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150 Years of Forgetting About the Tenant League – Part 1

Updated: Dec 3, 2019


1864 was a year like any other. At Heligoland, while the sun set on the age of sail, across the ocean the American Civil War recorded the first naval kill by a submarine. On the other side of the world the Taiping Rebellion ended with more than a million soldiers committed to a single battle and hundreds of thousands killed. James Clerk Maxwell was discovering the mysteries of light and Abraham Lincoln was re-elected. In our corner the Dominion of Canada was taking shape and on Prince Edward Island frustrations over the Land Question were coming to a head. 150 years later it’s the story of Confederation that seems to stick, providing the Island a resonance with the whole Canadian commons. However time, space, and tourism have skewed our lens, as the Charlottetown Conference was only a small stepping stone to a larger goal. Another great event of the time, the rise and fall of the Tenant League, was eventually what united the Island’s disenfranchised, freed the budding province from bondage, and set the tone for a future entry into Confederation. It was a movement and event unlike anything else seen in eastern Canada and takes company with the likes of the Upper Canada Rebellion and the Red River Rebellion as one of Canada’s few major revolts. But for all that it’s still a story you won’t find during 1864 Anniversary Week, or among any of the funded 2014 projects, nor on any event calendar or downtown heritage placard. So presented here, for your consideration, is the first post of three on the Tenant League of Prince Edward Island, charting its founding in 1864 to its faltering the following year and ultimate vindication in 1867

To be fair, there have been snippets of the League mentioned in passing here and there. Jim Hornby’s diligent review of newspapers from 1864 have been the most frequent citing. Boyd Becke had a short segment on Island Morning running over the events in a hurry, and it’s mentioned in passing in a few PEI 2014-funded documents such as the Public Archives 2014 Almanc. However this post summarizes and sources much of Ian Ross Robertson’s book The Tenant League of Prince Edward Island, to whom all credit is due and which I would recommend to anybody wishing to explore the history and background further. Robertson has written on this topic for many years and should be commended for the painstacking comprehensiveness of his record.

PEI in 1864

By the mid-1800s the Island was largely underdeveloped. Charlottetown was only incorporated in 1855 and while a busy port of trade, it still lacked basic amenities like gas lighting or sidewalks. People got everywhere by horse, buggy, or sleigh and the roads were notoriously muddy during the spring. There was generally three classes of people on the Island at the time: aristocrats (businessmen, lawyers, socialites, landlords, trade merchants, land agents), tradesmen (blacksmiths, woodworkers, tanners, local merchants, shipbuilders, sailors), and the rural class (farmers, lumberjacks, tavern keepers, stable hands, etc.). In 1767 the island had been divided into 67 lots which were sold off to members of the English upper class, with almost nothing left to the public, a unique situation in North America at the time. These proprietors largely left the management of their lots to landlords both local and relative, or rent collectors who could immediately oversee the land they owned and collect dues from it. Development of the lots fell to colonists who would sign a lease, or attorn, acknowledging the proprietor’s ownership and the colonist’s liability for rent. These settlers would spend years cutting down trees, removing stumps, tilling the soil, planting seeds, and managing crops before ever seeing a profit from their work. For this reason many of the farmers were left in arrears, or owing money to the lot’s proprietor. As well, it was common for farmers to not have met or heard from their landlord or rent collector for years, meaning when they did come around, the pressure to attorn or pay their arrears in full was great. If a farmer did not sign or pay they would be booted out and replaced, with none of their work compensated.

Tenants sought to purchase freehold status on their land so they could become independent and not owe a yearly rent, but many landlords and proprietors offered prices that were too high or were unwilling to sell, reluctant to give up potentially valuable property. The Leasehold system, as it was called, resulted in three broad categories of tenant farmers across the Island:

  1. Secure tenants, who had long leases and were up to date on their rents and who may be looking to purchase freehold status on their lands.

  2. Insecure tenants, due to short leases, verbal contracts, or if they were squatting on their land without the proprietor’s knowledge.

  3. Insecure tenants in arrears, who were behind on or owed payments and were at the mercy of the proprietor, potentially facing expulsion with no compensation for their work. However, it was common for landlords to allow tenants to be in arrears as long as they kept up on yearly rent from a point onwards.

