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November 5, 2012

Step By Step: Finding a Challenging Family in Upper Canada (Ontario) Before 1871

Rory wrote to Olive Tree Genealogy with this intriguing question:

I am reseaching a William Hanley. According to his obituary:

 " Mr. Hanley was born on May 4th 1857 at Buffalo Wellington County Ontario son of the late Richard and Elizabeth Hanley."

 The only village I can scare up is Buffalo Heights but that is in Peel Co. Any assistance is greatly appreciated.
Some queries grab my interest and make me want to dig in and do some sleuthing. This one did. My hunt online was challenging so I thought I'd share with my readers the step by step of what I did and what I found.

As Rory discovered, it looks like there's some kind of error or mixup in William Hanley's obit. That's often the case with an obituary. You can't trust it 100% unless the deceased wrote it personally before death! Otherwise it is simply someone else's recollections.

But since Wellington County is mentioned specifically, my intuition was that William did indeed live or was born in Wellington County. Ontario Vital Records did not begin until 1869 so we won't find William's birth registered. Rory could look in church records once William's religious affiliation is known.  Luckily that is found on Ontario Census records so that's where I'm going to look first.


As many of my readers know, I like to begin with A search there for William Hanley did provide some results. Once on Ancestry I used wildcards and typed Will* H*n*l*y into the search engine. The wildcard * in his first name will find variations such as Will, Willie, Willy, and Wiliam. The wildcards in his surname will find Henley, Henlay, Hanlay, Hanley, Hanly, Henly, and variations with a "d" such as Handley.

I also added an approximate birth year of 1857 +/-2  That will allow for any discrepancy in his age in census or other records. I could have chosen +/- 5 but I like to start with a narrower search and then expand it if I don't get results.

I then added the keyword "Wellington". I don't put this in the location field as I find that very unforgiving and it will not return as many results as putting the location in the keyword field instead.


The search terms yielded 3 results - 2 were duplicates so what I had was an 1871 census for a William Hanlay in Peel Twp, Wellington Co.  and a 1901 census for a William Hanley with the wrong birth day/month and year, and living in Ottawa with a wife Alice. I liked the look of that 1871 census so I went to view the image.  It showed 15 year old William, a Catholic of Irish origin, born Ontario and living with the Conolly family.

Interestingly, only a few names away on the image was a Michael Hanley, age 12, also Catholic of Irish origin and born Ontario living with another Conolly family.


This is where I develop a working theory. My genealogy brain, experience and intuition immediately think "Hmmmm.... two Hanley boys living with two families who are almost certainly related... and both boys are Irish Catholic... it's possible that they are brothers and their parents are dead"  This is what I call a working theory. It's a "guess" based on clues and I'm going to now try to prove or disprove my theory.


But first I had a look for a Richard Hanley in Wellington County. There was a Richard and Elizabeth Handley living in Wellington in 1871 census but not in Peel Twp and they were aged 80 and 78, far too old to be the parents of William. As well both were from England, not Ireland and were Methodist not Catholic. I can rule them out.

But what did come up in the search results was the  marriage of a 19 year old woman named Ellen Hanley. Ellen gave her parents names as Richard Hanley and Elizabeth Tracy. Her birth place was noted as Stratford which is in Perth County but she was marrying in Peel Twp., Wellington County. I wondered where Ellen Hanley was in 1871. I search found her as a 10 year old girl living with the O'Grady family in Peel Twp, Wellington Co. Ellen was born in Ontario and was a Roman Catholic of Irish origin.


A 10 year old girl would not normally be found living with another family unless her parents were deceased. And thus my working theory expanded to suggest that Ellen was a sibling of Michael and of William.

I liked that Ellen's parents were Richard and Elizabeth and that she was the same religion and ethnicity as William. My search now expanded to records other than census. I checked births, marriages and deaths and other online records.

Eventually I found a marriage record on FamilySearch dated 1893 in Aurelius Michigan for Michael J. Hanley, age 29, born Canada, son of Richard Hanley & Lizzie Tracy. It was a second marriage for Michael.


So now I have proof that Michael Hanley and Ellen Hanley were siblings and were living with other families in Peel Twp, Wellington County in 1871. I still believe that William is their brother. The circumstantial evidence for this is the proximity of William to Michael in 1871, the fact that they were both living with families with the same surname (probably related), and that both had parents named Richard and Elizabeth.

Further research showed that Ellen settled in North Dakota circa 1880 which explains why she is not found on the 1881 census for Canada. In census records in USA she states her father was born Ireland and her mother in Ontario. Her grave is found on FindAGrave.

Michael can be found in Michigan records and the 1920 Census for Lansing Michigan indicates he immigrated circa 1881.  He notes his father being born Ireland and his mother in Canada

William is found in Boissevain Village, Manitoba in 1901 although in this census he is listed as Presbyterian. He appears to have gone to Manitoba circa 1882 but I have not found him in 1881. By 1892 he had moved to Saskatchewan.


There's one clue I hadn't followed up on - the birth location Ellen gave when she married. She said she was born in Stratford which is in Perth County. Since she was born circa 1859 I might find her with her parents in the 1861 census for Perth County.

BINGO! Here's what I found on in Ellice Twp, Perth Co. Ontario in 1861

* Richard Henley [sic], farmer, born Ireland, age 31
* Elizabeth, born UC (Upper Canada now Ontario) age 20
* Wm (William), born UC, 3
* Michel [sic], born UC, 2
* Elin [sic], born UC, 1

They are Roman Catholic. And there we have the family as I suggested. Father born Ireland, mother Canada - agrees with census records I found. My working theory is, I believe, proven correct to a point. We can see that William, Michael and Ellen are siblings and children of Richard and Elizabeth. But we don't have proof that Richard and Elizabeth died. The siblings were living elsewhere in 1871 but their parents may have been impoverished and unable to care for them.


