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History of Toronto and County of York in Ontario
Part II: The County of York - Chapter II


The Building of Yonge Street. — Origin of its Name. — Dundas Street.—Early Territorial Divisions of Upper Canada.—Extent of the county of York.-departure and DEATH of governor Simcoe.— Interest Attaching to His Name. — An Unpublished Letter of His. — Selfish and Unpatriotic Policy of other Lieutenant-Governors.—President Russell and His Successors. —Pen-Pictures by Robert Gourlay.

YORK and its neighbourhood soon began to present an appearance of energetic settlement and civilization. The harbour was surveyed by Joseph Bouchette, who, in a paragraph which has been quoted by every subsequent writer on the subject, describes "the untamed aspect which the country exhibited." The troops were well employed by Governor Simcoe m building operations, and in making roads. Mr. W. H. Smith, author of "Canada, Past, Present, and Future," writing in 1851, and commenting upon this utilitarian employment of the Provincial troops by our first Governor, remarks: "It would be well for the Province, and equally beneficial to the troops, if other Governors employed them as usefully. The Province would then derive some benefit from the troops being stationed here, and the men themselves would be more healthy, and from being actively employed would be less likely to be led themselves, or to lead others, into dissipation."

The most important highway surveyed and laid out under the Governor's auspices was Yonge Street, extending all the way from York to Lake Sirneoe, thirty miles distant in the northern wilderness. The name of "Yonge Street" was bestowed upon it by the Governor in honour of his friend Sir George Yonge, who was Secretary of War in the Imperial Cabinet during the early part of Governor Simcoe's residence in Upper Canada. It may also be mentioned that Lake Simcoe, just mentioned, was named by the Governor in honour of his father, Captain Simcoe, of the Royal Navy, who died on the St. Lawrence River during the expedition against Quebec in 1759. The building of Yonge Street was intended to serve the double purpose of opening up the country along the route, and of shortening and facilitating travel between Lake Ontario and the North-West. It is thus referred to by Provincial Surveyor D. W. Smyth, in his Gazetteer, published in 1799. "This communication affords many advantages. Merchandise from Montreal to Michmackinac may be sent this way at ten or fifteen pounds less expense per ton than by the route of the Grand or Ottawa Rivers, and the merchandise from New York to be sent up the North and Mohawk Rivers for the North-West trade, finding its way into Lake Ontario at Oswego, the advantage will certainly be felt of transporting goods from Oswego to York, and from thence across Yonge Street, and down the waters of Lake Simcoe into Lake Huron, in preference to sending it by Lake Erie."

Another well-known thoroughfare, which we owe to Governor Simcoe's enterprise, is Dundas Street, which was intended by him to be a means of communication throughout the whole of Upper Canada from east to west. It was named by him after the Right Hon. Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville, who was Colonial Secretary m those days. Only a small portion of it was actually built during Governor Simcoe's regime. A portion of it is still known in local parlance as the Governor's Road, though its proper and official designation is the one originally bestowed upon it.

The territorial divisions of Upper Canada in Governor Simcoe's days were very different from those now existing. The first was made by proclamation issued by Lord Dorchester, Governor-General of Canada, under authority of an Imperial statute. The proclamation was dated the 24th of July, 1788, at which date the Constitutional Act had not been passed, and while the Province afterwards known as Upper or Western Canada still formed a part of the Province of Quebec. The division thereby effected was into four districts, named respectively Lunenburgh, Mecklenburgh. Nassau and Hesse. The only one of the four with which the present narrative has any special concern is the District of Nassau, which embraced a large tract of country, extending westward from the head of the Pay of Quinté to a line extending due north from the extreme projection of Long Point, on Lake Erie. It thus included, among other land, the whole of the present County of York. This division was purely conventional and nominal, as the country was sparsely inhabited, and the necessity for minute and accurate boundary lines had not become pressing. Upon Governor Simcoe's arrival he made a second territorial division whereby the Province was divided into nineteen counties, one of which was the County of York. This was in the month of July, 1792, nearly a year before he had caught his first glimpse of the site of his future capital of that name. The County of York, as then defined, extended from the County of Durham westward to the River Thames, then called La Trenche or La Tranche. During the first session of the First Parliament of Upper Canada, which closed its sittings on the 15th of October, 1792, an Act was passed (32 Geo. III. cap 8) whereby the names of the four districts set apart in 1788 were altered to the Eastern, Midland, Home and Western Districts—the Home District corresponding to the one theretofore called Nassau. One member was deemed sufficient to represent the Counties of York and Durham and one Riding of the County of Lincoln in the Provincial Legislature. Parliament was convened at Newark for five successive years. It met at York for the first time in 1797, by which time Governor Simcoe had bidden the Province a final adieu. In the year 1796 he departed on a special diplomatic, mission to the Island of Hayti, or St. Domingo. After the fulfilment of his mission he returned to England. He died on the 25th of October, 1806, and his remains were interred in a little chapel on his Devonshire estates. A mural tablet is erected to his memory m Exeter Cathedral.

