Monday: Map Day!

Lower Canada, 1802, part 2

Still getting our bearings at the turn of the 19th-century

As we discussed in a few weeks ago, 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 summary, you can skim this article, and then be sure to look at part 1 of this post. In part 1, I wrote that “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.”

Well, I was wrong. Because “a few basic places and dates” seriously underestimates the complex and changing nature of place names and legal boundaries in Lower Canada during that period. So today I’m going to take another look at the 1802 Lower Canada map and point out some additional places and terms that will be useful in locating Clark-related documents created in the English-speaking part of the province at the turn of the nineteenth century. So, remember this map? …

The 1802 map of the Province of Lower Canada

Click to open larger image in new window.

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.

The initial French surveys and land divisions

As a reminder, 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 and much more. In 1791, the future Ontario and Quebec provinces were separated into the Provinces of Upper Canada and Lower Canada. So generally speaking, when you hear historical references to places in Lower Canada, you will find those places (perhaps with modernized names) on a modern map of the current Province of Quebec, Canada.

We also noticed that many of the Lower Canada place and geographic names are—not surprisingly—either French names, or French transliterations of indigenous words. Another characteristic of the period of French settlement that can be seen on the 1802 map is the division of of the province into large land grants under the so-called seigneurial system. These large grants were often divided into a number of narrow parcels that extended perpendicularly from the water’s edge. And since the St. Lawrence River runs generally from southwest to northeast, these land divisions are often oriented perpendicularly to the river at a northwest to southeast angle. The seigneurial system of land grants is interesting, quite different from English-style North American practice, and complicated enough that I won’t try to summarize it. (I suggest you click this link for more.) Here’s an example of the “diagonal” French land system from our 1802 map; Quebec city—and compass north—is at the top center:

Click to open larger image in new window.

New term: the Eastern Townships

Following the British victory in 1763 in what we in the U.S. call the French and Indian War, and especially following the passage of the Constitutional Act of 1791, the British government began to push for increased settlement in the inland areas of Lower Canada adjacent to the current or future U.S. states of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. These new Lower Canada settlement areas were surveyed according to British North American practice, where the land was divided into square or rectangular townships of various sizes, all many of which are oriented along perpendicular 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):

Click to open larger image in new window.

Lower Canada, 1802 map (detail) showing some of the Eastern Townships, near the international border.

If you zoom in on the bottom edge of the big map, or click on the detail map (above), you’ll note how sparsely populated northern Vermont, New Hampshire, and southern Lower Canada were in 1802. The map—and the surveys it was based upon—was part of a larger effort by the British government to lure new settlers to this international border area with offers of free government land. The effort was generally successful—though wildly corrupt at times—and attracted many settlers from the United Kingdom and the northern United States.

These post-1791 rectilinear townships of Lower Canada are often collectively referred to as the Eastern Townships. When researching the possible Canadian roots of Jonathan M. Clark we will often refer to the Eastern Townships. It is useful to remember that while the Eastern Townships remain more or less unchanged over the decades, the larger political and judicial divisions that they comprise do change. Keeping track of which county or judicial district a township belonged to in a particular year is essential to successful record-finding.

Revised term: those diagonal partitions are Judicial Districts

In our 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 judicial districts. I have added color highlights to make these judicial 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). These judicial districts are very large and cover land on the north and south sides of the St. Lawrence River.

Click to open larger image in new window.

Lower Canada, 1802 map (detail), highlighting the three judicial districts.

When I wrote part 1 of this post, I did not yet understand that the three big districts were judicial districts. Settlers in the newer, English, Eastern Townships along the American border would have to travel all the way to the cities of Montreal, Trois Rivieres (Three Rivers), or Quebec to transact business with the courts, including legal proceedings and land sales. As it turned out, these very large judicial districts proved impractical, and this system would be revised, and additional court locations created, several times between 1791 and 1841. More details on those changes in upcoming posts.

By the way, there are counties on this map, too…

I also missed another feature of the map and the political geography of Lower Canada, post-1791. It turns out that the province was also divided into a number of counties, seven (I think) north of the St. Lawrence River and at least seven counties south of the river. On the map, the counties are labeled in medium-large all-caps type. Also note that these counties are not always contiguous with the boundaries of either the judicial districts or the newer, English-surveyed townships (more on that, below).

Click to open larger image in new window.

