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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in April 2013. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian: Vital Statistic Records - Part 1  by Sharon L. Murphy. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


Canada proper (including what is now Ontario) was a French colony. New France was the name given to the French possessions in North America—the territories discovered, explored, settled or claimed from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries.

In 1712, New France stretched from the Gulf of the St. Lawrence to beyond Lake Superior and included Newfoundland, Acadia, the Iroquois country and the Mississippi Valley as far as the Gulf of Mexico—nearly three quarters of the North American continent.

New France began to disintegrate when the Treaty of Utrecht was signed in 1713. Queen Anne’s War ended and France gave up Newfoundland and Acadia except for Ile-Royale, also known as Cape Breton Island, to England. New France ceased to exist as a political entity in 1763 under the terms of the Treaty of Paris.

With the signing of the Treaty of Paris on 10 February 1763 the Seven Years War ended. The treaty terms stated that France would cede to Great Britain all her remaining possessions in northern North America. St. Pierre and Miquelon were not included. With this takeover, the province of Québec was created. It extended west of the Ottawa River to include land that is now part of Ontario. The British merchants that arrived after the 1763 conquest demanded British law and in 1774 the Québec Act came into effect. It adopted both British criminal law and French civil law.

The Constitutional Act of 1791 divided Québec into Upper Canada (Ontario) and Lower Canada (Québec). After the 1841 Act of Union, Upper Canada became Canada West and Lower Canada became Canada East. With the British North America Act of 1867 (Confederation), Canada West became Ontario. It is important to know these dates to determine if you should be looking for records created in Québec, Upper Canada, Canada West or Ontario.

With every change in government, the laws were also subject to amendment and change. As you will learn, the records that were created during these different periods of growth are numerous, and often not even slightly logical. In order to understand where to look in your search for the appropriate records, it becomes necessary to determine if a record exists and what it will tell you as a genealogist.

The Church and the Government

The Church and the Government in early Canada were closely associated. The Government wanted to ensure that the Church of England (Anglican) held the majority of power as it represented England in Canada. Therefore, only the Anglican Church had the authority to perform the necessary function of marriage. This was guaranteed by Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1754.

Under the Proclamation of 1763, the dues and rites of the Roman Catholic Church, in other words, the right to perform marriage ceremonies, was recognized. The Roman Catholic Church had been established in Canada for well over a century and had various churches and parishes throughout Québec as well as Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and along the St. Lawrence River. It was certainly an established and accepted religion. The country was inhabited by a very large number of Catholics and their support was extremely necessary to the government.

After the American Revolution, a great influx of United Empire Loyalists increased the number of new inhabitants of Canada and increased the necessity to have facilities to accommodate their needs. It was impossible at first to provide the number of Anglican clergymen necessary to look after the needs of the inhabitants and the government recognized this fact.

As the following excerpt explains: The Marriage Law in Upper Canada Note E., Report by Richard Cartwright, Junior, 1792 (Canadian Archives, Series Q. 279-1, page 174), gives a true description of the state of marriages as follows:

“In the meanwhile from the year 1777 many families of the Loyalists belonging to Butler’s Rangers, the Royal Yorkers, Indian Department and other Corps doing Duty at the Upper Posts, had from Time to Time come into the country, and many young Women of these Families were contracted in Marriage which could not be regularly solemnized, there being no Clergyman at the Posts, nor in the whole country between them and Montréal. The practice in such cases usually was to go before the Officer Commanding the Post who publicly read to the parties the Matrimonial Service in the Book of Common Prayer, using the Ring and observing the other forms there prescribed, or if he declined it, as was sometimes the case, it was done by the Adjutants of the Regiment. After the settlements were formed in 1784 the Justices of the Peace used to perform the Marriage Ceremony till the establishment of Clergymen in the Country, when this practice adopted only from necessity hath been discontinued in the Districts where Clergymen reside.”

As you can see, this system evolved out of necessity and progressed in stages. The marriage laws in Upper Canada were adjusted accordingly and relaxed as time went on. In 1793 a statute was passed confirming all marriages “publicly contracted before any magistrate or commanding officer of a post, or adjutant, or surgeon of a regiment, acting as chaplain, or any other person in any public office or employment.” It declared the parties to these marriages to be “entitled to all the rights and benefits and subject to all the obligations arising from marriage and consanguinity, in as full and ample a manner as if the said marriages had respectively been solemnized according to law.”

Although the Anglicans were recognized as the official Church, the number of Anglican ministers was still very low. There were many Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists amongst the settlers and it became necessary for the government to extend the authority to perform the marriage ceremony to the Justices of the Peace. Anyone who lived more than 18 miles from a “Parson or Minister of the Church of England” was allowed to have their marriage ceremony performed by a Justice of the Peace.

