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November 2, 2018

A Canadian Case Study Part 1

Mixups & MisTranscribed Records, Oh My!

Michelle (Stephens) Hutchinson sent Olive Tree Genealogy a great puzzler from her family tree. Here is Michelle's email which I've edited slightly for length.
I've hit a bit of a brick wall in my search for my 2nd Great Grandfather William James Stephens, and I was hoping you'd be able to provide some direction. 
 I've told that he may have immigrated from England to Canada due to a scandal with a scullery maid, or that he was hanged as a horse thief.

Over the years, I've been able track down some information about him, but have never been able to get any details about his life before Canada.

William James Stephens, at 28 years old, first shows up in the 1871 census in Essex County Ontario, along with a woman who is most likely his first wife, Elmira at 23 years old.  William's age here is most likely a miscopy, and should have been 26 years instead, as all further records point to a birthday in 1839 or 1840.  I have not been able to track down the marriage certificate for this.

Next, he appears in a marriage record as a Widower in 1875, marrying my 2nd Great Grandmother Annie McLean.  They spent the rest of their lives together in Essex county.  In this marriage record, his parents are listed as John and Bridget Stephens, and his birthplace was England.

I've been able to prove that he was not, in fact, hanged as a horse-thief through his death certificate from 1906 in Essex county.

I haven't been able to find any details about his first wife (Elmira) other than her appearance on the 1871 census... and can't confirm if she came over with him or if she met him in Canada

So the questions I'm trying to answer are:

1) Who was Elmira?

2) Where was William James Stephens living in England before his immigration to Canada?

3) Was there in fact any controversy in his life?

Could you offer any suggestions on how to answer these three questions?
Olive Tree Genealogy Answers:

Thank you for outlining what you have found and what you want to know. That's a great help when posting a query. I can answer question #1 as I've found the marriage record of Elmira and your great grandfather William James Stephens and several other records concerning her. I believe I may also have found William's parents but that find needs to be verified.

Finding Clues and Figuring Out Where to Look Next

First I had a look at that 1871 census you mentioned. I wanted to see if there were clues that might have been overlooked. My first step was to head to to view the census image for myself.

You are right to not worry too much about age variations. Sometimes it is a simple misunderstanding of the census taker's question, sometimes it is not the individual giving the answer and sometimes an individual did not know his/her exact age or birth year!

Elmira's birth location is given as Ontario so that's an indication that she and William met and married in that province. I made a note to hunt for their marriage certificate.

But I wanted to keep studying the 1871 census first - and there's another clue for future research - the fact that William is noted as a farmer. Most farmers owned land. And an immigrant from England wanting to being farming would almost certainly purchase land shortly after arrival.

Land Records - A Valuable Resource
So a search of land records would be in order. It's probably too late for him to be entered in the CLRI (Computerized land record index) but I'd start there anyway. That would give you a precise land location if he's the first time owner of the land. From there you'd get the Abstract Indexes to Deeds to find out when his name first appears as being on the land.

This would help narrow the timeline for his immigration.


Unfortunately there are no comprehensive ships passenger lists of immigrants arriving in Canada prior to 1865. Until that year, shipping companies were not required by the government to keep their passenger manifests.  There are however lists that survived and other records which replace those passenger manifests. You can view a complete list of what is available and where it can be found, both online and off, at Filling in the Gaps

These alternate records include Shipping Company records, Immigration Agent records, Steamships on the St. Laurence records and more.

More Clues

A third clue is the birth of his daughter Annie who is shown as age 1 in the 1871 census. Finding her birth registration (if it was recorded) might give you more details for William and Elmira. Sometimes birth registrations have exact residence (land) locations of the father.

Little Annie provides us with more places to research. Since she doesn't appear in the 1881 census with her father and his second wife, it is probable that she died between 1871 and 1881. Finding her death certificate may provide new details on your family. 

Another clue, not found in the 1871 census, but which you gave me in your email, was that William was listed as a widower when he remarried in 1875. This means that Elmira died between the taking of the census in 1871 and his second marriage in 1875. So the next step would be to look for her death registration on

Looking for Elmira and William

Now we have several clues and ideas of where to look next in the online records. Let me walk you through what I did to find more on the family. I'll share my steps and the outcome in Part 2 of this Case Study.

1 comment:

Bernard Vanasse said...

Early Ontario ? I have a couple Andre (Vanasse dit) Precourt and Madeleine Corbin .Married in Quebec and abt 1802 part of the Amhertsburg militia .Then they disappear with a few children . I've found nothing in Michigan but in Canada a bunch of Precoor/Precore familes in the 1850s in Elgin County Ontario and another in Caistor Ontario .Simcoe Precourts are connected already to Quebec.No way to connect them . No luck with land records .