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Big indexes to consider for every Ontario ancestor

Tried and true genealogy research techniques tell us to start with what we know—and to make previously done research and indexed records a priority. But more records are being indexed almost daily, and it is hard to keep track of what’s out there. This list was compiled for a session at the Ontario Genealogical Society’s Conference 2015. The indexes all cover a wide swath of Ontario, if not the whole province.

There are other indexes! If I’ve missed one you think should be included, please add a comment at the end of the post.

Most of the indexes are online, some are databases, others are digitized images organized alphabetically. All the websites mentioned are free except for and ProQuest, which you may be able to access through your local public or university library or Family History Centre. I’ve also included some resources that you’ll have to find in a library or purchase.

In all cases, be sure to check variant spellings of the names. Many of these indexes were created from handwritten records, so be open to creative interpretation of handwriting. Sometimes it is a matter of “teasing” the information from the index.

These indexes were created by genealogists—for genealogists. They are growing and getting better all the time.

TONI: The Ontario Name Index (more than 3 million names linked to published or pay-per-view sources)

OGS Library catalogue (superb cataloging of names)

Family Charts Collection (not presently online, available only at North York Central Library)

Whether or not you ancestor left personal or business papers, he or she may be mentioned in a manuscript collection from their community or circle of acquaintances. These resources help you search many collections at once. (includes holdings of 170 archives in Ontario)

Archives Descriptive Database (Archives of Ontario) (holdings of 800 archives across Canada. Some links may not function, but it should be easy to find a current link to the repository.)

Guide to the Manuscript Collection in the Toronto Public Library (a guide published in the 1950s. The collection has greatly expanded since then, but this is the only online listing.)

Union List of Manuscripts in Canadian Repositories (printed volumes available in major libraries)

No one comprehensive index to Ontario land records exists, but these indexes to late 18th and 19th century land records come close when used together.

Index to Upper Canada Land Books (OGS publication by Susan Smart)

The Canadian County Atlas Digital Project (McGill University)

Ontario Land Records Index ( a fiche index at the Archives of Ontario and other libraries)

Upper Canada Land Petitions (Library and Archives Canada)

Second Heir and Devisee Commission case files (Archives of Ontario)

Newspaper research is a time-consuming, fascinating task. These tools use optical character recognition to—with a little luck—jumpstart your search.

Globe and Mail – ProQuest Historical Newspapers (available through many libraries)

Google News (very few of the Ontario papers are every-word searchable, but the images are good)

Ontario Community Newspapers (

Toronto Star – ProQuest Historical Newspapers (available through many libraries)

Be sure to check these big indexes to births, marriages and deaths.

District Marriage Registers & District Vital Records, 1786-1870 (published resource, pdfs of the indexes to each volume are available online at this site)

Ontario Vital Statistics: Registers of Births, Marriages & Deaths (,

Wesleyan Methodist Baptismal Register master index (OGS publication)

Toronto Trust Cemeteries (FamilySearch)

An assortment of big indexes and smaller, but easy to miss, indexes.

Census (FamilySearch, Ancestry, Library and Archives Canada)

City directories (Toronto Public Library,, Library and Archives Canada)

Dictionary of Canadian Biography

Index to pre-1858 Estate Files (Archives of Ontario)

The Héritage Project

Toronto Emigrant Office Assisted Immigration Registers database (Archives of Ontario)

Exploring the Lennox and Addington Archives

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to visit the new Lennox and Addington County Museum and Archives in Napanee. I’d been asked to do a presentation for the local historical society there, and well, who can resist an archives!

I have no ancestry in the area, and although my interests in Ontario history are broad, I can’t claim to have any current research projects from that neck of the woods.

Steps and ramp to a limestone archway in the courtyard wall.

Entrance and courtyard of the Lennox and Addington Museum and Archives, Napanee. ©Jane E MacNamara

I looked at the Archives website about a week before my trip so I could contact the staff ahead of time to let them know I was coming. (Always a good idea for a small archives.) I also asked if a tour was possible—since I’d planned to write this article.

The website noted above lists 14 finding aids for the collection. These are pdf scans of collection inventories done mainly in the late 1980s, but searchable. The inventories, in many cases, briefly describe fonds of a similar nature or creator.1 So the 14 finding aids represent a much larger number of fonds. For instance the “Municipal Records” finding aid encompasses school, jail, law enforcement, court, and assessment records, licenses, minutes, bylaws, voters lists, and public utilities—for all levels of local government—towns, townships, county, and the Midland District.2

As a sample fonds for this article, I looked at the “Private Papers” finding aid and selected the “Elsie Parks Papers”. The inventory for this fonds ran to just over two pages, and showed that the collection was divided into to six files. More about Elsie and her papers later.

Archivist stands between rows of compact shelving with large bound ledgers and archival boxes of various sizes.

Archivist Shelley Respondek showing the wide variety of material in the Lennox and Addington Archives records vault. ©Jane E MacNamara

The Lennox and Addington County Museum and Archives have been located in the old limestone county gaol since 1976. To celebrate the County’s sesquicentennial in 2014, a beautiful new archives wing was added, and the doors were opened last August.

Archivist Shelley Respondek was my guide. We started in the records vault where compact shelving units now allow proper storage of just about every shape and size of document and register book. Efforts are ongoing (and perhaps never-ending) to get new acquisitions housed and organized.

