Canadian History Collections

Find out how the IHR Wohl Library resources can support your research in Canadian history. See highlights from our holdings below and browse the open shelves. We have a wealth of printed sources.  



We are very proud of our comprehensive collection of Canadian printed sources. Thanks to donations and bequests, especially of Henry Percival Biggar in the 1920s and 1930s, we not only hold many rare books and compilations of documents relating to the legal history of Canada both before and after confederation in 1867, but also French language sources printed before 1800.

The IHR is a leading UK depository of published Canadian archival material from early European exploration to the 20th century. The colonial collection contains several large historical records series published by provincial historical societies and government archives. These series contain both secondary studies of regional significance as well as prominent documents held in the collections of the institution. The IHR also holds a nearly complete run of the Champlain Society and Hudson Bay Company publications, which include many sources relating to European exploration and the early history of Canada (1600-1800). Most of the collection is on open shelves in the library.

Highlights from the Collections

Collection Strengths

Government and provincial archival series

The IHR is a leading UK depository of published Canadian archival material for the period from early European exploration to the twentieth century. The colonial collection contains several large historical records series published by provincial historical societies and government archives. These series contain both secondary studies of regional significance as well as prominent documents held in the collections of the institution and societies responsible for the publication. The IHR also holds a nearly complete run of the Champlain Society and Hudson Bay Company publications, which include many sources relating to European exploration and the early history of Canada (1600-1800).

Historical society and local archives collections

National publications

Largely as a result of the Biggar bequest, the IHR holds many rare books and document compilations relating to the legal history of Canada both before and after confederation in 1867. These sources range from regional legislative resources (the Journals of the colonial legislatures of the colonies of Vancouver Island, Journals of the Legislative Assembly of Manitobaand the Publications of the Government of Ontario) to national government publications (The revised statutes of Canada). The IHR’s collection of provincial legislative records, including assembly minutes and lists of laws passed in session, is particularly strong. The library also holds an impressive range of government publications for 20th-century Quebec as well as several documentary series that detail politics and government in 17th- and 18th-century New France. For more information on this material see francophone and French language material section below.

Canada and the British Empire

Sources for the study of Canada’s role within the larger context of the British Empire in the 19th and 20th centuries are well represented in the library’s colonial holdings. Contemporary almanacs and governmental department lists include sections on Canada. The Dominions Office and Colonial Office list and the Canadian Almanac series both contain useful information about Canadian office holders as well as economic and military statistics. These resources also include biographical information of Canadian politicians, financiers and educators. For more information on the imperial dimensions of Canadian military history in the 20th century see the section on Canadian military history

New France and French Language Material

The library holds many items relevant to the history of the Nouvelle France (New France) prior to the English conquest of 1759-1760. Highlights include several sources predating the fall of Quebec, published collections of archival sources, federal and provincial legislative reports, and early histories of Canada and New France.

A majority of the French Canadian material is collected primary source material published in archival periodical series including the Quebec Archives Report and in academic journals including Recherches Historiques.

French language sources printed before 1800:

Several notable items in the collection predate the capitulation of New France to British forces in 1759/60. The first, the Histoire de l’Amerique Septentrionale  (Paris, 1722) by Claude-Charles Bacqueville de la Potherie, examines the history and culture of the Iroquois Indian Nation and its relationship with French settlements along the St. Lawrence River. The second work, Pierre-Francois-Xavier de Charlevoix’s Histoire et description générale de la Nouvelle France (Paris, 1744), also describes the history of New France, though it places greater emphasis on the environmental factors that shaped colonial development. Charlevoix emphasizes the natural resources found in the various territories of Canada and Louisiana, often with an eye on their usefulness for Europeans. Charlevoix was a Jesuit priest who travelled extensively throughout North America in an unsuccessful mission to reach the Pacific Ocean via intercontinental waterways. He was moved to write a biography of Marie Guyart (see Missions and Jesuit Histories below) as an act of thanksgiving following the wreck of his ship off the coast of Florida in 1722. Based upon notes from Charlevoix’s extensive travels as well as twenty years of research in Paris, the Histoire et description générale represents an early attempt to synthesize a description of the natural resources and ecology of the North American interior with a history of New France.

