Want to know when I write?

Upcoming Events

7:00 pm Life on the Farm
Life on the Farm
May 16 @ 7:00 pm
Life on the Farm @ Uxbridge Public Library | Uxbridge | Ontario | Canada
LIFE ON THE FARM: YOUR ANCESTOR’S PLACE IN ONTARIO AGRICULTURE Meeting of Uxbridge Genealogy Group We often think of farming as a traditional occupation—something that hasn’t really changed much. But that is not and was[...]
website security

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.)

A Stab at Chancery Court Records

In contrast to the last couple of posts, where I’ve attempted to lead you step by step through a set of records, this time I’m writing about records that mystify me. I can’t give you a straightforward route into them, because I haven’t found one. I have used chancery court records, and I’ve been lucky to find printed extracts of the few cases I’ve looked for—because those cases set precedents and the legal community needed to know about them. But there is so much more!

Ontario’s Court of Chancery was formed in 1837 and continued until it was merged into the Supreme Court of Judicature in 1881. It settled disputes about things like real estate, trusts, inheritance, dower, alimony, the care of infants (ie: everyone under 21) and mentally incompetent individuals, and fraud, particularly connected with real estate transactions or bankruptcy. If you think about that list of subjects, you can see the potential for family history information—rich little deposits of sworn, notarized, and largely undiscovered genealogy gold.

The records of the Court of Chancery are at the Archives of Ontario. There is one group of records that are identified by the surnames of the parties involved in the Archives Descriptive Database. That is RG 22-409 Equity Civil Suits Case Files. Knowing that it might be worth seeking out a still very generic “Smith v Jones” is the tricky part.

Most files contain at least two items, a detailed “Bill of Complaint” from the plaintiff and an “Answer” from the defendant. There may also be supporting affidavits and other documentation.

Equity civil suits case file, Newburn vs Newburn, RG-22-409, file 179/1874, Archives of Ontario

Equity civil suits case file, Newburn vs Newburn, RG-22-409, file 179/1874, Archives of Ontario

For example, file 179/1874 Newburn v Newburn, tells of a son John who emigrated from Ireland to Canada, and lost touch with his family for many years. He eventually visits his two sisters, also in Canada, and decides to visit his father John back in Castlefield, Co. Sligo. From there the father’s version of the story is at odds with the son’s, but the property in Ireland was transferred to the son and sold. Son, father, and father’s new wife all sailed for Canada. Whether the proceeds of the sale belonged to the father or the son was the question, but the file provides names, married names, and locations of all parties in Canada, a timeline for the family’s emigration, and a location in Ireland. Conveniently, they even argued about the numbers of pigs and cows.

Affidavit by Dr. Uzziel Ogden

Affidavit by Dr. Uzziel Ogden, Equity civil suit case file, Ince vs King, RG 22-409, file 188/1874, Archives of Ontario

File 188/1874 Ince v King, is a complaint by Thomas Henry Ince, a barrister who lived on Roxbrough Street in Rosedale. Ince claimed that noxious smells and water pollution from Joseph King’s nearby glue factory were making it impossible for his family to enjoy their home. Ince produced affidavits from a number of doctors and local officials, and King countered with just as many from neighbours and employees, saying that the factory didn’t make them sick. The detailed descriptions of their homes in relation to the factory are a unique resource. Turns out a number of open cesspools were the more likely cause of the stench.

Sketch map of Rosedale

Sketch map of Rosedale showing King’s factory on the west side of Yonge Street (100 yards from Thomas Ince’s home), cesspools to the east, and Yorkville Creek to the south. Equity civil suit case file, Ince vs King, RG 22-409, file 188/1874, Archives of Ontario

Bill of complaint, Ford vs Beasley

Bill of complaint, Equity civil suit case file, Ford vs Beasley, RG 22-409, file 208/1874, Archives of Ontario

File 208/1874 Ford v Beasley is an action by Keziah Eliza Ford, a widow from Hamilton, against family members Thomas and Sophia Beasley and George Burton. She makes a claim for a portion of a trust set up by her late brother Richard to care for his wife and daughters. Only one daughter, Agnes, survives and she is a “lunatic”. The file states the family connections, dates of death for Richard and his family, and details Agnes’ condition.

There are some 4100 case files in this series. They are not microfilmed and are stored offsite, so you will need to order them a day or two in advance of your visit to the Archives of Ontario.

Archives of Ontario box 109503

Archives of Ontario box 109503

The entry for RG 22-409 in the Archives Descriptive Database links to an online list of records, but they must be browsed page by page. Instead of using the list, I recommend searching for your surnames of interest in the Archives Descriptive Database at the “Advanced Search” level. Select “Files and Items” and narrow the results by entering RG 22-409 in the Archival Reference Code field.

It is a bit of a stab in the dark—but it could be very worthwhile.

To give you a taste of the genealogical treasures to be found, I’ve extracted the main names and summarized the “matters” for one box of files in the table below—some 68 cases of the 4100 in the series.

RG 22-409 Equity Civil Suits Case Files: Box 109503 (© Jane E. MacNamara)