The reading room is bright and airy, with lots of table space and wifi. One glass wall separating the reading room from the corridor, provides a view of the museum’s limestone wall, currently with a colourful display of WWI posters. Out the windows opposite, trains go by at regular intervals.

A third long wall houses the extensive research library—local and family histories and lots of Loyalist material, as well as more than 2,000 unique family files.

These family files have been compiled over the years from researchers’ donations and correspondence with researchers. For example there are three files for “Parks” families including pedigree charts, typed biographies, and photocopies of original documents.

The fourth and final wall of the reading room houses the microfilm area—three readers/scanners and cabinets—and the archivist’s work area. There is also a card index to several local newspapers.

Tables and chairs with bookcases in the background.

Reading room at the Lennox and Addington Archives showing the local history books and file drawers for more than 2,000 family files. ©Jane E MacNamara

Back to the “Elsie Parks Papers”. The finding aid provides no biography of Elsie, but the fonds includes documents about her training and employment as a teacher in Napanee. There is much correspondence—with family members in California and St. Catharines, and a series of letters about “black Minorca chickens” with various parties in Ontario and eastern Canada.

Elsie’s files include letters, certificates, and ephemera from several generations of her family mostly from the Napanee area. There is a business journal from A.C. Parks of Hay Bay. Most material dates from the mid 19th century up to about 1930, the most recent being about 1960.

But I was really surprised and excited to find an original surveyor’s diary covering the dates April 1796 to May 1797. The diarist didn’t write his name in the book, so his identity or connection to Elsie Parks is unknown. He wasn’t working in Lennox and Addington, but in York and the Home District, east along Lake Ontario to Burlington Bay, and on the Grand River. He specifically mentions investigating locations for a bridge over the Credit River and working in the area around Castle Frank.

Handwritten book with archival weight holding it open.

The 1796-1797 surveyor’s diary from the Elsie Parks Papers at the Lennox and Addington Archives. The right-hand page records work at Castle Frank. ©Jane E MacNamara

Now, for those not immersed in Toronto history, Castle Frank was the summer home of Upper Canada’s first Lieutenant-Governor, John Graves Simcoe and his family. Named for their young son, Francis, and sketched by Elizabeth Simcoe, its exact location on the Don River has always been a contentious matter for historians.

Perhaps there is a clue in this precious surveyor’s diary, kept safe by Napanee schoolteacher Elsie Parks during her life, and now by the Lennox and Addington Archives.



1. For an explanation of archives terminology, see The Archives of Ontario: How do I find what’s in it for me?

2. The Lennox and Addington Museum and Archives website has a good listing of holdings in its “Genealogy” section including links to other resources of interest. Some 57 fonds have also been listed on Archeion.

Genealogy “Summer Camp” 2015

I’m pleased to announce that after a one-year hiatus, “Summer Camp” will return this year, starting with a get-together on Sunday evening, June 7, and running until Friday, June 12.

Genealogy Summer Campers are on the move every day of this innovative week long program. Each day, participants will travel as a group on public transit to an archives or library—where you’ll be met with a tour or a tutorial on the records available at that institution. Some days there will be a second tutorial during the afternoon. The balance of the day will be devoted to your own hands-on research, with lots of help from local experts.

We’re very lucky to have a wonderful cluster of archives and libraries in Toronto that welcomes our Summer Camp groups. Participants will have the opportunity to visit the Toronto Reference Library, Canadiana Department of North York Central Library, Archives of Ontario, City of Toronto Archives, and a choice of the archives of Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Presbyterian Church in Canada, and the United Church of Canada’s Central Ontario Conferences.

Genealogy Summer Camp buttonSpace is limited. We keep the number of Campers small so we can provide individual help with your research.

You can help us plan and move forward by registering early. We already have several people signed up.

You’ll find more information about the program and accommodation, and the online registration form here.

Toronto Customs House Records

As mentioned in the previous post, the Archives of Ontario holds more than 2,600 collections or fonds of private documents—some amazing, fascinating things that I love to dip into from time to time.

The Toronto Customs House fonds (F 214) is one of these private fonds. The Archives Descriptive Database tells us that the Lt.-Gov. of Upper Canada authorized the building of customs houses in designated ports in 1803, although William Allan [1] had served as Collector of Customs at York from August of 1801 until 1828. The York (later Toronto) Customs House concerned itself only with shipments from the USA. European goods would have cleared customs at Quebec or Montreal.[2]

Worn hardback register books

The two registers that comprise the Toronto Customs House fonds F 214 at the Archives of Ontario

The Toronto Customs House fonds consists of two bound registers of manifests of goods arriving in Toronto by ship from April 17, 1836 to July 8, 1841. This covers, approximately, the period that the Collector’s job belonged to Thomas Carfrae, Jr.[3] Each record gives the name of the vessel, the date and wharf of arrival, the name of the importer, and a detailed list of what was being imported.

I’ve transcribed a portion of one particularly interesting manifest from June 1, 1836[4] that sheds light on the business activities of a Toronto merchant named Silas Burnham, and on the goods that were available for purchase in 1830s Toronto—somewhat more exotic then we might expect. The list (below) appears in the order in which it was originally written. Does the mention of some items, like raisins, several times on the list reflect the fact that the items were being fished out of the nooks and crannies in the hold where they had been stowed for the voyage?

