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Dominion Land Survey (DLS) historic documents and maps

This web page is essentially a small collection of links ... to two historic documents that describe the development and implementation of the DLS, and a small number of maps, two of which, the 1871 and 1878 Dominion Lands Office maps of Manitoba, are particularly relevant and useful as a demonstration of the practical application of an otherwise theoretical discussion of the township grid system. A good part of the historical record involves two dedicated civil servants and Dominion Surveyor Generals shown above, their story expertly summarized year by year by J.S. Dennis himself in his retrospective report on the Dominion Land Survey in the Sessional Papers of 1892.

Dominion Government Sessional Papers Volume 9 1892

Only certain relevant sections of Volume 9 of the 1892 Sessional Papers have been posted here, the complete voluminous volume is otherwise available here (Link)

1. A "Short" History of the Surveys (Link)

2. Theory of the System of Survey of Dominion Lands with Geodetic Tables (Link)

3. Appendix Schedules (Link)

The Dominion Land Survey 1871 Instruction Manual

Lieut.-Col. J. S. Dennis, as an unofficial land surveyor, was instructed by the Honourable Minister of Public Works in 1869 to research various survey models that could potentially be implemented in the anticipated survey of the Canadian Northwest after its purchase from the Hudson's Bay Company. After consultation with Americans and a visit to the Red River settlements, he recommended a variation of the six mile, 36 Section Township system then in use in the United States, although he felt an eight mile, 64 section design would be more suitable for the Canadian prairies. The eight mile model was subsequently adopted by Order in Council in Canada that same year. However it was soon rejected by the Lieutenant Governor of the new Province of Manitoba in favour of the American system, with a slightly modified arrangement of Road Allowances. This altered model was then officially implemented by the Macdonald government in 1871. The surveyors were guided in their field work by a new instruction manual, posted here in a format suitable for web viewing (Link).


Historic maps associated with the Dominion Lands Survey

1. The Seven Ranges Map - the earliest US implementation of the 6x6 mile 36 Section Township system (Link) which served as a model for the Canadian Dominion survey.

2. 1820 Red River Settlement map illustrating the pre-existing riverfront strip-lot system adapted from Eastern Canada (Link).

3. An 1869 J.S Dennis map of the Red River district using the 8x8 mile 64 Section Township system. In this map we can see that the First Principal Meridian has already been surveyed and a number of townships outlined, the survey leaving the original Red River Settlement survey belt intact. And of particular interest is the circular focus on the Webb comment marking the spot where Major A.C. Webb's controversial survey was stopped just short of the Red River settlement. As it turned out this rather minor confrontation ultimately contributed to the momentum of the Red River Riel Rebellion (Link).

A J.S. Dennis 1871 map of Manitoba

This is a survey map issued with the Surveyor General's report of the year 1872, showing work completed in Manitoba in the previous year (Link) (Link to annotated map). We can see Pembina at bottom right, the First Principal Meridian, and looking closely we can see evidence of the main survey structural elements or control lines ... five Base Lines, four Correction Lines with evidence of Jogs, block outlines of townships with perimeter tick marks identifying future subdivisions, and a number of Townships with actual Sections and Quarter Sections. Partially completed, this was said to be the first official map of the new province of Manitoba in its earliest form.

A Lindsay Russell 1878 map demonstrating the progress of the survey beyond Manitoba

This is a more comprehensive map reaching farther west into North-West Territory, as far as Edmonton (Link). It was issued with the Surveyor General's (Lindsay Russell's) 1879 annual report. Unlike the Manitoba map of 1871, this map does not show detailed sections or quarter sections, primarily marking townships and main control lines. And it also shows various cart trails, numerous important track or trail surveys and perimeter boundary surveys of settlements and Indian Reservations. Drawn by Russell's own father, Alex L. Russell, who was generally entrusted with Special Surveys marking out the most important control lines, its most interesting feature is the striking solid red survey line that spans the whole map from right to left.

Following this line westward offers us an opportunity to examine the strategy and the methodology of the surveyors. With co-ordinates confirmed by telegraph at Pembina, the line tracked its way north along the First Principal Meridian to township 13, from which point it marked an irregular triangulated track westward to determine the location of the Second Principal Meridian. Having done so, it was hoped that subsequent Principal Meridians could be more easily verified by telegraph, as accomplished at Pembina, along a line recently strung across the north from Winnipeg. An attempt was made by DLS Astronomer W.F. King at Battleford and Lindsay Russell waiting at Winnipeg, to make a longitudinal determination at Battleford, from which measurements could be verified both east and west to the 3rd and 4th Meridians. After several attempts over a number of days, the experiment ended in failure and frustration because of poor intermittent electrical connections along the line near Fort Perry that could not be trusted. Somewhat disillusioned with this new-fangled technology, the survey teams then continued marking meridians, base lines and correction lines westward relying on traditional astronomic and geodetic survey techniques.

But the telegraph line was not in reality built for this purpose. CPR engineers and surveyors were also busy at the time scouting and surveying a new route, the proposed northern Sandford Fleming plan, for a transcontinental railroad from Ottawa to Prince George at the Pacific via Edmonton (Map Link 1877) (Map Link 1880). The telegraph line was a preliminary initiative by the CPR to facilitate communication along the route. Certain segments of the line also appear to have been surveyed by Dominion Lands surveyors. The line then continued on beyond Edmonton, although the proposed Fleming route was later abandoned in favour of a more strategic southerly route competing with the American Northern Pacific Railway.

An 1876 Ministry of Agriculture Map of Manitoba

Somewhat more decorative than the previous two, this map appears to have borrowed township boundaries and other survey elements from the DLS surveys, although it additionally shows railroads, forts and trading posts, post offices and various other places of interest and block settlements ... most notably two large Mennonite settlements south of Winnipeg near the 49th parallel, and Danish and English/Welsh Reserves near Lake Winnipeg (Link).