Who will make good? The Land Development Records of the Canadian National Railway and its corporate predecessors

Railways have long played a prominent role in the stories we tell about Canada’s development as a nation. Promising to facilitate travel and trade across the vast expanse of Canada’s geography, the construction of transcontinental railway lines was once seen as pivotal to the formation of a coherent national identity.

But railway companies also participated in the settlement of Western Canada by serving as the developers and property agents for land granted to them by the federal government. Following the transfer of Rupert’s Land to Canada in 1870, railway land grants were a key component of the government’s plan to increase the population of western regions already occupied by indigenous communities, Métis settlements, and Hudson’s Bay Company outposts. Even in the early twentieth century, land grants were used to encourage the railway companies to extend their tracks across the whole of the continent, and railway construction was partly financed through the lease and sale of this land.

The Winnipeg Regional Services office holds a rich aggregation of records documenting the sale and lease of Western Canadian farm and townsite land by the Canadian National Railway and its corporate predecessors. Originating from the various subsidiary property companies linked to the Canadian National Railway, the Canadian Northern Railway, and the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, these records sketch vivid portraits of Western Canadian settlers and some of the many challenges they faced in the early and mid-twentieth century.

The files related to the sale and lease of farmland offer an especially rewarding record of Western Canadian settlers and their experiences. These files typically include a standard application form, outlining the personal background of the applicant, as well as an appraisal of the application by a company representative, whose task was to assess whether or not the applicant is “likely to make good.” These applications and appraisals offer detailed profiles of some of the farmers who came to populate the Prairie provinces and British Columbia.

Printed form entitled Applicant's Statement with handwritten responses to various statements and questions designed to solicit information about the applicant. The form is used to collect information such as the name, age, marital status, and birthplace of the applicant; the names of three businessmen, one banker, and one clergyman who may serve as references for the applicant; and the details of the applicant's current assets and liablities.

Applicant’s Statement for Charles Deffey, propsective purchaser of SW-17-28-26 W4 (e011172001)

Printed form entitled Appraiser's Report with handwritten remarks added by an appraiser regarding a prospective purchaser of farmland. The appraiser's remarks include an assessment of the purchaser's reputation, the state of any farmland the purchaser may already own, and the appraiser's sense of whether or not the applicant is a purchaser who is likely to make good.

Appraiser’s Report for Charles Deffey, prospective purchaser of SW-17-28-26 W4 (e011172002)

As one might expect, the bulk of the other documentation found in the files devoted to the sale of farmland consists of correspondence regarding payments to be made toward the purchase of the land. While much of this correspondence is routine, one also encounters heartfelt pleas from purchasers for forgiveness on missed or late instalments, especially in correspondence from the 1930s. In explaining the circumstances behind defaulted payments, these letters frequently elaborate on disappointing harvests or the personal hardships endured by the correspondent and his or her family. In the letter below, for instance, the author relinquishes his claim to a piece of Saskatchewan farmland after first breaking his leg and then losing the year’s crop to a hailstorm.

Handwritten letter to the Land Commisioner of the Canadian National Railway, in which Charles Deffey states his intention to relinquish a piece of farmland on which he had been making payments. Mr. Deffey provides a brief account of some of the hardships he faced in working with the land and advises the land commissioner that he will send a formal quit claim as soon as he has enough money to pay a J.P.

Letter from Charles Deffey to the Land Commissioner of the Canadian National Railway (e011172003)

Searching the Land records

Potentially of great interest to genealogical researchers and to researchers investigating topics such as agriculture, immigration and local history, the land development records of the Canadian National Railway and its corporate predecessors can be searched using the Collection Search tool on Library and Archives Canada’s website. First, select “Advanced search” and then select “Collections and Fonds (Archives Search)” from the “Database” drop-down menu. Then, select “Finding aid” from the drop-down menu of “Specific terms”, enter “30-130” in the box on the right, and click search. You may then choose to refine your search by adding a keyword in the “All these words” box, such as the name of a particular family, or the Dominion Land Survey coordinates for a particular piece of land.

It should be noted, however, that these files do not constitute a complete record of the land development activities undertaken by the Canadian National Railway, its predecessors and their subsidiaries. The files and registers now held by the Winnipeg office of Library and Archives Canada’s Regional Services were salvaged from Canadian National Railway storage sheds when the area of Winnipeg now known as The Forks was being prepared for redevelopment in the late 1980s. Fortunately, enough of the ledgers and files were recovered to provide a valuable documentary perspective on Western Canadian settlement in the early and mid-twentieth century.

3 thoughts on “Who will make good? The Land Development Records of the Canadian National Railway and its corporate predecessors

  1. Pingback: This week’s crème de la crème — July 16, 2016 | Genealogy à la carte

  2. Researching posters by the Canadian National Railways advertising farmland, “The Right Land for the Right Man” is one of the lines on a poster. The posters were not dated, thus my interest in the history of the Canadian National.

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