I spent some time this week looking at the web site of the Prince Edward Island Department of Community and Cultural Affairs. It is a rather full-featured site with information about the province's government, a visitor's guide, online maps, and more. However, the item that caught my eye was the online indexes to the censuses of 1841, 1881, 1891, and 1901.
Keep in mind that these databases are indexes, not fully detailed extractions. Each database has names and a bit of information for each entry in the census records but not all the details. You can find a person in the web site's index but you will then need to look on microfilm copies of the original records for all the available information. The site's information page also notes that Lots 21 & 22 are missing from the official records in the 1891 census records and therefore could not be indexed. (A "lot" is roughly the equivalent of a township.)
The site allows you to search by surname and supports wildcards. That is, you can use the asterisk character (*) as a wildcard to widen the number of results. For instance, a search on surname "MacDonald" will return just that name while a search on surname "M*Donald" will return all entries for both MacDonald and McDonald.
Another option is to narrow the search by specifying the initial of the person's first name. This is especially useful for common surnames. With all the Scottish immigration to Prince Edward Island, you will find MacDonald to be a very common name. It certainly can help if you specify a search for J MacDonald wherever you can. However, there is no capability to search by full first name; you are limited to the first initial.
I first searched for the name "Mac Cannell," looking for a possible ancestor of a friend of mine with Prince Edward Island heritage. The name is usually spelled these days with a space after "Mac" although I am not sure that nineteenth century census takers always knew that. On the first attempt, I could not find any "Mac Cannells" in the Prince Edward Island records. I knew that to be wrong since I had searched P.E.I. census microfilms for that name some years ago. I suspect the problem is the space embedded in the name.
I then went to the wild card search of "M*Cannell" and immediately found a number of listings. The 1841 census listed just one:
GIVEN NAME William
FULL NAME William McCannell
Of course, there are a couple of spelling issues with this record: no space in the name, and the "Mac" had been abbreviated to "Mc." Such variations are very common in census records of the nineteenth century; so, this person certainly is a strong candidate and bears further investigation, using other sources of records.
The 1881 census index listed 38 people of the name while the 1891 census index listed 26. Finally, the 1901 census index lists 18 people for M*Cannell." Here is one entry from the 1881 index:
GIVEN NAME JOHN
RELIGION ROMAN CATHOLIC
It is interesting to note the addition of religion to the later census records. This gives a very good clue of where to find detailed records. In this case, I know that the Catholic Church kept excellent records of christenings and marriages, normally listing the names of the parents of both the bride and the groom. If I decide to pursue this name, I will certainly be looking next at Prince Edward Island Catholic Church records.
All in all, this is an excellent source of information for anyone with Prince Edward Island ancestry. You can stay at home and check the indexes. However, you will want to view the original records on microfilm to find the remainder of the information not contained with the indexes.
Did I mention that the online census databases for Prince Edward Island are available free of charge?
You can find these excellent census databases at http://www.edu.pe.ca/paro/census/default.asp
Also, for a great lesson in P.E.I. history, click on the links at the bottom of http://www.edu.pe.ca/paro/census/default.asp that describe the contents of each census database.