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Early Surveys in Manitoba

by H. E. Beresford, M.B.E., M.L.S., D.L.S., M.E.I..C., P.Eng.
Director of Surveys, Comptroller of Town Planning

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 9, 1952-53 season

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Manitoba became a province of the Dominion of Canada in July, 1870, but any description of early surveys in what is now Manitoba, must necessarily go many years further back than that date.

The first white man to set foot on what is now Manitoba soil, was (Sir) Thomas Button who was sent out from England in 1612, to search for Henry Hudson. Button landed on the west coast of Hudson Bay but his search was unsuccessful and to this day the fate of Henry Hudson remains shrouded in mystery.

The first white man to set foot on the prairies of southern Manitoba was that great French explorer, La Verendrye in the year 1738.

Towards the close of the 18th century and at the beginning of the 19th century, a few employees of the Hudson's Bay Company and of its rival, the North West Company, were exploring and making reconnaissance surveys in this vast western land. Chief among these men may be mentioned Samuel Hearne, who discovered the Coppermine River and reached the Arctic Ocean in 1771, Alexander McKenzie who discovered the river bearing his name and finally reached the Pacific Ocean in 1793, Simon Fraser who discovered the Fraser River in British Columbia and David Thompson who made the greatest number of exploratory and geodetic surveys in this province in those early days. Historians have described Thompson as the greatest practical land geographer the world has ever known. From 1789 to 1812 he travelled thousands of miles in our north country, taking astronomical observations everywhere he went, surveying rivers, streams and lakes in his endeavours to map the country and to establish new trading posts, the latitude and longitude of which he ascertained with a large 10-inch sextant of Dolland's, reading to 15", which he once stated in a letter was his constant companion for twenty-eight years. The accuracy of his observations was astonishing and a comparison with our latest observations shows that his results were in many cases within two or three minutes. Thompson and his work have not received the recognition that was their due but his ability must have been recognized when he was appointed Astronomer for the British Government to run the boundary between the United States and British North America in 1816. He registered as a land surveyor at Terrebonne in Quebec, where he practised for a number of years, then moving to Ontario and later back to Longueuil, where he died in 1857.

The next stage of our early surveys was the commencement of legal surveys in the Province. Description of the early settlement surveys must necessarily be incomplete for lack of records. In 1822, Governor Macdonell destroyed some. In 1861, others perished in the burning house of the Archbishop of St. Boniface. In 1869, during the rebellion, Louis Riel added to the destruction. Finally, many were lost in a fire which destroyed the house of a son of George Taylor, one of the first surveyors in the Red River Colony.

In 1811, the Hudson's Bay Company ceded a large tract of land along the Red and Assiniboine Rivers to the Earl of Selkirk, who in this and in the succeeding four years brought from the highlands of Scotland and the north of Ireland settlers with their families numbering about three hundred souls. The territory ceded to Lord Selkirk was designated "Rupert's Land". It is but reasonable to assume that, on the arrival of these settlers, they were allotted parcels of land, so that some kind of survey was essential.

Authentic early records show that the first surveyor in the district was an Englishman, Peter Fidler (1769-1822) who was employed by the Governor of the District of Assiniboia (the name bestowed on the territory as a surveyor at a salary of £100 per annum. Previous to this appointment he had been engaged on exploratory surveys in the north country for the Hudson's Bay Company. A notebook of Fidler's (inscription on fly leaf, "Peter Fidler 11th Sept. 1794") in the Provincial Archives of Manitoba within the Provincial Library at Winnipeg has many pages devoted to Latitudes and Longitudes of places and distances between them, the results of observations taken by him. In 1814, he laid out lots along the Red River of which the then Lot No. 4 is now occupied by St. John's Cathedral. A total of thirty-six lots were laid out on this survey.

The next survey of which there is any mention was the subdivision into lots of Point Douglas, a point of land formed by a bend in the Red River about a mile north of its junction with the Assiniboine River. This survey was apparently made by Peter Fidler, in 1817, and was for the purpose of settling a hundred or more soldiers disbanded from their regiments on the conclusion of peace with the United States and who were brought by Lord Selkirk from Montreal and Kingston.

