Manitoba Historical Society
MHS website:

Spring 2014
Field Trip

Past Lane



No. 74

Local History


Historic Sites
of Manitoba

Questions on

Manitoba Settlement Patterns

by John Warkentin

MHS Transactions, Series 3, 1959-60 season

MHS Transactions were originally published by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make online versions available as a free, public service. As an historical document, Transactions may contain language that is no longer in common use and which may offend some readers. They should not be construed to represent the views of today’s Manitoba Historical Society.

This online version was prepared using Optical Character Recognition software so that spelling and punctuation errors may have occurred inadvertently. If you find any such errors, please inform us, indicating the document name and error.

Please direct all inquiries to

In recent years everyone has become increasingly aware of the impact of community planning on our lives. Most apparent, of course, is the gradual retreat of the familiar gridiron city plan in residential areas, as it gives ground to curving streets and bays that are designed to take advantage of local variations in terrain with the aim of producing a pleasant, safe residential environment. But our attitude to the farm countryside has not experienced a similar change. We still tend to take the pattern of the Manitoba agricultural landscape for granted, and regard it almost as if it had been received from nature. There is a reason for the casual acceptance of our Manitoba settlement patterns. It is almost impossible to alter a survey once it has been laid out in the field, and property sold on the basis of its allocations. This self perpetuating quality of survey lines eventually leads to their passive acceptance, with the result that there is little concern about their significance in determining the quality of life that emerges in a region. If we reflect for a moment it is clear that the system of land division adopted in Western Canada has controlled the arrangement of the farmsteads, fields and roads which produce man's impression on the prairie. Furthermore, the method of division is partly instrumental in shaping the economic and social life of an agricultural area-especially in regard to whether it encourages dispersed or nucleated settlement.

This paper sets out to describe briefly the system of land division employed in Manitoba, and to indicate how suitable each pattern is for settlement purposes.


The first formal land survey in the prairies was made in Lord Selkirk's Colony in 1813 by Peter Fidler, a Hudson's Bay Company trader and surveyor. [1] The site selected for the colony, near the junction of the Red and the Assiniboine Rivers, lends itself to the river front pattern, and the two rivers became the bases for the land division. Miles Macdonell, the first Governor of the Colony, was familiar with the river lot system of Lower Canada, and it served as the model for the Red River survey, but the lots were made a third wider for the sake of convenience. On 17 July, 1813, Macdonell wrote to Lord Selkirk:

"There being no time in the spring to lay out regular lots, I gave as much ground on this point to the settlers as they could manage, & as much seed as could be spared. I have since laid out lots of 100 acres, of 4 acres front in the river, according to the annexed rough sketch (No. 18). On these lots they are now at work preparing to build etc. The farms in lower Canada are of 3 acres front, & the first settlers in U. Canada had only the same - but they found it afterwards too narrow, which induced me to add one acre additional to the breadth of our lots here. This is sufficient for any common farmer." [2]

It is interesting to note that Lord Selkirk, far away from Red River and concerned about the defense of the colony, recommended a nucleated type of settlement that would afford some protection for the settlers. His initial instructions to Macdonell, prepared in 1811, contain some suggestions about the land division:

"They [the lots] may be laid out from 50 to 100 acres to each man, & should as far as possible combine wood & plain in every lot. If however the Indians should appear disposed to be troublesome so as to excite any apprehensions for scattered settlers, small lots of 5 or 10 acres may be laid out more closely adjoining to the Fort and assigned to the men as a temporary tenure to cultivate till they can safely take possession of their full lots." [3]

But Lork Selkirk was more explicit in a letter he wrote on March 30, 1816 to Colin Robertson, who had rallied the colony in 1815 after the Nor'Westers had severely harassed it.

"I have no doubt of your attention being exerted to make the most ample preparations for next crop, so that not only the present settlers but also large reinforcements may find sufficient support. I am anxious that the land in cultivation should for the present be concentrated in the vicinity of the principal settlement: & that the settlers should not be scattered at a distance along the River as they were last year. To encourage them to remain together I would wish a compact village to be laid out in building lots of about half an acre, to each of which I would annex a lot of 8 or 10 acres of land as near as possible to the village. These small allotments I mean to give as a gratuitous allowance over and above the regular farm lots, but under the conditions that every settler who receives one, will build and reside in the village, till he has brought the whole of his extra allotment into complete cultivation The people will thus be kept together for the first 2 or 3 years, which will not only tend to their actual safety, but will give them a feeling of security of great importance in tranquillizing their minds.

