Reference Centre, Genealogy 101

History and the effect on Family Research

Many neophytes question the necessity of knowing the background of their ancestor's native country as it existed contemporary with that ancestor's life.On the other hand, those who discern the importance of that knowledge frequently question the necessity of knowing the political events that took place in an ancestor's country after that individual emigrated or died.

Making sense of your ancestors' lives does require you to know something of the time in which they lived - to know the historical circumstances enveloping your ancestors and directing just about every aspect of their daily lives.  The history of a place and time consists of the following segments of life:

  • P olitics
  • E conomics
  • R eligion
  • S ociety
  • I ntellectual development
  • G eographical influences

To the first group, the issue is one of determining an ancestor's mode of life within the context of their environment and the resources in which ancestral information may be found.  For example, the laws affecting heritable property differed from country to country and in some countries differing regional statutes determined issues of heritability and succession.

For example, although the majority of real property in England, in the absence of a Will, passed by rules of primogeniture to the eldest son, there was in force in Kent inheritance by gavelkind.  Pursuant to gavelkind the real property of an individual who died intestate was divided equally among all of that individual's sons.  Failing any surviving male issue the property was divided equally among the deceased's daughters.  A Will was the only instrument that could alter inheritance succession under gavelkind.  Under a gavelkind inheritance system the value of an estate erodes with each succeeding generation as a parcel of property is subdivided over and over through each succeeding generation.  Many individuals were concerned about maintaining the integrity of the value of the family estate and so prepared Wills calling for a different distribution of their estate among family members.  Consequently, those searching for ancestors who lived in Kent, England have a greater likelihood of locating a Will for even the most modest of ancestors than those seeking ancestors in other areas of England.

Scotland possesses a completely unique system of real property inheritance that restricts inheritance of land by Will.  Unless one's Scottish ancestors died possessed of a significant amount of moveable property such as livestock, investments, household items, trade or farming tools and such like, that ancestor is likely to have died intestate - without having made a Will.

Thus, we have two different examples of two segments of history - politics, in the form of legislation, and economics, in relation to the wealth possessed by an ancestor. As you can see, just these two segments of history directly determines the likelihood of certain records having been created by an ancestor.

To the second group the issues are those of access to and availability of records.  At the time of political restructuring a country's records were moved to new archives or deposited for the first time in archives associated with the old order.  The access issue will be of particular relevance to those researching ancestry in east European countries wherein political boundaries and infrastructures underwent frequent and often radical changes.  Areas of what is currently known as the Ukraine have been at various points in history Poland, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany, Romania, and the U.S.S.R..  In 1795 Poland ceased to exist as an independent country until its reconstitution in 1945.  Germany was, immediately prior to the Napoleonic conquest, a region comprised of more than 300 independent sovereign or semi-sovereign principalities.  After 1806 Napolean was successful in reorganizing and consolidating those principalities into approximately thirty states.  Prussia was not added to the Reich until after October, 1806.  Germany, as a whole, became united during 1875 but was divided again subsequent to World War II with areas partitioned to Denmark, Poland, and the U.S.S.R..

For more examples of the impact of politics on an ancestor's life consider the following:  England's Civil War and Interregnum periods saw new laws and procedures put in place that affected the keeping, recording in and storage of church registers.  Civil wars in Spain and Ireland gave rise to large scale destruction of many important resources.  Civil wars in any country have not only contributed to the loss of many records but have also precipitated radical changes to a country's political environment.  The cultural environment can also directly impact on an ancestral search.  The seigneurial land tenure system employed in Nouvelle France, although a tool through which political aspirations were advanced, was a cultural condition.  That cultural environment determined where the British were to settle in New France (Lower Canada).  Having enjoyed for several centuries the privilege of owning land by way of free and common soccage the British upon their arrival in Lower Canada were unwilling to settle on seigneurial lands.  In order to continue the long-standing right of owning land free of the constraints of tenure the British established their settlements on unoccupied land lying along the western limits of the seigneurial lands.  British settlers continued to populate the western regions and gave rise to the British-dominated Quebec counties of Huntingdon and Argenteuil.

To conduct successful research in any country one needs to have a clear understanding of its political and cultural structures both historical and current.  One also needs to be aware of any changes to a country's political and cultural structures as those changes can determine the location of the archival storage of records as well as the accessibility and availability of those records.

There are six primary factors to be considered when researching an ancestor and it is well worth the researcher's time and effort to understand how each of those factors impacted on their ancestor's lives.  Those same factors have an effect today on the search for information relating to one's ancestors.


The politics, or more aptly, the government, of a country in which your ancestor lived had a wide-ranging influence on his or her life.  It is the governing body of a country that enacts the legislation that filters down to the common man through the laws of regional authorities.  The government regulates the growth or suppression of infrastructures such as transportation, sanitation, and social relief programs, which, in turn, affect the economic growth and stability of a region.  Religious freedom, or persecution, trade policies, foreign policies, education, the level of military reserves, the civil and criminal laws and justice system, and the freedom of speech and communications are all within the domain of government.  Many times throughout history the common man has served as a pawn in the machinations of political wrangling.  Even the relationship between differing races in a country have, in the past, been controlled by statute sometimes with despicable or disastrous consequences.  Consider the slavery practices of Confederate America and the role it played in the outbreak of the American Civil War.

When considering the role of government in your ancestors' lives ask questions along the following lines:

caution sign for education Was education only open to some or to everyone?  Aside from fees, what were the criteria by which one was permitted an education?  Were there religious bars to education?
caution sign for religion Was church attendance or the adherence to a particular religious faith required by law?   What were the consequences, if any, of non-attendance?
caution sign for taxes In times of foreign conflicts were taxes raised to pay for military defences?  Were certain classes of the population exempt from taxation?
caution sign for court system What was considered a crime either of a civil or criminal nature?   How was the justice system arranged?   Was justice dispensed through a singular or multi-tiered system of courts?   Where were the courts located relative to your ancestor's abode?
caution sign for employment issues What everyday and or employment activities required a license?   Through what agency would such a license be granted?   Under what circumstances could an issuing agency revoke a license?
caution sign for newspapers Were newspapers in existence? Were there any regulations restricting content?
caution sign for pension system Was there a national old age security system in place?   Was there some other pension or disability schemes regulated by the governing body of a labour or trade organization?   Was there a pension available to retired or injured military personnel or civil servants?
caution sign for compulsory military service Was military service compulsory for all males, as was the case in Austria from the age of 16 years, and Italy from the age of 18 years?
caution sign for supply of goods In what manner was the supply of goods and/or services regulated?

