The High Cost of Free Land

by Donna E. Williams



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When Ontario's Free Grants and Homestead Act was fiercely debated in 1868, some argued that Muskoka District should be opened for settlement, others that the place be reserved for Aboriginal peoples. Critics vented serious doubts about the "free grant" land-settlement scheme, citing the district's poor agricultural prospects. In the end, the decision was taken to open the northern district. Many homesteaders who then flocked north discovered that nothing is ever "free," and especially for farming, Muskoka's land exacted a high cost.

The story in Hardscrabble presents this important Canadian saga by taking readers to Britain where emigration philanthropists urged emigration of the country's poor to Canada, then follows these emigrants from their familiar setting to their strange new life in the Canadian wilderness. The initial romance of living off the land soon evaporated as these hapless individuals cleared the land, built shelters, and sowed crops in desolate locations.

Donna Williams's extensive research leads her to conclude that Muskoka's experience epitomizes the wrongheadedness of placing already poor people on remote land unsuited for farming.

Author Information

Donna E. Williams is an author and freelance editor. Following a 30-year career in trade book and magazine publishing, she returned to the University of Toronto and completed an M.A. in history. Hardscrabble is based on her master's thesis. She lives in Toronto.


Publisher: Dundurn, 2013

Category: History / Politics, Law & Society

ISBN: 978-1-45970-804-4

Price: $22.99 CDN

Format: Paperback, 208 pages, 6 x 9 in

Features: Extensive notes, bibliography, and index