If the N.W.Co. are still in a condition to be troublesome by their intrigues among the settlers, the village should be placed a little down the River from the Government House but if the fort at the in your possession I should suppose that a better situation would be found between that and the old houses of the R.R.S. laying out the village on some such plan as this - the lots being about 100 feet in front, and 200 deep - the street 80 or 100 feet broad reserving a breadth of 4 or 500 yards along the river & laying cut the rear lots behind that." [4]

An enclosed sketch shows that the proposed village was to be laid out in a gridiron plan, not just as a simple Strassendorf or street village. It appears that the village form of settlement was only meant to be used until it was safe for the farmers to move on their river lots.

The compact nucleated settlements recommended by Lord Selkirk were never established, and the river lot survey prevailed. Indeed, when Lord Selkirk visited the Colony in 1817, he did not attempt to change the mode of settlement, but extinguished the Indian's title to the land for only two miles on either side of the Red and the Assiniboine Rivers (there were wider tracts at the Forts), and ordered more lots to be laid out beyond Fidler's survey of 1813. Most lots were ten chains wide and extended ninety chains westward. from the river to make ninety acres, besides which each settler had a ten acre wood lot on the opposite bank of the river. [5] After the turbulent founding years a peaceful development in the settlement was anticipated.

By 1870, river lots extended for a distance of over forty miles along the Red, both above and below the original lots, and along the Assiniboine as far as Portage la Prairie. The majority of the lots were laid out with a twelve chain river frontage, but by the time the Colony was transferred to Canada in 1870, the lots varied from a chain to half a mile in width. [6] William Pearce, a distinguished land surveyor of the West who was engaged in surveying the river lots for the Canadian government in the 1870s, said about the lots:

"In 1874, I found a party who owned and resided upon, occupied and cultivated, in St. Andrew's parish, a strip of land one chain in width on both sides of the River. He had in all 64 acres of land, but it took a journey of 8 miles to pass from one end of it to the other. In the same year the average width of lots in the parish of St. Andrew's extending along the east bank of the river some 7 miles, was less than 3 chains." [7]

Probably the river front survey was the best land division that could have been devised for the pioneer Colony, which was not a specialized agricultural settlement. The settlers farmed the lots in the hope of supplying the Company with produce, but they were also engaged in hunting and fishing, in trading and in working for the Company, so that the river at their front door represented something more than a convenient base for surveys. It was as essential an element of the settlement as the very land they tilled, and therefore it was natural that everyone should desire to live along it. The houses were sufficiently close to each other along both rivers to produce tightly knit settlements which ensured protection, facilitated transportation, and provided mutual aid in all activities. There is an intangible strength in settlements like this, that seems best revealed in the fact that everyone is always aware about what is happening in the entire community, since people in passing along the lots in the ordinary course of affairs can see what is transpiring. Thus the river lots provide an essential element of cohesion in a pioneer community, where there is always the danger that hard won achievements may be dangerously dissipated over too wide an area. At the same time the river lots did not impose the rigidity often found in European agricultural villages where farming operations often had to be coordinated. In the Red River Settlement there was room for the flexibility which the varied activities of the settlers demanded.

Only the front of each lot was generally cultivated; the rear was used for pasture and hay. Professor W. L. Morton compares this aptly with the infield-outfield system of Scotland, from where many of these settlers came. [8] Unlike the land division in Quebec, no second range of long lots was ever laid out behind the river lots. This has been attributed to the fact that the Hudson's Bay Company had extinguished the Indian's claims only for the first two miles on either side of the two rivers (except near the forts) and therefore could not grant the land to colonists. [9] This may have been partly responsible, but of more direct importance was the fact that the river was the favoured place of settlement as the narrowing of some lots through the years indicates. In 1870, there was still much land vacant on the Red, since the lots only extended about ten miles above Fort Garry, so that there was no need for the settlers to go inland. Furthermore, the land immediately behind the river lots was poorly drained, yet it could be used to some extent, because each settler had a "hay privilege"-the exclusive right to cut hay on the outer two miles immediately to the rear of the river lots. On these outer limits some cultivation was occasionally undertaken on better drained lands on what were called "park claims," [10] but no settlements were founded. This brought the recognized agricultural limits of the settlers up to a distance of four miles from the river.

The river lot survey started by Lord Selkirk has considerable significance in the settlement geography of the West, because it remains the basis of the land division in the most densely settled part of the prairies, and also it was carried to outlying parts of the region by the Métis. A number of cities, for instance Winnipeg and Edmonton, even owe their basic city plans to this survey. It is an outstanding example of the way in which a land division can be designed to take care of the needs of settlers: this was Lord Selkirk's concern from the beginning.


