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January 24, 2018

Finding an Ontario Ancestor Born Before Vital Registration Began

Kelly C. asked a question about her great-great Grandfather Henry Spencer Dunford.

So I have a few mysteries I am hoping to solve.. the biggest one is that of my 2nd great grandfather, Henry Spencer Dunford born March 20 1863. He married Margaret Aelis Bonham and their daughter Frances was my great grandmother. They lived in the Sarnia Lambton area. The problem is the name Spencer!! For some reason unknown, my great grandmother went by the surname Spencer Dunford. Henry and Margaret, her parents, are buried under the name Dunford, but both are recorded as Spencer in their death certificates, and throughout records they can be found as either Spencers or Dunfords. When I first started this a few months ago, I thought spencer was just Henry's middle name, but now I am not so sure.. otherwise why would his spouse and children carry that name down as part of the surname or in some cases as the only surname? the mystery deepens, as I cannot find any birth record, or parents or family for Henry beyond his spouse and children. The other mystery is that between 1863 and 1891 i can find no records for either of them in Ontario. Also Margarets sister Anne is surrounded by some mystery as we cannot find a birth record and on her marriage record it states she was born in Kansas USA there is also mention of her being born on a wagon train so not sure what happened there. I have a book on the Bonhams which states they came to canada on a sailing ship in 1856 and landed at Port Credit and settled in Streetsville.. their son, Charles, the father of margaret is said to have lived in ontario from that point on, but if so how was his daughter born in Kansas and why?

Lorine's Response: Vital Registration was not in effect in Ontario before 1869 so you won't find Henry in the birth records. You will have to hunt for church records of baptisms instead.

It's an interesting puzzle Kelly. You might consider using DNA to help you with this. That is how we solved the mystery of who my husband's "real" great-grandfather was - through DNA. If you're interested at all in the use of DNA to solve these mysteries, see my blog post at DNA Gave My Husband a Completely Different Great Grandfather

When you're faced with a challenge such as yours, it's a good idea to forget about the parents for a bit and search for the children. You can't find Henry and Margaret in 1871 or 1881 census, so you might look for the children in those census years who were born before 1881. Also, remember that Henry can be recorded as Harry and Margaret can be Maggie. Use wildcards, for instance Henry would be h*r*y, to pick up variations such as Harry or Henery.

To add to my earlier suggestion, I see from the 1891, 1901 and 1911 census that your Margaret was recorded as Mary in each one. you might want to try hunting for the children in the 1871 and 1881 census - use their names to see if the family pops up.

In the 1881 census for Lambton, there is a Henry Damford [sic - the image is very difficult to see, being faded] age 19 living with John and Emiline Spencer. I found their marriage in 1871 where Emiline's maiden name is given as Elford. Could she have been mis-recorded as Elford but in reality be a Dunford? And could Henry be her illegitimate son, and John Spencer his stepfather? 

You have a lot of conflicting info on your family and it can be very confusing to know what is correct. For example Ann's marriage says born Kansas USA but in the 1891 census it says she was born in England. So you really can't believe either one is right! Your best way to approach this is to take the time to list every single piece of evidence you've found - different names, different dates of birth, etc. Then approach your research using all the known "facts" even though some will prove incorrect as you gather more documents. the main thing is - slow and steady wins the race. Be methodical. Try not to jump around too much just go slowly trying to verify ever single fact you have found so far.You don't know what is correct with all the conflicting info until you find something that proves or disproves each "fact"


Toni said...

I use a time line for these kinds of things. One year increments. You won't have something every year but eventually you will be able to sort which Mary is yours and which Mary is not. Then you can cross of the wrong Mary each step. You might also have to just use your gut feeling. Sometimes there just aren't any papers to tell you anything. But sometimes it just feels right and that's where you work from. And if they would tell the truth all the time or if it got written down correctly all the time that would be a huge bonus!

Bruce Gordon said...


You mention the 1881 Census being faded and difficult to read. When I’ve come across these I’ve found that the images from the 1881 Census at LAC are easier to read and the indices you search by use the same transcriptions as those on Ancestry.



Gaye said...

What is LAC?

Lorine McGinnis Schulze said...

LAC= Library and Archives Canada