A series of 250th Anniversary articles for the Tantramar Heritage Trust
by Paul Bogaard
In the early 1760s New England Planters were attracted to the new Townships in Nova Scotia by the offer of free land. The most valuable lots were dyked marsh and cleared upland, those ready to be farmed. The more one received of those, the better, but no one could just grab the most desirable land.
For one thing, at the early stages there were rules to keep any one family from gaining much more land than anyone else. It was surprisingly fair. There were even rules to ensure one family’s share did not have a larger portion of richest land, leaving someone else with the poorest. Every one started with some good marshland, some cleared upland, and also some poorer parcels well back in the “wilderness” or way out towards Rockport.
We often hear there was a rush to swap and trade parcels, hoping to consolidate one’s holdings. But the evidence paints a different picture. Some swapping shows up in the Committee minutes, already in 1763, but after that a Registry office is opened at Cumberland. Jim Snowden scoured these records and found over 70 land sales, but look at how they spread out:
These 1760s sales are to other Planters in Sackville, or from neighboring townships. That remains true, later, but the peak in the early 1770s also coincides with the arrival of Yorkshire immigrants willing to pay for good land. And the next peak coincides with the Loyalists, who were being offered land for free. But there was little available in the earliest townships, and especially Sackville. Amos Botsford, their agent, was only able to “escheat” 1,000 ac’s out of the 100,000 in all of Sackville. So, any loyalist who preferred the Sackville area had to pay for their land. And clearly they did. By 1803 in the Town of Sackville there were still 248 planters, sharing 68 surname, plus there were 168 Yorkshire immigrants sharing 17 surnames, and to these were now added 210 Loyalists.
What does this tell us about land distribution? Well, an interesting suggestion comes from one of the other early townships. Debra McNabb did for Horton what Jim Snowden had done for Sackville. She focused all her research on the land sales. And one of her conclusions was that there is little evidence that planters were trying to consolidate their best farmlands. They were eager to buy and sell, however, the objective seems to have been to end up with a more interesting portfolio in their estate The focus was not simply on good farmland.
Something similar seems to have been at work in Sackville. There weren’t many alternatives. There were some commercial opportunities in these early years for traders and merchants but they all located at Cumberland. Sackville was an agricultural community. Even so, building up one’s production beyond subsistence was very difficult, and there were few who managed it. By 1768 the military had removed most of their garrisons and emptied that market. In a cash-poor society, parcels of land were one’s only means of exchange, and the only hope of increasing one’s estate.
Consider the example of Benjamin Tower. The Tower name was already found on the 1759 list of subscribers, and by 1762 Benjamin and Joseph had drawn Share #47 in division B. Forty two years later Benjamin passes away and we still have the record of his real estate as appraised for probate (thanks to his descendent, Ken Tower). His holdings were well over 3,000 ac’s. He had gained a lot of ground in his time, and there is not much to indicate a focus on improved farmland or consolidation.
He still possessed most of his original grant, but to this he had added a “homestead farm of 200 acres and appurtenances including ruins of old Mill and Stream annexed as Mill Privilege.” This may refer to where he had been living, but it was not part of his original grants. We do not know when the Towers took over the mill rights on the Lower Mill Stream, but we do know where it was located.
There are also 650 ac’s in Wood Lots, each purchased from its grantee, other lots in division C received by the Towers as grants, plus 1350 ac’s of wood and “wilderness” lots up behind Upper Village. One of the Tower’s mills is said to be a sawmill, in which case over 2,000 ac’s of woodlot may have been wise investments. And in the midst of these listings, there is one parcel out by Green Creek that provided a base for all the Towers out Rockport way.
Charles Dixon provides a contrasting case. A Yorkshire immigrant arriving in 1772, Dixon is said to have acquired a 2,500 ac farm and to have worked hard to improve its productivity. Stories vary about his acquiring this farm. What the records show is that he made four purchases: one from Daniel Hawkins of 750 ac., one from Charles Hawkins of 500 ac., one from Benoni Williams of 500 ac., and one from Ichabod Comstock of 750 ac. = 2500 acres. (It may be that Daniel acting as overseer for these other shares gave the impression that Dixon purchased all from him.)
Comstock, Williams and Hawkins are all the same fellows featured in the 2nd article, none of whom stay. The share from Comstock is #1 in division B, may have been purchased first by William Jenks and bought by Dixon, and it certainly includes a 200 ac parcel directly associated with the Mill rights on the Lower Mill Creek. This may well be the very parcel purchased by the Towers, who others have credited with re-establishing mills on this site, right behind the “Diamond A Farm” in Frosty Hollow.
Everyone settling in a new township had to farm. Survival required it, as did gaining clear title to the land. To improve farming productivity beyond subsistence and to build one’s estate on the surpluses was within the grasp of very few, however. But everyone started with a share of free land, and over time could take opportunities for buying and selling which could considerably enhance your estate whether you consolidated your farm, relied on Mill privileges, or simply did what you could to pass along land to your children.