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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian Census Part 1 and Part 2  by Doris Bourrie, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Census Indices, Enumeration Districts, Census Substitutes

Census Indices

There are many published indices to various census years, in print or electronic form. These indices vary in scope and the amount of geographic area they cover. Genealogical societies and individuals may have chosen a town, a township, a county or a district as an indexing project. It is imperative that researchers recognize them as useful tools that lead to the original source, and not as substitutes for a real census page.

  • It may be an “every name” index for people listed in a particular town or township for a certain census year
  • It may be an index to people belonging to one ethnic group, for a certain town or township in a given census year
  • The index may be based on listing people of a certain religious affiliation for a given place and date
  • The index may be only of all deaths (sometimes called mortality schedules) taken from one region for one census year
  • It may be a “heads of families and strays” index, such as the large index to the 1871 census of Ontario.

Items to Consider When Using Indices

Whatever the type of census index a researcher consults, it is important to understand just how the index was compiled—what it includes and does not include. There is always a temptation to rely on an index to be ‘complete’. While indexed records are a tremendous help to the genealogist, the seasoned researcher recognizes their parameters or limitations and does not place total reliance on them, especially if the sought-for ancestor or family does not appear.

The professional researcher will also remember the possibility of human error when any index is compiled. A name or page may have been inadvertently omitted; a scarcely-legible census page may result in names being indexed incorrectly in the wrong alphabetical classification. Original surnames may have been misread or misspelled. Large scale indexing projects, such as the 1881 census of Canada, require many volunteers, some of whom may contribute from faraway places, thanks to the computer age. Thus, some may be unfamiliar with the look of local names.

Let’s consider the 1871 census index for the province of Ontario. We will take the case of a hypothetical family to provide our research problem:

Family information indicates that Abraham Hogg was married in 1870 in the township of Malahide, Elgin County, Ontario. His place of birth is given as Wainfleet, Welland County, his age is given as 21, and his parents given as Adam and Mary Hogg. He married Catherine Fletcher, age 19, born Malahide, Elgin County, Ontario. Catherine’s parents are given as James Fletcher and Margaret Baxter. Family information also indicates a child, William Hogg, born c1872 “somewhere in Ontario.”

You have searched the 1871 census index for Elgin County to locate the family of Abraham Hogg and his wife, Catherine. He was not listed in the index. You have also searched the Ontario Vital Statistics Index to births, which start in 1869, but have found no birth registered for a William Hogg c1872 in Malahide, or elsewhere in Ontario.

Here you have a problem where the usually reliable index does not help you. What can you do to locate this family? List the steps you might take to re-establish contact with the family of Abraham Hogg, beginning with the most likely route, and explain your reasons for taking that step. Assume that this step proves unsuccessful, and describe the next likely way of discovering the family, again explaining your reasons for choosing that route. We will suppose that each effort proves unsuccessful. See how many possibilities you can suggest to locate this lost family in Ontario, using whatever record sources you think might prove useful.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Canadian Census Part 1 and Part 2 offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.