Watercolour of a one-storey brick house

Artist Frederic Victor Poole’s impression of the Toronto Custom House, painted in 1912 from a drawing published in January 1889 in the Evening Telegram. (Toronto Reference Library, JRR 510)

The customs register book for 1836 began on April 17 (presumably when the lake was clear of ice) and continued until December 1. The Customs House at this time was a small one-storey building on the north side of Front Street east of Scott Street.[5] The register shows that virtually all goods were brought ashore at either Brown’s wharf or McDonnell’s/McDonald’s wharf. The vessel that brought Silas Burnham’s goods, the Robert Burns, appears to have come to Toronto only once that season, but Silas received about a dozen shipments from the USA on various ships, including a “thrashing machine” on August 12.

The importer, merchant Silas Burnham, may have started his retail life with a market stall,[6] but by 1836 he was operating a general store at 67 King Street East. At that time, King, Toronto’s principal commercial street, was numbered from east to west; 67 was on the south side between George and New (Jarvis) streets. He appears there in the 1833/4 and 1837 directories,[7] and in the assessment rolls[8] from 1834 to 1839. However, in the assessment rolls for 1840, the building is empty. Has Silas moved to a different Toronto location, or has he left the city? A thorough search of the 1840 and later assessment rolls should provide the answer.

Handwritten list, transcribed below

Detail of the list of goods shipped for Silas Burnham, 1 June 1836

We do know that he eventually left Toronto—and Upper Canada. In an intriguing letter written May 22, 1843, in Kingston, to his wife in Toronto, Samuel Peters Jarvis expresses surprise at a rumour that Silas Burnham has committed fraud and fled the country. Jarvis writes, “If the report should prove true it will cause quite a panic among the Good Citizens of Toronto.”[9] Not having consulted court records, I won’t hazard a guess about when or why Silas moved across the border. However, his estate file, proved in the Court of Probate on July 20, 1849, reveals that he died on May 7, 1848, in Centreville, Wayne County, Indiana. He left a son Erastus, aged 13, a daughter, Mary Louisa, aged 5. His widow Clarissa Jane Burnham returned to Upper Canada, and was living in Port Hope, shortly after Silas’ death.[10]

Should you consult the Toronto Customs House fonds? If your family lived in or near Toronto during 1836 to 1841, the registers will give you, at least, a glimpse of the activity at the harbour. Many individuals—not just merchants—received goods that are listed. On the same day that Silas Burnham’s shipment arrived, the Robert Burns also brought cargo for Messrs Rigney and Brent, Rev. D. McAuley, and three bales of hides for tanner Jesse Ketchum. We see William Lyon Mackenzie importing type and a printing press later that summer. [11] While the Toronto Customs House registers are not indexed, they are very legible, and a fascinating read.

June 1, 1836 / Importer: S Burnham / Wharf: McDonnel / Vessel: Robt Burns
3 boxes of ware
1 box medicine
1 box paper
3 bags of spice
4 tierces of rice[12]
4 casks of mittens[13]
29 kegs of tobacco
20 dry barrels
6 boxes of chocolate
4 dry kegs
18 1/2 boxes of raisins
6 boxes of pipes
3 boxes of ware
1 case
1 box of [goods]
2 boxes of bitters
1 basket of oil
1 rocket
20 drums of raisins
20 drums of figs
4 boxes of ware
4 bags of nuts
2 boxes of prunes
1 box cocoa
1 box capers
1 box syrup
2 small boxes
10 bales of goods
40 boxes of raisins
21 kegs of tobacco
1 box of goods
11 boxes of candy
2 boxes of pepper sauce
2 boxes ware
4 bags of nuts
16 boxes of scythe stones[14]


[1] Two customs account books created by William Allan during his tenure survive in the William Allan fonds, S 123, Series 1, Vols 1 and 2, Baldwin Room, Toronto Reference Library. They cover the period 1815 to 1830.

[2] Armstrong, Frederick H. Handbook of Upper Canadian chronology, revised edition. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1985. pp 217, 225.

[3] ibid. p 225.

[4] Register entry for S. Burnham, June 1, 1836, Register of Manifests, Toronto Customs House fonds, F 214, Box MU 2991, Archives of Ontario.

[5] Martyn, Lucy Booth. The face of early Toronto. Sutton West, ON, and Santa Barbara, CA: The Paget Press, 1982. p 31. The Customs House is also marked on the 1834 Alpheus Todd Engraved Plan of the City of Toronto.

[6] Silas Burnham appears in a list of vendors who rented market stalls in York in 1831 in Appendix to Journal of the House of Assembly of Upper Canada 1831. p 172 (available at

[7] York commercial directory, street guide and register, 1833-34. York, U.C.: Walton/Dalton.
City of Toronto and the Home District commercial directory for 1837. Toronto: Walton/ Dalton & Coates.

[8] City of Toronto assessment rolls are at the City of Toronto Archives, and available on microfilm at the Archives of Ontario and through

[9] Letter from Samuel P. Jarvis (Kingston) to Mary Jarvis (Toronto), 22 May 1843, Samuel Peters Jarvis and William Dummer Powell fonds, F 31, item 362, microfilm MS 787, reel 2, Archives of Ontario.

