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  • Land, Power and Economics on the Frontier of Upper Canada
  • Jane Errington
Land, Power and Economics on the Frontier of Upper Canada. By John Clarke (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001. x plus 752pp. $75.00).

“Upper Canada, from the time of its formation until the mid 19th century was a preindustrial, agrarian community in which access to land was of primary importance to settlers and residents because it was the basis [both] of life and of economic and social prestige.” (p.xxxiii) In Land, Power and Economics on the Frontier of Upper Canada, John Clarke argues that British land policy and its implementation and manipulation by various individuals reflected an Upper Canadian mentality that rejected the unruly democratic impulses emanating from the new republic to the south and upheld Hanoverian understandings of the relationship between landed wealth and power. From the beginning, Upper Canadians were determined to create an orderly hierarchical society, one that rested on unequal access to and control of land

At the heart of this rather monumental volume is a meticulously detailed study of land holding in Essex County, one of the earliest settled areas of Upper Canada. Clarke really begins his story with the attempts of the British government to acquire title to land from the native population. As Clarke illustrates, the process was often complicated and policy sometimes compromised by the actions of those actually living and working in the region, who, wanting to acquire large tracts of land for themselves, saw their private interests as pre-eminent over the orderly settlement of the area and the needs of the local population or indeed of the Crown which they purported to serve. (p.153) Clarke then examines the actual settlement of the region and particularly the workings of the colonial land boards. From the beginning, British policy recognized two classes of land owners. Ordinary settlers could obtain conditional grants to land, and had their title confirmed once settlement duties had been completed. Members of the power structure—magistrates, office holders—on the other hand, often received land as a reward for service and loyalty. Authorities like the first lieutenant governor, John Simcoe, and Peter Russell, administrator of the colony at the turn of the 19th century believed that property added to a man’s dignity and influence (p.172) and frequently awarded large tracts of land to deserving individuals. Upper Canadians could also buy land, of course. From the formation of the [End Page 779] colony, but particularly after 1825, when a formal sales policy was adopted, land in Essex County was relatively affordable. At the same time, the price of land did increase over the period as a consequence, Clarke concludes, of primarily local factors—the land’s proximity to a market centre, its relative development and of course the assessment of particular individuals buying and selling. Some of those who bought and sold land did so not to because they wanted to farm but as an investment. Speculation was endemic in Upper Canada and Clarke identifies 144 large land owners who used a variety of strategies to realize their investments. What is evident is that a number of these men used their political and personal influence to manipulate the system—including forcing land sales for outstanding debts or benefiting directly from grants of public lands. As Clarke concludes, such use and abuse of the system provided much of the impetus for rebellion in 1837.

What might be called the heart of Clarke’s conclusions are presented in the chapter entitled “Land and Power” and in his conclusion. It was not so much, Clarke discovered, that members of the colonial administration from Essex County actually owned a significant proportion of land in the region. Rather, it was those associated with the halls of power—by marriage, by formal and informal links of business and society, and by friendship—who benefited most directly by British land policy. Interconnection was in fact how Upper Canada was governed. Land large owners at the local level had connections to those who governed in York. The family compact was an interconnected system of hierarchies (p. 463) and access to land was...

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