10 Ontario Research Tips

by Brenda Dougall Merriman, CG, CGL


Do You Really Care About Your Ancestry or Family History?

This first comment is really applicable to all ancestor-hunters, not just those with Ontario families. How can seasoned researchers catch your attention before you make some false assumptions or claim the wrong family line? Sometimes it seems difficult to present tips and advice for “newbies” to the whole idea of family history and genealogy without feeling a bit stale because of the repetitive nature of writing and teaching in this field. Nevertheless, basic advice is necessary for each new wave of interest whether it starts online or in a library.

If you are dabbling in your ancestry on the Internet, you may be satisfied with finding unsourced, uncited, undocumented information (which may or may not relate to your direct family). You may accept without question the postings made on listserves and message boards, free “lookups” and random acts of kindness from strangers. Then there is no point in reading on. While sharing has always played a big part in the genealogical community—witness the electronic medium we share as I write and you read—it is a means, not an end. If you become hooked on the chase like so many of us, your self-respect ought to assert itself that being a “name collector” is not good enough. To compile something meaningful for and about your family, standard research skills and thoughtful evaluation are employed every step of the way, building on each new clue you find. 


Not Everything is Nominally Indexed, Digitized or in a Database

Historical records for Ontario (Upper Canada, Canada West) are becoming increasingly available on the Internet. The most trustworthy sources are digitized images which are a facsimile of the original pages or documents. But much as we admire the organizations that offer databases and digital images, all the source material we could use to construct a family tree or produce a quality family history is not on the Internet. When you consider the vast resources of prime institutions such as the Archives of Ontario (AO) and our national Library and Archives Canada (LAC) , only a fraction of their genealogically-useful material has online indexes or searchable databases (the latter are found at the virtual Canadian Genealogy Centre ). In fact, archival descriptions and finding aids to their manuscript (non-microfilmed) holdings are still incomplete.

The Internet has a dual nature for genealogists: (a) It can be a time-saving guide to repository catalogues and record descriptions, so you can prepare for a personal visit or make intelligent inquiries for search services or microfilm interloan. (b) Family information posted by individuals can be a guide—only a guide—to original sources we need to consult by traditional research procedures. And of course we should know enough that what we see on personal websites or searchable databanks varies a great deal in credibility. Serious family historians look behind the superficial to ask where did this information come from and how valid is it? This Ontario GenWeb site has some excellent articles about Ontario’s record sources and how to find them. 


Take the Time to Understand “The Systems”

Before delving into one of Ontario’s rich historical sources, your search for an ancestral name will benefit from an understanding of who created this particular source, what the original purpose was, what its date ranges are, and whether it has anomalies, missing portions, limited geographic scope or content. None of the records we, in the 21st century, use for genealogical purposes were created as such. Knowing the who-why-how-when-where of records creation helps you to avoid errors or misinterpretations. “Name collectors” copy names from source material without thinking about them; family historians take the time to inform themselves about the records they are using. The introductions to books, the finding aids and source descriptions, looking for background information—all increase your own knowledge and provide essential value to your ancestral project.

Record-taking and -keeping may have been on a national, provincial, county and town (or township) basis, and some of those responsibilities changed hands as the province’s population grew. Until 1867, “Canada” consisted of Upper or West (Ontario) and Lower or East (Quebec). The records that we like to use—such as census and vital statistics—were created according to contemporary legislative authority, i.e. the system in place at the time. As an example, early Ontario census returns pre-1851 were originally a district responsibility and many local-level lists have disappeared since they were created. Surviving ones are not all in one institution. In 1851 and 1861 it was still the province’s responsibility because there was no “national” level. By 1871 the population census was a federal mandate. Most historic census returns are now in the custody of LAC, with interloan availability, but widely available at provincial institutions as microfilm copies.

Unlike much of customary American research sources, Ontario county courthouses are not a focal point for genealogical collections like land and property registration or local vital statistics. We tend to centralize historic records from all regions in a provincial repository. Courthouses hold wills and estate files only for the past forty years (and other recent court records). County registry or land title offices have property transactions dating back to the 1790s, but most of these are available on microfilm at AO and through local Family History Centers of the famed Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City. The point is that you can search microfilms through one of those facilities rather than travelling around the countryside to county towns and meeting disappointment. The main advantage in visiting a registry office is to see copies of original deeds, of which they hold the only sets of microfilm. But you can do your homework first, obtaining relevant deed numbers in advance. Most of the historic material you will want to use for Ontario has now been acquired and catalogued by either LAC or AO. Try to think in terms of these two institutions as your first centralized port of call for exploration of public records. 


Citing Sources Carefully and Properly

More and more we are hearing about “citing your sources” and “source citation.” There are very good reasons for this call, whatever “product” you are making of your researches. They include the need to convince your own family of your expertise but also to meet acceptable standards of like-minded colleagues. Standards require that anyone reading your properly-cited material will be able to locate the same sources for their own satisfaction or for future reference long after you are gone. If your interest in family research continues to grow as a lifelong pursuit, experience shows that you yourself at some point will want to return to a certain page in a book, to a microfilmed document, or to an old manuscript deep in an almost-forgotten archives.

