Threshing Scene, Western Canada 1915
Postcards from the Past, PC 740
This is the last in my genealogy in Alberta series of blog posts. I am going to try and cover some of the more obscure kinds of records you may want to look at to find your Alberta ancestors. We’ll start with land, since that was a big reason for much of the migration into this province. But I will look at some of the less likely sources you can try.
I love land records. I don’t come from a farming background, my people were mostly workin’ folk, so I don’t use land records a lot in my family research but we do use land records in our local history work. Land records can provide a great deal of information, or very little, depending on circumstances. My great grandfather’s homestead records were about 5 pages long, as he abandoned the homestead after only a few years. But the record of one of my colleagues was a thick sheaf of papers containing a will, information about the improvements to the land and all kinds of detail that would be useful for family historians.
In Alberta there were a number of ways early settlers could obtain land. They could file for a homestead. In doing so they would have to fill out an application which may contain information useful for genealogy. If he stayed on the land and “proved up” there will also be documentation relating to any improvements he made including how much land was cleared, what buildings were erected, the livestock, etc. There may also be sworn statements from persons of note in the community (which is why it might be worthwhile to have a peek at the homestead index even if your ancestor didn’t homestead) The index for these records is available, courtesy of the Alberta Genealogical Society. If you find an ancestor in the index, you can request a copy of the file by clicking on the “Order a copy…” link and following the instructions. We have the Calgary district homestead registers on microfilm in the local history room.
If the homesteader made the required improvements to his land, he could apply for his letters patent. You can search the index of the letters patent and see the documents through the Canadian Genealogy Centre.
If your people don’t turn up in the homestead index, it is possible they bought their land from the CPR. As part of the deal for building the railroad, CPR was given 25 million acres of land on the prairies. It sold this land sometimes as a package deal to overseas immigrants. You can find the index to these land sales through the Glenbow Archives.
When researching land records it is useful to have an understanding of what the terms mean and how the land was divided. You can find an excellent guide on Dave Obee’s blog.
He has also written a book on finding land records on the Prairies: Back to the Land: a Genealogical Guide to Finding Farms on the Canadian Prairies.
Maps can also play an important part in family history research. Maps such the Cummins Rural Directory maps can show the location of land owners. The 1924 Cummins map for Alberta is available on microfilm in the Local History room.
We have also launched a collection of digitized maps through the CHFH Digital Library. These are mostly for the Calgary region, but stay tuned, we are hoping to have more maps in there soon.
If you have the land location, the Provincial Archives of Alberta has a series of township maps for the province which show earlier homesteaders’ names. You have to use them in the Archives, as they have not been digitized.
A really good tip for researching anything, but in particular for genealogy is, follow the money. Generally, records relating to assets are some of the best records around. This is true for records relating to the estate of deceased persons. The Provincial Archives of Alberta has probate records from about 1884 to about 1975 (records less than 30 years old will still be in the custody of the Court). It is useful, when you are requesting probate records at the PAA to know where the person was living at the time of their death as the records are arranged by judicial district.
Local History Books
There have been a number of initiatives in Alberta to facilitate the creation of local histories. These are often overlooked by researchers but they should really be top of the list if you are looking for ancestors in smaller towns or in rural areas. They can contain a wealth of information about the area and the people who lived there. The Calgary Public Library has a large collection of histories from central and southern Alberta. You can find them in the catalogue by entering the name of the locale into the subject search.
There are also a number of digital repositories for local histories. The Alberta Heritage Digitization Project has a large collection of digitized histories, as does the Our Roots website. Peel’s Prairie Provinces also has a collection of digitized histories, along with other documents relating to the history of the Prairies.
If you read this blog a lot, you know what I am going to say about newspapers for historical research. They are the best source. Yes, you can find obituaries and wedding announcements, but there is often so much more. I often poke around the old newspapers for Calgary and find a plethora of details about life in the city, but also about what the denizens of Calgary were up to. Exam scores, participation in sporting events, parties, holidays, you name it, the paper would talk about it. So it is never a bad idea to wander through the newspapers from your ancestor’s home town. You never know what you’ll find. The Local History Room at the Central Library has a good collection of historic newspapers from small towns around southern Alberta. The Calgary newspapers are held on microfilm in the Magazines and Newspapers department as well. You can also check the Alberta Heritage Digitization Project. They have a great selection of Alberta newspapers. This collection is not indexed, however, so you can’t search it by name. Peel’s Prairie Provinces also has newspapers for Alberta. Google Newspapers has digitized some Alberta newspapers, such as the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton Journal. As mentioned in the earlier post, we do have sources to help you identify the name of the newspaper and where it is held and we can always request interlibrary loans of newspapers on microfilm if we don’t have the paper and it isn’t digitized.
So, I have come to the end of my introduction to Alberta genealogy. And what I have found out while doing this is that there are a lot more resources out there that I first thought. I have only covered the basics so if you have further questions, you can always contact us through our Ask a Question service or through Chat (or, if you’re really old schoolJ, by phone or in person). Also keep in mind that we offer a drop-in Family History Coaching session on the last Saturday of the month from 10:00 to noon in the Genealogy Section on the 4th floor of the Central Library. Our first session of the new season is September 29.
Happy Ancestor Hunting!