Canada Land and Property
Use land records to learn where ancestors lived and when they lived there. Land records may give the:
- Names of spouse, children, other heirs, relatives, and neighbors.
- Place where a person lived previously.
- Military service.
Naturalization information and other clues for further research.
Many people in Canada owned land, and a very high percentage of the population is named in land records. The availability of land attracted many immigrants to Canada and encouraged westward expansion. Land ownership was generally recorded in an area as soon as settlers began to arrive. These were often the first records available in an area. Although they may not be as easy to use, land records may give pedigree information for earlier times when other records were not kept.
In eastern Canada, most land records begin in the late 1700s. They include land petitions, fiats and warrants, land grants and patents, and deeds. The federal homestead era in the Prairie Provinces lasted almost 60 years (1872 to 1930). Homestead record files cover those years.
Special categories of land and property records applied to the American Loyalists, in Canada called United Empire Loyalists. Many Loyalists and their sons and daughters applied for land grants in present eastern Canada as compensation for war losses. Loyalists and their children were entitled to land grants without payment of fees. If a man could not prove service in a Loyalist corps, he or his children would have trouble claiming a Loyalist free land grant. Other loss claims were also presented.
Some Loyalist records are in the Locality Search of the Family History Library Catalog under LAND AND PROPERTY headings. Others are in the Subject section under AMERICAN LOYALISTS and UNITED EMPIRE LOYALISTS. For more information on Loyalists, See Canada Military Records.
Records of Land Grants and Transfer of Property in Eastern Canada
Landholding in New France was based on the seigneuries. Under this system, land was received as a feudal obligation in return for oaths of fealty and promises to perform certain duties.
English-language versions of the French king’s grants to the original seigneurs are in:
Land Grants of Seignories 1674–1760 Quebec. (Appendix to the 11th volume of the Journals of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada.) Quebec: Secretary’s Office, 1853. (Family History Library book 971.4 R2s; film 1036410 item 10; fiche 6046787, computer number 42859.)
Except for a few books that contain transcriptions of some early records, the Family History Library has almost no other land records for Quebec based on the seigneurial system. Notarial records at the library sometimes do include references to this system of land tenure. See Canada Notarial Records, Quebec Notarial Records and Quebec Land and Property.
In most of British North America (early eastern Canada), the land grant process consisted of several steps, which varied from time to time and province to province. Between about 1784 and 1840, this process was typical:
The person wanting land submitted a petition or memorial to the Lieutenant Governor of the province.
The petition was read by a committee of the executive council. If approved, an order-in-council was issued, stating that the person was entitled to land.
Then a warrant to survey an available parcel of land was ordered.
When the survey was completed, and the applicant had met certain conditions, such as living on the land for a certain length of time, a land grant or patent was issued.
Other documents used in the land-granting process could include:
Receipts for fees paid (unless it was a Loyalist free grant).
Fiats and warrants authorizing grants.
Surveyors’ reports describing the parcels of land awarded.
At the present time, provinces retain records about the initial granting of government lands. Records of subsequent sales or transfers are usually kept by land offices in the district or county where the land is located. Wills and deeds transferring property were sometimes copied into deed books. These are often indexed by grantor and grantee (seller and buyer).
The most family information is usually in land petitions. Some petitions may give little more than the name and address of the applicant, but others may give the petitioner’s:
Marital status and number of children.
Length of time in the province.
Past service to the Crown.
Applicants sometimes exaggerated their service and sometimes claimed more children living at home than they actually had.
During the Loyalist and immediate post-Loyalist eras, orders-in-council often included the name of the Loyalist father for whose service sons and daughters were claiming free grants. Other than petitions and orders-in-council, most land-grant documents have little or no family information. However, land records involved in court disputes and similar proceedings often contain a wealth of family information. See Ontario Land and Property for information about the "Township Papers" and "Heir and Devisee Commission" records that can fall into this category.
Homestead Records of Western Canada
Homesteading practices in Canada were patterned after those in the western United States. Homesteading began in Canada in 1872, about ten years after it began in the United States. Canadian federal homesteading ended in 1930, when the Prairie Provinces: Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta assumed control of the Crown lands within their borders.
The Canadian parliament passed the Dominion Lands Act in 1872 to promote settlement and the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway through the Canadian West. Under that act, the homesteader paid only ten dollars for 160 acres, but was required to build a home and cultivate a certain number of acres within three years.
The federal government made a homestead record file for each person who applied for a homestead. This includes a description of the land filed for, the date of filing, and correspondence about the property. There may also be copies of naturalization papers or other kinds of immigration information. Names of other family members are sometimes included.
