Census reports can contain a wealth of information for the genealogist.
Unfortunately accessing and extracting complete and accurate information may be a
problem. This article is intended to give you an accurate list of the questions that
were asked on the censuses, give suggestions that assist in your searches and provide
assistance in understanding what is in the returns
Province wide censuses were taken in 1842, 1848, 1850, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881,
1891 and 1901. Others have been taken after 1901 but are not avaliable to us yet.
Census information is supposed to be confidential for one hundred years however the
1891 and 1901 censuses were released after ninety-two years so we would normally expect
that the 1911 census would be released in the next few years. However, claims that
censuses after 1901 were taken under a statute providing that the information collected
would never be released, have created doubt that any further personal censuses will be
The 1842, 1848 and 1850 censuses were not complete listings of the population
but heads of family only. The 1851 to 1901 censuses were intended to be complete
listings of the population.
If you are unsure where your ancestors lived or are unsure of how long they
remained in a certain location there are other resources to assist you.
Ontario Cemetery Finding Aid OCFA. The OCFA lists the name and place of burial
only - no dates - but there are well over 2 million names entered. Unfortunately a few
branches of the Ontario Genealogical Society have not agreed to make their cemetery
listings available to this most useful project. These include the Toronto and Halton-Peel
If your ancestor was in Ontario in 1871 check the census indexes which have
been published. (see 1871 - INTRODUCTION of details). This is an excellent source
and easy to use.
Other starting places would be voter, assessment and jury lists, directories
or phone lists. Many of these are available in the Canadian Institute for Historical
Microproductions CIHM collection. This is a collection of microfiche that includes
many manuscripts of genealogical or historical interest. The CIHM collection is available
at many Canadian universities
The site Early Canadiana OnLine has images of over 3000 books and pamphlets that
document Canadian history to the late 19th century.
There are many problems with the accuracy of the ages given on a census. Lack
of records left it up to memory, the person in the household acting as informant may
not know or remember and only guess at the age, people lied and copying errors were made
as ages were written into the final record.
Also the question asked varied. In 1851 and 1861 they were how old will you be at
your next birthday while from 1871 on they were asked how old are you.
Finally the date the census was supposed to be taken varied and could introduce
an apparent varation of one year particularly in 1851. This is a list of the days they were
12 Jan 1852
2 Apr 1871
6 Apr 1891
14 Jan 1861
4 Apr 1881
31 Mar 1901
It is best to take age + or - 5. Never assume it is given accurately.
The 1851 census was taken nine months late. This not only added an extra year to
some ages but also created the possibility that an immigrant family could show up in two
censuses - one on either side of the Atlantic. As this was the year my great-great grand-
parents came to Canada I have found them in the Yorkshire, Eng. and Etobicoke, Ont. censuses.
Many problems arise with the use and spelling of names in censuses such as:
a) some were people illiterate and would not know how to spell their own names,
b) an enumerator would not know how to spell certain names or would hear it
incorrectly due to accents,
c) in the process of transposing information from one form to another mistakes
d) children were listed by an abbreviated name but by their proper name as an
adult. Some people used their first given names on one census but their middle
name on the next,
e) people would not like their given names and would alter or completely change
it (eg my grand father Cornwallis went by Wallace), and
f) some enumerators listed married women as Mrs. - no given name
On the plus side I have come across two enumeration sub-districts where married
women were listed by their maiden name.
Before searching through census returns you should have a clear understanding of
the geography of the enumeration district. This should include a map showing county,
townships, municipalities and wards. Reading a local history can forewarn of difficulties
that may arise.
Problems that I have encountered include:
a) place name are changed (eg. Ottawa was Bytown; Kitchener was Berlin),
b) geographic boundries change - particularly in the early years,
c) in later censuses towns and cities are listed separately from townships, and
d) municipalities bordering on counties or townships may have their citizens
listed different enumeration districts.
There were at least two alternate forms used. One was used in the 1861 and is
explained in the introduction to that census. The other was used in the 1930's when there
was copying census records on damaged or decaying paper. The 1931 form was used to enter
data from older censuses.