Canada Marriages and Burials (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian: Religious Records  by Brenda Dougall Merriman, CG, CGL. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Marriage Records[edit | edit source]

The best kept of the three BMD records are the marriage records. This is because of their special double status, as both church records and as civil contracts. A couple were not only married in the sight of God and the congregation there present, but also in the eyes of the law had formed a union which would have effects on the inheritance of land and money. It was therefore important that the clergy keep accurate accounts of the marriages they performed.

In Québec, where church records and civil records were the same, the legal nature of the marriage record was bolstered by marriage contracts drawn up and supervised by notaries. The theological basis of marriage as viewed by the Roman Catholic Church, to which most of Québec society belonged, insured that the church records remained equally important despite the existence of the notarial records also. This can also be said of Acadian records, although the survival of early Acadian records has been more problematic. [1]

In the rest of Canada, the view of church marriage records was affected by the traditions and laws of England. There, marriages had to be performed by a priest according to the rites of the state church, with some few exceptions. The marriage in church had the same force as any other legal contract. When it became apparent that there was considerable traffic in clandestine marriages in the 18th century, Parliament had enacted a new way of recording marriages which made illegal records more difficult to procure.

As the various provinces which would later form Canada were organized, the governments imported ideas then prevalent in England about marriage along with other legal concepts. Since the right to perform marriages in the mother country was restricted to Church of England priests with a few exceptions, this idea naturally had a place in Canada also.

The Québec Act of 1774 had guaranteed French Canadians the right to praxes Roman Catholicism, and so marriages could be performed by Catholic priests without any legal difficulties. In fact, Roman Catholics in Québec had more rights than Roman Catholics in Britain at this time.

When the government of Ontario was established in the 1790s, the first idea was to establish a narrow range of who might marry, consisting of Church of England and Roman Catholic priests, but almost immediately exceptions were made, with Lutherans and then others being added to the list. The reason for this, here as elsewhere, was simply that there were not enough priests to cover the vast area of the new colonies. It was not reasonable for people to be expected either to wait for a priest to come by so they could be married, or to travel a long distance to find a priest at a time when travel was difficult and expensive.

The rule in Ontario was that if there was not an Anglican priest within a certain distance, someone else could be licensed to perform marriages. These were often Methodist clergy.

By the time the Methodists had begun their evangelical drives in the 1830s, there were many Methodist clergy in the countryside, and people could turn to them for marriage even if their own religion was something else. It was important that there should be a liberal minded clergyman in any area for couples to approach if they had difficulty being married by their own minister, for any reason. These reasons might be theological differences, difficulties over consent or approval of parents, ‘mixed’ marriages (where the bride and bridegroom were of different denominations) or some social situation.

In Waterloo County, Ontario, for example, the Lutheran pastor F. W. Bindemann came from a Reformed background and was quite unusually ecumenically minded for his time. From his arrival in the 1830s for thirty years he traveled widely in the area and was known to perform marriages for anyone who came to him. In fact, there is a story that his front parlour was once so crowded with couples that he saved time by saying, “You want each other? You’ve got each other. Two dollars, please.” This is undoubtedly apocryphal and unlikely, but illustrates his liberality. His (incomplete) marriage records contain names of every ethnic and religious background in the county. Clergy like him could probably be found everywhere in the country.

Aside from this, couples who were uncertain of their reception by their own clergy (as some would be in Presbyterian circles under various circumstances, for instance), everyone knew that they could turn to the Church of England priest and he would marry them. The English tradition that a couple who came to be married to a parish priest had to be married (after the calling of banns, and in public) carried over to Canada. The status of the Church of England as a state (or government) church, as it was in Newfoundland, for instance, and in Ontario until the 1820s, should be remembered.

The message from all this is that researchers should remain open-minded about where they might find marriage records for their relatives. People might wait for a clergyman to come round to baptize their children, and would be unlikely to travel distances to seek someone to christen them. They could easily bury a family member without benefit of clergy, and often had to do so. Marriage, however, was more portable. People might not wish to wait, or might be obliged not to wait, and so would seek out a clergyman wherever they could.

Far-flung Marriages[edit | edit source]

If you have looked for a wedding in local churches in your area, but have not found the one you want, you must begin to look farther afield. Consider the possibility of a circuit rider or missionary.

