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7:30 pm Life on the Farm @ Eglinton St George's United Church
Life on the Farm @ Eglinton St George's United Church
May 29 @ 7:30 pm
Life on the Farm @ Eglinton St George's United Church | Toronto | Ontario | Canada
LIFE ON THE FARM: YOUR ANCESTOR’S PLACE IN ONTARIO AGRICULTURE May Meeting of Toronto Branch OGS: Speaker Jane E. MacNamara We often think of farming as a traditional occupation—something that hasn’t really changed much. But[...]
9:00 am Think like a genealogist. @ OGS Conference 2017
Think like a genealogist. @ OGS Conference 2017
Jun 16 @ 9:00 am – 12:00 pm
Creative Research Techniques to Help You Follow the Right Ancestral Trail: A WORKSHOP AT OGS CONFERENCE 2017 Family history research is all about following clues and creativity—imagining what records might exist around a life event,[...]
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The Search for Alban Leaf: Notes

My presentation “The Search for Alban Leaf” demonstrates the use of many English record types—in a period well before census and civil registration. The search for the subject of this case history, Alban Leaf (1681–1756), took me from manorial records and parish registers in Yorkshire, to an ancient church in London, to manors in rural Essex, to intriguing records of inheritance in all locations.

Following are brief notes about some of the sources and reference tools that I think will be useful to other researchers. No single source is the answer. It is a matter of following clues and creative thinking about sources in hand and others yet to be found. And it is such fun…

Alban Leaf held an under-lease of the York waterworks in 1739.

Londoner Alban Leaf held an under-lease of the York waterworks in 1739.

City of York and District Family History Society: Always a good policy to connect with the local family history society that covers your area of interest.

Genuki: A longstanding reference and gateway site maintained by volunteers. Regional coverage varies.

Family History Library Catalogue: An excellent source for English records on microfilm and sometimes digitized. Links to the FamilySearch wiki.

FindMyPast: Search indexes and see digital images of many records. Fee required.

Ancestry: Search indexes and see digital images of many records. Fee required.

Parish Finder: A longstanding tool to find parishes within a specified radius. Bear in mind that the distances are calculated from the centre of what might be a very oddly shaped or non-contiguous parish.

FamilySearch England & Wales Jurisdictions 1851: A fabulous map tool that shows parish and other jurisdictional boundaries overlaid on old ordnance survey and current maps.

Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York: The official depository for Yorkshire parish registers and many other records:

Guild Hall Library/ London Metropolitan Archives: A vast array of London parish registers and other records.

Manorial Documents Register: The official index to English and Welsh manorial records in public and private hands. The index for many counties is online. For other counties, visit The National Archives or contact them for a look up. and

Hull University Archives: Manorial records may be in an archives far from the manor. The only manorial records for Ryther are here.

Yorkshire Wills: This FamilySearch wiki page is a good place to start.

Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills: Are at The National Archives.

Wikipedia page for St. Bartholomew the Great: Wikipedia is usually a pretty good place to start for any prominent parish.

Parish site for St. Bartholomew the Great:

Flickering Lamps: A wonderful long-form blog that talks about places in London and England generally.

Spitalfields Life: Another great blog, concentrating on London’s East End.

British History Online: An online library of key sources.

Essex Record Office: with a very good online database here and lots of images of parish registers and wills available for a timed subscription.

Mr. Pepys’ Small Change: 17th Century London Trade Tokens

Georgian London, a blog by author Lucy Inglis:

London Lives 1690 to 1800: searchable index of 240,000 manuscripts from 8 archives and 15 datasets. You can register and link documents in a personal workspace:

Names and Descriptions of the Proprietors of Unclaimed Dividends on Bank Stock, which became due before the 10th October 1780, and remained unpaid the 30th September 1790. London: Bank of England, 1791.

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.

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.


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

Inheritance Interrupted: Estate files during WWI

This past weekend, I spoke at Gene-O-Rama, the annual conference of the Ottawa Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society. My topic for the keynote lecture was “Inheritance Interrupted: World War I reflected in Ontario Estate Files”.

Over the last few months, in preparation for the talk, I’ve dug pretty deeply into records spanning 1914 to 1919 and found some really good reasons why all Ontario researchers should pay special attention to estate files from this period.

It isn’t difficult to imagine that a war that caused the deaths of some 60,000 young Canadian men and women would affect the plans families had to pass on the goods and property they had accumulated over a lifetime or perhaps several lifetimes. The War years saw fathers or mothers acting as executors for their sons and daughters, and young wives administering their husbands’ estates—decades earlier than they expected. That wasn’t the way things were supposed to happen. It was supposed to be the other way around.

