The Slow Pace of Settlement

Stump with coffee mug

Once the decision was made to open up the ceded portions of Manitoulin Island to settlement by non-indigenous families, it's safe to say things did not go to plan. Although the first lots were slated to hit the market in 1865, multiple complications led to land sales not actually beginning until 1866. Even then, there were few takers and by 1867 less than 5,000 acres had been sold. By 1870, that figure had risen to 33,000 acres, which represented just a quarter of the land that was available for purchase at the time.

There were several reasons for this. First, there was an economic boom going on in the United States in the mid-1860s that attracted many young men from southern Ontario who found the idea of making their fortunes south of the border far more appealing than breaking ground in the rugged and ragged Manitoulin landscape that anyone could see would present one challenge after another.

Second, there was a lack of roads on the island that made travel over both long and short distances difficult in the best of times (winter and summer) and near impossible in the wet seasons. To address this, a road was constructed from Little Current to Sheguiandah between 1866 and 1868. By 1871, it had been extended down to Manitowaning and through Tehkummah before dead-ending at Michael’s Bay. Most of the land that was sold in the early years was within spitting distance of this main road.

Third, there were a lot of regulations associated with land ownership on Manitoulin that weren't in effect in other jurisdictions. In 1868, for instance, the Free Grant and Homestead Act sought to lure settlers to northern Ontario by giving anyone willing to live there and clear a suitable portion of their land for agriculture up to 200 acres for free. In contrast, the conditions for buying land on Manitoulin seemed designed to discourage settlement. Prospective settlers would have to pay 50 cents per acre in cash to acquire up to a maximum of 200 acres. They would also be required to occupy their new land within six months and could gain the land patent (full ownership) after three years of continuous residence but only if they had cleared five acres for every 100 they owned. Precious few took the government up on its offer, so the land agent was forced to raise the maximum allowable acreage per settler to 400 and lower the price to 20 cents per acre. That strategy too failed since most potential settlers were poor and couldn't scrape together the cash, so in 1870 the price per acre was once again jacked up to 50 cents. However, this time the land agent was no longer demanding cash. Instead settlers could put down a downpayment equal to one-fifth of the total purchase price at the time of sale and pay the outstanding balance in four equal payments.

That got things going in the right direction, but sales still weren't brisk. By 1871, there were only 220 non-indigenous settlers on Manitoulin Island and only a handful of those had settled in Tehkummah. Things didn’t really start to pick up until the mid-1870s when a severe economic depression that began in 1873 forced many settlers to abandon their dreams of owning land in increasingly expensive southern Ontario. At the same time improvements were made to the ports of southern Georgian Bay, which made them more accessible and, in turn, made Manitoulin Island easier to get to. As a result, most arable land had been sold by 1876 and the non-indigenous population had risen to 3,500.

Most of those who came to Manitoulin Island in those early years were of English, Irish, and Scottish descent and migrated to the island from the Simcoe, Grey and Bruce regions as well as from southern Georgian Bay. While some of these settlers had been born in Canada, most had been brought to the country in the early 1840s from the old world by their parents.

Based on the real-life 1877 killings of William and Charles Bryan by their neighbours, The Haweaters brings to life some of Manitoulin’s earliest European settlers as they struggle against nature, poverty, and each other in a collective quest to leave their dubious pasts behind them and attain prosperity in this rugged wilderness community. Learn more.