In 1930 the national government returned control of the homesteading process to the individual provinces. The provincial archives of Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan each have the homestead application files and indexes for their province. The indexes list the name of the homesteader, location of the homestead, and file number. For microfilms of indexes for Saskatchewan, see the Locality Search of the Family History Library Catalog under:
SASKATCHEWAN - LAND AND PROPERTY
See also Canada Land Records, an article about Canadian homesteading.
Land Description Systems
To use most land records you must know something about land description systems. Legal land descriptions in the western Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, and parts of British Columbia, are different from those in the eastern provinces.
Portions of eastern Canada, especially southern Ontario and the Eastern Townships (Cantons de l’Est) of Quebec, employed a survey system based on counties, townships, concessions, and farm lots. A county consisted of several named townships of unequal size and shape. Each township was divided into strips called concessions, and each concession was further divided into lots.
Equivalent land units in the remaining eastern provinces usually were not composed of concessions but of irregular farm lots. Early surveys of the Maritime Provinces used a metes-and-bounds system that described physical features of the land, such as "north fifty rods from the creek" or "S 10° W 38 rods to the red oak on hill."
About 1872, early in the homesteading era of the Prairie Provinces, the federal government adopted a survey system unlike that of eastern Canada, but similar to that of the western United States. Land was divided into square townships, each composed of 36 sections of 640 acres. The basic homestead was a quarter-section of 160 acres.
In legal land descriptions, township 1, range 1, west of the first meridian is shortened to 1-1-W1: the first figure represents township, the second figure represents range, and the third figure represents meridian. Thus, 3-25-W4 stands for the location of Cardston, Alberta, in township 3, range 25, west of the fourth meridian.
For more about counties, See Canada Historical Geography. Find maps of county boundaries in eastern Canada and of townships in western Canada in:
Atlas and Gazetteer of Canada. Ottawa: The Queen’s Printer, 1969. (Family History Library book 971 E3cd; computer number 160008.)
For more information about the land description system of western Canada, see:
McKercher, Robert B., and Bertram Wolfe. Understanding Western Canada’s Dominion Land Survey System. Revised and enlarged. Regina: Division of Extension and Community Relations, Univ. of Saskatchewan, 1986. (Family History Library book 971 R2m; computer number 490933.)
Diagrams of typical arrangements of farm lots in townships in the various provinces are in Eric Jonasson’s The Canadian Genealogical Handbook (see Canada For Further Reading.)
Petitions usually have good indexes or are filed alphabetically. Other land records for eastern Canada are often not indexed by surname but are arranged by land parcels within townships. You may have to trace a piece of property through time in order to use those land records, rather than try to trace the family name through indexes.
Therefore, you must know the name of the township where your ancestor lived and the number of the lot he lived on. This information is in the agricultural schedules sometimes included with the 1851, 1861, 1871, and 1901 censuses. Illustrated historical atlases published about 1878 for some counties include maps showing names of landowners. See Canada Maps.
If you know the name of the eastern Canada locality where your ancestor was settled in 1871, Lovell’s Dominion Directory for 1871 shows the names of the townships and counties where the towns and villages were located. There are indexes to portions of Lovell’s directory (see Canada Directories).
Locating Land and Property Records
The Family History Library has:
Extensive province and county land records for Ontario, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick.
A few land records for Quebec and Newfoundland.
A good collection of homestead applications for Saskatchewan.
Few land records for Prince Edward Island, Manitoba, Alberta, British Columbia, or the territories.
For records not at the Family History Library, see various archives and provincial and local land offices. There is usually a fee to make copies of records at land offices. Sometimes an attorney is required. To find the addresses of smaller land offices, check the local government pages of current telephone directories. To find the addresses and telephone numbers of major land offices in each province and territory, see:
Briggs, Elizabeth. Access to Ancestry: A Genealogical Resource Manual for Canadians Tracing Their Heritage. Winnipeg: Westgarth, 1995. (Family History Library book 971 D27be; computer number 749919.)
Microfilm copies of the series of homestead applications and indexes for all three Prairie Provinces are at the National Archives of Canada.
The Family History Library has many land petitions and indexes for New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Ontario.
Land records for eastern Canada are listed in the Family History Library Catalog under all jurisdictional levels, including:
[PROVINCE] - LAND AND PROPERTY
[PROVINCE], [COUNTY] - LAND AND PROPERTY
[PROVINCE], [COUNTY], [TOWNSHIP] - LAND AND PROPERTY
[PROVINCE], [COUNTY], [CITY] - LAND AND PROPERTY
Land records in Saskatchewan and other western provinces are usually cataloged under:
[PROVINCE] - LAND AND PROPERTY