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The Challenge of Locating Vital Records in Ontario / Upper Canada / Canada West

Article posted: January 11, 1998

By: Fawne Stratford-Devai & Ruth Burkholder


1869 - present   |   1858-1869   |   Pre 1858    |   more sources


Part 2, 1858-1869

In 1857 legislation was enacted to provide for the registration of all marriages performed by ALL ordained clergymen in the Province of Canada West (Ontario). It was the responsibility of all counties to record the marriages performed within their boundaries. As a result of this legislation we now have a series of records called the County Marriage Registers . The majority of these registers are held by the Archives of Ontario in Toronto. County marriage registers were kept from January 1, 1858 until vital registration began in Ontario July 1, 1869. Most often the County Marriage Registers include only marriages performed between 1858 and 1869, however, occasionally there will be marriages recorded that were performed before 1858 and even some marriages performed in the later months of 1869 (after vital registration began). Unfortunately there is a gap in some areas of the province during the 1868-1869 time period because of the transition to official vital record keeping by the province. The marriage records reported from 1858-1869 will tend to give place of residence, place of origin, names of parents of both Bride and Groom and ages of Bride and Groom & names of witnesses.

Unfortunately every minister interpreted in his own way how best to complete the official forms. Most ministers recorded the actual age of the parties, but a few simply recorded "of full age" or "minor". Some ministers were quite specific when giving places of birth (including parish or township) while others simply wrote Upper Canada or Ireland etc. If the parents of the bride/groom were deceased the minister usually wrote "deceased",without naming the parents. Some ministers, often Roman Catholic and Presbyterian ministers record the maiden names of the mothers.

It must always be kept in mind that County Marriage Registers were created from returns submitted by clergy. The original record of marriage was kept by the officiating clergyman at the time of marriage. Therefore the original true record of the marriage at its source is the parish register.

Once a year either the minister or another church officer would copy all marriages for the year onto the marriage return forms that had to be submitted to the registrar. The registry office clerk then copied the marriages from ministers returns into the book that was known as the County Marriage Register. Please keep these steps in mind if you come across errors or misspellings in the transcriptions and make sure to use your imagination when searching for surnames also (eg. Some surnames are written down based on how they sounded rather than how they were properly spelled).In addition always be sure to check the surrounding counties in the event that a marriage was performed by a traveling minister who regularly crossed county boundaries.

There are 42 County Marriage Registers, one each for the counties existing in the period 1858-1869. In addition there are separate marriage registers for the City of Toronto and the City of Ottawa. It should be noted that Dufferin County was not established until a few years after the period covered by these registers and then the territory was divided amongst Grey, Simcoe and Wellington counties. It is important to note that not every marriage performed in this province from 1858-1869 is recorded in a county marriage register. Although a marriage may have been performed and recorded, the record might not survive. There is evidence that marriage returns from many ministers performing marriages in the province never reached the Registrar to be entered into the County Marriage Register. Some Ministers resented the fact that they were required to send this information to the government and many quietly refused to do so. In addition, the returns from the minsters themselves were sent to the County Registrar, which in many counties meant the County Land Registrar.

Individual returns for this time period have been found in some Land Registry Offices. For example, it was the recent discovery of the original Carleton County marriage returns that led in some part to the founding of APOLROD, the Association for the Preservation of Ontario Land Registry Office Documents, in January 1997. In a few cases county registers thought to be missing have thankfully turned out to be merely victims of "archival misunderstanding".

For example, the Glengarry County register for 1858-69, has been at the National Archives of Canada for years - mislabelled as an Eastern District Church of Scotland register. In addition the discovery of the original returns submitted by the ministers has made good the loss of some registers. The county of Lennox & Addington marriages are missing for some years in the actual county marriage register, but the returns survive at the Lennox & Addington Museum in Napanee. Marriage returns for Brant County for 1858-69 are now at the Archives of Ontario in RG22 unprocessed, having come in from the county clerk's office, and those for Waterloo are in RG21. However, in both these instances, the registers for Brant and Waterloo counties also exist.

