The Challenge of Locating Vital Records
Ontario / Upper Canada / Canada West
Article posted: January 11, 1998
By: Fawne Stratford-Devai & Ruth Burkholder
Part 3: Pre 1858
The search for vital records becomes even more convoluted as we move into
the time periods when Ontario was known as Canada West and Upper Canada.
One of the main problems with this time period is the major transitions that
were taking place. Specifically, prior to 1850 the province of Ontario was
known as Upper Canada and after 1850 was known as Canada West.
During the Upper Canadian time period the province was divided into
districts and all regulations and reporting of vital records were send to
the Clerk of the Peace for the each individual District. However, around
1847 things changed dramatically and all official reporting was sent to the
County Clerk. In other words, as the province moved from administration
based on districts to administration based on counties a black hole was
created in the sense that clergy and others who performed marriages,
baptisms and burials did not always know where they should be sending their
vital record reports.
To complicate matters further in July of 1847 an Act (legislation) was
passed and a Board of Registration and Statistics was set up for obtaining
statistical information. The most important part of this statute for our
purposes is the section that stated
...every Clergyman, Teacher, Minister or other person authorized by law to
baptize, marry or perform the funeral service in Upper Canada, keep a
Registry showing the persons whom he shall have baptized or married, or who
shall have died within his care and belonging to his congregation; the said
Registry to be forwarded by him to the Clerk of the Peace of the District or
Clerk of the City or Town Council or Board of Policy of the City or Town,
where he shall reside or officiate at the time...
This return was to be made quarterly (January, April, July and October). In
addition, Section 18 of the Act (10-11 Victoria) stipulated that the Clerks
of the Peace should forward these returns to the Board of Registration and
Statistics yearly. What this means for those of us looking for registrations
is that we must be very creative.
As we mentioned in the last article, a register has been found for the County of Haldimand for the period 1851 to 1865 and is
essentially the County Marriage Register which was started by the Clerk who
used to keep the District Marriage Register. This register has been
transcribed, indexed and published by Dan Walker of NorSim Research.
A second register for what genealogists have come to know as the County
marriage register time period (1858-1869) also exists. This second Haldimand County Marriage Register
has been transcribed and published by Elizabeth Hancocks of Generation
Press. Where the two registers overlap there are great differences, some
marriages are in one and not the other and still others are in both.
But where are the baptisms and burials mentioned in the legislation? Well,
some clergy did send information about baptisms and burials on the actual
returns to the Clerks. Unfortunately much of this information was not copied
into a register. Therefore if the original returns from the clergy do not
survive and the clerk did not keep a separate register for these important
events, they have probably been lost to us.
Do not give up hope. We are very fortunate that Dan Walker has been scouring
the Province and its various archives in search of these elusive records. To
date he has found returns/registers for a number of other counties for this
earlier county time period. For example, Dan is currently transcribing and
indexing for publication the records for Perth County and Middlesex county
with plans for others in the future. The search continues.
If a Board of Statistics was created we should also be able to find some
records for this government body. Logically this should be true but reality
is usually not logical! It turns out that the Boards records fall under the
jurisdiction of what was called the Bureau of Agriculture. The good news is
that some records do survive for this government body at the National
Archives of Canada in Ottawa. The few records that survive (in RG 17, IV -4,
volume 1, files 1-2) include such things as such as: a return of births,
County of Essex, for 1861; returns of coroners inquests for the County of
Leeds for 1873, the County of Wentworth for 1873 and the County of Oxford
for 1873; a return of Wesleyan Methodist marriages - Roxborough, Stormont
County for 1866 and a number of returns of baptisms and deaths for Waterloo
county for various time periods ranging from 1854-1861 although not
complete. To our knowledge there has been no complete or comprehensive
transcription, indexing and publishing of the returns within this unusual
Yet another difficulty with this time period centers on the issue of why
different counties come into existence at different time periods. Although
counties existed prior to 1849, you must remember that the county was not
recognized as the administrative unit of local government and therefore had
no administrative responsibility for the keeping of vital records. Also,
while the legislation allowed for the creation of other counties in 1847, a
county could not function administratively until a court house was built.
Therefore, different counties constructed court houses at different time
periods (for example Perth County - 1853, Wellington County - 1851). By
about 1851 when the county was the recognized unit of local government for
all administrative issues, the present county distribution of southern
Ontario was virtually complete. However, occasionally townships within the
counties were moved from one county to another.
All of this discussion of geography and government is essential to knowing
where to look when searching for vital records at various time periods. It
is always helpful to ask yourself, "Who was responsible for keeping the
records?"; "Where did the records end up being filed?" In short, after 1850
you must know in what county the event you are looking for took place if you
are to have any hope of finding what you seek. It is also important to check
the District Marriage Register for the District in which the county was
located to be certain the marriage was not recorded in the District Marriage
Prior to 1850 the primary vital records we have are known as the District
Marriage Registers .
