An Introduction to Land Petitions

As the name denotes, land petitions are those documents which are submitted by a person or group of persons seeking to acquire ownership of Crown Land which is being set aside by the government for private use. Being able to settle on land, the ownership of which would someday be legally granted to them, was very attractive to those of small means but who could endure the hardships of clearing, farming, and improving the land. On the government's part, making land available through the petition-and-grant system was (and still is) a means whereby new settlers could be attracted, new settlements could be established, and new regions opened. This method of land distribution appeared to be egalitarian but as we shall see the system could be manipulated.

Stylistically, a land petition as a document followed an established format: first, the authorities were addressed politely and the petitioner (also called a memorialist) identified himself (sometimes, herself) by name. Then the petitioner described his personal situation and gave reasons why he should receive a land grant. Finally, he provided the acreage and location of the land for which he was petitioning.

In describing himself and his situation, the petitioner often spoke of his loyalty to the Crown or service to the government; the country and place of birth was often included; whether he was married; whether he had children to support; where he had served if he had been a soldier; what trade he had learned; and any other information which would indicate his suitability as a potential settler and citizen. In describing the land for which he was petitioning, he would often include information such as that it was 'land set aside for Danish immigrants', or 'land within the township of Hillsborough', or 'land formerly applied for by ... who has since left for Boston', or that the 'land was bounded on the north by the land occupied by ...'. Finally, if he could write, the petitioner signed and dated the document, or otherwise made 'his mark' in place of a signature. If not prepared by the applicant, petitions were often written for them by clergy, by merchants, notaries public, justices of the peace, or lawyers. Often the petition would be submitted by more than one person: father and sons, brothers, a group of disbanded soldiers, a group of immigrants from the same country or region, or a religious group who planned to settle an area and form a community.

Taken together, these are some of the factors which make the land petitions for the Province of New Brunswick an extremely rich source of information on its early settlers and inhabitants. The petitions are of special significance for those seeking to document settlement patterns, historic demography, and population distribution -- not forgetting their continuing value for genealogical research which has always been one of the prime uses of the petitions.

The petitions at the Provincial Archives date between 1784 and 1987 and are categorized in two record series: RS108 being the older series and RS272 being the current series. The extant petitions occupy 98 linear meters of shelving and the indexes total 115,000 names. The petitions contained on this website are a subset of the petitions in RS108 and as such are of special significance and highly valuable. The petitions here document some of the settlement on or near lands which were or had been set aside for the use of New Brunswick's Aboriginal peoples. These petitions were either written by or for Aboriginals, by people wanting land reserved for Aboriginals, those who had legally or illegally settled on Aboriginal land or on land which had been reserved for Aboriginals but which was subsequently designated for non-Aboriginal settlement.

These petitions provide insight into the land issues which formed (and still form) a focal point for the clash of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultures. Of course, the petitions do not tell the whole story but they are reflective of historical drama and change. So too, the larger body of petitions are reflective of many important currents in New Brunswick history, especially the waves of immigration by the Loyalists, later by the emigrants from the British Isles, and then those from continental Europe. The petitions also track the movement of peoples as settlement crept systematically up and along, and then away from, rivers and streams.

Later settlement followed the railways and the new trunk highways, and the petitions reveal the patterns. But they also provide a glimpse of the manner and method by which those in power, an Anglo-Saxon elite, used land and the distribution of land to further the interests of some and limit the interests of others. The petitions document all this and more, but they also urge us to ask questions such as 'Which lands were or were not allocated to private use, and why?', and 'Why were certain petitions granted and others not?' and 'Why were some groups allocated prime land while others received land of lesser quality?'.

Although each petition survives as a unique document of intrinsic value, the petitions are only part of a larger body of records used to control the description, distribution, and registration of Crown Land. With some degree of over-simplification, the process might be described in this manner: after the government decided that the ownership of certain blocks of land in the Province would be granted to private citizens, the Surveyor General would be directed to survey the land. It was often divided into 100-acre, 200-acre, and sometimes 500-acre blocks. Deputy surveyors would then head into the bush to survey and lay out the coordinates (more or less), place markers (sometimes), and prepare survey plans (see Provincial Archives series RS687) which were sent to the Surveyor General's Office. Sometimes it would be advertised publically that the land would be granted. Petitioners would submit land petitions (see series RS108 and RS272) which would be approved or rejected by the Council’s Committee on Land (see series RS568) until about 1830 and afterward by the Surveyor General's Office (see series RS637). Those evaluating the petitions were, until the twentieth century, always closely associated with the governing and power elites of the Province. If the petition was approved, a location ticket was drawn up and given to the petitioner as authorization to occupy the land provisionally. Usually, the petitioner had to settle on and improve a specified acreage of the land before receiving a land grant (see series RS686) which gave him legal and full ownership. If he did not, or vacated the land, it could be petitioned for and possibly granted to, another person. If he did not make the improvements, the land could be escheated by the government and the petitioner considered a squatter subject to trespass law. But once the petitioner received a land grant, the land was considered private property and any subsequent transfer of the land would be recorded in the county registry office (see series RS84 to RS98).

The earliest land petitions were housed in the offices of the Surveyor General and later moved to the Crown Lands Department, probably in the Departmental Building beside the Legislature in Fredericton. At some point in the early twentieth century the pre-1830 petitions were tipped into volumes by county. Sometime in the 1940s, the petitions and other Crown Lands records were moved to a building on York Street. In the 1960s, the Department of Natural Resources and its records were moved to the Centennial Building. At this point, the petitions were microfilmed but the quality was very uneven. After the opening of the Provincial Archives in 1968, the petitions and other ancient land records were transferred to the Archives' vault in several accruals.

In the 1980s, the Archives decided to arrange the petitions in chronological order, to prepare a new and comprehensive index which would include the name of every person who had any interest in acquiring any piece of land, and to re-microfilm the documents to modern archival standards. These decisions were spurred on by the usage-demands produced by the post-Roots wave of genealogical research along with the new interdisciplinary interests in historical demography and settlement patterns among academics. Concurrently, a secondary index was created to indicate the name of every person who had any interest in acquiring lands designated for aboriginal use. The decision to prepare this secondary index was a result of the on-going demand of lawyers, academics, First Nations' researchers, and others trying to locate 'everything' in the Archives on Native Land. These decisions by the Archives ensured that the original (fragile and valuable) petitions were not subject to damage or pilfering, that the widest possible audience could use the petitions on microfilm via the interlibrary loan system, that all the petitions were arranged and indexed, and that all researchers would have equal access to documents which are far-reaching not only in their historical value but also in their legal value. This demand and these requirements have not abated since the 1980s, and it is gratifying to the Archives to know that this subset of petitions is now being made available worldwide with the hope that such availability will foster even more use, study, and analyses of this documentary heritage.

Dale Cogswell
Archivist, Provincial Archives of New Brunswick