Ontario Local and Family History

Ontarians are jealously proud of their local and family history, but this history remains largely inaccessible to scholar and folklorist alike, hoarded in small libraries and archives from one corner of the vast province to the other. In response to member feedback, Canadiana.org has substantially bolstered collection efforts in this area, providing and enhancing access to materials that chronicle the rich historical texture of settlement, industry, culture and local government in Upper Canada and early Ontario.

Map of Ontario Counties

The generation born to the early waves of Loyalist settlers spanned a tumultuous century, an age of canals and railroads, reformers and reactionaries, Orangemen and Fenians, massive fortunes and spectacular financial crashes. At its dawn, Upper Canada's predominantly rural settlements hugged the southern fringe of the Canadian Shield along a road network of dirt paths carved through the wilderness by Governor Simcoe’s redcoats. Towards the end, the province was criss-crossed by industry, mining, and rail transport; hydroelectric plants lit up Ottawa in the 1880s and other cities soon after; Windsor was growing into an automobile import and manufacturing hub; and in New Ontario, mineral wealth brought prosperity and settlers to North Bay and Sault St. Marie. When the Bogart, Brock, and O'Connor children took their first steps, York was an unremarkable garrison town; when they settled into retirement, Toronto had risen as a commercial and banking centre rivalling Montreal in size, wealth, and power.

Local and family histories offer unique, ground-level insights into this bustling yet austere Victorian world caught between innovation and tradition, a world of waxed mustaches and agricultural fairs, of Orange Order parades and Fenian panics, of Sunday soldiers marching and countermarching for Queen and Country, bayonets (or broomsticks) fixed against the twin evils of rebellion and republicanism. Early Ontarians were intensely political people—sometimes to a fault—debating education, agriculture, religion, prohibition, and increasingly, labour. Tories tussled with reformers, carrying sectarian grudges like comfortable blankets, while political elites drawn from law, medicine and business gradually clawed power away from the old colonial cliques.

Shortly before Confederation, Queen's Park abolished the last of the old provincial districts, enshrining Ontario's counties as fully autonomous units of government. In many respects, the history of Ontario's first century is the history of these counties: at first, despotic landholders tried and failed to duplicate the settled life of the English gentry in Elgin, Wellington and Brant counties, sitting on vast acreages near Galt where a few years later the ground would reverberate to the thrum of industrial machinery. In Eastern Ontario, migrating along the St. Lawrence Valley, French Canadians founded Saint-Jacques d'Embrun in the fertile lands of Prescott and Russell. Their neighbours in Dundas County grew pears and apples, while the more temperate Niagara Peninsula supported peaches, vineyards, and, by the 1860s, cheese and dairy. In the forested hills and bleak marshes of Renfrew and Carleton counties, the timber boom of the 1830s birthed Pembroke as well as a grim lumber city named Bytown, recipient in 1857 of an unexpected honour.

The urban environment and its evolution is a topic of growing interest in a wide range of fields, and a particular area of strength for this project. In the leafy suburbs of Hamilton, prosperous middle classes produced a flourishing architecture. Elsewhere, mill hands and factory workers experienced a very different urban life, one of horseracing in the streets, brawls and lawlessness, filth and cholera, raging fires and exploding sewers—a Victorian pauperism which has left few physical traces, laid to rest beneath landscaped boulevards and modern real-estate developments.

Incorporating elements of oral history and early heritage photography, the titles in this collection shine a steady light on particular places and people, allowing Canadians to make effective connections with the lives and experiences of previous generations. Future instalments will expand the scope of the project into Quebec, the Maritimes, and Western Canada.

Select titles

Dr. A.B. Cecil Dando, Sault Ste. Marie
Dr. A.B. Cecil Dando, Sault Ste. Marie

Early History of St. Mark's (Niagara, 1909)

Historic Buildings (Niagara Historical Society, 1911)

Inscriptions and Graves in the Niagara Peninsula (1910)

Pioneer Papers (Simcoe County Pioneer and Historical Society, Barrie, 1910)

List of Subscribers to the Missionary and Other Extra Parochial Funds (Anglican Diocese of Ottawa, 1916)

Constitution and by-laws of the Hamilton Automobile Club and list of members (1911)

Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario (1908)

1884-1914, thirty year's history of First Baptist Church, Brantford (1914)

Port Hope Historical Sketches (1901)

Annals of sixty years, Cooke's Presbyterian Church, Toronto, 1851- 1910 (1910)

Historical Sketch and Calendar of Pupils, 1855-1904 (Berlin Collegiate and Technical Institute, Kitchener, 1904)

The History and Family of Cornelius Moore (Welland, 1920)

The Chadwicks of Guelph and Toronto and their Cousins (1914)

The Chadwicks of Guelph and Toronto and their Cousins (1916)

A Register of Marriages and Baptisms in the Gore and London Districts (1903)

The Revd. John Stuart, D.D., U.E.L., of Kingston, U.C, and his Family (1920)

The Nott Family Record (Toronto, 1906)

Genealogy of the Wright Family (Sarnia, c. 1928)

Ancestors and Descendents of Richard Griffin, of Smithville (Hamilton, 1924)

The Genealogy and Historical Sketch of the Stouffer Family (1918)