Prairie Land Grants and Homesteading:
Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta
In Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, Prairie land grants under the Dominion Lands Act of 1872 were known as homestead grants.
The Act applied to the Prairie provinces and, up until 1905, to the Northwest Territories.
Map of Canada - 1912
The standard size of a homestead grant in these provinces was 160 acres (65 hectares).
As you may know from other reading on this website, Alberta and Saskatchewan were carved out of the Northwest Territories in the late 1800s, and became Canadian provinces in 1905.
Similarly, while Manitoba existed prior to the late 1800s, it was considerably smaller than it is today. It was enlarged by adding part of the Northwest Territories to the existing province in the late 1800s, and attained its current size and shape by 1912.
The Dominion Lands Act, 1872
In preparation for offering the lands for homesteading, all land available for settlement was surveyed, and was divided into square townships. Each township had 36 sections, each containing 640 acres of land. Each section was divided into quarters, so that each homestead had 160 acres.
Once the transcontinental railway was completed, and access to the Prairie provinces therefore was made easier, various colonization companies were engaged by the government to find settlers to take up homesteading on the lands.
Under the Dominion Lands Act, 1872, a family could obtain a Prairie land grant for payment of a $10 administration fee. After meeting the improvement requirements within the specified time period, they then could apply for a patent, which would give them full title to the lands.
Up until 1899, when a patent was granted for a settler's first quarter-section of 160 acres, a homesteader could "pre-empt" - that is, he or she could obtain the quarter-section next to theirs for a guaranteed low price, if they so desired.
Requirements for Improvements under the Act
Under the Dominion Lands Act, the following requirements had to be met within the first three years of homesteading:
- reside on the land for at least three years, and for at least six months during each of those three years;
- construct a dwelling of a minimum size of 18' x 24'. The first homes of many settlers were tar-paper, log, or sod shacks (whatever material was readily available), of the minimum size;
- cultivate a specified number of acres. The number of acres changed over time, but ranged between 15 and 50 acres. Oxen were the favored animal to assist with breaking and cultivating the land.
While this may not sound like too large a task, it must be remembered that, in order to till the land, all rocks and stones had to be removed, any trees cut down, and stumps removed. Motorized farm equipment was rare in those days. In some areas of Canada, there were enough stones to form dividing lines along the edges of the fields, when moved from the fields! Clearing the land for cultivation was a daunting task;
- plant a further 10 to 30 acres of crops (again, the number of acres varied at different times);
- plough a fireguard to protect farm buildings.
Saskatchewan Sod House - Early 1900s.
Initially in 1872, the Dominion Lands Act stated that Prairie land grants were open to males over age 21. In 1874, the age limit was lowered to 18. In 1876, a further change to the Act allowed women over age 18 to apply for Prairie land grants, provided they were the sole head of a family.
An amendment to the Act in 1881 allowed the federal government to provide Prairie land grants in large blocks. This meant that they, or the colonization companies, could attract settlers of particular ethnic groups, and could advise them that large blocks of land were available which could be reserved for them.
This provision resulted in the movement of large groups of people - sometimes entire communities - from their ancestral lands to the townships reserved for them in the Canadian prairies. Groups of Mennonites from the Russian Ukraine, Doukhobors, Scandinavians, Icelandics, and others were among those enticed to relocate to the Canadian Prairies.
Where can I find the Records?
(a) Homesteading Records
Homesteading records can be located in the applicable provincial archives or genealogical society:
The original land patents, and subsequent sales of the land, are located in the local Registry Offices.
For Alberta, the homesteading files are available in the Provincial Archives on microfilm. A search on the above-noted index will provide the necessary file and film reference numbers, and then the appropriate microfilm (within PAA Accession 1970.313) can be viewed, and copies of the documents can be printed.
For those unable to travel to the Provincial Archives, the Alberta Genealogical Society will provide copies, for a fee. Copies can be ordered by writing to
Research Services Committee
Alberta Genealogical Society
162, 14315 - 118 Avenue
T5H 4S6 Canada,
or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
Saskatchewan has a similar homesteading index, which includes soldiers given 160-acre Prairie land grants after World War I, and those who bought or sold Metis scrip or South African scrip.
