Across Our Northern Border

By: Carolyn L. Barkley


Having just finalized a hotel reservation for a trip to Fergus, Ontario, for the summer, I realized that many of us in the United States know little about the history and genealogical research of our neighbor to the north. We need to rectify this shortcoming, particularly if our research has turned up a Canadian ancestor – or at least an ancestor who entered the United States by crossing the Canadian border. There are many resources, both in print and online, that will help us gain the necessary knowledge to support our ongoing research.

As a first step when beginning research in a new geographical area, I like to read background materials, particularly ones which will provide an historical context for my research. This reading usually explains why records were – or were not – created, and will provide insight into the times in which an individual lived, possible origins, and reasons for emigrating.

Informal in format, but rich in information, Will Ferguson’s Canadian History of Dummies (2nd ed., 1005) is useful if you are looking for short summaries of important historical events that may have influenced the lives of your ancestors, both in Canada, and for those living in the states just over the border in the colonies, and later United States. Topics begin with the rise – and fall – of New France (1608-1766) and continue through the turn of the current century. The book is particularly helpful in explaining the events leading up to the Confederation. In 1867, three British colonies (the Province of Canada comprised of Upper Canada and Lower Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia) became four Canadian provinces (Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia), following the Confederation Conference in Charlottetown. The process of creating the nation we know today as Canada has continued almost to the present day with the addition of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories in 1870; British Columbia in 1871; Prince Edward Island in 1873; the Yukon in 1898; Saskatchewan and Alberta in 1905; Newfoundland in 1949 (renamed Newfoundland and Labrador in 2001); and Nunavut (Arctic Archipelago and islands in Hudson, James and Ungava Bays) in 1999. While Canadian History of Dummies could be read in its entirety, I suggest it more as a reference source to dip into as needed during your research, and a perfect source with which to create a chronology to superimpose on your specific ancestral research.

Lovell’s Gazetteer of British North America 1873 (Global, 1999) provides a convenient locator for place names which you might run across in your research. For example Fergus, a lovely town that I will be visiting again this summer, is described as follows: “an incorporated village in Wellington co., Ont., on the River Grand, and on the W.G. & B. R., 15 miles N. or Guelph. It possesses good water power, and contains flour, oatmeal and planning mills, 2 distilleries, woolen, cabinet, fanning mill, stave and sewing machine factories, tanneries, breweries, and an iron foundry. Also, 2 branch banks, several insurance agencies, a number of stores, hotels and churches, 2 telegraph agencies, and a printing office issuing a weekly newspaper. Pop. 1,666.”2 If your ancestor lived in or near Fergus, Ontario, in the 1870s, this relatively brief gazetteer entry would provide you with a detailed bird’s-eye view of what life there was like there at the time.

Here are two additional highly recommended books for background reading, particularly if you are interested in learning about Scottish emigration to Canada:

A Dance Called America: the Scottish Highlands, the United States, and Canada, by James Hunter (Mainstream, 2010), provides an in-depth look into the earlier periods of emigration from Scotland to Canada and the United States. Barred from relocating to the colonies prior to 1707, Scots emigrated to Canada due to a series of events including crop failures, land clearances, wars, transportation after the rebellion of 1745, an expanding tobacco trade, and somewhat later, organized emigration schemes. The book’s title derives from a story related by James Boswell in his well-documented Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides made with his companion, Samuel Johnson. On 2 October 1773 Boswell wrote, “In the evening the company danced as usual … We performed, with much activity, a dance which, I suppose, the emigration from Skye has occasioned. They call it America. Each of the couples, after the common involutions and evolutions, successively whirls round in a circle, till all are in motion; and the dance seems intended to show how emigration catches, till a whole neighbourhood is afloat.” 2 You alredy have Note 2 above. The Scottish emigration pattern in Canada was similar to that in the United States, with lowlanders tending to settle in towns and cities near the coast, while highlanders retreated into the more remote “back country.” This book is essential reading for anyone with Scottish ancestors who relocated to Canada in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

The second title is Ian Charles Cargill Graham’s Colonists from Scotland: Emigration to North America 1707-1783 (1956, repr. Clearfield, 2006). I have read this title so often that my paperback copy is falling apart. Graham very succinctly outlines several issues with regard to emigration: lowlands vs. highlands, compulsion (individuals forced to emigrate), and various aspects of social history. One important event impacting population growth is the fact that when British soldiers were discharged after such conflicts as the French and Indian War, they often did not return to Scotland, but instead stayed on–a significant proportion of them from the Black Watch (the 42nd – otherwise known as famous “forty and twa”), the Fraser’s, and Montgomery’s Highlanders regiments.  The strong ties of kinship and friendship that existed between these ex-soldiers and their friends and relations at home would draw many others to make the voyage, joining in the “dance called America.” Graham’s book includes an extensive bibliography listing important document collections, newspapers, periodicals, and other materials, both primary and secondary. [For further information on the soldiers who remained in North America, read John Kitzmiller’s In Search of the Forlorn Hope: A Comprehensive Guide to Locating British Regiments and Their Records (1640 to WWI) 2 vol. (Manuscript Pub. Fndn., 1988).]

