UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Landsettlement policy on the mainland of British Columbia, 1858-1874 Mikkelsen, Phyllis


Like most young colonies, British Columbia in 1858 was economically undeveloped. Nevertheless, the colony possessed a valuable natural resource in its public lands which might be sold to raise additional revenue, or given to immigrants in place of financial aid. Unfortunately, geography limited the immediate value of the Grown Lands and made settlement extraordinarily difficult. While attempting to define a successful land-settlement policy for British Columbia, the government could not ignore the instructions from Great Britain that the colony was to become self-supporting as soon as possible. Sales of land were therefore expected to be an important source of revenue. Unfortunately, the unstable mining population cared little for farming. The indifference of the miners and the inability of the government to confine the mining population within the limits of surveyed land brought about a gradual reduction in the price of land. Although it was originally intended that the Wakefield system should be applied to British Columbia, the proximity of the United States made the adoption of the pre-emption system inevitable. While intended as a temporary measure the pre-emption system was adopted in 1860 and remained on the statute books throughout the colonial period. The question of free grants of land was widely discussed in British Columbia during the colonial period after the passage of the Homestead Act of 1862 in the United States. However, the lack of surveyed land resulting from the financial and geographical problems of the colony made its adoption impossible. The pre-emption system was therefore the main feature of the colony’s land-settlement policy from 1858 until Confederation. New Westminster was the only district on the mainland in which country land was sold at auction. In that district, by 1868, of the 83,440 acres of surveyed land offered for sale, 27,797 acres had been bought. Of this amount not more than 250 acres had been brought under cultivation. By 1868 a total of 1696 pre-emption claims had been recorded of which 6000 acres had been brought under cultivation. Throughout the colonial period agriculture remained secondary to mining and it is probable that the discoveries of gold had much more influence upon farming than the actual land-settlement policy of the government. The best justification for the pre-emption system is the fact that it allowed settlers in the vicinity of the mines and beyond the limits of surveyed land to produce for the local market. Although the absence of a free-grant system was blamed by some for the slow growth of settlement, they failed to discern that settlers who pre-empted in many parts of the colony enjoyed the benefits of a free grant. For, since the government was financially unable to survey their land, no payment was required. Yet to make agriculture a parmanent and substantial industry, some confidence in the prosperity of the colony, such as that promised by Confederation with its guarantee of railway connections, was needed to support the pre-emption system. Farmers in the upper country were the chief support of the colony in the depression of 1867. On the other hand the lower Fraser Valley was still dependent upon imported food; for in that district uncertainty as to the future of the colony had hindered the investment of capital which was needed to clear and drain the land, In addition to a pre-emption claim the settler in British Columbia, after 1865, was entitled to a pastoral lease. Although no uniform policy was adopted in granting these leases, the average lease ran for a period of five years at the rate of 4¢ an acre. The fine quality of the bunch grass in the interior of the colony coupled with the government regulations concerning its use resulted in a decrease in the list of imported meat. That the colony had to import meat at all can be blamed not upon the system of pastoral leases adopted by the Government but rather upon the ever-present difficulties of transportation. It was impossible to drive cattle down the Cariboo Road to the lower mainland markets because of the dangerous route and scarcity of food. During the colonial period the revenue gained from the sale of surveyed land and town lots was insignificant compared with that received from custom duties and road tolls. In the year 1870, it contributed only a little more than one-fortieth of the total revenue of the colony. After 1871 Confederation and the promise of a railway diverted the colonial government's point of view from the land policy of the United States to that of the Canadian Government. In 1873 British Columbia adopted the rectangular system of surveying as used by the Dominion Government in Manitoba. In the following year it adopted a system of free grants similar to that contained in the Dominion Lands Act of 1872. Although nothing could have been more liberal- than the free-grant system provided for by the Land Act of 1874, its influence upon the settlement of the province in the period under consideration was negligible. In other words the charge often made during the colonial period that the absence of a free grant system hindered the settlement of the colony was erroneous. The rapid settlement of the province in those early years was beyond the unaided power of any land-settlement policy. The transcontinental railway was badly needed to overcome the isolation of the Pacific province.

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