In 1869, while the Canadian government was still negotiating for the transfer of Rupert's Land, it sent a surveyor, Colonel J. S. Dennis, to inspect the land in the vicinity of Fort Garry with instructions to select suitable areas for the survey of townships for immediate settlement, and to devise a suitable system of survey for the prairie region. Despite the fact that he was an Ontario Provincial Land Surveyor, Dennis made little use of the survey systems of that province, which was unfortunate because the Ontario townships were divided into long narrow lots which provided some of the same settlement advantages as the river lots.

It is natural that Canadians should investigate the public land surveys of the American prairie states in their attempt to find the ideal scheme for the plains of Western Canada. In discussions, held in Ontario before Dennis left for the West, it is evident that the American survey scheme was already being considered as the prototype for the prairie survey. William McDougall, the Minister of Public Works, wrote to Dennis in Toronto on 10 July, 1869:

"The American system of survey is that which appears best suited to the country, except as to the area of the sections. The first emigrants, and the most desirable, will probably go from Canada, and it will, therefore, be advisable to offer them lots of a size to which they have been accustomed." [11]

On his way to Red River Dennis consulted with the Surveyor-General of Minnesota and other "leading and intelligent Americans" [12] who supplied him with full details of the American system of surveying public lands. He arrived at Red River on August 20, 1869, and only eight days later, after some hurried trips within the Red River plain, he sent McDougall his plan, including two maps, for surveying the West. Dennis adopted the American method but made alterations where he thought it could be improved.

"It was generally conceded that the American system is faulty in making no appropriation for public roads, which are subsequently taken from the settler out of the net area of land for which he may actually have paid the Government.

I think further that the townships are unnecessarily small. In a prairie country, where the facilities of communication are greatly in excess of those in a broken or heavily-wooded country, the Townships may well be larger, thus tending to economy in the administration of Municipal affairs." [13]

In an appendix to this letter Dennis presents his proposed scheme, which was later adopted as the official method of survey by Order-in Council of September 23, 1869.

"Proposed Method for the Survey of the Public Land in the North-West Territory.

1. The system to be rectangular, all Townships to be east and west, or north and south.

2. The Townships to number northerly from the 49th parallel, and the ranges of townships to number east and west from a given meridian. This meridian to be drawn from the 49th parallel at a point say ten miles west of Pembina, and to be called the Winnipeg Meridian.

3. The Townships to consist of 64 squares, of 800 acres each, and to contain, in addition, 40 acres, or five per cent in area in each section, as an allowance for public highways.

4. The Townships on the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, where the same have had ranges of farm lots laid out by the Company to be surveyed, the broken sections butting against the rear limits of such ranges, so as to leave the same intact as independent grants." [14]

Point four, it is worth noting, definitely establishes that the pre-existing surveys were to be retained. Trouble of course developed when Major A. C. Webb ran the latitudinal line east from the Winnipeg Meridian toward Oak Point, (Ste. Anne Des Chenes) which involved carrying the line across the river lots. He never got there. The entry in his diary for Thursday the 11th of October 1869 reads:

"Start on Bearing of N 89°55'20"E from Tp. cor. surveyed one section and chained half a section when stoped [sic] by 18 Half Breeds, found it impossible to proceed farther. Went into camp within four miles of Winnipeg, and sent Report in and await Col. Denis [sic] orders to proceed. Changeable weather with slight fall of snow." [15]

But the Riel Uprising of 1869-70 forced a suspension of the field surveys until 1871 and during the interval the original scheme was modified. Lieutenant-Governor Archibald thought that the townships were too large, believing that they should be more akin to the American layout. By Order-in-Council April 25, 1871, the townships were changed to contain thirty-six sections, each approximately one mile square, and with a road allowance of one and a half chains (ninety-nine feet). Thus the township measured six miles on each side plus the road allowances. This is known as the first system of survey. In 1881, a different procedure was adopted in subdividing the townships so that the eastern boundary of each section would be a true meridian (the second system), and later that year, it was decided to make the road allowances one chain wide, and place them only on each alternate east and west line, though retaining them on all north and south lines (the third system). The latter changes were designed to save land for arable use and to eliminate the needless building of roads. The first system covers most of Southern Manitoba and extends west to just beyond the 2nd Meridian, (which lies 180 miles west of the Principal Meridian) and the third system covers most of the rest of the prairies.

When the sectional survey was adopted for Western Canada, the needs of the state (and the surveyor) were placed above those of the individual settler, although, of course, the two need not necessarily be incompatible. Dennis's son, who prepared an official history of the survey, said:

"The primary consideration, having in view the future welfare of the country, was to devise a system under which the country would be rapidly and accurately divided into farm holdings." [16]

And the survey certainly accomplished this. A large area had to be surveyed; therefore it was desirable to have a simple survey based in astronomical base lines that could be continuously applied over a wide area. In fact, the survey became an index system, because with the scheme adopted of designating townships, range lines, and sections it was very simple to locate any given plot of land.