Fidler's successor as Surveyor to the Colony was a Scotsman, William Kempt, who was also appointed Sheriff. In 1822, he was instructed by the governor of the colony to re-survey the lots laid out by Fidler and then to lay out several lots on Image Plain some nine or ten miles north of Point Douglas on the bank of the Red River. This survey on Image Plain comprised eight lots of thirty two acres each. The early records would indicate that William Kempt in the succeeding years made some exploratory surveys, as the following plans signed by him are in possession of the Hudson's Bay Company at London: -

Plan of York Factory, 1822.

Sketch of Trout Fall, 1824.

Route from York Factory to Red River, 1824, and White Fall Portage, 1825.

He subsequently returned to Scotland, where he continued to practise his profession.

The next survey of which we have record was a survey of the Red River Settlement made by George Taylor in 1836, 1837 and 1838, and appears to have covered all previous surveys. This survey is generally called the "Old Settlement Belt Survey." Taylor was Surveyor for the Colony from 1836 to 1844, and while his name does not appear on the plan of the Settlement it is generally acknowledged to be his work. It would appear that he surveyed 1,542 lots along the Red and Assiniboine Rivers from Selkirk to St. Norbert on the former and as far west as St. Francois Xavier on the latter, corresponding to what are now the Parishes of St. Boniface, St. Vital, St. Norbert, St. John, Kildonan, St. Paul, St. Andrews, St. Clements, St. James, St. Charles, Headingly and St. Francois Xavier. I understand that this plan was the basis of all the Hudson's Bay Company land grants in the Red River Settlement, as we have no record of any further surveys of the river lots until after Confederation.

In the minutes of the meetings of the Council of Assiniboia it is recorded that in June, 1855, William Inkster was appointed Public Surveyor at a salary of £25 per annum with authority to charge up to 7s 6d per day for every day so employed. These minutes show that in the following year he was appointed Census Taker in the Parish of St. John and in 1868, he was appointed a member of the Council.

In May, 1856, the Council agreed that there should be two public surveyors and Roger Goulet, born at Red River in 1834, was appointed to that part of the settlement south of the Assiniboine River. He was also a member of the Council in 1866, and in 1869, was offered the position of Collector of Customs in Riel's Provisional Government formed during the rebellion. Being a half-breed his accession would have attracted all the better elements of the French half-breeds and a considerable number of the English also, but he refused to co-operate with Riel. He was arrested and thrown into gaol where he was left for several months with the hope that he might be won over, but he remained firm and refused to accept office under Riel. The late William Pearce, D.L.S., a well known surveyor in the west, who knew Goulet, spoke of him as an outstanding man in many respects and who, as a member of the Half Breed Script Commission in 1885, saved the country hundreds of thousands of dollars. He died in 1902.

In 1860, Herbert L. Sabine was engaged as a surveyor upon similar terms as Goulet, for the north side of the Assiniboine River.

One of the local laws enacted at a meeting of the Council in 1862, reads as follows - "Messrs. Roger Goulet and Herbert L. Sabine shall be surveyors for this Settlement without salary from the Public Funds but they shall be entitled to be paid Ten shillings per diem each by any person who calls for their services." It would appear that Goulet and Sabine were instructed to survey narrow lots fronting on rivers in the Parishes and Settlements outside the limits of territory covered by the Taylor survey referred to above.

This sketchy outline gives briefly what surveys had been made and by whom in Manitoba prior to the surrender of Rupert's Land by the Hudson's Bay Company to the Government of Canada. It is at this period that we come to the inception of the Dominion Lands System of Survey, a system that has rightly been described as the finest and most comprehensive of any yet devised. As Manitoba was its birthplace, figuratively speaking, I would like to give a brief history of its inception and of the part it has played in the opening up and development of western Canada.

Provision was made in the British North America Act of 1867, for the later admission of Rupert's Land and the North Western territory into the Union. In 1868, an Act entitled "Rupert's Land Act", Chap. 105, 31-32 Victoria, was passed to enable the surrender of the lands, privileges and rights of the Hudson's Bay Company and for admitting the territory into the Dominion of Canada.