In this country, and more especially in the County of York, a strong interest must ever attach to the name of Governor Simcoe. This interest arises not merely from the fact that he was the first Governor of Upper Canada, but from his merits as a man and as an administrator. He was a man of enlightened views, in many respects considerably in advance of his time. He set on foot a wise system of administering public affairs, and, had his example been followed by his immediate successors, Upper Canada would have escaped some of the most serious evils which befell her during nearly half a century of her history. The special obligations of the County of York to him need no elaborate recapitulation. Briefly, it may be said that to him we owe the establishment of the Provincial and intellectual capital within our domain. To him we owe the construction of Yonge Street, and the opening up of the northern townships. His memory has claims upon us anil our descendants which are not likely to be forgotten. As everything relating to him may be supposed to have an interest for us, the following letter, addressed by him, about live years before his death, to the clergyman of his parish, and now published for the first tune, will doubtless be acceptable to the readers of this work. The original is in the possession of Dr. Scadding, of Toronto, whose valuable contributions to our local archaeology are well known.—"Dear Sir," it runs: "On the 22nd of this month I shall have lived half a century. You will therefore much oblige me if yen will spend the day with me, and will celebrate divine service at 12 o'clock in the chapel. I shall esteem it as a favour if you would take for your text 'Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, etc. The advantages of being a Christian, of having been educated by a most pious and excellent mother (my father dying, whilst. I was yet a infant, in the service of his country), assisted by the companions of my lathers youth and the protectors of my own; the advantages of being an Englishman, and of that Church where Christianity is administered in its purest form; the advantages of being a member of that government where laws are most equal, and where justice is administer. and in mercy and impressed on my heart, and I wish them to be recommended to y children L here is a text in Leviticus, I believe, that particularly enforces purity of heart to those who aspire to military command. As mine in all views is a military family, it may not be amiss in a more especial manner to inculcate the remembrance of the Creator to those who shall have in die solemn duties of protecting their country at these times from ford-usurpation. I am truly yours, J. G. S.. Feb. i4th, 1801."

This interesting letter is thoroughly characteristic of the man It breathes throughout a spirit of intelligent conservatism and devotion to duty Its writer was recognized by successive Governments as a useful public servant. He has left behind him very distinct traces of his temporary direction of Upper Canadian affairs. Lake Simcoe, named by him is already mentioned, commemorates to successive ages his own name and that of his father. The County of the same name, and the metropolitan town of die County of Norfolk, were also designated after the founder of York. Simcoe and John Streets, Toronto, were moreover so called by way of commemoration of his surname and one of his Christian names ' The maiden name of his wife, Miss Gwilhm, is also commemorated in the townships of North, East and West Gwillimbury.

The laying out of Yonge Street was prosecuted under the personal supervision of Mr. Augustus Jones, a well-known land surveyor of those primitive times. He began his labours on the 26th of February, 1794. For many years after the original survey, and indeed down to a period within the memory of persons still living in Toronto, it did not extend southern to the bay shore, but terminated at Queen (then called Lot) Street. During the early years of the present century it was impassable south of what is now Floor Street. Persons driving into Toronto from the northward were compelled to make a detour to the eastward until they arrived at Parliament Street, which was in tolerable condition for those times. In 1801 John Stegrnann, another land surveyor whose name is frequently met with in old Upper Canadian surveys, was appointed to examine and report upon the condition of Yonge Street. He reported that: "from the Town of York to the three-mile post on the Poplar Plains the road is cut, and that as yet the greater part of the said distance is not passable for any carriage whatever, on account of logs which he in the street. Prom thence to lot on Yonge Street the road is very difficult to pass at any time, agreeable to the present situation in which the said part of the street is." The Poplar Plains mentioned in this extract were situated immediately to the north of what is now Yorkville. Put Yonge Street was of too much importance to be allowed to remain in such a state as that above indicated. It was largely used by the North-West Company, to whom good roads were an object, for purposes of transportation. They supplied funds for the improvement of the road, and contributed for that purpose as much as £8,000 in one single payment. About the close of the first decade of-the century Yonge Street was serviceable along its entire length.

