Sarnia is a city in Southwestern Ontario, Canada, and had a 2011 population of 72,366. It is the largest city on Lake Huron and in Lambton County. Sarnia is located on the eastern bank of the junction between the Upper and Lower Great Lakes where Lake Huron flows into the St. Clair River, which forms the Canada-United States border, directly across from Port Huron, Michigan. The city's natural harbour first attracted the French explorer La Salle, who named the site "The Rapids" when he had horses and men pull his 45-tonne barque "Le Griffon" up the almost four-knot current of the St. Clair River on 23 August 1679.
This was the first time anything other than a canoe or other oar-powered vessel had sailed into Lake Huron, and La Salle's voyage was thus germinal in the development of commercial shipping on the Great Lakes. Located in the natural harbour, the Sarnia port remains an important centre for lake freighters and oceangoing ships carrying cargoes of grain and petroleum products. The natural port and the salt caverns that exist in the surrounding areas, together with the oil discovered in nearby Oil Springs in 1858 led to the massive growth of the petroleum industry in this area. Because Oil Springs was the first place in Canada and North America to drill commercially for oil, the knowledge that was acquired there led to oil drillers from Sarnia travelling the world teaching other nations how to drill for oil.
The complex of refining and chemical companies is called Chemical Valley and located south of downtown Sarnia. The city has the highest level of particulates air pollution of any Canadian city because of its reliance on the petrochemical industry. Lake Huron is cooler than the air in summer and warmer than the air in winter; therefore, it moderates Sarnia's humid continental climate, which makes temperature extremes of hot and cold very rare. In the winter, Sarnia experiences large amounts of lake-effect snow because Arctic air blows across the warmer waters of Lake Huron and condenses to form snow squalls once over land.
Culturally, Sarnia is a large part of the artistic presence in Southern Ontario. The city's International Symphony Orchestra is renowned in the area and has won the Outstanding Community Orchestra Award given by the Detroit Music Awards in 2011. Michael Learned graced the stage of the Imperial Theatre for a 2010 production of Driving Miss Daisy The largest event that happens in Sarnia is Sarnia Bayfest, which is a popular music festival that takes place during the summer. In 2013, organizers cancelled the event because of money troubles but look forward to securing funding in the future.
First Nations peoples have lived, hunted, and traveled across the area for at least 10,000 years, as shown by archaeological evidence on Walpole Island. These peoples were drawn from an amalgamation of Ojibwa, Ottawa, and Potowatami clans, which formed the Three Fires Confederacy, also called the Council of Three Fires, in A.D.796. These clans came together through common links in both language and culture, developing a self-sufficient society where tasks and responsibilities were equally shared among all members.
During the 1600s and 1700s, The Three Fires Confederacy controlled much of the area known as the hub of the Great Lakes, which included the Canadian shore where Sarnia is now located. During this time, it maintained relations with many of the First Nations, including Huron, Sioux, and Iroquois, as well as the countries of Great Britain and France. In fact, their trading partners, the Huron, welcomed La Salle and the Griffon in 1679 after he sailed into Lake Huron. The Ontario Heritage Trust erected a sign under the Bluewater Bridge in commemoration of the voyage, as shown by the photo of the sign.
Because of this beginning of the incursion of Europeans into the area, the members of the Confederacy helped shape the development of North America throughout the 18th Century, becoming a center of trade and culture. Great Britain supported this strengthening of the tribes in the area as a set of allies against the French and the Iroqouis. The people of the Three Fires Confederacy, however, sided with the French during the Seven Years War and only made peace with Great Britain after the Treaty of Fort Niagara in 1764. It also fought on the side of the British during the War of 1812. The Three Fires Confederacy also broke several treaties with the United States prior to 1815, but finally signed the Treaty of Springwells in September of that year and ceased all hostilities directed at the United States. The Grand Council survived intact until the middle to late 19th century, when more modern political systems began to evolve.
After the War of 1812, the first Europeans in the area were French settlers loyal to the British Crown who moved north from Detroit. They successfully traded with the Three Fires Confederacy, which contributed to the growth of the area. After its foundation, Port Sarnia expanded throughout the 19th Century; on 19 June 1856, the residents passed the Act to Incorporate the Town of Sarnia and the name Port Sarnia was officially changed to Sarnia effective 1 January 1857. The Act mentioned 1,000 inhabitants in three wards. The wealth of adjoining stands of timber, the discovery of oil in nearby Oil Springs in 1858 by James Miller Williams, and the arrival of the Great Western Railway in 1858 and the Grand Trunk Railway in 1859 all stimulated Sarnia's growth. The rail lines were later linked directly to the United States by the opening of the St. Clair Tunnel under the St. Clair River at Sarnia in 1890, by the Grand Trunk Railway, which was the first railroad tunnel ever constructed under a river. The tunnel was an engineering marvel in its day, achieved through the development of original techniques for excavating in a compressed air environment.
Sarnia's grain elevator, which is the sixth largest currently operating in Canada, was built after the dredging of Sarnia Harbour in 1927. Two short years later, grain shipments had become an important part of Sarnia's economy. The grain elevator rises above the harbour, and next to it is the slip for the numerous bulk carriers and other ships that are part of the shipping industry that includes vessels from all over the world. The waterway between Detroit and Sarnia is one of the world's busiest, as indicated by the average of 78,943,900 tonnes of shipping that annually travelled the river going in both directions during the period 1993–2002. Lake freighters and oceangoing ships, which are known as "salties," pass up and down the river at the rate of about one every seven minutes during the shipping season. During this same period, The Paul M. Tellier Tunnel, which was named after the retired president of CN in 2004, was bored and began operation in 1995. It accommodates double-stacked rail cars and is located next to the original tunnel, which has been sealed.
On 1 January 1991, Sarnia and the neighbouring town of Clearwater were amalgamated as the new city of Sarnia-Clearwater. The amalgamation was originally slated to include the village of Point Edward, although that village's residents resisted and were eventually permitted to remain independent of the city. On 1 January 1992, the city reverted to the name Sarnia.
Sarnia's population experienced a continual growth from 1961 to 1991, with a 1991 population of 74,376. In 2001 the population had declined by approximately 3,000. Since 2001 Sarnia's population has been growing slowly, with a 2011 population count of 72,366. Despite these modest gains, an April 2010 report "Sarnia-Lambton's Labour Market" states: "Large petrochemical companies are the community's main economic drivers. Over the recent past, several plants have shutdown, and of those still in operation, increased automation and outsourcing has led to significantly fewer workers.". These shutdowns and the resulting loss of jobs, and therefore population as workers search for employment elsewhere, will contribute to a general decline shown by one August 2011 study, which shows that the population will decline by 17% over the next twenty-five years. The Monteith-Brown study cited outlines a plan for restructuring the city based on hybrid zoning areas, which will bring work opportunities closer to the neighborhoods where people live. The City of Sarnia and Lambton County are also implementing an economic development plan with an emphasis on bioindustries and renewable energy.
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 Lambton County