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Founding of Toronto, 1793

Toronto? Never heard of it!

Toronto was not a popular choice to locate the capital of the new province of Upper Canada. It was empty (as one writer said, "Not only a wilderness itself, but surrounded by forty miles of pathless, uninhabited forests"), unknown and far from existing communities, such as Kingston, Cornwall and the thriving lakeport of Newark.

Niagara, London, Toronto

In fact, the first session of the legislature of Upper Canada was held in the Town of Niagara (now Niagara-on-the-Lake). Simcoe had arrived there on July 26, 1792 to organize his government, and the first meeting was held six weeks later on September 17.
        Ever the true-blue Englishman, Simcoe changed the name of the town to Newark.

 

Governor John Graves Simcoe, with the Queen's Rangers as honour guard, staging a military ceremony at Newark on September 17, 1792 to open Upper Canada's first legislative assembly at Navy Hall. Painting by J.D. Kelly (Confederation Life Collection)

 

In 1792 King George III’s fourth son, Prince Edward, visited Governor Simcoe at Newark, the capital of Upper Canada, where he reviewed the Queen’s Rangers on the grounds of Navy Hall

 

By 1900 Navy Hall was in desperate need of restoration. Today it has been restoried.

Simcoe's 1792 parliament at Newark laid important underpinnings for the administration of Upper Canada. For example, it gave the new province English civil law and trial by jury, gave more English names to the four existing districts of Upper Canada, changing them from from Luneburg, Mecklenburg, Nassau and Hesse to Eastern, Midland, Home and Western, and provided a court house and jail in each district.

Governor John Graves Simcoe and The First Legistlature of Upper Canada
Navy Hall, Newark, 1792
First Legislature of Upper Canada, 1792

 

See Elizabeth Simcoe's collection of sketches and diary entries recording her trip to Newark and to Navy Hall and Niagara Falls in 1792.

The Archives of the Government of Ontario maintains a very interesting online exhibit entitled The Visual Diary of Elizabeth Simcoe: A Journey Through Upper and Lower Canada

See historic map of the Niagara frontier

     
      Because a war with the U.S. was looming, Simcoe was looking for a defensible site farther from the border. His first choice was to the southwest at London, which was more than remote from anything at the time. Simcoe had travelled by sleigh with Chief Joseph Brant in February of 1792 to Detroit and had been impressed with the London area. Mrs. Simcoe wrote, "he is confirmed in his opinion that the forks of the Thames is the most proper cite (sic) for the capital of the country, to be called New London on a fine dry plain without underwood but abounding in good oak trees." But Simcoe's superior, Lord Dorchester, Governor-in-Chief of North America, disallowed London as being too far from the water routes tied to the St. Lawrence River.

Toronto's advantages

On May 2, 17893 Simcoe made his first visit to Toronto, in company with seven officers. He was still not certain that he wanted it as his capital, but he viewed it as potentially a good naval station.The advantages of Toronto were that it was not right on the border, and it had one of the very few sheltered harbours on the British shore of Lake Ontario, useful for shipbuilding and as a base for naval operations to control the lake. The reconnaisance party stayed for a week, returning to Newark.
      After the visit, Simcoe spoke enthusiastically of Toronto for its natural harbour and a location near the eastern end of the bay, an oak forest, where he imagined a new town being built.


Toronto bay before 1793, unspoiled.
A view from the end of the bay toward the western gap, with the shoreline on the right.
Walking to the left around the bay took one out on the peninsula (now the Toronto islands).

The Government of Ontario Archives keeps a very interesting online exhibit entitled The Trip to York, consisting of Elizabeth Simcoe's sketches and extracts from her diary. It is part of a larger exhibit entitled Travels with Elizabeth Simcoe: A Visual Journey Through Upper and Lower Canada

A Glimpse of Paradise, 1793

Simcoe ordered that Toronto harbour be surveyed in 1793. The surveyor, Joseph Bouchette, wrote glowingly of the place as he undertook his task:

I still distinctly recollect the untamed aspect which the country exhibited when I first entered the beautiful basin ... Dense and trackless forests lined the margin of the lake and reflected their inverted image in its glassy surface. The wandering savage [sic] had constructed his ephemeral habitation beneath their luxuriant foliage—the group then consisting of two families of Mississagas [sic]—and the bay and neighbouring marshes were the hitherto uninvaded haunts of immense coveys of wild fowl. Indeed, they were so abundant as in some measure to annoy us during the night.
Scadding, Henry, Toronto of Old, p. 326f.

Toronto founded in a tent

After receiving word that Britain and France were at war, Simcoe sent a hundred of the Queen's Rangers to Toronto on July 19 to begin building and fortifying a new town. He was worried about what the U.S., which had strong ties with France, might do. The Rangers set up a tent camp at the entrance to the harbour, where Fort York now sits, and Simcoe followed a week later with his wife and children.

