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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian:Immigration Records by Patricia McGregor, PLCGS. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Land Companies (Continued)
Western Land Grants
When the Canadian government purchased the North-West Territories from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1869, “it was a wilderness inhabited by a few thousand nomadic Indians, settlements of Métis buffalo hunters, an agricultural colony at Red River and a handful of fur traders.” (Robertson 1974, 10). The government realized that the land would need to be settled and in 1872 the Dominion Lands Act was passed. The act was modeled after the U.S. Homesteaders Act of 1862 and set in motion a twelve year period of land surveying. This first phase of attempted settlement attracted primarily those already resident in Canada—Ontarians, Maritimers, English speaking Quebecers and a few French speakers.
The Land Act of 1872:
- allowed for free grants of homesteads
- reserved sections 11 and 29 in each township for the provision of education
- provided for the purchase of dominion lands other than those reserved
Section 23 of the Act allowed any head of a family or adult over the age of 21 to be make application for a quarter section (160 acres) of land. With payment of only an office fee of $10.00, some settlement and cultivation requirements, the settler would receive a patent for the land after 3 years. However settlement was slow. Many applications were later cancelled. One of the problems was the aggressive marketing of the Americans. Many on their way to the Canadian west travelled the easier route through the American states as the Canadian route was more strenuous.
- “A boat could be taken from Sarnia or Collingwood to Fort William, at the head of the Great Lakes from whence the Dawson Trail was followed to Shebandown Lake, and then to Lake of the Woods. From thence it was a 150 mile journey by cart and boat to Winnipeg. The completion of the railroad from Minneapolis and St. Paul to Winnipeg in 1878 was a step towards the solution of this transportation difficulty and reduced the number of days of travel from twelve days to three.” (England 1936, 55)
In 1874 an amendment allowed homesteaders to exercise an option on an adjoining quarter section. However, by the end of October that year only 1376 entries had been made and almost 900 of those had subsequently been cancelled. Many factors contributed to the slow growth of the Canadian west including the availability of land in the American west, worldwide depressed economic conditions, low grain prices, the short growing season with low rainfall and high freight rates. As of 1882 companies were allowed to purchase certain blocks of land for settlement. The following restrictions applied to the purchases:
- cost of purchase set at $2.00 per acre, payable in instalments
- companies were to pay 5 cents an acre for land surveys of the land purchased
- they were required to colonize the land within 5 years by placing two settlers on each odd numbered section and two on each of the homestead sections
- on completion of these obligations the company would receive $120.00 per settler
- on expiration of the 5 year period and completion of the contract conditions price of the land was dropped to $1.00 per acre
From 1881-86, 166,043 immigrants or migrants entered the North-West. By the 1890s prospects had begun to improve: an economic recovery had begun; Europe was experiencing a large growth in population and land clearances and ethnic tensions were surfacing; the Canadian railway had been completed; the U.S. was running out of good land; and new advances in agriculture saw better strains of wheat and improved farming equipment.
Western Canadian Settlement 1886 Map Friesen, Gerald. The Canadian Prairies, A History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984, Between pp. 90 and 91.
Many companies became involved in the western land business. Some of the larger ones included:
- The Saskatchewan Land and Homestead Company
- The Temperance Colonization Company
- The Primitive Methodist Colonization Company
- The Dominion Lands Colonization Company
- The York Farmers’ Colonization Company
- Touchwood and Qu’Appelle Colonization Company
- Montreal and Western Land Company
“In the opinion of many students the general result of this early attempt at colonization was to place, without any public compensating advantages, certain eastern speculators in possession of vast blocks of arable land which, with the passing of time, and especially with progress in settlement, became very valuable.” (England 1936, 60)
The next phase of western settlement occurred in 1896 with a change in the government in Ottawa. Laurier’s Liberals came to power and Clifford Sifton was named the new Minister of the Interior. One of his first tasks was to make the western settlement regulations more flexible. The new Liberal government realized that the economic prosperity of Canada depended on prairie farmers as both producers of grain and consumers of manufactured products. Minister Sifton still sought settlers from Eastern Canada and Great Britain, but also looked to attract immigrants from countries such as Holland, Denmark, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Luxembourg, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Switzerland. In addition, agriculturists were to be given priority and those from the urban classes were to be discouraged.
