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Getting the most out of Ontario census reports

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 92 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 released.

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 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 branches.

If your ancestor was in Ontario in 1871 check the census indexes which have been published. (see 1871 for 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 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.

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 taken:

12 Jan 1852
14 Aug 1861
2 Apr 1871
4 Apr 1881
6 Apr 1891
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 were made,

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 1930s when there was copying census records on damaged or decaying paper. The 1931 form was used to enter data from older censuses.

Lists of all questions asked in each census:
1842 1848 1850 1851 1861 1871 1881 1891 1901

Selected References

Terms and Abbreviations

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