Grand River Branch

United Empire Loyalists' Association of Canada





Selected Reprints from the

Grand River Branch Newsletter, Branches

"The Formation of The Early Ontario Municipal Government In The Later Eighteenth Century Influenced by Loyalists - PART I"

Angela E.M. Files, May 2003, Vol.15 No.1, Pages 8-10


    One of the most important contributions made by the Loyalists in the development of early Ontario communities is to assist in the formation of local government.  Our former districts, townships and present county system in Ontario were a legacy given to us by these forefathers who brought with them the experiences of municipal institutions and were not prepared to forsake them in their new homeland, "Upper Canada".

1. Past Experiences of Loyalists in the Thirteen Colonies

  In their former English colonial settlements of the "Thirteen Colonies"1 two different forms of local self-government developed -- one was democratic, in which the people held the ruling power either directly or through elective representatives, and the other was autocratic in which the governors had absolute power.  The type of local government which Loyalists were acquainted with depended upon on what area of the Thirteen Colonies that they fled from before coming to Upper Canada.

2. Democratic System of Local Government

  In the six north-east states of the United States -- Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut -- the New England states, named by Capt. John Smith, democratic town meetings or township meetings were held.  A group of chosen men or councillors were selected by an assembly of the inhabitants to oversee the work of a municipal nature between the sessions of town meetings.  The inhabitants who lived within one mile of the meeting place could take part in these township meetings.

  A town or township clerk kept a record of town meetings and acted as an authority on procedure.  Regulations had to be approved by a Court of Quarter Session, a system also used in Upper Canada. People of the middle Grand River area had to travel to Detroit in order to have their cases heard before local facilities were available!

3. Autocratic System of Local Government

  Those Loyalist who came from the southern colonies were accustomed to having their colonies governed by Courts of Quarter Sessions composed of Justices of the Peace appointed by the governor who also appointed sheriffs, lieutenants of the county and bailiffs.  County Courts of Quarter Sessions carried out local government.  The Courts of Quarter Session existed for 50 years in Upper Canada.

4. Local Government in Upper Canada

  Many Loyalist who settled in Ontario and along the Grand River were from the State of New York and enjoyed a vigorous form of local government or autonomy.  Arriving in Upper Canada, these Loyalists wanted a district form of government, separate from the Province of Québec.  They disliked French civil law and the seigneurial system2, the land tenure of the Québec Act.  Britain was worried that the granting of democratic local institutions could encourage revolution again.

  Between 1783 and 1787, petitions of Loyalists for some form of local courts and administration in Upper Canada were presented.  The British did give the inhabitants local government centres on the Courts of Quarter Session like the southern states and in Britain.  As a result, in 1788, four large districts were created which extended from Lake St. Francis in the east to the Detroit River in the west; namely Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, Nassau and Hesse3.

  The Loyalists were not satisfied with the autocratic nature of local government established in the Courts of Quarter Session.   They began to organize settlements based on the township system and rather than number townships named them for the members of the royal family of King George III.  The first township was named Kingstown or Kingston, followed by Ernest town for Prince Ernest, eighth child of George III, Frederickburg for the ninth child, Adolphustown for his tenth son.  English royalty names were well-represented in the naming of the townships.  The Statute of 1793 stated that "the township meeting" was the functioning body of the township.

  The efforts of the Loyalists for a separate province with English civil law and freehold of land tenure finally won out!  The Constitutional Act of 1791 separated the province of Upper (Ontario) and Lower (Québec) Canada. giving each province a governor, appointed council and representative assembly.

  The Loyalist were in the majority when the First Bill was introduced in the Assembly of 1792 which authorized town meetings.  Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe distrusted this form of local government and shelved the Bill.

5. The Government in Upper Canada

  Lieutenant Simcoe, officer and gentleman, wanted to establish an aristocracy in Upper Canada.  He thought that the upper class provided a safeguard against revolution or dissatisfaction.  The people must be led by those "born to govern".

  Simcoe's government was based entirely on British principles.  The upper class comprised the majority on both the executive and legislative councils.  The elected assembly could be blocked by the councils or by the Lieutenant Governor.

  In the building of roads and bridges, the executive council made the decisions of their whereabouts and they were often built where they were more useful to families and friends, rather than to the community.  Is it any wonder that the Loyalists saw the need to forge ahead for local self-government to stem the tide of a British upper class government in Upper Canada?

  In the later part of the 18th century, it was the struggle of Loyalists for local self-government in introducing the township system and retaining freehold of land tenure which laid the foundation of the county system in the early 19th century.  Part II will discuss the advent of the Ontario County system which still prevails today.


1 The Thirteen Colonies were made up of the following colonies:

Northern: Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Hampshire.

Middle: New York, Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Southern: Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina.

2 The seigneurial system of land holding in Québec was a modified form of feudalism.  The seigneur or lord received his land grant from the King of France, pledged homage and service to him.  He divided his seigneury or estate into farms to obtain settlers and see that the land was cleared.  Rent, all taxes, farm produce and labour were required of the farmers in exchange for their land.


3 In 1774 the province of Canada was divided into two districts -- Lancaster that became known as Upper Canada a, and Québec.  In July 1788, during his second term as Governor, Sir Guy Carleton split Lancaster into four districts: Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, Nassau and Hesse with separate judicial entities.