A surrender was accepted by the Crown under date June 22, 1870, by which Canada was to pay the Company £300,000 sterling, and permit it to retain the land around its trading posts and one-twentieth of all the land in any township or district in the Fertile Belt, south of the North Saskatchewan River. In this same year the Manitoba Act, Chapter 3, 33 Victoria, was passed and provided for the formation of the Province of Manitoba.

As will be seen by the foregoing, not an acre of land outside the few settlements along the two rivers had been surveyed in this vast territory of hundreds of thousands of square miles.

Surveys then were the first requisite to any scheme of settlement or development of this newly acquired territory. In August, 1869, preceding the transfer, Lieut-Col. J. S. Dennis, P.L.S., accompanied by a few surveyors, was sent by the Dominion Government to Fort Garry (Winnipeg) for the purpose of inaugurating the survey of the Red River Valley and to suggest a scheme or system upon which to base the surveys to be undertaken by the Government. On his way to Fort Garry via the United States, he made a study of the United States System of survey and after examining a portion of the country, adjacent to Fort Garry, he drew up a system which provided, among other things, for the subdivision of the country into townships consisting of sixty-four squares of eight hundred acres each and in addition each square to contain forty acres or 5 per cent for road purposes.

This system was approved by the authorities at Ottawa but before Col. Dennis received word that it had been approved work on the Principal Meridian was commenced, as it was anticipated that whatever system was adopted, a line from which the surveys could be based had to be run.

Many people are conversant with events that followed; how Major A. C. Webb, P.L.S., while surveying the base line between Townships 6 and 7 (near St. Agathe) easterly from the Principal Meridian in October 1869, was stopped by one, Louis Riel and a party of half-breeds and how the first Riel rebellion occurred, putting an end to all further surveys for the balance of the year 1869 and all of 1870. In January 1871, Col. Dennis recommended that the system of survey be altered to provide for townships six miles square, containing thirty-six sections of six hundred and forty acres each with a road allowance of one and one half chains around each section. Col. Dennis was appointed Surveyor General in March, 1871, and in the same month the Dominion Lands Branch was created. The following month, the Dominion Lands System of Survey was approved and in April, 1872, the Dominion Lands Act was passed. In this Act the system of survey was described. Briefly stated, "The Dominion lands were to be laid off in quadrilateral townships, each containing thirty-six sections of as nearly one mile square as the convergence of meridians would permit, with such road allowances, and of such width as the Governor in Council prescribed. The lines bounding townships on the east and west sides were meridians and those on the north and south sides were chords to parallels of latitude. The townships are numbered in regular order northerly from the international boundary or forty-ninth parallel of latitude and lie in ranges numbered, in the Province of Manitoba, east and west from the Principal Meridian-Each section is divided into quarter sections of one hundred and sixty acres more or less." For over eighty years, Crown Lands in the western provinces have, with minor changes, been surveyed under that 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. Thus we see that just over eighty years ago the survey of Manitoba for settlement purposes really commenced.

In June 1871, Col. Dennis instructed Milner Hart, P.L.S., to re-survey the Principal Meridian (surveyed in 1869) and to change the monuments to conform to the six-mile township system. The first permanently established section line in the Dominion Lands System was the East Boundary of Section 36, Township 10 on the Principal Meridian. At a suitable location on the Meridian near the first post planted, there was erected by the Historic Sites and Monument Board of Canada, a monument to commemorate the planting of this first permanent survey post. The monument was unveiled in July 1930, when the Natural Resources were transferred to the Province. It stands at the side of the Trans Canada Highway near Headingley, a lasting monument and a tribute to the pioneer surveyors of the west. The inscription on the monument reads as follows:

"The first Monument on the Dominion Land Survey was placed July 10th, 1871, on the Principal Meridian, about half a mile South of this site.

The system, then inaugurated by Lieutenant-Colonel J. S. Dennis, Surveyor General, extends across the Prairies and to the Pacific Coast. It now embraces more than two hundred million acres of surveyed lands in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and parts of British Columbia.

This site donated by the Honorable Aime' Benard and John T. Haig, K.C."