1. Look for a marriage record for William Hanley. He married in Saskatchewan and finding his marriage record will be proof positive if his parents are listed as Richard Hanley and Elizabeth (Lizzie) Tracey

2. Now there are more clues now to try to find the parents Richard and Elizabeth. We know her surname (Tracey) and we know she was born in what is now Ontario circa 1841. And we have the witness William Tracy at Ellen Hanley's marriage in 1878. He may be an uncle or a cousin. I would research the Tracey family in Perth and in Wellington Counties.

3. Look for the closest Catholic Church in Ellice Township to hunt for a possible marriage record for Richard and Elizabeth, also for baptisms of their children. Since the children are 1 year apart in age, it's very likely that Richard and Elizabeth married shortly before William's birth. So that narrows your timeline for a search.

4. Since Richard is listed as a farmer in the 1861 census, you may be able to find him in land records. Try the CLRI (Ontario Land Record Index) for his name. Often men bought or sold their land to family members so with luck you may learn more about the Hanley family if you can find Richard. At the very least it will give you a precise location for land and the dates he bought and sold it. You could also try a search of the UCLP (Upper Canada Land Petitions) to see if Richard filed a petition.

5. I would also continue researching the siblings of William. Searching the siblings - their spouses and families can often result in an invaluable clue being found. For example the obituary for either Michael or Ellen might provide many genealogical tidbits about their parents.

You have a fun search ahead of you - enjoy!


Celia Lewis said...

This is great, Lorine - finding pieces of a puzzle and seeing if they fit together. I enjoyed the process very much. Thanks for posting!

Lorine McGinnis Schulze said...

Thanks Celia. I LOVE doing this, I don't care if they are my ancestors or not. I also don't care how many hours/days it takes :-)

I'm always happy to share my steps if it helps others.

Peg said...

Thanks for the hint on "keyword" instead of location. It's always good to be reminded to check siblings. I love this post. Such a good job !

Rory from E said...

I got this from a relative on the Ellen Hanley side:

It sounds like they could be brother and sister. This is what I have on Ellen Emily Hanley Wentz:

Born: 1 May 1860, Died: 24 Oct 1918, Grand Forks, North Dakota. Buried:26 Oct. 1918, Calvary Cemetery, Grand Forks, North Dakota. She was mother of 11 children, housewife and private nurse. According to the 1880 Federal Census; her parents were born in Ireland, Ellen was living in Oakwood Township, Pembina County, Dakota Territory, with her husband and 2 children.

Certificate of Death #2587, Registered # 1377, Informant Jacob Wentz, 708 No. 6th St. Grand Forks, North Dakota.

I would love to see what you have on this family."

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the step by step investigation. I, too, had an ancestor who left lands in Upper Canada to his heirs. It took a great deal of research to learn what was Upper Canada in the early 19th century. I was finally able to find information on these lands through the Mennonite Society, as the purchase of the lands was influenced or requested by my ancestor's Mennonite neighbor.

Jackie Corrigan said...

Great post! So interesting to follow your thought process on this problem. A great place to look for Ontario Catholic church records is FamilySearch. They aren't indexed. You need to use the "Browse by Location" section and drill down Canada/Ontario/Roman Catholic Church Records, but I found a baptism record for Michael Hanley, born 20 Nov 1858, son of Richard Hanley and Elizabeth Tracey. The record is at Ontario, Roman Catholic Church Records, 1760-1923 Perth Stratford St Joseph Baptisms, marriages, burials 1849-1910 Image 58. Possibly the other marriage and baptism records can also be found here.

Dawn said...

Good post, Lorine! Love the way you went step-by-step with your working theory. One of these days I'll explore my Wellington Smith who was born in 1816 in Canada and died in Thorold, Ontario in 1883. You inspire me!

Lorine McGinnis Schulze said...

Jackie -thanks for finding Michael's bapt and for letting us know about the online records! I had some fun going through them and found another child :-)

Lorine McGinnis Schulze said...

Peg - glad it was some help. I don't use the location field, it seems too unforgiving for my liking

Lorine McGinnis Schulze said...

Anonymous and others - if you're trying to find out about the history of Ontario (name and boundary changes) see my writeup at

History of Ontario

Lorine McGinnis Schulze said...

Dawn - thanks! And maybe you feel like sending your Wellington Smith challenge to me at AskOliveTree AT (Change the AT to @) I love a challenge!

McNamaraCanada said...

Upper Canada is now Ontario, but be aware that what is now Ontario (from Belleville east towards Quebec along the shores of Lake Ontario) may be listed in the Lower Canada records - and probably in french.

Rory Griffith said...

I have been searching for all of the record on this elusive family. I have what I believe is the "homebase" for this family. It is a twon called Mornington in North Perth. There were the following:

John Hanley b.1823

Patrick Hanley abt. 1826 wife Mary Connelly

John abt. 1831 wife Mary McConnelly

This ties in well as to where two of the children of Richard ended up - in homes with Connelly surnames.

Thanks for all the helps - tips.

P.S. I have ordered the marriage certificate for William. Hopefully it confirms the parents as Richard and Elizabeth Tracey.

Lorine McGinnis Schulze said...

Rory thanks for the update on your progress! Please do let us know what the marriage record shows.

Lorine said...

I can confirm that William Hanley's parents were Richard Hanley and Elizabeth Tracey as is documented on his marriage record.

I believe that Richard Hanley b. 1822 was a brother to John Hanley b. 1823. John's wife was Mary Connelly. He bought land in Mornington in 1855 that was witnessed by a Michael O'Grady. If you recall the two oldest boys lived with Neal Connelly of Peel and the girl Ellen lived with a Michael O'Grady family.

I am working on the Tracey connection.