The Districts of Upper Canada

In books and documents dealing with the history of Ontario references are frequently found to various divisions of the province, as, for example, the District of Hesse, the London Dis­trict, or the County of Carleton, names which have either dis­appeared from present-day maps or refer to divisions the boun­daries of which have been greatly altered. It is hoped that the following sketch of these subdivisions may serve as a convenient reference for students.1

With the coming of the Loyalists into the western part of the old Province of Quebec some means had to be devised for the government of this, as yet, very sparsely settled territory. So, on 24 July 1788 the Governor-in-Chief, Lord Dorchester, issued a proclamation2 dividing this territory into four districts (see Map 1):

  1. Luneburg, “bounded on the east by the eastern limit of a tract lately called or known by the name of Lancaster, pro­tracted northerly and southerly as far as our said Province extends, and bounded westerly by a north and south line intersect­ing the mouth of the river Gananoque, now called the Thames, above the rifts of the St. Lawrence, and extending southerly and northerly to the limits of our said province, therein comprehend­ing the several towns or tracts called or known by the names of Lancaster, Charlottenburg, Cornwall, Osnabruck, Williamsburg, Matilda, Edwardsburg, Augusta and Elizabethtown.”
  2. Mecklenburg, extending from the western limits of Lune­burg to a north and south line intersecting the mouth of the River Trent at its discharge “into the head of the Bay of Quinty and therein comprehending the several towns or tracts called or known by the names Pittsburg, Kingstown, Ernestown, Fred­ericksburg, Adolphustown, Marysburg, Sophiasburg, Ameliasburg, Sydney, Thurlow, Richmond and Camden.”
  3. Nassau, extending westerly from Mecklenburg “to a north and south line intersecting the extreme projection of Long Point into the lake Erie” and
  4. Hesse, comprehending “all the residue of our said Pro­vince in the western or inland parts thereof: of the entire breadth thereof from the southerly to the northerly boundary of the same.”

In assigning German names to these districts it may have been the intention to honour the royal family: Luneburg is taken from the former principality of Brunswick-Luneburg, part of the King­dom of Hanover; George Ill’s queen was Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz; and among the ancestresses of George III were a Countess of Nassau and a Duchess of Hesse-Darmstadt. G. C. Paterson, however, states3 that the districts were so named “out of consideration for the large German element in the United Empire Loyalist population.”

For purposes of parliamentary representation and also for militia purposes these districts were divided by a proclamation of Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe, dated 16 July 1792, into the nineteen original counties of Upper Canada: Glengary,4 Stormont, Dundas, Grenvill,[sic] Leeds, Frontenac, Ontario,5 Addington, Lenox,[sic] Prince Edward, Hastings, Northumberland, Durham, York, Lin­coln, Norfolk, Suffolk,6 Essex7 and Kent.8 were included in a strip four miles wide along the south shore of Lake St. Clair and in the town of Detroit.” – “The First Legislators of Upper Canada,” Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, Sec. II, 1902, p. 113. For the exact boundaries see Simcoe’s proclamation (Fourth Report of the Ontario Bureau of Archives (1906), pp. 176-181.] These divisions (the name ‘Ontario’ has been omitted) are shown on Map 2. In this list of counties it will be noted that the names assigned to the counties west of Hastings are in order the names of the counties in England which border on the North Sea and the Straits of Dover, reading from north to south. For the several counties Simcoe named “County Lieu­tenants”, answering to the Lords Lieutenant of English counties, to whom was committed the organization and command of the county militia, and on whose recommendation the magistrates were appointed.9 It was not, however, until 1849 that the County succeeded the District as a division for municipal and judicial purposes.

