Ryan Taylor Tracing illegitimacy in Ontario


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By Ryan Taylor

Illegitimate births always pose a problem for genealogists. We want to know the father's name, but it often is not available.

Many people do not know that there are resources at the Archives of Ontario on this topic. They are usually referred to as Bastardy Affidavits although the proper term is Affidavits of Affiliation. They date from 1837 on.

The usual reason for wanting to establish affiliation (parentage) was inheritance, although in the end, the child usually did not become an heir-at-law of the parent. Instead, they received a cash settlement.

The idea behind these affidavits was the bastardy bonds which had been so common in England from about 1725. It is interesting that when the documents become common in Ontario, they are coming to an end in English legal usage.

If the father tried to avoid the matter, he could be brought to court, where he might be forced to pay. It was a civil case, not criminal, although the prosecutor was the clerk of the peace. The evidence brought by the prosecution could be quite specific as to names, places and dates, and hence are useful for genealogists. Having witnesses was good for the mother, but they had to be convincing.

Sometimes, if the mother provided evidence but the case was not pressed, either because the father settled privately or the clerk of the peace chose not to go on with it for lack of evidence, there is only her affidavit in the file. If the case went to court, there may be more.

After 1921, the law was changed and cases became more serious and were held in district court.

As with wills, some of the bastardy documents may be found in land registry offices. Fortunately the recent listing of land registry documents by APOLROD will have turned these up, so reference to their catalogs is suggested. More information about APOLROD can be found at the APOLROD web site.

Often there was a question of guardianship, since authorities felt safer if the guardian was a man rather than a woman (the mother). The father might make arrangements with the public guardian, but the child had no automatic right of inheritance from the father or to his name.

Often there are no documents at all, but since these affidavits do exist, those having trouble finding an unmarried father in Victorian Ontario might want to look at the files.

Social attitudes in the 19th century meant that most children were raised by the mother or her family and had little or no knowledge of the father. The shame attached to an illegitimate birth for the woman was enough to suppress the whole matter from legal or other public discussion.

It is dangerous to assume that all cases were like this, however. An illegitimate cousin in our family, born in 1909, bore his father's name and was raised by his father and grandmother. His mother was not part of his life at all. Her name survived only as a whispered scandal for ninety years until I tried to trace her using traditional methods (the census, church records).

It turned out her name differed slightly from the whispered version, but once I found her I discovered she was the widow of the father's first cousin. That must have been the real scandal back in 1909. When I revealed what I'd found to an older relative, he said, "I was told she wouldn't let him alone, followed him right into the fields." Which might account for what happened, since the fields were probably full of hay.

Column copyright © 2002 Ryan Taylor

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