1853 map of Canadian Maritime Provinces

New England and Canada’s Maritime Provinces: Differences in Record Keeping, II

Editor’s Note: This post is by Dr. Terrence M. Punch, CM FRSAI, FIGRS, CG(C), the leading authority on immigration into Canada’s Maritime Provinces. In this two-part article, 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. Part I of this article, originally published in last week’s “Genealogy Pointers” and here on this blog, concerned the differences between New England and Maritime census and citizenship records. Persons with Scottish or Irish ancestry should refer to the linked notes following this article for more information about possible family connections in the Maritimes.

A reminder from last week: There are four potential stumbling blocks when working with Canadian Maritime records. To reiterate them briefly (points one and two are in last week’s post): 1. Canada has no federal records prior to 1867. 2. Different citizenship – British subjects going and coming until 1947. 3. Canada has a different pattern of governance. 4. Canada is affected by a lack of/incomplete records.


Maritime Provinces – a Different Path to Governance


The third point is a different path of governance. Nova Scotia was founded as a royal province. Many of the thirteen colonies had been established by corporations, such as Virginia; by proprietary grants, as were Pennsylvania or Maryland; or by religious groups such as Plymouth Bay or Rhode Island. In Nova Scotia’s case there was no lord proprietor, nor a tradition of townships which elected their own officials and largely governed their local affairs. Control was vested in a governor and council appointed by the mother country. This model continued until the attainment of responsible government in 1848.

In 1759 Nova Scotia’s mainland was divided into five original counties: Halifax, Lunenburg, Annapolis, Kings and Cumberland, but merely for administrative convenience to permit the setting up of county land registries, probate courts and the appointment of local petty officials. Until the charter of Halifax as a city in 1841 there were no self­ governing municipalities in Nova Scotia, hence there isn’t much to seek in terms of local governmental records prior to the 1840s. New Brunswick was part of Nova Scotia until 1784.

Nova Scotia and New Brunswick did indeed have townships, mainly in areas settled by New Englanders in the 1760s and 70s. There survive a number of useful township books, in which at least the births and marriages of the proprietary or shareholding families were recorded, along with such information as the earmarks of cattle and the like. Some books were well kept while others were not, or have been lost.

If you seek the sort of records possessed by many a town clerk in New England, you will be disappointed in the Maritimes. The governing establishment made sure that the townships enjoyed little self-government in any of the ways that mattered. Democracy in the political sphere was as dreaded as enthusiasm in the religious.

A major consequence of this record deficit has been to render church registers of much greater significance to genealogical researchers. The best served communities in this respect are Halifax and Lunenburg. In both cases, some church registers go back to the first settlement in the mid-eighteenth century. Apart from some Acadian French registers, fewer than a dozen church books predate the coming of the Loyalists in the 1780s. Speaking generally, Anglican/Episcopalian records are the oldest we possess. Since people availed themselves of the services of the only church around, the Anglican records frequently registered the baptism of children to parents who were any of several other Christian denominations (more information about these records here). Congregationalism was largely supplanted after 1783 by the rise of Baptist and Methodist churches in the region. Presbyterianism prevailed in some areas like a Scottish settlement, while Lutheranism was strongest in Lunenburg County, Nova Scotia, settled by Germans. Substantial Roman Catholic congregations existed in wherever there were Acadian or southern Irish populations.


Scarce Records


The fourth and last consideration to remember is the fact that Maritime records are a challenge to the researcher who seeks to find a wide variety of records upon which to draw for genealogical evidence. As already mentioned, the records of naturalization are scanty, passenger lists are scarce, and until quite recent times, the conservation of records was primitive, resulting in the destruction by mold, carelessness and abuse of a great part of the written heritage.

There is little sustained and dependable funding for historic matters. What is done tends to be piecemeal or directed towards one-shot projects rather than to the more mundane, but far more important, goal of finding, conserving and general preservation of records. Private individuals and small local societies have performed yeoman service in this field. Without those loyal volunteers and the professional staff of the Archives, the situation would be much worse. As matters stand, the researcher must use his or her ingenuity to sniff out documentation of use in the quest.

Notes and Tips for Those of Irish or Scottish Ancestry

For a list of early church registers held at the Nova Scotia Archives, see Terrence M. Punch, Genealogical Research in Nova Scotia, new revised edition (Halifax: Nimbus Publishing Limited, 1998), pp. 70-82.

Terrence M. Punch is the author of rich collections of source records: Erin’s Sons: Irish Arrivals in Atlantic Canada, Vols. I, II, III, & IV (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2008 – 2010), and Some Early Scots in Maritime Canada, Vols. I, II, & III (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2011-2012).

Image Credit: By Creator, Israel de Wolf Andrews [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons


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