[Home]   [Documents]   [JargOnline]   [Jarvis History]   [All Pages]

Introduction to William and Samuel Jarvis
Part 2

William Jarvis's coat from the Queen's Rangers

This coat is still kept today at Old Fork York in Toronto.

"Although the general cut and the lace of this long-tailed coat date from 1775-1783, the coat itself is from the post-rebellion period. As a veteran officer on half pay, William Jarvis wore it at dinners, balls, and on other occasions. When it was decided to change the uniform of the Loyalist corps from green to scarlet, the Queen's Rangers, along with several other corps, sought to preserve the green. The Rangers' commander, John Graves Simcoe, wrote that green was the colour best suited to North American conditions: "If put on in the spring, by autumn it nearly fades with the leaves, preserving its characteristic of being scarcely discernible at a distance."
The Loyal Americans: The Military Role of the Loyalist Provincial Corps and Their Settlement in British North America, 1775-1784: A Travelling Exhibition of the Canadian War Museum, Robert S. Allen, ed. (National Museums of Canada, Ottawa, 1983). ISBN 0-660-10753-8

Heritage Toronto has many detailed photos of the Jarvis uniform with a commentary on its authenticity by Barry Rich, Uniform Curator, Parks Canada. Don't miss two exciting views of William Jarvis's breeches.

J arvis Collegiate was not named in honour of William Jarvis or his son, Samuel.
      Although they were important government officials in the early years of Toronto history and were socially prominent at the time, it is hard to find much to admire about them. In fact, both father and son were incompetent, lazy, selfish and dishonest, and while they were alive they earned a reputation for being incompetent, lazy, selfish and dishonest.
      Part of their unsavoury story is below.

The Jarvis family is sometimes imagined as a powerful, well established old Tory family with a prominent place in the early history of Toronto and Upper Canada. This is not quite true.

Samuel: tireless defender of the rich

I n the early decades of the 1800s the Jarvis family was powerful. In fact, the head of the second generation of Upper Canada Jarvises, Samuel, was indeed a member of the Family Compact.

      (If you're a little hazy on the early history of Upper Canada (unlikely), the Family Compact, was a small circle of people who dominated public life in the young province. They were implacably opposed to Reformers, the less powerful classes seeking a government more responsive to the common people. - Tomorrow there will be a test.)

      Samuel was so devoted to the interests of the Family Compact that he personally led a mob one night to break into the offices of a well known newspaper editor, William Lyon Mackenzie, a muck-raking firebrand, agitator for reform and eventually first mayor of Toronto. Samuel with his gang of wealthy louts, mostly sons of leading citizens studying to be lawyers, completely trashed Mackenzie's printing press.
      Senior government officials were embarrassed by such overt action against Mackenzie and regarded it as a scandal. But this didn't stop them from giving Samuel a government position soon afterward. Other participants received various promotions not long after the incident.
      A few years later Samuel admitted he had made an error in judgement: "I and my companions had the mortification to find that no one approved of an act, the impolicy of which (to say nothing of its bad tendency as an example) was too evident not to be seen by everybody, and by ourselves as well as others as soon as we reflected on it." But he was certainly not about to make an apology: "I call upon any man who may have preserved a file of the Colonial Advocate to turn to the number published on the 18th of May, 1826, as well as to those immediately preceding and following it, and then to inform me, if he can, in what country, and at what time, the feelings of a whole society were ever so barbarously and cruelly outraged as they were by this man, whom no one had ever injured."

Samuel is caught stealing, like his father

B ut the Jarvis story is not simply one of inherited wealth, power and the ruling class. The story has some twists and turns. As mentioned above, Samuel's political career came to an abrupt end when he was found stealing from the public treasury. And out of the ashes of his political career, Jarvis Street was born and Jarvis Collegiate got its name.

Samuel Jarvis
Tireless defender of the rich

      In looting the public coffers, Samuel was merely following a family tradition. A few decades earlier his father, William, had been caught stealing on his government job. He, too, lost his reputation and, more lucky than Samuel, he escaped, just barely, from being dismissed.


Lucky To Get Shot

The first Jarvis of Upper Canada, William, was born an American in quite modest circumstances, with no great hopes for his future. The luckiest thing that ever happened to him was to get shot. That put him on the path to riches and power, and made the Jarvis name what it is today in Toronto.

      W illiam Jarvis was born in Connecticut in 1756. His father was the town clerk of Stamford.
      During William's youth, the American colonies were still under British rule. But in 1776, as William reached the age of twenty, most of the American colonists joined in a war against Britain for their independence. William's fateful decision was to fight as a "Loyalist," that is, for the British rather than the for American revolutionaries—a decision which first shattered his life, but later turned into a godsend.
      Young William joined a fighting corps called the Queen's Rangers in 1777. By chance, the commander of the Queen's Rangers was Colonel John Graves Simcoe, who would, fifteen years later, be appointed first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada. This chance meeting meant everything to William Jarvis. Meeting and gaining the favour of Simcoe changed the life of this son of a town clerk who fought on the losing side in a war.

