January 16, 1888
Genealogy is the second most popular hobby in the U.S. after gardening, according to ABC News, and the second most visited category of websites, after pornography. It’s a billion-dollar industry that has spawned profitable websites, television shows, scores of books and — with the advent of over-the-counter genetictest kits — a cottage industry in DNA ancestry testing.
There was a time in Newfoundland when genealogists were frustrated; there were no official institutions in place to help them to build a family tree. One of the first residents of the colony (now province) to recognize this reality was James Murray a St. John’s, Water Street merchant. In January 1888 Murray wrote to the St. John’s newspaper the Evening Telegram:
“I cannot but express my regret; even at this late day, no effective steps have yet been taken in this colony by which genealogical records may be kept in a public, official and systematic way. As we may fairly assume that the colony has now a definite future before it, I think that no further time should be lost in supplying this lack of vital statistics, the last, but not least, distinguishing mark of civilization.”
Another decade was to pass before the recommendations of Murray were to be heeded. Civil registration started in Newfoundland and Labrador in 1891. Beginning at that time, all clergy were required to register with the government, all baptisms, marriages and burials conducted within their jurisdiction. Prior to 1891, no such central registry existed, so the only records of baptism, marriage or burial were the ones held by the churches.
It was not until 1956 that a grant from the Carnegie Foundation of New York allowed a group of academics at Memorial University of Newfoundland to begin to collect organize and describe various collections of historic government records which included marriage, birth and death registers.
In 1959 the Provincial Government of Newfoundland passed the Historic Objects, Sites and Records Act which established the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL). At that point the records were transferred to PANL located in the Colonial Building on Military Road.
In 2005 the Provincial Archives Division was established in The Rooms.
It was ironic that Murray who was so passionate about keeping records in a “public, official and systematic way’ in the Great Fire of 1892, which razed much of St. John’s, lost all that was dear to him. While the Murray premises were spared, the records (that he held so dear) were destroyed when the safe in which they were stored was opened too quickly after the conflagration.
Recommended Archives: Contact the Rooms Provincial Archives at (709) 757-8088 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Recommended Archival Collection: At The Rooms Provincial Archives: https://www.therooms.ca/collections-research/genealogy-research
Recommended Reading: Family Names of the Island of Newfoundland E.R. Seary (Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1976). Corrected edition by William J. Kirwin. (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998