Ontario Research Guide

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Ontario, Canada
Year range
1791 - 2012


The basics of family history research do not change much from jurisdiction to jurisdiction; however, each area will have sources that are more complete or easier to use than others. The basic genealogy sources generally available in Ontario are listed below. If you are new to Ontario family history, and especially if you are looking for ancestors before 1900's, you should become familiar with the various names and boundary changes that have occured in the last 200+ years.

"The political entity we now know as Ontario was originally created in 1791 when it was called Upper Canada. Since that time, in response to population growth and administrative needs, there have been numerous changes to its boundaries, both external and internal. In addition, townships, villages, towns and cities have frequently merged, and counties and districts have re-organized to meet changing needs." (fn1)

Until 1867 Ontario was a part of the colony or Province of Canada and legislation on its boundaries had to take place in the parliament of Great Britain in London.

The best place to start describing its many boundaries and name changes is with the Quebec Act of 1774.

  • The Quebec Act established the borders of the British Colony of Quebec. The area would include the land as far west as the Mississippi River, as far south as present-day Ohio, and as far north as the divide between the Arctic watershed and the rivers that flow into the Great Lakes, as well as the southern part of present-day Quebec. What is now northern Ontario and northern Quebec, north of the Arctic watershed, was part of Rupert's Land, a territory granted by the British Crown to the Hudson Bay Company.
  • In 1791 The Constitutional Act separated the Province of Quebec into Upper Canada (current southern Ontario) and Lower Canada (current southern Quebec). This was in response to the large influx of population caused by The American Revolution and the arrival of Loyalists in Upper Canada.
  • In 1840, following aborted rebellions in both Upper and Lower Canada (1837-1838), the Act of Union (1840) merged the two colonies to form the Province of Canada. Upper and Lower Canada became Canada West and Canada East, respectively.
  • In 1867 British North America Act merged the Province of Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia into one country called the Dominion of Canada. The provinces of Ontario and Quebec replaced the former Province of Canada.
  • In 1868 Rupert's Land was purchased by Canada and in 1874 Ontario's boundaries moved west and north to a "provisional" boundary including the territory formerly covered by Rupert's Land.
  • During the 1870s and 1880s, the provinces of Ontario and Manitoba (which became a Canadian province in 1870) each claimed the Kenora area and both governments established parallel administrations.
  • In 1889 the federal government awarded the Kenora area to Ontario. At the same time, the Albany River became the province's northern boundary.
  • In 1912 Ontario's boundaries were pushed north to Hudson Bay, completing the province's expansion to its current borders.

The Archives of Ontario has an explanation of the changes including maps illustrating the position at significant years. A further discussion is available in a series of articles by the Ontario GenWeb Project, each dealing with a subsequent decade starting with 1791-1799


Census Records

Census records can provide excellent pictures of our ancestors over time. Census have been carried out by the Federal Government of Canada every 10 years since 1851. The latest year available to view is 1911. Privacy laws deny public access for 92 years after a census has occurred. As the census is national and not provincial the most complete source is at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) in Ottawa. Most census images have been converted to microfilm and the original papers have been destroyed. Microfilm images are available online from the LAC and in large libraries across Canada. Most censuses have been indexed, usually by third parties.

For most censuses, the returns list each person by name, with the following details:

  • age;
  • sex;
  • country or province of birth;
  • religion;
  • occupation; and
  • marital status.

Canadian census are unusual in requesting information on a person's religion. This provision can be helpful to the family historian, perhaps allowing him to identify his ancestor from amongst many with a common name.