How soldiers’ estates were handled

Will written by Robert Spencer Forbes on a preprinted form

Will written by Private Robert Spencer Forbes of Thessalon, Ontario, on a preprinted form (See note 3.)

Members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force were encouraged to write a will before they went into action. It was not a requirement. Some men had made a civilian will before they left home. Many others made use of preprinted forms supplied in England before they were shipped off to France. The wills written by soldiers were collected by the Battalion Paymasters for safekeeping by a special branch of the military set up for the purpose, the Estates Branch. The Paymaster was also to compile a list of the locations of wills for men who had made an earlier will. The list was also submitted to the Estates Branch.

The Estates and Legal Services Branch of the Overseas Military Forces of Canada, operating in London, England, and later in Ottawa, was the depository of some 250,000 soldiers’ wills. When the Estates Branch was notified of a death, they made four copies of the soldier’s will. One copy went to the Canadian Record Office to be added to the soldier’s service file. The original will was sent to the family so it could be probated.

The Estates Branch also oversaw sending the deceased soldier’s effects to his family in Britain or Canada. When a man was killed, an officer was to collect his identity disc and any personal items. The items went to his company’s headquarters, then on to the Battalion Paymaster who sent them to the Estates Branch in London. If the soldier’s family was in Canada, they were passed to the Estates Branch in Ottawa and then on to the family. If the family was in Britain, the Estates Branch distributed the items according to the terms of the will.

Once the soldier’s will was back in the hands of his next of kin in Canada, it could be probated, just like any other will, in the surrogate court where the soldier had lived.[1] To learn more about finding Ontario estate files, consult my book Inheritance in Ontario and/or articles on this site tagged Estate Files.

Changes to procedure during this period

Succession Duty Act

The Act had been in effect since 1892, but it was tightened up just before the War in the spring of 1914. The Affidavit of Value and Relationship: is a four-page document that lists the assets and the relatives or other people who will inherit, with their relationships and locations—often with full addresses.

For example, the affidavit[2] for Private Egerton Fernley of Onondaga Twp., listed his foster siblings:

  • Christopher William Burrill of Cainsville, Ontario
  • Jennie Rebecca Burrill of New York
  • Mrs. Annie Down of Smithville, Ontario
  • and Violet Edith Beale of Saskatoon (not a sibling)

Enemy Alien Affidavit

The War Measures Act came in to effect in September of 1914. One of its provisions was to stop the flow of money to enemy countries and citizens of those countries. An Order-in-Council by the Ontario government, in December 1915, formalized the process in the surrogate courts. It required that the administrator complete an affidavit saying that the deceased had not been a German, Austro-Hungarian, Turkish, or Bulgarian subject. They also had to explain how they knew that the deceased wasn’t an enemy alien. This affidavit can contain some very interesting genealogical information.

For instance, Mary Ann Forbes of Thessalon says of her late husband who was killed on November 14, 1917, in action with the 12th Canadian Machine Gun Company:

“That I know the father of the late Robert Spence Forbes, and knew his mother before her decease. That they are of Scotch descent and I am informed and believe that my late husband was born in Scotland and was, therefore a British Subject.”[3]

In another example, Paolo Cuischini of Sault Ste Marie, explains how he knows that his friend Gaspari Donati, who died in 1916 on active service with the Italian army, was not an enemy alien:

“That I knew both the father and mother of the deceased and they were both Italian subjects. My home was about a mile and a half from theirs in the municipality of Mondolfo, Province of Pesaro, Italy. The said deceased was also an Italian subject.”[4]

Special provisions for soldiers

Through the War years there were a number of allowances and exceptions for men and women on active service written in to the legislation. One of the most interesting allowed for letters to be admitted as wills. The actual letters will be included in the estate file.

Private William Wauchope of Toronto, who was killed on April 24, 1915, wrote to his siblings just three months before on January 26, 1915:[5]

“Just a short note in reply to your welcome letters, one yesterday, one today, very glad to hear from you. You all appear to be worrying more about my money than I am myself… If I don’t come back I trust you will all agree to divide whatever is to my account between Charlie, Jack and you while Martha has the lots, so the longer the Germans let me live, the more you will have to get.”

If you had ancestors who died in Ontario during the War years, be sure you’ve looked for their estate files. They will provide more insight into how the turmoil impacted on your family, as well as (with a little luck) some unexpected treasures.



