Canadian Maritime Provinces and New England: Differences in Record Keeping, I


Editor’s Note: Terrence Punch is the leading authority on immigration into Canada’s Maritime Provinces. In this two-part article (part I published below) Dr. Punch explains the differences in record keeping between the New England states/colonies and the neighboring Maritimes, which some future New Englanders used as a stopping-off point. Persons with Scottish or Irish ancestry should refer to the link in Footnote #4 for more information about possible family connections in the Maritimes themselves. This post was written by Dr. Terrence M. Punch, CM, FRSAI, FIGRS, CG(C).

From the perspective of most of North America, the New England states and the Canadian Maritime provinces are near neighbors, sharing many cultural and genealogical similarities. Yet, an international border separates them and the story of their settlement and record keeping reveals some differences that affect genealogical research. Let’s look at four of these potential stumbling blocks.

The first thing to remember is that the Maritimes were not part of Canada until 1867 or afterwards, which means that there are no records at the federal level until then. This gives Americans about a 90-year head start. The second point to keep in mind is that people born in the Maritimes or coming there from the British Isles before 1947 were British subjects when they sailed from Britain and remained so over here. The third thing to remember is that the pattern of government evolved quite differently. A fourth matter to recognize is that record keeping was not very assiduously carried out here and that, when records were created, they were not always preserved for posterity. Each of these facts impinges on what records were required, and therefore, exist to be utilized by researchers now.

These facts are so important that we should reiterate them briefly: 1. We have no federal records prior to 1867. 2. British subjects going and coming until 1947. 3. We have a different pattern of governance. 4. Incomplete records.

Absence of Canadian Federal Records

In the absence of the many federal records which are familiar in the USA, this means that there exist no national census records for Canada until 1871. Those in the States began in 1790. That means that you must look for census records created on the local or provincial level before 1867. There are bits and pieces of population reports, but there are few surviving province-wide records before Confederation. Prior to that date there were census surveys made in the 1770s for a few areas of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. An incomplete 1798 census of Prince Edward Island was published as an appendix to an out of-print history of the island.1 For Nova Scotia, one or two counties survive from the 1817 census, a bit more of the 1827 census, and most of that made in 1838. Again the 1851 census survives for just three counties.2 You can take some comfort in the knowledge that at least one census exists for each area of the province before 1860. New Brunswick did a nominal census–the first in the region–in 1851, but parts of that are lost.

There are also the lists of parishioners prepared by Abbe Sigogne in Digby and Yarmouth counties at various times between 1816 and 1844. Another census substitute is the poll tax lists compiled between 1791 and 1795 in Nova Scotia. These at least tell the names of men over the age of 21 in each district.

Canada’s founding document, the British North America Act, mandated that a nominal census be taken in 1871 and every tenth year thereafter. Those for 1871, 1881, and 1891 are available online at the Library and Archives Canada. The returns for 1901 and 1911 are also online. The transcriptions for all of these offer the option of viewing the digitized originals as well. The 1921 census has been released but in general can be viewed only at pay sites. Given the sloppy spelling, poor penmanship, and sometimes the quirks of the individual census taker, not to mention the illiteracy of many people in the earlier census periods, it is prudent, indeed necessary, to track a family through several decades of returns to ensure greater accuracy.

For the diligent seeker, there is recourse to petitions to the Legislature for various purposes. People sought funds for schools, roads, churches, lighthouses, and a dozen other reasons, and these are well worth the search. A road petition would have been supported by virtually an entire community and thus serves as a kind of census substitute. The heyday of this sort of petition was between 1802 and 1860, although these dates are by no means exclusive. The Archives hold some polling and voters lists which can be used for much the same purpose of standing in for a population return when no other exists.

Citizenship – Complicated by British Roots

An area where the difference between our two countries is most apparent is records concerning citizenship. Following its independence, the United States expected its residents to be or to become American citizens. In the Maritimes the issue did not arise until the late 1940s, except in two or three unusual circumstances. There was not the same emphasis upon a formal process of naturalization of foreign citizens, mainly because people from what is now the United States were considered to be already British subjects until 1790. The same was true for immigrants from the British Isles down to the twentieth century. The English, Scottish, and Welsh war brides after two world wars partook of the same British citizenship as native-born Canadians until the passage of the Canadian Citizenship Act in June 1946, effective 1 January 1947. People born in Canada were transformed from British subjects into Canadian citizens that New Year’s Day.

As a consequence, the only naturalizations that took place were those of some of the “Foreign Protestants” who wished to vote in the earliest elections for the House of Assembly3. Whereas many among the multitudes of Irish, German, and British immigrants who settled in the United States followed the process: declaration of intent, petition, oath of allegiance, and final papers, such was not the case here. Consequently, there will be no helpful paper trail of this kind.

In practical terms for researchers, the different legal requirement affected our record keeping in another major way. Little care was given towards keeping track of the passengers on the hundreds of vessels that disembarked emigrants prior to Confederation. By consulting publications such as my Irish and Scottish seriesand other books, you will see at once that it is necessary to comb dozens of assorted types of records to find even a few indications of who came in which ship or even when they arrived here. Bureaucracy here had so cavalier an attitude in this respect that they seldom made lists, and usually when they bothered at all, they saw no reason to preserve them.

A substantial portion of the Scottish Highlanders were put ashore at remote points along the coast by skippers who wished to avoid regulations and customs officers. A considerable part of the Irish arrivals before 1820 simply crossed over in coastal vessels from the Newfoundland fishery and carried on as before in their new location. Passenger lists survive for no more than 5% of the Scottish and about 8% of the Irish immigrants to the region before Confederation.

Part II will be available next week. Please follow this blog, sign up for the Genealogy Pointers newsletter (on the sidebar), or visit us again next week.

1. Duncan Campbell, History of Prince Edward Island (Charlottetown: Bremner Brothers, 1875), pp. 207-224.

2. For details consult Genealogist’s Handbook for Atlantic Canada Research, Terrence M. Punch and George F. Sanborn, Jr., eds., 2nd edition (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1997), pp. 78-80.

3. See Kenneth S. Paulsen, “The Provincial Election of 1758: The First Vote in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia,” The New England Historic Genealogical Register, ClVI (2002), pp. 159-164, and Terrence M. Punch,” Naturalizations of Foreign Protestants, Nova Scotia, 1758,” The Nova Scotia Genealogist, XXI (2003), pp. 61-66 . For a wider listing see Lloyd deWitt Bockstruck’s Denizations and Naturalizations in the British Colonies in America, 1607-1775 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 2005). www.genealogical.com.

4. Terrence M. Punch, Erin’s Sons: Irish Arrivals in Atlantic Canada, Vols. I-IV (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2008-2010), and Some Early Scots in Maritime Canada, Vols. 1-111 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2011-2012).

Image Credit: Rigobert Bonne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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