If your relatives lived on an obvious transportation route, especially water, then the solution is to examine the places where people could go most easily. Those along the coasts of the Atlantic provinces, for instance, could easily board a boat and go to a large nearby town to be married. Those along the St. Lawrence and through the Great Lakes system to the Lake of the Woods might do the same, or cross the border into the United States.

In fact, the traffic between Ontario and New York state for marital purposes was considerable. This often had nothing to do with lack of clergy in one place or the other, or even convenience, but was simply a wish to combine a small trip with the wedding itself, creating what we might call a honeymoon. In 1857 the Ogdensburgh (N.Y.) Republican had an editorial which told that the cost of marrying in Canada had gone up, resulting in a flood of couples crossing Lake Ontario to be married in cheaper New York.[2]

And that brings us to an important but little-known phenomenon which we might call the ‘railway marriage.’

Railway Marriages[edit | edit source]

From the time that the railway was established up to World War II, the railway marriage was a means for couples to be married easily, have a small trip or adventure into the bargain, and avoid the complications and expense of a wedding at home.

It was a simple matter. They would slip away (sometimes unannounced, sometimes with the knowledge of their friends) on the train, journey a short distance, seek out a church in the destination town, and be married. They might stay overnight, but perhaps not, and then return. Depending on the family’s circumstances, they might have a house party or other small celebration once they were back. In the country, there was always the possibility their neighbours would hold a charivari (‘chivaree’) anyway.[3]

These railway marriages happened all over North America, so anyone with a lost marriage from 1850 to 1945 would be advised to consider the possibility. To find the likely town of marriage, obtain a railway map (many old atlases include railway lines) from the period, and follow the line to a logical place. The town is probably not far away, certainly not more than a day’s journey. Hub towns, or towns at the end of a railway line are good candidates. Once you choose a town, see which churches were near the railway station. They are good possibilities.

However, almost any church is likely. Clergy at this time were very used to people coming to the parsonage seeking to be married, and if they had the necessary license (if required), it was a matter of a few minutes’ work only. Clergy in denominations which required the marriage to be in church (such as the Roman Catholics) might require more notice, but Methodists and Presbyterians in particular could be quite welcoming. In these cases you may find that the witnesses bear the same name as the clergyman, as his wife and grown children would act in this capacity.[4]

One hint about these marriages might appear in a newspaper notice. If a couple were married secretly, or at least without previous announcement, then it became news for the community to share. If they lived in the country or a small town, the local newspaper might contain a reference which you can use. Here is an example from the Orono News (Ontario) of 26 January 1911:

Mr. Randolph Woodward and Miss Maggie Lunn made a trip to Peterborough the other week, and after a quiet ceremony returned home man and wife. They are now residing in Oshawa.

In fact, the Woodwards were married in the manse of the church nearest the train station, very handy for everyone, themselves and researchers alike.

One bride of 1934 made it clear that the reason for her ‘railway marriage’ was money. She and her groom took a male cousin and sister (as witnesses), journeyed forty miles on the train, were married, saw a movie and stayed overnight with another cousin before returning home. “We had two dollars when we left and two dollars when we got home,” she said.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. A summary of this issue can be found in Terrence Punch, Genealogist’s handbook for Atlantic Canada research (2d edition, 1997), p. 143.
  2. Quoted in the introduction to The missing marriages of Hastings County (Victoria District), 1850-1861 (1999).
  3. A charivari (pronounced ‘chivaree’) was a wedding celebration staged without notice, with a crowd descending at night (after bedtime) on the house of the newlywed couple. They would make a great deal of noise. The new husband was obliged to invite them in and give them drink, after which there would probably be a party.fckLRAlthough early charivaris were often directed at weddings with something unusual about them (such as an older bridegroom and young bride, or a bride of advanced years being married for the first time), they became more usual as a means of acknowledging the new status of the couple. They had a raucous reputation but many were no more than regular house parties. They continued in some rural areas past the mid-20th century.
  4. Later in the 19th century, some Presbyterian clergy were less relaxed about whom they might marry than before 1850, when the various schisms and theological controversies in Scotland had made everyone prickly.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Canadian: Religious Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

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