During the 1800s a great dispute arose between farriers and the higher educated veterinarian physicians.  Until that time, farriers in England had performed the tasks commonly associated with all aspects of animal husbandry including that of surgery on livestock.  A great political struggle ensued between the two factions with the eventual victory of the veterinary surgeons.  Farriers not only lost a lucrative avenue of revenue, but saw the eventual erosion of the social status of their occupation.

caution sign for civil liberties Was attainder operable in the country you are searching?  Attainder, a legal term used to describe a State's right to seize the personal and real property of outlawed persons, those sentenced to death and some religious groups.  The rights of the State under Attainder included the right to strip such persons of all civil liberties and the right to obstruct the inheritance by heirs of any property owned by such a person.
caution sign for attainder Could your ancestor have been directly affected by attainder either as principal, heir or benefactor?
caution sign for political structure Was the ancestor's native country a democracy, monarchy, or dictatorship?
caution sign for change of political structure Did that political structure change during or after an ancestor's life?
caution sign for record access How did such a change affect the daily life of an ancestor and how do those changes affect the accessibility and availability of records today?

Consider English supremacy in Northern Ireland, the consequences of which were felt as early as 1922 and are still a violently contested issue today.

caution sign for emigration Did the political climate of an ancestor's country prompt him or her to emigrate?
caution sign for migration Was it the only move made?

These are only a few of the types of probing questions that will serve the ancestor seeker.  Establishing the political climate in which an ancestor resided will help the family historian assess what types of records would be required to discover more of an ancestor's life.  Both the historical and current political atmospheres will help guide the family historian to the archival location, accessibility, and availability of records.


The economic condition of the ancestor's environment impacted on his or her life in many ways, some obvious, some insidious.  Those with even moderate wealth were able to move about more freely within their country, lived well, and had access to more and better quality food, better living accommodations, and to consistent medical care.  Because of these benefits their health was often better and infant survival rates were generally higher.  Those people were better able to insulate themselves from the ravages of medical epidemics than those of the labouring class.  Ancestors with the privilege of wealth were better educated than the mass populace.  In turn, more opportunities for employment were available to them.

The economic status of a country directly affected our ancestors.  Widespread crop failures have forced emigration and migration enmasse such as that which occurred during the Irish potato famines.  At one point in time the English linen and woollen workers suffered terribly as cheaper products became more readily available from Europe.  To counteract the erosion of those industries within England, legislations were enacted requiring all people to be buried wrapped in either woollen or linen shrouds, dependent upon the era.  To do otherwise, a deceased's family was heavily taxed.  Transportation of convicts out of Great Britain became the convention as jails and local resources reached maximum capacity.  The economy of France was the motivating factor behind the Peasants' Revolt of 1788.

The less economically privileged suffered from higher infant mortality rates.  Their movements were more closely controlled and they were more likely to succumb during medical epidemics.  Those individuals lived in small crowded houses and had to contend with drafts, damp, and cold during winters.  Children were pulled out of school at a young age and put out to work to help support the family.  Some children were given to childless relatives to raise while others were put out as apprentices.  Each of those tactics was used to reduce the number of mouths to feed and bodies to clothe.  Farm labourers and certain skilled tradesmen were forced to move frequently to find employment.

Those on the lower end of the economic scale were also greatly affected by poor crop harvests and concomitant rises in food prices.  As industry and technology progressed many of the economically disadvantaged moved into large towns to take work in new factories.  Many young women of this economic class who may have been widowed with young children to feed tended to remarry quickly or were forced to take up residence in the local workhouse Thus we have ancestors of an economic class for which different types of documentation need to be researched e.g. Poor law records, church welfare records, apprenticeships and other employment indentures, records that were created to monitor or limit migration, and documents of State, Church and private emigration schemes.  Sub-tenants of landed estates will appear in records created and maintained by the estate lord.

You will likely not locate an apprenticeship indenture for an ancestor of the more economically privileged class unless that ancestor stood as a master in an employment arrangement.  If a son was to learn the art or craft of the father no formal apprenticeship agreement was required.  Those of a higher economic standing are also more likely to be found in tax and voters poll lists, or listed in postal and commercial directories.  Ancestors of higher economic standing were also more likely to feel the effects of succession duties, downturns in the country's economy and be adversely affected by rising interest rates or restrictive trade policies.  Many times we hear of land owners having to sell off large tracts of land to pay the death duties imposed in Britain.  We have also heard stories of upper-crust families living too high and leaving the next generation penniless.  Ancestors of greater economic status were more likely to own real property and other assets for which information can be sought in deeds, wills, and court records.  Tenants-in-chief of landed estates will appear in State or Crown records.  These ancestors are also more likely to be found in tax lists, assessment records, and school records.

A researcher should carefully consider the economic status of his or her ancestors as well as the economic stability of the region in which those ancestors lived.  One can see from this short examination of economics that the financial status of an individual and the economic atmosphere of a region will largely determine the appropriate research tools to be employed in a search.  Ask yourself these questions:

caution sign for ease of migration How easy was it for my ancestor to change his residence?  Was there a form of internal passport or settlement requirements?
caution sign for economic class Was my ancestor of the wealthier or more economically stable class?  Are tax lists, voters' poll lists available?  Are there directories available for the area? Are Wills, Deeds and other land records available?
caution sign for ease of trade Would my ancestor have been directly affected by events such as crop failures, an influx of cheaper imported goods, and mechanical or technological advances?  If so, in what manner would such changes have affected him or her?  What research resources are available that relate to those types of events?
caution sign for occupation Was my ancestor a tradesman?  If so, are there guild or apprenticeship records that I could access?
caution sign for regional economy Was the regional economy stable enough to support many individuals following the same trade?
caution sign for skilled trade Was my ancestor in a trade that may have necessitated migration to different areas of his country, such as stone mason, railway, road, and canal construction?  If so, what areas of his country were undergoing growth that may have required his skills?