File/ Year Complainant/plaintiff Defendant Matter
177/1874 James Stratton Barwick, Jane Crawford Barwick, Frederick Drew Barwick, Agnes Margaret Cameron (née Barwick) Hugh C. Barwick Failure to distribute the proceeds of the sale of a lot in Blanford Township
178/1874 Andrew Norton Buell Isabella Liscombe, executor of the estate of Margaret Watson (deceased) Mortgage debt on several lots in the Town of Whitby
179/1874 John Newburn the elder John Newburn the younger Dispute over the proceeds of the sale of John the elder’s property in Castlefield, County Sligo, Ireland, before his emigration to Canada
180/1874 Canada Permanent Building and Savings Society John Leech and heirs of James Leech: Mary Ann (widow, now married to William Thompson), infants William, James, Henry, Thomas, David, Emma, and Mary Ann Mortgage debt on property in Manvers Township
181/1874 Alexander Leith William Bell and his wife Margaret Mortgage debt on property in Lindsay
182/1874 John Bain, barrister of Toronto George Mearns and the Hon. John Simpson Concerns the will of James Mearns of Darlington Twp, who died in 1845.
183/1874 Michael Scanlan, tinsmith of Toronto Elizabeth Coxwell, spinster of Toronto Mortgage debt on property on Alice Street, Toronto
184/1874 Charles W. Lount of Bracebridge Clarkson Jones Failure to provide accounts for the sale of properties in Flos, Innisfil, Medonte, Mono, Mulmer, Tay, Tiny, Nottawasaga, and Oro townships
185/1874 Royal Canadian Bank William Martin of Cartwright Twp., and his wife Mary Mortgage debt on property in Cartwright Twp.
186/1874 Royal Canadian Bank Mary Martin of Cartwright Twp Mortgage dept on property in Cartwright Twp.
187/1874 Benjamin Halleck of Meaford James Beattie Powell of Elizabethtown, his wife Anna, their son Robert Beattie Powell of New York City, and Edward C.K. Garvey Fraudulent deal to exchange Halleck’s land in Elizabethtown for Garvey’s land in the United States (which never materialized)
188/1874(two fat files) Thomas Henry Ince of Yorkville Joseph King of Yorkville Noxious smells and water pollution from King’s glue factory (many affidavits from neighbours, physicians, local officials)
188b/1874 Charles Stanhope Watson and Samuel Waddell John James Mason assignee of Edward and George Magill of Hamilton Seeking the court’s opinion about the distribution of funds from bankrupt hardware merchants
189/1874 Frederick E. Seymore aka E.F. Seymore Robert Brown Mortgage debt on property in Tilsonburg
190/1874 Charles Baillie of Montreal Abraham Blazey Dispute over ownership of property in Percy Twp involved in the bankruptcy of the hardware store of Benjamin Franklin Lewis and Jasper Terwilligar in Warkworth
191/1874 Robert K. Chisholm of Oakville Kate T. Sumner and husband William C. Sumner Mortgage debt on property in Owen Sound
192/1874 Thomas Cowdry of Toronto, physician John Bethune McKinnon and George Stevenson Dispute over the sale and cutting of timber on property in Moore Twp
193/1874 Hannah Roe Woodward, widow of Cholmley Woodward, of Oro Twp. William Hueston of Howick Twp. and his wife Mary Mortgage debt on property in Howick Twp.
194/1874 Annie Bowes, widow, of Toronto Arthur Todd of Yorkville Mortgage debt on property in Yorkville
195/1874 James Breakenridge McLean of Elizabethtown, farmer Wellington Shepherd McLean (his son) Dispute over assignment of a mortgage on land in Elizabethtown purchased from William Franklin Coleman
196/1874 Josiah Barker Rogers of Aurora Ann Ransom Mortgage debt on property in the Village of Aurora
197/1874 Michael Daintry Cruso of Cobourg Thomas Armstrong Winton Gordon of Fergus and his wife Elspeth Georgina Gordon Mortgage debt on two properties in Fergus
198/1874 Donald Alexander McArthur of the Village of Alexandria, merchant Albert L Catlin, William R Hibbard, Alexander Cameron, and the Montreal and City of Ottawa Junction Railway Company Recovery of money advanced to pay workers while the railway line was built near Alexandria
199/1874 Mary Ann Sullivan, widow of Brighton Twp., and infants  John, James, Mary Ellen, Daniel, Michael, Elizabeth Ann, and Patrick Sullivan Levi Fairbanks the younger of Whitby, auctioneer Agreement to purchase of property in Brighton Twp.
200/1874 Charles Alexander Switzer, bookkeeper of Toronto Thomas Simpson Completion of an agreement to purchase property on Vanauley St., Toronto
201/1874 John Edward Rose of Toronto Thomas Mulholland, William Richards, Harriet Richards, Susannah Carter, George Washington Carter, Sarah Richards, James Burkett Mortgage debt on a property on Vaughan Rd. in York Twp., purchased by the Connexional Society of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Canada
202/1874 David Galbraith, merchant, of Toronto Frederick Schwarz, tobacco manufacturer, Hamilton Claim on Hugh Wallace’s portion from the proceeds of the recent dissolution of the partnership of Schwarz & Wallace
203/1874 Albert Boltwood Wright and John Charles Fitch, merchants of Toronto Peter Bordean or Bordeau of Haldimand County and his wife Nancy Bordean Allegation that Bordean transferred land in Village of Canfield to his wife to protect it from a judgment in the Court of Common Pleas
204/1874 William Chaplin of St. Catharines, and Edward Jones of Toronto and Welland Vale Manufacturing Company William Henry Rodden and his son William Albert Rodden Claim that the patent for a “balloon tine” hay fork invented by Rodden was purchased from the trustees in bankruptcy
205/1874 Edward Blong of Toronto James McMullen Mortgage debt on property in Arthur Twp.
206/1874 Thomas Douglas Ledyard of Toronto William Blackwood of Montreal, and Alfred Francis Wright of Toronto Sale of land in Prince Arthurs Landing, Thunder Bay District
207/1874 William Purdy, contractor, of Toronto John Harvey Seeking his share of profits in dissolved partnership for work on the Provincial Lunatic Asylum and the American Hotel
208/1874 Keziah Eliza Ford, widow, of Hamilton Thomas Beasley, Sophia Beasley, George William Burton Claim on the residue of a trust set up by her brother Richard George Beasley of Hamilton, which provided for his wife and daughters, now all dead. The last surviving daughter, Agnes, had been a lunatic and the file included details of her condition.
209/1874 William T Munro of Toronto Norman and Donald McInnis Request that a bankruptcy discharge for a dry goods merchant in Walkerton be set aside because a piece of property in West Hawkesbury Twp. was transferred to the owner’s brother keep it off the list of assets
210/1874 Clarkson Jones and Hon. Adam Crooks Neil Campbell of Stayner, baker Mortgage debt on a property in the Village of Stayner
210a/1874210b/1874(two files) Thomas Burke of Niagara and Donald Milloy Donald Milloy of Toronto, executor of the will of Nicol Milloy Debt collection case transferred from the Court of Common Pleas after the death of original defendant Nicol Milloy
211/1874 William Griffith of Toronto, merchant James Watson Henderson Mortgage debt on a property in Artemesia Twp.
212/1874 Elizabeth Beatty of Toronto, married woman Luke Beatty her husband Requesting alimony and child support. Includes a list of his considerable assets
213/ 1874 Joab Scales of Toronto Thomas Alison Sale of land on Wellington Street, Toronto
214/1874 Janet Douglas, widow of Toronto Twp., William J. Montgomery and Jessie Montgomery of Etobicoke Matthew Campbell Mortgage debt on a property in Harwick Twp.
