The Crawford Purchase of 1783 is one of the oldest land agreements between British authorities and Indigenous peoples in Upper Canada (later Ontario). It resulted in a large tract of territory along the north shore of the upper St. Lawrence River and the eastern end of Lake Ontario being opened for settlement by displaced Loyalists and Indigenous peoples who fought for and supported Britain during the American Revolution. The Crawford Purchase is one of many agreements made during the late 18th and 19th centuries, known collectively as the Upper Canada Land Surrenders. (See also Treaties with Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)
The Royal Proclamation of 1763 defined the boundaries between lands owned by the Crown and those occupied by Indigenous peoples in North America. All land west of the Province of Quebec was reserved as “Indian” land. Its boundary began at the south shore of Lake Nipissing and ended at a point where the 45th parallel of latitude crossed the St. Lawrence River. All land beyond this line (except for Hudson’s Bay Company territory and the Arctic) belonged to the Indigenous peoples who lived there, unless ceded by treaty or similar agreement.
During and after the American Revolutionary War (1775–83), many residents of the Thirteen Colonies and the new United States — the Loyalists — did not want to remain there. An estimated 40,000 to 50,000 came to British North America. Among the Loyalists were many Haudenosaunee allies of Britain, who also needed new land. Governor Sir Frederick Haldimand of the Province of Quebec (1778–86) recognized this need and also wanted the continued assistance of Britain’s Indigenous allies to help keep the Americans out.
The Mississaugas occupied the area east and west of present-day Kingston, Ontario. In a letter to Haldimand in mid-August 1783, Superintendent of Indian Affairs Sir John Johnson reported that the Mississaugas “seem to have no Objection to White People settling there, but say if their Brothers the Six Nations come there, they are so numerous they will overrun their hunting grounds, and oblige them to retire to New and distant grounds not so good or convenient to them.” Haldimand instructed Johnson to begin negotiations with the Mississaugas to purchase land.
Sir John Johnson assigned Captain William Redford Crawford, formerly of the King’s Royal Regiment of New York, to conduct negotiations with the Mississaugas. Crawford met with them in October 1783 on Carleton Island in the St. Lawrence River. Among the Indigenous representatives was elderly Chief Mynass, who lived at Lake of Two Mountains (present-day Oka).
In his report of 9 October, Crawford noted he bought “all the lands from the Toniata or Onagara River [Jones Creek near Brockville] to a river [Trent River] in the Bay of Quinte…including all the Islands,” and extending back from the lake “as far as a man can travel in a day.” Using this imprecise description, Crawford purchased the land in exchange for goods. He promised the Mississaugas “that all the families belonging to them shall be clothed and that those that have not fusees [flintlock muskets] shall receive new ones, some powder and ball for their winter hunting, as much coarse red cloth as will make about a dozen coats and as many laced hats.”
Crawford advised Johnson that Mynass had been very helpful in negotiating the agreement. The elderly chief claimed to own the land north of the St. Lawrence River to the Ottawa River and willingly ceded it to the Crown. Because of this, the British promised him and his family clothes during his lifetime. When Mynass died shortly afterward, the British continued to provide his family with clothing.
No copies of the deed for this transfer have survived. Additionally, a formal treaty was not signed; the only references to the wording of the agreement were mentioned in two letters, one from William Crawford to Sir John Johnson and a second from Johnson to Sir Frederick Haldimand. In essence, the Crawford Purchase was not a treaty. It was the acquisition of land without ongoing British obligations, such as annual payments or gifts, a key feature of most treaties.
Some sources incorrectly state that Crawford purchased two additional parcels of land along the shores of the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario. The first one covers the land between Brockville and the Quebec border (except for a narrow strip running inland from the river at St. Regis, which was acquired in 1847 from the Haudenosaunee). Crawford allegedly bought this land from the Algonquin and Haudenosaunee at the same time as the Trent River to Brockville tract. In fact, this territory was acquired by the St. Regis and Oswegatchie purchases of 1784. The second parcel includes land from the Trent River to the outskirts of present-day Toronto, bought in 1784, 1787 and 1788 from the Mississaugas. This latter parcel was actually acquired by the Johnson-Butler Purchase of 1787–88.
In 1784, Kanyen'kehà:ka (Mohawk) Chief John Deserontyon led about 100 followers to settle on part of the Crawford Purchase. In recognition of their support during the American Revolutionary War, the British officially granted this area to the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte in 1793 by Treaty 3 1/2. Today, it is known as Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, but its size has been reduced over the years.
When British surveyors arrived to lay out lots for townships, they learned that Chief Mynass did not control all the territory he claimed, which included the southern portion of traditional Algonquin territory. Although the Algonquin have unsuccessfully petitioned the government to assert their ownership to these lands for more than 200 years, it may be resolved shortly by the first modern treaty in Ontario. The Crawford Purchase is outside the claimed area.
Some sources refer to the Crawford Purchase as the “Gunshot Treaty.” This is incorrect; the actual Gunshot Treaty is the Johnson-Butler Purchase.
In 1929, the Crawford Purchase was designated as a National Historic Event. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada unveiled a plaque in Kingston in 1934 to commemorate this transaction. It is attached to an outside wall at Fort Frontenac, to the left of the fort’s Ontario Street archway entrance.