So What's The Deal With This Simcoe Guy? by Adam Bunch

Today is Simcoe Day in Toronto. Better known as that day we get off in August. So it seems like a natural time to tell you a little about John Graves Simcoe and why he's such a crazy-big deal that we name holidays after him, not to mention streets and lakes and stuff.

In short: he's the dude who founded Toronto.

He was born in England, in the mid-1700s. His dad was in the navy and had sailed with super-famous totally-important British explorer guy, James Cook. Simcoe followed in his father's footsteps and joined the army after going to rich British-people schools like Eton and Oxford and having joined the Freemasons. The army sent him to the United States during the American Revolution. He commanded troops on the British side. For the most part, it seems, he made a pretty good name for himself during that war. He won some battles. He gets points for having wanted to start an all-black regiment at a time when, it kinda goes without saying, most people in the States were super-fucking racist. But he also did some sketchy stuff. Like, say, the time he had his men bayonet a bunch of American rebels in their sleep. Or the time one of the young soldiers under his command try to run away from the army. Simcoe had him kneel in front his coffin so that his corpse pitched conveniently forward into it when Simcoe shot in him the back of the head. Still, he managed to impress his bosses in the British government.

Now, this is just a few decades after the English had taken control of the land that Toronto is built on. It was the French who had first started to steal it away from the First Nations. We were, in fact, part of Québec originally. The French had even set up a trading post, Fort Rouillé, on a spot that's now on the Exhibition grounds. But as the British started winning the Seven Years' War, the French burned the fort to the ground and abandoned the whole area to the English. The Brits didn't do too much with it at first, since they were busy with the Americans. But after they'd lost the Revolution and the United States won independence, things started to change. 

For one, all of the people who had lived in the States but sided with the British needed somewhere to run away to. Their revolutionary neighbours had a habit of beating them and threatening their families and burning their houses to ground. So they came north to safety. Plus, the British were still all about extending their empire in the New World. And now all of their efforts were focused on Canada. One of the first things they did was to create a brand new province, which stretched across what's now called Southern Ontario. They named it Upper Canada because it was up-river on the St. Lawrence. And to run the whole thing, they decided to appoint a Lieutenant Governor. And their choice for the job? John Graves Simcoe.

He set to work looking for a place to build a new capital. The original one was at Niagara-on-the-Lake (then called Newark). And it was waaaaay the hell too close to the Americans, who were pretty open about their pans to invade us and conquer us in those days. Simcoe wanted to put the capital in London, in the middle of nowhere, so it would be hard for an invading army to get to it. Other powerful British government guys thought Kingston would be better. In the end, they compromised. About halfway between London and Kingston, there was a spot on the northern shore of Lake Ontario that had a natural harbour. You could only sail into through one narrow opening on the western end. It would be easy to defend. That's where Simcoe decided to start the brand new town that would serve as the capital for his new province. He named it York, after King George's son Frederick, the Duke of York.

Toronto Harbour in 1793 (by Elizabeth Simcoe)
Simcoe sailed into our harbour in 1793. In those days, the shore was covered by an ancient forest, thousands of years old. Enormous oaks stretched up into the sky. There were bears and wolves and foxes and deer and bald eagle and flocks of passengers pigeons so thick they blotted out the sun for minutes at a time. Creeks and rivers spilled out into the bay: not just the Don and the Humber, but the Garrison and Taddle Creek and Castle Frank Brook, which have all been buried underground now. Simcoe picked a spot at the mouth of the Garrison and had his men start building Fort York. Further east, he had them clear enough space on the shore for ten blocks of the new town, to be laid out in an anal British grid pattern. They're still there, just east of the St. Lawrence Market. From Front up to Adelaide. From George over to Beverley. On their eastern edge, he built our first parliament buildings. And he also ordered two new roads to be cleared out of the wilderness. One would stretch north and be called Yonge Street. The other would head west toward London and be called Dundas. The building of Toronto had begun.

Simcoe brought his family with him. In their first few days here, they set up a big tent with wooden floors (which had once belonged to James Cook). Simcoe's wife, Elizabeth, painted watercolours of the bay and of the forest and kept a diary. They're one of the most vivid sources of history from our city's earliest days. Eventually, the Simcoe family built a house overlooking the forested slopes of the Don Valley (near where Bloor is now). They playfully named it after Simcoe's young son, Francis. It was called Castle Frank.

To populate the rest of the new capital, Simcoe called upon the families of the men who had been running the government out of Niagara-on-the-Lake. They were almost exclusively staunchly British, super-Protestant, American-hating, democracy-loathing rich guys. In exchange for moving out into the middle of nowhere, they'd get even richer. Simcoe gave them free land in town and country estates north of the city. Many of the families who moved here in those first few years became the ruling elite of Toronto. People like the Jarvis family. Or Peter Russell. For the next few decades, they would fight to keep all the power and land and money they could. They were a tight-knit group. They tended to go the same schools. Give each other jobs. Marry their children off to each other. Before long, it was almost like one big family with a pact to amass all the power they could. That's why William Lyon Mackenzie nicknamed them the Family Compact.  The city would be more than fifty years old and home to tens of thousands of people before their reign ended.

Castle Frank (by Elizabeth Simcoe)
Still, in some ways York was a fairly liberal place. One of Simcoe's greatest accomplishments in those early years was his fight against slavery. People tend to say that he abolished it right from the start, but that's not strictly true. He did want to do away with it immediately but some of those conservative friends of his weren't so sure. The Jarvises and the Russells had already brought their slaves to town. And they were willing to fight to defend their "right" to "own" them. In the end, there was a compromise. No new slaves would ever be allowed in Toronto. But those already here would be allowed to stay. They say by 1810, slavery had finally been wiped out in all of Upper Canada. No person would ever own another person here ever again.

Life wasn't always easy for Simcoe while he lived here. His newborn daughter, Katherine, died. She was buried in a cemetery near Fort York. It's still there, sort of, as Victoria Square, on Wellington just east of Bathurst. You can still find some of our city's oldest gravestones in that park. And soon, Simcoe had fallen ill himself. He was forced to leave the New World and head home to England. That's where he died, a few years later, in Exeter. And so, his body lies thousands of kilometers away on the other side of the Atlantic. But it's here that we remember him best. Happy Simcoe Day.


Main image: John Graves Simcoe

Adam Bunch is the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at

This post originally appeared on the Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog, which tells stories about the history of Toronto. You can read more highlights from it here, or visit it yourself here.


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