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By Ryan Taylor

Most of our ancestors lived in the country in the nineteenth century.

Agriculture was the primary industry, so families worked farms. Perhaps they moved to a little town nearby. Eventually young people left for the cities, looking for industrial jobs with shorter hours than farm labour required.

While they lived in those little towns and townships in the country, however, they were leaving records for researchers to find now.

Fraser Dunford is an academic and genealogist who has published Municipal Records in Ontario: History and Guide (Ontario Genealogical Society, $29). He hopes to bring these underused records to our attention.

The largest part of the book lists the various kinds of municipalities throughout Ontario's history-townships (always the basic unit), districts and counties, towns and villages.

The most common municipal record which will be consulted by genealogists is the tax roll. These are in two parts, the assessment roll and the collector's roll. All the kinds of municipalities listed above produced some form of these at different times.

Assessment records described the property to be taxed and who was on it. Collector's rolls lists the amount due and whether it was paid. As Dunford observes, "Assessment rolls provide vital genealogical information since they show that a particular person was on a particular property in a particular year."

Dunford devotes chapters to explaining the terms in these tax records, and how they varied over the years. Some of the vocabulary is essential for genealogical work-for example, the different between freeholder (owner) and householder (tenant).

In the early days, part of the taxpayers' responsibility was statute labour, meaning time they had to spend working for the benefit of the municipality. This work took of the form of improving the roads, digging ditches and similar hard tasks.

There is also a mention of 'dog tax' and its rates. Most rural people needed a dog to protect their livestock from predators, and to watch the premises.

The assessed person's age may appear in the tax record also, a useful thing because there is a good chance he (it was usually a man) gave the information himself. I have even seen a rare record where the person's birthdate is given.

In the listings of municipalities, Dunford gives the year of founding, year of dissolution if applicable, and whether it was merged with another municipal unit. This alone makes it an excellent reference tool for finding records.

Assembling this kind of reference book is a dreary task, but one that Dunford has done especially well. Surprise yourself with the information that the tax records will tell you.

Municipal Records in Ontario is available from the Ontario Genealogical Society on the Internet.

Handbooks for genealogy in a specific area are good places to examine before visiting repositories there. A new one looks at British Columbia, Planning a Genealogical Trip to the Vancouver Area, compiled by Judith Argent (Surrey Public Library, $19 including postage).

Argent is a genealogical librarian at the Cloverdale branch of the Surrey Library, a primary resource in Vancouver.

Organized by location, the book gives information about libraries, cemeteries, churches and societies. Even hospitals are included. There are brief listings of holdings (kinds of records and years covered), addresses and telephone numbers.

As always with these guides, there are surprises. The Bowen Island Museum holds records from the Union Steamship Company, for instance. Who would have guessed?

Anyone with family in southwestern British Columbia will want to have this book nearby as they search for elusive documents.

It can be bought from the Surrey Public Library. There is an order form on the Internet or you can simply send your $19 to the Cloverdale Branch Library, 5642 - 176A Street Surrey, BC V3S 4G9. Make cheques payable to Surrey Public Library.

Posted December 15, 2005
Column copyright © 2005 Ryan Taylor

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