Essex County is the southern-most county in Canada and is located in southwestern Ontario. The administrative seat is the Town of Essex. Essex County has a population of 177,891, and the census division including the independent city of Windsor has a population of 388,782 as of the Canada 2011 Census.
A map of Essex County circa 1951 from Ontario Archives locates the individual townships, city, towns and villages of the county. (Click at the bottom of the page to see the map enlarged.)
A sketchmap from Ontario GenWeb provides a simple illustration of the location of the townships prior to the re-organization that occurred in 1999.
This is a sketchmap from Wikipedia illustrating the new subdivisions of Essex County.
Essex was one of the first counties to be settled in Ontario, mostly by French people in the mid-18th century. Around 1749, the first permanent settlements began to appear on what is now the Canadian side of the Detroit River. Lower down the river, lands were occupied by native people known as Wyandots or "Hurons", around the Mission of Bois Blanc (French for White Wood) as a centre opposite the island of the same name. The Mission was eventually abandoned and re-established closer to what became Sandwich Township, and was closer to the safety of Fort Detroit. When farmers first arrived, they encountered difficulty in trying to clear the extremely thick forests that covered Essex County. The farmers grew to "hate" the trees, and chopped them down, starved them from nourishment by cutting deep gashes in the bark, and burned them to clear the way to get to the fertile soils underneath. The fires were so intense, that the reddish glow could be seen from Chicago, 300 miles (500 km) away, as millions of cords of wood burned.
Settlement continued southward along the river and was known as Petit Cote (Small Coast), which was a reference to the shorter length of river frontage compared to the Detroit side. Names such as LaSalle and Ojibway appeared which continue to be in use. The first road in Ontario was laid out to connect the settlements, which is now over 200 years old and is known as Former King's Highway 18 (now County Road 20).
When river frontage along Petit Cote was occupied, settlement began to extend toward Lake St. Clair, which became known as the Assumption Settlement. In the late 18th century and early 19th century the French ventured east along the south shore of Lake St. Clair and settled in the present day areas of Belle River (Belle-Rivière), Rochester, Tecumseh, Saint-Joachim and Stoney Point (Pointe-aux-Roche). These communities still have a large francophone population.
Amherstburg and Sandwich were the first towns established in Essex County, both in 1796 after the British ceded Fort Detroit by the terms of the Jay Treaty signed in 1794. Fort Malden was built near Amherstburg, opposite Bois Blanc Island, separating the British military presence from the larger-populated area of Sandwich upstream, and positioned strategically to control the entrance of the river from Lake Erie. The populations of both towns were augmented by people from Detroit who chose to remain British subjects.
After the American Revolution, people continued to migrate to the area, seeking land. Settlers began to move eastward along the north shore of Lake Erie. Land was purchased from the Indians in the southern half of the current county, located in the four townships formerly known as Gosfield North and South and Colchester North and South. The British Court made land available for settlement, provided that the land bear certain improvements within a year and that it not be used for speculation. This area became known as the New Settlement (as compared to the Old Settlement of the towns of Amherstburg and Sandwich. Settlers in this area included Hessians who fought for the British against the American rebels, and Pennsylvania Dutch pacifists (Mennonites).
Formation of Essex County
In 1791, the province of Upper Canada was formed. In 1792, Upper Canada was divided into nineteen counties, of which Essex was the eighteenth and part of the Western District. At that time, the eastern boundary of Essex County extended further east into what is now Kent County. Settlement continued, on January 1, 1800 an Act for the Better Division of the Province established the Townships of Rochester, Mersea, Gosfield, Maidstone, Sandwich and Malden.
Settlement 1820 to 1850
Longer roads began to appear in the County after the War of 1812, the first of which followed Indian trails. Colonel Thomas Talbot contributed to road development, and Talbot Road was named for him. Talbot Road followed a natural ridge of glacial moraine which stretched from Windsor to Point Pelee.
The establishment of good roads led to further settlement along the 'Middle Road' and in the area of what is now Leamington. Settlers of this era were often emigrants from Britain and Ireland; in the 1840s the potato famines led to significant immigration. The village of Maidstone was the centre of the Irish community, and an area known as the "Scotch Colony" appeared along the shore of Lake St.Clair.
Essex County was also a destination of the Underground Railroad by which African slaves in the 19th century United States escaped to freedom. The John Freeman Walls Historic Site in Maidstone (Lakeshore) is testament to this period. Many of the descendants of the fugitives moved back to the United States to support the Union Army in the US Civil War, or to reconnect with family after emancipation.
Economic development 1850 to 1900
In 1854 the Great Western Railway connected the Detroit frontier with the east, crossing Essex County. The Canadian terminal was in Windsor, which consequently forged ahead of the other towns of the county. Other railway lines were built which connected settlements in Kingsville, Harrow, Essex and Leamington.
By the late 19th century Essex County had seen fur trading and logging, land clearing and farming, road building and railway development, saw mills and gristmills, railway stations and water ports. By this time the forests were disappearing, replaced by fertile farmland.
Also noticeable in some farmers' fields, are oil pumps, particularly near Belle River and Leamington, Ontario, in the northern and eastern parts of the county, respectively. This is from oil shale within the bedrock of the Marcellus Formation.
Essex County Restructuring, 1990s
In 1992, discussions began to take place to reduce the number of individual municipalities, which at the time numbered 21 in the County. This culminated on January 1, 1999 when a Minister's Order by the Ontario Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing was implemented, putting in place the new municipal structure for the County of Essex.
The former townships and towns were:
The new subdivisions of Essex County (see the map above) are:
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 1914 are now available [October 2012]; 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. All of the original census (1851-1911) images are online with the exception of that for 1861. Not all of them are indexed. Later censuses are not yet available. Census divisions were redrawn as the population increased and more land was inhabited.
E-books and Books
Some websites with more local information on Essex County