Archives Series: Researching the History of a Property

We’re doing a mini-series that offers a glimpse into how the City of Vaughan preserves its history.

The main role of the City Archives is to manage government records with long-term business value. The City Archives also collects, preserves and makes available for research permanently valuable non-government records from the Vaughan community that document the rich and diverse heritage of the City of Vaughan. For more information, visit the City of Vaughan Archives webpage.

To view more from the City’s archival collections, visit the City of Vaughan’s Facebook page.

Here is the fourth post in the series:


The City of Vaughan Archives is often approached by City staff or members of the community researching the history of a property or building. This is often a tricky request because Vaughan building permits do not exist before the 1960s (with a few exceptions surviving from the 1940s). So how do we determine a structure’s date or history? Archival Services staff must use a variety of other primary sources, such as the ones listed below. It is important to note that the following archival records alone do not constitute definitive proof of a building’s history, but a story emerges when pieced together.

Old maps (such as the one below from 1860) show the lots and concessions, the location of various structures (farmhouses, churches, schools, etc.), and the names of landowners. Using this information, researchers can trace who has lived in the building over time.

1_Map 1860

This plan of Kleinburg from 1848 shows Concession 8, Lots 23 and 24. The two larger lots have been broken down into smaller lots with the size of each parcel shown. Plans like this one can be very helpful when using assessment rolls, aerials and land records.

2_Plan 1848

Assessment Rolls
This assessment roll from 1897 shows the owner’s name, age and occupation, the lot and concession, the number of acres and, although not shown here, the value of the land and buildings. Assessment records are useful for tracing who lived in a house and tracking the value of the buildings on the land. If the value changes dramatically from one year to the next, it is possible that the building was renovated or there was an addition. Likewise, if there was no building value one year but it appears the next year, this could be the year the building was built.

3_Assessment Roll 1897

This Woodbridge assessment roll from 1952 shows the year the house was built. It also lists other valuable information such as the types of materials used in the roof, walls and foundation and the finishes in the house (which rooms were painted, whether or not the house was equipped with heating, lighting, plumbing, etc.).

You’ll notice that this assessment record uses plan and lot numbers as the address, so consulting early plans and knowing which lot your building is located on is essential for tracing your property’s history.

4_Assessment Roll 1952

Census Records
Census records can sometimes provide valuable information about a house. This 1851 census shows John Charleton on Line 29 (second line from the bottom) whose brick house is now designated under the Ontario Heritage Act and still stands at 220 Charleton Ave. in Thornhill.

5_Census Record 1851

Page 2 of the 1851 census shows that in 1851 John and his family were living in a log house. The 1861 census shows John living in a frame house, so we can deduce that the house at 220 Charleton Ave. (which is brick) was built sometime after 1861.

6_Census Record 1851

Land Records
Land records in the City of Vaughan Archives are on microfilm and organized by concession and lot number. This means that you can trace a property’s history from the Crown Grant (when lots of 200 acres were given to settlers ca. 1790-1800 for free). Land records give the size of the land, the names of the seller and buyer, as well as the price, date and type of transaction (i.e. mortgage, bargain and sale, grant.) Instrument numbers can also be used to find the deed at the York Region Land Registry Office.

Later land records will often reference a plan number rather than concession and lot numbers and so this is where consulting older plans can be useful.

7_Land Record 1790

Fire Insurance Plans
Fire insurance plans give information on the location of the building and the materials used in the structure. In some cases, the type of building or the name of the owner is also noted.  These plans provide information on the location of service connections, water mains and fire hydrants.

8_Fire insurance plan

The photographs above are past and present shots of two structures in Woodbridge: the Wallace Brothers General Store and the Inkerman Hotel, both on Woodbridge Avenue. Photographs can show how a structure used to look and also reveal previous businesses, by the signage in the front.

Aerial and bird’s-eye view
This bird’s-eye view image shows Maple and the Vaughan Township Civic Centre in the 1950s. Images like these are helpful for determining if and when there was an addition to a structure, its exact location on a lot and even when it was built.

13_Birds eye view

Aerials can also determine a structure’s lot number and when it was built. The City of Vaughan Archives has aerials from as early as 1942.


Tracing a property’s history can be challenging and not all records may yield useful information. But each record is a piece of a puzzle and as you put them together the larger picture beings to emerge. It is extremely satisfying to discover the answer after searching through multiple records and making deductions but even more fulfilling knowing that the researcher has left happy.

Property investigation and research are mostly conducted by:

  • Urban planners
  • Architects
  • Lawyers
  • Government staff from various jurisdictions
  • Students
  • Property owners

For more information or for questions concerning the above records, please contact the City of Vaughan Archives, City Clerk’s Office.

Until next time,

Archival Records Analyst
City of Vaughan Archives
City Clerk’s Office


Visit the City of Vaughan’s website at

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