This general insecurity for the majority of tenants began to harm the province through out-migration. Without freehold status, sons of farmers had no guarantee to the farms and lands of their fathers, and left the island to seek security in other places where freehold was common, such as the mainland or the United States. There was also a level of distrust between tenants and their proprietors. Tenants did not trust proprietors for their varied and sometimes unpredictable policies, and the unbalanced power in gave them in negotiation. The proprietor did not trust the farmer who was more likely to pay off debts to local merchants than to some oversees noble or a landlord they rarely saw.


Frustrations were already mounting moving into the 1860s and there were a number of efforts before the Tenant League which sought to resolve the Land Question in a legal manner. The four main acts were:

  1. Eschaet movement of the 1830s: Founded on a legal trick whereby lands in proprietor hands would revert to crown ownership if the proprietor could be said to not have promoted or developed the land as per the original 1767 conditions. It won widespread support during its time and sent a one-man delegation to London with three options for absolving the Land Question. But the delegation was denied an audience with the Colonial Office, who found their options undesirable, and the effort died soon after

  2. Land Purchase Act of 1853: An act conceived by the Reform movement which briefly gained power in the 1850s. It authorized the government to make large scale purchases of land and sell them back to their occupiers. But the Act was non-compulsory and many landlords did not sell. Only a small purchase was ever made under the Act.

  3. Land Commission Act of 1860: A royal commission comprised of six prominent absentee landlords who together owned more than a quarter of the Island. It sought to investigate the differences in rights between landowners and tenants and held public meetings, hearing from delegations across the Island. They collected a wide range of testimony on the hardships of the Leasehold system, but had trouble with a lack of properly kept records for all the farms and lands across the province in trying to figure out who owed what and how much. Their eventual report recommended tenants be given the right to purchase freehold and arrears prior to May 1st 1858 be forgiven. The large variation of circumstances across the Island made the Act almost impossible to enforce. Though they eventually settled on encouraging “compulsory compromise” as the solution, proprietors rejected the authority of the Commission, citing that it overstepped its bounds, and thanks in some part to English patronage, the Act was de-fanged and quietly shuffled out of mind.

  4. Fifteen Years Purchase Bill: A statute introduced that allowed tenants who held unexpired leases for more than forty years would, for a period of ten years, be allowed to purchase their lands for the equivalent of fifteen years rent plus arrears owing since May 1st 1858. The ruling was confusing and the date non-specific, chosen arbitrarily. It also only applied to the lands of twelve consenting landlords and some of whom saw it as an attack on their rights, calling it a “first invasion” and a  “wedge”. Islanders did not agree with it as it was largely inflexible in its terms, the price was very high and unattainable for many tenants individually, and it amounted to a boiled down version of previous land purchase efforts. By 1868 only forty-five tenants had used the act to gain freehold on their lands, some 0.82% of the land it applied to.

So whether it was because of the efforts of an entrenched nobility, poor record keeping, or inability to find a compromise, the Leasehold system survived. The advantages were too great for the proprietor seated in England to suddenly change the system to someone else’s benefit. Tenants frustrations had been brewing for decades and now a new disillusionment with the legal system and their government was beginning to prod sentiments over the edge. An election was three years away, but four previous governments had failed to achieve reform. Who could say a new one would be different? The tenants felt they could not wait any longer. It was time to organize.

“Every embarrassment should be caused to those Proprietors, their agents or bailiffs, who might have the hardihood to attempt seizing or selling the effects of any individual tenant in these localities.”


It’s hard to pin-point exactly where and when these sorts of movements begin. Who knows how long the idea was passed word of mouth and mulled over by the various communities sprinkled across PEI at the time. There were various claims made after the fact over which lot was the original starting point, and it’s possible there were many unconnected meetings across many lots over some time. The first recorded instance was reported in Edward Whelan’s newspaper The Examiner in December 1863 under the heading ‘Tenant Outbreak’ with text reading,

“We are informed that an attempt to force old arrears of rent on the Melville Estate, Lot 29 (near Crapaud), has been met with armed resistance, and that something in the form of a Tenant League has been organized there, to keep aloof the Bailiffs of the Agent.”