[1] The preprinted military wills form neglected to ask for an executor, so the courts could not grant Letters Probate. The soldier’s wishes were acknowledged, though, with a grant of Letters of Administration with Will Attached. (The additional paperwork required for administration is a bonus for historians.)

[2] Estate file of Egerton Fernley, 1917, #4647, RG 22-325 Brant Co. Surrogate Court, film MS 887-116, Archives of Ontario

[3] Estate file of Robert Spencer Forbes, 1918, #1231, RG 22-360 Algoma District Surrogate Court, film MS 887-27, Archives of Ontario

[4] Estate file of Gaspari Donati, 1918, #1225, RG 22-360 Algoma District Surrogate Court, film MS 887-27, Archives of Ontario

[5] Estate file of William Wauchope, 1917, #32499, RG 22-305 York Co. Surrogate Court, film MS 584-1910, Archives of Ontario (The four-page letter, written from Salisbury, England, also mentions other family and friends and William’s impressions of the battlefield he is about to enter.)

Genealogy Summer Camp 2013— June 16 to 21

Need a great excuse for a week of research in Toronto? Consider Genealogy Summer Camp offered by the Toronto Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society.

Genealogy Summer Camp buttonThis will be the 17th Summer Camp. It is, by the way, a program for adults—no tents or campfires, and not many mosquitoes in downtown Toronto!

We travel to a different archives or library each day, and after a tutorial, you’ll have lots of time for hands-on research with guidance from your “camp counsellors”.

For details of this year’s camp and the online application, visit the Summer Camp pages. To avoid disappointment, please get your application in as soon as possible.

Ma Owned the Farm…

Yesterday morning I spoke at Richmond Hill Public Library as part of its series on “Women in 19th Century Ontario”. I highly recommend the rest of the lectures in this series: Janice Nickerson on March 30 on Women in the Upper Canadian Criminal Justice System; Guylaine Petrin on April 27 on Treason, Bigamy and Adultery in Riverdale; and Cameron Knight on May 25 on Poor Nancy Malone. See the library’s website for details.

The following is a brief summary of yesterday’s presentation.

Ma Owned the Farm: Women as Land Owners in Ontario

In early Ontario, most land was owned by men and the law limited the rights of women to own (or control) their property. However, some did, and the records associated with that ownership and a woman’s rights to her husband’s and parents’ properties are some of our richest genealogical treasures.

Laws governing women’s land ownership

Under English Common Law, a single woman or a widow could buy and sell land and enter into contracts like mortgages with more or less the same rights as a man, but when a woman married, the situation changed altogether. The “Doctrine of Marital Unity” from English Common Law meant that “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law.”

  • Upon marriage, a woman lost her right to manage her own personal and real property, although she didn’t lose ownership of her real estate
  • All rents and profits derived from her property went directly to her husband.
  • Married women could not contract, sue or be sued.
  • Married women could not operate a business without her husband’s consent.
  • All personal property including a wife’s wages, belonged to her husband.
  • Marriage contracts and other trusts could protect a woman’s property from her husband, but were used only by the rich, and rarely.

A husband was, in turn, obligated to provide for his wife and children. But when the marriage broke down, or the husband was absent for some other reason, the woman’s situation and that of her children could become desperate very quickly.

Beginning in 1837 with the establishment of the Court of Chancery, a number of pieces of legislation were passed to deal with the inequities, but it took almost 50 years before the Married Women’s Property Act of 1884 stated unequivocally that a married woman could “acquire and dispose of any real or personal property as her separate property as if she was a feme sole.” She could contract, sue and be sued.

There were many further refinements, but that 1884 Act and certainly by the turn of the century, we had more or less the same situation we have today.

Land Records for Researching Women

There were many records created to document the acquisition and ownership of land in Ontario and most apply equally to men and women. I’ll concentrate on those records that tend to provide richer details about women and their families.


A petition was the first step in acquiring land from the Crown. The petition explained why the petitioner felt he or she deserved the grant. In the case of women, it usually included the name of her husband and/or father, and sometimes other siblings. The main collection of Upper Canada Land Petitions is at Library and Archives Canada, digitized on the LAC website and on microfilm at the Archives of Ontario. There is an online index.


This is a collection of miscellaneous documents from the surveyor-general’s office that were pulled from their files for some particular reason—usually a question of ownership. Rather than refile them, it was decided to create new files, by township, concession and lot. They are now on microfilm at the Archives of Ontario and available on interloan. This filing arrangement makes them easy to access. Not every lot has a file, but many do and it is well worth a look. Film listing.


