Mapping Land Tenure Pluralism in the St. Lawrence River Valley

Julia Lewandoski

[This essay kicks off a Borealia series on Cartography and Empire-on the many ways maps were employed in the contested imperial spaces of early modern North America.] 

After the 1763 Peace of Paris, British officials embarked on an ambitious project to probe and depict the territories—many in reality still under indigenous sovereignty—that they now considered to be in their possession. Such cartographic projects, in which maps make bold and sometimes unsupportable claims to geographic mastery, were stock elements of eighteenth and nineteenth century imperial practices.[1] Yet other genres and scales of mapping also proliferated after sovereignty transitions. Cadastral mapping, the practice of determining the boundaries of privately-owned land, was a particularly necessary, and particularly contested, domain of activity.

Most inter-imperial treaties, including the 1763 Treaty of Paris, had standard clauses protecting the property of inhabitants who wished to remain in conquered territories.[2] Thus, the immediate task of many British surveyors after 1763 was not to lay out new British townships, but to locate and delineate the already existing landscape of settler property in the St. Lawrence River Valley, the heart of French settlement. But upholding property required much more than sending surveyors out to confirm lines. It required grappling with the entire constellation of social rights and legal processes embedded in a land tenure system.

In the St. Lawrence Valley, French feudal seigneurial practices, in which lords and tenants each possessed a complex array of rights and responsibilities towards not just land, but to each other, was not easily translated into British-style fee simple tenure, in which each tract of land was discretely and completely owned by an individual. This process of translation appeared so difficult that British officials elected to keep seigneurial tenure intact for nearly a century, and then spent another century achieving its abolition. Seigneurial tenure was officially ended in 1854, and the final French-style feudal rents were paid in 1970.[3]

As surveyors struggled to locate definitive seigneurial boundaries where they might begin laying out British-style townships, they also confronted land tenures beyond French and English forms. Indigenous territories, from hunting grounds delineated by families to easily identifiable agricultural and political centers along important rivers, were the core of the St. Lawrence River Valley’s land tenure pattern, over which French and then British property had been overlaid. By the late eighteenth century, the indigenous territories most legible to British surveyors were the former Jesuit and Sulpician mission villages of the Haudenosaunee, Wendat, Wabanaki, Algonquin, and Nipissing Sept Feux nations, most of whom held part or all of a seigneury by French grant.[4] Yet without a formal missionary presence in the British era, the indigenous proprietorship of these lands was increasingly challenged by British settler neighbors who argued that First Nations communities could not act as proprietors.

The attempts of British Crown surveyors to delineate these lands offer insights into the unique difficulties of cadastral mapping in the St. Lawrence Valley. Take, for example, the 1798 map made by British Crown surveyor Theodore De Pincier of Abenaki and Sokoki lands at Odanak, a long inhabited indigenous place and former Jesuit mission on the Saint-François River. De Pincier’s map was part of a Crown intervention into a dispute over both the boundaries and the legal nature of indigenous property between the Abenaki and Sokoki proprietors of Odanak and a neighbouring seigneur. Clearly intended to contribute definitive, Crown-directed clarity to the dispute, it did much to display the complexity of proprietorship at Odanak, but little to resolve it.

Théodore De Pincier, Plan Des Terres Des Sauvages Abénaquis et Sokokis Du Village St-François, Arpentées et Dessinées, Situées Dans Le Comté de Buckinghamshire, District Des Trois-Rivières Dans La Province Du Bas Canada, Effectué Par Ordre de Son Excellence Robert Prescott, December 25, 1798, Centre d’archives de Québec de BAnQ, Fonds Ministère des Terres et Forêts, Documents Cartographiques, Cote E21,S555,SS1,SSS17,P9.

 

The map’s title locates indigenous land at Odanak as an enclave within a larger British jurisdiction, “in the County of Buckinghamshire, District of Trois-Rivières, in the Province of Lower Canada.”[5] But little else suggests that it could be easily incorporated into a larger British cadastral landscape. Instead, the “lands of the Abenaki and Sokoki Indians” are anchored within a landscape of “explanations” and “remarks,” most of which refer to previous surveys. Rather than a definitive account of property at Odanak, De Pincier’s map is an archive of the many attempts to define it.[6]

Like annotations, boundary lines also proliferate. De Pincier located the line drawn by a surveyor hired in a recent boundary arbitration, but drew another to its right, which he labelled as “the true line of the Indians,” based on a survey done in 1713. He also raised questions about the boundaries of the Abenaki portion of another seigneury, even though its bounds were not currently under dispute. He labelled one line as the “true line of the Indians, following the opinion of witnesses,” and another, the “line by order of October 17, 1788.” On yet another border of the Abenaki possessions, he marked a “line of the undersigned” and an alternate “line of compromise.”[7]

At issue in the dispute with their neighbors was not just boundaries, but whether Abenakis and Sokokis, without a formal Jesuit presence, could act as collective proprietors in a British context that increasingly limited indigenous land ownership to occupancy rights.[8] No amount of line drawing could clarify this legal status, and De Pincier’s map simply labels portions of land “Abenaquis,” this lettering overlapping with the written labels of both seigneuries.

