Monday: Map Day!

Lower Canada, 1802

Getting our bearings at the turn of the 19th-century

If we’re going to find Jonathan M. Clark’s kin in the early-1800s, we need to know where to look. Lower Canada—one of JMC’s two “official” birth places—has a very long and complicated history. For a decent overview, start here.

One point to keep in mind is that “Canada” as a unified, completely self-governing nation is a fairly recent creation. At the beginning, Canada, like all of the Americas, was heavily populated by a large number of Indiginous Peoples, representing many cultures, language groups, and political alliances and rivalries. For the first several centuries of European contact, Canada consisted of a number of colonies and provinces governed at different times by various European nations and one very large area controlled by a for-profit fur trading company (still famous for retailing woolen goods).

That’s a lot of history to catch up on. But to get started, we only need to understand a few basic places and dates, all centered around the modern Canadian Province of Quebec, or as it was known from 1791 to 1841, Lower Canada:

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Holland, Samuel, A New map of the province of Lower Canada describing all the seigneuries, townships, grants of land, &c. compiled from plans deposited in the Patent Office Quebec by Samuel Holland, Esqr. Surveyor General, to which is added a plan of the rivers, Scoudiac and Magaguadavic, surveyed in 1796, 97, and 98 by order of the Commissioners, appointed to ascertain the true River St. Croix intented by the Treaty of Peace, between his Britannic Majesty, and the United States of America, London, 1802.

Today’s map from 1802 is an irreplaceable resource for anyone interested in Lower Canada in era of English-speaking settlement from the 1790s through the early 1800s. It is one of a large number of amazing resources available online from BAnQ, the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec. We will have more maps and documents from BAnQ in future posts.

So how do we get the “Lower” in Lower Canada? In a nutshell:

Lower Canada consisted of part of the former colony of Canada of New France, conquered by Great Britain in the Seven Years’ War ending in 1763 (also called the French and Indian War in the United States). Other parts of New France conquered by Britain became the Colonies of Nova ScotiaNew Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island.

The Province of Lower Canada was created by the Constitutional Act 1791 from the partition of the British colony of the Province of Quebec (1763–1791) into the Province of Lower Canada and the Province of Upper Canada. The prefix “lower” in its name refers to its geographic position farther downriver from the headwaters of the St. Lawrence River than its contemporary Upper Canada, present-day southern Ontario.


In other words, when Quebec was a division of the Canadian part of the vast North American French colony known as New France, Quebec was very large, roughly encompassing all of the modern provinces of Quebec and Ontario. Those two provinces were separated in 1791. So generally speaking, when you hear historical references to places in Lower Canada, you will find those places (perhaps with modernized names) on a modern map of the Province of Quebec, Canada.

Looking at today’s map, you can see the difference between the earlier French settlement of the old province of Quebec, and the later pattern of British-sponsored settlement in the interior of Lower Canada. The earlier French settlements—including the important cities of Montréal and Québec—are centered on, and radiate outwards from, the major rivers, most importantly, the St. Lawrence River as it runs northeast from the outflow of Lake Ontario to the Atlantic Ocean.

If you click on the map and scroll along the river, you’ll note many of the earlier place and geographic names are either French names, or French transliterations of indigenous words. Another characteristic of the period of French settlement is the division of land in to large grants of land under the so-called seigneurial system. These large grants were often divided into a number of narrow parcels that extend perpendicularly from the water’s edge. And since the St. Lawrence River runs generally from southwest to northeast, these land divisions are often oriented at a northwest to southeast angle. It’s interesting, quite different from English-style North American practice, and complicated enough that I won’t summarize. (I suggest you click this link for more.) Here’s an example of the “diagonal” French land system; Quebec city—and compass north—is at the top center:

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Following the British victory in what we in the U.S. call the French and Indian War, and especially following the passage of the Constitutional Act 1791, the British government began to push for increased settlement in the inland areas of Lower Canada adjacent to the future U.S. states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York. These new settlement areas were surveyed according to British North American practice, where the land is divided into squares or rectangles of various sizes, all of which are orientated along north-south and east-west lines. This detail from the map shows the area just north of Vermont and New Hampshire (I’ve added the future location of JMC’s other “official” birthplace, Derby, Vermont in blue):

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If you zoom in on the big map, or the detail, you’ll note how sparsely populated the northern Vermont/New Hampshire and southern Lower Canada area was in 1802. The map, and the surveys that created it, was part of a larger effort by the British government to lure new settlers to this international border area. As we will see in future posts, the effort was successful, attracting settlers from the United Kingdom and the United States.

As you might imagine, the many changes in governments, languages, surveying standards and civil boundaries in this part of Canada can make for quite a bit of confusion when it comes time to find archival documents for a particular town or county. Now that you’ve seen the results of the French and English surveying systems, here’s an example of how the two systems can overlap:

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In this 1802 map of Lower Canada, the smaller parcels, manors, towns and counties—from both the French seigneurial system and the English rectangular surveys—are grouped into three large districts. I have added color highlights to make these district boundaries clear. They are the District of Montreal (to the west, in red), the District of Three Rivers (center, in green) and the District of Quebec (to the east, in blue).

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As you can see, these district boundaries are extensions of the diagonal boundaries of the seigneurial land boundaries. One side-effect of these clashing survey systems occurs, for example, near Stanstead in the townships of Oxford, Hatley, Compton and Barford, where the diagonal boundary between the Montreal and Three Rivers districts divides these townships into two parts each. This has a very practical impact on the researcher, because if I was looking for early-1800s records for, say, Hatley township, I probably need to check the archives for Hatley records filed among records from the Montreal district and the Three Rivers district.

Over the last century or two, Stanstead has been variously a town, township, and county name, and Stanstead was assigned to different districts in different eras. I’ll do my best to sort through all the town/county/district names for each group of relevant records in each decade as we search for Jonathan M. Clark’s family and birthplace.

5 thoughts on “Monday: Map Day!

  1. Pingback: Monday: Map Day! | Clark House Historian

  2. Pingback: Stanstead, 1815 — a portrait in words | Clark House Historian

  3. Pingback: Monday: Map Day! | Clark House Historian

  4. Pingback: Leaders and Associates – the unique land grant system of early Lower Canada | Clark House Historian

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