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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 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 Board’s 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 record group.

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 Register.

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 Dan’s 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 horseback.

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) 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, "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 | part four»

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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