The land on each side of the road was granted to actual settlers on condition of their performing the usual settlement duties, which involved the necessity of building a house, clearing a proportionate part of the land, and "making the road across or in front of each lot." It might be supposed that such liberal terms as these would have been readily and eagerly taken advantage of; yet we find that the progress of actual settlement was slow. In 1799 the entire population of the Home District was only 224. For some years afterwards its growth was barely perceptible. In 1798 the aggregate population of the townships of York, Scarborough and Etobicoke, together with the Town of York itself, was only 749. For this state of things the line of policy adopted by Governor Simcoe's successors was in great measure responsible. Large tracts of land throughout the District were granted to favourites of successive administrations, and to others who could bring influence to bear upon those who had the ear of the executive. The lands so granted were usually "held for a rise" by the patentees, who resorted to all sorts of devices to avoid even the performance of the ordinary settlement duties. In this way a great proportion of the land was locked up in private hands, and practically closed to settlement. The practice flourished throughout the entire Province, but the Home District, being the headquarters of the Government, natural^ became the focus and centre of such abuses. More than ten millions of acres of the public lands had been granted to the U. F. Loyalist immigrants alone; and one-seventh of the entire lands of the Province had been appropriated for Clergy Reserves. It was easy to perceive that land in Upper Canada would in course of time become exceedingly valuable, and many pages might be written illustrative of the spirit of greed which animated the office-holders of those days.. There was very little check upon their rapacity, for the same spirit seemed to actuate all the officials, from the highest to the lowest. President Russell, who, as senior member of the Executive Council, succeeded to the administration of affairs upon Governor Simcoe's departure for the West Indies, was wont to make grants of public land directly to himself—the verbiage employed being somewhat after the following fashion: "I, Peter Russell, administrator, do grant unto Peter Russell," etc. During the regime of his successor, Lieutenant-General Peter Hunter, as well as under those of ..Commodore Grant and Francis Gore, similar practices prevailed, though it does not appear that in the case of any other person than Russell did the adminstrator go the length of conveying real estate directly to himself, without the intervention of a trustee.

In the original surveys of the territory embraced within the County of York, as then constituted, it appears that the frontier townships of Pickering, Scarborough and York were at first named Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dublin respectively. Pickering, as the reader is doubtless aware, now forms part of the County of Ontario. Full accounts of the other two townships will be found in their proper places in the present work, under separate and distinct headings, together with lists of the early patentees, showing the slow rate of progress of the settlements. The names of Glasgow and Dublin did not long attach to them, as it appears that they were known by their present designations before the advent of the present century. All. or nearly all, of the territory comprised within these townships, was surrendered by the Mississaga Indians to the Crown during the early months of Governor Simcoe's administration. Other surrenders were made from time to time until the Indian title was gradually extinguished, except as to lands specially reserved on their behalf, and as to which unfettered power of alienation was not admitted.

In 1798, during President Russell's direction of affairs, an Act was passed "for the better division of this Province," whereby it was enacted that the Counties of Northumberland, Durham, York and Simcoe should form the Home District. The County of York was divided into 'two parts, to be called respectively the East and West Ridings. The East Riding was declared to consist of the townships of Whitby, Pickering, Scarborough, York (including its peninsula, now the Island) Etobicoke, Markham, Vaughan, King, Whitchurch, Uxbridge, Gwillunbury, "and the tract of land hereafter to be laid out into townships, lying between the County of Durham and the Fake Simcoe." The West Riding was made up of the townships of Beverley and Flamborough, East and West, so much of the tract of land upon the Grand River m the occupation of the Six Nation Indians as lay to the northward of Uundas Street, and all the land between the said tract and the East Riding of the County of York, "with the reserved lands in the rear of the townships of Blenheim and Blandford." This adjustment remained undisturbed until the year 1816, when an Act was passed carving the District of Gore out of portions of the Niagara and Home Districts. By this Act also the township of Toronto was annexed to the East Riding of York. Five years later, in 1821, a new territorial division was made of the entire Province, whereby the townships of Reach, Brock, Scott and Georgina were annexed to the East Riding of York, and the townships of Albion, Caledon, Chinguacousy and the Gore of Toronto were annexed to the West Riding. The County of Simcoe was at the same time formed, being made up of various old and new townships form early included within the limits of the County of York. The population of the Home District at this time was about 12,000. As it had then been settled neatly thirty years, the admission must be made that its progress had been very slow indeed.

