My locations of interest are no where near where I live. I was researching from a distance even pre pandemic. Because of this, I’ve gotten pretty good at ferreting out digitized records in unusual places. Don’t get me wrong, on site researching is still best. Only a fraction of what’s out there is online. And there’s nothing like the atmosphere in an Archive, being surrounded by other people who have the same appreciation you do for what it holds. Even if you do have the freedom to travel to those Archives, getting the most of what’s online first will help you make the most of your time when you go.
One of my favourite online sites is Internet Archive. It requires patience to use. The amount of material on it is huge. You have to be willing to be creative with searching. Because it is so big though, you are always going to find something new. This week while playing around with search terms, I found something that will make Alberta Homesteader descendants happy. Someone way back in 2011 uploaded 496 rolls of microfilm to Internet Archive! The microfilm collection is called Alberta Homestead Records, and covers from 1870 to 1930. They were provided by the Provincial Archives of Alberta (PAA), and the University of Alberta Libraries. What makes this such a big deal is Ancestry is the only other place to see these online. So unless you have an Ancestry subscription, you would have to go the the Provincial Archives to view these microfilms.
Ok, now for the downside. Internet Archive uploads are not indexed for the most part, but they use OCR for searching within documents. However, this collection is mostly handwritten documents, so OCR will not work. And there’s 496 rolls of microfilm your ancestor might be in. That’s a daunting enough task to make even the most stubborn and determined of us to wince.
But here come the Alberta Genealogical Society to the rescue! These saintly people have made an index on their website that will narrow your searching tremendously. So here’s what you’re going to do. You open two windows on your computer. One for the AGS’s index, and one for the Internet Archive Collection.
This index actually covers three separate collections for a total over over 600 microfilms. Along with the Homestead Records Collection, it also includes Applications for Alberta Land Patents, 1885‒1897 and post 1930 files. So keep in mind that just because they are in the index, they won’t necessarily be in the Internet Archive collection. You can search the index in several ways
- Given Name
- West of the ? Meridian
- Place Name
- PAA reference number
- Microfilm number
- File number
I don’t have any Homesteaders in my direct line. I’m sure in one of my collateral lines there is. Several generations of large families with their children having large families makes the odds rather good that at least one of them came West. I haven’t found one yet though. So I looked to one of my side research project’s lines, and chose the surname Cowger. The index gave me 32 results.
No matter how you search, there’s three things you need to take note of in your results:
- PAA reference number – if the record is in the Internet Archive collection, you want to see 1970.313. If it is a different number, then it’s not in the collection.
- Film number
- File number
Now let’s go to Internet Archive and look for Chester Millage Cowger’s file. The initial image for each microfilm is the microfilm number. There is a rare one that does not, but the microfilm number is in the title.
Here’s a handy trick for you: Type in the microfilm number in the search box and the one you want will show immediately. I want microfilm 2128.
Ok, so this is where the browsing comes into play. But I’ve found a way to make that faster too. When you go into the microfilm, it will show two images at a time. But. you can open up more images to quickly scan for the start of each file. I clicked on the bottom tool to make the images a grid. What you are looking for it is start of each file.
When you click on a particular image, it will go to single image view automatically so you can read it. Then just click grid view again, to resume searching till you find the start of the file you want. I checked, and the roll I’m looking at is more or less in numerical order. So I was able to find file 1913195 fairly quickly.
So what can you find in these records? According the the Alberta Genealogy Society’s website, you can find
In Charles’ case. I found that he was the fourth person to try homesteading in this particular spot. The first person, Gilbert Silas Hern from Manitoba, tried in 1891. Then, in 1910 two more men, one from England and one from the USA applied and subsequently abandoned their Homestead claims. Charles, or Chester as he called himself succeeded in his claim and the land title was transferred into his name in 1914.
The images are not too bad for clarity. Especially when you consider it was uploaded a decade ago. You can zoom in and out on the images quite easily, the use the slider bar at the bottom of the image to move it left and right. One of the drawbacks is that some images were uploaded sideways, and there is no way to rotate them that I could find. To get around this, I right clicked and saved the image to my computer. Then in the photo editor I could rotate the image. A final caveat: to save these images for your records, do not use the download option. This will download the whole microfilm. Instead, right click and save each image.
If you have an Ancestry subscription, then you’ll want to access their collection Alberta, Canada, Homestead Records, 1870-1930. This collection does have some advantages over Internet Archive’s collection:
- The images are much clearer
- It is fully indexed
- You can rotate images and download them much more easily