The men who wanted it all

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Very few people today will recognise the names of Richard Duncan, Thomas and William Fraser, John Munro, and Peter Drummond; but in 1793 they were on the verge of owning a large chunk of Eastern Ontario. In fact, the Lieutenant Governor of the day, John Graves Simcoe, actually granted them almost 500,000 acres of land on which they were free to settle immigrants and Loyalist refugees. All the money earned from the sale of the land would go to these five men. It would have been the basis for a very powerful landed gentry in the new Province of Upper Canada.

All five men were Loyalist refugees themselves, having lost all they had when they chose to oppose the American Revolution and fled to Canada. Richard Duncan had served in the British forces during the Seven Years War, and when the American War of Independence broke out, he rejoined the militia and was commissioned as a captain in the first battalion of Sir John Johnson’s King’s Royal Regiment of New York. In 1789 he was appointed to the Land Board, which assigned land to prospective settlers. There he was later joined by Peter Drummond, John Munro, and Thomas Fraser.

Duncan was responsible for arranging the survey of Oxford-on-Rideau Township in 1791, and was appointed County Lieutenant for Dundas County, as well as being one of the nine-member Legislative Council, appointed to assist in governing the Province. Peter Drummond only arrived in America in time to become involved on the British side in the Revolution, where he fought, was captured, spent some time in prison, before escaping to Canada where he and the Fraser brothers, along with John Munro, were commissioned into the King’s Loyal Rangers. After the war, all of these men were in a position to assign land through the Land Board of Luneburgh District.

In 1792, Simcoe issued a Proclamation authorising the granting of entire townships to individuals or groups, with the intention of establishing a landed gentry in Upper Canada, a natural aristocracy to counter the “mob mentality” of democracy as exemplified in the new United States.

Our five individuals, with so many connections to each other through their army service, were granted seven townships: Osgoode, Wolford, Montague, Russell, Kitley, Loughborough, and Huntingdon – very nearly half a million acres of land. This in itself was a huge gift, but, earlier, the same men, along with other ex-militia officers, had actually petitioned for 30 townships. Although they were serving members of the Land Board, there seems to have been no impediment to obtaining such large tracts of land to sell and settle as they chose. The potential financial benefit to the five was enormous.

On September 14, 1793, the five thanked Simcoe for the grants and justified them by claiming that they could help secure settlers for the land, and this would save the Land Board a great deal of work. This was an odd rationale, considering that they were the Land Board, to all intents and purposes.

The creation of a landed aristocracy in what is not Eastern Ontario seemed set to succeed; but it was not to be. The five had bitten off more than they could chew, and attracting paying tenants to their seven townships proved extremely difficult, especially when the same settlers could acquire land of their own at no cost. Loyalist refugees were entitled to at least 200 acres free of charge, so why would they choose to become tenants instead? In 1794, the Township Grants were abolished, and on May 25, 1796, all the township grants were cancelled and the land resumed by the Crown. It was found that, of 32 townships granted under Simcoe’s scheme, only six were reported to have received settlers. And of these six, four were found to be actually empty of settlers: the reports had been faked. It was a complete fiasco. The Order cancelling the grants stated: “That the townships of Osgoode, Wolford, Montague, Russell, Kitley, Loughborough, Huntingdon, Rawdon, Murray, Clarke, Whitby, and Windham, are, and they are hereby declared to be vacant and free for the admission of such persons as shall be desirous of occupying and settling the same agreeably to the terms and conditions of the proclamation as aforesaid.”

But don’t feel sorry for our five speculators. They received 1,500 acres each in compensation, adding to the thousands of acres they already held as Loyalists and from purchases. Peter Drummond owned the land that would become Kemptville, and each of the others enjoyed positions of status and prestige in the society of their day. But, for a brief period, they almost became owners of it all.

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