According to the Saskatchewan Homestead Index, Metis scrip was land or money given to Metis families in 1885 who could prove they were living in the Northwest Territories on July 15, 1870. It was compensation for the loss of their Aboriginal title to the land, and for other grievances.
That is, there was a lack of attention to Metis concerns by the federal government between 1869 and 1885. (The Hudson's Bay Company ceded its land, known as Rupert's Land, to the Canadian government in 1869, and it became part of the Northwest Territories. )
Louis Riel, 1878.
The Metis leader Louis Riel set up a local government in Manitoba in response to Metis concerns. This became known as the Red River Rebellion. The Canadian government brought Manitoba into Confederation in 1870, after negotiating with Riel with respect to Metis issues.
During the negotiations, the government made promises of Prairie land grants to the Metis people. The land grants, however, either failed to materialize, or were not as generous as what had been promised.
Also, the Metis, who were of mixed parentage (white and native Canadian), were looked down upon by the flood of white settlers from Ontario.
All of these factors resulted in the Northwest Rebellion in 1885, led by Riel, who had only recently returned from life as a fugitive in the US. He fled there after his provisional Manitoba government had executed by firing squad of an Irish Canadian for plotting against that government. The 1885 Rebellion led to Louis Riel's arrest, trial, and subsequent death on the gallows for treason.
Metis who applied for scrip from 1886 - 1902 or in 1906 had to prove they had been living in the North-West Territories prior to 31 December 1885.
Metis scrip consisted of 240 acres of land per family, selected from lands that were set aside as Prairie land grants for homesteading. As the land offered often was far from where they were living, many of them sold it for less than it was worth to land speculators. The purchasers and sellers are listed in the Saskatchewan index.
South African scrip was 320 acres of Prairie land granted to soldiers and nurses who served in the Boer War (1899 - 1902). Many did not take the option for the land grant; many others took the option, and then sold the land to others. These lands are in the index, and the names of the buyers and sellers are in the homestead file.
The homesteading index will give you the file number, with which you can access the documents in the file.
While actual family members are seldom named, other than the male head of the household, there may be information regarding the number of family members, a description of the land, and other correspondence on file with respect to the Prairie land grant.
There may also be information with respect to what improvements needed to be made to the land before a patent (full ownership) would be granted.
The Saskatoon branch of the Saskatchewan Archives has the original files, while the Regina branch has microfilm copies.
They are located at:
3303 Hillsdale Street
Saskatchewan Archives Board
University of Saskatchewan
3 Campus Drive
Saskatoon SK S7N 5A4
The Mormon Family History Centers in Salt Lake City also have microfilm copies, which can be ordered in to their Family History Centers worldwide.
I have located a number of records for some of my relatives in the Alberta and Saskatchewan databases, and looked up where their Prairie land grants were located on a map from that era, although I have yet to order the actual records.
For Manitoba, as noted above, their index for homesteading records is located at the Archives. This is a collection on microfilm; the website warns that the films were produced in the 1950s, and some pages may be difficult to read, as a result.
Among the materials available at the Manitoba archives is a Homestead Properties Promotional Booklet; a number of entries entitled "Homestead Inspection Registers"; and numerous other files, some relating to particular homesteads, and some more general in nature.
The Manitoba Archives are located at:
Archives of Manitoba
130-200 Vaughan St.
Winnipeg, MB R3C 1T5
For those researching from a distance, the Manitoba Archives has a Copy and Reproduction service. Prices vary for different types of documents and media. See their webpage for further details.
(b) British Columbia and Prairie Land Patents
The Library and Archives Canada Western Land Grants database contains land patents issued from 1870 to 1930 in the Prairie provinces, and to lands in British Columbia owned by the railway company.
Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta obtained the right to control their own resources, including granting land, in 1930. From that date on, any provincial land grants were registered in the local Land Titles offices.
Any land transactions after a settler received a patent of land were recorded in the provincial Land Titles Office servicing the area where they lived.
The Glenbow Archives Database contains sales of agricultural land by the Canadian Pacific Railway to settlers in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, from 1881-1906.
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