We have touched on various aspects of religious history throughout this course and briefly looked at the effects religion had on our ancestors' lives.  At this time, we need to revisit those earlier points and expand on potential consequences of our ancestors' religious persuasions.

The most notable ramification of religious faith is that which resulted in the suppression, fine, torture, and, in some instances, execution of people aligned with faiths other than that of a country's Established Church.  Throughout history wars have been instigated that had as their purpose the expansion or defence of the religious beliefs of one group of people over another.  To understand the violent aspects of religious history and the impact that that history had on our ancestors one has to consider the responsibilities of the Church during the Middle Ages.  As ex officio State head, the Church reigned supreme over our ancestors.  With few exceptions, the Church was charged with the responsibility of being not only the spiritual centre of their lives, but also the welfare agency, and tax collector.  As disputes grew among the general populace over the stringent control of the Church and its right to govern so closely the everyday activities of life, rebellion resulted.  The Thirty Years' War commencing 1618 began as a civil war between the Roman Catholic and Protestant followers in the German states.  The cause of that war centered around the violations of the Treaty of Ausburg (1555) committed by both factions.  That treaty had been intended to settle the various religious disputes throughout Germany.  Unfortunately, however, that Treaty gave recognition to those of the Catholic and Lutheran faiths but failed to provide equal status to the Calvinists, or Protestants.

The situation in Northern Ireland today although started as a civil dispute over the rights of the English to govern Ireland, has degenerated into a war largely delineated by religious faith - the Roman Catholic (Irish) versus the Protestants (English).  Although the right of rule of the English remains the primary objection one cannot help but notice the acute religious demarcation between the two factions.

Persecution and execution of people took place on a large scale throughout Europe eventually leading to the mass migrations of well-known groups such as the Hugenots of France, those from the Palatinates of Germany, and the "Mayflower" expedition.

In many countries the adherence to a non-conformist faith produced a bar of the right to education, voting, holding office and the curtailment of many other civil liberties.  To openly follow a non-conformist faith or meet for the purposes of spiritual nourishment lead ultimately to imprisonment, torture, or martyrdom of dissenters.

The country in which your ancestors resided and the canonical laws of that country respecting non-conformism will largely determine the success you will have in tracing your ancestors through church registers.  The countries that enjoyed religious freedom such as Switzerland, the U.S.A. and Canada will, where records survive, provide many opportunities for such a search.

Throughout Great Britain the only recognized Church before the Reformation was Roman Catholic.  Following the Reformation the individual countries of Great Britain established separate state churches.  Although Roman Catholicism remained operative after the Reformation, as with all other early dissenting religions, to openly follow the teachings of that religion brought many repercussions.  Consequently, the vast majority of the dissenting religions did not keep registers of births, marriages, or burials.  It was not until 1689 when the Act of Toleration was passed that everyone was granted the freedom to worship as they so desired.  Those rights did not extend to Roman Catholics until more than a century later.

The Second Catholic Relief Act was passed during 1791 and permitted the conduct of ceremonies within that Church.

Two aspects of religious life in England and Wales should be noted.  Firstly, the record keeping and ceremonies of the Quakers and Jews, were from the outset, regarded as sufficiently different and meticulous that Parliament never felt the need to abolish or regulate their activities.  Registers and numerous other meeting house records have survived from a very early period.  Secondly, as of January 1, 1754, the provisions of Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act were instituted requiring that everyone in England and Wales, with the exceptions of Quakers and Jews, marry in the Established Church.  Accordingly, from that time up to 1837 when marriage by magistrate was reinstated, even if an ancestor was a non-conformist his or her marriage was to take place in a parish church of the Church of England. Consequently, the marriage event will be recorded in a Church of England register.

A similar circumstance exists as regards the burial of a nonconformist ancestor.  Although burial in a Church of England burial ground was not mandatory, due to the ramifications of nonconformity, many dissenters were buried by the Church of England.  Again, the burial event will be recorded in a Church of England register.  There are notable exceptions and one will find major Roman Catholic and Independent burial grounds in and around London and in close proximity to other major urban centres.

A completely different circumstance that came into effect during 1783 will also affect the recordal of christenings and marriages in Church of England registers.  At that time a tax of three pence was imposed on all individuals who wished to marry or have children baptized.  The poorer economic class were not always able to meet that tax.  It is therefor not unusual to find christenings and even marriages delayed.  That tax was also payable on burial but was impossible to avoid.  You may discover that many children or infants are recorded in burial registers after 1783 with many hasty baptisms shortly before death as an individual could not be buried in consecrated ground if not baptized.  Some Roman Catholics were buried by the Church of England and the burials duly recorded in the registers.  However, those of Roman Catholic persuasion were buried in a remote corner of the cemetery.

In Scotland, the situation as regards non-conformity was somewhat different.  Presbyterianism became the established form of worship of the Church of Scotland following the Reformation.  The Roman Catholic faith never fell out of favour as it did in England and Wales.  In fact there were pockets of Scottish society that were never affected by the sweeping changes of the Reformation.  The people of the Hebrides, being geographically isolated from the mainland, never experienced a change in worship.  Conflicts and secessions arose from disputes over patronage appointments to parochial posts rather than the form of worship.  In Scotland, the right of individuals to marry by an irregular service, known as hand-festing, never called into question the validity of the marriage or the legitimacy of the children produced by such a union.  Rather, the ceremony itself was unlawful.  Accordingly, it is not unusual to find no record of marriage of some individuals.  The researcher must review kirk sessions books wherein there may be a record of the admonishments that were meted out to the couple for partaking in an irregular marriage.