This survey was not a gradual enterprise, moving along with the settlement, but consisted of the rapid superimposing of a rigid pattern without any regard to the characteristics of the land. No attempt was made to run lines that would conform to terrain and vegetation to ensure that the maximum benefit would be secured for the greatest number of settlers within an area. The surveyors themselves were not completely satisfied with the settlement results, [17] but there was little opportunity for experimenting in ways of dividing the land. But there was a note of urgency about the surveying, stemming probably from the belief that the West would be rapidly occupied. Thus, throughout almost the entire prairie region, there was laid out an easy to survey and simple to administer, but nevertheless stereotyped land pattern of squares. In all fairness I will, however, quote Mr. H. E. Beresford's comments on the survey system, since the survey certainly accomplished what it was designed by Dennis to do. Mr. Beresford made these remarks to this Society in 1954:

"For over eighty years, Crown Lands in the western provinces have, with minor changes, been surveyed under [the rectangular] system - a system which has received the highest praise wherever known, a system of survey which has been the greatest single factor in the successful development of Western Canada and one that has caused perhaps less litigation over land boundaries than any other in the world." [18]

Admittedly it was not designed to create the settlement pattern of the West, but in lieu of any other settlement planning it could not help but be a formative force.


The sectional survey was to all intents a fait accompli before farmers moved in; it now remains to examine the type of rural settlement it produced, the reactions of critics and the few attempts by settlers to make adjustments to the survey.

The sectional survey did not eliminate the river lots along the Red and the Assiniboine, and these were re-surveyed in the years 1871-78. By Orders-in-Council April 3, and April 17, 1874 the hay privileges in the "outer two miles" were assigned to the owners of the appropriate river lots, and the boundaries of each parish were produced to the extension of the two mile belt, the rear line being a boundary of the sectional survey. Road allowances were left between the Inner and Outer two miles, paralleling the rivers, and houses have subsequently been erected along them in a few places, so that a semblance of the second range of long lots, found in Quebec, has developed. Surprisingly enough, the river lot survey was also adopted in the Rainy River country at the suggestion of Dennis himself, when that clay belt was surveyed by the Dominion government in 1876. By Order-in-Council June 27, 1876, the land on the river was ordered laid out in river lots, ten chains wide, with the land beyond measured out in the regular sections. At the time, the territory was in dispute between Manitoba and Ontario, and it fell to the Dominion government to survey the lands. It is the only example in Ontario of the sectional land survey, and also the only place in Canada where this survey system lies south of the 49th parallel.

Nowhere in the prairies was any legally recognized departure permitted from the regular pattern in the first few decades of the survey, except in a few districts inhabited by Métis. Consequently the sectional survey, together with the Dominion Lands Act of 1872 and its system of alternate homesteads and residence requirements, ensured that there would be dispersed rural settlements through most of the West. This dispersal aroused some criticism shortly after the survey's inception among visiting Britishers, who apparently were more conscious than Ontario-Canadians of the social implications of scattering people from fairly densely settled areas widely over the prairie. For example, in 1883, Professor Henry Tanner of the South Kensington Institute of Agriculture argued that during the pioneer years, at least, close settlement was essential. [19] W. H. Barneby, a well-informed and observant traveller, voiced a similar opinion in 1884. [20] Further expression was given to this view in 1900 when Professor Mavor of the University to Toronto, in a study commissioned by the Department of the Interior, directed a blast at the failure of the administration to take the idiosyncrasies of people into account in planning settlements. Some immigrants, he argued, would prefer to settle in an isolated way, others in groups. He went so far as to say that:

"it is now generally recognized that the alternate section system was a mistake and that the number of persons who prefer the isolated life to which it induces has often all been shown to be very small, and that the isolation has on the whole been proved especially in the second generation of the settlers to be an immense disadvantage." [21]

I am not sure but that Professor Mayor may have overstated his case. There was, however, a basis for his criticisms and those of Tanner during the early years of settlement.

