Thorold sold for a song
By Alun Hughes

Marcy's Woods in Fort Erie, one of the last remaining areas of old-growth Carolinian forest in the Peninsula, recently sold for $2.4 million. That's about $21,000 an acre. Before the arrival of the Loyalists in the late eighteenth century similar forest covered most of the Peninsula, Thorold included, but when this land first changed hands it sold for only a tenth of a penny an acre. Even allowing for inflation and a different currency, that's quite a contrast. The Marcy family got a good price, which is more then can be said for the original "owners" of Thorold, the Mississauga Indians.

In the late 1770s the War of American Independence was at its height. The sole British presence in the area was the garrison of soldiers at Fort Niagara in present-day Youngstown. The fort also served as the base for Butler's Rangers conducting guerrilla raids against the rebels, and as a refuge for loyal settlers and Indians displaced from their lands by the fighting. Feeding all these people posed a major problem, which was partly solved by allowing a small group of settlers to cultivate land on the west bank of the river along what is now the Niagara Parkway.

The so-called "Niagara Settlement" was viewed as strictly temporary - once the war was won everyone would return to their original homes. But the war was lost, and when peace came in 1783 the Quebec-based administration faced the immense problem of what to do with thousands of landless soldiers, Rangers, refugees and Indians congregating at Fort Niagara. The solution was obvious - make the settlement permanent and to allow settlers to occupy the rest of the Peninsula and beyond.

But before this could be done the land had to be purchased from the Mississauga Indians. One might wonder why this was necessary, for the Peninsula was largely uninhabited and had been so ever since the Neutral Indians were exterminated by the Iroquois in the mid seventeenth century.
Above are totems of Mississauga chiefs involved in the Toronto Purchase in 1805.
Source: Indian Treaties and Surrenders 1905
The Iroquois hunted in the area, but their villages were north of Lake Ontario, and so it remained after the Mississauga displaced the Iroquois around 1700.

But the authorities could not allow settlers to move straight in, for they were subject to regulations governing Indian territory set out by George III in a Royal Proclamation of 1763. Indian land belonged to the Crown. Indians could occupy it, but not own it; they could sell their right of occupation, but only to the Crown. White settlers could neither occupy Indian land nor buy it from the natives.

Thus the creation of the Niagara Settlement was preceded in 1781 by the Crown purchase of a four-mile strip of land on the west bank of the Niagara River, for which the Mississauga were paid "three hundred suits of clothing." A much larger purchase followed in 1784, extending all the way westward to the Thames River, a total of almost 3 million acres. The price? £1180 7s 4d (that's pounds, shillings and pence) - "a trifling consideration" in the words of Governor of Quebec Frederick Haldimand.

So it was that Thorold and the rest of the Peninsula became government land available for transfer to settlers. The cost was trifling indeed, and land prices in Thorold haven't looked back since.

That same year a large piece of the ceded land was given to the Six Nations Indians (the former Iroquois Confederacy), most of whom had sided with the British in the war and were barred from returning to their homelands in the Finger Lakes region.
This was the Six Nations Tract, which originally extended in a twelve-mile wide band along the Grand River from Lake Erie almost to its source. Sections were sold off by the Indians over time, and the present reserve near Brantford is but a fraction of its former self.

So the Mississauga suffered the double indignity of surrendering a huge piece of territory for a pittance and having a significant portion transferred to their long-standing enemy, the Iroquois. Sadly, the Mississauga and other native groups had no appreciation for the British concept of absolute land ownership - to them the land "belonged" to all, living, and yet unborn, and by signing a treaty they were simply allowing settlers to "share" in its use.

It was some time before the true implications sank in, and a succession of further land surrenders meant that the Mississauga and their Ojibwa allies had relinquished much of the area between Lakes Huron, Erie and Ontario by 1825.

In the Golden Horseshoe the Mississauga were reduced to living on a tiny reserve at the mouth of the Credit River. But even here they were not safe from white encroachment, and in 1847 they were forced to move to the "New Credit" Reserve on the Grand River - ironically on the land of the old enemy, the Six Nations.

© Alun Hughes 2003

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