Library and Archives Canada Catalogue of Census Returns on Microfilm 1666-1901. Library and Archives Canada (formerly The National Archives) provides a reference to the microfilm reel numbers for all censuses. For finding an ancestor, the indexed and digitized records provided by third parties are easier and quicker to search, but the microfilm numbers of the original images are not always available in third party provisions. FamilySearch also holds all the microfilms from 1851 onwards and employs their own numbering series.
1841 - Censuses in Canada. Census returns before 1851 are rarely complete for any geographical area and most list only the head of each household. Not all records have survived for any one of these censuses. An inspection of the first 2000 of the 4091 Ontario entries in the Catalogue of Census Returns on Microfilm 1666-1901 identified 215 electoral divisions with a census extant on microfilm for one year or another prior to 1851. Some geographical areas, particularly in the east of the province, were much better represented than others.
1851 Automated Genealogy provides a free-of-charge index online linked to the images at the LAC web site. The census is also available direct at 1851 LAC census where the search tool allows researchers to search by Province, District Name, District Number, and Sub-district Number, but not by name. This census actually occurred on 16 January 1852 and is often known as the 1851-52 census or simply the 1852 census. Legislation difficulties prevented the census from happening in the year for which it was planned. The 1851-52 census returns for a number of areas did not survive until they came to be microfilmed in the 1950s.
1861 - This census is currently (May 2012) not available to view online at the LAC website. It is available on ancestry.ca and was indexed by volunteers at FamilySearch. Four of the original microfilms are not online. The census was unusual in that in the largest cities householders were expected to fill in their own returns and the forms are one per house instead of one for every 50 people as was the norm in more rural sections of the country. The illiteracy rate was sufficiently high that a householder-filled census was not attempted again till well into the 20th century. However, these forms can infer a lot more about people in a household than several names on a corporate list ever can.
1871 - Library and Archives Canada - This database contains the names of the heads of households in the Province of Ontario as they were recorded in April 1871 in the official enumeration of the population of Canada. The database was created by the Ontario Genealogical Society, in cooperation with the National Archives of Canada in the late 1960s.
The entire set of census returns for 1871 was made available to view through the LAC in 2011. These are also available through third party sources (who have produced their own indices). The census returns record personal information such as name, age, country or province of birth, occupation, religious denomination, and a new field entitled ethnic origin.
1881 - FamilySearch, part of the Church of Latter Day Saints, indexed the 1881 Canadian census and it is searchable on their website, but a fee will be levied if further details and confirmation with the orginal microfilms are requested. Original images are now available on the LAC website.
The 1891 Census from the LAC has not been indexed by name, but is available to search by Microfilm Number, Electoral District and Subdistrict. Instead of simply asking for ethnicity, this census asked for the birthplace of father and mother of each individual, as well as his own birthplace.
In 1891, institutions (convents, hospitals, asylums, etc.) were enumerated separately in one block and appear on microfilm reel T-6427.
1901 Automated Genealogy launched a voluntary online indexation project when the 1901 census first came online. The index can be directly compared to the original page of microfilm. As with all Canadian censuses since 1871, this one is also available at Library and Archives Canada

The 1901 and 1911 returns also requested the date of birth, the year of immigration and the street address or the location of the land. The date of birth was a very useful addition because provincial birth registrations did not begin until 1869 and were not obligatory until the 1880s. The 1901 census may be the only source of a complete birthdate for someone born in the first half of the 19th century.

1911 Automated Genealogy also indexed the 1911 Canadian censuses. They have been very successful in finding links between people present for both the 1901 and 1911 censuses.
In 1901, most of the Indian agencies were enumerated separately and appear on microfilm reels T-6554 and T-6555.

A word of warning. If you choose to inspect a section of a census on the LAC's own website, you must be absolutely precise in giving the Electoral District Name or Number and the Sub-District Name or Number. The slightest mistake will lead to a screen saying that the place in question was too small to be included as an individual electoral place. If you are seeking ancestors in a large city you must know which part of the city they lived in before you start. For the 1901 census, you can omit the part of the description that is in French if you are English-speaking.

Vital Statistics (Births, Marriages and Death)

Civil registration (or vital statistics collection) only came into being in Ontario in 1869. Although information on marriages had been collected by the province before that time, no attempt had been made by civil authorities to collect birth or death information.

The Office of the Registrar General is responsible for recording births, marriages and deaths. After a statutory period the records are sent to the Archives of Ontario. The records are then made publicly available on microfilm.

The statutory periods are 98 years after a birth, 83 years after a marriage and 73 years after a death. The Archives receive another year of records annually. The latest transfer available (May, 2012) is 1914 for births, 1929 for marriages, and 1939 for deaths.

A microfilm of actual registrations comprises those from a specific Registration District or series of districts depending on their size. A Registration District is usually equivalent to a provincial county. At the same time as the annual set of vital registrations becomes available to Ontario Archives, another province-wide alphabetical index of the names from the registrations is prepared as a finding aid. Obtaining a registration from original microfilms is a two-stage process.

Archives of Ontario does not provide its records online. Third parties have made arrangements to index them and provide images of the individual records on their websites. It takes up to a year for registrations to appear on the third-party websites, but the arrival of a new batch is usually publicized.

Questions asked on the registration forms have varied over the years. Sometimes the forms in one area of the province vary from those in another area in the same year.

There is an Ontario Vital Statistics Project that has created on-line transcriptions of vital records, and provides links to census data and a cemetery database. See Source:The Ontario Vital Statistics Project. Voluntary contributions to this project are less than they were and there are many gaps.

Availability of the Microfilm Copies of Vital Statistics Indexes and Registrations

Microfilm copies of the indexes and registrations may be:

  • Consulted at the Archives of Ontario's Main Reading Room, 134 Ian Macdonald Boulevard, Toronto M7A 2C5, on the campus of York University.
  • Borrowed through the Interlibrary Loan Department of your public library (provided your library has a microfilm viewer).
  • Borrowed from the the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through their Family History Centres.
  • Purchased from the Ontario Genealogical Society (for those who have access to a microfilm viewer).

