Treasures of the Society of Genealogists: Birth Briefs

Exploring our family trees requires attention to detail. We focus on databases and archives as we search for clues and the evidence we need. We keep our eyes down on the detail. But sometimes, just for a moment, it’s worth sitting back and looking at the bigger picture. A birth brief is perfect for that bigger picture because we can see the generations all on one page – at a glance.

A birth brief is a form that allows you to record your ancestors, going back to your great-great-grandparents. Of course, each birth brief only shows your direct ancestors. For example, you won’t be able to see your great-uncles or great-aunts. But it still gives a snapshot of your family. Other people, who share some of your ancestors, may find that snapshot very useful.

Some Volunteers here at the SoG are working on the project to transcribe all the birth briefs we hold. They often find gems. One that caught their imaginations recently was completed by a SoG Member living in Canada for the Longair/Ritchie family. It gives a marvellous picture of succeeding generations moving across Canada, from the mid-1800s to the 1920s. We can look at this family at a glance and see how their lives are part of the story of Canada. 

To view a more detailed image click here.

I decide to take a really close look at this family’s story. I start with Robert Duncan. Robert married Catherine Broom in 1833. The marriage took place in Salisbury, New Brunswick. The birth brief shows me that Robert was about 37 and Catherine was about 26 when they married. New Brunswick was one of the areas in North America that was settled early. By the 1830s, it was firmly British. Immigrants came mostly from the west country of England, from Scotland, and from Waterford, Ireland. By the 1850s, the main activities were ship building, logging and farming.

I use one of the PCs in the Lower Library to find the 1851 census for Canada. It shows me that Robert was a ‘farmer’, living with Catherine and six children. It also shows that Robert declared himself as ‘Scottish’ and Catherine as ‘German’. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they were new immigrants. You can’t be ‘Canadian’ because there isn’t a Canadian nation yet. So if you were born in this new territory, you stated your father’s nationality on the census.

Robert and Catherine had at least six children. The child I’m most interested in is our Member’s great-grandfather. He is Robert Ainsley Duncan, born in 1844 just outside Salisbury, New Brunswick. During his lifetime, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia joined with most of Ontario and Quebec to form the Canadian Confederation. Plus, Britain passed the British North America Act, enabling Canada to become the first Dominion of the British Empire. Over the next decade, Canada rushed west towards the Pacific Ocean and edged north towards Hudson Bay and the Arctic Circle.

I can see from the birth brief that young Robert Ainsley married Mary Eliza McFee in New Brunswick in I873. They had at least eight children and clearly Robert Ainsley needed a job that could adequately support his growing family. The 1891 census shows that Robert and Mary have left New Brunswick. They are now living in Rat Portage West, Algoma, which is in Northern Ontario. Their new home borders Lake Superior and Lake Huron and is very close to the Manitoba border. It also offers access to the Hudson Bay area in the north. Robert Ainsley’s job shown on the census, a ‘teamster’, gives us a clue about why they might be living in Algoma and also tells us more about Canada’s rapid development. In North America a teamster was a haulier, with a horse and a cart. But in Canada the job also included railway workers. In 1886 the first train on the newly built Canadian Pacific Railway passed through Rat Portage. The tracks linked Toronto in the east and Vancouver in the west. Demand for railway workers was high. I wish I knew whether Robert, Mary and the children had seen that first train puffing through.

Moving down to the next generation, I try to find out a bit more about our Member’s grandfather. Elisha Corey Duncan is one of Robert Ainsley’s sons. He was born in 1884 in New Brunswick but I already know that his family moved to Rat Portage when he was a child. So, Elisha grew up in Rat Portage. In 1905 Elisha married a local girl, Jessie May Kerr. Jessie and her family lived in Rat Portage but actually she was born in New Brunswick. By now the people of Rat Portage had joined with other small communities to form the town of Kenora. The whole area was becoming a centre for the growing lumber industry, with saw mills around the town and freight moving on the railroad and on the Great Lakes.

It seems that Elisha and Jessie want to be farmers. The easiest way to do that is to move further west into a less settled province. Back at the PCs in the Lower Library, the 1906 census for Canada places them in Red Deer Town, Alberta. Elisha is described as a ‘dairyman’. They have travelled from Ontario, across Saskatchewan into Alberta – a distance of about 1000 miles! I wonder if they simply caught the train. In 1908 I find Elisha making a successful application for a Homestead Grant in Alberta, so it feels like they are here to stay. Red Deer Town is halfway between Alberta’s main cities: Edmonton and Calgary. A lot of settlers moved into the area in the early 1900s, just like Elisha and Jessie. The land was very fertile and easily supported agriculture. In addition, it was a branch line stop on the railway going north, so there were rail jobs as well.

Elisha and Jessie have two daughters. Edith Muriel is our Member’s mother. She was born in Red Deer Town in 1908 and she became a teacher. She married Thomas Harold Ritchie in Calgary in 1926. Thomas was a teacher, a farmer and a school principal. Interestingly, he was born in Rat Portage, back in Ontario. I wish I knew how they met – at home for a family visit or did a lot of families move across to Red Deer Town? Edith and Thomas have a daughter, our Member, who fortunately left us this birth brief. She is a teacher, a library consultant and a school principal in Edmonton.

But that’s not entirely the end. Remember Mary MacFee, who married Robert Ainsley and moved with him from New Brunswick to Ontario? They are the couple that started this progression across the continent. The birth brief tells me that she died in 1949 - in Vancouver, British Columbia. What an interesting life this woman had – from one of the oldest colonies in eastern North America to the newest city on the Pacific Ocean in the west.

Completing a birth brief

New Members are given a birth brief form as part of their New Members Pack and are invited to complete it. Of course, we don’t expect them to submit their birth brief straight away. In fact, we encourage them to wait until they have got all their family’s details so that we don’t receive birth briefs with gaps.

Looking at our birth briefs

To find out whether any of your family surnames are already in a birth brief we hold, you can:

  • look at the Birth Brief Index on our website, under the Search Records tab, to see all the surnames that occur in birth brief forms received before 2007;
  • search SoG Data Online to see transcripts of birth brief forms received between 2007 and 2012, including volume and folio number – note that you can only see the full transcript online if you are a SoG Member;
  • search the Surname Indexes held in our Upper Library to identify the volume and folio numbers of the birth brief containing the surname you are interested in.

When you have the volume and folio number, come into the Library and we can produce the birth brief for you to see. Of course, if you can’t come in to visit us, you can use our Search and Copy Service.

In early 2018, our Volunteers will have completed a full Transcription Index, of all our birth briefs. Note, however, that names of people who may still be alive have been redacted from the Index.

-Sherryl Abrahart

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