Ontario Land Grants and Homesteading

Ontario land grants date from the late 1700s to the 1930s.

Most of these records are housed in the Archives of Ontario, although Library and Archives Canada has the originals of some records. The Ontario Archives has microfilm copies of the LAC records.

Part of the bronze Freedom Crossing Monument,
Lewiston, NY at the Niagara River,
with Ontario, Canada in the background.
Photo property of Sue Fenn
Freedom Crossing monument, Lewiston, NY

Settlers in Upper Canada came from many different backgrounds and areas of the world. Examples include:

  • United Empire Loyalists, who left everything behind in the United States to come Canada, since it was still a British colony.
  • Escaped slaves, who, with the help of the Underground Railway, made it to the north, and crossed the Niagara River at various points, including Buffalo, Lewiston, and Niagara Falls, to come to Canada, where they would be free.
  • Settlers from France and from the British Isles, as well as other European countries.

Up until 1829, most settlers in what was then Upper Canada - today's southern Ontario - could obtain free, or virtually free, Ontario land grants. United Empire Loyalists (UELs) and their children, as well as those who had served in the military (i.e., in various British campaigns), were entitled to free land, provided they could prove their service, or, in the case of UEL children, that of their fathers.

Petitioning for an Ontario Land Grant: Military Personnel and United Empire Loyalists

United Empire Loyalists, their children, and military personnel had to apply for their Ontario land grants at the York government offices. The process followed was the same for everyone applying at that office, although fees payable may have been different for the UELs and military personnel.

To being the process for obtaining title to land in the York office, an individual would petition for a land grant. This involved writing a letter to the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario asking for an Ontario land grant in a particular area of the Province.

There, receipt of a petition set off a chain of events by which the request went from the Lieutenant Governor to his civil registrar, and then to the Clerk of the Executive Council, and the Land Committee of the Executive Council.

After reviewing the petition and deciding whether to allow the land grant; to deny it; or to allow it conditionally, pending the receipt of additional information from the petitioner, the decision was entered into the Land Books (the Committee's minute books), and a copy of the decision returned to the Lieutenant Governor.

Petitions that were granted were sent to the Receiver General's office for calculation of any fees owing.

An Order in Council granting the land then was produced, and was sent to the Attorney General for preparation of a 'fiat' (a decree or an authorization. This is a term which, in 1818, began to be replaced by the term 'Warrant', and which was no longer in use by the early 1830s).

The fiat / warrant and the Order in Council then went to the Surveyor General, who surveyed the land and prepared a location certificate and a legal description of it.

The petitioner then would be sent a copy of the location certificate, following which he was free to enter on the land and set about meeting the requirements for 'improving' the property.

These requirements varied from time period to time period and from area to area, but they generally involved, among other things, constructing a dwelling of a minimum size, and clearing a certain amount of land within a certain number of months or years.

If the settlers met the improvement requirements within the specified time frame, they could apply for a Patent, which gave them full title to the land.

District Land Boards

During two time periods (1789 to 1794, and 1819 to 1825), Ontario land grants were handled by District Land Boards. Some Ontario land records are contained in these records, which are held by Library and Archives Canada.

The District Land Boards had their own system of processing Ontario land grants, also involving numerous steps, and again generating paperwork at each stage.

Clearly, obtaining an Ontario land grant and then a patent was a very involved process, from an administrative point of view (a process which likely was invisible to the petitioner), with paperwork generated at each step of the way. Most of these records have survived, and are available for review.

Griffin House, Ancaster, ON
In 1834, this simple clapboard house on a hilltop
became the homestead of Enerals Griffin,
believed to have entered Canada
through the Underground Railway.
Member of the Black Heritage Network.
Photo and commentary from Graeme MacKay, Hamilton, ON, via Wikimedia Commons
Griffin House, Ancaster, ON

The Heir and Devisee Commission Records

The government's intention, in setting requirements for developing the property granted over a specified time period, was to keep land speculators from obtaining land, never living on it, and subsequently selling it for a profit.

Nevertheless, some disputes did arise with respect to who actually owned the land, as some who received an Ontario land grant never bothered to obtain the patent.

Instead, they assigned, mortgaged, or sold the land (things which they were not supposed to be able to do until they had a patent for the land), or they died and left it to a family member, who then sold it, and so on.

In many cases, this led to disputes a number of years later as to who should be granted the patent to the land.

The Heir and Devisee Commission was set up to handle such disputes, and to decide who the rightful owner of the land actually was. There were two such Commissions. The first Commission existed from 1797 to 1804; the second, from 1805 to 1911.

Library and Archives Canada holds the majority of the records from the first Commission, and some from the second. These records are arranged by district, and then by document. There is no online database, and no index by name.

A list of the documents on file, and where to find them on the microfilm, is located here.

The Archives of Ontario has a searchable database of most of the records of the second Commission, and only a few from the first Commission.

Naturally, in the course of attempting to establish their claim to the lands, individuals would file supporting documentation, such as wills bequeathing the property to them, genealogical information concerning the family (along with proof of relationship, such as birth / christening records), land grant records, and so on.

