The 1851 census is the earliest publicly available census of Canada and covered Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Some data from the original census has been lost – none of the records from Toronto survived, for instance – but about 1.4 million records out of the roughly 2.4 million actually enumerated in 1851 are available.
The raw data from the 1851 census has been available for about 50 years, said Dave Obee, a Canadian genealogist and a member of Ancestry.ca’s advisory board, but “the difference here is that there’s an index for the first time to the entire thing.”
That means that a person looking for information about ancestors could enter a name and a town and immediately see records that match, rather than searching through many records, said Tim Sullivan, chief executive of MyFamily.com.
Constructing the index was no simple task, Sullivan said. “There is no optical character recognition technology that can read a 19th-century handwritten document and get that accurately into bits and bytes.” Instead, an Ancestry.ca team had to go through the microfilmed records and manually index their contents. The process, which began in May of this year, took almost 15,000 person-hours of effort, said Sullivan.
Obee said the 1851 census is significant because, although there had been previous censuses, it was the first comprehensive one. “They made a serious effort to get everybody,” he said. “Before that, it was touch and go whether you’d be caught in a census.”
The 1851 count is also interesting because it came shortly after a large influx of immigrants from Ireland in the wake of the Irish potato famine. There is no Irish census data for the period, Obee said, so “the first time we see our Irish immigrants in a census anywhere is in the 1851 census of Canada.”
Online data has greatly changed genealogy, Obee said. “Twenty years ago, when I started doing this kind of thing, I would have to go to a library somewhere.” Obee said he has even made special trips from his home in British Columbia to Ottawa in search of genealogical information. Now more and more people can search for information about their ancestors online. In fact, he said, online genealogical resources are starting to have a noticeable effect on tourism because people no longer have to travel to research their family backgrounds.
Ancestry.ca was launched earlier this year, a companion site to MyFamily’s nine-year-old Ancestry.com genealogy site for U.S. customers. The Canadian site has 12,500 subscribers so far, Sullivan said. Besides the 1851, 1901, 1906 and 1911 censuses, it contains assorted other records including the Canadian Genealogy Index from the 17th to the 20th century.
Earlier this month MyFamily added passenger lists for ships arriving in the U.S. from 1820 to 1960 to its database. These records are of interest to Canadian as well as American genealogists, Sullivan said, because “a lot of folks that have settled in Canada just happened to come through a U.S. port.”
Ancestry.ca charges an annual membership fee of $79.95, or a $14.95 monthly fee, for access to its Canadian Deluxe collection, and $359.95 a year or $49.95 a month for its World Deluxe collection. The site also includes some limited free services, such as creating a family tree and sharing photos online.