Category: Census Records

November 20th, 2013

Library and Archives Canada Places 1861 Canadian Census Online

Recently Library and Archives Canada has made the 1861 Canadian Census available online. I must say that it is a welcomed and valuable addition to their collection, and to anyone researching their Canadian ancestry, like me! The census is searchable through an on-site search engine, and the criteria are very simple – surname, given or first name, age, and province.

As with most genealogical search screens, you can search a record by name or place, but be aware that some records from sub-districts have not survived, though they are minimal. The Library and Archives Canada website provides a link on their Search Help Page, where you can find out exactly what records are missing and for where.

The 1861 census was the third such collection of population data in the Province of Canada’s history. The Province of Canada at that time included Canada East (modern day Quebec), and Canada West (now Ontario). Data was also collected at that time for Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, and consists of information on 3,112,269 individuals.

Agricultural returns are also included in the 1861 census report, and information such as acreage, number of livestock, what products were produced, and the concession or lot number are provided. They are listed by the name of the head of household, and you can find them after the county personal returns. You may find that the name of the head of household is listed for both personal and agricultural returns, so there may be more than one entry for some individuals. Check and double check so that you neither miss any information, nor overlook any. Don’t assume that just because two people have the same name that it is a double listing.

Before being digitized, the 1861 census existed only on microfilm in the archives. This was due to a decree by the Dominion Bureau of Statistics in 1955, which authorized the Public Records Committee to place the original records on microfilm, and then to destroy the original. Unfortunately the microfilming was not always of the highest quality, and some records are very hard to make out. Additionally, the pages were not scanned in any particular order, so pagination is not always accurate, and some times they are even written in by hand.

As always, the transfer of one record format to another is susceptible to human error. We as genealogists however, are aware of that, and equipped with the tools to deal with it. The bottom line is that we have yet another database of valuable genealogical records at our disposal, and we can access them from the comfort of our homes. Never forget that tireless and dedicated volunteers give their time and energy freely so that we can search our ancestors at our convenience. We can forgive them for making a mistake or two!

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December 10th, 2012

What’s in a Name? How to Get Around Surname Misspellings in Census Records

It can be very frustrating searching census records and finding no correct entry for the person you seek. This can also be one of the hardest problems for a genealogist to solve. Patronymic names – a name based on that of a person’s father or grandfather such as Richards and Richardson – are very prone to spelling errors, and these types of name are notoriously unreliable. Other mistakes can be the result of human error. Consider the case of an enumerator encountering a person with an unfamiliar accent and its accompanying pronunciations. He might spell a name as he hears it rather than as it should be. Then there comes the transcription errors. Data entry staff may misread an enumerator’s handwriting, and consequently it enters the database with the wrong spelling. These are the most common errors encountered when searching for names in the census, so how does a researcher get around them?

Keep an Open Mind and Play the Wildcard

In my own personal research I’ve come to find that it pays to keep an open mind about surname spellings in census reports, and sometimes it pays off handsomely. Of course considering every possible spelling variant of a name would be a long and tedious process, and then there is still no guarantee that there is a spelling error you haven’t considered. The various databases I have used in the past have mostly incorporated some sort of option for finding variants in a single search. You are probably familiar with Soundex, which is one of them, but another I have found very useful is the Wildcard option.

The “wildcard” is a special character that you can use to stand for any letter, including no letter at all. In most cases it is the asterisk (*). The beauty of the wildcard is in its simplicity. By using it you can search for variations in surname spellings where the last letter is different such as in: Brook, Brooks, and Brooke. You can search for all three names by using Brook*, though the results will include names like Brooker or Brookbank as well. It can also be substituted for a vowel in the middle of a name. For instance Rothw*ll finds both Rothwell and Rothwall

Wildcards are especially useful for dealing with transcription errors as they allow you to avoid the letters that have been wrongly entered. There is of course the disadvantage that you may miss stranger or less common misspellings as it relies on your ability to imagine what variants may exist for a particular name. Another limitation is that many of the online indexes don’t allow you to use wildcards at the beginning of a field, though the Irish National Archives site and Scotland’s People are exceptions.

