Canada, Alternate Sources for Birth, Marriage, and Death Information (National Institute)
The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian Vital Statistics Records Part 2 by by Sharon L. Murphy. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Alternates Sources For Vital Statistics
The legal collection and tabulation of provincial government-authorized vital statistics did not begin until about late 19th century for most Canadian provinces, even though the eastern areas were settled much earlier. Sometimes even the earliest such records were not preserved. This can make more and more “holes” in your family tree as the genealogist works backward in time.
It is a fact that each ancestor was born, and died, on very specific dates; if s/he is an ancestor in your direct line, there is also normally a date of marriage. If we could find original sources for these events, they would give us the primary information and direct evidence we seek. Alternate sources may be original in nature, but usually they will provide secondary information and/or indirect evidence. The advice is to seek as much information as possible about one event in an ancestor’s life.
Surprisingly (or not), you could find conflicting information about one of those three major events. Our case studies show some examples of this. In such cases, the genealogist or family historian must use all their evaluation skills, in studying the collected evidence, to analyze and resolve contradictions. The result, your conclusion, should be written out for your own clarification and satisfaction, if not for others.
Clergymen would have been instructed by their superiors to record specific things about the event they performed or witnessed. In pioneer days it was not always possible to follow normal procedures if one was scribbling details as one travelled a circuit or mission on horseback from home to home. Sometimes a baptism or marriage was not physically recorded until the man reached his next destination, or even later, from memory. The priest or minister with an established church building, receiving a call to ride out for an emergency sacrament, may have only later remembered to record an emotional moment. Slips of paper, whatever was available to make a note at the time, could have been entered into the church register much later, out of chronological order. We don’t want to be negative about the value of church records and registers; the purpose of the above is to make you aware that if a record is not where you expect it, keep looking. One of the best pieces of advice to a family historian is try to place yourself in each ancestor’s time and place as you study him, try to imagine all the conditions—local and regional, geographic and social—that could have affected his choice of religious denomination and his choice of a clergyman at a given period of time and place.
What if you do not know where a specific event occurred? You should be able to determine either an approximate time period or provincial region from other sources as you work back. You will be watching for indexes and finding aids for records or transcriptions for those areas or time frame. On finding a probable ancestor in clergy records, the place where the event occurred can be deduced from either the record itself, the location of the church, or the boundaries of the circuit or mission.
Religious records—of a church, in a caretaker’s hands, or in a church archive—are private, not public material. You should be aware that viewing or copying them is a privilege and not our “right.” Due consideration and courtesy is absolutely essential from family historians in order to obtain and ensure cooperation.
Baptism is an event that may include a date of birth. But the two are not to be confused. If you only find a baptismal date, you can merely conclude that that child was born within the past 16 years or so (until s/he was considered an adult). Some families or some denominations expected “infant” baptism. When you find several children born to the same couple appearing in the records at regular intervals for baptism, you can see a family pattern. Some families, without early access to a clergyman, had all their children baptized together, later on. The presence of godparents or sponsors, often great clues to extended family relationships, varies from one source to another. Some denominations had no provision for baptism, but had a service for recognition of adult believers.
Marriage is somewhat more straightforward, in that some government requirements (apart from Québec) for a registration of the event were in place earlier than those for births or deaths. The ceremony could have been performed by clergy or a justice of the peace. Unions made by fur traders or voyageurs in the old Northwest may have been sanctioned at a later date when they returned to their bases at Detroit or Montreal, although many unions with natives remained as “the custom of the country.” Names, date and place of marriage, and often witnesses were entered into the record. In Québec where religious marriages were the only choice for centuries, it is common to see the home parish of the bride and groom and the names of their parents.
Among the hints when searching for a marriage: if the bride and groom were from different locations or different religions, look first to the location of the bride’s family; also consider that some couples might travel for a day’s distance to marry in a place where they had an overnight honeymoon. Many marriages before the 20th century did not take place in a church building; the clergyman’s home was a customary venue, or perhaps a town hotel.
