Seigneurial system of New France
The seigneurial system was introduced to New France in 1627 by Cardinal Richelieu. Richelieu granted the newly formed Company of New France all lands between the Arctic Circle to the north, Florida to the south, Lake Superior in the west, and the Atlantic Ocean in the east. In exchange for this vast land grant and the exclusive trading rights tied to it, the Company was expected to bring two to three hundred settlers to New France in 1628, and a subsequent four thousand during the next fifteen years. To achieve this, the Company subgranted almost all of the land awarded to it by Cardinal Richelieu. Despite the official arrangement reached between Cardinal Richelieu and the Company of New France, levels of immigration to French colonies in North America remained extremely low. The resulting scarcity of labor had a profound effect on the system of land distribution. In practice, the lands were arranged in long, narrow strips, called seigneuries, along the banks of the St. Lawrence River, its estuaries, and other key transit features. Both in nominal and legal terms, all French territorial claims in North America belonged to the King of France. French monarchs did not impose the seigneurial system on New France, and the king’s actual attachment to these lands was virtually non-existent. Instead, Seigneurs were allotted land holdings and presided over the French colonial agricultural system in North America.
This physical layout of seigneurial property developed as a means of maximizing ease of transit, commerce, and communication by using natural waterways (most notably, the St. Lawrence river) and the relatively few roads. A desirable plot had to be directly bordering or in very close proximity to a river system, which plot-expansion was limited to one of two directions—left or right.
Seigneuries were the most macro-level of land division in New France but, within them, there existed several subdivisions of landholdings. Immediately below the level of seigneurie was that of the roture. Throughout New France, there came to exist several thousand rotures. Furthermore, these rotures were remarkably uniform in terms of size. Barring extreme cases, it is estimated that around 95% of all rotures were between 40 and 200 square Arpents in size, though most were likely 120 arpents or less. Rotures of less than 40 square arpents were considered to be of little value by habitants. To maximize simplicity when surveying, rotures were almost invariably distributed in rectangular plots following a ranged system wherein the first range bordered the river, and was the first to be filled, followed by the second behind it and so on. Typically, the proportions of such rectangles coincided with the ratio of 1:10 for width and length, respectively.However, extremes all the way up to 1:100 are known to have occurred. This method of land division confers obvious advantages in terms of easy access to transportation and cheap surveying, but also allowed habitants to live remarkably close to families on neighboring plots—often within a few hundred yards—creating something of a proto-neighborhood.
Although legislation and enforcement varied depending on the period and administration, a Habitant’s rights of entitlement to their roture could not be revoked as long as they paid their dues to the seigneur and satisfied the requirements of tenir feu et lieu which stipulated that they were obliged to improve their landholdings or they would be confiscated. By ordinance of the Intendant in 1682, a habitant could not hold more than two rotures.128
In response to these increasingly subdivided agricultural plots and the issues of diminishing agricultural productivity associated with them, the Governor and the Intendant of New France petitioned the King in 1744 to issue a new ordinance rectifying the matter. The King responded by requiring the minimum plot size which a habitant might cultivate or reside to be one Arpent and a half of frontage by 30-40 arpents in depth. A final characteristic of landholdings en roture is that the size of the plot typically varied in direct proportion with its distance from the nearest town, while its population density varied inversely.
A Feudal Mode of Tenure
The seigneur rented most of the land to tenants, known as censitaires or habitants, who cleared the land, built a house and other buildings, and farmed the land. A smaller portion of the land was kept as a demesne (land owned by the seigneur and farmed by his family or by hired labour) which was economically significant in the early days of settlement though less thereafter. The seigneurial mode of land tenure differed somewhat from its counterpart in France; the seigneurs of New France were not always nobles, though many were. Seigneuries in North America were granted to military officers, and as in France many were owned by the Catholic clergy. However, the system was feudal in the sense that there was a clear displacement of wealth happening from censitaires to their seigneurs which was not at all based on market forces (as land was plentiful and labor was not) but rather a system institutionalized by the crown.
