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District Marriage Registers & District Vital Records of Upper Canada/Canada West (Ontario) 1786 - 1870,
What are they and why are they important?
Article posted by Fawne Stratford-Devai: April 15, 1998. Revised and expanded April 16, 2019 by Rick Roberts

Family history researchers often encounter a brick wall while seeking their early Ontario ancestors' vital records prior to the establishment of province-wide civil registration in 1869. The District Marriage Registers & District Vital Records of Upper Canada/Canada West (Ontario) 1786 - 1870 series was designed to provide researchers with an easy-to-use and reliable source for records of birth, marriage, death and others vital records in early Ontario. The bulk of the series deals with early marriage records.

Prior to counties becoming administrative entities in the mid-nineteenth century, the province of Upper Canada (southern Ontario) was initially divided into four Districts which grew with the population to become twenty five Districts. Early efforts at civil registration were recorded by those Districts. In the mid to late eighteenth century, population growth accelerated to a point where the Districts were abolished and the County system established (County Marriage Registers 1858-1869) In the summer of 1869 a new and comprehensive civil registration system was established at the provincial level.

Here are two maps that provide the boundaries of the Districts in 1825 and 1845:

What are 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. That said, plenty of Anglicans and Catholics were married by nonconformist ministers for reasons explained further on. The majority of returns begin in the 1830s with a few Districts containing earlier marriage returns. The Clerk of the Peace then recorded the returns in a District register kept in the District office. Most of the original District Registers survive and have been reliably transcribed and indexed into a series of books.

It is important to keep in mind that the Register is a copy made by the District Clerk. 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 and in some instances contain lists of baptisms and burials performed by the minister.

Though the 1849 date for conversion to the county system was precise, some clerks continued to add to the District Marriage Registers for decades after the conversion resulting in some District Marriage Register entries being made as late as 1870.

If the marriage you are looking for was performed by an Anglican (Church of England) or Catholic (Roman Catholic) clergy, they will not be included in the District Marriage Registers. 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 or Roman Catholic does not mean their marriage was performed by a minister of the Church of England or a priest of the Roman Catholic Church. 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 often opted to be married 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. Use your imagination when 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, 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 such as a District or what we know as counties today. 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 performed in an adjoining or different district.

These volumes are the most complete and accurate transcription of early Ontario marriages under the District System. Some organizations, individuals and online providers have transcribed some entries from the original District Marriage Registers That said nobody has produced a comprehensive transcription as complete and accurate as these. Each volumes' detailed product description includes a complete index so you can check to see who is included in that volume.

What is the District Vital Records of Upper Canada/Canada West series?

The District Vital Records of Upper Canada/Canada West series is designed to be a companion series to the District Marriage Registers of Upper Canada/Canada West. Not all original District Marriage registers have been located. Therefore some districts records are incomplete or competely missing. Also of note is that the District Marriage Registers were supposed to record marriages only, though some volumes also contain baptisms and burials. In an attempt to capture some of this lost early information for the districts, Dan Walker and Fawne Stratford-Devai, with the help of Marilyn Jackson and Brenda Young assembled and published more existing vital records including early birth, baptism, death and burial records as well as other vital records for the Niagara District (Niagara Penisula and south central Ontario), Gore District (south central Ontario) and Dalhousie District (Carleton County). Eight volumes were completed before the project ended and are included in the listing below The detailed descriptions of the District Vital Records of Upper Canada/Canada West volumes includes a detailed list of which specific records are available in that volume. Indexes are also included so you can check to see who is included in that volume.

A full set of District Marriage Registers of Upper Canada/Canada West (Ontario) and the District Vital Records of Upper Canada/Canada West (Ontario) are available for public use in the reading room at the Archives of Ontario in Toronto, and at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, as well as in reference libraries including the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. All volumes are in print and available for purchase in both printed and digital (pdf) formats.

Refer to the article Chronology of Upper Canada/Canada West/Ontario to track the changes in civil boundaries pre-1775 to 1940.

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