“…I scarcely know what to call them.”

For my Digital History class, we are working on a final project, which is supposed to be a video game built using a tool called Twine.

I’ll be partnering with someone in my class to work on a game that highlights how you can use a dataset to generate a timeline or map of an individual or group’s movements over time.

For the project, I’m hoping to follow up on a note I read in a journal article by Michelle Hamilton on the enumeration of First Nations and Métis people in Canadian censuses. In her article Hamilton draws attention to the written comments made by censuses enumerators, some of which were obviously frustrated/uncertain on what they should put for groups who appeared to be of “mixed race.” She includes one remark made by Thomas H. Johnson in the 1861 census that said:

 “These people are so mixed up with Indian that I scarcely know what to call them. The principle mixture is white, and they cultivate the soil, so I call them white.”

Library and Archives Canada, RG 31, Statistics Canada, Census of Canada, 1861, C-1091, District 6, Nipissing, 42, lines 4-17.


This note is made in the “Remarks” column referring to a group of individuals from the Nipissing District. What I am hoping to do with this project is to track a family in this group and their descendants forward through time (using documents available through Ancestry.ca) and to see how their recorded ethnicity changes based on their location.

What’s interesting is that if when searching for the page of this census through Library and Archives Canada, you cannot find it. That is because the 1861 census had 2 pages for every entry. The first page contained data on name, age, ethnicity, sex, religion etc., while the second contained information on land, livestock, and the “Remarks” column. The first page was digitised, but the second never was.

I spoke about this specific example (and other related “buyer beware” issues of Ancestry.ca) at the Canadian Historical Association Annual Meeting in Ottawa in 2015. I gave the presentation from the standpoint of a genealogy researcher, but now (since this is a Digital History course), I thought I’d try and see what else can be gained from putting on my DH hat.

Trevor Owens, in the draft of his article “Digital Sources & Digital Archives: The Evidentiary Basis of Digital History,” outlines some important questions to think about when consulting a digital archive. While he encourages researchers and historians to ask the same questions of a digital archive as you would a physical one, he also outlines some other important questions to keep in mind. Below, I am going to work through these questions, specifically with the 1 page 1861 census in mind, available through Library and Archives/Ancestry.ca


1) Why was this digitized and not something else?

The Canadian Censuses were digitised by Ancestry (free of charge, I should add) to be included on their genealogy website. Ancestry charges a fee for users to access these documents, which are frequently used by both amateur and professional genealogists. Library and Archives Canada likely agreed to have them digitised because 1) a digital copy is a safeguard from over-use, and damage of original copies, and 2) Ancestry provides them with a digital master copy, which includes the scans, and the metadata needed to index them. [1]


2) Is this copy of significant quality for my purpose?

Yes, and no. It does contain the data for the individuals I am interested in, but it does not include the notes I know are on the second page.


3) How did I find it and how does that effect what I can say about it?

7) What role did search play in the original experience of content?

(Answering both 3 and 7) I found the page by searching Library and Archives Canada, but first truly through Hamilton’s note. Search played a large role in the retrieval, and will undoubtedly play an even larger role as I search for more information on the family. The search function on Ancestry works by checking the search terms against an index created from the source. To the best of my knowledge, this index is created by individuals (not through OCR). Therefore, the index is “as reliable as the competency of the people hired to decipher original records.”[2] Each individual indexer must interpret what they see in front of them; is that a lazy “L” or a “J”? What do you put down if something has been crossed out, with a new entry written overtop?


4) What are you not seeing on the screen?

5) What is lost in how it was/is rendered?

6) How was this created, managed and used and how does that impact what one can say about it?

(I’ll answer these three together) As I’ve already discussed, what is not seen on the screen is the second page. Perhaps someone at Ancestry weighed the value of knowing how many cows your ancestor owed, and decided it was more cost-effective not to scan the second page. Additionally, the majority of the people enumerated in the 1861 didn’t receive any “Remarks.” But not including this information, or at least making it known for those searching that a second page exists, is extremely problematic, particularly for individuals who are using Ancestry to prove Aboriginal heritage. Furthermore, what is not seen on Ancestry (or on Library and Archives Canada for that matter) is the motives and manner in which the census was collected, who was the enumerator, who was the indexer etc.

A lot of food for thought heading into the project!


[1] Christine Garrett, “Genealogical Research, Ancestry.com, and Archives,” (master’s thesis, Auburn University, 2010), 28-9.

[2] Brenda Dougall Merriman, Genealogy in Ontario: Searching the Records (Toronto: Ontario Genealogical Society, 2013), 17.


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