Jeanne-Françoise Juchereau’s Histoire de l'Hôtel-Dieu de Quebec, 4 vols. (Montauban [France], 1751) is another French Canadian resource from the colonial collection published before 1759. The IHR copy is the only copy available in UK libraries. Juchereau was the Mother Superior of the Hôtel-Dieu (hospital) in Quebec from 1683 and was heavily involved in provincial politics throughout the late 17th and early 18th centuries. She was renowned for her commitment to her patients during the 1688, 1703 and 1711 influenza and measles epidemics. These events are well documented in the Histoire de l'Hôtel-Dieu. (For more information on the Hôtel-Dieu and DJuchereau’s life see:

Mission sources and Jesuit histories:

The collection is particularly strong on the topic of the establishment of Jesuit missions among the indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes region and the St. Lawrence corridor in the early 17th century. The majority of this material constitutes published primary documents, including journals and correspondence, and is mostly in French.

The Ursuline Convent of Quebec provided education and charitable assistance in the early years of the colony. The library holds several significant French-language items relevant to the study of the early activities of the order in Canada. Founded in 1639 under the leadership of Marie Guyart, later Mother Marie of the Incarnation (1599-1672), the primary function of the convent was the instruction of Huron girls in the Catholic faith. (For more details on Guyart’s life and the founding of the Ursuline Convent of Quebec see:

In its early years, the Convent educated Indian women from the vicinity of Quebec and Montreal but gradually expanded its remit in the century after Guyart’s death to include girls from the settler community of New France. Many graduates went on to establish religious orders and institutions throughout the province of Quebec, including the convents of Trois Rivières and Roberval. Though, like many of Quebec’s buildings, the convent was damaged during Wolfe’s bombardment of the city in 1759, the order and the school survived the province’s transition to English rule. The school established by Guyart and her peers exists now as the École des Ursulines, a girls primary school attached to the original convent.

One of the jewels of the IHR’s Canadian collection is a 1681 Parisian edition of Marie Guyart’s Lettres de la Venerable Mere Marie de L’Incarnation. It is one of two copies of this work in the UK (the other is held in the national collection at the British Library). The letters are addressed to, among others, prominent French Ursulines, Jesuit mission leaders in North America (including her mentor Father Poncet de la Rivière), and her students. While the letters mostly focus on devotional and religious topics, they also shed light on the hardships experienced by the sisters in establishing the convent and on day-to-day life in early Quebec. As such, they, along with the previously mentioned sources, Charlevoix’s Histoire et description générale and Juchereau’s Histoire de l'Hôtel-Dieu de Quebec, are invaluable resources for students of early Canadian history. In 1724 Charlevoix published a biography of Marie Guyart (Vie de la Mére Marie de l’Incarnation, Institutrice et première supérieure de Ursulines de la Nouvelle-France), who he had met in Florida following his failed expedition to the Pacific.

Early accounts of Protestant Canada and English-language religious histories and resources relevant to the study of Quebec:

Government in New France, 1608-1760

The IHR library owns a large collection of material relating to the legal history and government of French North America from the early 17th century to the fall of New France in 1760. The majority of this material is printed in French and was published by the Quebec archives in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Resources include early civic ordinances for Quebec City and Montreal, the rulings of the Supreme Council of New France, and the official correspondence between the various provincial governors and the Supreme Governor for North America.

Papers and Correspondence of Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil-Cavagnial, Marquis de Vaudreuil  (1698-1778)

Vaudrieuil’s correspondence during his tenure as the governor of French Louisiana (1742-1753) and Governor-General of New France (1755-1760) reveals much about the administration of French North America in the decades before the Seven Years’ War. In particular Vaudreuil’s letters cast light on the difficulties colonial leaders experienced in their attempts to secure funds and military assistance from their superiors in Paris.