Poor Robert Gourlay, writing several years before this time, gives a vivid, and, upon the whole, an accurate pen-picture of the conflicting elements then at work in the Home District. As his book has long since become practically unobtainable, and as his account will doubtless prove interesting to the present inhabitants of the territory so graphically described, it is worth while to quote a portion of it, more especially as it is of much topographical value. In order to make his allusions intelligible, the reader should be made acquainted with a few preliminary facts. Mr. Gourlay was a Scottish gentleman, of a decidedly critical cast of mind, who visited Canada in 1817, and who, after some observation of the country, resolved to engage in business as a land-agent, and to organize an extensive system of emigration from the British Islands to Canada. Having obtained much statistical information with respect to public lands and settlers, and having become cognizant of the unscrupulousness of many of the officials, and the baneful influence exercised by the Family Compact, he determined to make the facts generally known in Great Britain. In order to obtain minute and exhaustive intelligence, he addressed a series of printed questions to the principal residents in each township in Upper Canada, asking for information as to the date of settlement, number of inhabitants, houses, churches, schools, stores and mills ; the general character of the soil; the various kinds of timber and minerals ; the rates of wages; cost of clearing land; usual time of ploughing and reaping; extent and condition of wild lands, etc. The questions were thirty-one in number.

All of them were unobjectionable, except the last, which ran thus:— "What, in your opinion, retards the improvement of your township in particular, or the Province in general, and what would most contribute to the same?" Nearly all the replies received to this question echoed the same strain. The slow development was attributed to the Crown and Clergy Reserves, and to the immense tracts of lands held by non-residents. The prevailing sentiment was well mirrored in a reply received from Kingston. Thus it ran:—"The same cause which has surrounded Little York with a desert, creates gloom and desolation about Kingston, otherwise most beautifully situated; I mean the seizure and monopoly of the land by people hi office and favour. On the east side, particularly, you may travel miles together without passing a human dwelling. The roads are accordingly most abominable to the very gates of this, the largest town in the Province; and its market is supplied with vegetables from the United States, where property is less hampered, and the exertions of cultivators more free."

These remarks, which were perfectly true as applied to the neighbourhood of Kingston, were still more applicable to the Home District. In the Home District, however, the influence of Dr.—afterwards Bishop — Strachan was paramount. The Doctor regarded Mr. Gourlay as a pesti lent interloper whose career should not be allowed to go unchecked. Owing in a great measure to the exertions and influence of this active-minded ecclesiastic, not a single reply was received from the Home District. But the tract of country included therein was too important to be left out of Mr. Gourlay's consideration, and in compiling his "Statistical Account of Upper Canada," he prepared nine octavo pages of printed matter, wherein the District was portrayed in colours which were all but universally recognized as combining truthfulness with vigour. "From this District,'" he writes, "I did not receive a single reply to my address, although it was first published here, and had the cordial approbation of the head magistrate of the Province, as well as of everybody with whom 1 held converse. This may be ascribed to two causes: first, the opposition of a monstrous little fool of a parson, who, for reasons best known to himself, fell foul of the address which 1 had published, abused me as its author, and has ever since laboured, with unremitting malignity, to frustrate its intention."'

The person thus irreverently alluded to as "a monstrous little fool of a parson" was of course Dr. Strachan. "This man, unfortunately," he continues, "was a member of the Executive Council, and his efforts, from that circumstance, were but too successful. . . 'His second cause may be traced to the low condition of society n the Home District, owing to the peculiar state of property. The foregoing reports sufficiently demonstrate how the farmers of Upper Canada have been baffled in their improvements by the large tracts of unsettled land; but in the Home District they have suffered most from this, and not only has dulled the edge of husbandry, but in a remarkable degree clouded the rise of intellect and spirit among the inhabitants. No sooner was York fixed upon as the capital of the Province than it became obvious that sooner or later the landed property around, and on the high roads to Kingston, etc., would bear a high value. For this good reason, the creatures in office and favour bent their avaricious eyes upon it, and large portions were secured to them and their friends. The consequences are melancholy. For live miles round the capital of Upper Canada scarcely one improved farm can be seen in contact with another ; and even within a gunshot of the place the gloomy woods rise up in judgment against its nefarious inmates. I say 'the gloomy woods,' because Nature does not appear in her full attire in the neighbourhood of Little York. The need of firewood has chosen from the forest its chief ornaments, and left a parcel of scorched and decaying pine trees to frown over the seat of rapacity. The only connected settlement commences about five miles to the north, on Yonge Street, hi other directions, so far as the District goes, you might travel in 1817 to its utmost limits, and not find more than one farm house for every three miles. It is true, that round York, and particularly to the westward, the soil is inferior, but the convenience attendant on proximity to a town would long ago have overbalanced this disadvantage, had property not been monopolized and mangled. Where Yonge Street is compactly settled, it is well cultivated and thriving, particularly beyond what is called the Oak Hills or Ridges, a strip of elevated and regular ground which parts the waters flowing into Lakes Simcoe and Ontario, and which indeed forms a sort of continuation of the mountain running through Gore and Niagara Districts. In this quarter the land is excellent, and it is well occupied by industrious people, mostly Quakers. In other quarters, simple and unsuspecting Germans—Tunkers, and Menonists—have been thinly stuck in by the knowing ones among their precious blocks and reserves, by whose plodding labours the value of this sinecure property may be increased.

