Ontario Historical Geography

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Ontario did not have that name until 1867. Before that time, the province was known as Upper Canada or Canada West. Between 1841 and 1867 Canada West was affiliated with Canada East (Quebec) to form the "Province of Canada." Canada West was renamed Ontario in 1867, when it joined the new Dominion of Canada. For the sake of consistency, the name Ontario is used for the most part.

Counties and Districts. Although they were designated by 1800, Ontario counties did not always have their own governments. Before 1850, the counties served only as geographical areas for land registration, where the militia was levied, and as "ridings" or precincts for voting purposes. Early Ontario was divided into a varying number of "districts," and most government records were organized on the basis of those districts.

When the old districts began to be abolished in 1849, the counties became functioning governments in southern Ontario. New districts began to be established in northern Ontario in the 1850s. Today, most of the northern part of the province is divided into districts for judicial and administrative purposes, while southern Ontario has retained many of its counties.

Reorganization of Municipalities 1970-2005. Around 1970 the Ontario government began to persuade individual counties to reduce the number of townships and individually incorporated communities within their boundaries. This has involved many changes to the names of sections of the counties. For the family researcher it means that the names of places used by local officials today (or the areas described by the names) may not be the same as the names of places found in the old records. For instance, the City of Chatham-Kent was the former Kent County. Old records continue to be filed under the old names. Matching them to the new names can be difficult.

Electoral Counties. Beginning in 1871 in Ontario boundaries of the "electoral counties" often have different boundaries from those of the municipal counties of the same names, as townships are transferred back and forth from one "electoral county" to the other. From 1871 until about 1924, Ontario had three electoral counties (Bothwell, Cardwell, and Monck) which never had government functions but were only election and census districts.

Maps. For a series of historical maps showing the evolution of Ontario townships, districts, and counties south of Lake Nipissing see:

Map of Part of the Province of Upper Canada. Scale 1:760,320. [N.p.: n.d., 19--]. (Family History Library map case 971.3 E7m; Family History Library film 982195.) Maps are scattered on the film as follows:

1792 map
item 10
1798 map item 13
1816 map item 11
1826 map item 9
1836 map item 12
1846 map item 14
1856 map item 2
1867 map item 1

These maps (or something very similar) can also be found at http://www.archives.gov.on.ca/en/maps/textdocs/ontario-districts-maps.aspx (Archives of Ontario online presentation: The Changing Shape of Ontario).

References. The standard reference on the topic is:

  • Families. (Ontario Genealogical Society).  "The Districts and Counties of Ontario, 1777-1979, Two Centuries of Evolution" by Eric Jonasson. Volume 20, number. 2 (1981), pp 91-102.
  • Development of Ontario townships and counties is also discussed in:
  • Armstrong, Frederick H. Handbook of Upper Canadian Chronology. Revised Edition. Toronto, Ontario: Dundurn Press, 1985. (Family History Library book 971.3 N27a 1985.) Includes helpful charts and diagrams.