52 Ancestors: Week 23 – Place Names and Social Histories in Canada

We become so focused on the history of our family members that we don\’t always look closely enough at the history of the region they lived. If you\’re guilty of this, then you may be missing out on important clues as to why your ancestor settled in a particular place. This week\’s 52 Ancestor\’s prompt is \”Namesake\”, so I decided to look at place name and social history resources.

Why look at social histories? These histories give you background on the first settlers of a region. You may even be lucky enough to have your ancestor named. So how does this fit into this week\’s theme, \”Namesake\”? Because sometimes looking at the name of a city or town can give you additional insight into those settlers. In some instances, a town may have gone through several name changes. The farther back in your Canadian research you go, knowing possible name and boundary changes becomes more important. For example, the City of Kawartha Lakes in Ontario used to be called Victoria County. Within the City of Kawartha Lakes is a community called Lindsay. It was so named because a surveyor\’s assistant by the surname of Lindsay died there in 1834 and the new town became named after him. But before that, it was a village called Purdy\’s Mills. An American family by the last name of Purdy settled there and built a dam, a sawmill, and a grist mill, which the village grew around. Another example is Kitchener, Ontario. Before 1916, it was called Berlin. As you might have guessed, some of the original settlers were of German descent.

Below are some of the ways to look for place and social histories:

Family Search
Family Search has a searchable digital library on their website. Type in your place name of interest to see what they have. Use the menu on the left to find the ones that are public access and can be read online.

Peel\’s Prairie Provinces
Go to their section on books. You can either search by place name, or you can browse their collection. Both can be done by author, title, or subject.

Global Genealogy
If you want to own a copy of a place history, check out Global Genealogy. This Canadian site has hundreds of books relating not only place/ social histories, but family genealogies and methodology as well. Options for purchase can include hard copy, CD, or PDF download.

Now good old Wikipedia can steer you wrong sometimes. But it can still be a good resource. What you want to focus on is the source citations at the end of their articles. These can lead you to other sources. Try typing in a place name and see what turns up. You can check out their page List of Canada city name etymologies to get you started.

Among all the thousands of treasures on Canadiana are place and social histories. Type your place in the search engine, then use the menu on the left to narrow down to monographs. When I typed in \”Tracadie\”, I initially got over 3000 hits.  By narrowing down to monographs, I was able to find several books on the Tracadie area of New Brunswick.

Instead of searching records, go instead to the card catalogue. Use the menu on the left to narrow your research to find the place histories. There are over 1,500 publications dealing with social and place histories in Canada.

HathiTrust Digital library
If you haven\’t heard of HathiTrust, you need to look at their website. It is a partnership of research and academic institutions from around the world. Their aim is to digitize books from these libraries and make them available to all.

Internet Archive
This list wouldn\’t be complete without Internet Archive. More and more Canadian Libraries have been uploading their collections to the website. Click here to access the list of Canadian Libraries and what they have online through Internet Archive.

Find My Past
After their initial misstep in lumping Canadian and US records together, Find My Past has been quietly building a Canadian collection of records. Search the A-Z section of the record sets, then narrow to Canada, then by province. There are not a lot in their collection but they do have some interesting titles

And don\’t forget to check provincial and local archives. Some of the archive websites, such as the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, have place histories.

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