Note: The Archives of Ontario does not conduct Vital Statistics searches or issue birth, marriage, or death certificates. These must be obtained directly from The Office of the Registrar General who charge for the service and have strict eligibility rules (see website).


From 1867 until 1931, Ontario divorces were granted by the Federal Parliament and printed in the Canada Gazette, available at most major libraries. In 1927, the Supreme Court of Ontario was given the power to annul marriages and, in 1931, to grant divorces, alimony, and child custody. The Archives of Ontario holds files for divorce actions initiated between 1931-1978.

For further details, see the section in Archives of Ontario Reference Guide 299

Church Records


Provincial Archives

The Archives of Ontario provides a main page on genealogy research in Ontario.

There are three primary collections of genealogical interest at the Archives of Ontario:

  • Vital Statistics,
  • Court Records and
  • Land Registrations.

The information found in these groups will dictate what records should be investigated next.

For an introduction to the collections reading Sources of Family History, Research Guide 299 is highly recommended. The Table of Contents of the Guide are reproduced here:

  • Using this Research Guide
  • Getting started with family history research
  • Accessing the sources
1. Aboriginal People, Records of
2. Birth, Marriage and Death Records (Vital Statistics)
2.1: Records of the Office of the Registrar General
2.2: Other sources for births, marriages and deaths
3. Cartographic Records
4. Census Records
4.1: Pre-1851 census records
4.2: Post-1850 census returns
5. Criminal Justice System Records
5.1: Investigation records
5.2: Prosecution and indictment records
5.3: Court records
5.4: Correctional records
5.5: Probation and parole records
6. Divorce Records
7. Education Records
8. Guardianship and Adoption Records
9. Health Records
9.1: Patient Records
9.2: Records of Physicians, Nurses, and other Healthcare Practitioners
10. Immigration, Naturalization and Citizenship Records
10.1: Ontario Government immigration records
10.2: Federal Immigration Branch records
10.3: Naturalization and citizenship records
11. Land Records
11.1: Crown land records and early land settlement records
11.2: Land registry records
12. Library Holdings
13. Loyalist Sources
14. Militia and Military Records
14.1: Militia records
14.2: Military records
15. Municipal Records
16. Newspapers
17. Wills and Estate Records
18. Other Sources

Land Records

Records of transactions regarding land are one of the mainstays of genealogical research in the days of Upper Canada and Canada West. A would-be settler arrived in Upper Canada and "petitioned" for a grant of land, probably of 200 acres. An early settler might have been lacking in money or possessions, but he had the land on which to live. At his death family circumstances might oblige its sale. There followed a land transaction that had to be written down.

Both the petitions for land grants and the transactions of bargain and sale may include bits of information regarding the settler's family, making them worthwhile records for a descendant to study. Many times the individual's last will and testament is found amongst these papers.

Section 11 of Research Guide 299 is a recommended introduction to the study of land records. There are many book sources and other sources online. The LAC published a complete list of petitions for land grants this year. [Reference to come.]

Genealogy Societies

The Ontario Genealogical Society is the primary genealogy society in Ontario. In 2012 it has 32 branches which represent most or all of the counties and districts of the province.

Membership of a branch in one's geographical area of interest, plus membership in the provincial organization can provide information on all sorts of genealogical questions. The central organization communicates with its members both by quarterly journal and by an expansive website. An annual conference is held at the end of May/early June.

In addition to the county branches the Society has recently introduced SIGs or Special Interest Groups which invite members whose ancestors came from specific places or who had common migration experiences. Currently there is an Ireland SIG, an Irish Palatinate SIG, and a British Home Child SIG. A Scotland SIG, a Huguenot SIG and a Metis SIG are under discussion.

When you need feet on the ground and local knowledge to solve a problem, the people from the local genealogy society are the best bet.

Cemetery Records

The first source for a cemetery records search in Ontario to find its way online was the Ontario Cemetery Finding Aid. The index lists over 2 million interments. It provides a reference to the local genealogical society that provided the details. In most cases you will be able to link to the genealogy socity web pages and submit a request for transcripts of head stones or registers. The index is a name pointer and does not contain dates. It provides name, cemetery, county, and township identifiers.

Not all cemeteries in the province are included in the database. For example, Notre Dame Cemetery in Ottawa, a major Catholic institution in the area is not included. The OCFA provides a list by county of the cemetery's covered. Coverage of small county cemeteries has gaps as it is a volunteer based work.

Another organizations providing gravestone transcriptions and similar provisions is Ontario GenWeb which aims to provide a complete Cemetery List of all Ontario cemeteries, and a surname index of any Ontario cemetery indexes or transcripts that have been submitted to the project. Their website includes a map of cemeteries, a project in common with the Canada-wide organization Canadian GenWeb.