From the formation of the districts in 1788 until 1841 the management of local affairs in each district was committed to the District Court of General Quarter Sessions of the Peace, com­posed of magistrates appointed by the Governor or Lieutenant-Governor in Council. The system of municipal government by appointed justices was, of course, of British origin, where, until 1835, the rural districts of England were governed by the abso­lute patriarchal sway of the Justices of the Peace. But this sys­tem had also been introduced and developed in the American colonies: the Loyalists would therefore be accustomed to such a system. The powers of these courts were many and varied, and included much of the work later (after 1841) entrusted to muni­cipal councils. Their powers included 10 the erection and man­agement of court-houses, gaols and asylums; the laying out and improvement of the highways; the making of assessments there­for and also “to pay the wages of members of the House of Assembly”; the making of regulations to prevent accidental fires; the appointment of district and township constables; fixing the fees of gaolers, of town or parish clerks, and of pound keepers; the appointment of street and highway surveyors, and inspectors of weights and measures; the regulation of ferries; the establish­ment and regulation of markets in various towns; and the grant­ing of certificates to applicants for licenses to sell liquor, and to ministers or clergymen of “dissenting” congregations authorizing them to solemnize marriages. The districts of these early days were thus very important political divisions, for the work of the district councils affected very closely the daily life of the in­habitants.

The four original districts—renamed in the opening session of the first parliament of Upper Canada by 32 Geo. HI, c. 8, the “Eastern”, “Midland”, “Home”, and “Western” districts—had, by 1 January 1800, been increased by subdivisions to eight, the Johnstown, Niagara, London and Newcastle districts having been thus formed.11 These districts are shown on Map 1. At the same time the number of counties was increased and in some cases their boundaries were changed. The territories contained in these districts in 1800 were as fol­lows:

  1. Eastern District — Counties of Glengarry, Stormont, Dundas, Prescott, Russell.
  2. Johnstown District — Counties of Grenville, Leeds, Carleton. (Carleton County, then altogether west of the Rideau River, in­cluding part of the present Carleton, Lanark, and part of Renfrew, was later divided info, the counties of Carleton and Lanark by 4 Geo. IV, c. 5.)
  3. Midland District — Counties of Frontenac (to which was added at this time the old county of Ontario), Lenox and Addington, Hastings, Prince Edward, “with all that tract of country which lies between the district of Johnstown and a line drawn north sixteen degrees west from the northwest angle of the town­ship of Rawdon, till it intersects the northern limits of the province, together with all the islands in the Ottawa River, wholly or in greater part opposite thereto.”
  4. Newcastle District—Counties of Northumberland and Durham “with all the lands in their rear, confined within their extreme boundaries, produced north sixteen degrees west, until they intersect the northern limits of the province.”
  5. Home District — County of York: the east riding of the county (west of the county of Durham); and the west riding of the county (the townships of Beverly and Flamborough and “so much of the tract of land upon the Grand River in the occupa­tion of the Six Nations Indians as lies to the northward of Dundas Street, and all the land between the said tract and the east riding of the county of York, with the reserved lands in the rear of the townships of Blenheim and Blanford.”)
  6. Niagara District — Counties of Lincoln (four ridings) and Haldimand.
  7. London District — Counties of Norfolk, Oxford and Middlesex, “with so much of the province as lies to the westward of the Home District and the District of Niagara, to the southward of Lake Huron, and between them and a line drawn north from a fixed boundary, (where the easternmost limits of the township of Oxford intersects the River Thames,) till it arrives at Lake Huron.”
  8. Western District—Essex and Kent “with so much of the province as is not included within any other district thereof.”

For some years the above districts remained unchanged, but, with an increase in population and wider settlement, demands arose for the creation of new districts. A few changes were made after 1820, but the greater number were made after 1835. Map 3 shows the districts in 1836. In 1849, when the County first -became the unit of division for municipal and judicial, as well as for parliamentary purposes, there were twenty districts in Canada West. Their boundaries are shown on Map 4.

