Niagara Purchase | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Niagara Purchase

The Niagara Purchase of 1781, also known as Treaty 381, was one of the first land agreements between Indigenous peoples and British authorities in Upper Canada (later Ontario). It resulted in a six-and-a-half kilometre-wide strip along the west bank of the Niagara River, which connects Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, being made available for settlement by Loyalists who were displaced by the American Revolution. The Niagara Purchase was one of many agreements made in the 1700s and 1800s, which are collectively known as the Upper Canada Land Surrenders.

Historical Context

The 1763 Treaty of Paris resulted in New France becoming the British colony of Quebec. That same year, a Royal Proclamation defined the boundaries between the land owned by the Crown and those occupied by Indigenous peoples in the newly acquired territory. All land west of the Province of Quebec was reserved as “Indian” country. Its boundary started at the south shore of Lake Nipissing and ended at a point where the 45th parallel of latitude crossed the St. Lawrence River, just west of present-day Cornwall, Ontario. All land west of 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 another agreement with the Crown.

One of the first treaties to be negotiated under the terms of the Royal Proclamation was the Treaty of Niagara, 1764. In July and August, Superintendent of Indian Affairs Sir William Johnson and approximately 2,000 Indigenous people, representing more than 24 First Nations, met at Fort Niagara. The fort was situated at the mouth of the Niagara River and on the river’s east bank. Among other provisions, the treaty resulted in a six-and-a-half-kilometre-wide (four-mile) strip of land on the east bank of the Niagara River and a three-and-a-quarter-kilometre-wide (two-mile) strip along the west bank being sold to the British. At the insistence of the Haudenosaunee, however, these strips could be used by the Crown to portage around Niagara Falls,  but were not to be settled. Although the Mississaugas had claimed the area for several decades, they were not included in the treaty.

During the American Revolution (1775-1783), the British were anxious to maintain the safety of their western posts, especially those at Oswegatchie, Niagara, Detroit and Michilimackinac. These locations were key to preserving the fur trade, maintaining the allegiance of the Indigenous peoples in the west, including the Mississauga, Chippewa, Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi, as well as preventing American rebels from carrying out a flank attack on Canada. The safety of these posts was jeopardized by American attempts to gain the support of the First Nations and by the possibility of attacks from rebellious colonists who lived in settlements along the frontier. An additional problem was the long distance that provisions and reinforcements had to travel along vulnerable supply routes from Montreal and Quebec.

Frederick Haldimand had replaced Guy Carleton as governor of the Province of Quebec in 1778. Haldimand devised a plan that would reduce the vulnerability of the western posts and strengthen their ability to carry out their duties. He proposed the establishment of farming settlements near the posts, which provided provisions to the military garrisons. They also assisted with the large numbers of Indigenous warriors who visited the posts regularly and who traditionally were fed during such visits.

As the Revolution continued, there was an influx of American colonists and Indigenous peoples who remained loyal to the Crown in the Niagara area. Included among them were Butler’s Rangers, an organized military unit, and a large number of members of the Six Nations Confederacy. This increased population — at one time as high as 5,000 — put a strain on the British ability to feed and house them. As a result, Haldimand pursued his proposal for the establishment of agricultural settlements near the fort. There was local opposition to his idea, but Lord Germain, the British secretary of state for the colonies, supported Haldimand.

Although Fort Niagara was on the east bank of the Niagara River, the best area for farming was on the opposite side. The 1764 treaty negotiated by Sir William Johnson, however, imposed constraints on any settlement. Haldimand ordered the negotiation of a new treaty to resolve any outstanding Indigenous claims to the riverbanks so that his proposal for agricultural settlements could proceed.


In 1774, Colonel Guy Johnson replaced his uncle, Sir William Johnson, as superintendent of Indian Affairs. In October 1780, the Six Nations verbally agreed to allow an agricultural settlement on the west bank opposite the fort. In 1781, after Loyalists had already started to settle on the land, Johnson met with the chiefs of the Mississaugas in open council to discuss their claim and purchase a six-and-a-half-kilometre-wide strip of land along the west bank between Lakes Ontario and Erie. On 9 May, an agreement was reached and the Mississaugas accepted 300 suits of clothing as payment for the strip of land.


Settlement continued in the area and the Niagara township was formed in 1787. Survey lines dictated that the land cession included the eastern portions of the townships of Stamford, Willoughby and Bertie.

At the end of the American Revolution, as Fort Niagara was in the territory of the new United States, it was to be turned over to the Americans. Various unresolved treaty issues between the British and the Americans delayed this transfer and American soldiers did not gain control of the fort until 1796. The British retired across the river and built Fort George on the opposite bank.

Although the Niagara Purchase of 1781 is one of the earliest treaties, it ended up being numbered Treaty 381. This is because a copy was lost until 1896. When it was found, there was no other treaty to which it could logically be attached, so officials added it to the end of the numbering system.


On 16 May 1928, the Niagara Land Purchases were designated a Natural Historic Event. A Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada plaque commemorating the Niagara Land Purchases is located at 43 Castlereagh Street in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.