[10] Estate file for Silas Burnham, merchant, Toronto, 20 July 1849, Court of Probate, RG 22-155, microfilm MS 638, reel 41, Archives of Ontario.

[11] Mackenzie received printing equipment on June 17, 26, and July 12, 1836. (Register of Manifests, Toronto Customs House fonds, F 214, Box MU 2991, Archives of Ontario)

[12] A tierce was a cask that held 42 US gallons of liquid or about 159 litres.

[13] I have found several instances of mittens and gloves shipped in casks. Here is one from a manifest of goods shipped to Boston on the Renown in 1776.

[14] More about scythe stones.

The Archives of Ontario… How do I find what’s in it for me?

While most family historians are comfortable—or at least familiar—with libraries and their filing systems, archives are very different matter. Many of us will have never visited any archives before we became family historians.

Libraries, museums and archives have complementary roles. Generally, libraries collect published material (books, microform, published sound and visual recordings, and digital publications). Museums collect artifacts, and archives collect unique documentary material (manuscripts, photographs, artwork, sound and visual recordings). We must acknowledge the fact that there is overlap—many libraries hold some archival material and perhaps artifacts; museums often hold some documents and published material that supports their collections of artifacts; and the Archives of Ontario, for example, has a fine library and quite a few fascinating artifacts.

How are archival records organized?

Because of the diverse nature of their collections—and the varied users who need to access them—archivists deal with records quite differently than librarians.

Librarians work with published material, written or compiled by an author who has given the item a title, and probably explained the contents in an introduction. The library catalogue must include the title, author, publishing information, and some subject listings drawn from the book itself.

But an archivist may have none of these things. They must come up with a name for each collection of material or “fonds”; determine what person or organization created the records and when they were created; understand and evaluate the different types of records within the fonds; and, finally, decide how best to make the material available and useful for researchers. Almost like the author of a book, the archivist creates what amounts to a title, author, chapters, a table of contents, an introduction—and in the right circumstances, an index.

Rather than cataloguing, like a librarian, an archivist “describes” records. And it is important to consider this process to understand the best ways to locate just what you want.

The collection of records from one creator—an individual, a family, a business, an organization, or a government body—is designated as a “fonds”. It is given a name, usually that of the creator or collector, but sometimes more descriptive of the fonds’ contents. The archivist then writes a general description of the fonds and its creator. If the fonds is small, or consists of all the same type of document, the “description” may stop there. Many fonds at the Archives of Ontario have only a “fonds-level” description.

Archives of Ontario reading room with the reference desk in the foreground. The rotunda, which houses the microfilm scanners, is behind the photo wall on the left.

Archives of Ontario reading room with the reference desk in the foreground. The rotunda, which houses the microfilm scanners, is behind the photo wall on the left. (photo: Jane E MacNamara)

Most fonds, however, must be described in greater detail. For instance, a fonds created by a business might contain accounting records, correspondence, catalogues, and personnel records. Each type of record within a fonds is called a “series”. If a series is large or varied, it also may be broken into a number of logical “sub-series”. Many fonds at the Archives of Ontario are described to the “series level”.

A series (or a sub-series, if it has been broken down) is made up of “files” or “items”. These can be as small as a single page or as large as a 300-page ledger. A group of papers kept together in a file, for instance, would also be considered one item. A relative few fonds at the Archives of Ontario are described at the “items level”.

To summarize, every collection of documents at the Archives of Ontario will be described at the fonds level. The majority of those fonds are further described at the series and sub-series levels. Many fewer fonds are described at the “files and items” level.

What’s in the Archives of Ontario?
The collection includes more than

  • 105,000 metres of paper records
  • 4.4 million photographs
  • 5,000 documentary artworks (paintings, drawings, caricatures, and posters) from as early as the 1790s
  • 2,500 original works in the Government of Ontario Art Collection
  • 350,000 architectural drawings
  • 85,000 maps
  • 30,000 hours of film, video and sound recordings including government films, home movies, and oral history recordings
  • more than 1,500 gigabytes of electronic records

The Archives is a part of the Government of Ontario, and its main purpose is to look after the records of government. Approximately 70 percent of the holdings are Ontario government records. These government records are designated with a fonds number prefaced by the letters “RG”. Some of the most important fonds for genealogists are RG 80: Office of the Registrar General, RG 22: Court Records (which includes estate files), and RG 1: Crown Land Department Records.

The other 30 percent are private records—“private” by this definition meaning simply not generated by the Ontario government. These include records created by individuals, families, businesses, organizations and municipalities. The Archives of Ontario holds more than 2,600 fonds in this category. Private fonds are given a number prefaced by either an “F” or a “C”. The Archives of Ontario private fonds include an amazing array of material for family historians, depending on the area of the province and time period—including many municipal and religious records.

Beyond government and private fonds, is the “diffusion” collection. These are copies, usually on microfilm, of Ontario records at other institutions. The majority of this material is from Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa. Some of the most important items for genealogists are the films of census records for Ontario, and early land records, including the Upper Canada land books and petitions.

And although it does not fall strictly within our definition of what should be in an archives, the Archives of Ontario Library holds about 80,000 books, pamphlets, periodicals and government publications.

How do I find records?

Once an archival fonds is processed, its description is added to the Archives Descriptive Database (ADD), available on the Archives of Ontario web site ( Look for the “Accessing Our Collections” button. Then choose “Archives Descriptive Database”.

