This Week in History


British Surveyor Charts "Lots" of Land

This story was initially published in 2003

On March 23, 1764, Samuel Holland received instruction from King George III of England to survey newly acquired territory in British North America (BNA). Holland worked as a surveyor and cartographer along the eastern coast of Canada; the accuracy and volume of his work earned him a place in the history of Canadian science and technology.

Samuel Holland
© Courtesy of the Public Archives and Records Office of Prince Edward Island, 2320/6-4
Samuel Holland was a skilled engineer with a talent for map making. An ambitious Dutchman, he moved to England in 1754 and joined the army. When the Peace of Paris Treaty (1763) ceded most of France’s possessions in what is now Canada to Great Britain, Holland proposed a scientific survey in the new territory to encourage land settlement and boost the fishing industry. Captain Holland was made Surveyor General of the province of Quebec and the northern part of BNA.

Holland’s principal task was to survey the Island of St. John (now Prince Edward Island), the Magdalen Islands, and Cape Breton — all areas of importance due to their fisheries. Supplied with equipment and rations for his crew of 40, Holland arrived in North America in October 1764. The extremely cold weather delayed the surveying until February 1765, but in the interim the men completed unfinished maps of Quebec. Holland’s work on the Island of St. John was completed within two years of his arrival. In his reports, he detailed the island's agricultural possibilities, its best harbours and best sites for major towns. These reports provoked “land-speculation fever” in British noblemen, officers and civil servants, and the surveyed lots were quickly distributed.

Samuel Holland's 1765 Survey and Map of St. John's Island (Prince Edward Island), showing proposed lots and parishes.
© Library and Archives Canada / NMC 23350

Holland set a new standard for accuracy in land measurement and mapping. He employed innovative equipment developed in England, including the astronomical clock and refracting telescope, to record his measurements with remarkable accuracy. Sitting for a brief time on the Legislative Council of Quebec, Holland consulted on such matters as roads and public works. He also surveyed Atlantic coastal land down to New York City before America's independence in 1783 reduced British land, and he continued to work in British territory until his death in 1801.


Samuel Johannes Holland is credited with completing the first organized scientific land and water survey in present-day Canada. Like surveyor Captain James Cook, Holland contributed greatly to the growth of surveying and mapping in Canada. Both men were designated National Historic Persons.

Additional information on the settlement of Prince Edward Island is available in the archives of This Week in History : "The Small Under the Protection of the Great"

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