Using Ancestry: 1851 Canadian Census, by Michael John Neill

The recent release of the 1851 Canadian Census on Ancestry gave me hopes of surmounting two of my brick walls. However before I begin my searches, it is best to review my information, check my assumptions, and learn more about the database. This week we look at two problems that might be solved with this source.

Too Far of a Jump?
I was really tempted to use the 1851 census to solve a problem with one of my Irish lines. But the longer I thought about it, the more I realized that, given what I currently know about the family, spending hours searching the census to work on the problem might not be the best use of my time. I will perform some basic searches and see if any of the results strike my interest, but devoting days to it at this point is premature.

Anne Murphy’s first documented existence is in St. John, New Brunswick, when she marries Samuel Neill in 1865. She was born in Ireland in the 1830s-early 1840s and died in 1895 in Illinois. Unfortunately no record provides any significant information on Anne’s origins other than “Ireland.” Extensive research on the family in the States has yielded no clues as to the names of any other potential family members.

Using the 1851 census at this point to find her might be premature. Records closer to the 1865 marriage date should be analyzed and learning more about records in New Brunswick is in order. It will be difficult tracking each 1851 census entry for an Ann(e/a) Murphy in order to determine if they are the one who later became Anne Neill. Besides, without even an estimate of her immigration date, I have nothing to indicate she was even in Canada in 1851.

When I search the 1851 census for Anne, I will compare the names of other household members to see if there are correlations with the names of Anne Murphy Neill’s known children. Based upon that, I may pursue specific families further. Of course, just because an Annie in the 1851 census has several siblings with the same names as Anne Murphy Neill’s children, it does not necessarily mean that they are the same person.

Review Before Searching
Another brick wall also could be brought down by the 1851 census. Here though, I need to review the information I already have before searching. Again, there are some blank spaces.

Ira Sargent, born in Canada about 1845, left few records documenting his Canadian origins. Before searching the 1851 census for Ira, I reviewed all the available records I had located in order to make certain no clue had been overlooked and no records had been overlooked. A variety of materials (census, court, hospital, and death records) point to a relatively consistent year of birth for Ira–1845.

All records asking for nativity provide a place of birth as “Canada.” The exception is the 1900 U.S. census which indicates “Canada F” as a birthplace, most likely referring to Quebec. Ira apparently never naturalized and the 1900 U.S. census does not provide any immigration information for him. His 1888 marriage record lists his name as William Ira Sargent but this marriage is the only source providing the additional name of William. (Other records and family history clearly indicate the marriage record is his.) A court case from the 1880s gives his last name as Sargin and the 1900 census provides a similar variant on his name.

Clues about Ira’s ethnic origins appear to conflict. One relative indicated that Ira was Irish. Another indicated he was French-Canadian. The only source of these statements is family tradition, which can easily be incorrect. Of course, it is possible that he was completely Irish, completely French-Canadian, some of each, or something else altogether. Without any documentation of this claim, I won’t be using it when analyzing the entries that are located.

The earliest record I have on Ira is an 1880 census enumeration in Warsaw, Hancock County, Illinois. From 1880 back to 1851 is quite a jump. I have no records to indicate when Ira came to the United States, whether he was a child or an adult when he came, whether his parents came with him, or the names of his parents, etc.

The other assumption is that Ira is still in Canada in 1851. Given what I do not know about his parents, this assumption may also be incorrect. Good methodology indicates that I search from the most recent record to the past. My searches of 1870 U.S. census records did not reveal any likely matches for Ira. I will still search for Ira in the 1851 Canadian census, but it is necessary that I keep my assumptions in the back of my mind while searching.

Before I begin my search for Ira, I also need to think about the possible variations on his given names: Ira, Ira William, William, William Ira, Will, and Bill are the main variants. For the last name, there are several as well: Sargent, Sargeant, Sergent, Sargin, and Sargen.

My own personal preference is to use the “exact matches only” option on the search interface and use a Soundex option on the spelling. All of the spellings listed have the same Soundex code: S625. A search for one of these names with the Soundex option chosen will include results for any of these spellings as well as others. Not all spelling variants will have the same Soundex code and users who are unaware of the Soundex codes for their names can find them on the Soundex Converter at RootsWeb.

It Is Not All Extant
Reading the complete database description is always an excellent idea. In this case, a careful reading indicates that:

“The 1851 census includes the areas of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Canada East (Lower Canada, or roughly Quebec), and Canada West (Upper Canada, or roughly Ontario).

“Note: Not all of the 1851 census has survived, so this database does not contain a complete representation of the above areas. The missing areas are still listed in the browse portion of this database but are shown as non-links.”

Because of this, I may be forever unable to find good old Ira in the 1851 census regardless of how creative and clever my search techniques are. Knowing what a database does not contain is just as essential as knowing what it does contain. Users are advised to read the description of any database before performing exhaustive searches.

Got French Canadian?
In an upcoming column, we will look at searching for French-Canadians in this source. There are some additional items that need to be kept in mind when searching for members of this ethnic group in the census.

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) ( He conducts seminars and lectures nationally on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine. You can e- mail him at or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Michael’s Schedule
— 5-10 March 2007
Genealogy Computing Week, Galesburg, Illinois
— 14 April 2007
St. Charles, Missouri, all-day computer workshop

More details can be viewed by visiting Michael’s schedule page at:

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3 thoughts on “Using Ancestry: 1851 Canadian Census, by Michael John Neill

  1. Good and useful article. BUT, when I click on the hyper-links it just takes me to a page pushing me to buy a very expensive membership to the World version of Ancestry. The hyper links are not helpful and I resent being “teased” this way.

    If I want an expensive membership, I will buy one. At this point, I can only afford the US membership which is about to expire and I likely won’t renew as I find it expensive and I just can’t afford it right now nor do I have enough time to spend on research at this price.

    For me to justify spending this much money on research I would need to have several hours per day for the year to make it worth while. I neither have the time nor the money.

  2. I have a Grandfather born in French Qubec Canada and was born in 1857 and married in Missouri in 1884. Where would the lilely crossing places have been and where would the records be located? Did Canadians keep records, etc. Settled in Gentry County, Missouri. Immigrated in 1876.

    Have you written any articles on this or have any suggestions for me. Last name Valin

    Melinda Puryear

  3. When I saw the canadian lists I ’bout jumped out of my skins. Family Lore goes that we have French Canadian heritage in our blood lines, except no one can explain who. Saw lots of family names on the Canadian index – just need to figure out if they belong to me. It’s those Irish Folks – my grandmother is supposed to be 100% Irish – so couldn’t figure where the Canadian came in. Perhaps one of the g-uncles/aunts, cousins married French Canadian.

    Virginia Schoemann – Looking for Corcorans, Schoemanns, Janka and Millers

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