Thursday, September 4, 2014

When is a Wilkerson a Wilkinson?

One of the many challenges we can face when exploring our various family lines is coming across a surname change in one of the branches. In my case I was researching the Wilkerson line that, around the mid to late 1780s, came to what later became known as Canada. Much like most of my research I was working from the present to the past. Everything was going just fine until I came to the Robert Wilkerson that was born about 1785 and died July 21, 1843. That is when the problem began. OK, actually he wasn't the problem. It was his father or more correctly how his father spelled the family name.

On handwritten notes found in the collections of the Niagara Peninsula branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society that at the time were housed at the Thorold Public Library but are now at the St. Catharines Public Library there was comment on the Wilkerson page of "Robert Wilkinson or Wilkerson" with one of the children listed as "Robert". It just happened that on the same day I was looking at the collection another couple was also researching the same family name. Except they were coming at it from the John Wilkerson (husband of Anne Hoover) branch.

Since I am a doubting sort when it comes to documents that I have no idea as to their source or providence I could only use that note as a possible clue or guidepost. I knew I had to dig further to verify this change of surname and make sure the Wilkerson and Wilkinson families were one in the same. Since the events took place in the early history of Upper Canada and civil birth, marriage, and death registrations are non-existent I decided to use will and land records. Yes, church records are a possibility but many have been lost in this early time of Ontario and even then many don't record the names of parents when it comes to marriage records or funerals.

My first stop was the Niagara Settlers web site. This is an amazing resource for those with ancestors that settled in the Niagara Peninsula region after the American Revolution. There you will find transcriptions of land transactions and petitions along with some old township maps. There I found transcriptions under the name of Robert Wilkerson Sr. for a number of land transactions to his sons made via wills. But it this the right person since the transcription says Wilkerson and not Wilkinson? The only way to be sure is to get a copy of the wills.

From the will of Robert Wilkinson, written 12 May 18131

Step 1: Finding the Wills

The first thing I had to do was to find the wills in question. For that I headed over to the Archives of Ontario web site and their online "Ontario Court of Probate and Surrogate Court Records: Wills and Estate Files - A Pathfinder" document. From the clues I'd already been able to gather I know (or presumed) the following:
  • Robert Wilkerson died 21 Jul 1843 [from his grave marker]
  • John Wilkerson died in 1827 [from hand written notes in the Thorold library]
  • Robert Wilkinson died in 1813 [from hand written notes in the Thorold library]
So it seemed that all the deaths happened before 1859 so that is a good thing for me since there are actually online indexes on the Archives of Ontario web site:

Inventory 22, Appendix A1 (Court of Probate)
Inventory 22, Appendix A25 (Surrogate Courts)

I didn't find any Wilkerson or Wilkinson names from the townships and counties in the Niagara area in the Inventory 22, Appendix A1 (Court of Probate) index but a check of Inventory 22, Appendix A25 (Surrogate Courts) had quite a number with those surnames from Lincoln county.

The next step to locate the microfilm that has the information from the Surrogate Court was to locate the records for Lincoln county. I went to the Estate files section and found that all the possible name variants for this family in Lincoln county could be found on microfilm MS 8421. That was almost too easy. Through the Ottawa Public Library I knew I could order that microfilm via the Interlibrary Loan program. The hardest part was the waiting for the microfilm to arrive ... almost 3 weeks but it finally did come in.

Step 2: Saving the Microfilm Pages

The reading of the old handwriting can be a chore and, depending on the scribbles, sometimes near impossible. Instead of attempting to do the work at the library I made use of the one and only microfilm reader with USB saving capabilities at the main branch of the library to save the pages as images. Since the pages on the microfilm reader were larger than what could be scanned in in one shot I scanned them in piecemeal (top, bottom, left, right, etc.) with the expectation of being able to stitch them together at home into a readable document.

[As an aside, whenever you scan a microfilm page make sure you scan it at the highest resolution possible and save it in TIF format. Although it makes for a huge file it will be a good thing later on when you need to zoom in or do any editing to the pages.]

Once I got home I was able to use Microsoft's free (yes, FREE!) Image Composite Editor to just drag and drop the various parts of the pages onto the edit screen and it automagically created perfectly stitched together single pages for me.

Step 3: Reading and Transcribing

This for me is always the most painful part of genealogy research. But I have found that if I don't do this, especially for long handwritten documents, I can easily lose track of what I've read and that leads to confusion. Always a bad thing when doing research. A few days later (I had to take breaks so I wouldn't go too crazy) I had the wills transcribed. By the way, the more practice you have in reading and transcribing these documents the easier it becomes.

Step 4: Analysis and Conclusion

This was the interesting part. I now had the transcriptions of the wills of the Robert Wilkinson and that of two of his sons to work from plus digital images of the wills to verify what I had transcribed (yes, sometimes I even doubt my own transcriptions).

In the will of Robert Wilkinson of the Township of Thorold, Lincoln County, Niagara District, Upper Canada dated May 12, 18131 he leaves the following property to his sons:
  • Lot 46: to son Robert
  • Lot 47: to son John
  • Lot 70: one third (south end) to son Jacob, two thirds (north end) to son Robert
  • Lot 93: one third (south end) to son Jacob, two thirds (north end) to son John

Previously Robert had given by deed the following lots
  • Lot 92: to son Jacob
In the will of John Wilkerson2 of the Township of Thorold, Lincoln County, Niagara District, Upper Canada dated August 21, 1827 he authorizes his executors to “…sell my real or landed estates and to make legal titles for the same…”. The lands in the Township of Thorold, Lincoln County, Niagara District are:
  • Lot 47
  • Lot 70

The will of Robert Wilkerson3 of the Township of Thorold, Lincoln County, Niagara District, Province of Canada dated July 18, 1843 has the following lands listed in the Township of Thorold, Lincoln County, Niagara District:
  • Lot 46: to son Robert Morgan
  • Lot 69: two thirds to son Robert Morgan
So from these documents we see that the land that Robert Wilkinson bequeathed to his sons John and Robert appear in the wills of John Wilkerson and Robert Wilkerson. In addition to the aforementioned wills, extracts4 from the Abstracts of Deeds taken from the Register of Thorold Township provide details concerning the early land transactions of that township. These extracts confirm that the lands stated within the various families. By following these wills we can see the surname change from Wilkinson to Wilkerson.

1. Ontario, Estate Files (1794-1930), microfilm MS 8421, Will for Robert Wilkinson, dated 12 May 1813; Archives of Ontario, Toronto.
2. Ontario, Estate Files (1794-1930), microfilm MS 8421, Will for John Wilkinson, dated 21 Aug 1827; Archives of Ontario, Toronto.
3. Ontario, Estate Files (1794-1930), microfilm MS 8421, Will for Robert Wilkerson, dated 18 Jul 1843; Archives of Ontario, Toronto.
4. Niagara Settlers, Settler Records “W”, Thorold Township, Welland County, Extracted from the Abstracts of Deeds, Register of Thorold Township, 2 Sep 2014.


  1. Great blog post! I've been chasing my WILKINSON ancestors around New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts in the US. I have seen the same spelling changes here. You've done a great job documenting your family.