23 October 2011

Loyalists: "O Give Me Land, Lotsa Land ..."

Recently I was appalled to see a statement that a Loyalist had to prove British birth for entitlement to free land in Canada.
... a sentence of mine made last time about an online website. I hasten to add the correction has been acknowledged. What I did not address was two additional elements of that statement: “free land” and “in Canada.”

Getting a handle on geography and political administration is always a first challenge for family historians who encounter unfamiliar territory. A bit nitpicky perhaps, but to say in the above context, free land in Canada, ignores contemporary reality. One might say “Canada” did not exist when Loyalists were arriving in the 1780s. Britain had several colonies north of the newly minted American republic.

Canada was not a country, a political entity per se as we now know it, until 1867. So one might have referred to free land in Quebec, or Nova Scotia, or St. John’s Island, or merely used the term British North American colonies.

After the American Revolution, free land was widely available for a long time in most British North American colonies. Admittedly, I am most familiar with developments in one specific colony: Upper Canada. The new colony, or province (“up” the St Lawrence River and Great Lakes system from its French origins) was created in 1791 from the vast post-Conquest Quebec colony . Upper Canada was re-named Canada West in 1840/41 and again, the province of Ontario in 1867. Similar name changes applied at the same time to Lower Canada > Canada East > province of Quebec.

You can find references to “western Quebec” before 1791 which refer to the wilderness area (“waste lands of the Crown”) west of the Ottawa River. Gratuitous aside: That river was once called the “Grand”—a name apparently applied at one time or another to all impressive rivers by officials singularly bereft of imagination.

Free land was dispensed about as fast as surveyors could work. You did not have to be a Loyalist to obtain a free grant of land in Upper Canada. Every petitioner who presented himself as respectable and willing to make a home was eligible. In fact, with the advent of Governor John Graves Simcoe in 1792, Upper Canada welcomed, and indeed sought, Americans to come—populating the wilderness was a priority. The dispensing of free land continued until 1827.

Now, there’s a little twist to this free land policy. Someone had to pay the surveyors for their work, and the officials for processing the applications, and all the other paperwork. So free land actually came with administrative fees, to be paid before title was finalized. Loyalists were given a “break” in this regard. In the next post on this subject I will discuss Loyalist privilege

© Brenda Dougall Merriman, 2011
author of United Empire Loyalists: A Guide to Tracing Loyalist Ancestors in Upper Canada (see


Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Do continue! You make things so easy to understand

Cathy said...

1867 huh. Here in 2011 in Nova Scotia, as recently as last week I heard a business leader refer to Ontario as "Upper Canada". It was after the long-anticipated announcement of the awarding of a $30billion shipbuilding contract to Irving Shipyard in Halifax. In a radio Interview I heard Jim Irving talk about spin-off business that will come from this, and he referred to business opportunities from "Upper Canada". I was not surprised, as it's in common usage here, but it still always amazes me a little bit. Talk about living history !

BDM said...

Cathy: I get a kick out of hearing Nova Scotians refer to us as Upper Canada. It's often a little barb as if the Family Compact still existed :-)
GB: The next installment will have to wait a month till I finish running with the camels.

Kathryn Lake Hogan said...

Thanks Brenda for posting correct information about this time period in our country's history. Will be looking forward to your next installment. Have fun with the camels!

BDM said...

Thanks, Kathryn!