This is unfortunate as with Victorian spellings that is usually where the errors occur, especially with the elaborate Victorian initials. You also need to enter at least three characters before the wildcard, so although you might be able to use Alcr*ft to find Alcraft and Alcroft, you would need to conduct a separate search to find other variants such as Aldcroft or Allcraft. In addition to being a tool for finding name variations though, wildcards can also be used in deciphering place name spelling variations, a valuable tool when searching for birthplaces.

A Note about Forename Variations 

Forenames have their own unique set of problems, but there are basically three main reasons you won’t fins a particular forename. They are:

  • The person being enumerated uses their middle name as their first, and so gave their middle name to the enumerator
  • The enumerator recorded a nickname such as Bill instead of William
  • The name was abbreviated to an initial such as W or Wm, for William

Most of the databases recognize these possibilities and take steps to combat them. They don’t all use the same methods however, so you will need to consult their help section to see if they provide that information. Most of the large websites automatically return a wide range of first name spelling variations, though that can be overridden by choosing exact match if it is their default setting. Always check your initial results to see what variations you captured, and of course you can use the wildcard option. This will not catch any shortened or abbreviated forms of first names or nicknames though.

Hopefully these tips will help you to find your ancestor if their name has been misspelt. Once you do locate them, you can record their data in one of our specialized Free Downloadable Census Forms. They are easy to read and work with, fully comprehensive, and will assist you in recording your data in a professional organized manner so that you can present your family history in a clear, concise, professional way.

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November 12th, 2012

Be Careful of Birthplaces in Census Records

One of the biggest headaches I’ve received from trying to find my relatives in the census is the inconsistencies I’ve noticed when giving the location of their birth. Several times I have found an ancestor, or thought so, only to find in the next or previous census that the person of that identical name and age had given a different birthplace. After much confusion, frustration and countless checking and re-checking of records, it turned out that I had the right person in each census – they had just given a different birthplace each time to the enumerator.

The truth is, many of our ancestors didn’t know where they were born, especially those who were orphans or adoptees. In other cases the parents had moved a long way from where the child was born when he or she was very young. Accordingly, the child had no knowledge of their native parish or county when they became of age. Of course the majority of the populace did know where they were born. The problem however is that there may have been a variety of ways to describe that place. Sometimes you can find an exact address with house number, street name, town and/or county, but all too often you encounter the dreaded “not known” in the address column.

Common Problems with Birthplaces 

I was looking for my ancestors in the 1891 Census of England and Wales when I first encountered the problem with birthplaces. The page on which my ancestor was listed had thirty entries in total. Of those thirty, only half of them gave their birthplace in the common county, parish format, and of the other half, four gave only the name of the county, eight were born overseas, two had “not known” as their entry, which left only one person with a street address – London, St. Martin’s St. My ancestor at least had their county and parish listed, so I was able to trace them further. It did take some doing though!

My great, great uncle James Oliver had actually been born inLondon, but he had relocated outside the city when he was younger, first to Leeds, and then toNewcastle. I had to search around a bit to find him in subsequent and previous census reports, but I eventually did.  The interesting thing was that he had his birthplace listed six different ways in six different census returns. In 1851 it wasLondon, in 1861London, Holborn: 1871 was Middlesex, Newton St, Holborn; in 1881 he hadLondon, Middlesex; 1891 wasLondon, Newton St, Holborn, and finally in 1901 it was different again listed asLondon,St. John’sWood. None of them were wrong however; they just referred to the same place in different ways.

Poor Law Issues

Some people were genuinely unsure of their birthplace, but others may have given incorrect information on purpose. The lives of the Victorian working class were greatly affected by the Poor Law, and many feared being taken from their homes and placed back in their parish of birth – their parish of legal settlement according to the law. The fear of being sent back to their birthplace and placed in a workhouse was so great that many of our ancestors lied in the census, even though the administration guaranteed confidentiality.

