Public Archives Community History Research Guide

View of the community of St. Peters, Prince Edward Island, ca. 1870-1880 (Acc2301/183)

Our Island communities have fascinating stories to tell of life in Canada's smallest province. The following guide offers some general tips as well as suggestions for sources at the Public Archives and the wider community that may be of interest to your research. 

General tips

  • Allow plenty of time for your research. You will want to consult many different primary and secondary sources which can be time consuming. Don’t rush. Some of the best community histories take several years to complete.
  • Review other community histories for ideas concerning content, format, and presentation.
  • Create an outline of the information you wish to include in your history, along with lists of sources to consult and those already consulted. This can be helpful in keeping your research on track.
  • Document your sources so others will know where to look for further information. References also results in a more professional and scholarly work.
  • Talk to people in the community. Many will have knowledge of people and events that may not be recorded elsewhere. Some of these individuals may also have records of local families, businesses, or organizations that have not been deposited with an archives or other institution.

Sources to consult

Printed sources

Reading other published works related to PEI history is a great starting point and can provide you with important contextual information. Many of these books are available at the Public Archives or through the Public Library Service.  

General histories

  • The Government of Prince Edward Island. Frank MacKinnon (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1951)
  • Three Centuries and the Island. Andrew Hill Clarke (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1959)
  • The Cradle of Confederation. Lorne C. Callbeck (Fredericton: Brunswick Press, Fredericton, 1964)
  • Canada's Smallest Province: A History of Prince Edward Island. Francis W. P. Bolger, ed. (Charlottetown: PEI 1973 Centennial Commission, 1973) 
  • The Island Magazine (Charlottetown: PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation, 1976- ). Various articles relating to people, places, and events in Island history. Indexes are available.
  • If You're Stronghearted : Prince Edward Island in the Twentieth Century. Ed MacDonald (Charlottetown: PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation, 2000)

Origin of place names

  • Place-names of Prince Edward Island with meanings. R. Douglas (Ottawa: Geographic Board of Canada, 1925), Acc2353/53
  • Geographical names of Prince Edward Island. Alan Rayburn (Ottawa: Canadian Permanent Committee on Geographical Names, 1973)


Newspapers provide first-hand accounts of community events and activities. Many carried regular columns such as "Emerald notes" and "News from Crapaud," advertisements for local business, as well as provincial, national, and international news. The Checklist and Historical Directory of Prince Edward Island Newspapers 1787-1986 by Heather Boylan (Public Archives and Records Office, 1987) provides a list of newspapers published, most of which are available on microfilm at the Public Archives. 

Newspapers have not been systematically indexed and can be very time consuming to check. The following sources can be helpful in your newspaper search:

  • Two newspaper indexes (pre-1973; 1973-1981) found at the Public Archives, while by no means complete, include some references to community history information. Selected newspapers have also been indexed into the Master Name Index for vital statistics information, which can be helpful when looking for specific individuals or families.
  • The Guardian newspaper (1890-1957) is keyword searchable online at
  • The PEI Collection at Robertson Library (University of Prince Edward Island) includes references to newspaper articles and vertical file items dating from the early 1970s to present. More recent PEI Collection material is also accessible through the library catalogue. 

Census records

Census records have information about individuals and families living in a particular lot. Information relating to agricultural activities, the general condition of the lot, and statistical abstracts may also be available. Users can access census records up to 1911 in the Public Archives Reading Room. The 1841, 1881, 1891, and 1901 census returns can be searched by name through the PARO Collections Database and an index to the 1911 census can be found at Please note: The 1921 census is not available at the Public Archives. Visit Library and Archives Canada for information on accessing 1921 census records.


The 1863 Lake Map, 1880 Meacham’s Atlas, and ca. 1928 Cummins Atlas provide property holders’ names and show the locations of roads, schools, businesses, churches, railways, and other community features. Manuscript maps at the Public Archives vary in date, quantity, and information provided, but can assist in tracing the earliest known history of a particular region's settlement and activities. Some of these also provide references to other land documents such as leases, government deeds, and township ledgers pertaining to ownership transfers of individual properties. A number of the Archives’ maps have been digitized and are available online through Island Imagined.

Land records

Land records can help you determine the earliest known residents of an area, identify settlement patterns, and trace the ownership and transfer of properties over the years. Some community histories include a list of this information for each farm or property. Most of the Archives’ land-related documents date from before 1900 and include conveyances, leases, deeds, township ledgers, and rent books. You must know names of the property owners to search the conveyances. For more information, see Genealogy at the Public Archives.