Marriage bonds were a civil requirement for the intention to marry, and collections in various provinces can begin at a relatively early date. Later on, licences became a civil requirement if religious banns had not been published from the pulpit.
Burial or funeral or interment records from a church register are likely the least revealing. Name of person and date of burial or funeral are the minimum information. As time went on, denominational requirements might ask for date of death, age, cause of death, place of birth, next of kin, and other welcome information may appear. Again, one should not assume that because a woman was buried on 22 September that she died two or three days earlier. Many factors can affect an interval between death and burial. The time period itself and social health are two: imagine the need for relatively quick burial before the days of embalming science, the need for swift burial when a contagious disease was attacking the population. A death in Saskatchewan may have caused a New Brunswick family to have the body shipped across the country for burial. More of this is discussed under Cemeteries.
Other Religious Records
Apart from baptisms, marriages and burials, there may be other records of church business and activity that, if preserved and accessible, can throw light on your ancestor. At the least they will show his presence in the parish or congregation at a point in time.
Meeting minutes were kept by and for church officers; these may be known by different names in various denominations. Certain committees would also keep their own meeting minutes, such as women’s groups or missionary works. Presbyterian session records and the Society of Friends (Quaker) are two examples of historic material being available and/or microfilmed. The “business” of the congregation and its representatives could often involve the chastisement of members’ transgressions and/or efforts to bring them back to the fold. And of course elders-officers-leaders of the church were prominent among the records. Membership rolls or confirmation lists (the latter usually happening at a certain age) are very useful if baptismal registers or other sources are lacking. Certificates of removal from one church or congregation to another were often noted in regular business. A new arrival may have his previous church and location mentioned; similarly, the destination of leaving members may be noted.
Occasionally a clergyman or congregation might have created “family records” in a register. One page or section might be devoted to an entire family from the inception of the church or congregation. In some Quaker meetings, family records extended back to their pre-Canadian origins.
Other types of recorded church business can be such items as pew rentals; the collection of funds for a new church building or repairs; construction contracts and payments; deeds for a church or related cemetery site.
Published histories of a parish or a church are a good way to acquire a sense of their mission and the flavour of the times. Many, many churches published such books or pamphlets to celebrate a significant anniversary in their history. They may include examples of a typical Sunday service.
Files or biographies of clergymen have often been collected at a church archive. Again, they give insight into the man and his times. They may also indicate where his old registers have been deposited, if they are not available at the same site.
Canadians in pioneer territory, whatever the time period, did not have much option when it came to burial. The deceased was buried on the family farm, often without “benefit of clergy.” If the deceased was an urban dweller, the first burial grounds were usually a churchyard. Prominent local landowners then began to offer a portion of their property to establish separate denominational cemetery grounds. As urban populations increased, allowance had to be made for those who died without religious affiliation. Thus, eventually non-denominational cemeteries were established to become administered by independent boards or local municipalities.
Cemetery companies will have their own types of records that could include a register of burials, a plot owners’ book, and/or a map of the grounds. They are not religious records, but like them, they are private as opposed to public material. A municipal burial permit is another more recent requirement.
A death certificate or a newspaper notice may tell you that a person died in one place and was sent on the train for burial back in his family’s previous settlement area. This could cause a delay in the usual time lapse between death and burial. Another interesting sidelight (but with slight effect on family history) is that cold, hard winters could mean coffins were stored in a “winter vault” until the ground was yielding enough for actual interment.
This is why genealogical societies recognize the importance of transcribing cemeteries, even the smallest rural or farm burial places. By contacting them you can discover the extent of their work in this project. More and more indexes and finding aids are being posted on the internet. We may never know how soon after death a cemetery stone was erected, whether the information on it is totally accurate or even if the stone carver misread a note or his chisel slipped on a number, but in the absence of civil registration and other sources, this may be our best source of clues.
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Canadian Vital Statistics Records Part 2 offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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