Boundary Problems

I also came across a few issues with county boundaries during my research. The previously mentioned great uncle of mine was actually born in Hertfordshire, but you may recall his birthplace listed Middlesex as his county of birth. Initially I was stumped by the discrepancy, but on consulting a map noticed that my uncle’s address was very close to the Middlesex border, so it was easy to see how the mistake may have been made. Occasionally heads of household gave the enumerator the name of the closest market town to which their children were born rather than the actual place. On occasion that market town was across county boundaries, again making for a confusing circumstance. Keep an eye out for historical county boundary changes as well.

There is really no telling what you can find in census records. Though they are indeed popular and valuable genealogical documents, they are prone to common errors. You basically need to make the most of what you do find, and work your way around the obstacles that these mistakes create. Look for your ancestors in each of the censuses. This way you will get a feel for the patterns in the data, making it easier for you to pick out rogue entries. Once you accept that census returns aren’t as accurate as we’d like them to be, and become familiar with the various errors commonly found within, you’ll find that tracking those elusive ancestors will be that mush easier.

Once you find your ancestor in the census returns, feel free to download one of our Free Census Forms. They are professionally designed to make for both a professional presentation, and an efficient and effective mans of recording genealogical data.

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September 3rd, 2012

British and Irish Census Records – Their History and How to Use Them

British and Irish census reports actually have an interesting history behind them. In that history lays valuable information that can help you to locate your ancestor, and develop an intimate understanding of them and the lives they lived. The first census was initiated after a period of poor harvests and food shortages. Subsequently the British Government decided to take a “survey” of the population in order to determine the general health and makeup of the people. It was thus in 1800, under the order of George III, that The Census Act was decreed ordering a complete enumeration of all of Britain, namely; England, Scotland and Wales. According to the Act, the record taking would commence in 1801and a similar enumeration would be performed every ten years from that day on. This has been carried out accordingly except in 1941 due to the ongoing war.

The questions to be asked during the enumeration were designed to separate the country into three specific categories; those involved in agriculture, those employed in the manufacturing and trade industries, and those engaged in all other forms of employment. This first census however, did not require names to be given, though some enumerators included them in footnotes or for their own personal documentation. Questions that were asked of householders were fairly general and geared towards establishing; the amount of inhabited houses within the area, how many families lived in each house, how many males as opposed to females lived in the region, occupational data, and how many baptisms and burials had been recorded in the area during the previous century. Names were not recorded until the year 1841,

From 1841 onwards the questions asked in the census reports became more and more detailed. Besides the names of the inhabitants of a household, their age (although lowered down to the nearest five year increment for anyone over fifteen), and gender were required.  The 1841 report is generally the first used by most researchers, not only because of the vital data they contain, but also because they were tabulated and preserved for reference. In 1851 those living at sea, whether serving in the merchant or Royal navies, were included, along with those serving overseas in land based forces and employed by the East India Company. There were few changes in this format over the next 40 years, except that language spoken in the home was included, until the 1901 census when questions were designed to elicit more precise responses.

The following information on each individual can be found on reports between 1841 and1901:

  • Full Name – First, Middle (usually only an initial or initials were recorded for middle names) and Surname
  • How Related to Head of Household
  • Age at Last Birthday
  • Gender
  • Marital Status
  • Occupation
  • Place of Birth – County and Parish if Wales or England)
  • Country of Birth if Born Outside England and Wales
  • Language Spoken
  • Whether or not Disabled

The reports also contain the full address and, progressively with subsequent census returns, additional information about the abode itself.

