Beginning in the late 1840's the Ontario government gradually implemented a policy of northern expansion in Canada West. As part of this policy Muskoka was surveyed and made accessible during the next two decades.
In 1850 a treaty was signed between the Honorable B. Robinson and 36 chiefs of the Ojibway Nation ceding to the government the parcel of land northwest of Penetanguishine to Sault Saint Marie and eastward to the Ottawa River. In 1852 a resolution was introduced urging implementation of a free land grant policy. Despite opposition and reports that "the country was unfit as a whole for agricultural purposes" in 1857 Muskoka and Macaulay Townships were surveyed. The following year the first Muskoka road was surveyed from Washago to Muskoka Falls and settlement was underway.
Settlement was slow prior to the passing of the Free Grant and Homestead Act of 1868. The obligations of the settlers in this act were "to clear and have under cultivation at least 15 acres, two acres of which were to be cleared annually during the 5 years following the date of location; to build a house at least 16'x20' and to have actually and continually resided upon the land for 5 years after date of location", Each settler over 18 years of age could receive 100 acres or with a family 200 acres. (The act also applied to the townships of Parry Sound District). All applications were to made to Charles W. Lount, Crown Land Agent in Bracebridge
A strong campaign was carried out to attract settlers. In the late 1860's posters and pamphlets were distributed in Canada, Britain and several European Countries. By 1871 the population of Muskoka was 6,000. By 1881 the population increased to 13,000.
These free grants were not the success that either the government or the settlers had hoped for. So often the farmers were stuck with poor land and were forced to work in lumber camps and sawmills or shingle mills to augment their income As early as 1879 farmers were getting "Manitoba Fever" and heading west. Between 1900 and 1910 the pine trees were depleted and the number of farmers decreased by almost 50%! The tourism industry "took off" after 1896.
This article first appeared in the November 1985 newsletter, Volume 1 - Number 2