The people of France were predominantly Roman Catholic.  There were also strong Lutheran and Calvinist followers.  Although those latter mentioned religions became active in France during 1525 and 1559, respectively, those faiths were not recognized as having any legal status until 1787.  Accordingly, prior to that time records of baptisms, marriage, and burials of dissenters will be found in Roman Catholic records.

Similarly, the Dutch Reformed Church of the Netherlands was the official State Church from 1588 to 1795.  Dissenters were relatively free to follow the faith of their choice.  However, all marriages had to be performed in the Established Church.

Throughout Denmark the State Church is Lutheran and most registers date back to 1645 with a few surviving to 1573.  Denmark recognized dissenting faiths at a very early stage.  Those so recognized and permitted to keep their own records were the Reformed French, Reformed German, Roman Catholic, Jews, and Methodists.  All other dissenting faiths were required to have events recorded in the registers of the Lutheran church.

In Austria, although the State Church was Roman Catholic and registers were required as early as 1523, very few survive prior to 1700.  The Protestant faith was recognized but their records were merged into the Roman Catholic registers between 1648 and 1849.  The Greek Orthodox Church was established in Austria during 1790.  Judiasm was the faith of a significant percentage of Austrians residing in and around Vienna.  After the Anschluss most all Jewish records were transferred to Germany and destroyed.

From the above brief examination of religion, one can readily understand that the religious faith of an ancestor will largely determine:

  • the likelihood of the existence of registers;
  • the availability and accessibility of such registers;
  • the likely conduct of a non-conformist ancestor; and,
  • the potential for discovering ancestral information in Church or State court records.

Social and Societal

The simplest method by which to present the influence of societal factors is to first enumerate some of the demographic arenas that operated in our ancestors' lives: customs, employment, religion, linguistics, and education.


One might wonder how the customs of one's ancestors can affect their family history research.  The first examples that spring to mind are the personal naming systems that have evolved through custom in various areas of the world.  Whether in Spain or in another country of Spanish origin anyone researching such ancestry needs to become immediately acquainted with the naming pattern in use.  Every individual carries two surnames following the given name.  The first of those surnames is the proper surname or familial surname.  The last appearing surname is that of the mother's father.  To illustrate: Julia Rivas Salvatierra was a child whose parents were Patricio Rivas Arguella and Seratina Salvatierra Serma.  As you can see the child's name was composed of Rivas from the father and Salvatierra from the mother which was also the surname of the mother's father.  In everyday conversation the individual would have been known and recorded as Rivas.  In other arenas of society the child would have been known and recorded as Salvatierra.  Any children of Julia Rivas Salvatierra will be recorded as

child's given name + husband's paternal surname + Rivas.

At that point in time the surname Salvatierra is removed from the all future descendants of the family.

An ancestor who resided in a Spanish country although not of Spanish origin will also be recorded according to the country's custom. For example this birth entry recorded 20 January 1860 in Rio San Juan, Nicaragua: Sidney Arthur Salter Short whose parents were Francis Salter and Nellie Catherine Short.  As one can surmise a great deal of confusion can be encountered and many mistakes made while tracing a Spanish lineage or attempting to find the birth, marriage or death of an ancestor who was residing in a Spanish country.

In Quebec, the surname of a woman at the time of her marriage does not become that of her husband.  Instead, all records of an event concerning the woman are recorded with her maiden surname.  Although this would seem to make research of Quebec or French records somewhat complex, in actuality, the genealogist is able to attain a certainty of the accuracy of their research not possible in other locales.  For example, determining which family on a census headed by Jacques and Marie Tremblay was that of an ancestor could be an almost futile task: Jacques, Marie, and Tremblay being names that are found with startling frequency in French records.  However, the researcher who must find a family on a census headed by a Jacques Tremblay and Marie Gauthier will have a much easier task to accomplish.

In England the first-born male child was customarily named after the paternal grandfather.  The first-born female child was named for the maternal grandmother.  The second-born male child was named for the maternal grandfather and the second-born female child was named after the paternal grandmother.  Alternatively, the names of the first-born male and female children were derived from the names of their own parents and children following were named according to the first pattern set forth.

Child naming practices in Scotland were the reverse of those in use in England.  The first-born male child was customarily named after the maternal grandfather.  The first-born female child was named for the paternal grandmother.  The second-born male child was named for the paternal grandfather and the second-born female child was named after the maternal grandmother.  Again, the names of the first-born male and female children may have been derived from the names of their own parents with children following who were named according to the first pattern set forth.

Then, of course, their are those families who seem to have no particular set naming pattern in use for the naming of their children.  Non-conformist families were sometimes noted by the abundance of biblical names used in naming their children.  Generally, however, always give special consideration to the names of the first four children born to a British couple.  Particular attention should be paid to any name used more than once in one generation.  These tiny clues will steer you on to the next earliest generation.

Patronymics is another naming system that was used throughout Scandinavia, Wales and Zetland, Scotland.  Patronymics are still in use today in Iceland.  The patronymic naming system, discussed in some detail in The I.G.I. DeMystified, is a custom and any researcher searching regions in which this system was used to construct surnames must have a fairly substantial knowledge of its finer workings.

There are a number of other customs that can aid the family historian in their search.  We have the custom of setting out guest books on special occasions - graduations, anniversaries, and at funerals.  All those who attend the occasion are invited to record their name and address.  To be sure, every person listed in a guest register falls into one of three categories - a relative, a friend, or a spouse of the people in either of the first two categories.  Guest registers for special events were also employed in bygone days.  Any such register can provide the researcher with many new leads to search.  It is also customary for our culture to publish announcements in local newspapers of family events - birth, death, or marriage.  Similar announcements have been published in some newspapers for several centuries.  Today Town and Country magazine publishes such announcements concerning the rich, but not necessarily, famous Americans.  Historically, Gentlemen's Magazine in England ran announcements concerning the families of the upper echelon.  In many countries it was customary for a family to publish specially designed funerary cards commemorating a deceased family member.  Many of those are still in existence and are in great demand by collectors.