It may be noted that it was due to this method of surveying having been so successfully employed in laying out the Public Lands of the United States that the Dominion Lands Surveys System was inaugurated in its present form in Manitoba in 1871. The origin of the system dates from the year 1784, when Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and afterwards third president of the United States, was a member of a Committee which presented an ordinance for ascertaining the mode of locating and disposing of lands in the Western Territory of the United States. Jefferson's first recommendation was for the subdivisions of land into townships 10 miles square and these again into lots one mile square. Later proposals from the Committee reduced the size of the township from 10 to 7 miles square and still later to a 6 mile square township which finally became law in 1785.

The six mile square township was successfully applied in the development and settlement of no less than twenty-nine States of the Union where the surveyor as in Western Canada, blazed the way for the homesteader, rancher and prospector.

Thomas Hutchins, appointed Chief Geographer under the ordinance of 1785, surveyed the first 42 miles of the new system in the United States, which he ran westerly into Ohio from the already established boundary between Ohio and Pennsylvania. He ran this line in September and October, 1785, but was stopped by Indians who drove the party back to Pittsburgh. It is thus a strange coincidence that, in both countries, the natives forcibly halted the inauguration of the system of survey.

I would, at this juncture, like to pay tribute to the men who evolved and carried out those early surveys in Manitoba. They were men of vision who builded better than they knew, as men of vision always do. With native ponies or oxen and Red River carts for transportation, with 'ze pork and ze bean ze fine food for ze surveyor', with the old link chains, going out into the unknown and unexplored country to carry the lines of the system farther on and opening up this vast territory for the incoming settlers was a task, the magnitude and difficulty of which is hard to visualize. Genuine pioneers seldom receive the thanks and honours they are entitled to and especially is this the case with regard to those pioneer surveyors who laid the foundation for the opening up and development of western Canada.

The first Manual of Instructions for the Survey of Dominion Lands was issued in 1871, and the present one is the Tenth edition. In none of these is there a description of how the Parish surveys along the Red and Assiniboine Rivers were made. When it is realized that almost one half the population of Manitoba resides on land that is or was originally surveyed into parish lots, a description of these surveys would appear desirable at this time. I have already mentioned Taylor's survey of the Settlement in 1836, 1837 and 1838. In connection with this survey only the base lines near the river were established and on which the widths of the various holdings or lots were fixed. No rear line was established, alignments towards the rear being given by the surveyor to settlers when required. In 1871 and 1872, preliminary surveys covering this previous survey were made by Deputy Surveyors sent from Ottawa, all holdings and buildings being located and a proper survey of the rivers made. Plans of these preliminary surveys were prepared on a scale of ten chains to one inch and on them the depths of the lots taken from the Hudson's Bay Company Land Register were laid down and a rear line adjusted. This rear line was approximately two miles back from the river. It was originally fixed in the Treaty between Lord Selkirk and the Indians in 1817, when it was defined as "the distance of two English Statute miles back from the banks of the two rivers". It is alleged that the meaning of this was conveyed to the Indians by stating that they granted to the "Silver Chief" - Lord Selkirk - "so much land back from the river as there would be at the farthest distance therefrom at which you could distinctly see a horse on level prairie or by setting a stake on the prairie as far as a man could see 'under the belly of a horse' ". A witty Surveyor (born in England) remarked to me that no doubt the canny Scots kept a tall gaunt horse for the purpose.

On account of the sinuosities of the rivers, both the base and rear lines were made to conform, the former by jogs on the lot lines and the latter by bends in the line, paralleling the river as nearly as possible.

Originally, the majority of the lots were twelve chains in width making a holding of approximately two hundred acres, but in the final parish lot surveys they varied in width from a chain or two up to half a mile. William Pearce, one of the surveyors mentioned earlier in this paper, in writing of his surveys in the parishes, states - "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 banks 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. However, the writer understands that where farming is now carried on to any extent many of these narrow lots have been consolidated and converted into holdings in which the width is much larger in comparison to the length than it was during the years when he was familiar with the conditions."

In most parishes, each lot was posted on the base and rear lines, the bends on the rear line sometimes being marked by a post in an earth mound.

