Major Samuel Holland (1728-1801)
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By The Late Hugh D. Ayers, P.Eng.

Both military engineer and civil servant, his survey expertise guided pioneer settlement within British Territorial claims.

Sir Isaac Newton died in 1727. In 1728, Samuel Jan Holland was born near Nijmegen in the Netherlands. By 1778, as Canada’s first Surveyor General, Holland would organize a plan of land subdivision for human settlement in Upper Canada. In response to influx of United Empire Loyalists, his plan extended from the Ottawa River to Long Point on Lake Erie and west and north to the probable limits of British territorial claims.

Mathematics, Mapping and the Military

Little is known about Holland’s boyhood years, when he demonstrated an early aptitude for spherical trigonometry and its application to topographic mapping. At age 17, he volunteered as a gunner in the Dutch artillery during the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748).

In this war, the Netherlands and England joined to duel against France and her allies. After the war, in 1749, Holland married Gertrude Hass, sister of two officers in his military unit. From his wartime experience, he acquired a commission as lieutenant, new skills in mapping and military mathematics, and a rare opportunity to associate with seasoned British officers.

In 1754, Holland abandoned Gertrude and departed his homeland for Britain, never to return. En route to Britain, he carried credentials in the form of maps he prepared in support of past military engagements. His work impressed senior British military commanders, who also recognized Holland’s fluency in several languages and his ambition for further military service. His ambition would be satisfied as the British-French European rivalry spilled over into the North American colonies during the Seven Years War (1756-1763).

General Wolfe: Louisbourg, Plains of Abraham

In 1756, the Earl of Loudon was appointed commander-in-chief of British forces in North America. Lieutenant Samuel Holland accompanied Loudon to the western continent; there he would serve under General James Wolfe. Served by Holland, his trusted engineering aide, Wolfe defeated the French at Louisbourg in 1758. After Louisbourg, by coincidence, Holland met Captain James Cook. Cook was the sailing master on the ship Pembroke commanded by Captain Simcoe (father of John Graves Simcoe). Cook observed Holland using the plane-table for topographic survey. Holland would demonstrate this procedure to Cook aboard the Pembroke. This meeting began a long association with Cook. Later, surveys, maps and river soundings by Holland set the battle plan for Wolfe’s second campaign in New France, the Siege of Quebec in 1759. In addition to Chipman’s account, in Blue Latitudes Tony Horwitz notes that “in 1759, as a young officer, Cook charted and buoyed the St. Lawrence River, helping British forces land troops near Quebec and defeat their French and Indian foes on the Plains of Abraham” (287). Also, Craig Brown recounts in The Illustrated History of Canada that “James Cook, the greatest navigator of his time, had already charted part of the GaspĂ© and had helped James Wolfe’s Armada navigate the St. Lawrence River” (97). Curiously, neither Horwitz nor Brown mention Holland’s part in the events they refer to. Also, Will Ferguson notes that Cook assisted Wolfe throughout surveys of the lower St. Lawrence, but without reference to Holland’s input to these surveys (166).

Wolfe’s victory at the battle of the Plains of Abraham secured much of North America for the British. Prior to the battle, Wolfe promoted Holland to the rank of Captain. Although there have been many claims about who was with Wolfe when he was mortally wounded, records show that Holland was at Wolfe’s side.

A Career Shift and a Second Marriage

In 1761, General Murray directed Holland to survey human settlement in New France. This assignment was completed in 1762, when he traveled to London to report the results of his surveys. His report to the Colonial Affairs officials was accompanied by General Murray’s accolade on his work: “He [Holland] came to this country in 1756, and ever since the siege of Louisbourg I have been myself a witness of his unwearied endeavors for the King’s service. In a word, he is an industrious brave officer. He would be desirous and deservedly merits to be advanced.”

Opportunity arrived in 1763, as the Treaty of Paris ended the Seven Years War. By this treaty, France relinquished all her colonial interests in North America, abandoning some 80,000 seasoned and intrepid French pioneers. Thus, the security of English-Americans to the south was no longer threatened by France. The English-Americans would focus their grievances against their absentee British landlords. Disputes over forced imports of British exports, colonial taxation and absence of parliamentary representation were some of the causes of the unrest.

It brewed for more than a decade (1765-1776). At the onset of this decade of unrest, Holland returned from England to Quebec on August 2, 1764. General Murray appointed him to the legislative council and to the post of General Commission for Peace for Quebec and Montreal. His appointment was accompanied by promotion to the rank of Surveyor General (army list as Captain) for Quebec and the Northern District of America. His instructions (perhaps in large part specified by Holland) were for precision and exactness in determining latitude and longitude for important places, such to be confirmed by careful astronomical observations.

