Land Ownership in New France

Our French-Canadian ancestors had a far different system of land ownership than we, their Franco-American descendants, are used to. The seigneurial system, born out of feudal France, requires we think of researching their property records in different ways.

In the earliest days of the settlement, the crown granted large swaths of land to the Company of New France (also known as the Company of One Hundred Associates), various branches of the church, and to a limited number of individuals. These grants were called seigneuries. Individuals who received the grants were called seigneurs. The church and the company acted as the seigneur for their grants.

The seigneurs would then give their own grants to individuals, who would pay a cens (a small annual cash payment) and rent, much larger and usually a combination of cash, crops, and farm animals. These were the habitants who cleared the land and created farms. They were usually referred to in official documents as censitaires.

Waterways were the primary method of travel in New France, thus everyone wanted easy access to them. Seigneuries usually had a certain amount of frontage on the river, with the land extending deep back from there. The seigneuries would then be further subdivided with each censitaire receiving a certain amount of frontage, with the rest of the land going back from there.

Censitaires were able to assign their property to others. They could buy or sell rights to property, or leave their property to their children through a will, division of estate, or other method. As censitaires distributed their land to their children, the property would be further subdivided. Eventually the land would become a series of tiny strips moving away from the water.

Artist’s rendering of a fictional seigneurie, showing how a typical grant would be set up.

Once the seigneury was divided and no further frontage was available, the land would be subdivided into ranges (pronounced like rang in the phrase “rang the bell”). A second range of subdivisions would be created by the first. In some cases, a third or fourth (or more) range might eventually be created. These were seldom neat, straight lines. Natural occurrences (such as marsh/swamp land, ravines, and more) might impact the way the land was granted. The lower the range, the greater the likelihood that your ancestor might have been more economically successful.

The seigneurial system of land tenure continued even after the Conquest. It continued throughout the first half of the nineteenth century until the passage of the Feudal Abolition Act of 1854. It was not until well into the twentieth century, however, that the seigneuries were all finally totally gone.

Records of these rentals, as well as sales and purchases of individuals’ rights to property, are found in the notarial records. Remember that not all transactions were handled locally, and the notaire in the seigneurie may not by the one who handled all the legal contracts surrounding the property of your ancestors.

For more information on the history of land and property in Quebec, see:

Harris, Richard Colebrook. The Seigneurial System in Early Canada Madison, Wisc.: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1968.

Munro, William Bennett. Documents Relating to the Seigneurial Tenure in Canada, 1598–1854 New York: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1968. First published 1908 by the Champlain Society.

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