Planners, sociologists, geographers and Royal Commissions have also been critical of the sectional survey. Besides condemning the social implications of the dispersed settlements, they have emphasized the fact that the survey failed to take account of any variations in topography. Probably the severest criticism that has ever been directed against the sectional survey in Canada was made by an English planner, Thomas Adams, who was brought to Canada by the Dominion Commission of Conservation in 1914. He objected to the fact that:

"... a survey designed for one purpose is used as a plan for another purpose, that it is so used without regard being paid to the soil, topography and future development, and that farms are divided and roads located without any properly conceived development scheme being prepared for the areas in which they are situated." [22]

Elsewhere he stated:

"What is needed is the establishment of well planned agricultural villages on good and accessible land. They must be planned in such a way that there will not be an entire absence of facilities for social intercourse, cooperation, transportation and ready means for marketing." [23]

This was written in 1916 when many people were favourably disposed towards constructive planning, because it was felt that many returning soldiers would go on the land, and that they would not take kindly to isolated settlements. Three decades later, a brilliant examination of the section as an ecological unit was undertaken by a geographer, Professor Hildegard Johnson of Minnesota. In her article she supplies striking examples of the practical farming difficulties that may arise when the sectional survey is applied to dissected country, and how farmers have attempted to adjust to the survey within the limits of the land regulations. [24] In 1955, the Saskatchewan Royal Commission on Agriculture and Rural Life published its findings and in its report on Rural Roads and Local Government also records the socially deleterious effects of the sectional survey in Saskatchewan. [25]

Despite the shortcomings of the official survey, very few changes resulted in the land division, although admittedly, this is a very difficult thing to do once a survey has been established. The failure of the sectional survey to "fit the land", as it were, is not quite as serious a fault as might be expected. There are many districts where the section is utterly unsuited to the terrain (the Manitoba Escarpment for instance), but in general there was sufficient relatively flat land available to farmers in the prairies to enable them to select suitable homesteads even if the survey took no notice of the topography. And in the days of animal power, it was desirable to live as close to the land operated as possible. There is no doubt, however, that the criticism of the isolated life that resulted is valid, if the social welfare of the settlers is taken into account.

But what did the settlers themselves think of the life? When farmers came to the West, they came to an area where land was already measured according to a particular survey, and hence they tended to accept the situation, especially since this division seemed to offer opportunities for economic progress. To them the sectional survey, along with the homesteads, preemptions and railway lands offered an opportunity for individual expansion. This was a commercial farming economy; land was something to be used, to be bought and sold. Here there was no place for the love of the soil of a definite locality that characterizes peasant life. Abe Spalding in Frederick Philip Grove's novel, Fruits of the Earth, exemplifies the climate of the time. Right from the start Abe selected his land with a view to expansion-and the accumulation of wealth. And most farmers, not soured by a lack of success, quickly accepted the isolation, though the complaints were numerous before the appearance and comfort of the farmsteads were improved.


It is always very difficult to change an established survey and settlement pattern; hence there were only a few attempts to find alternatives to the sectional survey and the dispersal it had caused. Some were the result of the previous experiences and traditions of a group of settlers, others were devised by planners who were seeking the best agricultural adjustments to local conditions. But at least, in one way or another, they were all efforts to overcome the dispersion resulting from the section survey.

Many Métis were quite adamant about retaining the river-front lots in new locations, so that the Government was often forced to recognize their claims. In Ste. Anne, thirty miles southeast of Winnipeg, there was a Métis settlement on the Seine River which was surveyed in 1872 prior to the sectional survey, so that the sectional survey had to conform to it. Thus Ste. Anne parish sits like a handkerchief in the midst of a checkerboard pattern; it is unique in this regard in the prairies. Close by more Métis farmers squatted on river lots along the banks of the Rat and the Seine Rivers after the sectional survey was completed. They refused to conform to the sectional division, so finally in 1884, the Government was forced to re-survey their claims, but unlike Ste. Anne, here the rear boundaries of the lots were adjusted to the sectional survey lines. Other Métis settlements, which existed prior to the sectional survey, such as those on the Saskatchewan River at Prince Albert and Carlton, and on the Sturgeon River near Edmonton, were also surveyed as river lots.

But there were also some schemes to introduce nucleated settlements into the midst of the official survey. Professor Tanner maintained in 1883 that village settlement was essential, and that villages of working men, each with a small holding, should be placed in the midst of farms held by men of capital, who would require labour. [26] His concern about providing employment is well borne out by the fact that in the pioneer years the menfolk normally worked in railway camps, lumber camps and for other farmers to earn much-needed money. Tanner went so far as to prepare plans of village settlements that would fit into the township pattern.

Thomas Adams also worked out a number of village settlement schemes designed to secure the following advantages: the close settlement of farm buildings, convenience and directness of access to the town area and railway station, reduction in the length of roads, and use of swampy and rocky land for timber reserves. [27]

Apparently these settlement schemes were not considered to be practical by surveyors. In 1941, F. H. Peters, Surveyor-General of Canada at the time, said in referring to these and other proposals:

"... when it came to the final analysis, none of them seemed to be particularly attractive. It was very difficult to find any way of laying out a system of roads that would be as economical as the system which is followed in the Western provinces." [28]

This conclusion has been challenged by many - most recently by the Saskatchewan Royal Commission of Agriculture and Rural Life.