The incident passed largely without notice until January, when a similar encounter was reported on Peters Road, Lot 61, in Southern Kings. A letter to the Examiner signed ‘A Tenant’ reported that the land agent there had suddenly changed policy and demanded all arrears paid in full or their property would be seized. Records show that some 26% of the tenants on Lot 61 held their property by verbal agreement alone, while only a few leaseholders were given “fair circumstances”, and more than 70% of the farms were considered of poor quality. During the second week of January, the Sheriff reported that he had attempted to serve writs unsuccessfully three times and that the tenants of Peters Road,

“had formed a League with the tenantry of High Bank [on neighboring Lot 64] and are determined to resist the payment of rent.”

Three days after the publication of the Lot 61 report, John Ross reported in his newspaper Ross’s Weekly a tenant meeting on Lot 63 with some 700 people attending and which passed resolutions demanding the right to buy their farms on terms similar to those found during the sales of the Land Purchase Act of 1853. If not they would resist seizure and prevent any occupation of their lands by replacement tenants. They also demanded a decrease in rent and the remission of all previous arrears. Those in attendance had also pledged to march to Georgetown and demonstrate during the sale of two farms,

“not to molest the Sheriff or anybody else; …but to show their numbers, which would be sufficient … to deter any persons from bidding on their farms.”

The demonstration did not go through, the cited reason being “bad roads” and the farms were eventually sold off.


The sentiment however soon spread to Queens County, where more than one-half of all Islanders lived at the time, with Lots 29 and 34 declaring resistance to rent while demanding a conversion to freehold on “just and moderate terms.” Lot 29 was important to note in particular as 98.7% of the people occupying the land were paying tenants, the highest percentage anywhere on the Island. During the same week the proprietors of Lot 34 printed an advertisement demanding all rents and arrears to be paid in full.

This was followed in late February and into March by three meetings on Lots 35, 36, and 37 held at taverns and hotels in Fort Augustus, Glenfinnan, and Ten Mile House with the intention of organizing a formal Tenant League. They invited their local assemblymen, Opposition Leader George Coles and Liberal Francis Kelly, to the second meeting and there 300 people demanded to purchase their lands in similar fashion to the Lot 63. The assemblymen strongly opposed the resistance to rent and warned against taking illegal action, but eleven days later at the third meeting, a committee was formed to “correspond with the other tenants in Lot 48, 63, 64, etc in carrying out the proposals we have made to the proprietors.”

The meeting on Lot 48 in particular was described as ominous and referred to the Island’s leasehold tenure as a ‘slave-holding system’ and stated that,

“the Tenantry of this Island, heretofor loyal, sympathetic and patriotic, have ultimately been driven by Proprietary oppression into extreme measures, if not desperation.”

a striking departure in tone from previous meetings. They too pledged to resist their rents and sought purchase terms similar to those other Lots had demanded.

On March 16th, the first day of a new session of legislature, Lots 49 and 50 met at the Mount Mellick schoolhouse. There one George F. Adams, a tavern keeper and postman, was the mover of the first resolution which advocated, among many things, “conformity therewith as a combined and united Tenant organization.” Alexander McNeill, a long-time teacher in the district, acted as secretary and prepared the published report.

From there, between late March and May 19th, no fewer than thirteen official meetings were recorded, extending from Campbellton, Lot 4, in the north-west, all the way to Rollo Bay Cross Roads at the eastern end, with seven of the thirteen occurring in Queens county.

What was most striking about the movement to observers was the broad support it received from all sides. In a time that was still regularly divided along sectarian and cultural lines, the tenant meetings were drawing together crowds of Roman Catholics and Protestants, Tories and Liberals, Irish, Scottish, and Acadians all under one roof and behind a single cause. There were few grievances at the time that garnered such universal scorn as the Leasehold system and it was showing not just in the numbers but in the very people it drew out.

“Let no man be deceived in this matter. The law will be enforced even should it require the presence of a company of troops in every county in the Island.”

-William H. Pope


On May 19th, 1864, seventy to eighty delegates from across the townships of PEI assembled in Charlottetown’s then largest hotel for the founding convention of the new Tenant League. Tenantry was not a requirement for joining, only the intent to assist, and members came from a diverse group that included freeholders, trades people, merchants, teachers, and one reporter, though press, politicians, and the general public were barred from the convention. Members did have to pay five shillings and sign a Tenant’s Pledge which vowed the signator to

“withhold the further liquidation of rent and arrears of rent” … “and to resist the distraint, coercion, ejection, seizure, and sale for rent and arrears of rent.”