The Lucky Bullet

The question arises—How did a mere twenty-year-old ensign (a junior officer assigned to carry the flag into action) come to the attention of the commanding officer so strongly that he was given an appointment as a senior government official for a reward? Answer--he got shot.
      In June of 1781 during a skirmish between the Queen's Rangers and some American revolutionaries on a road in Virginia between Williamsburg and Jamestown—the battle of Spencer's Ordinary or Spencer's Tavern, in case you're ever in the area—ten of Simcoe's Rangers were killed and twenty-three were wounded. The wounded included two junior officers, one of whom was William Jarvis.

Simcoe's Gratitude

John Graves Simcoe was raised in a military family. His father was a British naval officer, and Simcoe felt a duty and a responsibility toward the men who were wounded under his command. In a book he published after the war, entitled A Journal of the Operations of The Queen's Rangers from the End of the Year 1777 to the Conclusion of the Late American War , he mentioned the two wounded junior officers, one of whom was Jarvis, by name.

John Graves Simcoe: a spectacular full-colour pinup portait.

After the war Jarvis tried to return to a normal life in Connecticut. But the Americans who had fought for independence were not happy to have those who fought for Britain as neighbours. Loyalists faced great hostility. William Jarvis was injured in an anti-Loyalist incident, and his family's property was confiscated.
      Most Loyalists ended up fleeing from the U.S., either north to what is now Canada or across the Atlantic to Britain. In 1784 or 1785 Jarvis moved to England.

H is life in England seems to have been much more comfortable and worry-free than that experienced by the average Loyalist. Generally Loyalists struggled in the post-war period because of financial difficulties, having lost everything in America—their homes, possessions, businesses, careers. They often became obsessed with seeking compensation from the British government. Such matters did not occupy Jarvis; he joined a local militia in England, found a wife (a good Loyalist girl from Connecticut, daughter of a clergyman) and started a family. Since no one named Jarvis was granted compensation by the British government in 1787, the most likely explanation for Jarvis's life of ease is that Simcoe was giving him assistance.

William Jarvis in England
waiting for his turn at the trough

Simcoe's Skilful Self-Promotion

Although it may be an indelicate way of phrasing it, the truth is that Jarvis rode to his small place in early Canadian history firmly on the coat-tails of the well-connected, upwardly mobile Simcoe.
      Simcoe was certainly a more enterprising person than Jarvis. After the war in America, he busied himself with advancing his career. First, he married an heiress. Then he was elected to the House of Commons. (Yet he didn't leave much of an impression there, where he was regarded as the soldierly, man-of-few words type. He spoke on one occasion, but his remarks only drew a devastating reply from Edmund Burke, the formidable thinker and debater.)
      But the most important work he did for himself was to write A Journal of the Operations of The Queen's Rangers from the End of the Year 1777 to the Conclusion of the Late American War . Was there a great public demand for books explaining Britain's humiliating defeat? Hardly. Although Simcoe had great stories to tell as one of the most successful British commanders during the war, his purpose was not to sell his book to the public at all. He published it privately in 1787, sending one copy to the King and copies later to various other prominent government officials. He wanted an official appointment in North America, a desire he stated very plainly in the letter he sent with his book to the under-secretary of state: "I should be happy to consecrate myself to the service of Great Britain in that country in preference to any situation of whatever emolument or dignity."

Government Appointments For The Former Queen's Rangers

S imcoe's efforts were eventually rewarded, after a long delay. Government appointments were suspended while the British Parliament debated legislation to reorganize the remaining North American possessions on the Atlantic coast and up the St. Lawrence River. The former province of Quebec was split into two provinces, Upper Canada (today's Ontario) and Lower Canada (today's Quebec).
      Before the Constitutional Act was officially passed in 1791, Simcoe learned that he would be appointed the first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada. It was his recommendation that William Jarvis be appointed first secretary and registrar of the new province.

The Smell Of Money

William Jarvis
wearing his Mason's medallion

Click on photo
to see larger size,
with a letter from Secretary Jarvis explaining how important he was.

      While the energetic Simcoe made plans for administering and developing Upper Canada, William Jarvis dreamt mostly of the money his new position would bring him. There was an annual salary of 300 pounds, as well as all the fees he would collect by issuing land titles. In a letter to his brother just before leaving England, William spelled out his hopes in some detail:
"I am told that, at this moment, there is not a single grant of land in U.C. but the lands are held by letters of occupation and that the grants are all to be made out by me after my arrival, at which the Secretary of L.C. (Lower Canada --ed.) is not well pleased, as the letters of occupation have been issued by him for some years without fee or reward, and by the division of the Province of Canada all the emoluments fall to my portion; there is, at this moment, from 12 to 20,000 persons holding lands on letters of license in Upper Canada at a guinea only each is a pretty thing to begin with."