As De Pincier wrote in a letter to a military commander, he hoped that his map would “render stable and permanent the possessions of the Indians.”[9] Yet beyond the creation of this highly ambiguous document, De Pincier and his superior, Governor-in-Chief Sir Robert Prescott, did little else. Instead, Odanak’s indigenous residents undertook a series of quotidian legal practices, through which they established their rightful proprietorship and their boundaries. In 1800, Odanak’s chiefs appointed an attorney and began leasing portions of their land to community members and settler tenants. By the time the seigneurial system was abolished in 1854, they had granted hundreds of concessions. Seigneurial proprietorship not only provided a source of collective revenue, but was an on-going practice of territorial definition, in which surveyors, and then the tenants who occupied the tracts, maintained the boundaries and the proprietary authority of Abenaki and Sokoki seigneurs.

De Pincier’s plat of Odanak is an exceptionally complex map. Yet its ambiguity is in no way unique to cadastral maps of indigenous land. As my larger dissertation project explores, the persistent land tenure ambiguities generated by imperial sovereignty transitions are reflected in land surveying practices throughout North America, and particularly in depictions of indigenous property, where boundaries, ownership, and relationships to a larger land tenure system might be left unresolved for decades. Examining these maps can complicate how we understand property mapping’s relationship to territorial sovereignty, and to other cartographic genres and scales. Cadastral mapping, this and other examples suggest, was a far more flexible and varied activity than simply filling in territorial boundaries with a grid of property lines.

 

Julia Lewandoski is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of California, Berkeley, and a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Fellow. Her doctoral work brings together indigenous, legal, and cartographic histories to study land tenure regimes across contested indigenous territories in eighteenth and nineteenth century North America. Her dissertation compares the conditions of possibility created by imperial sovereignty transitions for indigenous proprietors in Quebec, Louisiana, and California. You can find her on Twitter @JuliaLewandoski.

 


[1] S. Max Edelson, The New Map of Empire: How Britain Imagined America before Independence (Cambridge ; London: Harvard University Press, 2017); Matthew H Edney, Mapping an Empire: The Geographical Construction of British India, 1765-1843 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997); D. Graham Burnett, Masters of All They Surveyed: Exploration, Geography, and a British El Dorado (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

[2] Avalon Project at Yale Law School, “Treaty of Paris 1763,” Lillian Goldman Law Library. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/paris763.asp. (accessed August 30, 2017); Arthur G. Sir Doughty and Adam Shortt, Documents Relating to the Constitutional History of Canada, 1759-1791, 6-7 Edward VII. Sessional Paper: No. 18, A. 1907 (Ottawa : S.E. Dawson, printer to the King, 1907., 1907).

[3] Benoit Grenier, “Les Persistances de La Propriété Seigneuriale Au Québec,” Histoire & Sociétés Rurales 40, no. 2 (2013): 61–96.

[4] Jean-Pierre Sawaya, La fédération des Sept Feux de la vallée du Saint-Laurent: XVIIe au XIXe siècle (Sillery, Québec: Septentrion, 1998).

[5] Théodore De Pincier, Plan Des Terres Des Sauvages Abénaquis et Sokokis Du Village St-François, Arpentées et Dessinées, Situées Dans Le Comté de Buckinghamshire, District Des Trois-Rivières Dans La Province Du Bas Canada, Effectué Par Ordre de Son Excellence Robert Prescott (Centre d’archives de Québec de BAnQ, décembre 1798), Fonds Ministère des Terres et Forêts, Cote E21,S555,SS1,SSS17,P9, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec.; [my translation]. http://numerique.banq.qc.ca/patrimoine/archives/52327/3139595

[6] The delineation of the Abenaki portions of the seigneuries of Saint-Francois and Pierreville reflect the French surveying convention of the rhumb de vent, introduced in Quebec in the 1630s, which measured seigneurial boundaries as lines extending perpendicular from the riverbank, and defined the tracts in the text of land grants by their river frontage first, and then their depth. Yet while seigneurial boundaries are parallel to one another, they extend diagonally, rather than perpendicular from the river, meaning that squaring the current boundaries with original grant directives seems unlikely. Cole Harris, The Seigneurial System in Early Canada; a Geographical Study (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966), 23, 38.

[7] Théodore De Pincier, Plan Des Terres Des Sauvages Abénaquis et Sokokis Du Village St-François, Arpentées et Dessinées, Situées Dans Le Comté de Buckinghamshire, District Des Trois-Rivières Dans La Province Du Bas Canada, Effectué Par Ordre de Son Excellence Robert Prescott (Centre d’archives de Québec de BAnQ, décembre 1798), Fonds Ministère des Terres et Forêts, Cote E21,S555,SS1,SSS17,P9, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec.; [my translation].

[8] Stuart Banner, How the Indians Lost Their Land: Law and Power on the Frontier (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005).

[9] “De Pincier to Major James Green,” 7 Mars 1802, Library and Archives of Canada, Correspondence of the Military Secretary of the Commander of the Forces Fonds, RG8M 80103/12, “Indians,” Volume 254, Reel C-2851, pp. 11-16.

 

Featured Image: Théodore De Pincier, Plan Des Terres Des Sauvages Abénaquis et Sokokis Du Village St-François, Arpentées et Dessinées, Situées Dans Le Comté de Buckinghamshire, District Des Trois-Rivières Dans La Province Du Bas Canada, Effectué Par Ordre de Son Excellence Robert Prescott, December 25, 1798 (detail), Centre d’archives de Québec de BAnQ, Fonds Ministère des Terres et Forêts, Documents Cartographiques, Cote E21,S555,SS1,SSS17,P9.

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