• Colleen Murray

Gems in Ontario's Heir & Devisee Commission records

FamilySearch has digitized the Heir & Devisee 2nd Commission Records for Ontario, and some are freely available to view from home. You do need to sign up for a free FamilySearch account in order to be able to view. The link to the collection is here.


Oddly, the older records for the 1st Heir & Devisee Commission are also digitized, but can only be viewed from a Family History Center. The link to that collection is here.


*Since the older records are the ones not available, it’s not a privacy issue. One of my biggest genealogical wishes is for the Archives of Ontario to choose a wider and more consistent approach as to which records they allow FamilySearch to show us from home. Especially during the pandemic when access to Family History Centers is difficult, home access would be so appreciated. I suspect that the Archives of Ontario just needs to take the time to review which records aren’t accessible from home, and communicate to FamilySearch if more are actually eligible for release.*


The Heir & Devisee Commission was in charge of sorting out messy land situations. For example, if someone died without a will, prior to obtaining the patent on their land, their heirs may have applied to the Commission to be awarded ownership of that land. The files contain depositions, documents and letters with genealogical information that can be difficult to find elsewhere in this time frame.


An alphabetical card index of the case files covering 1804-1895 was digitized in the collection, although the case files I can access from home appear to run from 1808-1881. Note that the files were indexed by the name of the claimants- the name of the person who originally owned the land is not part of the index. I have found some normal transcription errors in the index, so be generous in your search.


There are digitized minute books and other correspondence, but the most useful records are the full case files, that you can easily locate using the number found on the digitized index card.


Index card from Heir and Devisee Commission collection
Mary Milton claim file index card

What might you find in the files? Here is one example of Mary Mariah Milton’s case file. Mary was the daughter of William Alexander, a soldier with the Royal Artillery. William died of cholera in 1832 without leaving a will, but leaving some land in Eldon township. In 1845, Mary finally succeeded in convincing the Commission to give her and her sisters their late father’s land.


Deposition from Mary Mariah Milton, claiming father William Alexander's land
Deposition from Mary Mariah Milton

Source: Upper Canada, Heir and Devisee Commission, Land records, 1796-1894, Case files (40-4637 to 4653) 1843, Mary Marie Milton (file 40-2651); FamilySearch (www.familysearch.org: accessed 27 Sept 2021), images 761 to 784 of 1227; Archives of Ontario, Toronto.


The file contains depositions from Mary and people who knew her and her sisters, Jane and Ellen. We learn such information as:

  • Mary’s husband was John Laughlin Milton.

  • Jane first married Alexander Gullen, and after his death, married William Henry Wyman.

  • Ellen was married to Henry or Peter Von Brocklin/ Van Braughlin.

  • Mary had lived with her grandfather until she was six years old (possibly in Ireland).

  • Mary now lived in Pittsburgh Township (Ontario), while her sisters now lived in the United States.


*Beware and read the documents carefully- this file also contained copies of documents that were determined in the course of the Commission inquiry to pertain to a different man by the same name, who was also a member of the Royal Artillery, but who applied for land in 1840, after our William was already deceased.*


After his death, William’s parents, Robert and Mary Alexander wrote to him, and Mary used this letter, that mentioned her and her sisters, as part of her proof that they were William’s daughters and only heirs.


Letter from Mary Milton's grandparents, Robert and Mary Alexander, from Green Castle, Ireland 1833
Letter from Green Castle Ireland, 1833 from Robert and Mary Alexander

The letter was dated 1833 from Green Castle- since there is more than one place in Ireland using this name, some more research will be required. Robert and Mary had not heard from William since 1830, so their 1833 letter content is heavy on guilt for William's negligence, but we are also able to learn quite a bit about the family.

  • Robert reported in the letter that his brothers George and James had recently died.

  • Jane and Ellen were not married as of the last letter Robert and Mary received, but Mary was. Therefore, Mary married before 1830, and Jane and Ellen probably after 1830. Or, since Jane married twice, it's possible her first husband was already deceased by 1830.

The potato crop in Ireland had failed, a precursor to the Great Famine years to come in the following decade. Heartbreakingly, we see that Robert was particularly concerned about the cholera outbreak he’d heard about, which in fact turned out to be the cause of William’s death, and a partial reason why Robert had received no letters home recently.


Paying it forward?


This isn’t my family- I thought it might be, when I originally checked the file. But even when I knew these weren’t my people, I’d already become completely wrapped up in their story. Since this is such a great find, I wanted to make sure the information was shared with the family. I went to Ancestry & searched for public member trees for the Alexander family, and forwarded the link to someone who appears likely to be a direct descendant of the Miltons. They can research it further to see if it is indeed their family. Let’s hope I just helped break through their Irish brick wall today!