New France beyond Canada:

New France extended far beyond the Atlantic Canadian provinces. At its height, it encompassed the territory of Louisiana, which included the Mississippi River Valley and the strategically important port of New Orleans. French influence also stretched north and westward into the prairie regions of what is today central Canada and along the shores of Hudson Bay. The fur trade was the commercial mainstay of New France through the middle decades of the 17th century. The need to maintain isolated trading posts deep in the continental interior in order to secure a constant supply of pelts for the European consumer market ensured that French influence in America extended far beyond the population centres along the St. Lawrence River. The IHR collection includes many important examples of published sources from Canadian, French and US archives in both English and French relevant to the study of greater New France, including the Mississippi Valley territories prior to their annexation by the US with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

Archival and primary sources for French Louisiana translated into English:

French language histories of New France, including Louisiana and the Mississippi Valley:

Encountering Canada: European Impressions of the Land and its Peoples

North American exploration sources

The IHR library holds a wide-ranging selection of early travel and exploration narratives and histories, many of which focus directly on aspects of the early European colonization of Canada. The Hakluyt Society publications include several titles relevant to students of Canadian history including the Geography of Hudson’s BayHenry Hudson the navigatorFoxe and James to the NorthwestJournal of a voyage on the north west coast of North America: during the years 1811, 1812, 1813 and 1814 and The Cabot Voyages. 

Henry Ellis’s A Voyage to Hudson’s-Bay (London, 1748) is one of the oldest items held in the IHR library relating to British Atlantic exploration. It depicts the voyages made in 1746 and 1747 to find the Northwest Passage. These efforts were financed by Irish MP and future Royal Governor of North Carolina, Arthur Dobbs. Although failing in their primary objective, the voyages did increase geographical knowledge of the region and led to more detailed maps of the northeastern Canadian shoreline.  

The IHR’s colonial holdings are particularly strong on sources from the New World expeditions of John Cabot (1496, 1497-98) Jacques Cartier (1534, 1535-36, 1541-42) and Samuel Champlain (1608,1613). These particular expeditions are well represented because H.P. Biggar, an early benefactor of the IHR Library whose personal collection constitutes a large portion of the Canadian holdings (see the Biggar Collection below), published several monographs on them.

The Cabot expeditions: The Cabot expeditions marked the beginning of Britain’s long search for the Northwest Passage. Henry VII sponsored John Cabot’s voyages to North America in 1496 and 1497-98 under the patronage of the English Crown.  The goals of these expeditions were twofold: 1) mapping a northern route to Asia and 2) to establish an English presence in the Americas. On these voyages Cabot explored the coast of Newfoundland.

The Cartier expeditions: Jacques Cartier captained three expeditions to eastern Canada during the 1530s and 1540s. He is credited with being the first European to navigate the St. Lawrence River and for claiming the region for the French Crown.

The Champlain expeditions: Samuel Champlain established a permanent French settlement at Quebec in 1608. He was also responsible for the exploration and mapping of New France and what would later become the US state of Vermont.

Immigration and settler narratives

The library continues to grow its collection of published correspondence and settler journals composed by European immigrants to western Canada in the 18th and 19th centuries. These sources were written by men and women of different social backgrounds and often focus on the hardships of life in frontier communities, particularly during the winter months. 

The letters of English immigrant Catherine Parr Stickland Traill (1802-1899), collected under the title Canada and the Oregon: the backwoods of Canada (London, 1849), document life in provincial Ontario on the eve of the Upper Canada Rebellion (1837). Traill wrote extensively about her new country including observations of its people, the land, and the seasonal extremes in climate. Traill landed in Montreal in 1832 shortly after the outbreak of a devastating cholera epidemic in which the city’s poor immigrants were especially hard hit. Traill’s reflections upon the potential fate of her less fortunate shipmates stand in stark contradiction to the optimistic image of British America found in contemporary emigrant handbooks (see below). On the streets of Quebec and Montreal, Traill noted, "meet together the unfortunate, the improvident, the helpless orphan, the sick, the aged, the poor virtuous man, driven by the stern hand of necessity from his country and his home, perhaps to be overtaken by sickness or want in a land of strangers" (37).

