Belle River is a "small urban community" in the former Township of Maidstone in Essex County in Ontario, Canada. Since the municipal reorganization of 1999 it has been located in new Municipality of Lakeshore.
The coast of Lake St. Clair and lots fronting the Puce, Belle, and Ruscom rivers were first surveyed in 1793 by Patrick McKniff. The area was not fully divided into concessions and lots, however, until the rear lines of the townships and the Middle Road (today County Road 46) were surveyed by Mahlon Burwell in 1823. Land speculation was endemic in Essex County as in many other parts of Upper Canada and much of the present town of Lakeshore was once owned by a single speculator, the fur trader John Askin: by 1797, he held 80 lots, concentrated primarily along the Pêche (Pike) Puce, Belle, and Ruscom rivers.
French Canadians from nearby Detroit and Sandwich were the earliest settlers in the area. They were followed beginning in the 1840s by Irish immigrants, and later by additional waves of French Canadians from Quebec. Development was slow until the construction of a series of railroads through the area. These include the Great Western Railway, opened in 1854 and passing through Belle River, and the Canada Southern Railway (later owned by New York Central and Michigan Central), opened in 1872 and passing through Comber.
Following the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act which abolished slavery in most of the British Empire, the Lakeshore region became one of several end points of the Underground Railroad. In 1851, the Refugee Home Society was founded in Detroit by Michigan and Ontario abolitionists, and under the direction of Henry Walton Bibb, the society purchased scattered lots in and around Maidstone, Puce, and Belle River for refugee blacks.
The two oldest communities in Lakeshore are Comber and Belle River. Comber was settled in 1837 by two Scotch-Irish Presbyterians from Comber, Ireland, John Gracey and William MacDowell. It was named after their home town in 1848 or 1850, when a post office was opened there in John Gracey’s home.
Belle River was incorporated as a village in November 26, 1874, but its origins can be traced back to the Jesuit Mission of St. Jude. The mission was founded in 1834 to serve the religious needs of the local population of French Catholics. The mission did not receive a resident pastor until 1857, after the Great Western Railway opened the area to large scale immigration. Over the course of the 1870s, the town’s population was tripled by an influx of settlers from the province of Quebec. The earliest industries in the town were operated by Luc and Denis Oulette, who established a sawmill and gristmill on opposite sides of the river.
In 1881, the population of Comber was 250 and that of Belle River was 650. Stoney Point was settled by 1851 and incorporated as a village in 1881, at which time it had a population of 375. The church of St. Joachim, which became the centre of the village of the same name, was completed in 1882 and enlarged in 1891. It was established to serve the needs of French Catholics in the area along the Ruscom River who were distant from the existing parishes in Belle River and Stoney Point.
In the 1920s, James Scott Cooper, a well-known local entrepreneur and bootlegger, built mansions in Walkerville and Belle River. The Cooper Court Motel and Bar in Belle River, built in 1920, still operates today. Cooper was a philanthropist and contributed greatly to the construction of Belle River's first high school, Belle River District High School.
Belle River was well known for bootlegging during Prohibition in the United States. The Wellington hotel, once located on Notre Dame, the town's main street, exported alcohol to the United States along with many American-owned cottages on Charron Beach Road.
The primary source for basic documents (vital statistics, land records, wills) for people who lived in the Province of Ontario is the Archives of Ontario, 134 Ian Macdonald Blvd, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M7A 2C5.
Civil registration did not begin in the province until 1869. Before then there may be church records of baptisms and burials. For the most part these are still held by the denomination who recorded them. Copies of marriage records made pre-1869 had to be sent by individual clergymen to the registrar of the county in which the marriage took place. These marriage records are available through Ontario Archives, on micorfilm through LDS libraries, and on paid and unpaid websites, but because they were copied at the registrars' offices, they cannot be considered a primary source.
Vital Records after 1869
Birth, marriage and death registrations are not open to the public until a specific number of years after the event occurred. Births to 1915 are now available [October 2014]; dates for marriages and deaths are later. Birth and death registration was not universally carried out in the early years after its adoption. Deaths were more apt to be reported than births for several years. The more rural the area, the less likely it would be that these happenings were reported to the authorities.
Land Records and Wills
Information on how to access land records and wills is best sought on the Archives of Ontario website. An ancestor's land holding might be found on Canadian County Atlas Digital Project if he was in occupancy circa 1878.
Association for the Preservation of Ontario Land Registry Office Documents (APOLROD). A list of Land Registry Offices for all Counties of Ontario.
The original censuses are in the hands of Library and Archives Canada, known to Canadians as "LAC". Copies of original microfilms are online at the LAC website for all censuses up to 1911. Each census database is preceded with an explanation of the geographical area covered, the amount of material retained (some census division material has been lost), the questions on the census form, and whether there is a name index. Census divisions were redrawn as the population increased and more land was inhabited. The 1921 census is only available through Ancestry.ca, but it is free-to-view.
E-books and Books
Some websites with more local information on Essex County