Thursday, August 23, 2012

Land Tenure, Seigneurie, and Social Systems: How We Look at Land and Life

Around 1862 my line of the Vermette family moved to a place then called Nelson Township, Megantic County. The family had lived for nearly two hundred years in the region of Québec known as Bellechasse, part of the settled, older regions of the country on the South Bank of the St. Lawrence not far from Québec City.

Their new home in Nelson Township was on the very edge of the Eastern Townships region of Québec. It was situated along a fault line between two languages, two religions, two social outlooks, and two systems of land tenure. The way we look at land is culturally determined and the portion of Nelson Township where they lived was the liminal space where two ways of looking at the land – and perhaps at life – came together.

The Eastern Townships is a large region stretching east of Montréal, filling in the area between the old parishes of the former New France and the USA border. Attempts had been made to settle Loyalists from the American Revolution in this area. Immigrants from the British Isles found a home in this rugged frontier in the early 19th century, but it became settled quickly when the area was opened to French-Canadian settlement by mid-century.

The old parishes along the St. Lawrence were established under the seigneurial system a development of the feudalism of medieval times. In brief, the theory was that the King held all land in his domain and he granted a tract (seigneurie) to a seigneur (lord) on the condition that he met certain obligations. The seigneur then granted measured portions of his seigneurie to settlers, known as censitaires officially but habitants colloquially, in exchange for certain payments and concessions. The seigneurial system was abolished in the 1850s but it left a deep mark on Québec to this day.

Along with this system came a way of dividing and distributing land. The plots granted to the habitants were about 1,600 meters deep and 150 meters wide. The narrow front of the property was along the river and the farmland was laid out in a long, narrow rectangular strip perpendicular to the water. The house was generally built on the riverfront portion of the property, which meant that the farmhouses attached to these narrow strips were close together and as many people as possible had water access. Since water routes were the main arteries, and the houses were built in relatively close contact along the river, this system facilitated transportation, communication, and mutual defense and assistance.

The rows of properties along a river were called a rang (range). Once the river front property was laid out more properties were granted inland. These properties were established behind the riverfront ranges. In these inland ranges, roads took the place of the river. Houses were built close to the road while the farmland stretched out in a long, narrow strip behind the road.

Place names in rural Québec were indicated by rang and parish. For instance, around 1815 my third great grandfather, Augustin Vermette, acquired the use of a farm en seigneurie in the Deuxième Rang Est de Saint-Gervais that is in the second range east of the parish of Saint-Gervais, Bellechasse. His descendants, my distant cousins who still live in Saint-Gervais were able to show me exactly where this farm was.

The Eastern Townships were originally intended as an Anglophone enclave in Québec. The land was held not according to the seigneurial regime but by freehold land tenure according to English law. In freehold tenure a property is owned “free and clear” and in perpetuity with few obligations owed to anyone else. The English way of dividing land was to lay it out in squares or compact rectangles. Square lots laid out along a river meant that only a small number of people had riverfront property. In the Francophone’s system, the logical place to build the home was on the portion of the lot closest to the river or the road. On a square lot there is no single, logical place to build a house. One can build a home on the lot wherever it seems most convenient given lighting, weather conditions, or aesthetics.
Nelson Township plan of rectangular lots
still called "rangs" by the French speakers.
The Vermette property, a small subsection of a lot
in "Rang XII", is indicated in red*

This Anglophone way of dividing, holding and occupying land encourages the proprietor to think of himself as the lord of his little domain surrounded by his own land on all sides of his house. The Francophone’s system of dividing land in narrow strips meant that someone else’s land was always close at hand. This would tend to encourage a sense of community, equality, and mutual dependence on one’s neighbor. The English sense of absolute ownership, entitlement, and individuality upon his “private property” is arguably both the strength and the weakness of his worldview. This is one aspect of the unconscious Anglo-Saxon assumptions that I find alien to my family’s culture despite the fact that we spoke English at home.

The English system of land tenure, however, also favored the development of a village at the center of the township where business could be contracted. The French system did not favor the development of such town squares or central villages. When I observed these two systems side-by-side in this part of Québec it dawned on me that in the older cities of the East Coast USA major neighborhoods are called squares, for example Union Square in New York City or Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This use of the word square here refers to the intersection of major streets, nonetheless in many small towns in New England the village square is still preserved.

While English speakers categorize location in terms of squares the French North American mind has a whole different set of connections. Even in modern, secularized Québec what an English speaker might call “a town” is often referred to as a paroisse or parish. And of course this French vocabulary also persists in Louisiana.

In Nelson Township, the Vermettes in the 1860s and 1870s were balanced on the line between these two systems. The parish of Ste-Agathe in the old seigneurie of Lotbinière was to one side of their small property. The County of Megantic with place names like Nelson, Inverness, Ireland and Thetford was on the other side. The Vermettes attended the Catholic Parish church of Sainte-Agathe but they lived in the township of Nelson. In old Québec, one’s parish was also one’s geography but not so in the Vermette’s new environment.

Here we find a collision of worlds. Here was neither the French parish system nor entirely the English township system. For the first time since his ancestor came from France in the 1660s a Vermette of my line would have to learn to live in a nouveau monde, a world where language, religion, social system, land divisions and tenure were in transition on the threshold between earlier and later developments. It’s uncomfortable to stand on a threshold. Nelson Township was a way station for the Vermettes, a transitional stage to new adventures.

Source for the picture above: A History of Megantic County: Downhomers of Quebec's Eastern Townships, Gwen Rawlings, Barry Evans Books, 1999, p 99. 


  1. New Englanders were rebelling from manorial aristocracy. And what you call a new england "square" was usually called a "common". These were lands held in common and shared by the community. Read David Hackett Fisher's distinction between the the Virginia planters and the new england commoners. And note the layout of Providence Rhode Island. Narrow lots along the river, as in New France. The past is non-conforming when we want it to make sense.

    1. Thanks for the good comment. I grew up in New England and I'm well aware of the notion of a common. However, the lots owned by individuals were often also laid out as rectangular blocks. Providence is a clear exception to this (those who are interested may see link to graphic below). All generalities about history have many exceptions and there are always numerous details that don't fit a general scheme. I acknowledge that the past does not conform, in every case, to our generalities but they're worth making anyway, as long as we also acknowledge their limitations.