By Sherry Irvine, MSC CG FSA Scot
The county of Yorkshire was the largest in England, at one time comprising more than 3.5 million acres. Sparsely populated for a long time, its numbers grew dramatically in the first half of the nineteenth century as mining and heavy industry attracted a large labour force.
Sheer size and the growth in population can create some research challenges. In addition, some records are difficult to access, especially for distances researcher. Anyone with Yorkshire roots needs to keeps maps handy as well because the lay of the land and boundary changes should be kept in mind.
Yorkshire is so large that knowing this is the county of origin may not be enough, particularly if this is before 1837. If you are starting your research after the start of civil registration and the first nominal census of 1841 then online databases of civil registration indexes and census returns are available. This helps a great deal but with a common name and lacking specific facts about age and birthplace you may still have trouble recognizing your family. Before modern records you face the challenge of dealing with between six and seven hundred parishes.
South Australia, Utah and Nova Scotia are just three far flung areas that received Yorkshire settlers. Anyone tracing the steps of migrants back to their place of origin in England should take time to investigate the story behind the move because it may include the place of origin. In Nova Scotia, for example, more than a thousand people left Yorkshire because of the efforts of the colonial governor, Michael Francklin, to attract settlers in the 1770s.
Shortly before the American Revolution he went back to England seeking experienced and hardy farmers to settle areas once occupied by Acadians. Eleven ships brought settlers, nine of them sailing in 1774. If your ancestors were part of this migration you can find lists of ships, individual names and places of origin. Most of these Yorkshire people came out of the East and North Riding and they had names like Blenkhorn, Calvert, Fielding, Humphrey, Layton, Oxley, and Ward.
Databases Can Help
Those of you searching in Yorkshire without any sense of where should hope for an unusual surname. Entered into an online database with Yorkshire content and it will not generate a long list of matches. However, if the opposite is true, and the surname is common you will have to find additional limiting factors such as a town or parish name or a limited date range. Probably two or three hundred results are the most anyone can cope with.
Plotting locations of database results that may fit your family is a useful exercise. You can see on a map whether results are spread over the county or clustered together. Origins has a unique feature to help. The table of search results can be sorted several ways, simply click on a column heading to sort by that category. For plotting names on a map you want to select the Parish column. Once done you have an alphabetical list of places that can be looking up in a gazetteer and marked. Seeing the spread or cluster of the matches around Yorkshire you are able to plan the order in which your possible matches can be examined more closely.
In the past year or so some datasets specific to Yorkshire have been added to British Origins, including probate indexes and census records. The most recent probate item, the indexes to Prerogative and Exchequer Court of York probate material 1853 to 1858, make up the first stage in adding more data back to the medieval indexes, also at the site.
British Origins sets out clearly the content of its many databases and you can search across all them or work through them one at a time. Those of you with Yorkshire roots can focus on Yorkshire sources.
Elsewhere on the Web there is plenty of helpful information and data for Yorkshire. The main portal to British resources, Genuki, is a good place to explore first. Other useful sites are the GenWeb site for Yorkshire, the records information at the West Yorkshire Archives Service and civil registration data at Yorkshire BMD.
Redmonds, George. Surnames in Genealogy: A New Approach. Federation of Family History Societies, 2002.