 The point of seeking purchase of land with a “fair offer” was also important and anyone coming up short would forfeit the “sympathy and all the advantages of this Union.” The delegates also signed a petition against the Fifteen Years Purchase Bill, the standing policy for land purchase at the time, and formed a Central Committee to ensure any purchases were done fairly and not outside the League’s pledge. A report on the convention and several addresses were published later and circulated among the general public. Included was an address by George F. Adams, an enigmatic person who quickly rose as a central voice in the movement. In his May 19th address to the convention he spoke of the importance of setting aside petty differences for united action, keeping the movement focused on the Land Question and out of politics, and seizing reform not as a gift from legislators but “by the people themselves demanding them, and in many instances, shedding their blood for them, and that too without a murmur.”

Today little record of Adams exists at all, with only the writings of his political enemies left detailing him. He is said to have come to the Island under an assumed name and was describe as a well-educated Englishman and “a wild Chartist“. His Half Way House in Vernon River was a well known spot that served meals and accommodations for travelers between Charlottetown and Georgetown. He was married to Martha Ramsay of Rose Hill, Prince County, whose family was involved in a number of legal disputes with a proprietor’s estate over several decades. His populist radicalism emerges in a few of his key writings during the time, such as in one published address connecting the land question to broader issues of the time:

“These districts [in Southern Kings County] have thus taught the people of the Island a lesson which I trust they will never forget, that is, whenever a people have a grievance, never to be afraid nor hesitate to at once take action and look for and have their rights, and always depending on a majority of the people afterwards in supporting them; this is a fact worth knowing, and one that will be acted upon hereafter on many questions besides the one we now have at hand.”

The editorial reaction to the convention can be said to have centered around three main newspapers and their editors. John Ross, an Orangeman and editor of Ross’s Weekly, was the most sympathetic to the cause and was the paper of note for publishing and circulating the convention report and various addresses. Ross openly stated in his paper that the time had come for “the people to take matters into their own hands and declare that they shall become free men.” William H. Pope was a Tory lawyer politican, older brother of then premier James Pope, editor of The Islander paper, and a man “more cunning, more perseverance in pursuit of his object (no matter what it is,) and more real talent than any other man in his party.” as described by his rival Whelan. Pope had already come out against the Tenant League and its resistance to rent well before the convention, and many of the leading members of the movement were from his constituency. Edward Whelan, in contrast, was a Liberal politician and editor of The Examiner, and at least somewhat supportive of the reasons for resistance, but not the method. He believed the Tenant League would only delay the resolution of the Land Question, not quicken it. In an article he wrote entitled ‘The Tenant Union – Its Advantages and Abuses’ he made the case for seeking reprieve through “representative institutions”, criticized Adams for his “extraordinary and indefensible” positions, and stated:

“Gongs, and tin kettles, and a few discharges of musketry, may frighten a worthless Bailiff out of a settlement; and perhaps it would be of no great harm if the dirty fellow was favoured with a bath in the nearest duck pond; but it is not the Bailiff alone that is outraged in this case. It is the majesty of the law – it is authority of one of the greatest empires in the world that is thus impotently and foolishy defied.”

For Pope and Whelan in particular, there was a fear that a united front would rise to form a new political party and usurp the common Tory/Liberal rule.

On June 7th the Central Committee met and there Adams suggested the creation of a list of enemies comprised of people who made purchases or bids on items sold to make up rent. He suggested using shunning, or social and economic ostracisation – a tactic seen primarily in Ireland, especially in the case of Charles C. Boycott – as a way of ensuring people’s commitment to the cause and damaging those who worked against them. Adams expressly stated “for whosoever is not with us we take to be against us.”


