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

than simple.

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.