215/1874 Peter Raymer of Markham Twp. Mary Raymer, Henry and Esther Robson, George and Matilda Eckardt, Samuel and Hannah Shank, Colin D. and Elizabeth Reesor, Andrew and Susan Reesor, Christina Raymer (widow of John Noble Raymer), her children Annie Raymer, Albert Reesor Raymer, Ida H. Raymer, Fanny A. Ramer, E. Naomi Raymer, Franklin H. Raymer, and Ira S. Raymer Division of the property of the late Martin Raymer in Nottawasaga Twp. (100 acres). The plaintiff and defendants are all entitled to a share. The plaintiff wants the land sold and the proceeds divided.
216/1874 James Park of Toronto, merchant, and Alexander Shields of Malton, executors of James Shields John Kerr, assignee of insolvent Robert Fowles Mortgage debt on property at Queen and Portland in Toronto
217/1874 John Conn of Bracebridge Warring Kennedy and Thomas McMurray Collection of the purchase price of land sold to McMurray which he has transferred to Kennedy
218/1874 Dr. Alexander Hamilton of Barrie, and Rev. Abraham James Broughall of Toronto, and James Beaty of Toronto Henry William Cuff Mortgage debt on property on Jarvis St., and a leasehold water lot, both in Toronto
219/1874 John Gordon of Goderich Twp. Donald Fraser and Donald Bruce the younger Dispute over timber rights and subletting of leased land in Goderich Twp.
220/1874 Managers of the Ministers Widows and Orphans Fund of the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Canada John Wurtle Marston, David Buchan, John O’Brian, Peter O’Brian, trustees of the Presbyterian Congregation of L’Orignal Mortgage debt on the church property in L’Orignal
221/1874 Alexander Manning of Toronto Cyrus Johnston, William F. Johnston, Walter Sanderson, David Preston, Margaret Jessie Dupont, Charles L. Dupont, Sarah Johnston, Mary Agnes Johnston, Collins H. Johnston, Melinda Johnston, Talitha C. Johnston, George W. Johnston (the last six infants under 21) Mortgage debt on Campment d’Ors Island, near St. Joseph Island (1,260 acres). Island was granted to James Walker in 1861. Mortgage was originally held by Lawrence Heyden.
222/1874 Nicol Kingsmill of Toronto Niven Agnew and his sister-in-law Catherine Agnew Removal of a “fraudulent” mortgage held by Catherine Agnew on Niven Agnew’s property  in Village of Delaware, Caradoc Twp., so a lien can be placed on the property
223/1874 Margaret Ramsay Munro widow of Galt, Mary Richie Logie widow of Hamilton, Susan Leaming Hamilton widow of Galt William Lynn Smart, Eleanor Herbert Mary Charlotte Smart, John Alder Newton Smart, William Catherinus Gregory Smart (the last three infants under 21) Division of property in Hamilton bequeathed in the will of Mary Crooks (mother of the plaintiffs). Defendants are widower and children of another daughter of Mary Crooks.
224/1874 William Barclay McMurrich of Toronto Thomas Beatty, hotel keeper of York Twp. Mortgage debt on a 13-acre property in York Twp. (mortgage was part of a trust for Eliza Ann Helliwell, held by Thomas and George Taylor and William Mills Morse)
225/1874 John C. Secord of Niagara Twp. John Lees Alma Dispute over payment of mortgage principal for property in Niagara Twp. to Alma and whether he was mentally capable of discharging the mortgage.
226/1874 Alexander Smith of Toronto, labourer Mary Carruthers and John Carruthers, Horace Thorne, James J. Foy Recovery of debt of deceased William Carruthers from sale of property on Oak St. in Toronto.
227/1874 Thomas Monkhouse of Pickering, merchant Walter Forsyth of Whitchurch Twp Mortgage debt on property in Whitchurch Twp., assigned by Emma Forsyth of Uxbridge
228/1874 Robert W. Johnstone of the Village of Prince Albert, Reach Twp., gentleman Mary M. Huckins and husband John M. Huckins, bookkeeper of Port Perry Mortgage debt on property in Port Perry
229/1874 John Manly of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and Allan McQuarrie of Sault St Marie, Michigan, explorer Thomas Ryan, Scott and Thomas Ryan the younger Recovery of property purchased in the name of Thomas Ryan in McDonald Twp, Algoma District in trust for the defendants
230/1874 Trust and Loan Company of Canada Adam Lloyd of Rawdon Twp., gentleman Mortgage debt on a property in Rawdon Twp.
231/1874 James B. Boustead of Toronto Margaret Brown of Toronto, administratrix of the estate of her husband Charles Brown of Saint John, New Brunswick Seeking Charles W. Brown’s portion of his father’s estate as part of the bankruptcy of C.W.’s failed wine and spirit merchant business
232/1874 John Strathy of Toronto Janet Wilson (widow of Joseph Wison), William George McLean Wilson, Thomas Gallo Wilson, Janet Elizabeth Wilson, Joseph Silverthorn Wilson (the last 4 are infants under 21) Mortgage debt on property on Vanauley St., Toronto
233/1874 Leo Noecker, Jacob L, Eidt, Adam Johnston William Murray, miller, of the Village of Mildmay, Bruce County Dispute of Murray’s right to raise his dam beyond height the 12-foot limit on title
234/1874 Elizabeth McDermott, wife of John McDermott of Town of Mara Peter John O’Connor, John McDermott, Bridget O’Connor, Mary Ann O’Connor, Margaret O’Connor (last 3 are infants under 21) Dispute over the estate of Elizabeth’s father John O’Connor of Medonte Twp. The defendants are her siblings.
235/1874 Clarence W. Moberly of Toronto, civil engineer Edward King Dodds and Ernest Peel Recovery of debt owed to building contractor Richard Dinnis (and assigned to Moberly) for work done at Carleton Park Race Course
236/1874 George Brewster of Orangeville, and other creditors David Ellis and his wife Sarah Ann Ellis Claiming property in Orangeville, fraudulently transferred to Sarah Ann, when David Ellis absconded to the United States.
237/1874 William H. Howland of Toronto, merchant Archibald Currie Mortgage debt on property in Sunnidale Twp.
238/1874 John Brown, farmer, and William Coe, gentleman, both of Madoc Twp. John Beck of Buffalo, NY, mining captain and John Maule Machar of Kingston, barrister Removal of a “cloud” on the title of a property in Marmora Twp. caused by an agreement to sell subject to mineral rights
239/1874 James Moran of Toronto, cabman Margaret Stock of Toronto Dispute over the “pestilential waters and fluids” from Margaret’s cow shed that flow into Moran’s cellar. They lived side by side on Mutual St. in Toronto.
240/1874 Northern Extension Railways Company George Robinson, North Orillia Twp. Dispute over sale of land for the construction of railway station at Severn River
241/1874 Sarah Harper, wife of defendant.
Plus separate suit by Jane Harper of King Twp., widow
William Harper Recovery of alimony due to Sarah, and tells of her abuse. Jane Harper’s suit is for mortgage debt on property in King Twp.
242/1874 Margaret McMurray of Edwardsburgh Twp., widow of John James McMurray (son of the plaintiff) Dispute over the discharge of a mortgage on property sold to James by his late father John in Edwardsburgh and South Gower Twps., and Margaret’s dower rights to the land
243/1874 Erie and Niagara Railway Company Great Western Railway Company Dispute over the use of the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge, and a station in the Village of Clifton. Includes affidavits of David H. Thomas (yard master, New York), Henry Edward Osgood (passenger agent, Detroit), Andrew H. Trew  (Tonawanda, civil engineer), James Angus (chief engineer, St. Thomas), William Henry Perry (Buffalo), William Alexander Thomson (Niagara Twp., director), William Moss Kasson (Buffalo, land valuator), Louis Dedrich Rucker (Grosse Isle, Michigan, railway manager), Charles William Winslow (accountant, St. Thomas), Thomas Wilson