In some instances ministers performing marriages continued to send their marriage returns to the clerk of the peace for the old districts of Upper Canada who then continued to enter them in the District Marriage Register . For example, in Haldimand County there are essentially two different transcriptions, the first transcription done by Dan Walker covers the period 1851 to 1865 and is essentially the Haldimand County Marriage Register which was started by the Clerk who used to keep the District Marriage Register. However, there is also a transcription of the Haldimand County marriage register published by Generation Press which covers the years 1858-1869 done by Elizabeth Hancock for Haldimand. To be sure you have covered the county properly you must consult both Haldimand County transcriptions. It is also important to check the District Marriage Register for the District in which the county is located to be certain the marriage was not recorded in the District Marriage Register.

This article would not be complete without a thank you to the work of William E. Britnell who began indexing the county marriage registers more than 20 years ago and the work of Elizabeth "Libby" Hancocks & Generation Press in Agincourt who have made them available to us. Libby has continued to transcribe the County Marriage Registers as a labour of love. Without the work of Libby and Bill Britnell we would not have such a complete indexing of these important registers.

Please remember that no secondary source of information is perfect (even if it is the official government record). Flaws with the registers/records for this period include the fact that the County Register was a copy of a copy, even the returns submitted by clergy were copied from their registers (therefore only a copy) but required more information on the form than was generally recorded in the existing parish registers. The returns from the Ministers to the County Registrar sometimes included Births and Deaths that were not recorded in the Marriage Register and can only be found on the original returns or in the original parish registers.

Whenever possible researchers should always check the parish registers for the Churches in the areas where their families lived/worked. Church records are really the primary source of information for any vital records. All other indexes, newspaper accounts and even official government records are secondary sources of information. What this means is that the actual details of the event were recorded first and foremost in the parish register. All other information and reports submitted to the government or transcribed by other people are secondary sources of information.

For many of us who cannot travel to every parish connected with our families, government records, newspaper accounts and the generous work of volunteers who undertake to transcribe and index these records are a blessing. It is important to check with the local genealogy group in the area you are researching to determine if they have transcribed and published any of the parish registers you are searching for. In addition check the local newspapers to see if the events were reported. The Ontario Register, orginally published by Thomas B. Wilson of Hunterdon House contains a few transcriptions of records from the 1858-1869 time period. The Ontario Register is now available (January 9, 1998) on CD #204 from Global Genealogy & History Bookstore. Whenever possible try and follow up the information you receive from newspaper accounts or other secondary sources in the parish records.

Some sources of information for parish registers:
As with any well established institution, the various religious denominations within the province have their own hierarchy which must be recognized and understood if you want to have the best chance of finding that elusive vital record. Many individual denominations and even dioceses within a particular faith have their own archives. Here are a few hints and addresses to help you.

Roman Catholic Church : Each Archdiocese is responsible for the records within their boundaries. Most of the sacramental registers (baptisms, marriage, burial and confirmation registers) have been filmed by the Latter Day Saints (with the exception of the Hamilton diocese) and are available up to 1910 on loan through the various LDS family history centres. The microfilming was done so that priests in the local churches did not have to deal with genealogical inquiries. Individual churches do not have the staff to cope with genealogical requests.

Presbyterian Church Archives, #104 - 11 Soho Street, Toronto M5T 1Z6, (416) 595-1277 This archives holds the records only for those Presbyterian churches which did not join with other churches & denominations to form the United Church in 1925. Therefore, it is important to know whether the early Presbyterian Church you are interested in, is still a Presbyterian Church today.