Like Catherine Traill’s letters, many of the early published journals and personal diaries housed in the library record the authors’ impressions of Canadian cities, the American landscape and the customs of the continent’s native inhabitants. James Colnett’s (1753-1806) late 18th-century diaries of his fur trading voyages to Vancouver Island are among the earliest English descriptions of the land and people of the Pacific Northwest. Colnett is notable for having accompanied Captain James Cook on his Pacific voyages. Nova Scotia-born surveyor George Mercer Dawson (1849-1901) recorded his observations of the flora, fauna and geology of the Rocky Mountains while on a surveying mission for the Canadian government in 1883/84.

Throughout the 19th century, publishers and booksellers in London printed almanacs and handbooks in order to seduce travellers and emigrants to Canada. Several examples of these guides dating from the middle decades of the 19th century survive in the IHR’s colonial holdings. Smith’s Canadian Gazetteer (London, 1846) is a directory of “desirable and useful information for the man of business, traveller, or emigrant” including distances between towns in the Canadian interior and listings of Crown Lands then on the market. It also includes detailed fold-out maps. Henry Chesshyre’s Canada, A Hand Book for Settlers (London, 1864) is more propagandistic in nature and includes a list of 10 reasons to emigrate (including its accessibility and proximity to the UK) as well as advice on how to construct settlements and trap wild animals. Another handbook, S. W. Silver’s Handbook to Canada: A guide for Travellers and Settlers (London, 1881) contains detailed histories of the locations it describes as well as useful economic information including mining and trade figures.

Ethnicity and the immigrant experience in Canada

The library houses many sources relevant to the size and scope of immigration among particular ethnic groups into Canada. These sources include a wide selection of passenger lists from ships sailing between British ports and Canada. These lists often included some information regarding the background of passengers on-board. The ethnicity of passengers is implied either explicitly (as in the case of many Irish sources from the late 18th century onward in which the nationality of passengers is listed alongside their names) or implicitly (e.g. surname of passenger). The library collections also contain studies of ethnic identity in Canada, as well as source collections of letters in which immigrants reflect upon life in Canada.

Scottish immigration resources, including ship registers and biographical dictionaries of early migrants, are well represented in the Canadian holdings.

Passenger lists of out-going British ships to Canada:

Canada and the United States, 1775-1816

Canada, the American Revolution and the War of 1812

Canada played an important role in the War of American Independence and the War of 1812, both as a strategic objective in US military calculations and as a base for British operations against the Americans. The IHR’s colonial and military collections contain numerous soldier diaries from both sides during these conflicts. The majority of these diaries were written during the Continental Army’s failed campaigns to capture Quebec and Montreal in 1775-76, and British commander John Burgoyne’s equally disastrous counteroffensive in the Hudson Valley in 1777.

The diaries written by British soldiers and German mercenaries, like early travel accounts and settler narratives, focus on the landscape and the customs of the people encountered while on campaign. The American journals also focus on the harshness of the Canadian terrain and the culture of the French settlers. The library holds several diaries and documentary compilations relating to the northern theatres of conflict during the War of 1812 including Documents relating to the Invasion of Canada[….] 1812, a collection of letters, many by government officials, regarding the siege of Quebec, and the diary of Royal Navy Lieutenant David Wingfield who was stationed aboard a ship in the Great Lakes throughout the conflict.