First Acts

Contrary to maybe the fears at the time, the first act of the Tenant League was not violence, but a purchase. On August 2nd, 1864, Adams announced that Robert Haythorne, one of three proprietors on Lot 49, had reached a deal with his tenantry to sell off 5,502 acres, affecting about fifty to sixty tenants. The deal had been struck by the Lot’s three member committee and the transaction, performed without any sort of government intervention, was seen as a vindication of the League’s efforts and greatly enhanced its credibility. A direct deal between a proprietor and his collective tenantry was unprecedented at the time. As well, the deal was significantly cheaper for the tenants than if they had done the same through the Fifteen Years Purchase Bill. By comparison, sales made through the Fifteen Years Purchase Bill by 1868 amounted to only 2,911 acres, or less than one percent of total eligible land. The Tenant League had outdone the government initiative by almost double in a single stroke.

Later in August, the two petitions against that Fifteen Years Purchase Bill reached the lieutenant governor, with 262 fisherman and 2,550 tenants and supporters signed on. But it did little to change officials’ minds and the Bill continued to live on.

It’s hard to say if it was the formation of the Tenant League, the Haythrone sale, or a general unease which changed the atmosphere on the island, but during the autumn of 1864 a number of proprietors and land agents suddenly shifted policy and made collection of rent and arrears a priority. George W. DeBlois, a land agent for three major estates, accounting for more than one-fifth of the land on the Island, published a notice on October 28th demanding tenants pay their annual rent along with a “fair proportion” of their arrears before November 21st or “they will be sued without further notice.” A week later, John Roach Bourke, another land agent, posted an advertisement demanding a “portion of arrears” from his tenants by November 25th. By the end of the month, Henry Palmer, agent for Lady Georgiana Fane, was seeking rent and “settlement of Accounts” in full, and the agent of James Montgomery, another large proprietor, notified tenants on Lots 34, 51, and 59 that rent and “other Amounts due…forthwith”.

While demanding rent and arrears may have seemed like provocation at the time, it more likely was an attempt by proprietors to secure their privileges in a potentially eroding system. Arrears in particular were considered “non-contractual privileges”, in that a proprietor could allow his/her tenants to fall into arrears, but they were not legally obligated to do so. It was a way for proprietors to keep tenants happy and compliant by looking the other way, but also used to control and dominate them, as even the threat of revoking arrears was enough to keep tenants in line for fear they would lose everything. The threat to proprietors was that if they looked away for too long, it was a privilege that would soon be considered a right by tenants. Arrears, then, only worked in the favor of the proprietor as long as the privilege could be granted or revoked. Remember that many contracts on the Island were verbal only or the records were very poorly kept. Landlords were fine with tenants being in arrears as long as they were up to date on their yearly rent. With the proprietors’ legitimacy threatened by shifting sentiments on the Island, the demand for rent and arrears in the autumn of 1864 could be seen as land owners reminding tenants of the shaky privileges they held and a reassertion of the rights of the owner. A conflict was beginning to form where both sides saw the issue as one of rights held by their side and not the other.

Following the Haythorne sale, on September 26th, 106 tenants of Lot 50 made an offer to their proprietors in England, Maria Matilda Fanning and Lady Louisa Wood. They stated they were of the Tenant League, that they would be paying no more rent, and made an offer for purchase. The reply they received from Fanning and Wood was a price more than triple what was offered, assurances that their condition had not changed, and before the tenants even received that reply, the newest landlord for Lot 50 was demanding rent and arrears paid by December 21st. The tenantry of Lot 50 reaffirmed their refusal to pay rent until “a right of purchase is afforded … on fair and just principles.” Their resolution was printed in Ross’s Weekly along with a preamble pinning the membership of the Tenant League at 11,000. The population of the Island at the time was only 80,857, and the census of 1861 listed a total of 11,439 land occupiers with 22,247 males over sixteen years of age. If the League’s claim was true, then they were backed by a staggering amount of support and consequently tenants who had pledged not to pay rent. Most notable about this number was the lack of controversy surrounding it, as even public figures like Pope and Whelan failed to dispute the spreading sentiment of the League.