Simcoe directs the contruction of York, 1793
1793 Simcoe directing the Queen's Rangers in constructing his base at York

      Although no real settlement existed then at Toronto, the area was used by a number of people, including the Mississaugas, who lived by hunting and fishing, some fur traders, and a few early Loyalists who had fled from the U.S. to look for a place to begin farming. (Settlers were so few along the north shore of Lake Ontario before 1793 that Simcoe estimated there were only 15 families living between the Bay of Quinte and the Burlington Bay at the western end of the lake.)
      After an overnight boat trip from Newark, Simcoe, Elizabeth and their three children arrived in Toronto bay on July 30, 1793. After a few nights sleeping on the ship, the Simcoes, with soldiers of the Queen's Rangers felling trees around them, set up camp in a tent—a large, very special tent, which Captain Cook had used while exploring the Pacific and which Simcoe had purchased at a sale of Cook's effects in London before leaving for Upper Canada. Over the next few weeks, the tent was the Simcoe family home, as well as the office of the lieutenant-governor.
      Elizabeth Simcoe fell in love with Toronto and set about exploring the area, describing it in her diary and sketching various scenes. She enjoyed the clear, transparent water of the bay, the wooded peninsula (now the Toronto islands) on the horizon, and the oak grove next to the river, which was to be named the Don. The impressive white cliffs to the east, she wrote, "appeared so well we talked of building a summer residence there and calling it Scarborough." She was impressed by the Indians with their "superior air."


Night fishing for salmon, Toronto

The Deep, Mysterious Forest
In Toronto in 1810 (The Ryerson Press, Toronto, 1970, pp.3-4) Eric Wilfrid Hounsom has preserved some wonderful descriptions of how the land impressed early visitors:

      "We cannot completely visualize the Toronto of 1819 without considering its background - the hundreds of thousands of square miles of forest land, lakes, swampland and rivers, stretching from the Quebec border to the Detroit River, in which lived the sevety-five thousand people of Ontario. The site of Toronto in 1810 was partially cleared. This forest between the Humber and the Don, on the lakeshore, had never contained the stands of giant timber, such as white and yellow pine, which grew north of the town. A young man from Toronto, visiting England in June, 1812, had these trees north of Toronto in mind when he wrote to a brother back in Toronto: 'How beautiful must be the wodds begin to be with you. As for these English trees, I hardly think of them as wood. They are so small and stunted ...' This young man had seen no other trees than those in Ontario.
      "One writer of this time spoke of the country as one continued forest. He mentioned that there were some plains on the borders of Lake Erie and at the head of Lake Ontario, and that a few places were thinly wooded, but in general the land was 'heavily loaded' with trees . . .
      "Only a few original stands of timber remain in the province today, and relatively few people have seen them. The inhabitants of modern Toronto who have seen these giant trees can understand the emotions of the British settlers and travellers in 1810. The pines were from one foot to six feet in diameter and the largest were five hundred years old and as tall as a seventeen-storey office building. Nothing grew at the base of these enormous trees. The forest shut out all the sunshine and most of the daylight. The interior was a perpetual gloom of vaulted boughs and dead and broken limbs, with no shrubbery on the ground. The earth below was a black vegetable mould, a foot thick, with rank grass here and there sheltering rattelsnakes and lizards.
      "A solemn roar, like a muffled waterfall, could be heard, day and night. The trunks remained rigid in the greatest wind, but the hidden boughs at the top swayed and threshed about like a storm at sea . . .
      "A summer traveller says: 'The country has a dreary, cheerless, yet sublime appearance, impressing the mind with an indescribable sensation of awe, loneliness and astonishment, and bringing it back in imagination to the primitive ages of the world.'
      "A third observer stated: 'To the mere passing traveller who cares little for the beauties of scenery, there is certainly monotony in the long and unbroken line of woods, which insensibly inspire a feeling of gloom almost touching on sadness.'"

Outlandish Toronto Renamed
Declaring that the name Toronto sounded "outlandish," on August 24 Simcoe changed it to York, after the brother of the King, the Duke of York, who had just won a military victory in Holland against the French.

First Official Meeting at Toronto/York
Simcoe held the first meeting of his executive council in his tent at York on September 2, although only two other members attended—Peter Russell and William Osgoode.

Toronto, Montreal, New York
At the time Toronto was founded, the population of Montreal was about 18,000 and New York was 34,000.

More on the history of Jarvis Collegiate, early Toronto and William and Samuel Jarvis.


  • Benn, Carl, "Toronto the Diverse," in Explore Historic Toronto, Toronto Historical Board, November 1992.
  • Deny, William, and William Kilbourn, Toronto Observed, Oxford University Press, Toronto, 1986. ISBN 0-19-540508-0
  • Firth, Edith G., The Town of York, 1815-1834, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1966.
  • Hounsome, Eric, Toronto in 1810: The Town and Buildings, Cole Publishing Company Limited, Toronto, 1975.
  • Thompson, Austin Seton, Jarvis Street: A Story of Triumph and Tragedy, Personal Library Publishers, Toronto, 1980. ISBN 0-920510-15-9.