In Germany and Switzerland it was customary for families to hire professional orators to deliver funeral sermons.  A great many of the sermons that were given in Germany have been preserved and are now catalogued for easy access.

There exists an abundance of influences arising from the customs at play during an ancestor's life.  Too many exist to give air to in this lesson.  However, one custom does beg explanation - that of ancestors repeatedly naming a child the same as a child who had died during infancy.

Many neophyte genealogists find this aspect of naming customs to be a great source of consternation.  In all cases any confusion stems from the researcher's lack of death or burial information pertaining to the earlier born child.  In the absence of an extreme mitigating circumstance, the child who was lastly christened will be the only surviving child of that name at that time, the previously born child or children bearing the same name having died.

The repetitive use of one name by an ancestor in naming his children is a clue of which the researcher should take special note.  Almost always that name will have belonged to a member of an earlier generation whom the immediate held in high regard.  The oft repeated name will have been the name of a parent, grandparent, in-law, brother, sister, uncle or aunt.


Today, we have a prime example of the effect of language on population distribution.  Examining the multi-cultural aspects of Canada one can readily see that Quebec is French speaking.  English speaking populations within Quebec are centralized in and around Montreal.  Even in a very narrow geographic area such as the Niagara Region we have areas that are predominantly French and Italian - Welland and Thorold, respectively.  Across Canada we can see similar distribution patterns.  In Manitoba and Saskatchewan we have very high populations of Ukrainians and Germans.  This is not to say that that is where every person who speaks a certain language or comes from a particular culture lives but at least it provides a starting point in a search.  As we can also see today every major metropolitan centre has its populations of Chinese, Portugese, East Indian, West Indian, German, French, Italian and so on.  Again, if my search lead me to such an area I would be interested in determining where in the city the highest concentrations of a specific language were located.  Having to read the entire 1901 Toronto census is a daunting prospect, but if the search can be narrowed to one or two specific starting locales the ancestor might be quickly located.

Historically, similar divisions occurred based on linguistics.  In some areas of England, although one may have been speaking English, the dialect was so heavy as to sound unintelligible to persons of other regions.  Gaelic was spoken almost exclusively in some areas of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland.  Consequently, the population of certain regions did not on average wander far from home.  Very little migration came out of Cornwall, except into Devon or farther afield only if there existed some pressing need such as employment.  Our ancestors were also accutely aware of such demographic differences and confined their movements to areas in which they could speak and be understood.

Research of eastern European countries offers similar linguistic-based challenges.  After many political metamorphoses groups speaking certain languages became isolated and created their own cultures.  As younger generations moved away from their native areas the ability to speak and read the language of their ancestors was lost.  Further, the names of towns, villages, and regions were stylized to reflect the language of any newly installed regime.  Alsace-Lorraine is also known, in German, as ElsaB-Lothringen.  Brzezany, Galizien, Austria was at one time Berezany, Tarnopol, Poland, and is now Berezhany, Ukraine.  Verona, Venedig, Austria is now Verona, Verona, Italy.  Kuttenberg, Bohmen, Austria is now Kutna Hora, Cechy, Czechoslovakia and Pardubitz of the same region is now Pardubice, Cechy.  The foregoing are just a few of the examples of challenges brought about through changes of linguistics.

Lastly, there is the effect of language and dialects on the records.  For example, the surname Monger in Kent, England appears in many different forms - Monger and Mungar being peculiar to the northeast and Maungar and Manger more readily found in the central weald and southeast.  Partly for the effects of language and dialect on the recording of information one cannot stubbornly refuse to examine records bearing atypical forms of one's surname.


Simply put, demographics is the distribution of certain classes of population within a geographical region.  A demographic group can be comprised of individuals bearing several seemingly unrelated characteristics - age, religion, education, disposable income, type of employment, and language spoken.  Without conscious manipulation on the part of an ancestor, your ancestor gravitated toward areas in which people of similar demographic elements lived.

Within the demographic measurement of employment, it is unlikely that you would find a coal miner in Surrey or anywhere south of the River Avon in England.  However, you would find tin and copper miners in abundance throughout the extreme southwest of England.  Kent, Sussex, Hereford and Worcestershire provide the best soil for the cultivation of hops, while the principal farming occupations of Wales and the Scottish Lowlands revolved around sheep.  Similarly, you are unlikely to find someone whose occupation was on the sea making their home in the interior regions of a country.  Mill labourers in England congregated in the great mill towns of the west and north.

In 1831 the most densely populated area was London, followed by Lancashire.  The areas with least population per square mile were central Wales, Westmoreland and the north riding of Yorkshire.  These last-mentioned areas remained the least populated through to 1891 while Surrey, Kent, Hertford, and Essex experienced a surge in population growth during that same interval.  Typically, older generations were less likely to leave their place of birth as were the people with families to support.  The greatest distance people of an advanced age moved was to the nearest major town where facilities and stores provided easy access to daily resources.

The religious faith one adhered to can also predetermine likely areas of a country in which an ancestor lived.  In England, those of the Jewish faith tended to prefer metropolitan areas - London, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and so on, more so for the fact that the populations of those centres was large enough to support their numerous business ventures.  As a secondary effect the population base of Jews and their disposable income was great enough to justify the construction of synagogues at those cities.  Germany is a good example of religious demographic divisions within a country.  In very broad terms, the people of Bavaria and the Rhineland are predominantly Catholic; Brandenburg is predominantly Lutheran; and Hesse is predominantly Protestant.  In countries such as Spain where the population was solely Catholic, religious demographics will not aid the researcher in narrowing the field of search.

Intellectual Development

The level of education of an individual is one of the greatest dividers of people next to economic station.  Regardless of the country in which your ancestor lived his or her level of education will largely determine the opportunities in life, the interrelationship between him or her and social contacts, and, ultimately, the types of records that would likely reveal information of that ancestor.