During the early period of settlement in Upper Canada and Canada West (the
province of Ontario), all ministers who performed marriages with the
exception of Anglican and Roman Catholic ministers were required to send in
returns to the Clerk of the Peace for the District. The majority of returns
begin in the 1830s with a few Districts having earlier marriage returns. The
Clerk of the Peace then recorded these returns in a register kept in the
office. Most District Marriage Registers survive. It is important to keep in
mind that the Register is only a copy made by the District Clerk.
The time periods covered by the registers depend in large part on when the
District came into existence and when others ceased to exist or lost part of
their district. In addition the Clerk of the Peace for the County (after
1850) sometimes continued to record marriages in the District register even
when the District had ceased to exist. To illustrate these points we can
look at the London District Marriage Register.
The London District Marriage Register has been transcribed, indexed
and published by Dan Walker. Part 1 of Dans London District transcription
covers the periods 1795-1841, Part 2 transcribes the register from
1841-1852. Now initially the London District covered a large area and a
number of counties, however, in 1837 the Talbot District was separated out of the London
District and that marriage register covers the period 1837-1857. In 1839 the
Brock District was also
separated from parts of the London District and that register covers the
period 1839-1857. Even later, in 1841, the Huron District became a separate entity (parts
of Huron were initially in the London District) and this register and
returns cover the period 1841-1848. Hence, if you are looking for marriages
in Norfolk county before 1837 you need to search the London District
Marriage Register and from
1837-1857 the Talbot District Marriage Register . Finally, on the 30 May 1849
the London District was abolished, but the Clerk of the Peace for the
counties of Elgin and Middlesex continued to register marriages in this
volume, until 1852. Hopefully this example serves to demonstrate the
importance of knowing the geography and bureaucracy of the time period for
finding vital records.
The returns themselves are the closest record to the original parish record
that exists. For some Districts the individual original marriage returns
from Ministers have also survived. Occassionally they contain lists of
baptisms and burials performed by the minister.
If the marriage you are looking for was performed by an Anglican (Church of
England) or Catholic (Roman Catholic) clergy, they are not likely to be
included in the District Marriage Registers. The reason for this lack of
Anglican and Catholic returns is because these denominations were considered
the "official" churches of the country and when the legislation was passed
in 1830 (11 George IV, Ch.36) it did not require these two denominations to
submit returns of their marriages.
Only rarely, and much later in the District Period did Anglican and Catholic
clergy submit marriage returns. However, just because your ancestor was a
devote Anglican does not mean their marriage was performed by a minister of
the Church of England. When settlers in the woods wanted to get married they
were not always willing to wait for months and months for the next Anglican
minister to come by on horseback. In many areas it was too far to journey to
a church or the weather was too bad to risk a long walk to the nearest
church so settlers opted to be married by the next minister that came by on
It is important to remember the District Clerk who recorded marriage returns
from clergy into a register was only human and often made errors in
transcribing the marriage returns or sometimes changed a surname that was
spelled phonetically by a minister into what he believed was the proper
spelling. Also remember that the register was a copy of a copy, even the
returns submitted by clergy were copied from their registers (therefore only
a copy). Use your imagination in searching all surnames of interest. Try
and imagine how the surname would be spelled if the spelling was based on
how it sounds.
Keep in mind that in most cases, the marriage returns were submitted by
ministers who were circuit riders. If you cannot find a marriage you are
looking for in one District, you would be well advised to search bordering
districts. A minister on horseback in the wilds of Ontario had no idea when
he crossed a political boundary. Many clergy simply sent a return to the
Clerk of the District where the majority of their marriages were performed
even though the return included marriages that were technically from a
different district. Some clergy submitted returns to the clerk of the
District where they lived at the time, which may not be the District where
they were performing marriages.
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.
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)
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 Queens Park Cres. East, Toronto, Ontario M5S 1K7
(416) 585-4562. As their brochure states, "This archives holds local church
records of the United Church and its uniting denominations of 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 Eastern Ontario area and the extreme North west. 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 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 extremely limited in many Baptist churches because as
one author was told when enquiring of a marriage in the Ottawa area, "the
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, York County 1806 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 to 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, Conrad 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
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 A History 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 two |
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
Books by, or co-authored by Fawne Stratford-Devai include:
- Leaving Ontario, Resources for Tracking Ontario Migrants
- Researching Your English & Welsh Roots From Afar, A Guide
- Canadian Records of Birth, Marriage and Death: A Guide
- Getting From Here To There, Identifying the Origins of Immigrants to Canada
- Canadian Family History in the 21st Century, Lessons, Links & Resources
- Using Maps in Family History Research
- Province of Ontario Immigration Records, An Overview
- Ontario Land Registry Office Records: A Research Guide
- Vital Records In Ontario Before 1869, A Guide to Early Ontario Vital Records
- District Marriage Registers of Upper Canada (27 vols)
- District Vital Records of Upper Canada / Canada West (8 vols)
- Fegan's Homes Newsletters (Home Children) (10 vols)
- Men of Upper Canada- Militia Nominal Rolls 1828 - 1829. (census substitute)
- Middlesex County (Ontario, Canada) Marriages and Baptisms 1848 - 1858.
- Haldimand County Marriage & Burial Register, 1851 - 1865
- Middlesex County (Ontario, Canada) Marriages and Baptisms 1848 - 1858.