One rather startling suggestion that was brought before the Select Standing Committee on Immigration and Colonization of the House of Commons in 1883, by Mr. Robert Romains, merits mention. [29] He proposed that agricultural villages be established every few miles along the main railway lines, with the farm lands to be operated from the villages stretching away on either side of the track. The fields were to be reached by tramways extending twenty-five to seventy miles from the villages. This meant that the main railway lines would only be spaced from fifty to one hundred miles apart, with tramways perpendicular to them about every four miles. This scheme, of course, presupposes grain farming, and does not solve some social problems, but would certainly raise a number of new difficulties in farm operations.

The Mennonites of Southern Manitoba were the first people who successfully managed to establish nucleated settlements within the framework of the sectional survey. This was made possible because by Orders-in-Council of March 3, 1873, and April 2, 1876 they were assigned Reserves on the Red River plain for their exclusive use. Within these reserves both odd and even-numbered sections were allocated to the Mennonites as homesteads. An important amendment of the Dominion Lands Act in 1876, [30] granted them (along with the Icelanders) the privilege of settling in villages, thus circumventing the regulation that every farmer had to build a house and improve the land on his own homestead. A group of perhaps twenty farmers would pool their homesteads into what then became the village land, select a central site for a village, and divide the land into arable, meadow, pasture and woodland, and further subdivide the arable fields into strips for individual use. The sectional survey and homestead regulations only controlled the pattern to the extent that they determined the size of the village land since each homesteader received a quarter section, and the outside border, which was a line of the sectional survey. Over 120 villages were established during a period of two decades after 1874, but not more than eighty were fully functioning "open field" villages. Strip farming was not abandoned until the decade of 1920 in a few of the villages. Today, there are still seventeen nucleated settlements left, inhabited by farmers who go out to operate quarter section fields, or parts or multiples thereof.

These Mennonite villages point up the advantages and disadvantages of nucleated settlements in the prairies, especially since they had an Achilles heel which made them susceptible to any centrifugal influence. Despite the new settlement pattern and land division adopted by the Mennonites, the quarter section remained the legal unit of land, so that if a farmer was dissatisfied no one could stop him from taking his land out of the open fields, which frequently led to the break-up of the entire village. There were various reasons for leaving the villages. Farm management was not as efficient on the strips as on the quarter section. The individual farmer's maximum distance to his fields was rarely more than two miles, but it was a nuisance to have to bring enough water and feed for the horses into the field to do for an entire day. Even more burdensome was the fragmentation of fields, which forced excessive wasteful travelling. The many narrow arable fields separated by grass strips raised some special management problems. Much land was wasted in the grass strips, which often collected dust and turned into excessively wide ridges. Shrubs and weeds grew on these ridges and often infested the fields. Each farmer had individual access to his fields, yet a certain amount of coordination in farm operations was still essential, and might even prove restrictive to a progressive farmer. One of the main drawbacks of the villages in a North American economy was the limit they placed on the expansion of holdings. Many Mennonites were soon caught up in the North American commercial farming fever, with its tendency to expand operations, and the willingness to move to other seemingly more desirable holdings. Many farmers found village farming confining: it was difficult to acquire more land; it was not so easy to adopt new techniques in the small fragmented holdings - in general, farming went on at a more leisurely pace that did not suit the ambitious. Thus there was a movement right from the first year to the individual farmstead. Since this movement usually went on in the face of very strong religious disapproval from the village community, it is obvious that the dispersed pattern held great attractions, and it is more than a coincidence that the best farmers among the Mennonites were generally men who had left the villages. This does not mean that the quarter section made a better farmer of a man, but rather that the better, more ambitious farmers were the ones who found it attractive and could use it to advantage.

Only in such a group of people as the Hutterites, where individual enterprise as distinct from "colony" enterprise is unknown, have nucleated settlements proved unyielding in Manitoba. [31] And the somewhat similar cooperative farms of Saskatchewan provide similar evidence. [32]

But these settlements are not even the exceptions that prove the rule, because fundamentally each is a single large unified farming enterprise under one management.