An ancestor's lack of education inevitably led to restrictive social and economic prospects and possibly into poverty or nefarious activities.  Conversely, the well educated are seldom to be found among records of the poor unless occupying the post of a master or overseer.  The higher the level of education, it seems, the less one was likely to consider the value of experience of the less educated.  Many times, in records one will find that an overzealous recorder insisted on people signing with a mark when, on other documents, even those of an earlier date, an ancestor has signed with a proper signature.  The higher educated also tended to congregate in larger towns and cities than those less fortunate.  The level of education of a recording official also played a major role in determining how the dialect of a region translated itself into the written form of a surname.


Towards the more complete understanding of an ancestor's life we lastly need to consider the geographical region in which our ancestors lived.  In this respect the ancestor hunter is not so much concerned with the physical features of an area as he is with the impact those features had on the day-to-day activities of the ancestor.  In the previous section of this chapter we were introduced to a sampling of the interplay between locale and on an ancestor's religious worship.  Now we will look at four branches of the science of geography that are the most pertinent in the research of ancestors:

1. Physiography, or the topography of land formations of regions.  This element directly determined mining, building, the location of railroads and highways and determined the viability of farming in certain regions.
2. Oceanography as that branch relates to the regularity and depth of tides and currents along coastal regions.  In this respect the viability of shipping and fishing along certain coastal regions is increased or decreased.  The types of fishing carried on were also predetermined by oceanic features.
3. The study of weather, winds and temperature of the meteorological branch of geography also directly affected the viability of farming, shipping, and transportation in general.
4. Climatology, or the study of average weather factors which may have played a key role in the location of farms, the types of crops grown, and the location of certain industries.

The physical features of a country or region will largely affect an ancestor's livelihood and opportunities for social contact outside of his or her native village.  The physical features one needs to become aware of are the location of deserts, lakes, mountains, ocean access, rivers, waterfalls, granite, chalk, clay, or fertile soils and whether your ancestor lived on an island or continent.  To gain a better understanding of the impact of geography in your search consider the following examples.

Australia, although a continent, was largely uninhabitable two centuries ago.  The interior of the western half of the country is desert.  The natives were hostile.  Due to these factors all settlement occurred first along the coastal regions.  Even today roadways in some regions are primitive and travel between remote towns is difficult.  In the north roadways are washed out during monsoon season and some towns and villages are left without contact with the outside world other than by shortwave radio and now, the Internet.  Up until this century the only way to reach Australia was by ocean vessel and consequently many large seaports and immigration ports were established.  The physical geography of and inaccessibility to Australia were the primary reasons that continent was chosen to house British prisoners.

Newfoundland experienced similar coastal settlement patterns.  In this case though the interior of Newfoundland is too mountainous and rugged to inhabit.  There still exist no roadways that circumnavigate the island.  Opportunities for contact with the outside world were minimal and were restricted to seasonal ferry services.  The only year-round ferry runs between North Sydney, Nova Scotia and Port-aux-Basques on the southwest tip of Newfoundland.  Consequently, up until the mid-20th century most villagers were born, married and died within the same village.  Any travel was more likely to occur along shipping routes than to the other side of the province.  The ferry service routes also became the migration corridors.  Thus, we find that many Newfoundland families have relations in Nova Scotia and vice versa.

Throughout history the coastal inhabitants of Newfoundland and elsewhere have been at the mercy of the tides and currents.  Many villages and churches, and with those the records and registers, have dropped into the sea.  Life in Dungeness located on the southeast coast of Kent, England has been affected in entirely the opposite manner.  Once a thriving seaport the village of Dungeness now stands inland due to a continual drop in the sea level.

The people of northern Italy also had their lives dramatically altered during the early nineteenth century.  In that instance, because of the geographic location of northern Italy the population suffered through many conflicts and saw the occupation of Spain, Austria, and France to varying degrees over many decades.  The availability and location of the records of people of that region require much investigation and patience on the part of the family historian.  Conversely, owed in part to its geographic isolation, Venice escaped most of the destruction of its buildings and records wrought on its northern neighbours during that same period.  Hence archival records dating back one thousand years can be found in the archives.

In Great Britain the occupations of ancestors were to some degree determined by geographic features.

The soil and meteorological conditions of some regions are conducive to the cultivation of specific crops while the farming of other regions is conducive only to animal husbandry.

Roadways existent since Roman times were extensive and travel was not particularly difficult or inconvenient.  The country also has an extensive system of canals throughout its interior.  Consequently, there were no real obstacles to industry in any part of the country or to migration of the populace.  Exceptions do apply to outlying islands.  Naturally, the earliest and greatest concentrations of population and industry were founded along major waterways.  London along the Thames, Bristol at the mouth of the Bristol Channel, and Manchester, although lying forty miles inland is situated on the Manchester Ship Canal, making it one of the chief ports of Great Britain.

Of course, these are very obvious examples of the effect of local geographic features.  The situation becomes less clear when considering employment opportunities not connected with the sea.  Consider the reasons for large cement production at Dartford-Gravesend in Kent, the pottery factories of Staffordshire, or the weaving industry of the Isle of Harris.  In each instance the industry of the area grew up around the availability and suitability of raw materials.

One area of the city of Wellington in Somerset, known as Rockwell Green, was exclusively populated by those employed in the weaving industry.  This is borne out by an examination of the 1851 census for that area.  One can presume, therefor, that if his or her ancestor lived at Rockwell that ancestor was not a farmer or coal miner.

One final point to be made concerning the geography of Britain and in particular in England and Wales is that of the location of parochial churches within each parish.  Notwithstanding that parishes were small in size the Church was seldom located at the heart of a parish.  If an ancestor was to attend his or her own parish church it quite often meant that he and his family had to travel several miles to attend service and the same distance to return home afterwards.  Accordingly, if you are searching in England or Wales note the location of each church in the adjacent parishes.  If one of those churches was closer to your ancestor's home it may well be that he or she attended the church of the neighbouring parish for convenience.