Government records

Government records can provide information on community history and events. Some government records which may be of particular interest include:

  • Executive Council Memoranda, 1898-1922 (RG5/Series8), consists of documents addressed to the Executive Council from individuals, groups, associations, government employees, and others regarding a particular concern. The memoranda may be in the form of a request for a service or an appointment, a claim for damages, or a report. The records contain petitions regarding land, business, licenses, legislation, assistance, roads, or telephones. The memoranda have been indexed by general categories which reflect the main government functions (eg. Agriculture, Public Works, Education, etc.) and subdivided to a more specific subject (eg. Agriculture-Egg circles, Public Works-Government employees, Education-Teachers-Licenses). The memoranda have also been indexed by location or community name.
  • Journals of the House of Assembly and Legislative Assembly (RG3 and RG4) provide an annual report of proceedings of the House and Legislature. Of particular interest are the appendices which include reports on various subjects such as land holdings, roads, bridges, wharves, shipping, lighthouses, fisheries, education, and public accounts. Early volumes of the Journals record all payments made by government for all services, salaries, and purchases. A listing of the appendices or reports included in the Journals for the years 1827-1873 is available. The Journals from 1894 to present are also full-text searchable through PEI Legislative Documents Online
  • Provincial Secretary records (RG7) have series of records on licensing, credit unions, and motor vehicles.
  • Provincial Treasurer material (RG8) includes tax assessment records.
  • Department of Public Works material (RG11) may be consulted for information regarding construction and maintenance of roads and bridges.

Please consult the findings aids of the above government record groups for more detailed descriptions and file listings.

School records and history of schools

Researchers tracing the history of a community's school will want to consult the annual School Visitor Reports. These are available in RG10 (Education) for the years 1830 through 1910. After 1910, researchers must consult the Department of Education reports included in the Journals of the Legislative Assembly (RG4). These records provide a report of the conditions of the school, statistics on number of pupils, attendance, state of building and supplies, as well as references to teachers, curriculum, and recommendations. The records can help you determine the earliest occurrence or reference to a particular school, building improvements, changes in staffing, and more. The school visitor or inspectors' reports ended in 1946.

Numerous school trustee records (RG39, School Board fonds) are available at the Archives and are arranged by community name under the former five school unit system. School trustee records, pertaining to individual schools, include minutes of trustees meetings, financial records, and often a list of community members paying poll taxes.

The Public Archives also holds a large collection of teachers registers. Due to the confidential nature of these records they are not open to the publicResearchers wishing to access these records are asked to contact the Public Archives by email or phone at 902-368-4290 for more information.

Genealogical resources

Many community histories feature genealogies of families who have lived in the community. The Public Archives has many genealogical resources such as the Master Name Indexes, vital statistics records, wills, cemetery transcripts, family files, and more. See Genealogy at the Public Archives for more information. 

Church records

Church records can provide information about local residents, as well as details on church organization, history, and activities. Many church records are available on microfilm at the Public Archives. Restrictions on access vary according to the individual church. Catholic Church records after 1900 are restricted. Published church histories can provide details regarding the church's history as well as information regarding community members involved in its operation. Many church histories are available at the Archives or through the Public Library Service.

Interviews and oral history

Interviews with people in the community can provide much valuable information not recorded or found elsewhere. Researchers should be wary, however, of legends and folklore that cannot always be substantiated. Be sure to document these sources, providing the name and address of interviewee, as well as the date of interview.

Business records

Account books, ledgers, and other business records can add substance to the social and economic history of your community, providing insight into home, business, and social activities. Some business records can be found at the Public Archives, but others may still be with the descendants of the business owner. Directories and newspapers are also a great source of business information and advertisements. 

Personal records

Diaries, correspondence, reminiscences, and other personal papers of residents may provide a glimpse of everyday life in your community. These types of records can be found at the Public Archives but you may also find that originals are still in the possession of family members.

Organizational records

Were there organized groups or associations active in your community, such as the Masons, the Women's Institute, the IODE, or the Temperance Society? Annual reports, minutes, by-laws, and financial records of these types of organizations may have been deposited with the Public Archives and Records Office, or may still be with the organization.


Photographs can be a wonderful addition to your community history. Scenic views, images of buildings, businesses, prominent residents, family photos, and photographs of community events can increase the impact of your publication. The Public Archives has a large image collection which can be searched online through the PARO Collections Database. Talk to people in the community as well. They may be willing to make their private photograph collections available to you for use in your community history.

Published date: 
May 24, 2024
Education and Early Years

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Phone: 902-368-4290
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