You can search the full fonds descriptions in the ADD by keyword (Option 1 on the search page). In most cases, this option will be the best choice to start with. Option 3, “Advanced Search”, will give you three options: clicking “Groups of Archival Records” will let you search the fonds, series and sub-series levels; choose “File/Item Descriptions” to cover those fonds described in greater detail; or search by “Record Creators” to find fonds linked to the creator. You’ll find an excellent orientation linked to the Help button on the main ADD search page.

Your ADD search results will lead you to the location of the records—either original documents or on microfilm. The records have not been digitized. Any records that are not on film can be ordered and viewed in the Reading Room.

More than 20,000 photos, maps, architectural drawings, and documentary artworks are available in the Archives of Ontario’s Visual Database, although this just scratches the surface of the more than five million images at the Archives. The Visual Database is also available on the Archives web site. Look for the “Accessing Our Collection” button. Try the keyword search first, with a few variables, but you may also find the (somewhat idiosyncratic) subject search and the advanced options useful. You can use the Reference Code you find to look for more details (and perhaps more images) in the ADD.

Man standing in front of metal sheles filled with books.

Archives of Ontario library with librarian Frank van Kalmthout (photo: Jane E MacNamara)

The Archives of Ontario Library is invisible. Researchers can’t visit the Library, but must access holdings through the BiBLION catalogue. You can request material on site, or via email in advance, and you books will be delivered to the Reading Room.

Archives staff members have created many other wonderful research guides, in the form of online and on-site finding aids to specific records, and online exhibits that function as thematic guides. Links on the “Accessing Our Collection” page will lead you to all of them.

This article was written to accompany the lecture “The Archives of Ontario… What’s in it for me?”.

I’ve written a number of other posts about research at the AO. To find them, click on “Archives of Ontario” in the word cloud at the right of this page, or on the tag at the bottom of this post.


Salt Lake City in February: Join us!

This beautiful city—and the amazing Family History Library—has me hooked. I’ve been to Salt Lake City many times. I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to do some of my own family research—with the odd diversion to some of the rogues and rebels I’ve found in other people’s families. (My ancestors were all very well behaved.)

I’m also looking forward to sharing the experience with friends who have travelled with the group before and introducing new group members to the Library and the intriguing city. Maybe you’d like to join us? We will arrive in Salt Lake on February 10, 2015, for one or two weeks. Most of the group will depart from Toronto, but we can accommodate other starting points.

The Salt Lake Temple, focal point of Salt Lake City's Temple Square (photo: Jane E. MacNamara)

The Salt Lake Temple, focal point of Salt Lake City’s Temple Square (photo: Jane E. MacNamara)

The first few days of the trip, February 11 to 14, will be buzzing with two big family history conferences—FGS 2015 and Rootstech 2015—that have combined forces for a one-time special genealogical event. But if you’re anxious to hunker down and get your nose into those old records right away, that’s OK. The Family History Library will be fully staffed and open extra long hours.

You’ll find prices and more details about the trip here. Our blocks of airline seats and hotel rooms are limited, so I’d advise booking soon. There are a handful of “repeat” travellers already on the list.

The Neglected Gooseberry

It is the middle of July, and in Ontario that means just about everything is ripe. Saturday morning at the market there were flats of perfect strawberries, early raspberries, glossy red, black and yellow cherries, translucent red currants, and tucked away on just a couple of farmer’s tables, a few pints of unassuming green gooseberries.

Gooseberries in pressed paper pint container.

Tiny green gooseberries at the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto, July 2014. Photo ©Jane E MacNamara

Unloved, or just forgotten? Certainly out of fashion.[1]

It wasn’t so for our ancestors. There are gooseberries native to Ontario. Catharine Parr Traill, who settled near Lakefield, mentions wild gooseberries in several of her books, and describes three varieties—wild smooth, thornberry or prickly, and small swamp gooseberry—in her 1885 Studies of Plant Life in Canada. In the 1857 Canadian Settler’s Guide (7th edition), she advises transplanting some wild varieties to a cool shady spot in the garden.

In his 1873, Toronto of Old: Collections and Recollections, Henry Scadding remembers dense thickets of “wild gooseberry bushes and wild black-currant bushes” in the lower Don Valley. In a Toronto horticultural exhibition described in the Globe in July 1849, Mr. Turner won first place for his gooseberries.[2]

Gooseberries were an essential part of a northern household garden. Like currants (a close relative), gooseberries are very high in natural pectin, the ingredient that thickens jam and jelly. They could be mixed with fruit like strawberries or rhubarb which won’t set on their own. They could also be the featured ingredient in gooseberry jam or a tangy relish to eat with meat.

But back to the meager offerings of gooseberries this weekend at the market. There were two varieties, both un-named as far as the growers could tell me. The bushes had been fending for themselves for as long as they could remember.

Pint basket of gooseberries beside a pint of currants.

