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AITKEN (Aitkin), ALEXANDER, surveyor; probably b. at Berwick-upon-Tweed, England, son of David Aitken and his wife, who may have been named Catherine; d. 1799 at Kingston, Upper Canada.

Raised in northern England and in Scotland, Alexander Aitken was trained as a surveyor, probably by his father. The date of his arrival in Canada is not known. Late in 1784 he was made a deputy surveyor at Cataraqui (Kingston, Ont.); his territory comprised the north shore of Lake Ontario. When what is now southern Ontario was divided into four districts in 1788, Aitken stayed on as deputy surveyor at Kingston, the district town of the new Mecklenburg (after 1792 Midland) District, but he continued to work in that part of the Nassau (Home) District which had been his responsibility before 1788. In 1792 he was transferred to the surveyor general’s office, created that year for the new province of Upper Canada, but the nature of his duties did not change. He worked with the land board of the Mecklenburg District from its creation in 1788 until its abolition in 1794.

As deputy surveyor Aitken’s duties included continuing the actual surveys of his area, usually a concession or two at a time, establishing township boundaries, drawing plans for the government, and assigning lots, principally to loyalists in the early years. The territory Aitken surveyed began at the western end of what is now Leeds County and included the present Frontenac, Lennox and Addington, and Hastings counties, basically in the first two rows of townships from the waterfront. John Collins had already surveyed the Kingston town plot but Aitken resurveyed parts of it, laid out the town extensions, and in 1790 made the surveys of Point Frederick. He also surveyed much of Prince Edward County and the islands east of it.

In the Home District to the west Aitken surveyed the first concessions of Murray Township in Northumberland County, the Presqu’ile peninsula, and the town plot for Newcastle. His most important work to the west, however, concerned the plans for York (Toronto). In 1788 he had prepared the first plan for Lord Dorchester [Carleton*], and when John Graves Simcoe* was appointed lieutenant governor of the new province, Aitken accompanied him on his expedition north to what is now Lake Simcoe, the shores of which he then surveyed. In 1793 he prepared a new town plan of York and surveyed the shores of Burlington Bay (Hamilton harbour) and the start of Dundas Street to the west. The following year saw him doing further work along Yonge Street, north of York, and at Penetanguishene harbour.

Much of his surveying was extremely frustrating. Basic equipment was frequently unavailable, pay for the crew was slow in coming, and settlers were dissatisfied with their locations. Poor farmland was a problem. Hungerford Township, for example, was all rock and swamp and he was afraid to offer it to anyone. Inaccuracy, or claims of inaccuracy, in surveys also caused problems. Aitken had to investigate claims that his predecessors had erred in the survey of Fredericksburgh (North and South Fredeidcksburgh) Township, and in 1797 he had to recommend the resurvey of Richmond Township. Peter Russell* claimed that Aitken and Augustus Jones* had made errors in the town plan of York. When Aitken was dying, however, Chief Justice John Elmsley* attested to his general competence, commenting that his death would be “a severe misfortune” for the public service.

Little is known of Aitken’s personal life. Though not highly paid, like all surveyors he received a number of land grants; he obtained 1,500 rural acres and a town plot in Kingston. When in that city he attended St George’s Church, to which he made various donations. The constant movement necessary to his work seems to have left little time for other interests. The conditions of his work were hardly conducive to good health, and he complained of “intermitting fever,” possibly malaria; he hurt his chest in a fall from a carriole and by 1797 was suffering from tuberculosis. His burial in St George’s cemetery (now St Paul’s churchyard) took place on 1 Jan. 1800. He had never married and his land holdings passed to his father in Scotland.

Frederick H. Armstrong

PAO, U. C., Lieutenant Governor’s Office, letterbook, 1799–1800, John Elmsley to Peter Hunter, 12 Nov. 1799; RG 1, A-I-1, 1–3; A-I-6, 1–2, 30; A-II-1, 1; C-I-4, 40; CB-1, 9–11. Queen’s University Archives (Kingston, Ont.), Hon. Richard Cartwright papers, account book, 1791–98; [E. E. Horsey], “Cataraqui, Fort Frontenac, Kingstown, Kingston” (typescript, 1937). Correspondence of LieutGovernor Simcoe (Cruikshank), II, 30, 71, 99, 111; III, 178, 263; V, 13, 14, 121, 163, 202, 237ff. The correspondence of the Honourable Peter Russell, with allied documents relating to his administration of the government of Upper Canada . . . , ed. E. A. Cruikshank and A. F. Hunter (3v., Toronto, 1932–36), I, 53, 65, 169–70, 226. Kingston before War of 1812 (Preston), 107, 125, 130, 296. PAO Report, 1905, 310, 385, 389, 426, 458, 461–62, 466–68, 472, 495, 507. Quebec Gazette, 10 July 1788. The town of York, 1793–1815; a collection of documents of early Toronto, ed. E. G. Firth (Toronto, 1962), xxxii, xxxvi, 11, 14, 23, 37. F. M. L. Thompson, Chartered surveyors, the growth of a profession (London, 1968). D. W. Thomson, Men and meridians: the history of surveying and mapping in Canada (3v., Ottawa, 1966–69), I, 225–26, 231. “Alexander Aitken,” Assoc. of Ont. Land Surveyors, Annual report (Toronto), 47 (1932), 100. Willis Chipman, “The life and times of Major Samuel Holland, surveyor-general, 1764–1801,” OH, XXI (1924), 55–57.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Frederick H. Armstrong, “AITKEN, ALEXANDER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 22, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/aitken_alexander_4E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/aitken_alexander_4E.html
Author of Article:   Frederick H. Armstrong
Title of Article:   AITKEN, ALEXANDER
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1979
Year of revision:   1979
Access Date:   September 22, 2023