How it works

This is a dynamic, integrated web site. It features several large databases derived from historical census records, directories, and tax assessment rolls. Each database is a significant historical resource, in its own right. In combination, they offer a powerful research tool for historians, geographers, and social scientists. The viHistory datasets also offer some innovative tools for teaching. For example....

Using the Census to find Teachers

Consider a very basic enquiry: How many female school teachers were there in Victoria in 1881? To answer the question, we can search the 1881 census database by entering the terms "teacher," "female" and "Victoria" in the occupation, gender and sub-district fields in the advanced search form. The search returns 29 people. [Click here to see this search.]

The list of teachers includes some well-known educators, including Agnes Deans Cameron [below left]. The seventeen year old teacher enumerated in the 1881 census was a member of the first graduating class of Victoria High School. She would become the first female school principal in the province. By clicking on the complete record symbol icon beside her name, we would discover that she was a Presbyterian. And by clicking on the hyperlink Family number beside her name, we would see the make-up of the household where she lived. In this case, the census shows that she was residing in a household that contained six other people (family members and a lodger).

Agnes Deans Cameron

We could run additional queries to determine the marital status of the teachers. In that case, we would find that 20 of the teachers were single or unmarried, 4 of them were married, and 5 of them were widows. And we could query the database further, to determine the birthplace of the teachers, their religion and their domicile.

In this example, the viHistory census database provides more than nominal or statistical information. It provides data for pursuing other enquiries about women and the teaching profession in the late nineteenth century.

Census data and city directories — and cigar makers

Census data can be used in conjunction with contemporary directories. Consider, for example, the 1881 census for Victoria and the 1882 Victoria directory. The census was taken in the spring of 1881 and the directory was compiled a few months later.

John Kurtz's Cigar Factory We're interested in "cigar makers." A basic search in the directory — using the term "cigar maker" in the occupation field — returns 23 records. The search indicates that all cigar makers listed in the directory were employed by Kurtz & Co. [Click here to see this search.]

We can deploy census data to learn more about the proprietor, John Kurtz. Initially, we see that he was 50 years old and was born in the United States. By clicking on the complete record symbol icon beside his name, we see that he was married, was a member of the Lutheran church and that his father was born in Germany. (In the 1881 census, the term "Origin" signified the birthplace of one's father.)

We can also locate some of his employees, such as 36 year old William Collier. And we can discover more information about Collier by clicking on the "Family Number" associated with Collier's census record. In this case, census family number 318 is clearly a boarding house run by Mrs. Mary Wimmers. A search of the Directory indicates that Mrs. Wimmers' Private Boarding House was located on the southwest corner of View and Douglas Streets. But the census is possibly more interesting. The census reveals that all of her paying guests — with the exception of a 32 year old saloon keeper — were cigar makers. According to the census, Mrs. Wimmer's 12 year old son, John, also worked as a cigar maker. What does this information suggest about child labour in the 1880s? And what are we to make of the fact that two of the Wimmers children — 10 year old Catherine and 7 year old William — were blind?

Finally, and to point in quite a different direction — we can discern prevailing anti-Chinese sentiments from these records. Advertisements placed in the directory by Kurtz & Co. emphazised their cigars were manufactured by "white labor"; and all cigar makers identified in the directory appear to be "white." But the census indicates the presence of many Chinese cigar makers in Victoria. Why were they omitted from the directory? What does this suggest about possible biases in nineteenth century business directories?

Spatially Referenced Data on Broad St

Spatially referenced data is a significant component of the viHistory web site. We can use that data to approximate streetscapes in Victoria or Nanaimo in the 1880s and the 1890s. In this case, we're interested in Broad Street in the central business district of Victoria. Street directories were not available until the late 1880s, but we can use the 1882 directory to identify many of the businesses located on or adjacent to Broad Street.

Bird's eye view of Broad Street, 1889 To create a list of these businesses, we simply enter "Broad St" in the Business Address field of the 1881 directory search form. In this instance, 22 records are displayed. The businesses are listed alphabetically and include a wholesale grocery, a shoe shop, a livery stable and a saloon. [Click here to see this search.]

We could, of course, follow up on the some of the names by consulting the census database. And we could connect the spatially referenced data from the directory with other records, such as a contemporary bird's eye view of the city.

The image here is a detail from a bird's eye view of Victoria, 1889. Because illustrations like these were aimed at local residents, accuracy was paramount. The buildings and the streets had to appear accurately. To see the entire map, click here.

Property Assessment Rolls and Nanaimo

Property tax assessment records offer another source of spatially referenced data. Assessment rolls provide information on who owned property. They provide a precise legal description of the property — block, lot, and sublot numbers indicate where a property is located within the official surveyed plan of a community — and they give the size and dimensions of the property. They also record the "assessed value" of the property. Generally speaking, properties that were "improved" with houses, commercial buildings or other structures were assessed at a higher value than "unimproved" lots.

Detail of Nanaimo, 1891

Consider, for example, Block XIV near Victoria Cresent in Nanaimo. The block consists of ten lots and is bounded by Cavan Street and Victoria Cresent. William E. Webb (who according to the 1891 census was a baker) owned two of the lots. The names of property owners are hyperlinked; by clicking on a person's name we can see a list of all of the properties he or she owned in the city. Click here to see a list of properites owned by Mr. Webb.

The database of tax assessment records can also be searched according to street names and this provides another way of examining the use of urban space.

Census Records and First Nations

In the census of 1881 and 1891, Dominion government Indian Agents enumerated the First Nations of Vancouver Island. The agents were fluent in native dialects and the evidence suggests they took care to record traditional names as accurately as possible. In this database, we've reproduced the diacritical marks, phonetic symbols and syllable breaks used to represent aboriginal names on the census schedules.

Curtis image of Nuu-chah-nulth women. As an illustration, we have queried the 1881 census for information about females in the Ehatisaht Tribe. The Ehattesaht (to use the modern spelling) are one of the Nuu' chal' nulth First Nations. Their principal village was at Queen's Cove, Esperanza Inlet, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. In 1881 they were enumerated by Harry Guillod, the government official responsible for the West Coast Indian Agency.

Large family groups were typical in Nuu-chal-nulth communities and in this case Guillod has identified six large "households." As we can see, he's tried to approximate the sound of the names of the people who made up the households. He's even used an aboriginal word — tenass — for an infant. Of course, the enumerator may have been inaccurate in sounding some of the names and doubtless he made other errors on his census schedule. Even so, he's left a remarkable record. Few historical documents have this amount of detail. Not many are accessible online.

Further Applications