunt of Newbury, undated; a will belonging to Thomas Noyes of Newbury, dated 1718 or 1719; a will belonging to Daniel Noyes of the Funchal Islands, Madeira, dated 1728; an undated will for John Pike; and an April 29, 1777, indenture between J. Dudley Colman and Paul Lunt were purchased May 4, 1943. An inventory of the estate of Robert Adams of Newbury, dated November 7, 1801, was donated by R. W. Lull on September 3, 1931. A copy of William Moody of Salisbury’s will, dated 1888, was purchased November 4, 1944. A will belonging to John [Path], dated 1799, was purchased August 18, 1947. Wills belonging to Thomas Jacob of Ipswich, dated 1706; William Brown of Ipswich, dated 1789; William Brown of Hamilton, dated 1814; and a will belonging to Jonathan Lamson of Hamilton, dated 1824, were donated by Charles F. Montgomery in July 1954. A will belonging to Joseph March of Salisbury, dated 1795, was a gift from Goodspeed Bookshop in April 1950.

A will belonging to Samuel Townsend of Salem, dated 1800, was donated by Thomas I. [Fenno] on September 24, 1951. A will belonging to Henry [Burchssead] of Lynn, dated 1753, was purchased November 21, 1944. A will belonging to Mary Hale of Plaistow, New Hampshire, dated 1767, was purchased November 14, 1946. A will belonging to [Elipheles] Spafford of Rowley, dated 1776, was purchased April 13, 1943. Wills belonging to Joseph Southwick of Danvers, dated 1779 and 1782, were donated by Mrs. Frank C. Munroe on August 22, 1952. A will belonging to Robert Peele of Salem, dated 1791, was donated by J. M. Raymond. An inventory of Johnathan Peele’s estate, dated 1809, and a will belonging to Margaret Peele of Salem, dated 1809, an inventory of the estate of Mrs. Margaret Peele, dated 1815, and a will belonging to Dorcus Woodbridge of Salem, dated 1817, were donated by [Johnathan] C. Osgood in September 1881. An undated will belonging to Joseph Fitts of Salisbury, was purchased on November 4, 1952. An undated will belonging to Sarah Moody of Newbury, was purchased April 15, 1948. A will belonging to Joseph Chandler of Salem, dated 182[?], was donated by Beatrice A. Brown on May 11, 1948. A will belonging to Edward Manfild of the County of Norwich, England, dated 1668, and an indenture between Frances Perlee and John [Rebond], of England, dated 1660, were purchased April 15, 1948. An inventory of the estate of Benjamin Wadsworth of Danvers, dated 1826, was donated by Roger Butterfield on November 27, 1951. An inventory of the estate of Sarah Frye of Andover, undated, was donated by the Haverhill Public [Lib] through Pauline Pulsifer, on January 28, 1942. An affidavit of marriage between Thomas Tipping and Elizabeth Webb, of London, dated 1708, was donated by Caleb Foote in 1889. An intention of marriage between Anne Jenson and Philip Rowell of Salisbury, dated 1792, was donated by Eliza and Helen Philbrick in December 1889. A record book of legal documents was donated in 1949, by [ ] and Elizabeth P. Lord. Three volumes of probate records were donated on August 18, 1943.

Processing Information

Collection processed by Hilary Streifer, November 2018.

Related Material

Account of travel of Justices of Court of General Sessions, 1784. MSS 0.810+

Hindus, Michael S. "A Guide to the Court Records of Early Massachusetts," Colonial Society of Massachusetts, last modified 2017,

"History of the Land Court," Commonwealth of Massachusetts, last modified January 2, 2014,

Menand, Catherine S. A Research Guide to the Massachusetts Courts and Their Records. Boston: Supreme Judicial Court Archives and Records Preservation, 1987.

Transcriptions of the Records of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County Massachusetts, 1936-1939. WPA 1.

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