This class of settlement corresponds with the old French Settlements of eastern Canada and so far as the French half-breed parishes were concerned the settlers no doubt followed the practices of their ancestors.

From 1874 to 1878, the final parish surveys were made and embraced some eighteen parishes along the Red and Assiniboine Rivers with six or seven settlements on smaller rivers in the southern portion of the province.

Heretofore reference has only been made to River Lots owned or occupied by settlers in these parishes. There was, however, a valuable right recognized by the Hudson's Bay Company when the territory was administered by it, which had always been exercised by the owners of the river lots. This was the exclusive right to cut hay on the outer two miles immediately in the rear of the river lots, which outer portion came to be known as the "hay privilege." [1] This right of hay cutting was limited to certain seasons between August 1st and 15th; in other cases the right was shared by many occupiers in common. Disputes in this connection apparently arose and after the Transfer to Canada, the government appointed a special commission to inquire into the hay question. This body, known as the "Hay and Common Commissioners" submitted its report on February 23rd, 1874, which was duly approved by Order-in-Council on April 17th, the same year. This provided that, where possible, the owner of the river lot should receive a grant of land in the `outer two miles' immediately in the rear of his lot, "such grant to be in full commutation of all rights of common and of cutting hay, claimed in respect of the front lot".

In 1874, the preliminary surveys for the "Outer Two Miles" or "Hay Privilege" were commenced. The surveyors were instructed to produce the boundaries of each parish out to the exterior of the two mile belt, the rear line of the outer two miles to be a boundary of legal subdivisions of sections or aliquot parts thereof.

In 1876, the final surveys of the Outer Two Miles were made as the width of the road allowances between the Inner and Outer Two Miles and between the Outer Two Miles and the section or legal subdivisions had been changed from 1 chain to 1½ chains - also provision had been made for roads 1 chain wide at convenient distances, about every two miles between lots in the Outer Two Miles and running from the front to the rear. The Park Lots were also recognized and were surveyed.

Principally in the Parishes of St. Andrews and St. Clements on the west side of the Red River do we find those "Park Lots" or `Park Claims' as they were called.

Excellent pasturage and absence of bush in the Outer Two Miles of these parishes induced the settlers in the River Lots to take their cattle out there for the summer to milk and make butter. This led to cultivation of certain plots varying in extent from an acre or two up to eighty acres, the majority, however, being small-usually from two to eight acres. As far as I can ascertain, these Park Lots were granted to those persons who could establish residence and ownership of buildings and improvements. To give some idea how much the Outer Two Miles of the Parish of St. Andrews was cut up by these Park Lots, a reference to the plan of that Parish shows these lots designated by letters of the alphabet and we find that the alphabet was gone through almost three times by designating the lots as A, Aa, Aaa; B, Bbb, etc.

The surveyors whose names appear in connection with the completed parish river lot surveys are: F. A. Martin, Moses McFadden, George McPhillips, Duncan Sinclair, A. H. Vaughan and William Wagner. Those engaged on the survey of the Outer Two Miles were F. A. Martin, A. H. Vaughan, J. W. Harris and William Pearce.

The work performed by these men was tedious and difficult. Original posts planted by the Hudson Bay Company surveyor in 1836, 1837 and 1838 were few and far between; it was impossible to give to each settler his claim with his improvements in regular form and those who were dissatisfied had to be placated, a difficult task in many cases.

F. A. Martin in the diary of his survey of the Outer Two Miles of the Parish of St. Norbert in 1874, writes day after day - "Left a man at camp to carry water from the Red River - a distance of three miles."

William Pearce in his survey of the Parishes of Headingley and St. Francois Xavier, mentions the hay swamps being full to the brim and wading for days from the knees to the waist and sometimes to greater depth. He states that in 1874, numerous electrical storms of a really terrifying nature occurred which caused considerable loss of life and stock.

George McPhillips, in 1875, on his survey of the Parish of Portage la Prairie, mentions the grasshopper visitation in the years 1872-75 and states - "The ravages of that migratory locust would make a wilderness of a paradise".

