1830’s Land Settlement Policies

These interesting sketches of pioneer life in Simcoe County in the twenties and early thirties of the nineteenth century, from the pen of the Rev. Thomas Williams, a LOCATION AGENT…

When Wellesley Richey was locating the original settlers of the Township of Flos, Oro, Medonte, and Orillia, Thomas Williams was a member of his party, and he thus acquired a knowledge of the country when acting as “guide to the pioneers”, whom he took to their allotments.

[As re-published in the Simcoe County Pioneer Papers No. 2, Simcoe Co. Historical Society, 1908 – starts at p. 47 here. (PDF)]

FROM THE PEN OF REV. THOMAS WILLIAMS (excerpts, with summaries. Subtitles not original.) rev-thomas-williams

. . .  From 1834 to 1841 I lived in Barrie. During 1833 and until the fall of 1834 I lived at the old agency place at the bridge over the Nottawasaga River, on the Sunnidale Road, and was assistant to Mr. Richey in settling that country.

The settlers called me “Guide”.

. . .  The occupation of strategic points on Lake Huron by the naval and military authorities had certainly something to do with the settlement of the country lying between that lake and Simcoe. The settlements from the front had reached the south shores of the latter lake some years before the war of 1812-15, but pushed no farther northward.

The people of these settlements were mostly from the States, old American settlers in origin, some of them United Empire Loyalists, and others whose affection for British institutions was perhaps unconfessed during the existence of war, but lingered in such a way that they were not comfortable in the land of the Stars and Stripes, but prompted to seek homes under the Union Jack. Canada owes much to this people, of whom I shall have something to say farther on.

The settlers south of the lake were, many of them, employed by the military in work connected with the occupation of the points farther north, opening roads, building, teaming. . .  but. . .  they were not. . .  among the first of the settlers. . .  near Kempenfeldt Bay. . .  In most cases in our province, and perhaps in other countries, settlements are pushed back and back, as pieces of good land and desirable locations are discovered; continuously farther, and yet farther, into the wilderness until some barrier be reached. In this case the lake became to these people an impassable barrier, seeming to forbid these people’s farther progress.


. . .  At first the government put before the world what seemed to them pretty strong inducements to settlers – each family was to have a two-hundred-acre lot as a homestead; each son of the family having reached man’s estate, a half lot, or one hundred acres. This policy prevailed for two or three years at most; the first families coming availed themselves of it. . .  during the years 1818 and ’19, perhaps into ’20.

In 1821, when my father and others made application for land, the policy had become straitened and narrowed; one hundred acres was the limit, and no recognition of the sons of the family. . .  and. . .  difficulties were put in the way of intending settlers in getting the lands, whether by grants as British subjects seeking to locate themselves as settlers in a British province, or as purchasers.

The land was nominally valued at one dollar per acre, to be paid for in four succeeding annual installments, or cash at the time of purchase without discount, a patent to issue in two years, on proof of settlement duties being performed.

In my boyhood I have listened to many sad tales by the old settlers of their difficulties in getting their land, the weariness and humiliation of their attendance upon the officers connected with the location of homes in the unclaimed domain of the province.

First, there was to be a petition to Governor-in-Council, presenting the applicant’s claim, his antecedents, his present purposes, etc. This would go before the Executive Council. . .  supposed to meet once a week. . .  as the whim or convenience as … its members would determine… If the prayer of the petition was granted, a document was given which he must carry to the Honourable Commissioner of Crown Lands, from thence on to the Surveyor-General’s office, until location ticket was obtained.

. . .  The reiteration and rehashing of these old grievances [in the Colonial Advocate newspaper, published and edited by William Lyon Mackenzie] had much to do in bringing about the Rebellion of the latter years of the thirties.

Why did those to whom were committed the management of the country, put such difficulties in the way of intending settlers?

[The high-motivation and skill of the unassisted early immigrant settler did not warrant such control:]  

Immigrants of that period were a superior class – people who were inspired by an ambition to become the owners of land in order that themselves and their children should reach a more independent condition. Possessed of. . .  means, [they] have experience in business. . .  or in farming. . .  [and are] expected to make good and enterprising settlers.


First [of the Rev. Williams’ explanations], French Canada had been settled by Seigniors, to whom alone the land was allotted in large tracts of several thousand acres, who brought with them from France their dependents, an illiterate peasant class. . .  [brought over with the intention to emulate the] form of society in France, nursed into that form for centuries by a despotic government, the nobles. . .  and a powerful Church. To these habitants, they assigned homesteads, at a small price, but bound… to the estate by… restrictions on his disposition of the land. . .  by requiring small periodical payments. . .  as rent. The land was also burdened with tithes for the maintenance of [the Clergy].

