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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 Research: Quebec Non-Francophone Ancestors  by Althea Douglas M.A., CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Plan of the Town and Fortifications of Montréal

Map: Plan of the Town and Fortifications of Montréal

Plan of the Town and Fortifications of Montréal or Ville Marie in Canada published in the London Magazine (May, 1760) author’s collection.


City of Montréal 1830

Map:City of Montréal 1830

City of Montréal 1830
F. Cattlin and J. and C. Walker, author’s collection.


Montréal—City Unique [1]

Montréal and Mount Royal, Geography of a City

Researching English-speaking Montréalers is relatively easy as most records have survived, many are indexed and there are good runs of City Directories. It is the geography that will slow you down unless you know the city, the island, and most important, the names and acronyms of the communities and districts.

If you have ever lived in Montréal, you know it is unlike any other city in North America - except perhaps Manhattan. Both are islands on navigable water, where an early settlement grew and spread to cover the entire island and the surrounding river banks. Both are densely built but have a large open park at their centre. In fact both Central Park and Mount Royal Park were designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903).

New York started at the southern tip of a long oval island and grew north. Montréal started as a walled town mid-way along the south side of a long oval island and grew east and west along the “beach” level of the land. North of the original settlement rises Mount Royal and Westmount Mountain; modest hills, and the core of an ancient volcano worn down by glaciers.

The land slopes gently north from the river, then rises sharply in a steep hill (e.g. Beaver Hall Hill), or evens as an escarpment in places, then flattens out into another “beach” which is now the centre of the city; Dorchester Street (now René Levesque Boulevard), Ste-Catherine Street and Sherbrooke Street. North of Sherbrooke Street the city climbs the slopes of the mountains. A “pass” (Côte-des-Neiges) between Westmount Mountain and Mount Royal leads to the northern suburbs, as do streets on the level ground east and west of the “mountains”. These geographic features have determined how the city grew and where you should hunt for people in the various 19th century censuses. Generally speaking, higher is better - unless you are a horse pulling a trolley car uphill.

The Historical Atlas of Canada, Vol. II, Plate 49, “Social Change in Montréal, 1842-1901, should be studied with care. Vol. III, Plate 14, shows “The Industrial Development of Montréal”, and Plate 30, shows “The Social Landscape of Montréal, 1901”. This last will give you the “Median rent by street”—important because Montréal is a city of tenants who far outnumber home owners.

Street Names Change

The steep hill-cum-escarpment north of Lagauchetière Street caused a discontinuity in streets and street names, as did the gentler rise above Sherbrooke Street. Both hills are shown on the 1830 map included. A single street might have had three or more names, and this has only been rationalized in modern times. You must have historical maps of the city.

On some of these you will see how Colborne Street once turned into Windsor Street at Notre Dame West, only becoming Peel Street as it crossed Dorchester Boulevard (now politically corrected to René Levesque - except where it runs through Westmount). The city fathers were always prone to change street names. You have to be alert to this. Perhaps a change of address means the family moved, but perhaps only the street name changed. Use City Directories and check in the Street section, noting cross-streets with care, especially for census research. If you cannot find an address on a modern map, check directories and maps from the period when that address existed. For some early maps, and pictures of the city, find a copy of C.P. de Volpi’s two volume “Pictorial Record” of Montréal (1963), and for countless anecdotes and stories about historic Montréal’s people and places, search your library catalogues for books by Edgar Andrew Collard, who, for years, wrote a column for the Montréal Gazette and assembled these into many books[2] .

Montréal Metropolis 1880-1930[3]

If you do not know Montréal well, do your best to get a copy and read the suggested sections with care, it will give you a feel for how the city grew and spread, where the cultural and economic fault lines lie, and so where to look for your people. Note:

Compared to other North American cities, Montréal was quite densely built, especially in its working-class sectors, where multi-family housing had predominated since the mid-nineteenth century (page 12) [This means census hunts are - to put it politely - time-consuming chores!—AD]

A useful map is on page 15 showing streets and main buildings downtown, 1931. On pages 21-22 note the strong role religion played in Montréal life stating:

Montréal’s division into two large Christian communities echoed Belfast, but … The linguistic division into French and English strengthened the unique character of Montréal … The resulting physical division of the city into an English-speaking West End and a French-speaking East End minimized conflict …

Read: “Factors in the Development of Montréal”, by Paul-André Linteau, pages 25-33. Note particularly page 27:

During the half century between 1880 and 1930, the population of the Montréal metropolitan area rose from 140,000 to a million. Three demographic surges: 1885-1887, following the completion of Canada’s first transcontinental railway. A second spurt in growth came at the turn of the century, a consequence of the rapid colonization of Western Canada … a third surge occurred from 1922 to 1930…

You will learn about the ongoing immigration, and the resulting ethnic and social divisions, and the role of business, the government and the churches. These must be understood to work intelligently in the records.

“A Community of Communities, Suburbs in the Development of Greater Montréal”, by Walter van Nus, pages 59-67 is also required reading because “Between 1871 and 1914, 43 new municipalities were incorporated on the Island of Montréal, not including those of the “West Island” - the emphasis is mine because you will encounter these 43 place names, as well as those of the “West Island” communities where many “English” lived: Dorval, Pointe Claire, Beaconsfield.

The section on “Diversity in Mainly Working-Class Suburbs” explains a lot about where the majority of the population, both English and French-speaking, lived and worked, and why “workers from the grimy southwest of Montréal regarded their move to Verdun as a step up.“ (page 61) Understanding the subtle steps up, or down, is essential in following the moves a family might make every year or two. See section on “Moving Day in Montréal”.


  1. Weintraub, William, City Unique: Montréal Days and Nights in the 1940s and '50s (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Inc., 1996) is a good read if you know Montréal, and essential if you want to understand its multi-layered social structure.
  2. Collard, Edgar A., Montreal, The Days that Are No More (Toronto: Doubleday Canada Ltd., 1976) which lists other titles including: The McGill You Knew, Call Back Yesterdays, Montreal Yesterdays, Canadian Yesterdays, Oldest McGill.
  3. Montréal Metropolis 1880-1930, editors Isabelle Gournay and France Vanlaethem (Toronto: Stoddard Publishing for the Canadian Centre for Architecture, 1998). This book was prepared in conjunction with an exhibition shown at the Centre for Architecture (Montréal) and the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa). If it is not in your usual reference library, look for it in the Architecture section of university libraries, and art gallery libraries.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: Quebec Non-Francophone Ancestors 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

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Category:Canada Category:Quebec