I have an idea for an exhibit at the Galt but at least I wouldn’t have to worry about this one for a few years. In 2022 I think the Galt should (perhaps in partnership with other museums and organizatiosn from across the Prairie provinces) create an exhibit on the 150th anniversary of the Dominion Land Act (1872). When I mentioned the idea in passing to some people in the City of Lethbridge planning department they already had some ideas for the exhibit and names of groups we should contact.
It may seem a bit strange to celebrate the passing of an act but this one had a profound impact on the prairie provinces, impacts that can still be seen and felt in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Based on the United States Homestead Act, the Dominion Land Act had as one of its main purposes to encourage the settlement of the Canadian prairies. One of the first things that had to be done was a correct surveying of the land. Dominion Land Surveyors were sent out and the Dominion Land Survey would eventually cover about 800,000 square kilometers (309,000 sq miles) of Canada. The pattern was set out so that the land was divided into square townships. Each township was sub-divided into 36 section. And each section then further sub-divided into 4 quarter-sections of 160 acres each. Every piece of land could be accurately identified.
Between certain sections of the township was built in road allowances (though not all road allowances actually have roads on them). Those who have driven much of the prairie are familiar with the grid pattern set out by the surveyors under this system – the familiar 2 mile roads running north and south and 1 mile between roads running east and west.
The important north-south lines are the meridians. East-west the most important lines are the base-lines.
Through this process the land was surveyed. Some land was set aside for the Hudson’s Bay Company (they retained ownership of 1/20th of all the land); some was set aside for support of schools. Land was also set aside for schools/educational purposes and for railroad construction/CPR land.
Once surveyed the land could then be opened up for homesteads. Settlers who met the requirements would receive 160 acres for a small fee of $10. In order to “prove” the homestead (gain ownership), they had to meet some specific duties such as cultivating a certain amount of land, building a permanent residence, etc. Once proved up the farmer would receive a patent and ownership of the land. From the government’s perspective the work done had brought greater value to the land. If the requirements were not met the land was forfeited. Some of the requirements to apply for a homestead was that the person had to be “head of the family” and 21 years of age (was later reduced to 18).
Homesteaders could also apply for right to an adjoining ¼ section in addition to his homestead. This was a difference between the Canadian and American acts and was particularly useful in providing large enough farms for farms to survive in the arid parts of the prairies.
Settlement on the prairies moved slowly in the first 3 decades following the passage of the act. But around 1900 it sped up and thousands moved to the prairies from eastern Canada and from around the world.
The exhibit would explain the land and the dominion land survey – how the surveyors worked and how the process was done. Some of the names of the surveyors are well known. Charles Magrath, 1st mayor of Lethbridge, came west at the age of 18 as a member of a Dominion Land Survey party. The exhibit would certainly tell of these surveyors, the equipment they used and the challenges they faced.
But how did it all work out? A large part of the exhibit would need to focus on the homesteaders themselves. How did they choose the land? What made them decide to get a homestead? Did they make it? We would need stories of people who survived the homestead years. Perhaps some stories of century farms – farms that have been in a single family for the past 100 years or more. We would also have to have stories of people who didn’t make it. Or, as one of my friends wrote me in connection with another project I’m working on, stories of “women who went made on the homesteads” isolated and lonely miles from family and friends.
Sitting here typing this on the 140th anniversary of this act I really hope this is an exhibit that the Galt will do. And I, personally, can’t wait to see how it all comes together.