|En franc aleu noble||A type of freehold which, if held by an individual, conferred the status of nobility. Such lands were given without any consideration other than rendering fealty and homage. Only two grants were made in New France, both to the Jesuit Order.|
|En franc aleu roturier||Similar to en franc aleu noble, without conferring nobility. Such tenure was exempt from all burdens, and subject to no seigniorial rights or dues of any nature.|
|En franche aumône||Granted to religious, educational or charitable institutions. In addition to rendering fealty and homage, holders were bound to perform specified services in return for the grant.|
|En fief (also called en seigneurie)||The form under which seigniories were created. It was subject to certain conditions:
|En arrière-fief||Where a dominant seigneur chose to subdivide his seigniory into smaller units. A holder of a lesser seigniory owed his obligations to the dominant seigneur, instead of directly to the Crown.|
|En censive and en roture||The type of tenure held by a tenant of a seigniory, in return for paying certain dues to the seigneur. Such tenants were referred to as censitaires. The dues were of various natures:
The habitants were able to divide their land for their children according to The Custom of Paris in New France once they had families of their own, meaning that in the event of the death of a spouse, half the estate went to the surviving spouse, with the other half divided among the children (both male and female). This could lead to an unusual (for the time period) number of women, generally widows who were in charge of large amounts of property. However, it is also worth noting that most widows remarried within a short time of their spouse’s death and often the meticulous splitting of estates demanded by the Custom of Paris was disregarded in favor of quickly solidifying the new union.
Elsewhere this kind of property inheritance law often led to fragmentation of estates. However, the subsistence level farming of many of the habitants in New France made fragmentation impossible and so it was common practice for one heir to buy out the others’ land, keeping estates in more or less one piece. It is also worth noting that anything but direct inheritance meant the property might be subject to the lods and ventes fee of 1/12th of the value of the property due to the seignior.
New France in Economic Theory
Some historians suggest that the structure of the seigneurial system itself might have caused delays in economic growth for New France. Morris Altman, for example argued that by shifting disposable wealth and therefore spending power from the censitaires to the seigneurs the system deeply altered the economy of New France. Furthermore, since the seignieurs rarely had their estates as their chief source of income, the relatively insignificant sums of money from the cens et rentes were used largely in the purchase of luxury items which were almost always imported from France. Altman theorizes that since the censitaires would have either re-invested this money or bought goods produced locally, this limited growth and was damaging to the economy of New France. Though Altman later altered the precise estimates he made (based on annual outputs) of how much disposable income the censitaire might have been deprived of (and therefore the amount of local investment lost) he confirmed his original thesis that the seigneurial fees reduced growth through wealth transfer. Other historians such as Allan Greer have also argued that the wealth transfer limited the growth of the censitaires’ farms as well as other local enterprises, which in the long run might limit general economic growth.
After the British conquest
After the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the conquest of Quebec by the British during the Seven Years' War, the system became an obstacle to colonization by British settlers. The Quebec Act of 1774 retained French civil law and therefore the seigneurial system.
It remained relatively intact for almost a century. This was the prime land; also many Englishmen and Scotsmen purchased seigneuries; others were divided equally between male and female offspring; some were run by the widows of seigneurs as their children grew to adulthood. Over time land became subdivided among the owners' offspring and descendants, resulting in increasingly narrow plots of land.
When Quebec was divided in December 1791 between Lower Canada (today's Quebec) and Upper Canada (today's Ontario), a 45.7 km (28.4 mi) segment of the colonial boundary was drawn at the west edge of the westernmost contiguous seigneuries along the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers, accounting for the small triangle of land at Vaudreuil-Soulanges that belongs to Quebec rather than Ontario. Only two outlying seigneuries were ever established in the area that became Upper Canada, being located at L'Original on the Ottawa River and Cataraqui at the eastern end of Lake Ontario at what is now Kingston and Wolfe Island. Tenure in the Upper Canada seigneuries was converted into free and common socage under the Constitutional Act 1791.
The British Parliament passed legislation in 1825 that provided for the commutation of tenures, upon the agreement of the seigneur and the habitants concerned. As no incentives were given, few such conversions took place. The Province of Canada also attempted to facilitate the process through passage of a further Act in 1845.
The seigneurial system was formally abolished through the passage of the The Seigniorial Act of 1854 by the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada, which received royal assent on 18 December 1854. It provided for:
- the conversion of all feudal and seigniorial tenure into that of franc-aleu roturier
- the abolition of all feudal and seigniorial dues and charges, to be replaced by a rente constituée (English: constituted rent) calculated under a specified formula
- the determination of rights held by seigneurs and censitaires through referral to a special Seigniorial Court
- the redemption of constituted rents in certain circumstances, upon payment of a determined amount to the seigneur
After the required schedules for each seigniory were published in 1859, the Legislative Assembly passed the The Seigniorial Amendment Act of 1859, which provided for the commutation of all rents and dues (other than those relating to cens et rentes) through payments to the seigneurs from a fund appropriated for that purpose.
