Amanuensis Monday: Essex County, Massachusetts Court Records for 1642

A Puritan gathering, from "New England, old and new; a brief review of some historical and industrial incidents in the Puritan "New English Canaan," still the Land of promise." via Wikimedia; public domain.
A Puritan gathering, from “New England, old and new; a brief review of some historical and industrial incidents in the Puritan “New English Canaan,” still the Land of promise.” via Wikimedia; public domain.

Since we have been time-traveling to the 1600s in New England, sharing some  court records that were published in the Salem, Massachusetts genealogy and history magazine called Essex Antiquarian might help give us a better sense of how a community operated, proscribed behavior, and punished those who did not follow the rules (and were caught).

These records are a circa 1900 transcription of records published from the Salem [Essex County, Massachusetts] Quarterly Court Records and Files, Court, 27:10:1642 [maybe 27 December 1642?, since the first month of the year was March in Old Style (O.S.) dating, so the 10th month would be December. Need to research this to make sure the month was not changed by the transcriber to the New Style (N.S.) dating we still use, in which the 10th month is October.] We have also included some records from the second court session, 28:12:1642. These records are available on the New England Historic Genealogical Society’s website,, which does require a paid membership to access most of their records. (Worth it!) These records were in the Essex Antiquarian, Volume 4, pages 123-5.

Research has shown that our earliest Burnell ancestor yet found, Robert Burnell, was born in Lynn, Essex County, Massachusetts in 1669, married there to Sarah Chilson, and died in Lynn in 1737. Their son John Burnell was born there in 1696 too, but this family has not yet been thoroughly researched in this time and place. (So many ancestors, so little research time.) It is very highly likely that Robert’s parents lived in Lynn, for at least a short period of time since he was born there. Robert’s parents (names unknown) or their parents may been in the courtroom for one of the following cases!

These court cases are not written exactly as published, in order for them to be more clear to the modern reader. If I have corrected all the spell-check corrections, they will have retained some of the charming spelling and phrases of the 1600s. Sections in quotation marks are directly from the records transcribed.

Will of Samuel Smith of Enon proved. J[onathan or John] Thorndyke deposed [stated] that Samuel “had his senses” when the will was written. George Emory deposed that “The vapors in his stomake caused paine in his head,” etc.

Alcoholic beverages were used for hydration instead of water to prevent water-borne illnesses like dysentery, parasites, etc. Even children drank spirits, such as cider or “small” beer which was watered down. Excessive use of alcohol by some was a problem in the 1600s as it has been for centuries. Here are a few cases that indicate such:

“Joseph Dalebar testified that Singleton was distempered with liquor and reeled out of Kieney’s house.” There was another witness as well.

“Thomas Gary of Marblehead, whipped for drunkeness.”

Thomas Tuck of Salem was “fined for drunkeness and tippling.” Tippling is drinking small amounts of alcohol continuously, or larger amounts excessively, but apparently Thomas finally got enough to make him drunk. One Roger Scott was taken to court for “idle speeches and excessive drinking.”

Wonder if there was some alcohol involved in this case:

John Peach Sr. was “fined for giving Trustrum Doliver opprobrious provoking words urging to a breach of ye peace.” ‘Opprobrious’ is derived from the Latin for “to reproach or taunt.” Hopefully there was only the urge to break the peace after these words, rather than a real fight.

All sorts of cases passed through the court: A Mr. Johnson was cited for ” breach of town order, felling trees.” [No noisy chainsaws in those days, though.]

A servant named Henry Bullflower visited and entered the houses of two residents “in time of public meeting on Lord’s day, and there taking and eating provisions.” He was severely whipped for breaking and entering and eating.

Twelve men were taken to court for keeping their cattle “in ye common corn fields, and 11 were fined. One man was not fined, “his cattle being “diseased.” [? maybe not right in the head so they wandered?] Another man was only levied half of the fine, as the cattle were his brother’s “a poor man Gone for England & his wife here” per the court record. (This does show how families migrated together so they could work together to survive in the New World.)

Frances Perry went to court for “putting his oxen in to South field before harvest.” The towns had even more regulations for farming than there are today, but following them was important. The community had common fields and assigned each family a proscribed lot. These oxen may have trampled and eaten part of the neighboring crop; even if they didn’t, Goodman Perry was breaking the rules and must be punished for that.

The term “quit” is used in legal parlance to mean vacate, give up possession, or discontinue. “Suffering” means allowing. This is my favorite of today’s notices:

“William Keney of Marblehead presented for suffering disorder in his house. Quit; not being his house.”

Ahh, legal technicalities.


Notes, Sources, and References: 

  1. The Essex Antiquarian. Salem, MA: The Essex Antiquarian, 13 vols. 1897-1909. (Online database: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2006.) Volume 4, pages 123-126.


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