The River Lots in many of the Parishes in and adjacent to Winnipeg have practically all been subdivided into town lots, but the descriptions in titles to the most of these lots still recite - "According to the Dominion Government Survey of the Parish of ".

In 1871, there were 21 surveyors employed in Manitoba, the majority being engaged on the surveys of base lines and meridians, covering roughly the territory from the international boundary to south of Lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba and from about a line through Beausejour on the east to a line through Gladstone on the west. (Almost the west boundary of the then "postage stamp province")

The following year, 1873, forty-six surveyors and three inspectors were employed and 178 townships (over 4,000,000 acres) were subdivided into sections. In that year, 11,553 miles of line were surveyed, the Red River was traversed and exploration surveys were made along the east and west shores of Lake Winnipeg including rivers as far north as Berens River on the east side and the Narrows on the west side, Duck Mountain, Dauphin Lake and the west shore of Lake Manitoba, south of Manitoba House.

In 1874, the system of survey was extended westward into the Territories and each succeeding year Dominion Land Surveyors pioneered in opening up the West. The year 1883 may be mentioned as the banner year in Dominion land surveys. In that year 1,221 townships (over 28 million acres) were subdivided, 1,380 outlined and a total mileage of lines surveyed of 81,300, sufficient to encircle our globe more than three times.

During this year there were 119 survey parties in the field, making a small army of 1200 men and nearly as many horses. Each succeeding year saw Dominion Land Surveyors in the field and eventually over two hundred million acres of land in Western Canada were surveyed, thus paving the way for settlement and the development of the natural resources in the West.

In 1930, the passing of the Natural Resources to the Western Provinces was an epochal event to the Dominion Land Surveyor. His work in the Provinces ceased except in Indian Reserves or National Parks. The Northwest Territories and the Yukon, however, leaves considerable scope for his skill and pioneering abilities. His work in the provinces was taken over by the provincial land surveyor, but the system of survey still remains the same.

In Manitoba only about one fifth of the province has been surveyed. Each year the Surveys Branch of the Department of Mines and Natural Resources is adding to the network of surveys and pushing the frontier farther north.


Official Instructions issued to Milner Hart, P.L.S., June, 1871.
Department of State for Canada, Dominion Lands Branch, Ottawa,

June 2nd, 1871.


I have the honor by direction of the Honorable the Secretary of State for Canada to convey to you the following instructions in relation to the carrying out of the survey of certain principal lines in Manitoba described in your contract bearing even date herewith.

It is most desirable in order to enable the gentlemen having the several lines under contract to commence work with the least possible delay, that the boundary corners on the principal meridian marking the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Bases should be defined as soon as possible. I have to request that you will commence your resurvey by taking up the Meridian as run in 1869, where the same crosses the Assineboine River and projecting it anew to the north, establish the corner between townships 12 and 13, i.e., the intersection of the 3rd Base.

To facilitate your doing so in addition to the tracing on linen showing generally the work included in your contract, I forward herewith a plan of the meridian as located in 1869, upon which is also plotted, in red, the projection of the present system.

You will perceive that the corner between sections 24, 25, 19, 30 (as per margin) will be found by laying off 7c 64'ks. south of center of Cart Road along on edge of right Bank on south side of the River Assineboine; and again you may obtain the corner 25, 36, 30, 31 (see margin) by measuring 13 351ks. north from the stump of the oak tree formerly cut in running the line and which stands ten Rods N.E. of the farm house of Thos. Thurston on the north side of the said River. Having as aforesaid established the intersection of the 3rd Base with the Meridian you will return and resurvey the latter southerly to the South boundary of Township No. 1 presumed to be on or about the line of International boundary.

You will then be at liberty to proceed with the completion northerly of the Meridian and of the remaining portion of your contract.

In your re-survey of the Meridian be careful to obliterate all mounds and corners placed formerly upon the line excepting such of the former as may happen to agree with points in the present system.

In your report mention the condition (whether covered with grass or otherwise) in which you found these mounds. I have the honor to be, Sir,

Your obedient servant, (Sgd.) J. S. Dennis, Surv. Genl.


1. A full account of the "hay privilege" is given on pp. 44-52.

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