Nova Scotia Archives

Nova Scotia Land Papers 1765-1800

The Grant Process

From the earliest days of Nova Scotia as a British colony, virtually everything was Crown Land, held in reserve by government for settlement and development purposes. The availability of individual grants from within these reserves was promoted as a way to attract settlers. The land came at no cost, except for minimal administrative fees charged during the grant process. The only requirement imposed on the recipient was to settle and develop the acreage within a specified reasonable length of time.

Both new arrivals and those already established in the colony could apply to the Crown Lands Office for a grant. An administrative process was in place to regulate asking for and receiving land, and a paper trail was created at each step along the way. The digital resource presented here features 35 years of that surviving paper trail.

Prospective grantees petitioned the Governor of Nova Scotia for a grant of land, frequently identifying the location where they wished to settle. The request was made in a handwritten document, sometimes called a "Memorial," which used formula wording and presentation. The document might be written by the petitioner, but more frequently was prepared by a notary or Justice of the Peace, especially if the prospective settler had only limited literacy skills.

The Governor might consult the Executive Council regarding the grant, in which case the petition was annotated accordingly. He then initialed the document and sent a warrant to the Surveyor-General of Lands, directing him to survey a certain tract or number of acres in a specified location.

The land was sometimes surveyed by the Surveyor-General, but more often by an assistant or deputy who afterwards provided a description of the land to the Governor, as well as to the Surveyor-General of the King's Woods. The latter step was necessary in order to determine if the requested land had already been reserved for the Royal Navy, since large tracts of wilderness forest in the colony were set aside to provide masts and timber for naval vessels.

The Surveyor-General of the King's Woods issued a certificate permitting the grant, which was then sent with a warrant to the Provincial Secretary's Office, where a draft grant was drawn up. The Attorney-General signed or "placed his fiat" on the draft grant, after which the official grant was made out and signed by the Governor. A transcript of the final grant was also entered by hand into large bound record volumes kept in the Crown Lands Office.

The official grant was an oversized document written on heavy paper and often folded several times; the Great Seal of the Province (a large embossed red wax disc) was attached to it with a ribbon. The formal grant often became a prized family possession, and many such documents survive today in private hands.

The records digitized for presentation on this website trace the administrative steps leading to the final granting of a piece of land, but do not include the formal grant itself, stopping instead at the draft grant, which carried equal legal authority.

In addition to grants of land, "licences to occupy" were sometimes issued for water lots, islands, marshes, and beaches, or to permit temporary occupation of acreage ("to occupy during pleasure"). Licences were issued to individuals employed in the fishery, to petitioners who had already received a grant but wanted additional land, or to individuals who requested a licence until a final grant could be issued. For example....

  • William Best was issued a licence to occupy Lot 4 in Windsor, on 23 April 1768. If he agreed to build and complete a house, at least 18 square feet in size, on the lot by 31 December 1769, he would be issued a grant for the property.

  • Constant Connor requested a grant of land in 1787. His father-in-law had originally been issued a licence to occupy the land, but no actual grant had ever been issued.

Most licences to occupy were written on small pieces of paper, although one of a more official-looking nature was issued by Lieutenant-Governor John Wentworth to Thomas Thomson in 1796, and included the former's printed letterhead and seal.

Researchers will be particularly interested in the tidbits of biographical and family information which frequently appear in the petitions. The prospective grantee might give his age, the number of individuals in his family unit (sometimes naming them), his country of origin ("North Britain" "Scotland"), the date of immigration, any previous military service, and a mention of any land grants already received. On the other hand, some petitions are as simple as "John Smith and 145 others humbly request....," with the names of the others appearing only in the draft grant.

Petitioners generally fell into three broad categories — recent and/or needy immigrants, most of whom had come because they knew free land was available; military veterans, both officers and enlisted men, who were entitled to receive land in proportion to their rank; and Loyalist refugees settling in Nova Scotia after the American Revolution, who thought they had an excellent claim on the colonial government's largesse. While most petitioners were men, the records also reveal that more than a few women, usually widowed, were determined to support themselves by obtaining land from the government.

The stories told in the surviving petitions are as varied as the lives of the individual applicants, who offered the additional information in order to strengthen their requests.

  • Roselena Shephard (or Rosana Shippherd) was born in Halifax in 1772, but her parents died and her inheritance was embezzled. She moved to Truro to live with David McKeen and his wife, but did not have any other means of support and therefore in 1786 she requested 250 acres of ungranted land.

  • Thomas Cunningham submitted a memorial on behalf of himself and two unnamed brothers. He had been a Deputy Provost Marshall in New York during the Revolution. Afterwards his uncle, Captain Cunningham, advised him to go to Annapolis and supplied him with agricultural tools. Unfortunately the small boat in which he was traveling upset as he was coming ashore, and his clothes and equipment were lost overboard. In 1784 he was a teacher, requesting land at Wilmot.

  • Abraham Parsell petitioned for land in Lunenburg County in 1786. He was a Loyalist from New Jersey, was married with three children, had lost the use of one limb, and had never been compensated for the property he had left behind and lost as a Loyalist.

  • Edward Crawford, a Loyalist from Georgia, came to Nova Scotia in 1784. Although a warrant for land had been issued, he left it in the Secretary's Office and it was subsequently mislaid, so in 1791 he requested another one.

Crawford's situation may not have been unique. Edward Winslow wrote to Ward Chipman in April 1785, commenting on a meeting with Surveyor-General Charles Morris and Provincial Secretary Richard Bulkeley, who both informed him that "In many instances grants were made on personal and verbal applications, and it frequently happened when petitions were preferred that those petitions were considered as insignificant papers and were not preserved." [Rev. W.O. Raymond, ed., Winslow Papers, p. 296; F5254.9 W778 R273]