Simcoe Has His Doubts About Jarvis

Within days of reaching Kingston, Upper Canada, Jarvis was complaining about his workload. "I have been very busy since my arrival here writing Proclamations," he wrote to his father-in-law. "It has been my ill luck to be obliged to copy so many in manuscript; the one at this moment in hand contains 11 sheets of foolscap. Tomorrow they go to Montreal for the press, yet I have had to prepare 8 copies in manuscript."
      Simcoe had already reprimanded him for not being prepared to take on his new job. Jarvis had not brought sufficient supplies from Britain, items such as parchment and beeswax, and especially a screw press so that documents could be imprinted with the Great Seal of the Province.
      During the next year or two, Simcoe looked for the best location for the provincial government, first trying Niagara, then scouting the area of London, finally settling on Toronto. Jarvis always moved slowly and reluctantly behind Simcoe, complaining about the inconveniences and the loss comfort to him and his family. His comments about the first move, from Kingston to Niagara, are typical:

"Col. Simcoe is at present very unwell at Niagara, and if he has a good shake with the ague I think it will be justice for his meanness in dragging us from this comfortable place (Kingston - ed.), to a spot on the globe that appears to me as if it had been deserted in consequence of a plague."
A few years later, just before Simcoe set off from Niagara to look over the Toronto site, Jarvis wrote sarcastically:
"After the Assembly is prorogued, the Colonel and his suite are to go to Toronto a city-hunting. I hope they will be successful."
And when Simcoe decided that Toronto would be the seat of government, Jarvis complained that he didn't want to leave his comfortable home in Niagara. He delayed and delayed, until his colleagues lost patience with him.
      William seems to have found a soul-mate in his wife. In a letter she wrote to her father from Niagara, she sang from William's hymn-book:
The Governor & famiy are gone to Toronto [now York] where it is said they winter—and a part of the regiment—they have or had not four days since a hut to shelter them from the weather—in tents—no means of warming themselves, but in bowers made of the limbs of trees—thus fare the regiment—the Governor has two canvas houses there—everybody are sick at York—but no matter—the Lady likes the place—therefore every one else must—Money is a God many worship ...

Hannah Jarvis, c. 1791
with daughters Maria Lavinia and Augusta Honoria

"Hannah Owen Peters was the daughter of Reverend Samuel Peters of Hebron, Connecticut. She married William Jarvis in 1785 in St. George's Church, Hanover Square, London. They had three sons and four daughters." The Loyal Americans: The Military Role of the Loyalist Provincial Corps and Their Settlement in British North America, 1775-1784: A Travelling Exhibition of the Canadian War Museum, Robert S. Allen, ed. (National Museums of Canada, Ottawa, 1983). ISBN 0-660-10753-8


  • How Mr. Secretary Jarvis once ran for election -- a comic tale.
  • William Jarvis: lazy, incompetent and dishonest, but a good family man.
  • William Jarvis: even the Masons found him lazy, incompetent and dishonest
  • William Jarvis, slave owner
  • Samuel Jarvis in a street fight with some native youths
  • Samuel Jarvis's duel in which he killed an 18-year-old neighbour -- his probably phony statement about what happened -- his time in jail -- his trial
  • William Jarvis's involvement in duelling
  • The three investigating committees which looked into Samuel's misuse of public funds
  • The Jarvis who consorted with the enemy when an American army invaded the city. [Note, July 1998: I saw one vague reference to this but haven't found details. According to Pierre Berton's book on the War of 1812, more than a few Torontonians consorted with the American invaders out of dislike for their own government.]
  • The social pretentiousness of William, also known as "Mr. Secretary Jarvis." [Note, July 1998: I have seen several references to this but have not been able to find details. The man is to be regarded as innocent until proven guilty.] [Further note, July 1998: Perhaps this letter by William Jarvis gives us a taste.]
  • Samuel Jarvis's assumption that he should be given the job of Secretary and Registrar because he was the son of William Jarvis. [Note, July 1998: Saw one reference to this, but have not found details. Sounds credible, but so far unproven.]

Note (Spring 1996): I'm beginning to have second thoughts about writing so much about William and Samuel Jarvis. While it may necessary to give background to the history of Jarvis Collegiate, there's no getting away from the fact that THESE GUYS WERE TURKEYS!! I just don't enjoy spending my time on them. Does anyone really want to read this stuff? Would you like to send me some encouragement? I may eventually get around to telling the whole story, but it will take a bit of time, as I have to hold my nose most of the time while I write.

Note (May 1998): The response I've had from various quarters to this material has been very encouraging. I'll see if I can find more. It was interesting recently to discover what a low opinion even the Freemasons of Upper Canada had of William Jarvis. As their first "Provincial Grand Master," he came from England with all the right accreditation and personal connections. But after a few years, the Masons of Upper Canada tired of his ways and tried to remove him from office.

Note (July 1998): The current generation of Jarvises seem to be a different breed, as a number of them have read these pages and contacted me, showing a very healthy sense of humour about their ancestors. In fact, they're making me feel a little bit of sympathy for William and Samuel (only a little). Only one person has complained—a United Empire Loyalist enthusiast who complained about "inaccuracies," which he did not specify, threatening to take the matter to the school principal, the Board trustees, and the media (I wish!). After I replied to him politely—yes, really—, I heard no more from him.