Canada West: The Last Best West Poster Author’s Private Collection The North Atlantic Trading Company Most European countries were hostile to emigration and some actually prohibited it. Sifton’s government developed secret agreements with shipping agents at certain departure points. This approach helped to dramatically increase immigration between 1897 and 1899.
In 1899 these agreements developed into the more formalized North Atlantic Trading Company. Under the surface of a general trading company was a secretive network of European shipping agents who agreed to direct agricultural settlers to Canada for a fee. The government only paid for genuine agricultural settlers and each head of household had to have at least $100.00 on arrival. The company was the subject of much criticism for its clandestine activities and it ceased operation in 1905. However during its 6 years of work, agents were instrumental in increasing settlement in the west. According to England (p.66) the numbers of immigrant arrivals in Winnipeg during the years 1897-1901 were:
1897 10,864 1898 27,857 1899 36,775 1900 21,216 1901 32,005
“The choice of countries covered by the agreement is interesting: Russia (probably understood to include Finland), Austria, Germany, Romania, Switzerland, northern Italy, Belgium, Holland and France. The first four countries were selected because they had been the principal sources of agriculturalists in previous years. France, despite a dismal record of emigration, was included for political reasons while southern Italy was deliberately excluded because of Sifton’s disdain for southern Europeans and their mythical inability to meet the challenges of frontier life. Scandinavia was omitted from the line-up because of the government’s general failure to obtain immigrants from that part of the world.” (Knowles 1992, 65-66)
The immigration surge ceased in 1914 with the outbreak of WWI. In addition, the pattern of migration from east to west reversed as young men enlisted. Many, even if they survived the war, never returned to the west.
Political Boundaries of the Prairie West 1870-1912 Friesen, Gerald. The Canadian Prairies, A History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984. pp. 90 and 91.
The Library and Archives Canada website contains a database of Western Land Grants which is searchable by surname. The database is described as follows:
“This speciality database relates exclusively to Letters Patent issued by the Lands Patent Branch of the Department of the Interior. The records refer to grants issued in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the railway belt of British Columbia, c. 1870-1930.”
It should be noted that land patents do not contain personal information on the grantee, other than date of the grant and a description of the land. Additional information may be available through the appropriate provincial archives.
As a project to celebrate Alberta’s 100th anniversary as a province of Canada, the Alberta Genealogical Society took on the task of creating an index to almost 700 reels of microfilm containing homestead files. These files cover the years 1870-1930. The index can be accessed online at:http://www.abgensoc.ca/homestead/index.htm.
The website explains that homestead files typically include the following information:
- An application for homestead, containing the applicant’s name, age, birthplace, last residence, prior occupation, number of adults and children in household.
- An application for patent, containing name, age, occupation, post office, nationality, residency information, wife/children (no names), breaking/cropping, livestock, buildings, fencing.
- A notice that patent (title) has been issued.
Also included on the site is a list of questions asked on application forms in 1910 and 1914 and instructions on how to order a copy of the file if you find an ancestor’s name in the database.
The Saskatchewan Genealogical Society and the Saskatchewan Archives Board partnered to develop a file locator database for the homestead files held by the Saskatchewan Archives. The Saskatchewan Homestead Index database is searchable online by name, by land location or by additional remarks. By using the file number found in the index, you can access the original file which may provide additional information on the settler such as nationality and place of origin. The original files are at the archives in Saskatoon and the Regina office has microfilm copies as does the Family History Libraryin Salt Lake City. The microfilms can be ordered in to your local FamilySearch Centre. The site also explains how to obtain a copy of a record you find through the index, http://www.saskhomesteads.com/home.asp.
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Canadian: Immigration Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at email@example.com
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.