Seigneurial system of New France

Seigneurial system of New France

The seigneurial system of New France was the semi-feudal system of land distribution used in the colonies of New France.

Introduction to New France

The seigneurial system was introduced to New France in 1627 by Cardinal Richelieu. Under this system, the lands were arranged in long, narrow strips, called "seigneuries", along the banks of the Saint Lawrence River. Each piece of land belonged to the king of France and was maintained by the landlord, or "seigneur".

The "seigneur" divided the land further among his tenants, known as "censitaires" or "habitants", who cleared the land, built houses and other buildings, and farmed the land. The habitants paid taxes to the seigneur (the "cens et rentes", or "cents and rents"), and were usually required to work for their seigneur for three days per year, often building roads (the onerous "corvée").

Unlike the French feudalism from which it was derived, the lord of the manor was not granted the "haut" or "bas" jurisdiction to impose fines and penalties as in Europe; those powers were given to the Intendant of New France, a commissioner sent by the King.

Seigneuries were often divided into a number of areas. There was a common area on the shore of the St. Lawrence river, behind which was the best land and the seigneur's estate itself. There was also one or more sets of farmland, not adjacent to the river, immediately behind the first set.

In France, seigneurs were vassals to the king, who granted them the deeds to the seigneuries. The seigneurial system differed somewhat from its counterpart in France. The seigneurs of New France were not always nobles.

Seigneuries in North America were granted to military officers, some were owned by the Catholic clergy and even by unions of local inhabitants. In 1663, half of the seigneuries of New France were managed by women. This situation came to be because a woman could inherit her husband's property after his death.

In New France, the king was represented by his "intendant"; the first intendant of New France was Jean Talon who made it a requirement that seigneurs actually live on their estates. It also allowed for increased control over settlement by a central authority.

The seigneurs were never the real owners of their lands; they were concessions by the King in exchange for services. The seigneurs were responsible for building a mill and roads for the censitaires who were then responsible for working a number of days per year for the seigneur.

After the British conquest

After the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the conquest of Quebec by the British during the Seven Years' War, the system became an obstacle to colonization by British settlers. The Quebec Act of 1774 retained French civil law and therefore the seigneurial system.

It remained relatively intact for almost a century; many Englishmen and Scotsmen purchased seigneuries; others were divided equally between male and female offspring; some were run by the widows of seigneurs as their children grew to adulthood. Over time land became subdivided among the owners' offspring and descendants, resulting in increasingly narrow plots of land.

When Quebec was divided in December 1791 between Lower Canada (today's Quebec) and Upper Canada (today's Ontario), a 45.7-km (28½-mile) segment of the colonial boundary was drawn at the west edge of the westernmost seigneuries along the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers, accounting for the small triangle of land at Vaudreuil-Soulanges that belongs to Quebec rather than Ontario.


The seigneurial system was formally abolished by the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada and assented to by Governor Lord Elgin on June 22nd 1854 in "An Act for the Abolition of Feudal Rights and Duties in Lower Canada" which was brought into effect on December 18 of that year.

The act called for the creation of a special Seigneurial Court composed of all the justices of Lower Canada, which was presented a series of questions concerning the various economic and property rights that abolition would change.

Some of the vestiges of this system of landowning continued into the twentieth century as some of the feudal rents continued to be collected. The system was finally abolished when the last residual rents were repurchased through a system of Québec provincial bonds.

Fragmentary historical evidence

Remnants of the seigneurial system can be seen today in maps and satellite imagery of Quebec, with the characteristic "long lot" land system still forming the basic shape of current farm fields and clearings. This form of land use can also be seen in such images of Louisiana, which also began life as a French colony with somewhat similar agricultural patterns.

A comparable seigneurial system was the patroon system of heritable land that was established by the Dutch West India Company. The Company granted seigneurial powers to the "patrons" who paid for the transport of settlers in New Netherlands. The system was not abolished by the British when they took possession of the Dutch holdings.

The heirs of the patroons—bearing names like Schuyler, van Rensselaer, Pell, van Cortlandt, Livingston and Morris— dominated the colonial period and played major political roles in New York State even after the American Revolution.



* Jacques Mathieu. " [ Seigneurial system] ", in "The Canadian Encyclopedia", Historica Foundation of Canada. retrieved April 25, 2008
* Harris, Richard Colebrook (1966). "The Seigneurial System in Early Canada. A Geographical Study", Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 247 p.
* Marcel Trudel (1956). "The Seigneurial Regime", Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association, 18 pages

External links

* " [ Daily Life in New France] ", in History of Canada Online (through
* [,+Quebec&ie=UTF8&ll=46.62327,-71.955986&spn=0.107285,0.302467&t=k&om=1 Google Maps satellite image] (requires Javascript) showing Quebec riverside "long lot" land division

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