The Loyalist refugees

Following the Peace of Paris in 1783, many American colonists who had sided with the Crown during the American Revolution were resettled in Nova Scotia and the new settlements west of Quebec. The sudden influx of approximately 40,000 Loyalist refugees to Canada after the war caused significant problems for British colonial administrators who were tasked with providing the new arrivals with land and necessary assistance until they had established themselves. This task was made more difficult by the fact that the refugees encountered hostility from their new neighbours among the more established communities in Quebec and Nova Scotia. Parliament restructured the administration of the remaining British North American colonies in order to more effectively accommodate the loyalists. In 1784, Nova Scotia was partitioned in order to establish the loyalist colony of New Brunswick, and in 1791 the passing of the Constitutional Act created the two provinces of Lower Canada (the French speaking corridor along the St. Lawrence river and the modern-day province of Newfoundland and Labrador) and Upper Canada (the English speaking regions west of Montreal and the English-speaking colonies on the Atlantic seaboard). 

The IHR library holds many resources for the study of the United Empire Loyalists (the honorific title later applied to the refugees and their descendants), including detailed lists of refugees who submitted appeals for lost property in the United States as a result of their loyalty before special claims courts in the years following the revolution. For a published version of the Loyalist claims registers see The Second report of the Bureau of Archives for the province of Ontario by Alexander Fraser (Toronto, 1905). These resources include several detailed publications on the Ontario loyalists compiled by Barbaranne Wright:

Canadian Military History

The largest Canadian sections in the IHR’s military history collection are devoted to two different subjects. The first comprises secondary studies and published first-hand accounts of the various sieges of Quebec (1690, 1711, 1759, and 1775). The second cluster of sources includes soldiers’ journals and correspondence from the frontline during the First and Second World Wars.

The Seven Years’ War and the Siege of Quebec

While the library holds many histories and primary source compilations relating to the many sieges of Quebec during the 17th and 18th centuries (see American Revolution), the majority of the IHR’s collection on the subject focuses on the British conquest of the city, along with the rest of New France, during the Seven Years’ War. Highlights for this topic include documentary compilations of the journals, and correspondence of British and French commanders during the war.

Canadian diaries and letters from the World Wars, 1915-1945

The IHR has an impressive collection of soldiers’ letters and diaries from the Western Front during World War I & II, many of which were printed in small numbers by regional publishers. Proportionally, English-speakers and recent British immigrants volunteered in larger numbers than French speaking Canadians in the opening months of the Great War. This was partially owing to persistent undercurrents of Quebecois nationalism and the general lack of enthusiasm for British imperialism across the province. However, the relatively small number of Quebec recruits can be better explained by the fact that too few French-language regiments were organized in 1914-16 and many potential recruits were reluctant to sign-up for service in Anglophone units.

Conscription was introduced across Canada in 1918 at a time when shock over the extent of Canadian losses at Battle of the Somme was still fresh in the national consciousness. Popular resentment in Quebec City exploded onto the streets leading to riots that Easter. In response, Ottawa sent troops to quell unrest. Federal troops were stationed across the province for the rest of the war. The library owns many French-language diaries, interspersed among our sizeable collection of Anglo-Canadian sources. These sources shed light on the often overlooked role played by French Canadian soldiers who fought alongside their countrymen and other imperial forces in both conflicts.

Canadian Collections, Bequests and Donations

The Institute’s extensive collection of archival resources relating to the early history of Canada came into existence as a result of several large bequests and donations from private donors and public bodies during the 1920s and 30s. Individual donors included several prominent early 20th-century Canadian historians, including John Clarence Webster (1863-1950), a scholar of 18th-century Canadian military history who played a leading role in the campaign to preserve historic sites across the Maritime Provinces. (For more information on the life and publications of John Webster see his entry in the New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia). 

The Canadian High Commission and various regional archives and historical societies (including the Ottawa, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia historical societies) also donated books to the library in its infancy. See the Bequests page of the IHR library website for further information on two major Canadian bequests/collections: The Biggar Bequest and the Canadian Lectureship Fund Collection.

Further Help

Contact us if you would like help on finding or using our collections, or if you have any comments or suggestions about the content of this guide. We are happy to help.

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