The final steps towards actual abolition of the system of constituted rents took place under the government of Louis-Alexandre Taschereau, when the cause was promoted by Télesphore-Damien Bouchard, the Liberal deputy and mayor of Saint-Hyacinthe. He declared that "a very large number of censitaires have not yet redeemed for over the seventy years that they have been able to do so [since the passage of the 1854 law]" and they must " make an annual pilgrimage to pay [the dues], very often, to a stranger who has acquired rights originally belonging to our ancestral families".
In 1928, the Seigniories Act was amended to require the compilation of all information relating to dues and related capital by municipality. In 1935, the Legislative Assembly of Quebec passed the Seigniorial Rent Abolition Act, which aimed to "facilitate the freeing of all lands or lots of land from constituted rents." It provided for:
- the incorporation of all county municipalities and independent city and town municipalities, in which seigniorial lands were situated, as the Syndicat national du rachat des rentes seigneuriales (SNRRS) (English: National Syndicate for the redemption of seigneurial rents).
- the borrowing of money by the Syndicate, under provincial guarantee, in order to redeem all constituted rents.
- the preparation of terriers in each municipality showing the lands, owners, rents and capital amounts concerned.
- the commutation of such rents, upon the homologation of the terriers by the municipal councils and their subsequent ratification by an Act of the Legislative Assembly, after which the funds borrowed by the Syndicate would be repaid through a special seigniorial tax to be collected from the owners, which could be paid in a lump sum or over a period of up to 41 years.
It was contemplated that the seigneurs would receive their commutation payments by November 11, 1936, in consideration of the capital represented by the rents to be perceived. However, the work of the SNRRS was briefly on hiatus from 1936-1940 during the government of the Union Nationale. It was resumed by the new provincial Liberal government in 1940, after which the final seigniorial dues were paid in November 1940.
Compared to the situation of the short cadastre (survey) of 1854, it was determined that annuities owed amount to no more than 25% of the original amount owed by the censitaires overall. Some had not been paid since the 19th Century. To rectify the situation for once and all, the SNRRS issued an edict dated September 15, 1940 stating that whatever was due no later than November 11 of that year was to be paid directly to the seigneur as before. Any amount owing after that date would be paid to the municipality.
The amounts paid to the various municipalities were unequal as they did not directly correspond with the boundaries of the former seigneuries. Many municipalities allowed a lump sum payment of the amount owing, rather than impose a small annual tax over the 41 years as permitted. The final installment paid to the SNRRS by the municipalities was made eleven years earlier than planned, on November 11, 1970 instead of November 11, 1981, due to an apparently effective management of the system.
Remnants of the seigneurial system can be seen today in maps and satellite imagery (also changes can be seen) of Quebec, with the characteristic "long lot" land system still forming the basic shape of current farm fields and clearings, as well as being reflected in the historic county boundaries along the St. Lawrence River. This form of land use can also be seen in such images of Louisiana, which also was founded as a French colony with somewhat similar agricultural patterns. Also, this form of land use can be seen along the Red River in southern Manitoba and along certain portions of the South Saskatchewan River in Saskatchewan near Batoche, where significant Metis and French Canadian settlement occurred. This system is also visible in the streets of Detroit. The street names match the owners of each farm, such as Livernois being named after the Livernois Family ribbon farm. 
Vestiges of the former system still emerge from time to time. In February 2005, the Superior Court of Quebec issued an order cancelling hypothecs that could still exist for seigneurial rent on a property that was once part of the Seigneury of Beauport, which led four years later to the announcement that a wind farm consisting of 131 wind turbines was to be created there. In September 2014, the Quebec Court of Appeal upheld a Superior Court ruling that private ownership of the bed of a lake and related fishing rights were not conferred by the terms of a 1674 grant creating the Seigneury of La Petite-Nation.
The work of the SNRRS can be evaluated by reviewing the fonds given in 1975 by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs (which looked after the SNRRS) to the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec. These documents constitute an amount equal to 20.5 meters of textual records.
A comparable seigneurial system was the patroon system of heritable land established by the Dutch West India Company. The company granted seigneurial powers to the "patrons", who paid for the transport of settlers in New Netherland. The system was not abolished by the British when they took possession of the Dutch holdings.
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