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Article posted: April 24, 1998

Confused By Changing Political Boundries?
By: Ryan Taylor, Biography and Archived Articles

Two recent e-mails asked questions about places which do not exist. This is a common genealogical problem.

In both these cases, the places used to exist but were chopped up by bureaucrats who gave them to other areas.

'Nairnshire' appears as a Scottish county in one family's documents. I knew that the late Howard Rokeby-Thomas would instantly have known the answer, as he was the expert on everything to do with Nairn, place or family. The town of Nairn, near Inverness in Scotland, still exists. However the small county which once bore the name of Nairnshire is now divided between Inverness and Moray (formerly Elgin), with a few parishes in Ross & Cromarty. The constant changes in names of administrative districts in Scotland can be very confusing. If your ancestor was said to be from Nairnshire, look in these other areas. I would begin by getting a good map and seeing which part of Nairnshire your family lived in. From that, you can make an educated guess whether it is now in Moray (east), Inverness (west) or Ross & Cromarty (west across the bay). In fact, the idea of starting with a good modern map to sort out changes in jurisdiction is a good rule for anyone dealing with an area where the local government has changed.

That seems to be most everywhere. Ontario's local government, with its counties, regional municipalities, districts, towns within towns and other variations can be very confusing for anyone coming from outside the province. I once helped a researcher from Colorado whose ancestors lived in Scott township. She searched the 1891 census for Durham county in vain for them or Scott, because Scott is now in the Regional Municipality of Durham. Once I directed her to the old Ontario County she was happy.

Even in the nineteenth century there were changes. The counties as we knew them (until regional government) came into being in the early 1850s. Sometimes we can find references to counties ten years earlier.

At the time Upper Canada was founded in 1792, it was divided into districts. Many of them were simply virgin forest with a handful of settlers, but as the immigrants flooded in, the districts were changed to reflect the growing population. The names of the earliest districts (Nassau, Lunenburgh) reflected connections of the royal family in England.

New districts were formed from the old quite frequently, and it can be difficult to keep track of the changes. The three original townships in Waterloo County (Waterloo, Wilmot and Woolwich) were in Halton district, then Gore (headquartered in Hamilton) and then Wellington. In the 1840s when Wellesley was opened for official settlement, there was a block of four German-speaking townships which would have made a natural county.

The bureaucrats in Toronto disliked the idea of a purely German county, however. So, they chose to divide the Scottish township of Dumfries in half, linking the northern section to the four German townships to form the new county of Waterloo in 1852. The Scots in Dumfries were very unhappy with their fate.

Dufferin was a county which came later, in 1882. Townships were removed from Simcoe, Halton and Wellington counties to create the new county.

Since these geographical and administrative changes continue to happen, researchers can do little except be aware of how they have affected the area we are researching. Elizabeth Hancocks ( author & compiler of the County Marriage registers of Ontario) published a series of small maps, Townships and County Seats of Ontario, showing the changes in the districts up to 1850 which can be very useful. This small publication is no longer for sale, but may be found in libraries.

Related Reading:

Fawne Statford-Devai contributed an excellent explanation of the Ontario District system as it relates to marriages, to a previous issue of The Global Gazette. There are also a number of District Marriage Register Transcriptions published by Norsim Publishing.

Books By Ryan Taylor

Across The Waters, Ontario Immigrants Experiences 1820 - 1850 - by Frances Hoffman & Ryan Taylor, 1999. Riveting first-hand accounts of the immigration and settlement experience, taken from the diaries and letters of 150 immigrants.

Routes To Roots, The Best of Ryan Taylor's columns from the Kitchener Waterloo Record, by Ryan Taylor 1997

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