© Jane E. MacNamara

Finding an 1896 estate file in York County: A step-by-step example, part 2

In part one, we started with the 1895 death of prominent Toronto tobacconist Joab Scales and located his name in the indexes produced by the York County Surrogate Court. When we were unable to decipher the illegible grant number, we consulted the court’s register to find it. We took the newly found grant number 11255 to the User’s guide, and found that the estate file identified by that grant number is located on microfilm number GS 1, reel 1051.

The estate files for York County have been filmed in numerical order by the grant number. The grant number is handwritten on the “jacket” or cover of the estate file, which is just about always filmed at the beginning of the file.

The estate file for Joab Scales contains 26 pages. A digitized version is included at the end of this article so you can read the full estate file. I’ll summarize the documents below and some of the information that can be gleaned—or inferred— from them.

Particularly interesting in this estate file are the changes in Joab’s family situation and how he responded to them with his will and codicils.

There are 16 documents in Joab’s estate file, some with multiple pages, adding up to the 26 images on the microfilm. I’ve listed them in the order in which they appear on the film—although it is not chronological.

1. The first document is the jacket of the estate file—where the contents of the file were summarized so the folded bundle of documents could be easily retrieved. It identifies: “Will and two codicils of Joab Scales” filed January 4, 1896. Note the grant number 11255 at the top and bottom of the page. The other number at the top of the page is the register number and page—you’ll find a picture of that page of the register in the first part of this article because we used it to find the grant number. The law firm Armour & Williams is noted at the bottom. The paragraph written vertically, states that this document is identified by “D” elsewhere in the estate file.

2. Memorandum of fees, January 7, 1896. This document is of no great genealogical value, but it does show some of the process. Note that the will had to be transcribed three times, one of those for the Surrogate Clerk. More about that later.

3. Listing of documents submitted to the court, January 7, 1896. Again of no genealogical significance, but it might identify any missing documents.

4. The Office of the Surrogate Clerk of Ontario was established when the court system was reformed in 1859. Its role was to ensure that only one grant of probate or administration was issued. Document 4 is certification from the Surrogate Clerk that no one else has applied for a grant of probate, nor has any caveat been lodged against the application. It is dated January 6, 1896.

5. This typewriter-written document is the petition for a grant of probate from John Woodford Scales and Charles William Peniston, dated December 1895, and signed by their solicitor. It doesn’t say who John and Charles were, in relation to Joab Scales, but we do learn that:

  • both John and Charles are from Toronto
  • Joab died 4 December 1895 in Toronto
  • Joab lived in Toronto at the time of his death
  • John and Charles are named as executors in the will

The document also lists the dates that the will and codicils were written and estimates the value of the property as “under Twenty one thousand” dollars

6. The next document is an affidavit stating Joab’s date of death and residence by John Woodford Scales. We also learn that John is a merchant and we get his signature.

7. The inventory of Joab’s real estate holdings at the time of his death lists six properties for a total value of $19,200:

  • 90 Gould Street
  • 20 St. Patrick Street
  • four stores on Church Street (numbers 275, 277, 279, 281)

    The four stores on Church Street, referred to as Scales Block, are circled in red on this detail from the 1890 Insurance map of Toronto

    The four stores on Church Street, referred to as Scales Block, are circled in red on this detail from the 1890 insurance map of Toronto. The orange colour indicates brick or masonry construction. (image from Toronto Public Library)

8. Item 8 is another affidavit by John and Charles that the Inventory of real estate is true and complete, and under $21,000 dollars.

9. The next document is a brief inventory of “moveable” property, including an affidavit of its validity by John and Charles.

10. John pledges, in the next affidavit, dated January 2, 1896, that the will and codicils are authentic. (2 pages)

11. The next document is an affidavit by John and Charles that they will “faithfully administer” the estate. It is dated January 2, 1896.

12. Joab’s lawyer Edward Douglas Armour, QC, was one of the witnesses to the signing of his will and all three codicils. As part of proving the will to be authentic, he signed an affidavit on December 30, 1895, that he knew Joab Scales and witnessed the signing of his will and the codicils. (2 pages) Because of this apparent long-term business relationship between Joab and his lawyer, it might be worth investigating whether the papers of Edward Douglas Armour, or his firm Armour and Williams, are available at a local archives.

13. The next and biggest document in the file (seven pages) is the actual will. The last will and testament of Joab Scales was signed on August 18, 1888. The will is rich with family information, but noticeably absent is any mention of his wife. Since she would have considerable claim on the estate, it is reasonable to assume that she had died before Joab. The main provisions of the will are as follows.

  • Joab’s son Christopher Columbus Scales got the store and premises at 249 1/2 Church Street; a gold-headed cane, portraits of Joab and his wife and their deceased daughter Laura.
  • Joab’s daughter Mary Margaret Peniston got the proceeds from the rents and eventual sale of 20 St. Patrick Street. If sold, the money was to be invested to provide an income for Mary. After her death, $500 each would go to Mary’s sons Clifford L. Peniston and Harry Scales Peniston, and the rest to be divided between her other children and grandchildren.
  • Mary Margaret Peniston was also to have the family bible, the piano, bedroom furniture, silverware, plated ware, chinaware, glassware and cutlery, as well as portraits of Joab and his wife, Mary and her husband, and her two boys. She also got the rosewood suite from the drawing room, a what-not cabinet, and a bronze figure of Mercury.
  • Joab’s son John Woodford Scales got the store at 255 Church Street. When he died it went to his widow. When she died or remarried, the trustees were to sell the store and divide the proceeds amongst John’s children. John was also to get the portraits of himself and his wife, and portraits of his sister Rowena Tello and her husband “to do what he pleases with.”
  • Clause 5 left the store at 253 Church Street in the hands of the trustees to earn income for the potential support of Joab’s daughter Rowena Lucinda Tello. They could sell it right away or rent it out. Apparently, Rowena was in an asylum for the insane at the expense of her husband. (The husband’s name is never mentioned, and you don’t have to read too carefully between the lines to understand that Joab did not approve of him.) The trustees could pay any arrears for her treatment, but they didn’t have to. When Rowena died, the trustees were to pay $500 each to any of her sons and daughters who were 21 years old, or who were married. If any of the Tello children entered a religious order of the Roman Catholic Church, they were cut out of the will. The 253 Church Street property was also to produce enough income to pay $1000 to Charles Henry Scales and $500 to Robert Scales Peniston as well as $500 to each of his executors. If Rowena recovered, she was to be paid the income “for her sole and separate use.”
  • Joab’s son Charles Henry Scales got a house and property at Dalhousie and Gould Streets. Charles also got a portrait of himself and his deceased brother Robert.
  • The store at 251 Church Street was to be sold to provide $200 legacies for his granddaughters Carrie and Sally (daughters of Christopher Columbus Scales), granddaughters Maud, Laura, and Mary (daughters of Charles Henry Scales). Maud was the subject of an earlier article. Any residue from the sale of the store was to be divided between Joab’s four children Christopher Columbus, Mary Margaret, John Woodford, and Charles Henry.
  • Joab’s diamond breast pin was left to Harry Scales Peniston. (No other bequest says as much about Joab’s social status, or his relationship with his grandson.)
  • Joab’s three sons were also left his three bronzes. (Mary got Mercury, but the sons had to decide who got the other statues. Annoyingly, Joab doesn’t tell us what the were.)
  • Joab appointed his son John Woodford Scales and his grandson Charles William Peniston as executors and trustees. (Additional research into the ages, locations, and occupations of these two might show why he gave them this responsibility. He also specified that he wanted two people to act, so if either John or Charles was unable or unwilling, another administrator would need to be appointed by the court.)