His work would not begin until February 15, 1765. Harsh climate during winter survey, difficult communications and lack of cooperation between supporting military services would not deter Holland and his colleagues. By October 4, 1765, Holland provided maps of the settled portions of Prince Edward Island, Cape Breton and the Magdalen Islands. His maps included salient details relevant to future settlement, especially potential harbour sites. Thus, by 1765, at the age of 37, Holland’s work shifted from military to civilian affairs, including marriage to Marie Josephte Rolette. Her father did not approve of marriage to an accomplice to the defeat of the French in Quebec. Marie followed her heart and eloped with Samuel without leaving a trace of evidence of betrothal. After marriage and during the decade of colonial unrest, Holland surveyed throughout the rebellious colonies. He acquired landholdings in New Hampshire, Vermont, New York and New Jersey.

Meanwhile, England introduced the Quebec Act of 1774. It recognized the 80,000 French pioneers abandoned by France at the Treaty of Paris in 1763. The act provided continuity of French civil law and the Catholic religion for these pioneers. It also granted them claim to the territory north of the Ohio River, which currently includes the states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. Thus, the Quebec Act presented obstacles to western expansion by the English colonials and compounded grievances against the absentee British landlords.

Holland’s family residence in New Jersey was ransacked and burned by the patriots when warfare erupted in 1775. Other properties were confiscated without compensation to Holland and his heirs. In the midst of the American Revolution, Holland’s surveys were incomplete when he received two calls to military service. In one, history records that rebel forces offered Holland a responsible military position, which he apparently disdainfully refused out of loyalty to the British Crown. In the other, Holland served as a military engineer against rebel forces in New York and Philadelphia during 1776 and 1777. In 1778, Holland was recalled to Quebec by the governor, Sir Frederick Haldimand. There, he would resume his duties as Surveyor General.

Land for Loyalists and Ex-Officers

By 1778, families loyal to the British monarch and families of demobilized loyal military officers began their move north from the former American colonies. Like Holland, many of them lost all of their possessions to confiscation by the rebels. The main wave of United Empire Loyalists came in 1783 and 1784. In 1784, after much high adventure and resettlement, Holland reported that his marriage to Josephte had been productive. Their loyalist family included 10 children, of whom five were sons. Ironically, one son would die in a duel, shot by a dueling pistol given to Holland by General Wolfe. About 30,000 Loyalists settled in the Maritimes, and Quebec took in 3,000. The trickle of Loyalists into the area west of the Ottawa River turned into a flood of 7,800 settlers by 1788. Holland’s skills were in demand to assist in their resettlement west of the Ottawa River.

His plan was to subdivide a very large tract of wilderness into four districts:

  • Luneberg, from the Ottawa River west to the mouth of the
    Gananoque River.
  • Mecklenburg, from Gananoque west to the mouth of the Trent River.
  • Nassau, from the Trent west to Long Point on Lake Erie.
  • Hesse, from Long Point west to the limits of British territorial claims.

Boundaries between districts would extend northwards to the probable limits of settlement. To expedite settlement, each district was provided with a Land Board to advise the surveyors on priorities and the specific requirements for meeting settlers’ needs. Within each district, a baseline was struck out along larger rivers and lakes. The north shores of the St Lawrence River and Lake Ontario marked the path. Townships would be marked in the field, each forming a square of 20,000 acres (8,100 hectares). In turn, field notes of prominent landscape features along the baseline were recorded in the plan to provide a demarcation for 200-acre properties.

The allocation of 200-acre lots to settlers was by lottery. The British government specified a free grant of land in the unsettled areas to all who applied. Unfortunately, the influx precluded site preview, and many changes of property ownership followed. In the process, Holland gave Cataraqui (Kingston) special attention at the bequest of Governor Haldimand. The area between Cataraqui in the east to the Bay of Quinte in the west was of strategic importance. During 1783/1784, Holland undertook a thorough assessment of the area, including research of potential lands for the local Indian population.

Holland’s Last Days

Westward settlement was accompanied by the Constitutional Act of 1791, which divided the former colony of Quebec into Upper and Lower Canada. John Graves Simcoe was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada. Simcoe had good reason to consult with Holland, although his mandate as Surveyor General was limited to Lower Canada. Holland’s counsel was no doubt valued on issues such as the survey of the boundary between Upper and Lower Canada.

In 1792, at the age of 65, Holland visited Simcoe in Quebec. Simcoe would report that Holland’s strength was waning. The notaries who drafted Holland’s will in October 1800 noted that Major Samuel Holland, though ill in body, was sound in memory, mind, judgment and understanding. Major Samuel Holland died in Quebec on December 28, 1801. He was buried in the family plot of the English Cathedral.

The Holland Legacy

Holland’s survey methods, widely adopted in Upper Canada, would be applied in a slightly modified form in the Prairie provinces. In the spirit of his mandate, he served loyally as he pioneered westward and northward to the probable limits of British territorial claims.

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