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The Heritage Trails are presented courtesy of CKUA Radio Network and Cheryl Croucher

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Government of Alberta

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Dominion Land Survey

Listen to this Heritage Trail

From the air, Alberta looks like a giant quilt of farms and fields.

That's because of the way the landscape was laid out by the Dominion Land Survey.

As historian Merrily Aubrey explains, this huge undertaking dates back to the late 1860s.

In 1869 - that was when Canada purchased Rupert's Land from the Hudson's Bay Company - this was a massive territory that included much of what is now the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Alberta, Saskatchewan and parts of Manitoba. It needed to be prepared for the settlers and commerce that they were hoping to come in.

The Dominion Land Survey got its start in 1870, beginning with the Red River Settlement near Winnipeg. And out of this came a small province called Manitoba.

On March 2, 1871, the Governor General signed the order-in-council setting up the system of township and range that we have today - that checkerboard style that you see out on the prairie. Five days later, the Dominion Lands Branch was formed.
Within six years, meridians [and] baselines had been surveyed, and they'd marked from Winnipeg to the Rocky Mountains, and from the International Boundary to the North Saskatchewan River. They were hustling.

To facilitate the timely execution of the Dominion Land Survey, contracts were offered in different regions, and crews were hired locally. Once the main grid was established, then survey work could be done at a finer scale.

In-depth surveying did not start in the Alberta area until about 1880.
1883 marked the zenith of the number of commissioned surveyors - 115 in all.
This period of expanded survey activity happened to coincide with Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald's term as Minister of the Interior. And, 1883 was the year of the surprisingly rapid construction westward of the CPR mainline that season.
This particular thing was Macdonald's attempt to fulfill an election promise, made many years earlier, of a transcontinental railroad. And this was accomplished by 1885.

After 1881, land was allotted to the CPR as part of the company's payment for building the railway. The rest of the surveyed land was opened up for homesteading.

On the Heritage Trail,

I'm Cheryl Croucher.

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            For more on the history of settlement in Alberta, visit Peel’s Prairie Provinces.