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A Very Porous Border

By Daniel Hubbard | February 16, 2010

Watching the Vancouver Olympics, it seems quite natural to both cheer and be excited both for your country and for whoever turns in a great performance. Sometimes we confine ourselves to our national borders, other times an amazing achievement transcends any man-made boundaries.

Searching for the history of our families can also be a time for looking beyond our borders. North American genealogists are used to the concept of getting a family traced to the other side of the ocean. Once our ancestors accomplished that great crossing we seem to expect them to perhaps move around within their new homeland but on a national level we expect them to stay put. There is, of course, a bit of a barrier to changing countries, even countries as close as Canada and the United States, but that barrier is exaggerated. Have a genealogical problem in one of those countries? Try looking in the other. My ancestry might be unusual for an American but consider some of my great-grandparents:

  • My father’s mother’s father, born in New Brunswick into a family that had lived in the same area for a century. He moved to Wisconsin.
  • My father’s mother’s mother, born in New Brunswick to a father from New Brunswick and a mother from Prince Edward Island. She lived in Maine for awhile, moved back to New Brunswick and eventually moved to Wisconsin.
  • My mother’s father’s father, born in Ontario. He moved to Ohio after his brothers had done the same.
  • My mother’s mother’s father, born in Illinois to a mother who was 1/2 French Canadian, 1/2 New Yorker.

I didn’t mention my father’s father’s side of my family. One of my ancestors on that side, a New Englander, fought in what is now the Canadian province of Nova Scotia during one of the many Anglo-French colonial wars. His son was sold into slavery in Quebec after being captured during another one of those wars.

There are some famous flows of inhabitants between what are now Canada and the United States, such as the many American Loyalists who moved north during and after the American Revolution. There were less famous migrations as well. A large number of the earliest Anglophone settlers of New Brunswick came from New England in the 1750s. The Swiss colonists of the Red River Settlement (roughly southern Manitoba) fled to Minnesota after locust infestations and flooding caused them to give up hope. Many immigrants to the United States from the British Isles went to Canada first simply because it was less expensive to travel within the British Empire. Once across the Atlantic, local transportation brought them south. Of course, these kinds of migrations aren’t the only reason for people to move north or south. Individuals and families moved for their own reasons. Just because there was no ongoing exodus is no reason to believe that your missing persons are not to be found across the border.

So, where does one start?

  • Look just over the border. If I look at my examples above, that would have worked for Ontario and Ohio, New Brunswick and Maine and Quebec and New York.
  • Look along the lines that geography determines. It is probably no accident that my French Canadian forebear turns up not just anywhere in New York but in upstate New York along the Hudson in the line of the famous North-South route via Lake Champlain.
  • Use the census to make quick checks and localize people. A few things to keep in mind though. There are differences in between the “Canadian” census and the U.S. Federal census. First, I have to put the quotes around “Canadian.” The earliest regular enumerations were not made by the Canadian Federal government because it did not exist at the time. Instead, individual provinces conducted the census. Regular decennial censuses of Canada don’t go back as far as the U.S. Federal census. That also moves forward in time the growing pains with which anyone who has used the earliest U.S. Federal returns is familiar. The 1841 census is spotty and the provincial enumerations are not uniform from province to province. The first national census in Canada was taken in 1871 (see my post about the Ontario Census of 1871). Note that Canadian enumerations occur during years ending in “1” and more recently also in years ending in “6,” while American enumerations occur in years ending with “0.”
  • At some point, you will also need to become somewhat familiar with territorial changes in the other country. For example, Americans might be surprised that Newfoundland, in easternmost Canada, was not part of Canada until 1949. Also, many Canadian provinces have been increased significantly in area from time to time whereas American states tend to remain fixed in size.

So, it just might be worth exploring if any of your “missing persons” are hiding out in plain sight on the “wrong” side of the border.

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Topics: Forgotten History, Genealogy, Methods, Records | 1 Comment »

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One Response to “A Very Porous Border”

  1. Anachrotopia | Personal Past Meditations- a Genealogical Blog Says:
    February 20th, 2010 at 12:11 am

    […] A Very Porous Border […]