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British and American Land Distribution Systems


The New England form of land division was one that derived from earlier English practices. At the heart of the approach was the effort to distribute parcels of each type of land, i.e. arable or crop land, pasture or meadow, and upland or woodland, to landholders so that their subsistence needs from these diverse resources could be met. This system had its origins in the Western European medieval open field manorial holdings where peasants might be allotted a number of strips, or furlongs, in a commonly worked open field and where they might share common grazing and other land resources. Many of the earliest Puritan settlers to New England, many of whom derived from the counties of Essex and Suffolk where open field farming had predominated, were familiar with this type of settlement system. Perhaps for this reason these approaches were reproduced by the authorities charged with creating the early colonial enterprise around Massachusetts Bay, even though social and economic changes were already starting to transform England’s manorial holding though a process of land reform known as the enclosure movement. In England enclosure led in time to the creation of unified individual farm units with the farmer living on his own holding rather than in a farm village. Ironically this same process of land reform was already underway in New England at the very time that British settlements were being initiated at Chignecto and elsewhere in Nova Scotia in the 1760s. In short these Nova Scotia Planter settlements were perpetuating what can

only be described as an obsolete system on the lands that they were taking over from the Acadians. The result was that these efforts imposed on the Tantramar an archaic system of fragmented land parcels in each of the major marsh units thrown open to settlers. Moreover, the low elevations and proneness to flooding ensured that farmsteads would be located on the ridges and intervales that rose above the marshes themselves. This meant that farm settlement tended to be semi-nucleated in that farmers were clustered loosely on this higher ground or were strung out along roads in a kind of street village form reminiscent of many similar rural settlements in Europe. As such, farmers inevitably had to walk out to their scattered holdings, a requirement that consumed a great deal of unproductive time. On the other hand, it is arguably the case that the fragmented nature of this system pushed farmers into cooperative solutions with respect to the labour needed to maintain roads, dykes and aboideau.

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