To summarize, the family researcher is well advised to investigate the geographical location of an ancestor's native town for a number of reasons:

  • the geography of the locale will largely determine the ancestor's type of employment and the ancestor's employment may determine his locale;
  • the type of employment of an ancestor will largely determine which classes of records in which an ancestor can be traced; and,
  • the geography of the locale will determine the extent of mobility an ancestor enjoyed and the direction in which an ancestor may have migrated.

There are two sources of records that are tied so closely to historical factors that those have been left unmentioned up to this time.  Those records were generated out of opposite ends of the economic and social scale.

Poor Relief

While we do not often wish to entertain the idea that our ancestors were among the destitute of their society, the sad fact remains that, at some point in their lives, at least one quarter of a population were forced to seek relief from their local charities.

Poverty of an individual or family arose primarily out of old age, ill health, unemployment, the loss of a breadwinner through desertion, imprisonment, or death.  Impoverishment instantly became the financial reality of children who were left orphaned and for many unwed mothers.  Mechanization of once labour-intensive occupations and technological advances in other fields created unforeseen job losses.  Rising populations and ever-increasing food prices placed a further burden on some ancestors.  Consider for a moment the lot of the agricultural workers.  During the second half of the eighteenth century machinery was developed that displaced the sowers and tillers.  Many such workers found themselves unemployed, literally, overnight.  Many of those individuals were not trained in any other skill, were of limited literacy, and generally had large families to support.  In England during the Napoleonic wars food prices rose to uncharacteristically high levels and soon even the price of a gallon of bread was out of the reach of the displaced agricultural worker.  Families were left with little alternative other than to seek parish relief.

We tend to view the lives of our ancestors prejudiced by today's standards.  Our ancestors did not pay into an unemployment insurance fund, did not have old age pensions to collect upon retirement, did not have a workers' compensation fund to fall back on in case of injury received on-the-job.  They did not possess convertible assets such as RRSPS, savings bonds, stocks, or mutual funds.  They possessed little personal property and generally lived in rented accommodations.  What little livestock or produce they were privileged to personally held they needed for their own consumption.  Any token received by way of testamentary bequest was hastily pressed into the service of the individual's or family's needs.  Lo be to those who were indebted at the time of a sudden reversal in their own meagre financial fortunes as those who could not pay their debts were eventually imprisoned.  Many times, the wife or children of the debtor were imprisoned in the debtor's place thereby leaving the debtor free to work to repay the debt.  Even those families who were well positioned financially were not immune to poverty.

Whatever the country our ancestors inhabited the national, local and ecclesiastical forms of government of that country were constantly confronted with the problems of providing for the poor.  By whatever the name of the records generated by those forms of government were known the amateur genealogist should seek out those documents.  Those searching European countries, excluding Great Britain, may have to research archival bibliographies to discover such records but the time invested may be handsomely repaid with a social commentary of a family.

As the records for relief of the poor existent in England and Wales are readily accessible and are illustrative of the types of such records, those will be examined in this section.

The Poor Law Act of 1597 was the first attempt to establish a system of poor relief.  That Act, amended and reenacted during 1601, affected England, Wales, and Scotland.  Although Scotland never adopted the systems and institutions which subsequently developed but instead saw the rise of many "friendly societies".  Within England and Wales the task of caring for the poor devolved upon the local parish churches.  Two Overseers of the Poor were appointed to collect a compulsory poor rate from local landowners and occupiers and to redistribute those funds to those who were deemed to be in need of assistance.

It also fell to the Overseers of the parish to arrange for the care of orphans and arrange for the education and eventual employment of the children.  The provision of medical services to the poor of the parish, clothing, essential household items and food also fell to the Overseers.

The Act of Settlement of 1662 and numerous subsequent amendments eventually restricted the Overseers duties only to the relief of those poor who had legal settlement within their parish.  It is out of this curtailment of services that settlement examinations and removal orders eventually developed.

The first union of parishes for the purposes of providing poor relief occurred during 1696 at Bristol.  There, nineteen parishes joined together to establish the first centralized house for the poor, or workhouse.  This early system of parish union was adopted in several other regions of England but it was not until Gilbert's Poor Law Act of 1782 that a concentrated effort was made to establish parish unions throughout the country.  From the time of 1597 it was typical for the Overseers to provide relief to parishioners who were permitted to remain in their homes.  Known as "Out Relief" this system of providing relief continued to 1834 and in some parishes until much later.

The workhouse as is most recognized was formally established by the Poor Law (Amendment) Act of 1834.  By 1840 nearly 600 unions had been established throughout England and Wales.  Conditions within the workhouse were designed to be austere but they did have their benefits: education for all children up to the age of 15; occupational skills' training; regular medical attention; and, emigration assistance for those who felt it best to try their fortunes in foreign lands.

The poor relief system remained essentially unchanged until 1930.  Certain provisions within the Local Government Act of 1929, the old age pensions introduced during 1908 for those over seventy years of age, and the National Insurance Act of 1911 mandating compulsory state insurance against sickness and unemployment eventually rendered the old union system redundant.  Eventually, the remaining responsibilities were turned over to County Councils or other local authorities.

So, here we have one class of records created first out of historical economic factors but eventually disassembled by political and social reforms.

As for the records proper, there are the following:

  • Admission and Discharge books wherein are included the name, dates of admission or discharge, occupation, age, marital status, religion, parish of settlement, cause or need for assistance, and type of diet.  Casual admissions and discharges show the place from which the inmate came and to whence that inmate was headed upon his or her release.  Adults were free to come and go at will and it is therefore not unusual to find multiple entries for some people.
  • Indoor Relief Lists were compiled from the admission and discharge records and formed a type of census of those who had passed through the workhouse doors during the previous six months.  Included were name, date of birth, religion and length of stay of each inmate.
  • Birth (Baptismal) and Death (Burial) registers showing dates of birth/death, sex of a child who was born at the workhouse, name, parents' names, and home parish.  Prior to 1875 it is possible these records hold details that were not reported to the local register office and consequently are not indexed in the general civil registration indices.
  • Creed Registers, dating from 1876, which include date of birth, previous address, names of next-of-kin, and religious affiliation.
  • The (Offences and) Punishment Books;
  • Registers of Apprentices and Servants;
  • Master's Day Books;
  • Register of Complaints;
  • Register of Next-of-Kin; and,
  • Register of Friends,

which titles are descriptive of the nature of the information found therein.