Though settlers have shown that they prefer compact fields and dispersed settlements to dispersed fields and compact settlements, a compromise is now being attained through the adoption of the long lot. In a few areas the planned conversion of the squares of the sectional survey into long lots has proved successful. In the sectional survey the section, one mile square, is divided into four quarter sections each a half mile square, with the farms fronting on at least two roads. In the long lot, an adaptation of the sectional survey, each quarter section consists of a rectangle one mile long and one quarter mile wide, with all the farms fronting on one road. Thus the cost of services are reduced, and the farms are brought closer together. After the turn of the century, river lots were laid out on the alluvial soils of the Birch and Whitemouth Rivers in Southeastern Manitoba and along the Carrot River in Northwestern Manitoba. And at present, there is a limited movement, both planned and unplanned, towards the adoption of the long lot, along trunk roads as well as along rivers. The Pasquia Land Settlement Project is making use of the long lot, [33] and Professor W. B. Baker reports that there is an adjustment in farm residence patterns in Saskatchewan, where farmers are either moving into town or relocating on main market roads where possible. [34] An interesting readjustment has been occurring in Southeastern Manitoba since 1940 within the milk shed of Winnipeg. Farmers are establishing themselves on relatively small lots along main market roads, in order to be close to facilities such as feed mills, poultry dressing plants and cheese factories. This, of course, is the result of a change in land use. In these lots the farming advantages of compact holdings and the economies in public services of the linear settlement are secured. And the farms do not have the excessive length or narrowness of some river lots, which can be a handicap.


This brief review shows that every land division in the West has originated outside the region - from Eastern Canada, the United States and Europe. The sectional survey, derived from the U.S. survey, is easily of most importance. In the pioneer stage the section is not ideal (even on suitable terrain), mainly because its advantages for large scale, efficient commercial farming are not required when only a few farmers at best are able to operate large acreages competently. (This is particularly true as long as implements are inadequate.) Consequently, from 1871-1900, the social disadvantages of the dispersed settlement produced by the sectional survey and the land regulations were especially apparent and the advantages were obscured. But with the introduction of new agricultural techniques and the resultant greater productivity per man-hour, the sectional survey came into its own as a suitable land division for the enterprising farmers of the West. (Witness the break-up of many of the Mennonite agricultural villages after 1885.) People did become accustomed to the dispersion, despite the early complaints and the doubts of various academic critics, and the quarter sections became as accepted a part of the environment of the West as the spacious prairie scene. And when the nature of the topography, the grain growing economy, the increase in size of farm holdings, and the improvements in communications are taken into account, this must be regarded as a fairly sound system of land division for many areas today.

Social disadvantages still exist in the settlement pattern produced by the sectional survey, but they can be partially overcome by concentrating farmsteads along market roads, that is, by adopting the long lot. If these innovations had been incorporated in the original survey, all the highly-valued technical and administrative strengths of the sectional survey would have been retained with the added advantage of a reduction in the dispersal of the farmsteads and in the cost of municipal services. This kind of survey would have required no great leap of the imagination, or even experimentation, on the part of the surveyors because it had been already achieved in Ontario. Now, an adjustment towards the long lot within the general limits of the original survey is beginning rather belatedly and in a haphazard and imperfect manner. This is accomplished on an individual basis by farmers as the opportunity arises, but it is possible that within two generations there may be a change in the landscape of Western Canada, as the line settlement develops, that is almost as great as that accompanying the enclosure movement in England. It would appear that the main aids towards achieving this pattern are to make the public conscious of the economic savings and the social advantages of the long lot, so that as farmers buy and sell land they will tend to move their farm headquarters to the main market roads. The other side of the coin is the careful location by the municipal authorities and planning boards of market roads so that they will offer an incentive to farmers to move their homes along the roads. Naturally this is very long range regional planning. [35]

What of the other survey systems? The few areas laid out in other divisions practically disappear in the great expanse of townships and sections. Even when one passes through them, the river lots cannot readily be distinguished from the quarter sections on the flat prairie terrain, although they can be made out on the banks of the Red River. But many of the lands laid out in river lots are now being urbanized. In Southern Manitoba, the area where seventeen Mennonite villages still exist is quite distinctive (even though the fields are now compactly laid out according to the sectional survey) because the villages are marked by long rows of cottonwoods in the midst of a country that is empty of farmsteads. With fast-moving modern farm implements the villages have turned out to be an ideal settlement pattern for Manitoba's special crops area, yet they still possess an old-world atmosphere of comfort and serenity. What can be termed town or sidewalk farming is also coming into existence. In the Great Plains states and in Saskatchewan many farmers now live in towns from where they operate their farms. Naturally this is the maximum in social welfare that a farmer can achieve, even surpassing the line settlement, which still offers more service efficiency than social efficiency. This mode of farming became possible with cars and trucks for grain farmers but you will recall that Robert Romaine in 1883 envisaged tramways leading from central places to farms. These sidewalk farmers are surprisingly numerous in Manitoba where little is ever heard of them. In 1956, ten and a half per cent of the farms in the province were worked by non-resident farm operators, and in the Swan River area it was sixteen per cent. [36]

The very lack of other land divisions shows, however, how definitely the quarter section has marked the West. Probably the only quick changes will come in new special agricultural areas; whether they are carefully planned as in the Pasquia, Bow River or Saskatchewan River projects, or whether they develop spontaneously within the sectional survey as in Southeastern Manitoba. In either instance, there is an adjustment toward a settlement pattern that satisfies the needs of the people; it is noteworthy that the long lot, which is occasionally emerging, is the equivalent of the survey that Miles Macdonell introduced to Red River in 1813.