An excellent resource on how to utilize the British Census returns for research purposes is supplied by the British Government at their National Archives website. Their Guide to Census Returns provides valuable information for anyone researching ancestors in England and Wales, as well as the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

Scotland and Ireland

Separate enumerations were taken of Scotland and Ireland and additional information on each year can be found at the Scotland’s People website operated by the General Registration Office of Scotland and at Ireland’s National Archives. The reports for Scotland can be viewed online at, and there is a census index for the year 1881 that can be accessed via the public computer stations at the National Archives of Scotland. also has digitized indexes from 1841 – 1901.

Unfortunately due to the Irish Civil War, few returns from the 19th century have survived, though the returns for 1901 and 1911 are mostly intact and can be viewed online at the Irish National Archives website.

Useful Tips for Working with English Census Records

The British government included an “as of” date in their census reports. Referred to as the “census night”, the census return was to include the names and details of all individuals who were in the house from Sunday night to Monday morning. Though this may seem a fairly obvious stipulation, we have highlighted it as it is important to consider the “as of” date when consulting census records and comparing them with other genealogical data. An example of this would be; say an individual’s age is listed as 31 in the 1841 census, but only as 40 in the 1851 return. This could be confusing, unless you consult the respective “as of” dates.  In 1841 the census night was Sunday June 6; in 1851 it was Sunday March 30. This is about nine weeks difference, and you could suppose that the person’s birthday fell during that period, and consequently narrow your search for their birth records.

If for any reason the census form was not properly completed by the head of a household, enumerators were instructed to request that data at a follow up visit. Also if an individual was illiterate or blind, or wasn’t able to physically complete the census form, an interview was to be conducted by the enumerator, who completed the document on behalf of the householder. Original descriptions of enumeration districts can therefore be helpful in finding lost ancestors, Enumeration districts are basically geographic areas assigned to individual census takers, and generally represent a specific part of a city, parish or county.  If browsing online at for example, if you click on the census return you wish to search, a drop down list with County names appears. After selecting a County, you choose a Civil Parish, which consequently reveals the enumeration districts for that area.

Notes on Irish Census Returns

Irish census taken has not always been consistent, and for this reason the following information may be useful when consulting Irish Census records. The first Irish census was taken in 1813, and subsequently reports were administered every ten years thereafter from 1821 through 1911. The census was not taken in 1921 due to the Irish Civil War, but one was taken in 1926, and two more in 1936 and 1946. Between the years 1946 and 1971 the census was taken every 5 years, and then in 1971 a ten year span was again implemented.

In addition to the inconsistencies of the census intervals, most of the reports for the period 1821 – 1851 were destroyed by fire, the original 1813 report vanished over time, and the reports for the years 1861 and 1871 were destroyed by the Irish Government upon their completion. The reports of 1881 and 1891 were reduced to paper pulp due to a shortage of paper during the First World War.

For this reason many researchers looking for Irish ancestors turn to Census supplements or substitutes such as Griffith’s Valuation and the Tithe Applotment Books.

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August 27th, 2012

Working with Canadian Census Records

Canada’s first census took place in 1666 before it was even Canada. Jean Talon, an early colonial administrator for the government of France, oversaw the enumeration which recorded the names, ages and marital status of the 3,000 plus inhabitants of what was then known as New France. The first official census of Canada was taken in 1871, but between then and 1666, as many as 98 different census reports, both colonial and regional, were undertaken for purposes of taxation and military subscription. As with other countries, new questions designed to elicit more detailed information were added to the questionnaires, but prior to 1851 most returns are incomplete and rather vague in what they reveal.

Canadian census returns post 1851 used a Population Schedule format for their enumeration of individuals, while providing a separate agricultural schedule which was used to record; the size of the land held, structures, crops grown, livestock kept, and a property valuation. Most of the Canadian census records are held by Library and Archives Canada, including those from pre-Confederation years. Some are still held in provincial archives, including original documents pre-dating 1871 for New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, while has also digitized many of them.