Once I have read some of the available background material, my next task is to consult resources that discuss methodology and specific resources. Two comprehensive titles include Sherry Irvine and Dave Obee’s Finding Your Canadian Ancestors, a Beginner’s Guide (Ancestry, 2007) and Angus Baxter’s In Search of Your Canadian Roots: Tracing Your Family Tree in Canada (3rd ed., Genealogical Publishing Co., 2008). The former title discusses various types of records in general (immigration, census, vital, cemetery, probate, military, land, and newspapers) and then review the records for specific provinces. The chapter on Ontario provides a map and brief history, and then discusses how to find localities, censuses, civil registration, church registers, etc. Illustrations of records are included, as well as a list of websites, a bibliography, and addresses of a variety of research institutions and record repositories. The Baxter book begins with a discussion of several migrations (Scots, Irish, German, Huguenot, United Empire Loyalist, Ukrainian, and Jewish, etc.), followed by a look at various record collections, including those at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and the National Archives of Canada, as well as specific record types, such as censuses, church records, and coats of arms. Succeeding chapters discuss record research in each of the provinces.

Other useful resource and methodology titles include Althea Douglas’ Here Be Dragons! Navigating the Hazards Found in Canadian Family Research: A Guide to Genealogists with Some Uncommon Useful Knowledge (Ontario Genealogical Society, 1996) and its sequel, Here Be Dragons, Too! More Navigational Hazards for the Canadian Family Researcher (Ontario Genealogical Society, 2000). In addition, a review of Canadian resource links on Cyndi’s List will help identify many useful articles.

Now armed with background historical and genealogical information, as well as a working understanding of the methodology and resources necessary to conduct successful Canadian genealogical research, it is finally time to begin working on a research objective (to say “research problem” suggests that we’re doomed from the beginning!).

Several print compilations are available including two series by Terrence M. Punch, the three-volume Some Early Scots in Maritime Canada (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2011), and the four-volume Erin’s  Sons: Irish Arrivals in Atlantic Canada, 1761-1853, as well as Donald Whyte’s A Dictionary of Scottish Emigrants to Canada Before Confederation (Ontario Genealogical Society, 1986).

As always, those individuals searching for records online will want to review collections and databases available at and FamilySearch. Sites include the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) which, among many other record collections, provides online access to databases for the Canadian censuses for 1851 (Canada East, Canada West, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia), 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901, the Northwest Provinces (1906), 1911, and the Prairie Provinces in 1916. The LAC also has launched its own YouTube channel, with fourteen videos currently available. A site particularly rich in census information is providing links to Canadian census indices and records, as well as provincial census records (Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec, with Nova Scotia available “soon”). A useful list of related links is provided including the Canadian Geographical Names database, Post Offices and Postmasters database, the Canadian Encyclopedia Online, and the Canadian Genealogy Centre. An interesting site is Home Children (1869-1930). During the time period covered by this site, over 100,000 orphaned, abandoned, and pauper children were sent to Canada from Great Britain, ostensibly to offer them a better life. On arrival, they were sent to temporary homes and then to work on area farms. The information on this site represents a continuing project that may help you solve more modern research problems. To date over 96,597 names from passenger lists, 10,678 names from Boards of Guardians records, as well as 11,241 names from other records, have been made available.

Finally, a useful source to consult on a regular basis is GenealogyinTime Magazine’s free weekly online newsletter which provides regularly updated lists of recent genealogy records by country. The most recent list of new Canadian records is forty-two pages long with descriptions, sample images, and links to pertinent sites. Included in the list are announcements concerning the release of the LAC’s indexed version of the 1911 census; about the Ontario Genealogical Society’s Ontario Name Index, now with one million names in its database; FamilySearch’s addition of an additional 750,000 Quebec notary records;’s addition of Canadian voter lists from 1935 to 1980 (89 million records), and border crossings from 1895-1954 (4.8 million records); and the LAC’s addition of 73,000 images from the War of 1812. You won’t want to miss this newsletter!

Canadian research is rich with resources. Learn more about our giant neighbor to the north and discover if your family might have a Canadian connection.



1 James Hunter, A Dance Called America: the Scottish Highlands, the United States and Canada (Edinburg: Mainstream, 2010), frontispiece.

2 Lovell’s Gazetteer of British North America1873 (Milton, Ont.: Global Heritage Press, 1999), 114-115.


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