Identify the time period
When was your ancestor in Ontario (Upper Canada/Canada West)? How long did they stay? Did any major events (births, marriages, deaths) happen while they were here? When?
Identify the area of Ontario you are researching
A time period is important because what's available for research differs vastly. A time period also dictates "where" you should look, the area that is now Ontario didn't always have its current name.
Until 1763 -> part of New France
1763-1774 -> part of British controlled Indian land
1774-1791 -> part of Province of Quebec (Montreal District)
1791-1841 -> Upper Canada
1841-1867 -> Canada West
1867-present day -> Ontario
And be aware that the area that is now Ontario wasn't always as big as it is now. Northern Ontario didn't become part of this province until the 1900's!
Once you know the time period you're researching you can utilize our Research By Year section.
Familiarize yourself with this area
Ontario research is much more successful if you have an area to focus upon. Different areas in Ontario offer different genealogical resources, plus Ontario was settled a piece at a time. What would be available for research in Southern Ontario can be different than what is available for research in Northern Ontario (such as census records!).
The easiest way to start to identify where in Ontario you should be looking is by using some of the province wide indexes/transcripts available. There are just two drawbacks - 1) they are transcripts/indexes so be prepared to look at all possible spellings; 2) they're only available for certain years, if your ancestor wasn't in Ontario during these years you'll have to do more legwork.
- Land Petitions Index (1780-1920) If your ancestor petitioned for a land grant from the government, you may find them listed here. Available only on microfilm, see Land Records for more.
- Vital Statistics Index (1869-1911/1926/1936), covers all registered births (1869-1911), marriages (1869-1926) & deaths (1869-1936) province wide. Available on microfilm (check your local library or family history centre - it IS available worldwide) and through Ancestry.ca, see Birth Records, Marriage Records, and Death Records for more.
- 1851/1852 Census. An in progress & searchable index available online, see Census Records for more. One drawback is that a good portion of this census was lost – if your ancestor lived in the ‘lost’ areas you won’t find them in this index.
- 1871 Census. This index is heads of household & strays only - if your ancestor was a child or living in a household of the same surname but were not the head they will not be in this index. Available online, see Census Records for more.
- 1881 Census. A complete & searchable transcription available online, see Census Records for more.
- 1901 Census. A complete & searchable index available online, see Census Records for more.
- 1911 Census. An in progress searchable index available online, see Census Records for more.
- OCFA (any year). The Ontario Cemetery Finding Aid - an online index of cemetery transcriptions. If your ancestor died in Ontario, you may find them listed here. Be sure to read the FAQ of this website as it will tell you how to obtain more information. (See Cemetery Records for a link.)
If you have a village or city name (ie, Aylmer) pay a visit to the Ontario Locator to obtain the name of the township and county/district where this village is located. Whenever possible look to local histories (those of villages, townships, etc) to learn more about the specific area where your ancestor lived.
"Somewhere In Ontario/Canada West/Upper Canada"
If born in Ontario, or passing through:
First, start with what you know. Often you can find what area of Ontario you need by researching another location. For instance, Jack Green can be found in the 1860 Ohio census with his birthplace listed as "Canada West". Before seeking information about his birth, find every Ohio record you can first. One of those may give you an exact place in Ontario.
Exchange 'Jack' and 'Ohio' with the name of the person you're seeking and where they lived, and find the answers to these questions.
- What information do other (US) census records offer?
- Did Jack apply for US citizenship? If yes, obtain the papers.
- What birth place does his marriage or death certificate offer?
- What about an obituary?
- What was his religion?
- Have you checked church records?
- Did he serve in the military?
- Have you checked local Ohio histories for a biography?
- Did Jack have any siblings?
- Do any of their records mention a place in Ontario?
- What about other relations? Cousins? Aunts? Uncles? Did they live in Ontario? Where?
If born elsewhere but passing through and/or moving to Ontario:
- Where did your ancestor originate? (area they were in before Ontario, and/or the area they were born in)
One assumption about migration is that persons from the same area (ie, Scotland) migrated to the same area in Ontario. This is true in some cases, but most immigrants would tend to head to the areas where family members had already settled (or where they could get free government land*). This is why researching a family as a whole is important - you may think 3-times-removed-great-grand-uncle Enoch isn't closely enough related to care about, but he may have opened his home to your direct ancestor when they made the move to Ontario. If you have information about other relations in Ontario, check those areas to see if you can find your ancestor there.
*The British crown offered free land as an incentive for immigration but settlers couldn't choose the land -- the government would assign it. Starting in the 1780's land was surveyed from west to east, then south to north. If your ancestor applied for free land you should be able to find a land record, which you can then use to learn where in Ontario they lived.
If your ancestor was the first of their family to migrate, or you don't have information on other family members, you can try locating your ancestor by using their country of origin. See OntarioGenWeb's Migration: Into Ontario page for a listing of settlement areas.
- What is their religion?
Using their religion to pinpoint an area of Ontario is similar to using their place of origin. Some immigrants chose to migrate to areas with similar religious beliefs, or where there was already an established church of their faith. See OntarioGenWeb's Religion in Ontario page for a listing of settlement areas.
Once you've learned which area of Ontario you need to research take some time to become familiar with the area. This is very very important!! What exists today may not or did not exist when your ancestor lived in that area, and vice versa (what existed then may no longer exist).
Find out what's available locally for searching this area
Case in point: Starting in the mid-1900's municipalities began taking the place of geographical areas. Municipalities are local governments. If you locate the area you're researching on a recent map you'll find it as part of a municipality. If you then take the name of that municipality and try to use it in genealogy research you'll find it most likely did not exist during the time period you're researching. So you'll need to become familiar with the history and geography of the area before trying to find it in historical documents.
Another case in point: Most small villages and communities were not large enough to have their own government, so they were governed by the township or by a surrounding/nearby city. What this means is, if you're seeking records on the village of Arva, you won't find them listed under Arva, you'll find them with records of the township (London Township in this case).
In order to be effective in researching by area, you'll need to know:
- The township the village, town or city was in during the time period you're researching (it may be in one township in 1840, but in another by 1860)
- The county or district that township was in during the time period you're researching (again, it may be in one county/district at one time, but in another later on)
Visit the Ontario GenWeb site (divided by county) that covers your area to find out the history of the area, what types of genealogy materials are available (ie, census), where it's located on a map, other researchers interested in the area, etc.
Also, be sure to take note of the surrounding areas. It's not uncommon to find mention of your ancestor in surrounding areas.
Visit your local library and nearest LDS Family History Center (listed under Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in most phone books) and see what they have available for Ontario research. The LDS is your best bet as what they don't have available at your local branch they can order (for a nominal fee) from Salt Lake City. If you don't have an LDS close by check to see if your local library offers inter-library loan services. If so, you may be able to order the research materials neededWhat's Available Province-wide?What if nothing is available locally for Ontario research?
If you have an LDS FHC nearby or a library with inter-library loan services, something will be available locally! But... if you happen to live too far from either of these research facilities there are several ways to get around this problem.
1 - Plan a trip to the nearest place that does have what you need to research
2 - Trade research. Find someone in your area of research who needs help in your local area and exchange research requests.
3 - Hire a researcher
4 - Participate in Lookup's and Genealogy Kindness websites (see links below). Offer to do lookup's for people researching the area you live in in exchange for lookup's in the areas where you need research done.
5 - Spend your vacation in Ontario! Visit Tourism Ontario for information