1. A. S. Morton, A History of the Canadian West (London, n.d.), p. 553.

2. P.A.M., Selkirk Papers, microfilm copy, Miles Macdonell to Lord Selkirk, 17 July, 1883: 787.

3. Ibid., Instruction to Miles Macdonell, 1811: 180.

4. Ibid., Lord Selkirk to Colin Robertson, 30 March, 1816: 1894.

5. Archer Martin, The Hudson's Bay Company's Land Tenures (London, 1898), p. 11.

6. H. E. Beresford, "Early Surveys in Manitoba", Papers Read Before the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba, Series III, No. 9, Winnipeg, 1954: p. 12.

7. Quoted in Beresford, p. 12.

8. W. L. Morton, Manitoba: A History (Toronto, 1957), p. 48.

9. Martin, p. 99.

10. Beresford, p. 13.

11. C.S.P., 1870, V (12), William McDougall to Lieut.-Col. J. S. Dennis, July 10, 1869.

12. C.S.P., 1870, V (12), Dennis to McDougall, August 28, 1869.

13. Loc. cit.

14. Loc. cit.

15. Surveys Office, Department of Mines and Natural Resources, A. E. Webb, Diary of Survey.

16. C.S.P., XXV (13) Annual Report of the Department of the Interior, 1892.

17. See the comments by F. H. Peters on a paper by L. Z. Rousseau, "Surveys and Land-use Planning in the Province of Quebec", Proceedings of Thirty Fourth Annual Meeting of the Canadian Institute of Surveying, Ottawa, 1941: 31. Also see comments by A. O. Corman in a paper by H. E. Beresford, "Manitoba Surveys," Ibid: 58.

18. Beresford, p. 10.

19. Henry Tanner, Successful Emigration to Canada (Ottawa, 1883), p. 29.

20. W. H. Barneby, Life and Labour in the Far, Far West (London, 1884), p. 358.

21. C.S.P., XXXIV (10), p. 234, "Report of Professor Mavor," Annual Report, Dept. of Interior, 1900.

22. Thomas Adams, Rural Planning and Development (Ottawa, 1917), p. 53.

23. Thomas Adams, "Report on Town Planning, Housing and Public Health," Report of the Seventh Annual Meeting, Commission of Conservation, Canada (Ottawa, 1916), p. 121.

24. H. B. Johnson, "Rational and Ecological Aspects of the Quarter Section," Geographical Review, Vol. 47, No. 3, 1957, pp. 330-348.

25. Saskatchewan Royal Commission on Agriculture and Rural Life, Report No. 41, Rural Roads and Local Government (Regina, 1955), p. 59.

26. Tanner, p. 29.

27. Adams, Rural Planning and Development, plates facing pages 62 and 63.

28. Comments by F. H. Peters, p. 31.

29. Carcada, Journals of the House of Commons, 1883, Report of Select Standing Committee on Immigration and Colonization, Appendix 6, pp. 129-133.

30. Canada, Statutes, 39 Vict., Chap. 19.

31. V. J. Peters, All Things Common, The Hutterians of Manitoba, unpublished M.A. Dissertation, University of Manitoba, 1958.

32. Jim Wright, "Co-operative Farming in Saskatchewan," Canadian Geographical Journal, August, 1949: pp. 69-90.

33. J. H. Ellis, The Pasquia Land Settlement Project Interim Report No. 3, Reclamation of the Pasquia Area, Drainage and Roads, (Winnipeg, 1957), see snap in book jacket.

34. W. B. Baker, "Changing Community Patterns in Saskatchewan," Canadian Geographical Journal, February, 1958, pp. 44-56.

35. For more detailed discussions of this, see T. Lynn Smith, pp. 268-273 and Saskatchewan Royal Commission, pp. 56-84.

36. Census of Canada, 1956.

Page revised: 22 May 2010

Back to top of page


To report an error on the above page,
please contact the MHS Webmaster.

Home | Terms & Conditions | FAQ | Contact Us
Privacy Policy | Donations Policy
Website © 1998-2014 Manitoba Historical Society. All rights reserved.