Smithers is a town of ten thousand or so, situated at the base of a large rugged mountain in the Canadian Rockies of north central British Columbia. It was established as the Bulkley Valley hub for the Canadian Railroad back in the early 1900’s. Miners fly in every day to pick up assignments in one of the many work projects in that area. In September and October avid fishermen from around the world gather for some of the best fly fishing found anywhere. Those are the only two months when the lodges are open. September is also time for the annual Bulkley Valley Genealogical Seminar (September 20, 2008). It’s a lot cheaper to fly two or three expert genealogy researchers in for a two day seminar, where they can teach sixty to eighty avid hobbyists about the intricacies of English Poor Law, Probate records, Paleography, Sailing and Shipping Records, and Basic New England Research methods, than it is for those sixty to eighty fans of family history to go out and find it on their own.

We met in the Old Anglican Church, newly remodeled, and housing the Bulkley Valley Historical and Genealogical Societies. A group of about 50 to 60 people were in attendance. The theme of the conference was “Olde England to New England”. Clark Brewer, a former resident of Smithers, and a Certified Genealogist in English research, presented the first lecture delving into the Poor Law Ecclesiastical records in English parishes. The parish in English communities held jurisdiction in many of the customs relating to the spiritual welfare of the people. The poor people in the parish looked to the parish priest for care, and it was important to establish who was responsible in such situations. All marriages in a parish regardless of religion were performed by the Anglican Priest. Once a person was accepted as a citizen in a parish, the parish was responsible for their care and up keep. Consequently, if a poor person was deemed to be a drain on the community, both the ecclesiastical authorities and the civil authorities sought to remove them from their parish. If the person was born in the parish, or had lived in the parish for a length of time, the parish was obligated to care for them. Civil law also required the community to provide for their support, health, and up keep, such as housing and food. Care was never sufficient to make life pleasant for the poor, and when there were too many poor, a community was often unable to provide a living substance.

Following Clark’s remarks, Jim Petty, a Certified Genealogist, and also an Accredited Genealogist, with a Degree in Genealogy from Brigham Young University, spoke on the topic of New England Research. Many of the people at the conference had interests in Colonial New England, and those ancestors moved north and west into Canada, before eventually settling in the western provinces. Jim presented information on the basis that Colonial New England had once been part of the British Commonwealth, and the development of records in Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Vermont, would have been typical of other English settlements. Basic record groups such as vital records, church registers, probate files, deeds and mortgages, court records, and military sources were discussed with emphasis on how research can be done in those resources. Paleography, the study of old handwriting was also discussed in relationship to colonial records.

During the afternoon, Mr. Brewer discussed English Probate Records, not just wills, but inventories, administrations, guardianship, and other resources relating to death and estates. He placed special emphasis on Estate Duty Wills and Admons. From 1812, a special tax was attached to estates probated in court. This caused wills and administrations to be duplicated from 1812 to 1900 and filed in the Prerogative Court at Canterbury. This of particular benefit to people of Irish descent, because when the Irish Rebellion took place in 1921-1922, the Irish National Records Office was burned to the ground, and all Irish probate records prior to 1828 were destroyed forever; but because of the Estate Duty laws, all of the wills and admons between 1812 and 1828 survived in England, and can be access both on microfilm and on-line.

Next, Mr. Petty spoke on the topic of “Sailing the Seven Seas.” This discussion was not so much about immigration and emigration, as about discovering genealogy through the records of sailors and seamen, shipping and naval records. Prior to 1945, when air service came into its own, the World functioned on the decks of thousands of ships plowing the sea to transport people, goods, armies, and all manner of activities. This information tied right into Mr. Brewer’s discussions of English Probate Records, and Poor Law research because sailors and seamen were required to record wills in the event of their deaths on the seas, and in as much as many sailors retired into poverty as required care by the government, their personal information was found in Poor Law pensions, and other benefits records.

Following a delicious dinner, topped with wonderful homemade dessert delights, the group met again for an evening of general discussion, including further handwriting studies, and further details on Civil Poor Laws. We discussed individual Brickwall research problems, before calling it a day. It was generally recognized that this was one of the best seminars ever. Plans are in the works for next year’s conference.

To make arrangements to have Mr. Petty speak at your next genealogy society conference, please contact Heirlines on the website url, or call toll free 1-800-570-4049.