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Manitoba History: Review: James G. MacGregor, Vision of an Ordered Land: The Story of the Dominion Land Survey

by Barry Kaye
University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 8, Autumn 1984

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Vision of an Ordered Land: The Story of the Dominion Land Survey. James G. MacGregor. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1981. xiii, 202 pp. ill., ports. ISBN 0-88833-071-5.

When the young Canadian Government acquired Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1869-70, it was almost immediately faced with the massive task of surveying the lands taken over. The Canadian Government was expecting a rush of settlers into the prairie-parkland region of Western Canada after 1870, so a system of survey had to be chosen in a short time. The government wanted a system that could be applied continuously and rapidly over very large areas. The system eventually chosen was a modified version of the section or rectangular survey system which had been widely employed in the American Middle West since the late 18th century. Survey work began in 1869, but was interrupted by the Riel Rebellion and did not resume until 1871. The task of subdividing the arable land of Western Canada into farms was accomplished in about half a century. During the fifteen years prior to 1885 some 68,000,000 acres were divided up into townships, sections and quarter sections. An additional 103,000,000 acres were surveyed in the thirty years prior to World War I. The peak year of surveying activity was 1883, when 119 parties subdivided some 27,000,000 acres of prairie and parkland into square-shaped farms.

The Dominion Land Survey has been an essential element in the economic, social, and landscape development of Western Canada. The patterns that Dominion land surveyors made on the land have had a profound influence on life and landscape in Canada’s largest settled region. The Dominion Land Survey has not lacked historians. A. S. Morton, C. Martin, D. W. Thomson, J. Warkentin, and J. Tyman have all made useful contributions to our knowledge of survey and land disposal in Western Canada. The most recent contribution is by James MacGregor, a prolific writer who has long shown a strong interest in the work carried out by surveyors in Western and Northern Canada. One recalls his 1966 study of the fur trader-surveyor, Peter Fidler. MacGregor writes as an out-and-out admirer of the skill, dedication, and bravery of the men who surveyed the length and breadth of Canada’s western and northern lands. He tells us that his empathy for them goes back to his childhood spent on an Alberta homestead taken up by his father in 1906. His latest book is clearly intended as a tribute to a professional body of men who did so much to further the development of Canada after 1870. Based principally on records written by the surveyors themselves—diaries, journals, reports and reminiscences—much of the story is presented in the surveyors’ own words. MacGregor’s main intention is to highlight the achievements of individual surveyors, or as he notes in his introduction “to report some of the adventures of the old-time surveyors and to record some of their experiences.”

By closely following the records and reports of the surveyors, MacGregor has written a book that is rich in tales, dramatic incidents, and dangerous events. Many of these are related to the problems involved in moving men, supplies, and equipment long distances over often difficult terrain by oxcart, pack horse or canoe. The author concentrates his attention not so much on the technical aspects of surveying, but rather on the transportation methods that were employed to get the surveyors to and from the areas of their surveys.

The first eight chapters are concerned with the surveying of Western Canada’s prairie-parkland region. During this phase of their work, the Dominion land surveyors became involved in the clashes between the Métis and the Canadian Government which culminated in the two Riel Rebellions. Although MacGregor is critical of Ottawa for its insensitivity and neglect, he largely exonerates the surveyors themselves from any blame in causing these two uprisings. The number of surveyors in the West was reduced after 1885, but their valuable work continued. Numerous errors were corrected, many townships were resurveyed, trails were surveyed, and land in southern Alberta with irrigation potential was divided into suitable units. However, the most spectacular achievements of the Dominion Land Survey after 1885 were outside the prairies. In the book’s last six chapters, the reader follows the surveyors beyond the fifth meridian as they move into the Rockies and British Columbia and later into the Yukon and the Mackenzie River valley. Notable accomplishments at this time were the marking out of the Alaska-Yukon and Alberta-British Columbia boundaries.

The book is a notable contribution to the literature on surveying in Canada and a fine and enthusiastic tribute to the members of a profession that did so much to prepare the way for the settlement and economic development of Western Canada. Some readers might wish for less detail. The failure to provide more maps is a defect of the book; the three small-scale maps included are totally inadequate in a volume which is replete with the names of places and geographical features. A reader of Vision of an Ordered Land should keep a good atlas nearby.

Page revised: 25 September 2009

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