14. The final three documents are codicils to the will of Joab Scales. A codicil is a signed and witnessed document that adds to or changes the provisions in a will. The first codicil is dated June 27, 1889 (less than a year after the will was signed). The codicil is written after the signatures on the final page of the will and continued on an additional page. It replaced clause five, which provided potential support for Joab’s daughter Rowena. Rowena had evidently died between the 18 August 1888 when Joab’s will was signed and before the June 1889 date of this codicil. Other provisions of clause five remained the same, including the exclusion of any of Rowena’s children who joined a Roman Catholic order. The codicil indicates that 253 Church Street is now 279 Church Street.

15. A second codicil dated September 1890, changed the terms in which Christopher Columbus inherited 249 now 275 Church Street. The property would be held by the trustees to provide an income for Charles and his family until the youngest child was 21. After that Christopher would get the property outright. Similarly, Charles Henry Scales would not get the Gould and Dalhousie property until his children were all 21. He also lost his $1,000 legacy, which was to put towards house repairs and maintenance. Did this reveal Joab’s lack of trust in his sons’ business acumen?

16. A brief, third codicil dated 31 December 1891 revoked the legacies to Carrie and Sally Scales and directed that they should be paid to grandson Harry Scales Peniston. (Now, about this time, the lovely Carrie or Caroline had moved to New York and had taken to the stage. Read more about her in my post on her cousin Maude. Joab would have been unlikely to approve. I don’t know why Sally or Susan was denied.) Harry was to get anything left over after all the various legacies were paid.

Download an image of the complete Joab Scales estate file. Like all estate files, this one shows the progress of the estate through the court, but not how quickly or how well the assets were distributed. If the heirs or creditors were unhappy with the administration, they could take the matter back to the Surrogate Court. There is no record of that occurrence in the estate file, so it would seem that Joab chose his executors well.

For much more information about searching for Ontario estate files and other probate records, see my book, Inheritance in Ontario: Wills and Other Records for Family Historians.

Finding an 1896 estate file in York County: a step-by-step example

Most Ontario counties have published indexes to estate files for the period 1859 to 1900, and some indexes go beyond those dates. But York County is an exception to the rule. It was the most populous county, containing the City of Toronto, and the prospect of creating a modern index was, and is, daunting. Those of us with ancestors in York must use the contemporary indexes created by the courts themselves. The indexes and estate files are on microfilm at the Archives of Ontario and the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, and are available on interloan from both places.

The case we’ll follow is Joab Scales, the tobacconist grandfather of Maude Scales Darby that I wrote about last time.

Knowing the date of death makes the search much easier. Ontario civil registration records tell me that Joab Scales died of heart failure in Toronto on December 4, 1895, age 76.[1] By law, no one could apply to administer his estate until at least seven days after his death—if there was no will, the wait was two weeks. So the search should start with mid December records and continue, if necessary, for up to five years.[2]

The first step, if you’re at the Archives of Ontario, is to consult the printed User’s guide to Surrogate Court microfilm to find the index. This finding aid is divided by counties, and it is important to read the introduction on the first page of each county.[3] The introduction for York County, in the picture below, tells us that for 1896, we need to look at the Original Index Volumes, and record the Grant number. Right below the introduction, we see the Original Index Volumes listed. The year 1896 will be on the first one: GS 2, reel 232.

Archives of Ontario. User's guide to Surrogate Court microfilm, p. 157

Archives of Ontario. User’s guide to Surrogate Court microfilm, p. 157

The next image is from the Original Index Volumes on film GS 2, reel 232. The index is semi-alphabetical by surname—a page or several pages were designated for each letter of the alphabet. As an estate file came before the court, it was added to the appropriate page. For the more “popular” letters, the alphabetization was refined by designating pages for letter combinations. This detail is from a “Sca” page, and you can see that names have been added chronologically.

York County Surrogate Court Index, 1887-1919, detail of "Sca" page, RG 22-303 GS 2 reel 232, Archives of Ontario

York County Surrogate Court Index, 1887-1919, detail of “Sca” page, RG 22-303 GS 2 reel 232, Archives of Ontario

Joab Scales’ name is listed fourth. The grant was of Letters Probate and issued on 7 January 1896. The York County introduction told us to record the Grant number, which is the first column.

Oh, dear: 112?? We’ve been thwarted by the clerk’s misguided attempt to fix his mistake.

We have a couple of choices. (Giving up is not an option.) We could look at all estate files that begin with 112—possibly 99 files averaging 20 pages each—or we could use the Register Book information shown on the right side of the index image. It tells us to look on page 586 of Register Book 26.

So, back to the User’s guide to Surrogate Court microfilm, the York County section, for a listing of the Registers. In the time span that includes 1896, we see that volumes 25, 26, and 27 are all on film MS 583, reel 013.[4]

Archives of Ontario. User's guide to Surrogate Court microfilm, p. 158

Archives of Ontario. User’s guide to Surrogate Court microfilm, p. 158

On the film, we scroll through until we find Volume 26. (Remember there were three volumes on the film and therefore duplicate, even triplicate page numbering to be wary of.)

York County Surrogate Court register #26, cover page, RG 22-302, MS 583, reel 13, Archives of Ontario

York County Surrogate Court register #26, cover page, RG 22-302, MS 583, reel 13, Archives of Ontario

Now, we’re looking for the page 586 that was listed in the filmed Index for Joab Scales. The Register Book recorded the essential information in brief: who died, that the will was proven, who was appointed to administer the estate, and that the administrators had sworn to do so diligently. Format varied over the years, but in 1896, the clerks filled in the blanks in a preprinted form with three names on a page.

York County Surrogate Court register #26, page 586, RG 22-302, MS 583, reel 13, Archives of Ontario

York County Surrogate Court register #26, page 586, RG 22-302, MS 583, reel 13, Archives of Ontario

Here’s a detail shot showing the entry for Joab Scales in the middle of the page—lots of good genealogical information, including his date of death and the names, occupations and residences of his administrators, who may be relatives. The document also states that they were executors named by Joab in his will. This increases the probability that they’re related. But most importantly, for our purposes, it provides the final two digits in that illegible Grant number: 11255.

