Nova Scotia Land Grants

Brief history

Nova Scotia land grants under the British system began in 1749, although European settlement of the area began in 1604.

NS Coat of Arms.
Note the French fleur de lys; the native Canadian; and the Scottish flag and thistle.
Wikimedia Commons

Prior to European settlement, the area was home to the Mi’kmaq native Canadians for many centuries.

The first Europeans to establish a permanent colony here were French subjects, and were known as Acadians. The Acadian area encompassed present-day New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Cape Breton, and Prince Edward Island.

There were four wars between the British and the French over ownership of this area between 1604, when the first French settlers arrived, and 1783, when the Treaty of Paris was signed, under which the British were granted control of all French territories in eastern Canada, except for the small island of Saint Pierre and Miquelon.

By 1710, the British had conquered Acadia. The first English-speaking settlers arrived in 1749, under the leadership of Lieutenant General Edward Cornwallis. These 2500 settlers established Halifax, the present-day capital of Nova Scotia.

The area also had an influx of United Empire Loyalists after the American Revolutionary War, which dramatically increased the population. In 1784, the area then known as Nova Scotia was divided into New Brunswick, Nova Scotia (including Cape Breton Island), and Prince Edward Island.

Settlement campaigns attracted a large number of Scottish immigrants to the area, and today, their descendants are the largest ethnic group. Their presence is reflected in the province’s name (Nova Scotia), which literally means “New Scotland”.

There is also a sizeable black population in Nova Scotia, many of whom are descended either from freed American slaves, from slaves who escaped and made it into Canada, or from American freedmen. Many of them fought on the British side in the American Revolutionary War, and became United Empire Loyalists. Although promises of free land were made to them the same as to white Loyalists, sadly, more of those promises were broken than kept.

The Process for Nova Scotia Land Grants

The Nova Scotia process for receiving a grant of land initially was very straightforward. Governor Cornwallis was instructed that he could grant land in fee simple (i.e., with full title) to settlers, with no taxes for three years. After the three years, settlers would have to pay an annual rent, or tax.

A Surveyor General was appointed in 1749, with deputy surveyors in each county or district. Detailed maps of all areas within present-day Nova Scotia, dating from the 1700s and 1800s, are available online at the Virtual Archives section of the Nova Scotia Archives website.

Over the years, the laws changed from time to time, with respect to various aspects, including whether the land grant was free; the level of taxation; the size of lots available; and the conditions to be met to receive full title to the land.

The basic process was the same as in other areas of Canada where Crown land grants were made:

  • an individual or group petitioned for land;
  • they were issued a document granting them the right to occupy the land, with specified conditions to be met within a certain time period;
  • if the conditions were not met, the land reverted back (or ‘escheated’, in legalese) to the Crown;
  • if the conditions were met, the occupiers of the land were granted full title to the land at the end of the conditional period.

Where can I find the Records?

The Nova Scotia Archives houses any records relating to land grants in present-day Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island.

For those located in or around Halifax, the address and contact details are as follows:

6016 University Avenue
Halifax, NS B3H 1W4, Canada
(902) 424-6060‎

The majority of the Nova Scotia land grant records are located in the Nova Scotia Commissioner of Crown Lands fonds, which contains records dating from approximately 1750 to 1925.

The Nova Scotia Commissioner of Crown Lands fonds is subdivided into eleven series, as follows:

  1. Plans, surveys and other records relating to Crown Land grants, by County;
  2. Land petitions and other material;
  3. Township records;
  4. Commissioners' correspondence and other material;
  5. Executive correspondence;
  6. Financial records;
  7. Cape Breton land petitions and other material;
  8. Journal of Titus Smith;
  9. Petitions;
  10. Indexes to grant books and other material; and
  11. Land grant maps.

Records relating to Nova Scotia land grants after 1926 are located in the Nova Scotia Department of Lands and Forests fonds.

The Nova Scotia Archives, recognizing that the most important information for genealogists would be located in the land petitions themselves (which sometimes were called “Memorials”), has scanned the petitions for Nova Scotia land grants located in the “Land petitions and other grants” (which cover the period from 1769 to 1799) series, as well as those in the “Cape Breton land petitions and other material” series (which include the period from 1787 to 1843).

Click here to access the database.

There are other documents in these series as well, such as draft land grants, which have not been scanned. They are available on microfilm. Ask your local librarian whether or not they can be ordered in through an interlibrary loan program.

Another useful online database is the Ward Chipman, Muster Master's Office (1777-1785) database, which is part of the Library and Archives Canada collection.

Ward Chipman (1754-1824)was a Massachusetts lawyer and New York State army administrator between 1777 and 1783, who moved to New Brunswick in 1784. The Ward Chipman Papers contain muster rolls of Loyalists, and their families, who settled in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and were members of demobilized regiments.

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