Canadian Genealogy · Genealogy How Tos

Genealogy gold, part 1: the who, what, why, where and how of local history books in the Canadian prairies

In this blog post I’d like to share with you one of my absolute favourite genealogical resources: the prairie local history book. I’ll take you through a step by step process for finding your ancestors, their locations, determining the right keywords, and then searching three great sites for local history gold.

What is a local history book and why should I look for one?

There are many styles of local histories. The ones I’m suggesting for genealogy are compilations of stories which are written by, for, and about locals in a small commmunity. The organizers are often associated with a church or historical society, and the books generally commemorate an event such as a centennial.

A local history may have the following:

  • A Table of Contents and several indices listing the names of the familiies
  • A map and listings of homesteads and their owners
  • A history of the small towns in the area, including the general store, the postmaster cum commissioner, and the land office
  • A section on the locals who served in military conflicts
  • Alphabetical biographies with photos of the area’s families, from the progenitor down to all known decendants, even those still living
  • First person accounts of life in the area

As you can see, a local history book can go a long way in filling in the gaps left by birth, marriage and death records.

Who can I find in a local history book?

A local history book may have your ancestor’s biography. If you are very lucky, the book will have your ancestors and their descendants. In addition, the book will have the people your ancestor knew: their friends, acquaintances and neighbours (FAN) from their postmistress to the farrier.

Where can I find my ancestor’s local history book?

First you’ll need to know where they lived, then some keywords to search. Here are some suggestions for finding those keywords using publicly available census data.

I recommend that before you look for a local history book, you first try to track down every posssible census for them.

Example #1 – the 1926 census

1926 snippet
Excerpt of the 1926 Census showing the place of abode, section, township, range and meridian of Chapman, George E. as being 27-12-19 W1 in the Municipality of Elton, Enumeration subdistrict 33, Electoral District of Brandon, Province of Manitoba, page 9, from Library and Archives Canada Census of the Prairie Provinces 1926.

From the Districts and subdistricts section of the 1926 census, we find:

  • Municipality – Elton
  • District 1 – Brandon
  • Subdistrict 33 – Townships 11 and 12 in range 19, west of principal meridian. Forrest

Keywords: Elton, Brandon, Forrest, “George Chapman”

Example #2 – the 1921 census

1921 census showing place of abode
Excerpt of the 1921 census showing the place of abode (section, township, range, meridian)  of Gates, Alfred as being 15-7-10 W1 in the Municipality of Victoria, District 29, Province of Manitoba, pg. 11, from Library and Archives Canada Census of Canada, 1921.

By looking up this information in the District and subdistricts section of the 1921 census for Manitoba, we can find:

  • Municipality – Victoria
  • District 29 – MacDonald
  • Subdistrict 23 – Township 7 in range 11 and sections 3 to 10, 15 to 22, 28 to 33 and the west halves of sections 27 and 34 in township 7, range 10, lying within the Municipality of Victoria, west of principal meridian

Since “Victoria” and “MacDonald” are common names, we would also like to know the local towns in the area. From Manitoba AgriMaps we can see the local towns are Holland, Treherne, Lorne, Bruxelles, Rathwell, and Notre Dame de Lourdes.

Screen Shot 2019-08-03 at 6.36.54 PM
A map of the location of the Alfred Gates property at 15-7-10 W1, highlighted in light green, and the surrounding towns in the district of Macdonald, Manitoba. Map from Manitoba AgriMaps.

Keywords: Victoria, MacDonald, Holland, Treherne, Lorne, Bruxelles, Rathwell, Notre Dame de Lourdes, “Alfred Gates”

Example #3 – the 1916 census

snippet of the 1916 census of the prairies
Excerpt of the 1916 census showing the place of habitation (township, range, meridian) of Tipton, F.J. as being Twp 40 Rge 28 W3 in Senlac, SK, subdistrict 10, District 17, Province of Saskatchewan, pg. 13, from Library and Archives Canada Census of the Prairie Provinces, 1916.

From the Districts and subdistricts section of LAC for 1916, we can also find:

  • District 17 – Battleford
  • Subdistrict 10 – Townships 39, 40, 41 and 42, ranges 27 and 28, west of the third meridian, including the town of Macklin

Keywords: Senlac, Battleford, Macklin, “FJ Tipton”

Where can I find local histories?

Local histories online

Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections – University of Calgary

This is a national collection of digitized, full text local histories, with the participation of dozens of libraries and organizations from British Columbia to Newfoundland and Labrador. As of this writing, there are hundreds of materials each for Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

For example, I tried looking for “Alfred Gates” of Victoria, MacDonald, MB as seen in Example #2 above. I entered “Treherne,” as an unusual name more likely to bring up the right town.

Screen Shot 2019-08-03 at 6.26.46 PM
View of the Local Histories digital collections result for “Treherne,” showing “Tiger Hills to the Assinboine” digitized local history book. From the Libraries and Cultural Resources for Digital Collections, University of Calgary.

The first result, Tiger Hills to the Assiniboine, is a local history book. Choosing it and using the “search inside” feature, I find a Dan Gates and his brother Alfred Gates.