York County Surrogate Court register #26, page 586 (detail), RG 22-302, MS 583, reel 13, Archives of Ontario

York County Surrogate Court register #26, page 586 (detail), RG 22-302, MS 583, reel 13, Archives of Ontario

Armed with the Grant number, we go back, once more, to the York County section of the User’s guide to Surrogate Court microfilm—this time to the list of Estate Files.[5] We locate our Grant number 11255 in the right time period, 1895–1896, and the final column tells us it is on film GS 1, reel 1051.

Archives of Ontario. User's guide to Surrogate Court microfilm, p. 177

Archives of Ontario. User’s guide to Surrogate Court microfilm, p. 177

So now we’re breathing down the neck of that illusive Joab Scales estate file. Stay tuned for the next episode!

For much more information about searching for Ontario estate files and other probate records, see my book, Inheritance in Ontario: Wills and Other Records for Family Historians.

[1] Ontario death registration #2847 for 1895, as viewed on, August 9, 2013. (Joab had been born in Kentucky. His doctor and informant was Dr. W.J. Hunter Emory. He was a Methodist.)

[2] It is unlikely, but not impossible, that you’d find an estate file more than five years after the death.

[3] The equivalent information can also be found here: The films are available on interloan from the Archives of Ontario or from

[4] Unfortunately, most of the Register Books microfilms are not available on interloan from the Archives of Ontario. However, most of the same Register Books were filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah and are available for interloan from

[5] The equivalent information can also be found here: The films are available on interloan from the Archives of Ontario or from


Hot off the press: Inheritance in Ontario

Very pleased to find a box from Dundurn Press at my door last week—the first copies of my new book Inheritance in Ontario: Wills and Other Records for Family Historians.

The book covers wills and related records from 1763 (well before “Ontario” existed) up to current records. For novices and researchers new to Ontario records, I’ve explained the structure and value of estate records. Experienced researchers will appreciate the descriptions of records beyond the estate files we typically use. The book covers records at the Archives of Ontario as well as those available on interloan and through around the world.

Cover of Inheritance in Ontario by Jane E MacNamaraResearchers with roots before 1793 will be particularly interested in Chapter 2: Early Records of Inheritance, where I’ve extracted the names of all parties involved in hearings before the District Prerogative courts. Not just the deceased, but administrators, heirs, guardians, friends, relatives, and creditors—a rich resource for the period.

Thank you to the archivists and librarians in Toronto, Ottawa, London, Prince Edward County, Detroit, and Salt Lake City, as well as friends and fellow researchers in most of those places—for your help and insight and support. (Now I’ll have to find something else to pester you about!)

For more details, please visit the Inheritance in Ontario page.

The Legacy of Magnus Shewan or “The will in the way”, part three

This is the third and final episode, in which I speculate wildly on the reasons for the animosity between Toronto bookseller Magnus Shewan and his niece Margaret Fraser.  If you’re new to the story, it will all make more sense if you read Part 1 and Part 2 first.

In the last episode, we read the wishes of Magnus Shewan in his will:

I more particularly direct that under no circumstances shall the wife or daughter Margaret of my brother have any share or portion of my Estate in consequence of their misconduct towards him.

The brother in question was Christopher Shewan, a few years younger than Magnus. Christopher died about six months before his brother in September 1883, in Guelph, Ontario, where he appears to have moved somewhere between about 1855 and 1861. Christopher appears in the 1856 Toronto city directory (likely compiled in 1855.)[1] The 1861 census shows the family in Guelph—Christopher aged 49, Jane aged 42, and Margaret aged 22.[2]

For most of the more than 25 years that Christopher lived in Guelph, he was a merchant.

But while he lived in Toronto, presumably from about 1841 like his brother Magnus, Christopher worked mainly as a carpenter and builder, maybe with a little land speculation thrown in. In the 1843 city directory, he’s running a boarding house (listed as Christopher Shawan) on Scotch Street. In the 1850 directory, Scotch has become Scott Street and Christopher, now a carpenter, lives at the head of it.

By 1853, the assessment rolls[3] show that Christopher owned three unfinished houses on the east side of today’s Jarvis Street between King and Queen streets, and he lived on the south side of Queen Street. The 1850s were a time of rapid development in Toronto and the transformation of substantial town lots with enough property to have at least a kitchen garden and stable, into much smaller lots for rows of residential and commercial buildings.

A man with some means, like Christopher, grabbed a piece of the action, if he could.

In 1854, Christopher Shewan got into some hot water about a land transaction that ended up in the Court of Chancery. One of the stirrers of the stew pot was Christopher’s wife Jane. In a time when a married women had few property rights, she could protect her eventual inheritance of her husband’s property by refusing to bar her dower. (Dower rights ensured that a widow got at least one third of her husband’s land.) This refusal could effectively stop a sale or mortgage of a property.

Here’s where the wild speculation comes in. I don’t know why Jane prevented the sale—or how Christopher reacted. But I bet he wasn’t pleased.

The parties involved were Christopher Shewan, William Kendrew, Robert Walker, and Thomas Hutchison, and brothers Samuel and Marcus Rossin. Walker and Hutchison were major dry goods merchants; the Rossins ran several businesses. The property involved is not clearly identified in the paperwork—in fact, Judge Esten makes that point in his bench book[4]—but I’m quite sure it was the small parcel at the head of Scott Street.

Plans of Town Lots 1, 3, and 4 from City of Toronto abstract index vol. 17 (see note 5)

Plans of Town Lots 1, 3, and 4 from City of Toronto abstract index vol. 17. Christopher Shewan owned part of Block 3 on the lower plan (see note 5)

Scott Street stopped at Colborne Street in 1854, so the property was on the north side of Colborne, part of Block 3 within Town Lot 3. It was about 30 feet deep and backed onto much deeper lots on the south side of King Street. Christopher acquired the east half of the lot in December 1841, and the west half in June 1845. The original one-acre Town Lot 3 had been purchased in 1824 by the Honorable James Baby, and Christopher Shewan’s property was known as Baby Place (pronounced Bawbee).[5]

Today, Scott Street veers to the west at Colborne to continue as Victoria Street. Part of Block 3 was expropriated for Victoria Street. The rest is now occupied by the King Edward Hotel.

But back to the story.

Let me see if I can explain what happened in 1854. William Kendrew approached Christopher Shewan about selling the property for £287 and change. Kendrew did not disclose that he was acting as an agent for Robert Walker who owned the adjacent property on King Street.

Christopher consulted with another neighbour, Thomas Hutchison, who told him it was a “large” price. Now Hutchison and Walker were business partners, and if Christopher had been aware the Walker was behind Kendrew’s offer—he certainly wouldn’t have gone to Hutchison for advice. (Turns out that contrary to wanting a better deal for his business partner, Hutchinson actually was more interested buying the land to resell to Walker at a profit. That partnership didn’t last long!)

Approximate locations of the above plans: red outline for Town Lots 1 & 4; Block 3 was on the lower edge of the blue box.

Approximate locations of the above plans: red box is Town Lots 1 and 4; Block 3 was on the lower edge of the blue box.