It has been suspected that those who influenced the narrow land policy of which we complain, would have produced it in Western Canada, could they have got the power from Britain and the material to work with.


[Second, of Rev. Williams’ explanations, describes the preferential treatment of favoured classes:]


In the earlier thirties [1830’s] the writer had access to the government maps of all the townships in other parts of the province.

These maps. . .  were disfigured with peculiar marks, which indicated the allotment of land in them to certain purposes and persons.

Indeed a very large proportion of the land was shut away altogether from the use of actual settlers.

  • There was first the Crown reserves – one-seventh of all the lands; these had a mark on them like a blur made with the end of a finger dipped in pale red ink. These were sold or granted about that time to the Canada Company, and were open for settlement by purchase.

  • Then there was another seventh of the land, with a dusky blur on them, made as if with a finger-tip dipped in common black ink.
    These were the clergy reserves, and at that time might be leased, but not bought.

  • Besides the above, there were in all the townships lots with the letter D written upon them, some in single two-hundred-acre lots, and sometimes in blocks of several hundred or a thousand acres. These, we are told, belonged to certain great estates of favoured persons in different parts of the country and deeded to them; and they were always the best lands, but they were “taboo” to the settler.

    [Third, of the author’s explanations, describes the disadvantageous use of the geography:]  
    There was not generally in that day enough land accessible to the actual settlers to make closely inhabited neighbourhoods. This tended to increase the hardships. . .  while their labours were every year adding value to these [favourably-allocated] lands.

    It was suspected that these large grants of the best lands (for in no case were they purchased from the Crown) were given to favourites, that by-and-by, when the other lands were settled on, the owners of the estates might find themselves occupying an elevated position, and that the foundation of a social order might be laid differing from what had been planted by the United Empire Loyalists, their descendants, [and original communities, where] society. . .  had taken a decidedly democratic shape.

    The large estates. . . paid no taxes, contributed nothing to the progress of the country, but greatly retarded it in all instances.

    It was a great. . . advance when our legislatures gave our townships and counties municipal powers enabling them to tax all lands for public improvement. This brought these lands into the market, and put settlers on them. . .

    It was well for the country that a more liberal land policy had met the larger emigration which began with the first of the thirties, for that filled the country with a people who had never felt the troubles of the earlier pioneers, and could not be made uncomfortable by the unpleasant remembrances of them.

    MASS IMMIGRATION AND THE CANADA COMPANYpatent-maps-canada-company

    In the first of the thirties. . .  emigrants in considerable numbers began leaving the old countries, and seeking our shores… There prevailed in the old countries among the labouring classes generally; what was called the Chartist agitations were rife at the time, and the idea of emigration. . .  presented itself as a remedy. . .

    At that time… the Canada Company was formed in England, to whom the government sold a large tract of the finest forest land in North America of nearly two million acres; what was then called the Huron Tract, together with all of what was called the Crown Reserves – one-seventh of the land in all the older surveyed townships. . .  [sold] for a very small consideration of money.

    . . .  The emigrants of that time were mostly well furnished with the literature and maps of the country put into circulation by the Canada Company. . .  its [method as to the settlement of the country] had its inspiration from the old country rather than from the authorities of the province.

    jefferys-emigrants-in-the-woods3[Agencies were placed] in several parts of the province where any considerable quantities of unlocated lands remained. . .  the settlers could obtain information and other aid to find and choose their location.

    I might say the people who came to this country at that time could be considered as of three different classes:

    First, those who would call themselves gentry. They were composed in great part of old officers (not old men) of the army and navy, the naval officers all having their half-pay; the army officers in most cases had commuted their half-pay for ready money [which] soon slipped away from them… the [military] men and their families were of good material, quite respectable generally, and would have been desirable settlers if they had brought with them a better knowledge of economy in living, and a determination to knuckle down to their changed condition… none of them came to the agent without strong letters commending them to our utmost attention and care… the agent not only fed them, [but also] wined and brandied to their heart’s content, and every aid was given them to select their lands, a thing which they know nothing of themselves.

    There was also. . .  quite mixture of private gentry, some professional and some mercantile… creating no trouble… they slipped into places in the towns and villages. . .

    The next class of settlers were mostly thrifty but poorer people, paying their own way and having more or less means. Very many of these had been in the army, some few in the navy, and [had largely] sold out their pensions;… this class met no hospitality at headquarters besides what they paid for themselves, nor did they seek any… and had given to them simply the aid needed to find their land and settle on it, which they did, and if they are not here today after more than fifty years, their descendants are.