You’re not alone. Every family historian has agonized after the fact over “What was that exact thing I looked at and where did I find it?!” We don’t always catch the full nuances contained in a source the first time around! Whatever stage you are at now, this is the time to unfailingly record your sources for each piece of information you uncover. It’s not rocket science. The basics of citations are simply what is it? and where is it? You take an extra minute at the time to write down what you saw and where you saw it—the name of the source (book, record, manuscript or electronic source), who created it or holds custody of it, volume or page numbers, and microfilm information, if applicable. Helpful details and examples for Ontario records can be found at . More information is in Elizabeth Shown Mills’ book Evidence! Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian, while her QuickSheet: Citing Online Historical Sources is a handy and inexpensive laminated for Internet and electronic sources, both available through Global Genealogy .

Ontario roots seekers: It’s important to get the names right, not only the names of your sources but the repositories that created them or gave you access to them. Above I have given you the correct names for the two major institutions you will consult at some time in your historical journey. Just like towns and roads, those institutions have changed their names from time to time. Library and Archives Canada was first known as Public Archives of Canada, and later National Archives of Canada. It was never known as “the Canadian Archives”! Our National Library retains its own function within the current LAC designation. When you are citing a record captured on 1950s microfilm, it may say Public Archives of Canada on it, and you need only add (now Library and Archives Canada) in parentheses. The Archives of Ontario (not Ontario Archives) had a similar change from Public Archives of Ontario and before that the longer Department of Public Records and Archives of Ontario. 


Understanding the Geographic Pitfalls

The name of a place within Ontario is quite essential for homing in on your ancestors. Only then can you figure out which town, township or county “system” is the key to census, court, and the many other records you will want. Need I say that Ontario covers a very large area?! A current road map will be useful to follow highways and locate towns, but it is not likely to show you the name of an old town or village which disappeared or changed its name. So often it is the name of such a village or town that is passed down in the family memory after descendants moved far away. And so often that name has been remembered phonetically. However, it is rare for a town or village to be a “centre” for genealogical sources—unless a small museum or special library/archives exists. To be able to access most records, you will have to hunt down in which township and county your place name is located.

If you do have such a name, the Ontario Locator on this site is a great help, or the Geographical Names of Canada site at . Also, changes in local government structure in the 20th century sometimes eliminated place names that our ancestors would have known. Therefore we usually suggest that you look for maps that were created before the second half of the 19th century. Nineteenth century county and township maps can be seen at and Global sells a variety of maps .

In my book Genealogy in Ontario: Searching the Records I warn about the duplication and confusion in a number of Ontario’s geographic place names. Many were named after places in “the old country” as well as for popular British heroes, battles and contemporary politicians. And of course every member of the royal family was well represented! For instance, Hamilton and Haldimand are names that recur. They were townships established in the 18th century on Lake Ontario, in Northumberland County of the Johnstown District. The town of Hamilton (city, as we know it) at the head of Lake Ontario was established much later. Haldimand also referred to the early county that formed around the lower Grand River. If your ancestor lived in “Hamilton” before the War of 1812, it is likely he had a land grant in the township of that name. This illustrates why place names should be carefully examined for their historical context. 


Historic Vital Statistics Registrations

Canadian births-marriages-deaths are a provincial responsibility. Ontario vital registration began in mid-1869 and was collected by the government arm now known as Office of the Registrar General. Historic vital records are released to the Archives of Ontario for public access within specific guidelines: Births after 97 years; Marriages after 82 years; Deaths after 72 years. Microfilms of both the nominal indexes and the registrations are widely available at many provincial libraries and by Interloan from AO or the FHL.

One of the biggest tips about the indexes when you are vague about a date and a place: Parents are not shown on the index for births; Spouse is not shown for marriages. This means when you find a likely index entry (and frequently you will find numerous entries for the potential event you seek) you will have to consult each and every registration to determine the right one. If you are disappointed and none of them seem to “fit,” you have to remember that parents, clergy, doctors and married couples sometimes failed to register an event they were involved with.

A subscription to the giant Ancestry site has made this search so much easier; their searchable Ontario database leads you to all the possibilities for the name and event you seek. A link then takes you to the digitized page of the registration itself. But there’s also a caution to using this wonderful tool: Pages of the indexes have been missed here and there, perhaps because they were missed at the time of their microfilming; some pages of the registration books have also been reported absent. Eventually they will be added as researchers discover them, but in the meantime: If you do not find your birth, marriage or death, you need to confirm by searching the original microfilms. Please send omissions and corrections to the contact on their website. 


