Published by EH.NET (April 2002)
John Clarke, Land, Power, and Economics on the Frontier of Upper Canada.
Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001. xxxvii + 747 pp.
$75 (cloth), ISBN: 0-7735-2062-7.
Reviewed for EH.NET by Douglas McCalla, Canada Research Chair in Rural History,
Department of History, University of Guelph.
Despite the central importance of land in a settlement society, land markets
are surprisingly little studied. Perhaps the property market is so everyday
that it is taken for granted, but more likely deterrents are the abundance and
character of the evidence and the conceptual challenges of working with it.
Thus there is much reason to welcome this book, the product of more than thirty
years work by John Clarke, professor of historical geography and environmental
studies at Carleton University in Ottawa. His authority is evident in an
immense bibliography that requires six pages just to list cartographic sources
and that includes at least thirty articles of which he is sole or joint author.
Intending it as an integration of his entire research career, he has produced a
monumental work. There are almost 500 pages of text; another 130 pages of
endnotes, many of which also contain text; a glossary; various appendices,
including biographical information on about 250 people; almost 100 figures;
more than 60 tables; and about 30 plates.
The “frontier” referred to by the title is Essex County. Located in the extreme
southwest, it was actually one of the earliest European settlements in what
became Upper Canada; by the 1750s, Detroit’s importance in the fur trade, war
and native diplomacy was prompting settlement also on the opposite (south) side
of the Detroit River. On the other hand, parts of the interior of the county,
where large-scale drainage works were needed to permit the exploitation of the
heavy soils, were among the last southern Ontario farmland to be brought into
full production. Ultimately the land would be divided into over 3000 lots, some
continuously in use since the French regime, others not even patented until the
twentieth century. Although the book’s focus is on the rural, it has a good
deal to say about aspects of the emergence of urban nodes. While important, the
latter were not that large by 1852, the effective end date for the book.
John Clarke comments that “the most complete records of [Upper Canadian]
society pertain not to the qualities of individuals but to land” (p. 46). He
has used all of the relevant sources to explore the land market here, from
initial French settlement and subsequent native surrenders of land, through
surveys, the setting aside of reserves for clergy, crown, and natives,
alienation of remaining land by the crown, and subsequent sales. A key source
is the abstract index to deeds, which permits tracking every transaction on a
property. Few students of Canadian history have had the determination and
patience to get into this type of record so systematically for so large a
territory and to wrestle with the complexities of extracting meaningful
information. He offers careful discussion of the relationship between formal
patenting of land and actual occupation and settlement; of the various
instruments by which transactions were effected and debts secured; and of the
relationships between policy and the actual processes of taking up the land.
Although his data are for Essex, he is consistently attentive to the wider
world, as, for example, in Chapter 5’s sophisticated comparative discussion of
Essex land prices from 1798 to 1851. At every point, the story is more complex
As the title indicates, a central theme is the relationship among land, power,
and wealth in the county, with particular attention to land speculation. Four
chapters and parts of the analysis elsewhere discuss “speculators,” defined as
people (and institutions such as the Canada Company) owning at least 400 acres
of land or three parcels of unknown acreage at one or other of two
cross-sections (1825 and 1852) or as having engaged in at least three
transactions beyond their immediate family. This definition catches a disparate
group of 144 people, including some prominent names from the county and from
elsewhere, such as the future prime minister, John A. Macdonald. In what is
often a highly technical discussion, revolving around appropriate statistical
measures, the actual business of turning position into land and land into
income and wealth is sometimes obscure, and the ultimate conclusions rather
general. One section ends, for example, with a speculator who “bought low and
sold high, the traditional route to profit” (p. 358). Clarke’s overall
conclusion is that “there were a variety of strategies commensurate with
personal circumstances and intention, financial capacity, assessment of
potential, sense of location, and knowledge of the capacity of the soil to
sustain agriculture” (p. 460).
The book’s organization is thematic rather than chronological, and in so long
and at times technical a book there are apparent inconsistencies or at least
places where it can be difficult to be sure one has caught the nuances of
arguments that, in effect, extend across several chapters. For example, chapter
6, “Buying on Credit,” concludes (pp. 291-92) that “land was plentiful and
prices were low. Potential settlers entering Essex had a lot of land available
to them for the price of the government ‘fee’.” Yet in the concluding chapter,
the argument runs along different lines (p. 457): “Given the withdrawal of such
a large proportion of land to the private and corporate sector . . . , the
amount locked up as clergy reserves, and the uneven endowment of the county,
the ‘would-be settler’ had little choice of land and could not avoid dealing
with the speculator.”
Another case is the rate of return to land speculation. Clarke writes (p. 357)
that “for speculators as a whole returns were considerable, averaging 28.4 per
cent per annum.” Then, two sentences later, he writes “For the group as a
whole, the average return for the speculators was 33.24 per cent per annum . .
.” Table 8.5, on the same page, presents average rates of return by acreage
categories, none however as high as those quoted. It requires careful reading
in the notes to discover that the rate of return calculations are each based on
different, small, and apparently unrepresentative subsets of all the land
transactions in the county. At even the lowest rate in Table 8.5, 11.12 per
cent per annum, land values would almost triple in a decade, a rate that does
not seem compatible with the land price series given in an earlier chapter
(Table 5.3and Figure 5.8).
In addition to such tensions in the analysis, there are also smaller slips of
various kinds, such as describing John Beverley Robinson, a key figure in Upper
Canadian history, as “American-born” (p. 39) and giving the wrong end date for
his tenure as chief justice (p. 508). The author acknowledges the “light but
precise” work of his copy editor (p. xxvi); that indeed seems now to be all
that many academic presses provide, but more would have served the author and
reader better. No doubt economy also explains why the maps are compressed onto
half-pages; to provide detail sometimes on a lot by lot basis with as many as
six gradations of data in so small a space is to render the information
illegible except perhaps with a powerful magnifying glass.
I intend it as a compliment to John Clarke to say that I hope his work on this
subject is not yet complete. A lean, tight, chronologically-organized version
that addresses the implications of his various findings in non-technical
language would be very welcome. Meanwhile, specialists will be grateful for
this book. If at times perplexing, it is nevertheless a rich, rewarding record
of one of the most intensive explorations of the Upper Canadian land market
that there is ever likely to be.
Douglas McCalla is the author of Planting the Province: The Economic
History of Upper Canada, 1784-1870 (University of Toronto Press, 1993).
Among his current research projects is a study of consumption in the Upper
Canadian countryside as seen through customer accounts at country stores.