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Pre-emptions in the Colony of British Columbia

Confronted by the rapid influx of thousands of American miners to the gold mining camps of the BC interior in the 1850s, Governor James Douglas scrambled to deal with subsequent challenges involving mineral claims and the anticipated need for general settlement and agricultural development to service the mining camps. Over the next few years his government began investigating and implementing a series of land regulations, often designed by what appeared to be a process of "trial and error", to address the surveying, documentation and distribution of crown lands. The colony was divided into broad cadastral administrative Land Districts by the Land Registry Act of 1860 and local District Magistrates were appointed in each of these Districts to facilitate the administration of these new land regulations.

Lacking sufficient funds at the time to survey and give away free land grants as Homesteads, as was being done south of the border, the government instead, embarked on a system of Pre-emptions to offload the cost of survey to would be settlers themselves. An official Pre-emption policy and system was adopted that same year by the Pre-emption Act of 1860, essentially enabling qualified settlers to locate and stake 160 acres of unoccupied crown land, and after the Pre-emption was registered with a local magistrate, and certain requirements of occupancy were met, pre-emptors would be issued a Certificate of Inspection. The pre-empted land would then need to be surveyed by professionals at the settler's own expense. Various methods of payment for the land itself were made available at predetermined rates per acre, and after payment was made, a Crown Grant would be issued and the ownership of the land would be passed from the Crown to the pre-emptor.

The Ordinance of 1870 was the first comprehensive legislation to fully address these matters, replacing at least 12 official acts, ordinances and proclamations that were enacted previously since 1858. Although pre-surveyed crown lands could also still be purchased directly, this pre-emption process, with some amendments, including free grants between 1874 and 1879, essentially remained in effect in British Columbia for another hundred years until 1970 when it was eliminated as a means of acquiring Crown Land.

A portion of the Ordinance of 1870, dealing with Pre-emptions in great detail, was transcribed by OCR for this web page and is posted here (Link). Additional sections deal with Land Leases, Water Rights, Evictions and Appeals, Surveyed Lands and Free Miner's Rights. (Complete Ordinance)

District land records, including pre-emptions, were maintained in Land District Magistrate Offices as well as Associate-Magistrate or Government Agent Offices in smaller towns and in the Provincial Archives in Victoria, where they can be viewed in place today. There now however, also appears to be an arrangement between the Provincial Archives and a non-profit partner whereby all BC Pre-emption records have been digitized and posted online for the years 1860-1971. Twenty-nine Land Districts are represented in this archive although individual Districts may span varied times. Each volume of records also includes a useful alphabetical index of pre-emptors. You can access these records on the Family Search website (free account and login required - courtesy of Church of Latter Day Saints). (Link)

Pre-emptions in Grand Forks and the Kettle Valley

After the 1860s, the Okanagon and the Boundary regions were under the jurisdiction of the Vernon-Osoyoos Land District (a sub-district of the greater Yale Land District). The most desirable crown lands within this Land District surrounding Grand Forks and other towns or cities in the Kettle River drainage basin, would likely have been either pre-empted or the crown lands sold otherwise by 1900. This web page will examine or link to a number of pre-emption records concerning Grand Forks settlers in particular.


The above image may serve as an example of the potential usefulness of pre-emption records. It is a close-up clipped from a full sheet of 24 records beginning with Record No. 800.  Record No. 801 for L.Vaughan and D. McInnis, is a joint pre-emption application for District Lots 364 and 365 (Link). These two District Lots were the subject of a celebrated court case between Vaughan & McInnis and a neighbouring orchardist, W.H. Covert, regarding water rights (Link). The dispute involved a supposed irregularity with the precise dating of their pre-emption and its associated water right privileges. This record could have been used as evidence to verify the date of the pre-emption application. The record in question is Dated Oct. 28, 1889, Lot No. 364 & 365, Certificate of Inspection No. 128, Crown Grant No. 1493. This Grant Number could normally have been used to search for the associated Crown Grant Certificate on the Gator Website (Link). But oddly, for some unknown reason, Gator crown grant files are available for all other Grand Forks Crown Grants except for these two District Lots. Pre-emption Record No. 800, which was unrelated to the law suit, is however an example of a Cancelled Pre-emption. Although the specific parcel is identified by Township and Section number, a Certificate of Inspection does not appear to have been granted, in which case a crown grant would not have been issued.

Aside from their significance as legal documents, pre-emption records could also be useful genealogical research tools. By examining a particular pre-emption record, we can determine when an ancestor may have expressed an interest in a particular parcel of land.  Crown Grant Certificates and maps may also be helpful but the actual date of occupancy could not be accurately confirmed from Crown Grant documents as they may have been granted an unknown number of years after their associated pre-emptions.

We can test this assumption by looking at a few more examples from Grand Forks ... a short string of three Crown Grants on Spencer Hill along July Creek approximately 7 miles west of town (Link). Click to view associated pre-emption sheets:
Crown Grant DL 1027 (Pettijohn 1897) Pre-emption dated 1894
Crown Grant DL 1025 (Spencer 1898) Pre-emption dated 1893
Crown Grant DL 1737 (Hoffman 1902) Pre-emption dated 1894  Note: Fred Hoffman became deceased before a Crown Grant Certificate could be issued. The Grant was then later issued to his wife Catherine and her heirs.

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