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Canada Historical Geography
This section describes changes in the county structure of Canada and jurisdictions used in the FamilySearch Catalog. This will help you use the catalog to find records of the place your family lived. For help using an online database, Canadian Geographical Names Data Base, click here.
The Regions and Provinces of Canada
Research procedures and genealogical sources are different for each province in Canada. Modern Canada is divided politically into ten provinces and two territories. The provinces are sometimes grouped, east to west, as follows:
Maritime Provinces: Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. When Newfoundland is added, these provinces are called the Atlantic Provinces.
Central Provinces: Quebec and Ontario.
Prairie Provinces: Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.
West Coast Province: British Columbia.
Yukon Territory: Land north of British Columbia.
Northwest Territories: Land north of the Prairie Provinces, the Arctic islands, and the islands of Hudson Bay.
In this outline, eastern provinces generally refers to the Atlantic Provinces, Quebec, and Ontario. Western provinces are the Prairie Provinces and British Columbia.
British North America is the name used for the colonies that remained in British hands between 1783 (the acknowledgment of United States independence) and 1867 (the creation of the Dominion of Canada). Those colonies had separate economic and political systems and developed individual land settlement patterns, government institutions, and traditions. Many differences remained when the colonies were brought together as provinces of Canada beginning in 1867.
Upper Canada was the name used for Ontario between 1791 and 1841. Quebec was called Lower Canada during the same period. Between 1841 and 1867, Ontario was called Canada West, and Quebec was called Canada East.
The FamilySearch Catalog uses Canadian jurisdictions as of 1960. You may need to determine previous boundaries and jurisdictions to find your ancestors’ records. Gazetteers and histories can help you find these changes. See "History" and "Gazetteers."
The Counties and Municipalities of Canada
Records are created to meet the requirements of law. Jurisdiction is (1) the power exercised by a government to make and enforce laws and (2) the geographical area that the government controls. Governmental jurisdictions in Canada sometimes followed United States models.
Counties were designated very early in British North America in the provinces of present eastern Canada, except in Newfoundland (which has never had counties). In the heyday of counties, 1850 to 1960, the heavily populated portions of eastern provinces had counties like those in the United States, with governments at county seats, usually called county towns.
Counties in eastern Canada did not always have their own governments. In pre-1850 Upper Canada (Ontario), for example, the counties served only (1) for land description; (2) as geographical areas where the militia was levied, and (3) as ridings, or precincts, for voting. Pre-1850 southern Ontario was divided into a varying number of districts, and government records were organized by those districts. The districts were abolished in 1849, and the counties became functioning governments. This means that records (particularly land and property records) can be listed in the Locality Search of the FamilySearch Catalog under many headings:
[PROVINCE] [PROVINCE], [COUNTY] [PROVINCE], [COUNTY], [TOWNSHIP] [PROVINCE], [COUNTY], [CITY]
Before 1952, most of western Canada did not have counties as judicial districts for a so-called county court system. Only British Columbia used counties at that time.
Since 1953 there has been a tendency throughout Canada to combine the governments of townships, towns, and counties into regional governments of various names and kinds. This will eventually affect genealogical research, as records become centralized.
Most records of genealogical importance date from earlier times when the counties of eastern Canada functioned as governmental units (except in Newfoundland) and the west had no counties. The Locality Search of the FamilySearch Catalog lists jurisdictions in Newfoundland, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon, and Northwest territories under:
[PROVINCE] [PROVINCE], [CITY]
Rural municipalities, which cover a relatively large area like a county, are nevertheless considered local governments in the Prairie Provinces. They are listed in the catalog under the city level:
[PROVINCE], [CITY (RURAL MUNICIPALITY)]
Counties were composed of smaller areas called:
- Townships in Ontario, Nova Scotia, and eastern Quebec.
- Parishes in New Brunswick.
- Lots on Prince Edward Island.
Townships and parishes had names; lots were numbered. You can find names of townships and counties where villages were located in:
Lovell, John, editor. Canadian Dominion Directory for 1871. Eight Volumes. Montreal, Quebec: John Lovell, 1871. (Family History Library book 971 E4L; films 856124 and 856125; fiche 6046766.) This gives the township and county of each community, which is important when searching census, land and property, local histories, and other records.
In parts of some provinces, townships or their equivalent had their own municipal governments, although villages and towns within their boundaries may have been independent of them. In other places, townships were only names of parcels of land.
Roberts, Miriam. The Greatest Canadian Geographer: David Thompson Born to Welsh Parents. The article briefly describes his life, his travels and accomplishments. He served both the Hudson Bay Comany 1784-1797, and the North West Company 1797-1815, as trader, explorer and surveyor. He accurately mapped the main travel routes through 1,700,000 square miles of the Canadian and american west, often journeying by canoe, horse and foot. His map of the West and his Narrative edited by J.B. Tyrell for the Champlain Society (1916) are lasting monuments to his genius. He died at Longueuil. Included is a record taken from the family Bible giving the names, birth dates and place and deaths of his 13 children. Article in Hel Achau, #99, Dec. 2008, pages 19-22, Family History Library Ref. 942.93 D25h
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