The Marriage Act of 1831 validated all marriages performed by clergymen, Justices of the Peace and commanders of military posts before March 2nd 1831. All ministers of the “Church of Scotland, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists, Independants, Menonnists, Tunkers, or Moravians” were included in the authorization. The Marriage Act of 1831 provided six years for the marriages to be registered with a District Clerk of the Peace. The cost was 1 shilling to the Justice of the Peace for a certificate and 2/6 to the Clerk of the Peace for entering it in the District Register.

Section VI of the Act required each dissenting minister to forward a certified list of marriages, with the names of two witnesses and the date of the ceremony, to the Clerk of the Peace once every twelve months. The clerk was to enter these in a register of certified marriages.

In 1848 an attempt was made to enforce the registration of baptisms and burials along with marriages but was not very successful. The registers of certified marriages previously mentioned contain valuable information for the genealogist. You must be flexible in the spelling of the names and in the actual dates of the events recorded. Sometimes the name was altered as it was copied from one register to another. Sometimes the date of a birth was earlier than you had calculated or the marriage was later than you had calculated. Always keep an open mind. The handwriting can also be a challenge. In some cases it is beautifully done and in others it is almost impossible to read. Practice will help. Also, be aware that not all events were registered. If you know the date, the place and the religion and still cannot find a registration, you may have to accept the fact that the registration may never be found. However, a suggestion would be to recheck your previous research, particularly the census records; don’t neglect the earlier census records, not just the federal census of 1851, look also for local census records, local histories and historical maps.

Look for a clue that may indicate a boundary change. Perhaps the event was registered with a different clerk in a different district (see District Registers for explanation regarding geographic areas). The type of religion is always uncertain. You cannot be sure of the religion of the time, even if your family has always been a certain denomination. The choice was very limited in the early years and the closest and most convenient and sometimes the only minister would be the clergy of choice that day or for that period of time.

A word should also be said about the types of registers created. The church register was the one used by the clergy to record the events they performed. The district register was the book in which the information forwarded by the clergy was recorded by the Clerk of the Peace.

Registration and the Clerk of the Peace

The clergy were directed to forward a record of the births and marriages they performed to the District Clerk of the Peace. The government had no way of knowing if all were included. A Justice of the Peace was also required to submit a record of the marriages he performed but this was also not overseen very efficiently and is sketchy in some areas.

Note that Marriage Act of 1831 exempted Anglican and Catholic clergy from reporting an annual list of their marriages.

Although the government did determine that this information should be registered with them by way of the District Clerk we must remember that the original record was created by the clergy. It was not until 1869 that the registration of births, marriages and deaths became mandatory and was enforced. Prior to that, the clergy did not always forward copies of the registrations to the government office as they should. Those that were forwarded were to be recorded in a register by the Clerk of the Peace.

The Clerk of the Peace was the overseer of the registrations, but he had no way of enforcing or following up on the day to day business of the clergy. Sometimes there have been returns found that were sent from the clergy to the Clerk of the Peace but they were never entered into the District Registers.
Therefore, if the event you are searching for does not appear in the district register or county register that you think is the appropriate one, keep looking. Locate the church records of the denomination of your ancestor and examine any and all registers that may contain the original registration. This is essential at this time period for Anglican or Catholic ancestors.

The event would have been recorded several times:

  1. At the event itself with a copy given to the parties involved.
  2. The copy recorded by the person that performed the ceremony likely in his register.
  3. A copy sent to the Clerk of the Peace in the district or county of residence.
  4. The actual entry of the copy in the District Register or County Register.

Notice the number of times this event has been recorded. Remember that every time it is copied there is a chance for error. Keep this in mind when you discover a difference in what you think it should say and what it shows as the copied version. In summary, the recording of marriages to 1857 was performed by District Clerks of the Peace and from 1858-1869, by County Clerks of the Peace.

Where Are These Religious Records Now?

When the traveling preacher or missionary went from place to place he recorded the ceremonies he performed in his register. The travel was by foot or horseback and the register must have received quite an amount of abuse. Remember he traveled in all types of weather and his accommodations were not luxurious when he did finally arrive at his destination. Sometimes events were recorded on a scrap of paper.

Another aspect of this was the fact that they did not have any specific territory for any specific time period. As the country grew the preachers also changed their routes and geographic areas of responsibility. Often instead of passing their register on to the next preacher they simply carried it along with them and continued to record the events as they happened. On retirement, the preacher may have returned the register to a church or he may have simply kept it. Not many of these early registers have survived. History indicates that often the preachers returned to their American place of origin. We may assume that some of the missing registers have also crossed the border. These registers have been located in various places and some have been microfilmed and placed in various provincial archives. Others have been kept by the particular religious affiliation in their archives or locally in their churches.

Thanks to the dedication of academics, historians and genealogists, many of these microfilmed and original registers have been transcribed, indexed and published for research purposes.

So now you can perhaps understand the evolution of the written record of the vital event of marriage. Knowing the reason the record was created and the logistics of recording the data will give you an idea of when and perhaps where your ancestors’ vital statistic records were created.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Canadian: Vital Statistic Records - Part 1 offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at <br>

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.