Larger, bulbous green gooseberries and red currants at the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto in July 2014. Photo ©Jane E MacNamara

But that was certainly not the case in 1876, when the Ontario government sent displays of the province’s products to the “Centennial Exposition” in Philadelphia celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

One of the displays was the “Fruits of Ontario.” This was, apparently a massive exhibit, occupying 200 feet of table space.[3] Secretary of the Fruit Growers’ Association of Ontario D.W. Beadle wrote a fascinating report[4] about how the samples were gathered and the quantities involved—well worth a read if your ancestor was a fruit grower. Beadle’s closing words explain that the aim of the exhibit was to “dissipate a very prevalent impression that we dwell in a cold, frozen, most inhospitable region of snow and ice”. He felt that the effort had done more to “break down unfounded prejudices” then could have been done by “an army of Emigration Agents, or a whole circulating library of books of information on the climate and productions of Ontario.”

Part of this impressive 1876 exhibit, were samples of 25 varieties of gooseberries!

American Seedling Wm. Saunders of London
Arnold’s Seedling Charles Arnold of Paris
Black Naples P.E. Buck of Ottawa, J. McMullen of Ottawa
Downing Allen Moyer of Indian Station, Charles Arnold of Paris, P.E. Buck of Ottawa, Wm. Saunders of London,
Early Red R. Kettlewell of London
Early Yellow John Arnold of Paris
English D. Arnott of Arva, H. Beltz of London
Hart’s Seedling Charles Arnold of Paris
Houghton’s Allen Moyer of Indian Station, P.E. Buck of Ottawa, Wm. Saunders of London, M. Kelly of London
Hybrid Wm. Saunders of London
Phoenix John Carnie of Paris
Ploughboy J. Lamb of London
Read’s Canada W.H. Read of Port Dalhousie
Read’s Gem W.H. Read of Port Dalhousie
Read’s Pear-shaped W.H. Read of Port Dalhousie
Read’s Purple W.H. Read of Port Dalhousie
Read’s Yellow W.H. Read of Port Dalhousie
Roaring Lion R. Kettlewell of London
Sulphur Yellow J. McMullen of Ottawa
Warrington R. Kettlewell of London, J. McMullen of Ottawa
White Smooth John Carnie of Paris, J. McMullen of Ottawa
Whitesmith R. Kettlewell of London, J. Lamb of London
Wild Prickly Wm. Saunders of London
Wild Smooth Wm. Saunders of London
Yellow Jacket Charles Arnold of Paris

Mr. Beadle noted that the summer of 1876 had been particularly hot and dry. This had damaged or diminished crops in some part of the province—accounting for the dominance of places like London on the gooseberry list.

So what happened to all this diversity of gooseberries[5] in Ontario? Why did their popularity wane? Was it a change in culinary styles? Did another fruit or product take their place?

Do some of these varieties survive on family farms? Does a descendant of grower R. Kettlewell of London still have some Roaring Lion bushes?

[1] Well maybe they’re not completely out of fashion. Martha Stewart grows gooseberries on her farm and you’ll find several recipes on her web site. Be wary that she’s not referring to “cape” gooseberries with a papery covering, which in Ontario we’d call ground cherries.

[2] The Globe, 21 July 1849, page 4.

[3] Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture (Chairman of the Advisory Board of Ontario,) on the Products, Manufacturers, etc., of Ontario, exhibited at the International Exhibition, Philadelphia, 1876. Sessional Papers No. 33. Legislative Assembly: Toronto, 1877. (The Google Book version starts on digital page 187.)

[4] Beadle’s report to the Commissioner of Agriculture starts on page 85.

[5] Charles Darwin wrote about the varieties of gooseberries developed in England by examining lists published in horticultural show catalogues from 1573. He credits the close to 300 varieties and increase in berry size to the existence of a network of “fanciers” from the late 1700s that held many annual gooseberry shows. Darwin himself grew some 54 varieties of gooseberry. The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, 2nd edition, Vol. 1. New York: D. Appleton, 1876. pages 376–378

Dear Diddles: Eliza Mathews writes to her friend Ann Smith

This is my third post about the David William Smith papers at the Toronto Reference Library. The first two posts, A Toronto farm, 1799–1800 and A tale of two Isaac Gilberts, drew from Smith’s service as Upper Canada’s first Surveyor General and his personal land ownership.

1764 letter from Eliza Mathews to Ann Smith

First page of a three-page letter from Eliza Mathews to her friend Ann Smith (mother of David William Smith), written in 1764 in Kilkenny, Ireland.

In addition to the documents created and received while in Upper Canada, there is considerable correspondence received by Smith while he was on leave in England, and after 1802 when he returned there for good.

The David William Smith papers also include some selected correspondence of his father John Smith, Commander of the 5th of Foot at Detroit and Niagara, and letters to D.W. Smith’s mother, the former Ann Waylen.

It is one of these letters to Mrs. Ann Smith from her friend Eliza Mathews that caught my eye and then my imagination. It was written in September 1764, just three weeks after the birth of her son David in Wiltshire, England. Eliza, having recently moved to Kilkenny, Ireland, is also expecting a baby very soon and is missing her companion. Eliza writes, as she says, “just as I used to talk to you”. It is honest, enlightening, and endearing. I hope you enjoy the transcription that follows.

You can find the original letter in the Toronto Reference Library’s Marilyn and Charles Baillie Special Collections Centre, Fonds S126, Series A10, folder 4, pages 251–254.