The District Medical Officer also kept records of visits and of physician's services rendered to the local workhouse residents, as well as Vaccination Registers.

Some 17,000 volumes of correspondence and miscellaneous papers contain many other documents lodged at the Public Record Office relating to the workhouse - staff appointments, deaths of officers, examinations of paupers, information of infectious diseases, inspector's reports of workhouse conditions, and provisions of migration assistance.

Ireland adopted a system of workhouses similar to that of England and Wales, as did Canada for a short time.

In Scotland, poor relief relied solely on the local charities of a parish.  Because of this absolute reliance on non-regulated sources two situations arose: in the early centuries the poor of Scotland fared terribly in relation to their English counterparts, and in the eighteenth-century many philanthropic societies and associations were established.  The "Friendly Societies" of that era consisted of about 50 members.  Those societies had no reserve funds. However, when a member became needy each member was required to contribute weekly to the maintenance of that ill or infirm member.  Some Friendly Societies called for the payment of a penny or half-penny apiece.  The Voluntary Association and the Co-Operative Societies, although the latter was more commercially oriented, also sprang up.  County, Town, and District councils were charged with the responsibilities of education, housing, recreational services, and burial grounds.  As of 1908 the old age pension system was also enacted in Scotland.  Pension funds were granted subject to a means test administered by a central authority rather than through local authorities.  Medical services were arranged and provided for through the voluntary societies.


At the opposite end of the financial and social stratum exist those families of noble and/or ancient origins.  Every country of the civilized world has its form of heraldic laws and armigerous families.  With just as great a frequency as ignoring the poor, we researchers today may be tempted to take no interest in this aspect of a family search thinking our ancestors too financially unstable to be entitled to such an honour.  This may in fact be true of many of our ancestors. But, we must bear in mind that it was easier for our forebears to slide down the economic scale than to climb up that scale.

Therefore, it is always worth the researcher's time to expend a little effort in searching at least published sources of arms indices.  With every grant of arms there is sure to be an accompanying pedigree that can provide many generations of ancestry.  Even arms granted to one member of a family who is not a direct ancestor can open doors to earlier generations of that direct ancestor.

It is not the intention to convey the substance of heraldic law in this lesson but rather to provide you with the basic facts in preparation for a search of basic resources.

First, an annotated description of an armorial bearing is necessary.  The coat of arms (arms) refers just to the shield and the elements placed within its field.  Supporters, or bearers in Scotland, are figures or inanimate objects placed at the sides or behind the shield to sustain it.  Mantling is the scarf behind the helmet or crest.  The wreath refers to two items: 1) the silk on which the crest rests, known as crested wreath, and 2) a wreath or garland placed on a helmet.  The motto is the short text appearing above or below a shield.  The whole of the bearings are referred to as the achievement.

There are two popular schools of thought concerning the development of arms.  One long-held and well-known school holds the opinion that arms were first introduced as a means of identifying knights on the battlefield.  The other school contends that arms developed out of the personal seals used by the largely illiterate population to sign documents - a sort of visual identification of the person for legal purposes.  Irrespective of the method of development, a general rule regarding arms can be made: the simpler the design, the more likely the arms are to be of ancient origin.

In Great Britain (the whole of Ireland until 1922 and thereafter Northern Ireland only) arms are hereditary and relate to specific individuals - not to all who bear a particular surname.  The grant of arms is strictly regulated and there exist strong measures for the removal or deforcement of non-authorized arms.  Yet only in Scotland is the use of unregistered arms prohibited by law and their misuse a crime punishable by imprisonment and fine.

In England, Wales and Ireland, the grants of arms are the bailiwick of the College of Arms which was founded in 1484.  In Scotland a grant of arms is made by the office of the Lord Lyon King of Arms.  Arms are granted in Ireland by the Ulster King of Arms.

In Scotland a grant of arms is made only to the individual concerned and his or her heirs of the body.  Consequently, younger sons are not permitted to use the arms of their father until a matriculation of that right has been completed.  Matriculation is the process of petitioning, marshalling and registering the arms.  A woman only becomes an heiress if her father is deceased, if she has no surviving brothers, and if there are no surviving children of those brothers.

In England a grant of arms may be restricted to one individual or certain of his descendants but it is generally made to the individual concerned and to all of his direct descendants, both male and female alike.  Daughters of armigerous fathers are permitted to use their arms even after marriage, their shields being impaled on the shield of the husband.

The most significant body of records surviving are those known as the Heralds' Visitations.  Regular visits to counties by officers of arms commenced during 1530.  The officers were granted the authority to enter all churches and dwellings for the purposes of sketching arms and taking statements from inhabitants as to their authority for the use of such arms.  As earlier stated, those officers were also empowered to denounce, deface, or otherwise remove offending arms.  The names of those whose right to bear arms was so disclaimed were proclaimed at the local assize court and a list of those same names was posted on the market cross.

Early Welsh arms were often loosely based on claims to arms granted to far-distant generations but were eventually reaffirmed by the College of Arms during the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

The first visitation to Ireland took place during 1568 and proceeded at a less regular pace.  However, armigerous Irish families were required to provide a certificate listing the arms and pedigrees of any recently deceased family member.  Those Funeral Certificates, or Funeral Entries, make up for some of the lack of regular visitations as many contain extensive Irish pedigrees and achievements and can cover the time period right up to the 1690s.

The requirements of Heralds' visits were revoked during the reign of James II and ended with those recorded at London circa 1687.

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