Many local branches of the Ontario Genealogical Society have transcribed and published gravestone inscriptions from their areas. These are most likely to be paper publications although some are on CD. The occasional one is online.

A transcription of the burial books of the Toronto Trust Cemeteries is being produced by volunteers from The Toronto Branch of the OGS in conjunction with FamilySearch. The burials recorded will go up to the year 1935. This listing will be online, so far 22% of the final content is available. Another group within Toronto Branch is transcribing the gravestones of the large St James's Anglican Cemetery in Toronto. Many other cemeteries in the city have been transcribed and published on paper or CD and are available through Toronto Branch.


Obituaries were usually originally published in local weekly or daily newspapers. Some genealogical societies have made collections of these. One listing from the York Region Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society is given here as an example.

The Christian Guardian was a Methodist newspaper based in Toronto Ontario which ran from the 1830s to 1925. It was not a regular paper covering the news, but rather one that focused on church issues from Methodist parishes across Canada. It included many obituaries. Global Heritage Press has published the entire set of Death Notices from the Christian Guardian as books and CDs.

Further information on obituaries is to be found in the Newspapers section.

Military Records

This article is being written in 2012, the bicentennary of the War of 1812. The War is the basic topic of this year's annual OGS conference and a number of books are currently being published.

Most wars in which Ontario residents participated occurred in other countries. The Federal government is far more likely to hold documentation about members of the armed forces. Library and Archives Canada provide a search facility on their website which may find details on an ancestor.


  • The earliest influx into Ontario was that of Loyalists who left the United States during or following the American War of Independence. They were allowed to apply for grants of land, as were British soldiers disbanded after the war who decided to stay in North America. Information about these Land Grants and the individuals who applied for and received them will be found in another section.
  • Immigration from all parts of Great Britain and Ireland began in earnest shortly after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. The changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution made employment, particulary agricultural employment, hard to come by in Britain. Land grants in Upper Canada were still available to tempt would-be migrants, although land was in shorter supply and to be found in less desirous parts of the province.
  • During this same period, more families moved north to Upper Canada from Pennsylvania and neighbouring states. These migrants were more likely to come with money to buy farms from earlier settlers. Some of the newcomers found employment in the towns if they were skilled in other occupations besides farming.
  • The Irish potato famine of 1847-49 was another cause of mass immigration to Canada as well as to the United States. Toronto found itself with a number of thoroughly Irish neighbourhoods.
  • From about 1855 the "Underground Railroad" led a number of escaping slaves to Canada West.
  • For the last half of the 19th century the pressures of immigration eased. People still kept coming in, but there were significant numbers of people born in Canada West who decided to move west--to both sides of the American-Canadian border. Family sizes were large and the original farms could not support all married sons and their families.
  • Immigration increased again between 1900 and 1910. Most of the English-speaking people who came in at this time were from Scotland and Ireland. Europeans from Germany and Italy were also evident. By 1911 urban censuses contained a number of Chinese, coming east after working on transcontinental railroads.
  • Post WW2 migration from Europe also increased Ontario's population between 1947 and 1965.

Immigration into Canada is a federal responsibility. Most online information will be found at Library and Archives Canada. Arrivals by Sea 1865-19?? are online. The 1901 and 1911 censuses asked for the year of immigration for those not born in Canada.

Border crossings to and from the United States have been indexed and are available on ancestry.ca (emigration only) and ancestry.com. Border crossings documents did not have to be filled in for short tourist or business trips, but were required for stays of a longer duration. If your family had members on both sides of the border, you may discover your grandmother or great-grandmother taking a trip you knew nothing about.


The Toronto Star Pages of the Past is a subscription website which covers all items in this daily newspaper from 1894 to 2009.

The 'Toronto Globe' (now 'The Globe and Mail') was established in 1844. It can be inspected online through The Toronto Public Library, but a Library Card is needed to access it.

OurOntario is a website which includes copies of many newspapers from across Ontario. The website is searchable by name as well as by place.

Library and Archives Canada have an index of Ontario newspapers published from the early years of the 19th century. Newspapers are available to view at the Archives of Ontario.

If you are in the area of Ontario where your ancestors lived, a visit to the local library or museum may provide you with bound copies or microfilm of weekly papers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Even if they have not been indexed, a browsing session can be very infomative.


Association of Municipalities of Ontario

Archives of Ontario

The Archives of Ontario Exhibit: The changing shape of Ontario - A Guide to Boundaries, Names and Regional Government.

1851 Automated Genealogy

Geographical Name of Canada Query

Library and Archives Canada

Ontario GenWeb

Ontario Genealogical Society

The Ontario Vital Statistics Project

Ontario Cemetery Finding Aid


fn1 - Archives of Ontario, The Changing Shape of Ontario.