Kilkenny September the 24th 1764

I am rejoiced to hear of my D’r[1] Diddles recovery, and the Diddles Diddle being well and hearty; tell [Tacky] I congratulate him upon his Papa-ship, and wish sincerely I could see you both to tell you what pleasure the news gave me when I heard it. You may imagine that a few month’s absense made me indifferent about you, but indeed you mistake, my regard is not less than at the time of our greatest intimacy. Fy! I abhor the suspicion nor do I think my D’r Smith w’d harbor it of me, therefore shall say no more of it.

Achs and pains, such as you have had yourself, prevented my writing as expeditiously as I ought to you, and even this you may look upon as a farewell, for [so]me time, for I don’t know how soon I may be confined; [d]ont you pity me, is it not dreadful; what but the highest love for your husband can make it [toler]able, nor nothing in my opinion but a return of love from him, can compensate for what we suffer; I know the generality of them only laugh at this, but that is miserable comfort to us, who experience the hardship of having children.

Good God how I pity some women, who I know heartily hate their husbands, and I am certain are as sincerely despised by them, and yet breed as fast as rabbits, what lives of misery they have, you can’t but have known some such couples—but I fear I am going on too rashly in declaring my sentiments, I forgot you have an unmarried sister with you who may perhaps come to the knowledge of this letter, and we sh’d be cautious not to say anything that would be likely to be a detriments to the matrimonial scheme; if she sh’d happen to see this, tell I spoke in general terms, for that I can assure her there are some particular people in the world, who never knew what happiness was, till the knot was tyed. I myself am one instance of it, among the many others to be found in the world.

My D’r Sam and I often wish you w’d take it into your head to come down and see our new house; there is a bed and room at your service as much, or more, than ever Mrs Robinsons was, and another for your Sister, perhaps not quite so good, but such a one as I believe she w’d dispense with for the sake of being in the house with you; I dont ask you, that there are the least public amusements going forward here for you, for in your life you never knew a place more barren of entertainment in that way; its all confined to domestic chearfulness and peace, if you have it not at home you have no other resource to fly to; do D’r Smith come down and see how we live, we can give you a Quadrille, a good fire, and a hearty welcome, whenever you please to accept it, and the sooner the more agreeable to us.

I have scarce looked at my paper since I began, so that I write just as I used to talk to you, that was with very little consideration and less coherency, so I fear you’ll find this letter, all I shall answer for it is, that it has truth to recommend it from first to last for that Diddle is my D’r Diddle and that I am hers and Mr Smiths sincere Friend is what I hope they will both believe. I am likewise [____] in the request, and assure yourself that I am your affectionate

Eliza Mathews

Compliments to your Sister

Willy is [purely] and often drinks your health remember me to the gentleman of Reg’t [D___] for me at the Parade[2]

[1] Eliza used abbreviations lavishly. This one is “dear”.

[2] Spelling and punctuation are Eliza’s. I’ve broken her letter into paragraphs for ease of reading.

A tale of two Isaac Gilberts

In my last post, I showed you a sample of the fascinating papers of the Honourable David William Smith[1], Upper Canada’s first Surveyor General, in anticipation of a lecture at the Ontario Genealogical Society Conference 2014. The conference and the talk are now history themselves.

Letter to Surveyor General D.W. Smith from Secretary to the Executive Council John Small, 23 Feb. 1802, explaining the two Isaac Gilberts.

Letter to Surveyor General D.W. Smith from Secretary to the Executive Council John Small, 23 Feb. 1802, explaining the two Isaac Gilberts. (David William Smith Papers, S128 A7-4, p 373, Marilyn and Charles Baillie Special Collections Centre, Toronto Reference Library)

As part of the presentation, I showed sample images from Smith’s various official roles as well as some personal documents. His service as a military officer/administrator for the 5th Regiment of Foot at Detroit and Fort Niagara, and his work as Surveyor General and member of the District Land Boards generated records of the widest interest—because they contain the most names. But beyond names, these documents let us see the process, the problems encountered in settling Upper Canada, and how the various players reacted and interacted. Smith’s land documents are an important complement to the Crown Lands record group at the Archives of Ontario.

I was very pleased to hear from audience member Nancy Cutway after my lecture, that I’d selected a sample document that shed some light on her family. (See the image at right. Click on it to zoom in.)

It is one of a number of reports written to David William Smith or commissioned by him, in his capacity as Surveyor General, that attempted to differentiate between grantees with the same or similar names.[2]

Here’s what Nancy wrote. (It appears with her permission.)

MY Isaac Gilbert is the second one, Sgt from the Queen’s Rangers, who settled in Norfolk Co. But that confusion explains the erroneous information about him in E.A. Owen’s book Pioneer Sketches of Long Point Settlement (1898).

Owen’s chapter on Isaac says (p. 261): “Isaac Gilbert was the son of an English emigrant who settled in the colony of New Jersey somewhere about the middle of last century. He was born in 1743, presumably in England. There are no records in the Gilbert family that throw any light on the history of the family previous to the settlement in Woodhouse; but, according to a family tradition, Isaac enlisted in the British navy during the War of the Revolution, and was promoted to some minor official position.”

