Early Settlement Periods
There were five major settlement periods in Nova Scotia. The Micmac Indians were the original settlers. Then came the French. Later, the British defeated the French in the French and Indian War, and most of the (Acadian) French were forced to leave. The British began settlement by recruiting some from the American colonies as well as from Britain and "foreign Protestants" from Germany. Up to that time Nova Scotia included what is now New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Prince Edward Island separated from Nova Scotia in 1769. In 1783 thousands of Loyalists were forced to leave the American colonies and many immigrated to Nova Scotia where they petitioned for and received free land grants. In the following year, 1784, New Brunswick was created into a separate province. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, over 100, 000 people left the Highlands of Scotland for Canada. In the 1825 to 1850 period many Irish also immigrated to Canada. By the 1830s, immigrants came to Nova Scotia from all over Germanic Europe - Austria, Baden, Bayern, Hessen-Darmstadt, Elsass-Lothringen (Alsace-Lorraine), Holstein, Mecklenburg, Wurttemberg, and other German settlements.
Regretfully, there exists a rarity of immigration records to Nova Scotia and an almost total absence of passenger lists. For the few that survived, it is necessary to know the name of the ship, the port of arrival, and the date.
The Nova Scotia provincial government was slow in formation and functioning in some areas. The majority of censuses taken under British rule have survived and are in the National Archives in Ottawa or the Provincial Archives in Halifax. The first British census was in 1752, but it covered only Halifax and the immediate area. It gives the name of the head of the family, and the ages and sex of other members. Other censuses were taken in the intervening years, but only of portions of the province. In 1838 there was a general census of the province, but Cumberland County is missing. It wasn't until 1861 that a general census was taken where it has survived in its entirety. However, only the head of family was named. The censuses since then are complete. They provide detailed information about each member in the family: name, age, sex, place of origin, etc. Since then at ten year intervals other censuses have been taken. Those from 1871 through 1891 are open to public search.
Commencing in 1864 the province began recording vital statistics. Initially there was some resistance by the public to provide information as they feared that any information provided to the government would lead to higher taxation. Another factor was the scattered nature of the settlement and the isolation of many communities. Thus, these early records were not "complete." There was a period between 1867 and 1908 when vital statistics were not taken. As such, for those years we are dependent on other sources of information for similar information. Those records might include such items as wills and probates, church records of baptisms and marriages, land grants and property deed recordings, and township records, published genealogies and family histories. Since 1908 the vital statistics for birth, marriages and deaths have been in the custody of the Registrar General of Nova Scotia, Provincial Bldg., PO Box 157, Halifax, NS B3J 2M9. This agency, however, has a history of being "unfriendly" to those researching. For example, when responding to a request for a birth certificate, the Agency has required the full name, exact date, place of birth, full name of father, and full name (and maiden name) of mother before a search can be made and a certificate issues. Typically, that is the same information which the applicant wishes to learn.
Spelling of Names
Complicating matters, record takers were not always well educated and they tended to write what they "heard." As such, spelling variations were quite common and represent a challenge when undertaking research. In some situations, branches of families have retained the "misspelled" version to this day. Many are unaware of that as they search for ancestors where the ancestor's name may have been spelled in the "original" manner. Children were often named after relatives. The first son was often named after the child's paternal grandfather. Similarly, the first daughter was often named after the child's paternal grandmother. Children were also given as a first or second name, the maiden name of a mother or grandmother. Thus, attention to the full names in a family lineage can offer important research clues.
Counties, Townships and Parishes
In the early period of settlement, Nova Scotia was divided into counties and townships within counties. Some township names do not appear on maps. As an example, the township of Cornwallis was one of the first important settlements in the province, and it is located within Kings County. However, the name does not appear on most maps. Later, parishes were formed within counties.
On-line services, such as America On-line or Internet Web Sites, provide opportunities to post queries about your heritage search in the hope that others may be able to provide answers. Although some queries result in new discoveries, I have estimated that at any one time anywhere from 95% to 100% never receive an answer to their query. One can review a sample of queries to confirm that observation. The reason for such a relatively low "success rate" rests primarily on the conditions mentioned in this note.
To improve the odds of having your query answered with important information, it is important to (1) ensure that one has done their "homework" and (2) to post "complete" queries.
"Homework" - United States Death Records
In situations where the last known relative was born in Nova Scotia, for example, and later moved to and died in the United States, it would be important to first search for death records in that state. If you do not know the date or year of death, one can search the censuses for that state until the relative was no longer listed. That approach provides an estimated period for a death search. With the death certificate one would, hopefully, learn the date and exact place of death, as well as the names of the parents and their place of birth. With the date of death, one could then search for a potential obituary that might reveal other important information. The local reference librarian at the place of death would be someone to contact. With the obituary, one might learn the name of the cemetery and funeral director where other files may exist on the family. All of those should be searched.
Post Potentially Effective Queries
Many queries that are posted on genealogical message boards lack important information that might otherwise prompt a helpful response. Queries should first be clear about what it is that's being sought. In most situations, the search is for ancestors of last known relatives. In those situations, share the full name(s) of the last known relative. Include the birth, marriage and death dates and places when known, or best estimates. Include the full names of children, if known, and from which one you descend. Separate facts from "family tradition says..." Both are important, but keep them separate. Then be specific about what it is that you are searching.
In some few situations people have already identified many past generations of a given surname and are simply searching for any "new information." However, in those situations the posted query typically does not make that clear. So, be specific about your request.
Hiring a Genealogist
Many who are researching for relatives in Nova Scotia may not be aware that their Canadian origins often trace back to "first families" of that province. Many of those early families were either preloyalist settlers (prior to 1783) or loyalist settlers who immigrated to N.S. in 1783. In both situations, many of those families came from the colonies where their families had been for up to 150 years. Some early Yarmouth families descended from Mayflower families.
Those years were ones when record keeping was in the formative stages. Records do exist for those early years, but knowing which might have the important information, knowing where those records can be accessed, which resources which may have additional information, and how to access each is key. One can, of course, visit the province and conduct a personal search. For most, that option is not practical.
For those who place a high value on uncovering their heritage, it can make sense to hire an experienced genealogist for some short term assistance. In the vast majority of situations, an experienced genealogist should be able to search published records which might be of importance in a manner of a few hours. The genealogist could then either search other records, typically on microfilm, or (my suggestion) identify important records which the client who could borrow via interlibrary loan and search them on their own time and at their own convenience. The report could outline a "logic trail" to follow, identifying which "next steps to take, and why," including potential resources to contact. In that way, research can be focused and fees can be controlled.
Updated 31 Dec 2000