While the vast majority of the League support was from rural communities, there was also support stemming from Charlottetown. In October the Central Committee had sent out an appeal, soliciting Charlottetown residents for funds and wishing “to know our friends from our foes.” By January the Committee had gave its thanks to the town and stated “the canvass of the town has fully realized our expectations.” In January, in a “crowded house” and after some “animated discussion”, the recently formed Charlottetown Literary and Debate Society unanimously passed a pro-Tenant League resolution. And the Grand Lodge of the Orangeman, a Protestant fraternity, found its members increasingly at odds, their support split between their fellow Orangemen and the Tenant League. Grand Secretary Thomas J. Leeming would later state in 1867 that the League had depleted the Orangemen’s ranks, as people chose to side with the tenants. The government grew wary of growing support in Charlottetown, their seat of power, and were already on shaky ground with many Islanders over the issue of Confederation. It was looking more like city folk were throwing their weight behind the League to curry favor with rural tradesmen and merchants, not wanting to be left out in the cold so to speak.

Furthers attempts at fair purchase were made in January of the new year, 1865. On Lots 63 and 64, George DeBlois and the estate of Samual Cunard he represented refused to budge, offering only a reduction in rent and preferring to deal under the conditions of the Fifteen Years Purchase Bill. DeBlois in particular was aggressive against the Tenant League, stating he would not speak or deal with anyone identifying themselves as part of the movement. In published correspondence with the tenants of Lot 48, he derided the “object” of the organization as “unlawful and seditious” and intended to “enforce from you the payment of every shilling of your rent.”



To this point the League had been active for close to a year and so far had successfully made a large purchase of land and contended with other stonewalling proprietors. That changed when on March 10th, 1865, Queens County Deputy Sheriff James Curtis rode out from Charlottetown to Fort Augustus and the Monaghan Settlement on Lot 36 intending to serve writs to tenants. One of the tenants he sought was James Callaghan, a tavern keeper and one of the early active supporters of the League. Curtis arrived at the tavern and met Callaghan’s wife and son, who told him he had already gone to town. When they learned who Curtis was, the son ordered him to leave but Curtis refused and stayed to eat dinner. When he attempted to leave on his horse he met three or four people, including Callaghan’s son, who told him not to go up the road any further. Curtis insisted and went on his way. Further up the road he met another one of Callaghan’s sons on horseback with a tin trumpet in his hands. The simple trumpets were commonly used to call workers in the fields to dinner, but the Tenant League increasingly used them to warn of oncoming law officers and to rally local farmers to resistance. Curtis’ report continued,

“Callaghan’s son turned his horse crossways on the road and endeavoured to present my getting along and ordered me to go back and dared me to go any further. I asked him the reason why I should go back, was I not at liberty to travel the road as well as any other person, he replied that I would find that our pretty quick that the devil much farther I would go until I would get my head in my hands.”

Curtis pressed on but encountered further resistance:

“[I] discovered three men in a field, two of them had a stick in their hand, the other had a Gun, they stood and looked at me and shortly proceeded to the road towards me, when they came to the gate they stood. I went on and never spoke to them and a little further on I met a man on the road with a Pitchfork in his hands and two boys each of them with a stick, they said nothing but looked ferocious.”

Still he moved on but “found at every farm people with large sticks in their hands all apparently acting together as the trumpets were blowing in every direction.” He attempted to get away, but trailed by a large crowd that assembled, he determined he would need a larger force to serve his writs.

His report sparked concern back in Charlottetown and there was uncertainty on how to proceed. The premier, James Pope, had only been appointed to the office less than ten weeks prior mostly for his anti-Confederation stance and because his older brother, William H., was unpopular with large portions of the Island. James Pope was primarily a businessman and had no stomach for the political game or potentially suppressing an open revolt. The government he led was fractured by key shuffling, mistrust, and resignations over the Confederation issue and was unable to rely on local militia as many of the members were active within the League or at least sympathetic to their cause. No previous official had ever called on on the loose militia the province once had, which left Pope with few easy options. On March 16th the Executive Council ordered the sheriff to call up the posse comitatus, or “the power of the county”, an archaic and little used form of marshaling men over the age of fifteen to suppress riots. It was evident to the Council at the time that something had to be done least things get completely out of their control, and the posse comitatus was there only shot.

But while the Council deliberated, the Tenant League moved forward with their plans. A rally was set a week to the day after Curtis’ journey, a march through the streets that would see League members from all across the Island assembled before the very face of the Council, revealing their numbers and proclaiming their legitimacy. The once loose assembly of committees would now be marching through the heart of the capital just as the government was mounting their own show of force.

Continued in Part 2

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