By Adam A., Visitor Host
As the end of the year approaches, it is common to reflect on what one has accomplished. For a new settler in early Upper Canada, that would necessarily be quite a lot. Land Granting in Upper Canada prior to the War of 1812 was a regulated and centrally administered affair with standard plans for townships, screening of settlers, and preferred orders of development. These measures laid out a number of formal and informal hurdles for a prospective settler to overcome. These measures were imposed in part because only the colonial government, through treaties such as the Gunshot Treaty of 1787-8, was permitted to acquire land from the First Nations who inhabited Upper Canada. Settlers were not permitted to take unceded lands on their own initiative. Any who did so were deemed to be squatters endangering relations with the First Nations who, prior to 1812, were still considered to be critical allies for the defence of British North America.
After arriving in Canada, a prospective pioneer would need to be screened for loyalty by the local district magistrates. The British had recently lost what is now the United States of America and were keen to be sure that the new colony of Upper Canada would not suffer the same fate. If successful, the new settler would give an Oath of Loyalty to the Crown and receive a certificate of loyalty. Then they would need to attend a meeting of the Land Committee in York (now Toronto) to present their claim, agree to the government’s terms, and receive the Location Ticket that outlined the location and size of their land grant. Having obtained that it would be the duty of the settler to make for their lot with all due haste and set about improving it to satisfy the government that they were genuine settlers. At this time, land in Canada was free; the only cost associated with a 200 acre grant was 5 pounds and 11 shillings worth of fees to acquire the necessary paperwork and cover the costs of the survey (and these fees were waived for Loyalist refugees), and the government was keenly aware that such low costs might attract speculators.
The government mandated that any pioneer could only keep their grant provided they cleared and fenced at least five acres and erected a house of at least 16 by 20 feet within a year of obtaining their grant. Given seven acres was the upper end of how much land could be cleared in a year, and no agricultural work could be undertaken until enough land was cleared, these were not unreasonable or excessively burdensome expectations. Still, the work involved was extremely labour intensive. Trees would need to be felled, and stumps would need to be pulled from the ground. This was a difficult and lengthy process, involving the clearing of about 2,500 trees per acre, but it came with immediate benefit. The fallen trees could be used to build the pioneer’s home and fence, another portion would typically be burned to clear the remaining undergrowth and fertilize the soils with ash, and the remainder could be used for income. Early on it was common for excess wood to be burned and refined into potash which could be sold downstream to Montreal. Common practice was to cut down trees during the day and then devote long hours in the night to tending to the fires. As an area developed, a pioneer could instead sell their unneeded tree trunks to a local lumber mill. The profits from artisanal forestry could sustain the pioneer family while they developed their farm to the point where agricultural activity could sustain them. Circumstances permitting, an early pioneer might further supplement their income by engaging in the local fur trade, as Roger Conant did in our area.
Having taken up their land and proven their industriousness, the new pioneer was meant to return to York to receive their land patent, fully conferring the legal ownership of the land to them. However, many pioneers would skip this step due to their distance from York or preoccupation in their local area and only sought their patent when they intended to sell their land or needed to settle a boundary dispute. Regardless of whether they took this step, the early pioneer’s first year would have been a whirlwind of travel and work.
Conant, Thomas. Life in Canada. Toronto; William Briggs, 1903.
Moorman, David T. The ‘First Business of Government’: the Land Granting Administration of Upper Canada, 1998.
Lewis, Frank D., and M. C. Urquhart. “Growth and the Standard of Living in a Pioneer Economy: Upper Canada, 1826 to 1851.” The William and Mary Quarterly 56, no. 1 (1999): 151–81.