Countries like Canada, the United States and Scotland have been taking a census of their population usually every ten years for the last 150 years or longer. The information contained in the census allowed the country, amongst other things, to have a snapshot of the population’s growth or decline, to identify the number of elected representatives each area should have, and sometimes to determine taxation levels. The census records are a gold mine of information for genealogists.
You can see how your family grew, where the family moved over time and the records also provide a glimpse of the family’s lifestyle. For example, it was not unusual for early census records to list the type of home that a family lived in – a shanty, a log home, or a more opulent frame house. Many of these census records also might record the number of rooms and windows that were in a house. The information in the census was recorded by a census taker who would go ‘door-to-door’, often being paid by the number of names recorded, asking all of the various questions of whomever was at the house when they made their call. Because much of the information in a census record was self reported by an occupant of the household, there can be much debate on the reliability of the information – proper names might be substituted with common names, for instance Katherine might be listed as Kate, and ages might be more approximate than accurate.
For more than 25 years, I searched for my great grandfather John Foley and his family. John’s parents were William Foley and Bridget McTague. The family’s oral history claimed that they lived in Barrie, Simcoe County, Ontario and suggested that John had been born in Barrie, unfortunately prior to civil registration so no birth registration was available. Repeated searching through the census records for Barrie and Simcoe County provided me with what I thought were possibilities but never a family that matched the one I was looking for. I finally found the family in 1861 – living in Pickering Township, literally just down the road from where I have been living while conducting my searches over all those years.
William and Bridget were found as tenant farmers on land that is now part of the ‘downtown’ core of Ajax, Ontario. They had moved to the area around 1859, apparently from the United States. William has also been found listed as a founding member of St. Francis de Sales (then St. Wilfrid’s) Church in Pickering Village in 1860. John is listed along with his sister, Mary, and brothers, William and Thomas. In later life, John’s daughter Ellen Gertrude married John Graham O’Neill and, their daughter Anne Margaret, my mother, would marry my father, Lewis John Hadden.
As it is an important practise to check the neighbours of your family in all census records (often families lived near other family members), I examined the 1861 records further. To my surprise, William and Bridget Foley lived beside an O’Neill family and a few farms over lived a Hadden family. More than 90 years before I was born, those three surnames were mysteriously connected!