Lower Canada, 1802 map (detail), highlighting the three judicial districts and two of the counties south of the St. Lawrence River, Richelieu (yellow) and Buckinghamshire (magenta).

In the map detail above, the three large judicial districts are marked—as before—with solid colored lines: Montreal (red), Three Rivers (green) and Quebec (blue). Each judicial district was further divided into legislative counties. On the map, the counties are labeled with medium-sized all-caps type, smaller than the font for the judicial districts.

The part of the Montreal judicial district south of the St. Lawrence River was divided into five legislative counties: Huntingdon, Bedford, Kent, Surrey, and Richelieu. I’ve marked the approximate boundaries of Richelieu county on this detail map with a broken yellow line. In 1802, Stanstead and neighboring Barnston townships were located entirely within the Montreal judicial district and the county of Richelieu, Province of Lower Canada.

The next county to the east, Buckinghamshire county, covered much more area than Richelieu county. I have outlined the approximate boundaries of the county of Buckinghamshire on this detail map in broken magenta lines. Buckinghamshire county included all of the territory of the judicial district of Three Rivers that lay south of the St. Lawrence, and about half of the adjacent judicial district of Quebec (south of the river).

What happens when judicial district boundaries cut through township lines?

Click to open larger image in new window.

Lower Canada, 1802 map (detail), with original highlights of the diagonal Judicial District boundaries. District of Montreal in pale green, District of Three Rivers in pale red.

As we discussed in part 1, the judicial district boundaries were extensions of the diagonal boundaries of the French seigneurial land system. One side-effect of these clashing survey systems occurs, for example, near Stanstead in the townships of Oxford (sic, should be Orford), Hatley, Compton and Barford, where the diagonal boundary between the Montreal and Three Rivers districts divides each of these townships into two parts. 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 for Hatley records filed among archives of the Montreal district and the Three Rivers district.

And the county lines, too…

Although my brightly-colored lines obscure some of the map’s original judicial district and county boundaries within the townships, lets take one last look at how these boundaries conflict in some places. For example, look at Stanstead’s neighboring townships of Hatley, Compton, Barford, and “Oxford” (i.e., Orford):

Not only are these townships divided by the Montreal (red) and Three Rivers (green) judicial district boundary, but they are also divided by the county boundary between Richelieu county (yellow) and Buckinghamshire (magenta). So, in 1802, it would be possible that records for a family from, for example, Hatley township might have been created and originally archived in the Montreal judicial district, or the county of Richelieu, or the Three Rivers judicial district, or the county of Buckinghamshire. And—of course!—many of these boundaries will change (some more than once) in the 1820s and 1830s.

Bonus term: Estrie

At the present time, the historic Eastern Townships are more or less contiguous with the Estrie administrative area of the Province of Quebec. This term is useful for modern-day tourism, but may not be particularly relevant to locating records created in the period 1791-1841. The present Stanstead city and township are located in the Estrie, but Stanstead records may currently be archived in city of Stanstead, or the township of Stanstead, or Quebec City, or Montreal, or the Estrie’s administrative city of Sherbrooke.

So where in Lower Canada are we, as of 1802?

Remember, we’re trying to find Jonathan M. Clark’s kin by looking for records of Clark families in the English-speaking Eastern Townships of Lower Canada that are adjacent to Vermont, circa 1800-1830 or so. Our search is focused on Stanstead, Lower Canada, just north of Jonathan M. Clark’s other stated birthplace of Derby, Orleans county, Vermont. Over the last century or two, Stanstead has been variously a town, township, and county name, and “Stanstead” was part of different districts and counties in different eras. Thus:

In 1802, Stanstead township was part of Richelieu County, in the Montreal judicial district, Province of Lower Canada.

I’ll do my best to sort through all the town, county, and district names for each group of relevant records in each decade as we search for Jonathan M. Clark’s family and birthplace. More clarifications of the political locations of Stanstead in the early-1800s era of immigration and settlement coming soon.

Any questions?


UPDATE October 19, 2020 to change “all” to “many”: These new Lower Canada settlement areas were surveyed according to British North American practice, where the land was divided into square or rectangular townships of various sizes, all many of which are oriented along perpendicular north-south and east-west lines.

5 thoughts on “Monday: Map Day!

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

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

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

  4. Pingback: Monday: Map Day! – Ft. Howard & Green Bay, 1827 | Clark House Historian

Comments are closed.