United Church Archives, 73 Queen=s Park Cres. East, Toronto, Ontario M5S 1K7 (416) 585-4562. As their brochure states, AThis archives holds local church records of the United Church and its uniting denominations (Methodist [Episcopal, Wesleyan, Primitive, etc.], Congregational, Presbyterian [some] and Evangelical United Brethren.@ The United Church Archives holds the records for all Ontario Conferences (and individual churches) with the exception of: Montreal & Ottawa Conferences B Ottawa area records held by The City of Ottawa Archives, 174 Stanley Ave. Ottawa, ON. (613) 564-1348. Quebec Conference Records are held by Archives in both Montreal & Sherbrooke. The extreme northwest of Ontario is part of what is called the Cambrian Presbytery B which is part of the Manitoba and North West Ontario Conference whose records are at the University of Winnipeg.

Baptist Church Records: Canadian Baptist Archives, McMaster University, Divinity College, 1280 Main Street West, Hamilton, ON. L8S 4K1. Please be aware that as with other Anabaptist faiths you will NOT find infant baptismal records as people are only baptized as adults. In addition, marriage records are extemely limited in many baptist churches because as one author was told when enquiring of a marriage in the Ottawa area, Athe baptist church fully recognizes the separation of church and state and since it is the states responsibility for the keeping of official marriage records, the church did not see the need to do so themselves. Lutheran Church Records: Eastern Canada Synod Archives, 50 Queen Street North, Kitchener, Ontario, N2H 6P4. (eg. Williamsburg 1800 forward, Waterloo 1835 forward, Preston 1840 forward).

Anglican Church Records: A wonderful reference to the ecclesiastical boundaries of the Anglican church in Ontario and the records held by the various dioceses can be found in the book: A Guide to the holdings of the ecclesiastical province of Ontario. Generation Press, Agincourt, Ontario. To find the records for the church you are interested in, you must know the diocese in which it belongs. This information and the address for the appropriate diocese archives can be found in the book mentioned.

Jewish Records: Ontario Jewish Archives, 4600 Bathurst Street, North York, Ontario M2R 3V2.

Quakers (Society of Friends): All records have been microfilmed and are available through the Archives of Ontario and the Dorland Friends Historical collection, Pickering College, 16945 Bayview Ave., Newmarket, Ontario. L3Y 4X2.

Mennonite Records: Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Congrad Grebel College, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario N2L 3G6.

Christian Church Records: Unfortunately there does not appear to be a central archives for this denomination. The church began in Ontario in 1821 but many of the local churches have now closed. There is an excellent book detailing the history of the Church, published by Udelle Wood, Stouffville Christian Church, 6528 Main Street, Stouffville, Ontario. L4A 5Z4 called AOur Christian Heritage@ (2nd edition, 1992).

Checklist of parish registers (1986) Ottawa: National Archives of Canada, Manuscripts division, 1987, Patricia Birkett. National Archives of Canada, 395 Wellington St. Ottawa ON. K1A 0N3

Roman Catholic Marriage Registers in Ontario Canada, 1828 - 1870 ( http://globalgenealogy.com/countries/canada/ontario/general/resources/897001.htm ) Compiled and Edited by Renie A. Rumple. Published in 1997. This series consists of certificates of marriages which were copied from registers of Roman Catholic churches in various parishes located in the Niagara Peninsula, the Toronto area and Simcoe and Dufferin Counties. Most of the registers are arranged alphabetically by the name of the groom.

Many local genealogy/historical groups have documented the history of individual parish churches or a history of all parish churches in the area. This information can be found in many local histories of towns, cities and townships. For example many Women=s Institutes have compiled information about the parishes in their geographical area. The work of the Picton Branch of the Prince Edward County Women=s Institutes was included in a book published in 1971 by the Picton Gazette Publishing Company titled AHistory of the Churches of Prince Edward County (now out of print). Ryan Taylor has published a guide to Family Research in Waterloo and Wellington counties which provides detailed information about the various religious denominations practising in the area and lists information about the parish churches in the two counties also.

«part one | part three»

About Fawne Stratford-Devai
Fawne Stratford-Devai's work on Land Records and early Ontario records is well known in the genealogy community. A published author of several Canadian and UK research books, she has also contributed articles to the Ontario Genealogical Society's newsletter "Families" as well as writing for the online family history newsletter the "Global Gazette". Biography






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