Scots in Canada: The Gilchrist-Shearer Letters

The Scottish people have a long history of migration and as a result many Canadians have Scottish roots.

I think there’s a tendency to lump all 18th and 19th century immigrants to Canada and the United States together and think of them as poor, desperate, unskilled workers, in some cases the victims of industrialisation, crop failure, land clearances, etc., and who by leaving for a new country would be abandoning everything and everyone they once knew, never to be heard from again. Continue reading

Viewing Canada Live & Online, Pt. 3 — Ontario

Viewing Canada Live & Online, Pt. 3 — Ontario

Parliament Hill, Ottawa

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There has been a webcam aimed at Parliament Hill since 1995 (Find out more in this article from the CBC)! This webcam, mounted on the Birks Building on Sparks Street in Ottawa, shows views of Centre Block, the impressive Peace Tower, and the Centennial Flame (at the centre bottom of the screen) in the grounds of the Parliament Buildings. The flame has been burning since Centennial Year (1967).

The webcam requires refreshing of the page, but it’s a great view of the beautiful building that was rebuilt in 1917 following a massive fire. Continue reading

The Struggles of Searching for Loyalist Records

The Struggles of Searching for Loyalist Records

Recently I’ve been looking into some Loyalist records from early Canada. Thanks to government-funded digitisation programmes such as Héritage and the work of Library and Archives Canada, many sets of records once only available in the British Library or on 1960s-era microfilm at select national libraries are now online and free to access.

The digitised, handwritten documents found in such collections as the Upper Canada Land Petitions and the Haldimand Papers (two sets I’ve used quite a bit) also serve as excellent reminders that just because a source has been put up online does not mean that it will be easy to search through, read, or use. Even databases with an integrated online search application can give difficult or incomplete results due to many different factors. First, searches are often limited to name and location: content or subject is left out. This is promising for family history and genealogy research, but what if I want to know about early settlers to a specific region or find examples of cultural interactions between different groups? I’d have to go through page by page. The search engine (and, in some ways, the presentation of the collection) has therefore been aimed at genealogists rather than historians.

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Excerpt from the Petition of Jacob Anguish to Lieut. Col. Peyster of Niagara, dated 4 August 1784. The Haldimand Papers, H-1448, 399 (pp. 419-21), Images 335-7.

The search results may also be affected by the quality of penmanship and the skill of the archivist. Unlike many contemporary online databases of digitised, type-written documents, these records can not be searched automatically for a certain word using a browser’s find function. Any search results have to have been inputted by someone and this leaves room for errors and omissions (not that computerised searches are infallible!). Documents may have been misread or key elements, such as names, may be simply illegible.

Finally, these collections have been digitised as complete microfilm reels, not volumes, meaning that it is the format and limitations of film and the archival practices of the 1960s that is being reproduced online. As a result, search results include information meant for archivists and not the general user, online researcher, or family historian. In fact, the search applications and their results page are regularly not linked to the digitised copy of the source, or even to the online database as a whole.

For example, you can search the Land Petitions for Upper Canada by first and last name and/or place here at Library and Archives Canada, but the actual digitised documents are in LAC’s archived pages here. This can lead to hours of hunting online for the right database and then the page of the right volume that matches the specific details listed in what was originally a simple search. There are also cases in which only some of the records revealed in the online search have been digitised. You may still need to venture to a national library or the British Library to see the contents of the document. This can be very frustrating.

However, the hunt can be well worth it. A while back I was looking into some of the Loyalists in my own family history and starting to dig through the Haldimand Papers. Unlike the Land Petitions for Upper Canada 1763-1865 and the Land Boards of Upper Canada 1765-1804, the Haldimand Papers do not have an online search page for names or places mentioned within the text. I had thankfully come across the details of record for one of my ancestors in the published work of another researcher. It still took me almost an hour to track down the correct pages in the records, but it was great to finally find Jacob Anguish, my 6x great-grandfather, in the Haldimand Papers. I’ll write more about Jacob’s story in my next post.

There is so much potential in these documents that has been left hidden by the partial or total absence of digitised finding aids, the decision to present them as microfilm reels rather than as the original volumes of records, the lack of additional metadata, and the focus on creating finding tools for family historians who are familiar with the archives in question and not researchers with broader interests (as evidenced by the prominent genealogy banner on Héritage’s homepage and the inclusion of ‘Genealogy and Family History‘ as the very first link on Library and Archive Canada’s homepage‘s list of Popular Topics).

I think that these databases are wonderful resources for family history researchers and historians alike; their organisation and search functions could go a long way towards making the digitised documents and collections more accessible and useful for everyone.

Sources 101: The Canadian County Atlas Digital Project

Sources 101: The Canadian County Atlas Digital Project

This post is the first in what we plan to be an on-going series on sources for primary source research on the web. I’ve decided to begin with a favourite of mine, and also one of the more difficult to navigate: The Canadian County Atlas Digital Project.

History:

Between 1998 and 2001, 43 county atlases were digitised by researchers, librarians, curators, and students at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. They digitised the pages of atlases found in McGill’s Rare Books and Special Collections and recorded the names and properties on the atlases in a simple, searchable online database.

What you’ll find:

The database contains scanned copies of the atlases as well as the names of individual land and business owners. It also provides a brief overview of the origins of the atlases and title page information for every atlas included in the project.

How to use it:

I found it somewhat challenging to navigate the website and discover the full extent of the information contained within the database. The Home Page, In Search of Your Canadian Past: The Canadian County Atlas Digital Project, gives your four options to choose from: Project Overview (background information on the origins and methodology of the digitisation project); County Atlases (information on the creation of the 19th century atlases); Search; and Project Credits (a list of the people involved in making the database).

Search gives you two main options: People and Maps. It also includes two new options not found on the home page: FAQ and Abbreviations (useful for interpreting the search results). By clicking on People, you can search by one or more of the following terms: Last Name, County, Township, Town, Birthplace, and Occupation, and whether to restrict your results to an exact match for the last name and to only results with an attached image. By clicking on Maps, you are taken to an interactive map of southern and central Ontario. Click on a county to bring up an interactive map of the county, in which you can find more details maps of individual townships, or choose from a drop-down list of counties, townships, and towns.

Research potential:

The Canadian County Atlas Digital Project is an excellent resource for individuals interested in researching their family history. If you had a male land-owning ancestor living in Ontario between 1874 and 1881, it is worth making a quick search of their last name to see if they are on there. Prominent individuals also paid to have biographical information, business information, and portraits of themselves or their homes included in the atlas, and so it could also provide information on prominent individuals in their communities. The descendants of Loyalists (of particular interest to those of conducting research on British and American colonial history!) can also be found throughout the atlases.

Reflections:

The database clearly shows its age, but the information and images contained within make it worth struggling with the minimal options, buttons, and lack of menus. The search function is fairly straightforward and gives you detailed information (where possible) and results that link directly to a close-up image of their property on the relevant page of the atlas, as well as a zoomed-out image in which to situate the search results.