Presentation September 2011
Preserving and Promoting local history for the former Rideau Township
Log Fence

For land without a navigable river, the township design called for plopping the town centre in the middle of the rectangle. As was common practice in Upper Canada at that time, 1/7th  of the lots would be held as crown land, to fund the townships and another 1/7th would be held as clergy reserve for the Anglican Church, the only church authorized in Upper Canada to perform official marriages.  

Shanahan's research suggests that the Land Board charged with establishing the plans for Oxford and Marlborough townships was somehow comprised of the very men applying for those grants.

This Land Board issued new surveying instructions and changes to the standard grid pattern. Customization most likely intended to maximize the lay of the land and the goals of these men with influence. After all, if it was to be theirs, why not lay it out as they wished?

 Land awards could make one's fortune. But they were not a sure thing. To retain title, owners (or actual settlers) had to ensure 10 acres of land was cleared and a habitable dwelling built on each allotment within 3 years. Those unable to fulfill those conditions would lose the land (along with their efforts to date) to another settler or new buyer.

Shanahan identified some 18 men as being the main movers and shakers in birthing Oxford Township. Although they did not retain the degree of ownership first hoped for, they remained influential and had an impact on the establishment and development of the area.

Shanahan's talk was specifically focused on how just two townships were located and developed. After he spoke, I asked for some broader context.

“The system that they were using, that didn't last long.” Shanahan said. “By 1796 the government realized that this was really being abused, and they put a stop to it.”

Shanahan says the settlement of Oxford and Marlborough is part of a broad pattern, that most definitely influenced Canada's development.

“The fact is that these people had already received very large chunks of land - in a number of different townships. And that gave them a very strong political base. Which they continued to operate from, for generations.”

Shanahan said these sorts of entanglements exemplify what historians call the family compact. “This is the origin of the elite aristocratic, you know, ruling group of Upper Canada, up until the 1840's. It gave them a base. Land was the real base for every kind of wealth and influence.”  

    The Oxford grid as surveyed

This picture shows the Oxford grid as finally implemented  

From the heroic endeavours of early surveyors - to back room wheeling and dealing - we thank Dr. Shanahan for revealing remnants of hardship, power and social evolution in the quiet country roads we still drive today.

September's speaker was historian Dr. David Shanahan, a resident of Oxford Mills and the current president of the North Grenville Historical Society. Shanahan became curious about the establishment of Oxford and Marlborough townships. After much research, he concluded the township patterns then in place were altered to satisfy the demands of a group of gentlemen. He characterized his talk as more of a report than a finished summary, since his investigation continues and interpretations do vary.

An aside: Shanahan's professional interest focuses on First Nations land issues in these areas, particularly the tangled history of territory acquired by treaty, lands that were never officially transferred, and how (only too often) land deals were made by parties with no right to sell it in the first place.

    Dr. Shanahan showing a standard survey grid  

David Shanahan showing a standard survey grid for a new township along a river.  

After the American Revolution, Canada's colonial administrators sought to resettle war refugees and to develop modern-day southern Ontario. Loyalists and retired British militia needed new homes and future prospects. Initial layers, or rows, of townships, were set up along the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers.

Early land grants favoured officers and regular army personnel over civilian Loyalist militiamen, who had fought for the crown, yet lost all their holdings in the former American Colonies. When exiled militiamen protested that they were not being properly compensated for their service and actual losses, it was decided in 1788 to open up new 'rows' of townships to provide for more land grants.

Shanahan reminded modern listeners that we can hardly appreciate what this area was like as original, old-growth forest and brush, or the difficulty of over-land travel. Trees then could easily be eight to twelve feet in diameter, up to 150 feet tall, with branches so low and thick that horsemen would be forced to dismount and walk. To illustrate: when the line for the Rideau Canal was being surveyed, a party set out from present-day Parliament Hill to Dow's Swamp – now Dow's Lake – a journey that required three days!

But back to the clamour for land. Oxford and Marlborough were the first 'second row' townships to be established. The significance of rivers there made Oxford and Marlborough very attractive. What some now call Kemptville Creek was then called the South Branch of the Rideau. At that time, the South Branch's size and water flow seemed of equal size and importance to the Rideau for transportation and water power.   

The surveyors tasked with mapping Oxford and Marlborough in 1791 were Jesse Pennoyer and Theodore DePencier. Imagine the difficulty of establishing all those straight lines through so much wilderness, under dreadful physical hardship. Somehow, though, they succeeded. (A translated copy of DePencier's journal can be found at the Ottawa Archives; Rideau Branch which details the project, including things like bear attacks.)

Shanahan explained that two main grid models had been designed at that point for establishing new townships. If along a river, the township would be a rectangle 12 miles deep and 9 miles wide, with a mid-spot along the river designated as for the main village.

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The Surveys of Oxford and Marlborough, 1791

Presenter:  Dr. David Shanahan

Article by Lucy Martin