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By Ryan Taylor

Some European newspapers still list the contents of interesting wills -- how much an estate is worth and what bequests were made. North American papers would probably be accused of unnecessary incursions into private life if they printed news of this kind.

It was not always so. In 1896 Mrs. H.N. Hanson of Fredericton got some happy news. According to the Reporter & Advertiser, she “received a letter from Washington stating that her brother, John McLean, who died there some months ago, left her his entire estate, valued at $25,000.”

Very handsome, and genealogically useful too -- we have a hint of Mrs. Hanson’s maiden name, where her brother migrated to and perhaps the source of the wealth of later Hansons. The only question is: which Washington? The state or District of Columbia?

The Hanson family has probably long lost this information, but it is accessible to researchers now thanks to the work of Dan Johnson of Saint John NB. He left more than a hundred volumes of newspaper extractions covering New Brunswick history from 1784 to 1896.

New Brunswick Vital Statistics from Newspapers began as a project of the Vital Statistics Committee of the New Brunswick Genealogical Society. The first volume, covering 1784-1815, was published in 1982. The entries were condensed from the originals.

The committee ran out of steam after a while but Dan had found a vocation. He continued to publish the Vital Statistics volumes himself until 2005, changing the format to exact transcriptions of the newspaper text. He soon found that it took several volumes to cover a single year.

The extracts include materials which were ‘news’ and not merely in the Births, Deaths and Marriages column. Small-town news, a staple of regional newspapers, might include valuable glimpses into people’s lives.

George McFarlane and Phoebe Barrow were married in Temperance Vale, N.B. in 1896. In an editorial comment, the paper noted, “George goes to the woods next week on his honeymoon and leaves his wife at home.”

This month marks the first anniversary of the untimely death of Dan Johnson at the age of 51. He was a proud descendant of United Empire Loyalists and had edited the newsletter of the Canadian Genealogical & Family History Association. His work on the Vital Statistics volumes was recognized by an award of merit from the American Association of State and Local History in 1996. His early death cut short a life of great accomplishment.

All the volumes of the Vital Statistics are now out of print, but they are widely available in libraries. The sets can be found at Toronto Public Library (North York branch) and York University library. Across Canada they can be found in libraries at Acadia University, University of Windsor, University of Manitoba and University of Regina. They are also at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.

Leafing through a volume of the Vital Statistics, I was reminded how invaluable newspapers are in answering so many genealogical questions. The St. Stephen Courier announced in its Milltown news that Wilbur Green had left for New Bedford, Mass., where he would be working at the Whitman Cotton Mill. There are many references to people visiting their relations in Maine and Massachusetts -- so many Maritimers emigrated to New England, exchanging fishing and farming for industrial jobs. Newspaper social items provide a way of finding relatives who vanished.>

There are also long series of Nova Scotia newspaper abstracts by Jean Holder, Mildred Howard’s volumes on Cape Breton papers and Gertrude Crosbie’s covering Newfoundland papers 1825-1890. All are available at the North York branch of the Toronto Public Library.>

Posted February 7, 2006
Column copyright © 2006 Ryan Taylor

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