  1. Eastern — Stormont, Dundas, Glengarry.
  2. Ottawa — Prescott, Russell.
  3. Dalhousie — Carleton (Erected into a separate district in 1838 from parts of the districts of Bathurst, Johnstown and Ottawa, by 1 Vic., c. 25.)
  4. Johnstown — Leeds and Grenville.
  5. Bathurst12 — Lanark and Renfrew.
  6. Midland — Frontenac, Lennox and Addington.
  7. Victoria — Hastings (Erected into a separate district, 1837, by 7 Wm. IV, c. 31).
  8. Prince Edward — Prince Edward (Separated from the Midland District, 1831, by 1 Wm. IV, c. 7).
  9. Newcastle — Northumberland and Durham.
  10. Colborne—Peterborough — then including Victoria (Separated from the Newcastle District, 1838, by 7 Wm. IV, c. 115).
  11. Home — York—-then including Ontario and Peel.
  12. Simcoe — Simcoe (Separated from the Home District, 1821, by 2 Geo. IV, c. 3, s. 7; erected into a separate district, 1837, by 7 Wm. IV, c. 32).
  13. Gore — Wentworth, Halton, and part of Brant (Formed out of parts of the Home and Niagara Districts in 1816 by 56 Geo. Ill, c. 19).
  14. Niagara — Lincoln, Welland, and part of Haldimand.
  15. Talbot — Norfolk and the remainder of Haldimand (Erected into a separate district in 1837 by 7 Wm. IV, c. 33).
  16. Western — Essex, Kent and Lambton.
  17. London — Elgin and a portion of Middlesex.
  18. Brock — Oxford—including part of Brant (Erected into a separate district, 1837, by 7 Wm. IV. c. 30).
  19. Wellington — Waterloo, Wellington, Grey and part of Perth (Erected into a separate district in 1838 by 7 Wm. IV, c. 116).
  20. Huron — Part of Middlesex and all the organized portions of the present county of Huron (Erected into a separate district in 1838 by 1 Vic., c. 26).

The province ceased to be divided into districts in 1849. The change was made by 12 Victoria, c. 78, s. 2: “The division of that part of the Province called Upper Canada, into Districts for judicial and other purposes, shall be and the same is hereby abolished.”


  1. Excerpted from George W. Spragge, “The Districts of Upper Canada, 1788-1849,” Ontario History, vol. xxxix (1947), pp. 91-100.
  2. The text is given in the Fourth Report of the Ontario Bureau of Archives (1906), p. 157.
  3. In “Land Settlement in Upper Canada” (Report of the Ontario Department of Records and Archives for 1920), 24.
  4. Sic – this is the original spelling.
  5. Consisting of Amherst, Simcoe, Wolfe and Howe Islands.
  6. Suffolk appears to have included the territory which now forms the counties of Middlesex and Elgin. It disappeared when the Act 38 Geo. III, c. 5, stating what townships were included in the various counties was proclaimed 1 January 1800.
  7. Roughly, Essex included the present Essex and Kent counties.
  8. Except for a strip four miles deep along the south shore of Lake St. Clair, Kent County was north of the Thames, and included all the lands not in the possession of or reserved for Indians and not included in other districts. “A large county surely,” wrote C. C. James, “but the voters [for members of the first Parliament of Upper Canada
  9. A list of the first Count)’ Lieutenants may he found in R. S .Woods, Harrison Hall and its Associations (Chatham), 1896, p. 142.
  10. C. W. R. Biggar, The Municipal Manual (Toronto, 1900, 11th. ed.), pp. 1-3.
  11. 38 Geo. III, c. 5. The royal assent to this Act was promulgated by proclamation on 1 January 1800. The District of Newcastle, however, was not proclaimed until June, 1802. See Report of the Ontario Archives, 1906, p. 290.
  12. It is somewhat disconcerting to find that the County of Carleton was erected into the District of Bathurst, and a little later to find that the County of Carleton was erected into the District of Dalhousie, the District of Bathurst being composed of the counties of Lanark and Renfrew. The explanation is that the County of Carleton after 1800 was composed of what is now part of Carleton County, Lanark County, and part of Renfrew County. This was proclaimed a separate district by the name of Bathurst, 13 November 1882. Then, by Geo. IV, c. 5 (1824), Carleton County was divided into the counties of Carleton and Lanark, the area of Carleton being restricted to seven townships. In 1838 Carleton County was enlarged and erected into the District of Dalhousie, part of old Carleton County, viz. Lanark and the new County of Renfrew, retaining the name of the Bathurst District.