The Canada Company

The Canada Company, a London, England-based land promoter set up in the mid-1800s, was granted about 2.5 million acres of land in southwestern Ontario for the purpose of settlement.

The company would advertise for settlers, and then lease or sell the land to them. There are many sets of records from this company in the Ontario Archives, including registers of contracts and leases; applications for deeds; registers of wills, power-of-attorney files, and burial certificates.

The Canada Company also assisted settlers when they wanted to send money to family (or others) in the United Kingdom. These records give the name of the settler sending the money, where he or she lived in Canada, the name and address in England where the money was to be sent, the amount of money, and the dates it was sent and received.

See the Archives of Ontario for information with respect to the availability of records for inter-library loan, and for microfilm numbers for various sets of records from this company.

Pinney (or Pinhey) Homestead, erected about 1825
March Township, Carleton County, Ontario
Wikimedia Commons
Pinney / Pinhey Homestead, 1825, Carleton County, ON

The Peter Robinson Settlers

In 1822, the Republic of Ireland was in the depths of a depression, and many people were losing their jobs and facing eviction from their homes.

In Canada, there was a need for settlers. The British government decided to do an experimental migration program, in which they would relocate a number of Irish paupers to Canada.

Under the scheme, the colonial governors in Upper Canada would be responsible for the administration of the program.

Peter Robinson was chosen to head the program. As a result of his efforts, two groups of Irish people emigrated.

In the first wave of migration in 1823, about 568 people emigrated to Canada from southern Ireland in two ships. The group, mainly from County Cork, along with some from Tipperary, settled in townships in the Bathurst District of Upper Canada (present-day Lanark County).

The second group, some 2,024 people, crossed the ocean in the summer of 1825 in nine ships. This much larger group was settled in Peterborough County townships, including Douro, Otonabee, Asphodel, Smith, Emily, Ennismore, and Ops.

In both cases, the immigrants were provided with free passage and provisions for the voyage. Once in the Bathurst District or Peterborough County, each family was given 70 acres of land with a wooden shanty already built for them by more established settlers, with the option to purchase another 30 acres at a later date.

They also were provided with rudimentary equipment, such as an axe, a handsaw, three rakes, and so on, as well as a cow and enough Indian corn and seed potatoes to last the winter and plant in the spring.

The Ships List database has a list of all passengers who travelled to Canada on each ship.

The Peterborough Museum and Archives has the original documents whichPeter Robinson kept. Microfilmed copies are available at the Ontario Archives. The records include original ship lists, surgeon reports, Robinson's correspondence, embarkation certificates, applications and letters of recommendation, account books listing the provisions supplied to the settlers, and posters advertising the emigration of 1825.

Northern Ontario Settlement

Settlement in Northern Ontario (by which, I mean anything north of North Bay) occurred much later than in the south. There were boundary disputes between Quebec and Ontario, and the western boundary of the province also needed to be sorted out, before any Ontario land grants or settlement in the north could begin.

The Quebec-Ontario border issue was settled by surveyors in the late 1880s, following which that part of the province was surveyed for settlement.

Both of my father's grandparents relocated there, one from another area of Ontario, and the other from England. My mother's parents moved there from southern Ontario.

With respect to the western boundary, an 1889 decision of the Imperial Parliament confirmed Ontario's right to parts of that region by incorporation of parts of the District of Keewatin (see map of Canada, 1881, for further details).

Incorporation of further parts of the Northwest Territories in 1912 brought Ontario to its current size and shape.

Where can I find the Records?

In addition to the sources already mentioned above, the following databases, notes, and webpages, could be of assistance.

  • Petitions for Ontario land grants submitted by people living in present-day Ontario before 1791 can be found in the Lower Canada (Quebec) Land Petitions. (Upper and Lower Canada - present-day Ontario and Quebec - were one province back then)
  • .

  • The Ontario Land Records Index provides information on settlers who received Ontario land grants between about 1780 and approximately 1920.
  • Library and Archives Canada has the records of the Upper Canada Land Petitions, ca.1790-ca.1867.

    These records often contain information from petitioners for Ontario land grants, such as the regiment in which they (United Empire Loyalists, for example) served in the American army during the Revolution; country of origin; date of arrival in Canada; date and place of birth; marital status; names of other family members; and so on.

  • The Ontario Archives has a webpage entitled From Grant to Patent, which describes the records it holds with respect to Ontario land grants and patents.

    This includes a second series, called "Petitions for Land, 1827-1856".

    A third series, "Orders-in-Council, 1827-1904", contains Orders issued by the lieutenant governor authorizing the sale, lease, or free grant of Crown lands, is also listed on the "From Grant to Patent" website. These Orders-in-Council were prepared on the recommendation of the surveyor general or the commissioner of Crown lands.

  • The Crown Land Records webpage at the Archives of Ontario has a further list of the materials it has available with respect to Crown lands, and where to locate the appropriate microfilm, both there and at the Mormon Family History Centers.

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