Screen Shot 2019-08-03 at 6.30.47 PM
Magnified result for the Gates family in Tiger Hills to Assiniboine. From the Libraries and Cultural Resources for Digital Collections, University of Calgary.

Local histories online – University of Manitoba

The publicly available digital collection at the University of Manitoba has a large collection of mainly Manitoba-based local histories.

For example, I tried looking for George Chapman from our 1926 census in Example #1, above. I entered “George Chapman” + Elton in the search engine.

Screen Shot 2019-08-03 at 5.04.09 PM
Search box showing search string of George Chapman and Elton. From the University of Manitoba’s Local Histories Digital Collections.

Here’s the result. I found a George Chapman in “A history of Elton Municipality.”

Screen Shot 2019-08-03 at 5.09.00 PM
Magnified result of the Chapman family in A history of Elton Municipality digitized local history. From the University of Manitoba’s Local Histories Digital Collections.

Peel’s Prairie Provinces

The University of Alberta’s excellent site. To find a local history, go to “Seach Peel Bibliography” at the link, enter “Local history” in the Subject heading, and a keyword in the title. For example, I looked for “FJ Tipton” from “Macklin” in example #3 above.

Screen Shot 2019-08-03 at 4.49.53 PM
Search box with “Macklin” and “Local History” in the Search Peel Bibliography, from Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

In The history of Macklin and community on the occasion of Saskatchewan’s Golden Jubilee Year 1955, I found an “FJ Tipton” in Senlac who served as Reeve.

Screen Shot 2019-08-03 at 4.53.50 PM
The digitized local history A short history of Macklin and community, Peel #11847, from Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Local histories online – Archives of Saskatchewan

As of 3 Aug 2019, the Archives’ search, called Threshold, is unavailable.

Next week: Using FamilySearch and Facebook to find local histories

In next week’s post, I’ll share with you another way to find local histories by using a combination of Family Search, WorldCat, and Facebook.

Candiac local history
Local history book “Candiac 1909-2009.” Published by the Candiac history book Committee, 2009. Acquired by interlibrary loan from the Southeast Regional Library, Saskatchewan.


I’ve been meaning to write a blog about prairie local histories for months, ever since seeing the extensive collection at the Family History Room in the Frances Morrison Library in Saskatoon. There, the shelves are lined with local histories for hundreds of places in Saskatchewan. The collection is a rich resource, but only for people who can visit in person. What if you don’t live in Saskatoon and can’t easily travel here?

This past week, I worked out how to navigate the various databases available in order to find local history information online and for free. To test my methods, I chose all three examples – George Chapman, Alfred Gates, and FJ Tipton – at random with the goal of finding at least one local history result for each that was likely to be a relevant hit. I had no idea if this was doable and I’m quite surprised by the successful results.

Example #2, Alfred Gates, was the hardest one to find, which is why it has the extra piece of looking for unusual names of towns around the Gates farm.

What do you think? Please let me know in the comments.

16 thoughts on “Genealogy gold, part 1: the who, what, why, where and how of local history books in the Canadian prairies

  1. Thanks for this post! My husband’s family settled in a town near Red Deer – we have part of one local history, written by his great-grandmother, but I’d love to find more if I can. Will definitely be exploring the resources you’ve listed 🙂

    1. Hi Teresa – you are so very welcome. Do let me know if you find a title you can’t lay your hands on. I’ve learned a lot from conversations with people today, who have shared their experiences with finding local histories.


    1. Hi Gail, thank you so much for including my post in the weekly Crème de la crème – it’s an honour.


  2. The Saskatchewan Legislative Library has a book listing the local histories for Saskatchewan called “Saskatchewan Local Histories at the Legislative Library”. The Manitoba Historical Society has an online finding aid for Manitoba local history books including those that aren’t online.

    1. Hi Patrick,

      Nice! Thank you! I am thinking about a follow up piece for the tips and information I’ve been getting and of course, giving credit where credit is due. Thank you, Patrick.


  3. Linda, I don’t have any Prairie ancestors, but the methods you describe here are great for looking for local histories in other countries/provinces/counties!! I’m energized to go back and dig some more for several ancestors who have very few details on their lives – yet! Great post and images.

    1. Hi Celia,

      Thanks so much for reading and for the kind words. It feel great to know I’m helping people with their genealogy. The archives are like a big online puzzle – here a bit of info, there another piece. If you do find your scantily known ancestors this way, please come back and tell me about it. I’d love to hear the story (behind the story).


  4. Yes, they are a great resource and those of us who live on the Prairies have long used them. One caution, if your relatives did not submit a story they won’t be in the family section. If you are lucky, there may be a picture of a sports group, church group, class etc with names and you can determine a bit more about them. Means reading the whole book. You also won’t get negative information very often as people rarely write about that.
    I’ve looked on the Peel site and and found some. A note or phone call to the local libraries may tell you if they have any copies. Don’t forget the major centre libraries and genealogical libraries (Calgary:AFHS and Winnipeg: MGS). They are sometimes for sale at thrift shops too.
    Glad you wrote about them. Thank you.

    1. And thank you! Great suggestions. I’ll definitely include your tips in my follow up post.


  5. Love these articles – I learned so much, and will be passing it on to others who are looking for ancestors in the prairie provinces


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