Christopher Shewan agreed to sell the land to Kendrew. Here’s where the chronology gets a little hazy, and the motives become questionable.

The Rossin brothers got wind of the agreement, and “expostulated” with Christopher for not giving them an opportunity of buying it at the same price.

Kendrew, in a effort to complete the deal, requested the deed but was informed that Jane Shewan had refused to bar her dower. I’ll admit that the legal technicalities are a little beyond me, but Christopher and Kendrew did have some options to keep the deal alive, and Kendrew certainly tried.

Sometime later (apparently not late enough to avoid a lawsuit), Christopher made a deal with the Rossin brothers for £300, and Jane Shewan’s dower was duly barred. William Kendrew filed a suit against Christopher Shewan, Marcus Rossin and Samuel Rossin to enforce the original contract.

Judge Esten was not pleased that Kendrew had been put forward as the plaintiff—or had misrepresented himself as the purchaser. Esten felt that Christopher had been deceived, but didn’t believe that Hutchison and Walker were in cahoots. (Not sure I buy that.)

Although he doesn’t exactly say there was anything underhanded going on with Christopher Shewan and his lawyer, Esten notes that the deal should have been handled differently. In the end, despite deception from almost everyone involved, he was of the opinion that the plaintiff, Kendrew, should get the land at the original price.[6]

Those are the facts. Now for some wild speculating.

Why did Jane Shewan refuse to bar her dower? Did Christopher ask her to so he could accept the better offer? Or did Jane find out about the questionable deal—or the better offer—from the neighbours? Was 16-year-old Margaret Shewan involved in the discovery? Seems to me a bustling dry goods store would be a hard place to keep a secret, particularly when all parties lived but a stone’s throw away.

Was Christopher angry at being hoodwinked by Walker, or embarrassed by his own naiveté? How did his wife react to the news? Did Christopher accept that he’d given his word and the deal should go through, only to be thwarted by Jane’s dower rights?

We’ll likely never know. But I can’t help thinking that the family’s departure from Toronto a year or so later may have been precipitated by these events. If that’s so, would Christopher’s brother Magnus Shewan been upset about losing his brother to faraway Guelph? Upset enough to voice his opinion in his will, written just a few years later in 1858?

Did Magnus really hold a grudge against Jane and Margaret for nearly 30 years?

The only thing we know for sure, was that like too many of us, Magnus was guilty of not updating his will!

This is the third in a series of articles about wills and other records of inheritance to support my new book Inheritance in Ontario: Wills and Other Records for Family Historians (Dundurn Press, April 2013).

I had some wonderful help with this article from researchers in Shetland. Thank you to Janice Halcrow for her transcriptions of Shetland newspapers at, and for putting me in touch with Tony Gott who has compiled a marvelous database of names at

The records of the Toronto Necropolis Cemetery were also essential, both the transcription of gravestones by the Toronto Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society, and the index to its burial registers at


[1] For more information about Toronto city directories, see my post of September 2, 2012.

[2] Both Ancestry and FamilySearch have hidden the Shewans under the name Sherman. The blessed ability to search either index without a surname—and the unusual forename “Christopher” allowed me to find them.

[3] Toronto in the 1850s: A transcription of the 1853 Tax Assessment Rolls and Guide to Family History Research. (Toronto Branch, Ontario Genealogical Society, 2005)

[4] Archives of Ontario, Benchbooks of Justice James C.P. Esten / RG 22-390-10 / May 1853 – July 1854 / Box 62 / p 11 and 12.

[5] City of Toronto abstract index vol. 17, spine title: “T.L. 1 N. Wellington & 3 & 4 E. Old Toronto”, on microfilm GSU 197315 at the Archives of Ontario. Plan at beginning of volume. Block 3 starts on page 201.

[6] Patton, James, editor. The Upper Canada Law Journal and Local Courts Gazette from January to December 1855, Volume 1. Barrie, Ontario: Barrie Herald, 1855. page 66 (April)



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.

The Legacy of Magnus Shewan or “The Will in the Way”, part two

In the last episode, we learned about Toronto bookseller Magnus Shewan’s death in 1884 and that his niece Mrs. Fraser was surprised when she tried to claim her inheritance—at least according to the Toronto Daily News.

The Globe published a death notice on February 5, 1884:

DIED/ Suddenly, on Monday morning, Feb 4th, Magnus Shewan, age 75 years, a native of Dunrossness, Shetland, and a resident of Toronto since 1841. Funeral on Wednesday afternoon at two o’clock, from his late residence, 21 Dalhousie-st. Friends and acquaintances will please accept this invitation. Shetland papers please copy.

And they did. On March 1, 1884, a similar notice appeared in the Shetland Times.

Now back to the fate of Mrs. Fraser, who I’m now almost certain was the former Margaret Shewan, daughter of Magnus’ brother Christopher Shewan.

Magnus Shewan’s will was written, as the newspaper stated, 26 years before his demise—in 1858. I’ve transcribed it, and the original is also reproduced below.

This is the last will and testament of Magnus Shewan of the City of Toronto in the Province of Canada Bookseller.

I give devise and bequeath all the property real and personal of which I may die possessed to my cousin Magnus Shewan upon trust to sell and dispose of the same as soon after my decease as possible without sacrificing the same but no forced sale within two years which I allow for winding up of my Estate, and to divide the proceeds thereof in manner following:-

One fifth to my mother Agnes Shewan

One fifth to my brother Christopher Shewan

One fifth to my cousin Magnus Shewan to be retained for his own use and benefit

One tenth to my servant Charles Backus

One tenth to my cousin John Harper in Shetland, Scotland, one half of that for himself and the residue to be given by him to such of my relatives as he may consider most in need of it.

One fifth to Magnus, the son of my cousin Magnus.

I’ll interject a little more, here, about the cast of characters. Mother Agnes died in 1865 (7 years after the will was written but 19 years before our Magnus died) and is buried in the Toronto Necropolis in plot L 124S. The nearly illegible gravestone says she was the wife of the late James Shewan and mother of Magnus and Christopher. The plot was owned by Magnus.

Brother Christopher Shewan died less than six months before Magnus on September 12, 1883, in Guelph, Ontario, and was buried the next day in plot L 125 in the Toronto Necropolis. This plot was also owned by Magnus.

Cousin Magnus, as we saw last time, did outlive our Magnus Shewan, and served as administrator of the estate.

Servant Charles Backus has eluded me, and I haven’t identified John Harper of Shetland.

Young cousin-once-removed Magnus (son of cousin Magnus) also survived to inherit.

Now back to the will.

I give my wearing apparel to my brother Christopher.

I will and direct that my mother’s share shall be first paid and that she shall from time to time immediately after my decease have such sums of money out of her share of my Estate as she shall require.

I will and direct that all my just debts and funeral expenses shall be in the first place paid out of my Estate and Effects and before payment of any of the shares or legacies above given except such sums as my mother may require for her support and maintenance.