Genealogical Value of the 1871 Census

The first Canadian census was extraordinarily thorough, and contained nine different schedules to glean information from the populace. These schedules included:

  • Population Schedule (record of names)
  • Mortality Schedule (names of those who died in the previous 12 months)
  • Listing of Public Institutions, Real estate, Vehicles and Implements
  • Agricultural Schedule – Record of Crops Produced and Quantities
  • Livestock Schedule – Record of Livestock and Animal Products Production
  • Industrial Schedule – Manufacturing Records
  • Return of Products for Forest Resources
  • Shipping and Fisheries Schedule – Records of Vessels, Catches, and Trade
  • Mining and Mineral Schedule

Finding your ancestor in the 1871 and subsequent census returns of Canada can reveal quite a bit of information about them, especially their economic standing, their holdings, and the success or lack thereof of their enterprise if they had one. Knowing this information can provide you with further insight as to their lifestyle and political and/or social influence. The Industrial Schedule was eliminated from the census in 1881, and although the following census reinstated it, only the population schedules survived.

Subsequent Canadian Census Reports

Canada had grown by 1901, and consisted at that time of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Columbia, the Yukon Territory, the Northwest Territories, and the District of Keewatin, and administrative district of the Northwest Territories. It is important to know the enumeration districts for the Canadian Census, as that information can be highly effective in finding your ancestor. Generally Canadian enumeration districts generally corresponded to electoral districts, though not always.  Again, you can find the electoral district for free at by doing a search of Canadian census records. Once you select a Province to search within, you’ll be given an option of choosing a District within that Province, and subsequently a chance to choose a Sub–District within that District.

The census enumeration process was much in Canada as in other countries, with enumerators going from household to household, questioning the head of the house, and gathering the data. The 1901 census was scheduled to be completed within 30 days of the 31 March, however the census commissioners were forced to revise them before they could be sent on to the census office, an action that resulted in a delay of around five months. This normally would have been no big deal, but in this particular instance the result was significant. The reports from British Columbia were shipped to the nation’s capitol by steamer, unfortunately this particular one – The Islander – sank with all records on board. Consequently the census had to be retaken, delaying the final tabulation of data.

This wasn’t the end of the adventures of the 1901 census. In 1955 The Public Records Committee ordered the Dominion Bureau of Statistics to destroy all the original documents from the 1901 reports, which they unfortunately did without question. Fortunately many of the population schedules as well as the reports on real estate, schools, and church records had been saved to microfilm before then, and still survive. These images have been since digitized by Library and Archives Canada, and you can browse them online.  Census reports for Canada have been taken, and hence are available for reference, in 10 year intervals since the original census of 1871.

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November 30th, 2011

Using Soundex and Miracode

Soundex and Miracode are important tools for locating elusive ancestors in census reports. They originated in the late nineteenth century, and both versions were used to index census schedules between 1880 and 1930. They are similar coding systems which use the first letter of a person’s surname along with three following numbers which represent the next three consonants in the name. Sounds simple doesn’t it? They really are quite easy to use and are a valuable genealogical tool once mastered, but many people are intimidated by the technical sounding names. Hopefully after reading this post, you will not have that same fear, and will recognize the value of these straightforward systems and be able to use them to make your research more proficient, and less time consuming.


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February 26th, 2010

Why Census Records Might be Your Best Genealogy Resource

If you ask anyone about census records, you might be greeted with a blank stare. They might be your best resource in genealogy, yet many people are aware of its importance. According to the US Census Bureau, a census is a simple enumeration, usually of the population, but also businesses and commercial establishments, farms, government etc. What better place to find the information you need?

The US Constitution requires a new census every 10 years for re-districting the US House of Representatives. In 1790, the US government conducted the first census, which has continued until today. The 2010 census forms should soon be arriving in your mailbox.

You can search census records from 1790 – 1930. Data that is more recent is not available to the public as there is a 72-year restriction on access to federal census. In 2012, access to the census from 1940 will be open for public use.

A wealth of information to be found in census records.

Before beginning your search, arm yourself with a list of the people you want to research and as much of the following information about each person as possible. Here are some things you should have on that list:


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