… all of which is wrong. And I could never figure out why! From there forward it is more correct: Owens knew that MY Isaac—a native of Connecticut, great-grandson of Matthew Gilbert who was one of the “seven pillars” who established New Haven Colony in about 1630, and I have church records proving that descent—settled after the Revolution first in St. John NB (along with the rest of the Queen’s Rangers) and then came to Upper Canada. (Since these men had served under John Graves Simcoe, they moved almost en masse from St. John to Upper Canada when they learned of his appointment as Governor. Land records from New Brunswick and UE claims from Upper Canada bear this out. Despite Owens saying that Isaac did not receive a loyalist grant in Upper Canada, I have a copy of several documents, since he received that 400 acres referred to in your document, plus later wrote about another 300 acres, and could he swap some to make the properties contiguous.)

And Owens did have the family descendancy info more or less correct, as compared with documentation from other Gilbert researchers, including one who provided a copy of Isaac and Mary Gilbert’s family bible entries.

Your [D.W. Smith] document has now illuminated E.A. Owen’s confusion, and eased mine. Now I wonder how many other errors exist in Owen’s book which could be explained by some of those documents you mentioned which clarify individuals with similar names.

It is great to know that even in 1803, civil servants got confused.

My choice of that particular document was accidental, but I’m glad I could bring Nancy Cutway and her Isaac together! If you’d like to connect with Nancy about her Isaac Gilbert—or the other one, please comment below.


[1] The David William Smith papers are designated S126, in the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Special Collections Centre at the Toronto Reference Library.

[2] A few other reports I noted are: B6-1 page 59–60 A letter about two Mary Links and two Elizabeth Empeys, B6-1 pages 63–77 Twenty-five pages each with two or three cases of duplicate names, and A7-3 pages 209-210 Forename confusion about Willet or William Carey.

A Toronto farm, 1799-1800

Over the last six months or so, I’ve been digging into the papers of the Honourable David William Smith, Upper Canada’s first Surveyor General, part of the amazing manuscript holdings of the Toronto Reference Library.[1] I’ve dipped into this intriguing collection several times before, but this time I’ve systematically opened every Hollinger box and file folder to discover the treasures they hold. I’ll be speaking about it at the Ontario Genealogical Society Conference on Sunday, May 4.

I confess that I love looking at manuscripts. David William Smith was an interesting (and blessedly organized) fellow, but the value of his collection of papers goes way beyond what he was all about. As with most manuscript collections, we learn just as much about the people and society around the central figure—the “little” people and the mundane events that don’t make the pages of history books.

Marilyn and Charles Baillie Special Collections Centre at the Toronto Reference Library

Marilyn and Charles Baillie Special Collections Centre at the Toronto Reference Library (photo by Jane E. MacNamara)

The document[2] below (front and back) is an account of expenditures made by neighbour and friend John McGill to maintain Smith’s home and farm in the Town of York. Smith’s home, Maryville, was located at the corner of today’s King Street and Ontario Street, and the farm was Park Lot 5—a narrow 100-acre lot from Sherbourne Street to George Street between Queen Street and Bloor Street. (Smith, at the time held many other parcels of land, but it makes sense to me that at this time agriculture would be focused on these two.)

McGill was paying the bills because Smith was on leave in England. He departed in late July 1799—after leaving precise instructions for his assistants in the Surveyor General’s Office, instructions which are also preserved in his papers.[3]

We can see from the document, that Smith had sheep to be shorn, and hogs and poultry to be fed. He grew potatoes and turnips (the latter likely as livestock feed), and a portion of the hay required to feed his animals over the winter.

DW Smith farm account

DW Smith farm account, S126, box 3, folder B4, pages 59 and 60, Toronto Reference Library

Smith had help. I don’t think he was ever the actual “man behind the plough”. He seems to have maintained a Richard Hide as manager, supplying him with barrels of flour and salt pork. The account notes that Hide was sick in August 1799 and John Connelly stepped in to assist.

The other expenditures are for casual and skilled labour, cartage and for materials—like stone needed for a new well. They tell us about Smith’s home and farm, but they also give us solid if brief information about the workers and suppliers—specifics for an era when York was a scant six years old, and information is very scarce.

Names listed in account for David William Smith’s farm, 1799–1800
Tivy, Thomas labour 1799 July
Connelly, John labour 1799 July, August
Darby, William digging well 1799 August
Bell, Alexander carpentry 1799 July, August, September
Young, Robert stone 1799 August
Lamb, Henry cartage of stone 1799 August
Turner labour 1799 August
_____, Dick clear turnip ground 1799 August
Badger, Gideon cartage of stone for well 1799 September
Phelps, Joseph cartage of hay 1799 September
Gilbert, W. Pitt stone 1799 September
Thomas, James hay 1799 September
Jackson, Henry hay 1799 September
Hamilton, Robert 55 barrels of lime 1799 September
Hunter, William blacksmith’s work 1799 October
Hide, Richard pork and flour for his use 1799 October, 1800 May
McBride, John Indian corn for hogs and poultry 1799 December
Buman, E barrel of flour 1800 May
Heron, Samuel seed potatoes 1800 June
Willies, William shearing sheep 1800 June
Parker mowing 1800 July
Edgell, John hauling and stacking hay 1800 August

[1] The manuscript collections can be viewed in the new Marilyn and Charles Baillie Special Collections Centre, on the Toronto Reference Library’s fifth floor.

[2] From the David William Smith papers S126, box 3, folder B4, pages 59–60, Toronto Reference Library

[3] David William Smith papers S126, box 4, folder B7-1, pages 1–28, Toronto Reference Library