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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: Land Records Course Part 1 and Part 2 by Sharon L. Murphy, Brenda Dougall Merriman, CG, and Frances Coe, PLCGS. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Land Division Systems
The orderly division of land into easily identifiable parcels was paramount in the development of the country. This allowed the settlers to obtain a specific piece of property by grant or sale. A reference system was put in place to be able to identify one piece of land from another. There were four major systems of subdivision in Canada. Surveyors worked in a different manner in various parts of the country. Usually they based their descriptions on the metes and bounds method of measuring boundary lines, with the technical language of chains and rods, etc, and compass directions. In deeds, we will normally see an ancestor’s property described by metes and bounds or by a coordinates position. Global Positioning (GPS) may be adopted in the future by some provinces.
River Lot System
The best known example of this system is the seigneurial system of land tenure which developed in New France. It is characterized by long narrow lots running perpendicular to and along major rivers and waterways. Rivers were often the only means of transportation and each settler required access to them in order to transport his produce and to have a link between his farm and the rest of the community.
Rectangular Lot System
This system used the township or parish as its largest component. They were then subdivided into a series of lots, each of uniform size (100-200 acres) and rectangular in shape. Lots would be arranged in rows and numbered consecutively. Each row or concession would also be numbered to form a grid system per township. You will find this system in Ontario, Québec and in the Maritimes.
The use of natural features, such as rocks, trees, rivers, etc., marked the beginning and end of a boundary. This system was also known as “crazy quilt”. A typical description of a piece of property under this system would refer to the house of one person and an oak tree nearby and a river bed with direction such as easterly, northern, etc. being noted. This produced many odd shaped lots whose boundaries were often not very accurate and of course such features often changed or disappeared. As a rule, these lots are organized within a parish or township and are given numbers to set them apart from the other lots. Reference to a specific lot would read “Lot __, __ Parish, __ County” within a province. This system is found primarily in the Maritimes, especially in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.
Dominion Land System
This system covers the largest area of Canada. It was based on the American public land system and was initiated in Canada in 1870.
When the Canadian government negotiated the transfer of Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company it successfully brought most of the land in western Canada under the federal government.
The deal between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Dominion gave 1/20 of all subdivided land as part payment for the transfer. Sections 8 and 26 were set aside for the Hudson’s Bay Company. At this time Sections 11 and 29 were also set aside, this time for School lands.
To help finance the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway and other railways there were large concessions made of the remaining Crown lands to the railway companies. These lands were sold through the railway land departments. They usually received the odd-numbered sections in each township within a designated area or railway belt.
The base of this Dominion Land System is the township which contains 36 square miles. It is then divided into 36 “sections”, each containing one square mile (640 acres). This is not to be compared to the townships of eastern Canada which were set up for municipal administrative purposes. Each section is further divided into four 160 acre parcels called “quarter-sections” which are generally the smallest unit of this system. The townships are arranged in a grid system and are numbered consecutively from south to north beginning with Township 1, running along the US-Canada border.
To provide the grid index from east to west, each north-south tier of townships is designated a “range” and numbered consecutively, generally from east to west, from one of six meridians. Each of these meridians were used as the reference line for the surveys originating from it.
The Principle Meridian (longitude 97 degrees 30 W) is located in Manitoba with ranges running east and west from it. The 2nd (102 degrees) and 3rd (106 degrees) meridians fall in Saskatchewan with the 4th (110 degrees W) meridian falling along the Saskatchewan-Alberta border. The 5th (114 degrees W) meridian falls in Alberta and the 6th (118 degrees W) meridian in Alberta and British Columbia.
Reference to all these components is used when identifying specific lots. A sample description would be: “southeast quarter of Section 6, Township___, Range___, West (or East) of the ___Meridian”.
There is more regarding this system under the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and parts of British Columbia.
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Canadian: Land Records Course Part 1 and Part 2 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.