In the event of the death of any of the legatees above mentioned before me, I will and direct that his or her share shall be divided amongst the others in the proportion of their respective shares of my Estate, and I more particularly direct that under no circumstances shall the wife or daughter Margaret of my brother have any share or portion of my Estate in consequence of their misconduct towards him.

Ah, so it is true. It doesn’t pay to upset Uncle Magnus.

I hereby appoint my said cousin Magnus the Executor of this my will, and I hereby bind myself not to alter this in any way whereby his position or share may be diminished or affected nor to make any other will or codicil without his knowledge or consent while any portion of my present or any future debt to him remains undischarged.

Signed Sealed Published and declared by the said Magnus Shewan the testator as and for his last will and testament this fourth day of December AD 1858… M. Shewan

So, what did Margaret Fraser and her mother do to Christopher Shewan? Were their misdeeds really serious enough for him to hold a grudge from 1858 to 1884?

Well, I have some theories, but you’ll need to wait till next time.

This is the second in a series of articles about wills and other records of inheritance to support my new book Inheritance in Ontario: Wills and Other Records for Family Historians (Dundurn Press, April 2013).


Will of Magnus Shewan, from estate file 5193 (1884), RG 22-305, Archives of Ontario


Page 2 of the will. Click images to enlarge.



A story… from one record

The best thing we can do to get to the truth of an historical event or to understand an ancestor’s life is to look at all the information available. All the documentation we can get our hands on. All the background we can learn about the family, social, political, economic, even meteorological events that were happening at the same time.

But sometimes an individual record can present a compelling story all on its own—one that makes us pause—a story that leads to speculation and maybe asks more questions that it answers.

Let me introduce you to Elijah Peet. Before you ask, we’re not related, but doesn’t he have a wonderful name?

I met Elijah through his estate file in the Surrogate Court of the District of Johnstown[1] in Upper Canada.[2]

Elijah died in 1803. I know this because letters of administration were issued on January 5, 1804. By law, since Elijah had not written a valid will, the administrators had to wait at least two weeks to apply to the court.

An estate file, in Ontario, is a collection of documents that were either presented to the court or issued by the court, relating to the distribution of an individual’s worldly goods—whether or not the person had a will.

In Elijah’s file, I found the following documents:

  • Administration bond of £100 from administrator Peet Selee, with Samuel and Levius Sherwood, issued January 5, 1804
  • A “true and perfect inventory”
  • Wording for an ad for the “vendue” of Elijah’s possessions
  • An accounting of the vendue (who bought what items)
  • An account of expenses incurred by the administrator

What can we glean from each of these documents?

The bond—although we don’t have his application, the fact that Peet Selee was appointed administrator means that the court felt it was a suitable choice. He may have been a relative, or relatives stepped aside and did not challenge his appointment.[3] Peet could write, and fairly confidently. Peet Selee [Seelye] is called “yeoman” of Elizabethtown. The other names on the bond, Samuel and Levius Sherwood, were both prominent citizens, and court officials. They were probably chosen because they were good for the £100 rather than for a relationship with the deceased.

The inventory—one of the responsibilities of administrator Peet Selee, was appraised on March 28 by David Alexander and Isaac Booth and filed with the court on March 29, 1804. It included:

  • 1 mare and colt
  • 1 bridle
  • 1 pair saddle bags
  • 1 great coat, pair of boots, pair of shoes
  • 1 shaving box, 1 razor and case
  • Set of shoemaker’s tools, bag and leather apron
  • 3 lasts, 2 coats, 2 vests, 2 pr of pantaloons
  • 1 pair of trousers, 3 shirts, 4 pairs of stockings
  • 4 muslin handkerchiefs, 1 silk handkerchief
  • 1 cotton handkerchief, 1 snuff box, 1 knife
  • 1 pocket book, 1 pinchbeck watch[4]
  • 1 pair of galoshes, 1 hat and cover

The belongings added up to £25, 18 shillings. I find it curious that Elijah seems to have had no household goods—not a stick of furniture or a cooking utensil. It looks like he could pack just about everything into his saddlebags. Was he an itinerant shoemaker or an elderly boarder, perhaps? What did galoshes (spelled gallows’s) look like in 1804?[5] What’s the difference between pantaloons and trousers?

The next document, reproduced below, is an example of early Canadian copy writing—an advertisement for a “vendue” of the property of Elijah Peet, deceased. The vendue (a period word for a public sale) was to be held on April 7, 1804, at James Curtis’ inn in Elizabethtown. Was the advertisement to be published in a newspaper, printed up as a broadside, or just tacked up on the door of the inn?

Advertisment for the sale of Elijah Peet’s belongings (Archives of Ontario, Leeds and Grenville United Counties Surrogate Court estate files, RG 22-179, MS 638, reel 28)

The vendue, under the auspices of Vendue Master Jonathan Mills Church, seems to have been moderately successful. Everything was sold and the amount earned was less than £1 under the appraised amount. The list of buyers, though, is short: William Jones, Justice Seely, Reuben Mott, Elias Peck, Phillip Masterson and Jehisda Boice. Jonathan Mills Church, himself, bought two pair of stockings, and Peet Selee acquired 11 items, including the mare and colt and the pinchbeck watch. (Elias Peck became the proud owner of the galoshes for six shillings.)

The final document is an account of the expenses incurred by Peet Selee on behalf of the estate, and perhaps also during Elijah’s last months. It is difficult to read, but it seems to go back to October 1802, when Elijah owed Peet Selee for a quantity of pork and three quarts of salt, a three point blanket, a large powder horn, shoeing a horse, and “working and mending”. Selee seems also to have made traps and carried them to the river for Elijah.

The next expense is 15 shillings for “The Search of him Before he was found”, followed by charges for letters of administration, keeping Elijah’s horses, setting up the vendue, and other incidentals up to at least the day of the auction. The expenses total £25 and 17 shillings—unfortunately a shilling less than the inventory evaluation, but a little more than what was raised by the auction.

Does Elijah Peet’s estate file (a single record) paint a complete picture of his life—or death? No, but it does add valuable colour and clues. I’ll leave it to his family to follow those clues.


[1] Johnstown was one of seven districts into which Upper Canada was divided at this time. Each district had its own surrogate court that handled most estates. For more information about Districts, see the Archives of Ontario online exhibit.

[2] Elijah Peet’s estate file can be found in Leeds and Grenville United Counties Surrogate Court estate files, RG 22-179, MS 638, reel 28, Archives of Ontario. Your local library can get the film for you on inter-loan from the Archives of Ontario, or you can have it brought from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City to your local FamilySearch centre. The FamilySearch film number is 1312274.

[3] There’s a Peet Selee in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography whose wife’s surname was Peet. I have not verified that this is the same person.

[4] Pinchbeck could refer to either the 18th-century London clockmaker, Christopher Pinchbeck, or a copper-zinc alloy he invented that looked like gold.

[5] Read more about galoshes from the University of Washington.