Religious Records are Under-Used

Before a system of civil registration was set up in 1869, religious records are a desirable source for baptisms, marriages and burials. Canadian census returns in the 19th century customarily recorded the religious denomination of individuals. Finding the records kept by a church or a clergyman can be a challenge but is worth the effort. Some faiths have an episcopal structure which preserves their historic records; some have centralized their old registers in a religious archives. Others with autonomous congregations keep their records within the individual churches. Research into which churches existed at the time of your ancestors will give you a start.

A unique Canadian situation in 1925 saw the amalgamation of the Methodists, the majority of Presbyterians and the Congregationalists into the United Church of Canada. Naturally this affects where you can expect to find such records created prior to the union. There is a central United Church Archives in Toronto with a large collection of historic records and much related material, but not every old register has been sent there. Addresses and/or websites for other repositories and contacts are in Genealogy in Ontario: Searching the Records. Ryan Taylor offers a course in Religious Records for the National Institute for Genealogical Studies which gives an ideal overview of dozens of denominations, how they kept records and what they contain. Both LAC and AO have limited collections of microfilmed early church records of varied denominations. 


Wills Are Not Always Found in Court Records

In Ontario, a will is probated through a County Surrogate Court in which a person died or owned property. Before 1860, two courts existed for this purpose and all the files are indexed on the AO website (go to Genealogical Research and Sources of Family History). An estate file is created during the probate procedure with many documents in addition to the will itself: the executor or administrator declares a legal statement as to date and place of death; witnesses to the will make depositions; an inventory of assets or codicil may exist; succession duty (inheritance tax) forms are included in more recent times with addresses and kinship of beneficiaries.

However, particularly before the 20th century, many wills were merely registered in a land office for legal transfer of property ownership from the deceased to a beneficiary. These are not “estate files” as they lack the attendant court documentation. Rarely do they have any supplementary information about date and place of death. Such wills are found in county land registry offices, usually by hunting up a property description (township, concession number, lot number) although some offices have indexes to these unprobated wills. Property records have been microfilmed and thus can be viewed at AO or the FHL. When searching and citing these unprobated wills, it is very important to note whether you are viewing an actual document, or a clerk’s register (copybook). 


The Word Loyalist Has a Specific Meaning

Loyalist is a word not always understood in historical or genealogical context. In its widest and patriotic sense, obviously it can simply mean being loyal to one’s governing authority. In Canada we apply it, often with a capital “L,” to the tens of thousands of colonial Americans who were displaced from their homes during and at the end of the American Revolutionary War (which is usually called the War of Independence in the United States). For a variety of reasons among them and to different degrees, these Loyalists did not support independence from Britain. Their only option—not always voluntary, and seldom happy—was to remove to a territory still under the dominion of King George III. The British government was hard put to accommodate the throngs who arrived, for the most part penniless, in Nova Scotia and Quebec. Free land grants to begin farming were the main compensation the government could offer to families who had lost their homes and suffered many hardships.

Today many of the descendants of these people, who founded the provinces of New Brunswick and Ontario, belong to the United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Canada. Tracing their lineage is a requirement for full membership, but the Association welcomes all who share their historical interests . The original Loyalists were of many mixed backgrounds, not all British by any means. When you see the initials “U.E.” they refer to “Unity of Empire,” a designation that Lord Dorchester proclaimed for all descendants. 


Ship Arrivals and Lists

In my research work for clients, I found that most people are desperate to determine which ship their emigrating ancestor arrived on. In general, this is much easier for Canada and specifically Ontario, after 1865 when legislation ensured the collection and preservation of ships’ manifests (passenger lists). Ontario was a popular destination for scores of thousands of immigrants from the British Isles in the 19th century—even though the province did not have a seaport! Quebec City was the chief port of entry for ocean vessels and the passengers who moved on to Ontario up the Saint Lawrence River. Other Canadian cities on the eastern seaboard handled a smaller volume of traffic, but arrival records are relatively scarce until Halifax began such record-keeping in 1881. Ship passengers arriving there could continue on to Ontario either by ship or by train. Essentially this means that finding an ancestor on a ship’s manifest before 1865 is very much a hit and miss affair.

Library and Archives Canada holds passenger lists from 1865 and Archives of Ontario has copies, but the microfilm quality is far from ideal. The lists are arranged in the arrival sequence of the ships, and there are no comprehensive nominal indexes as of 2006. The LAC finding aid which correlates arrival dates to microfilm numbers is on the Canadian Genealogy Centre (CGC) website under Sources by Topic and Immigration . The Nanaimo Family History Society has undertaken the enormous project of creating a database for ships’ passengers from 1900 to about 1921, which will take time for volunteers to accomplish. By the end of the 19th century ships were also arriving directly from continental Europe and elsewhere. If your ancestor arrived by ship between 1919 and 1924, when the individual “Form 30" and Form 30A” were used, you have access to a database of these at the CGC as above. The CGC also gives you access to the Home Children database; the Russian Consular collection (Li-Ra-Ma) of eastern European immigrants; and a link to the InGeneas website’s index to surviving/available ships’ lists 1801-1849.