12 July 2008

Frasers Part 4: Losing Your Census

The things that drive a genealogist crazy.
This is a four-part whine for the benefit of the uninitiated who may have the slightest curiosity about why we are crazy.

(1) The old seignory of Argenteuil in Quebec measured 54,000 acres. Development first began about 1800 at St. Andrews village and the agricultural area around it. Early provincial surveyor Joseph Bouchette’s A Topographical Dictionary of the Province of Lower Canada (1832) informs us that 520 farm lots had been created in the vicinity, and the village at the time of the 1831 census had a population of 2,550. Genealogically speaking, this is not an overly large pool in which to trace several Fraser families, even when we add on nearby Lachute and other growing settlements. Even better, there are early census returns and church registers filling the period from about 1800 to 1850.
Map courtesy of the Comte d’Argenteuil’s website at www.comte-argenteuil.com/ and likely derived from M. Bouchette. I love this map. I am so happy M. le Comte put this on his website.

Nevertheless, my question du jour is why on earth have I found so many stray Frasers in a fifty year period? Twenty of them, and still counting! Strays are those pesky people who turn up, usually once! ... with no apparent link to the families being studied. They don’t fit. I would like them to fit. Some of them are Scottish-born immigrants who could be siblings or cousins and could possibly shed light on the overseas connection. "Family reconstitution" is a familiar phrase in this genealogy business. Sigh. It involves attempting to reconstruct ancestral "nuclear" families and in this case must embrace at least the last generation born in Scotland.

(2) Three important, early census returns exist for the seignory of Argenteuil. They are for 1825, 1831 and 1842. Counting all three, there are nine Fraser households, some of whom are mine. Nine men are named as the heads of households in those three periods. That’s the good news. This is typical of Canadian census returns prior to 1851—only the "heads" are named. But within those household statistics the real total is 73 Frasers. So you see the bad news ... no names for the other 64 children, grandchildren, aged parents, mothers-in-law, uncle, nephew, and strays like farm workers and domestic help.

The government does provide column after column of statistics for each household. Sometimes the columns extend for pages. Imagine trying to follow say John Fraser on line 31 across four or six pages of numbers when the heading on each column is out of sight, or it’s in French, or a large ink blot obscures what you want. Trust me, even the enumerators got confused. Household totals and the age categories for individuals (e.g. "over the age of six and under the age of fourteen") are frequently off-kilter. Wouldn’t it have been a lot easier just to name each person in the house?

A tiny example of identifying each family goes something like this. One John Fraser might be recorded as having four children under the age of six, three of them girls. We try to match this household with a John Fraser who probably had daughters born before 1825 but after 1818. More or less. If the church registers have baptism records back that far. Or if they fit with adult daughters in later censuses. If none of them succumbed to infant mortality in the meantime.

(3) Here is a characteristic Highland Scots complaint. My Frasers wanted to call all their sons John, James and Alexander, etc. And their daughters Ann/Nancy, Elizabeth and Mary, etc. The sons and daughters all had children and of course used the same names. Soon we have four or five Nancys and Johns born within a few years. One would expect the later census returns that do name all members in a family/household would help untangle this. But did they all stay at home? No! Inevitably they go to visit Fraser cousins or work for an uncle or care for a grandparent just when the census-taker was at hand. Today’s researcher is left wondering is that Alex’s John or John’s John? John’s Nancy or James’ Nancy? So you can be darn sure of the chaos by the time the third generation arrived.

(4) Why is the page with *MY* Nancy missing in the 1861 census?!


CallieK said...

I know this was written some time ago but I instantly identified with your post. I have my own missing Fraser/Frazer that may or may not connect with your. I'm searching for more info on Elizabeth Fraser ( or Frazer) who married the equally elusive Archibald McVicar in Grenville, Aug 11 1850. They later resided in Brownsburg and are both buried in Lachute. Her father may ( or may not ) be the John Fraser of Banffshire that you eliminated from your family. I would love to connect with you because it seems you have very detailed info of the Fraser name in the area that I am researching and maybe able to shed some light on some of the inconsistancies I'm running into.

BDM said...

Hi Callie! Good to hear from you. Let's connect in the New Year: brendadougallmerriman at gmail.com. I will have to review what I've collected about 'other' Frasers (an unfinished project).

Cyndi Fraser said...

Brenda, I got chills when I ran across your blog and saw the surname Fraser and Campbell used in conjunction with Argenteuil but I soon realized that you were related to one of the "other" Fraser lines from the area. Like you, I can not find my husband's line listed in the 1861 census, as well, even though they show up in the 1852 and 1871 census.
My husband's Fraser line includes:
Donald FRASER 1792 – 1876
Christinia "Christy"CAMPBELL 1795–1889 and their children:
Alexander FRASER 1830 – Catherine Fraser 1832 –
Mary Fraser 1835 –
Colin FRASER 1837 – 1908
The 1841 Scotland census has them living in Gleneg-Inverness-shire and they emigrated to Glengary, Ontario around 1847 and then to Harrington, Quebec around 1849.
Perhaps our lines cross in Scotland. Have enjoyed reading what you have posted. Cyndi Fraser

BDM said...

Thanks for the comment, Cyndi. I've been away for a while. I don't see a connection here with your origins in Glenelg but it's always good to be aware of the same surname around the vicinity. Best wishes,