Many recipients of grants of Crown land did not take the steps that would finalize the transfer of ownership. In some cases the grantee had died or transferred ownership to family members or others. To clarify titles and settle disputes, the government set up two “Heir and Devisee Commissions”. The Commissions held hearings, where the proof of ownership was presented.

The records of the Second Heir and Devisee Commission (1805–1896) are at the Archives of Ontario. A file of supporting documentation was created for each of the more than 5,000 cases that came before the Commission (RG 40-5). These are indexed in the Second Heir and Devisee Commission Database.


By the 1830s, most land in Southern Ontario had been granted by the Crown and was in private hands. Any transfer of ownership fell under the auspices of the Land Registry Office. Land records in Ontario are organized by parcel. An “Abstract Index to Deeds” for each parcel of land was created in 1865. The Abstract Indexes attempted to list transactions retroactively back to the Patent from the Crown, and provide the “instrument number” for each subsequent sale, etc. These instrument numbers lead to the actual documents (or copies of the documents). Many Abstract Indexes and copybooks of deeds have been microfilmed by the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, and are also available at the Archives of Ontario. Depending on the area and time period, you may need to visit the local Land Registry Office.


From 1837 to 1881, the Court of Chancery had jurisdiction over many matters concerning land, including trusts, the partition of estates, mortgages, dower and alimony. Many records have survived and are at the Archives of Ontario. (These records will answer many of the questions raised in Abstract Indexes.) Equity civil suits case files (RG 22-409) which start in 1869, are a particularly rich source within the Chancery records, and they are listed by surname in the Archives Descriptive Database.

For more information about land records research, the Archives of Ontario’s Research Guides and Tools page is a good place to start. Look for guides 205, 215, 225 and 231.

Genealogy Summer Camp 2012 rides into the sunset

The invasion is over! Well, it was a small invasion—ten Genealogy Summer Campers and their camp leaders visited archives and libraries all across Toronto last week.

Genealogy Summer Camp started on Sunday, August 12, with a picnic supper in the peaceful quad of the University of Toronto’s Massey College. We met the campers, who came from Alberta, Michigan, and various locations around Ontario. They got to know each other a bit and we discussed plans for the week. Their mission was to relax and absorb what each research facility had to offer—to focus on the process rather that on a list of results—to be willing to follow the clues as they presented themselves.

Monday took the group to the Toronto Reference Library. We focused on city directories, the Library’s biographical card index, and manuscripts and images in the Baldwin Room. City directories are an important first step in Toronto research and the Toronto Reference Library’s hard copies are the easiest to use.

On Tuesday, we headed north on the Spadina line and the York University Rocket bus to the Archives of Ontario. It was a busy day with tutorials on using the Archives, researching Ontario birth, marriage, and death records, and probate records. It was a good thing the AO was open until 8:00.

On Wednesday, the group divided for the morning and then again at noon, each camper visiting one or two of four denominational archives. There was lots of travel, but thanks to the wonderful efforts of staff at the archives, all the campers had a fruitful day. Some of the campers, who ended the day at the Anglican Diocese of Toronto Archives, adjourned to the St. Lawrence Market for refreshments and then visited Toronto Branch members who were transcribing grave markers at St. James Cemetery that evening.

On Thursday, we headed up the Yonge line to North York Central Library’s Canadiana Department. Canadiana also houses the Ontario Genealogical Society’s library, so cemetery transcriptions were a major research focus. In the afternoon, most of the group headed back to the Archives of Ontario for a tutorial on land records and another opportunity to research until 8:00 pm.

On our final day, Friday, we headed to the newly renovated City of Toronto Archives just north of Dupont station. Campers dug into assessment rolls, valiantly figuring out wards and street indexes. The digitized insurance maps, and magnificent photo collections were also well used. At noon, we headed back to the Archives of Ontario for another afternoon delving into its records, and an informal get-together to end the week.

I was exhausted, but very glad to be part of the happy, relaxed group. They seemed to have enjoyed the chase, as well as appreciating the results. And that was the point.

Many thanks to Ron Junkin who helped me and the Summer Campers all week, and to Ruth Burkholder who helped us ride “madly off in all directions”* on Wednesday. And a very special thanks to the staff at all the libraries and archives, who once a year allow us to run them ragged. They greet us with welcoming smiles and represent their institutions and Toronto so very well.

* Stephen Leacock in “Gertrude the Governess”, Nonsense Novels, 1911. []