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LIFE ON THE FARM: YOUR ANCESTOR’S PLACE IN ONTARIO AGRICULTURE Meeting of Uxbridge Genealogy Group We often think of farming as a traditional occupation—something that hasn’t really changed much. But that is not and was[...]
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Ma Owned the Farm…

Yesterday morning I spoke at Richmond Hill Public Library as part of its series on “Women in 19th Century Ontario”. I highly recommend the rest of the lectures in this series: Janice Nickerson on March 30 on Women in the Upper Canadian Criminal Justice System; Guylaine Petrin on April 27 on Treason, Bigamy and Adultery in Riverdale; and Cameron Knight on May 25 on Poor Nancy Malone. See the library’s website for details.

The following is a brief summary of yesterday’s presentation.

Ma Owned the Farm: Women as Land Owners in Ontario

In early Ontario, most land was owned by men and the law limited the rights of women to own (or control) their property. However, some did, and the records associated with that ownership and a woman’s rights to her husband’s and parents’ properties are some of our richest genealogical treasures.

Laws governing women’s land ownership

Under English Common Law, a single woman or a widow could buy and sell land and enter into contracts like mortgages with more or less the same rights as a man, but when a woman married, the situation changed altogether. The “Doctrine of Marital Unity” from English Common Law meant that “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law.”

  • Upon marriage, a woman lost her right to manage her own personal and real property, although she didn’t lose ownership of her real estate
  • All rents and profits derived from her property went directly to her husband.
  • Married women could not contract, sue or be sued.
  • Married women could not operate a business without her husband’s consent.
  • All personal property including a wife’s wages, belonged to her husband.
  • Marriage contracts and other trusts could protect a woman’s property from her husband, but were used only by the rich, and rarely.

A husband was, in turn, obligated to provide for his wife and children. But when the marriage broke down, or the husband was absent for some other reason, the woman’s situation and that of her children could become desperate very quickly.

Beginning in 1837 with the establishment of the Court of Chancery, a number of pieces of legislation were passed to deal with the inequities, but it took almost 50 years before the Married Women’s Property Act of 1884 stated unequivocally that a married woman could “acquire and dispose of any real or personal property as her separate property as if she was a feme sole.” She could contract, sue and be sued.

There were many further refinements, but that 1884 Act and certainly by the turn of the century, we had more or less the same situation we have today.

Land Records for Researching Women

There were many records created to document the acquisition and ownership of land in Ontario and most apply equally to men and women. I’ll concentrate on those records that tend to provide richer details about women and their families.


A petition was the first step in acquiring land from the Crown. The petition explained why the petitioner felt he or she deserved the grant. In the case of women, it usually included the name of her husband and/or father, and sometimes other siblings. The main collection of Upper Canada Land Petitions is at Library and Archives Canada, digitized on the LAC website and on microfilm at the Archives of Ontario. There is an online index.


This is a collection of miscellaneous documents from the surveyor-general’s office that were pulled from their files for some particular reason—usually a question of ownership. Rather than refile them, it was decided to create new files, by township, concession and lot. They are now on microfilm at the Archives of Ontario and available on interloan. This filing arrangement makes them easy to access. Not every lot has a file, but many do and it is well worth a look. Film listing.


Many recipients of grants of Crown land did not take the steps that would finalize the transfer of ownership. In some cases the grantee had died or transferred ownership to family members or others. To clarify titles and settle disputes, the government set up two “Heir and Devisee Commissions”. The Commissions held hearings, where the proof of ownership was presented.

The records of the Second Heir and Devisee Commission (1805–1896) are at the Archives of Ontario. A file of supporting documentation was created for each of the more than 5,000 cases that came before the Commission (RG 40-5). These are indexed in the Second Heir and Devisee Commission Database.


By the 1830s, most land in Southern Ontario had been granted by the Crown and was in private hands. Any transfer of ownership fell under the auspices of the Land Registry Office. Land records in Ontario are organized by parcel. An “Abstract Index to Deeds” for each parcel of land was created in 1865. The Abstract Indexes attempted to list transactions retroactively back to the Patent from the Crown, and provide the “instrument number” for each subsequent sale, etc. These instrument numbers lead to the actual documents (or copies of the documents). Many Abstract Indexes and copybooks of deeds have been microfilmed by the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, and are also available at the Archives of Ontario. Depending on the area and time period, you may need to visit the local Land Registry Office.


From 1837 to 1881, the Court of Chancery had jurisdiction over many matters concerning land, including trusts, the partition of estates, mortgages, dower and alimony. Many records have survived and are at the Archives of Ontario. (These records will answer many of the questions raised in Abstract Indexes.) Equity civil suits case files (RG 22-409) which start in 1869, are a particularly rich source within the Chancery records, and they are listed by surname in the Archives Descriptive Database.

For more information about land records research, the Archives of Ontario’s Research Guides and Tools page is a good place to start. Look for guides 205, 215, 225 and 231.

2 comments to Ma Owned the Farm…

  • Valerie Mills-MIlde

    Hello Jane,

    I am interested in learning more about women and property rights (particularly farm women in Ontario) around the time of the first world war. Did women who lost husbands sell their farms? Did the larger extended family take “over” these farms to keep them viable? Do you know where I might find out more information about community practices during this time (as opposed to the strict letter of the law.)

    • Jane E. MacNamara

      That’s an interesting question and I’m not sure there’s an easy answer. If an farmer enlisted, he would have had to make temporary provisions for someone to look after the farm in his absence. Perhaps the same arrangements continued for a time if he was killed. Soldiers were encouraged to make wills. You can read more about that in my post “Inheritance Interrupted“. If there was no will, his wife would have inherited at least a third of his estate.
      In most cases, the men who enlisted were younger and not farming on their own yet. Agricultural production was recognized as crucial and farmers were never compelled (or really even encouraged) to join the CEF.

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