A curious document has been published in this country, which gives a sad proof of the effect of narrow-mindedness and wrong arrangement in property. The document 'S meant to draw reverence to the above-mentioned parson ; but, in fact, is the strongest evidence against his deeds and sentiments. It is stated that seven or eight miles from York, on Yonge Street, there is a place of worship, where it is customary to see many grown persons coming forward to be baptized, the fact is, that this, with another belonging to the above mentioned Quakers, are the only places of worship to be seen in Yonge Street, extending near forty miles. In the first mentioned, service is only performed once a month ; the dominant parson allowing nobody to preach but himself! Much moan has been made m this country as to the lagging of the gospel in Upper Canada; but I can assure the public that the chief cause rests in the state of property, which so scatters the people as to put the necessary union for building and endowing churches out of the question. The moment that Upper Canada becomes thickly peopled, the gospel, having free course, will be glorified ; and this will the sooner take place, the sooner that clergy reserves, vainly set apart for the erection of an established church, are sold off to actual settlers. Next to personal security, the security and right ordering of property is the prime concern of wise legislation. Let these indeed be properly seen to, and all else will go well, whether the pate of magistracy be covered with a cowl, a crown, or a cap of liberty.

"There are not more desirable situations for settlement in the Province than on the great road from York to Kingston; but here the largest portions of land have been seized upon by people in power and office. Some twenty years ago, these people sold two whole townships of Crown Land, and had the effrontery to lay out great part of the proceeds in opening the road through their favourite locations, which actual settlers would cheerfully have done gratis, besides keeping it in continual repair. The road was indeed opened, but to this day, except in sleighing time and line weather, it is an absolute block up against him who would attempt to pass between the two principal towns of the Province. Upon one occasion that I wended my weary way through this dismal defile, 1 was glad to rest for a little while in a farm-house, 'far in the wild.' It has been my frequent custom to judge my fellow men partly through external appearances—their farms' —their houses—their dress. When approaching a human dwelling in Upper Canada, I would survey its neighbourhood: I would observe whether the lire-wood was neatly piled ; the implements of husbandry snugly secured from wind and weather in a shed; or whether the pump and oven were in good repair. Sometimes, nay, I shall say often, all was right, sometimes quite the reverse. In front of a farm-house, I would sometimes see broken ploughs and decayed wagons lying upon a heap of chips which had been accumulating for years, and which had for smaller garnishing many-coloured and filthy rags, broken bottles, and pieces of crockery. What was to be augured of the man who exhibited such signals? certainly neither good humour nor rational conversation. Yet if the weary traveller must have rest and refreshment, he will nut be repelled by these; he will at least march up to the house, and consult the window's. If well glazed and bright, in he may go, assured that the mistress will prove tidy, though her man is a sloven ; and that the interior will yield comfort, though the exterior forbid the hope. If, on the contrary, an old hat, or piece of dirty blanket supplies the place of a pane of glass, the case is bad indeed; and nothing but the strongest necessity, or most violent curiosity, would induce me to enter. Both were urgent on this occasion; and after resting a little, I began to examine the various articles by which the light of the front window was obscured, or I should rather say, by which its numerous orifices were closed up. Let the reader reflect on the catalogue. There was one old great coat, and two pair of ragged pantaloons. This story, I think, will match with that of the paganism of Yonge Street, and the same cause has laid the foundation of both. Inspect all the wretched cottages of England, and you will not find a window so patched as that which I have spoken of. It is not mere poverty that produces such appearances. The poorest creature could rind a piece of hoard, or a bit of paper, to nail or paste up in the place of a broken glass ; and either the one or other would have some show of neatness and respectability ; but an old hat, a blanket, a great coat, or ragged pantaloons, taken advantage of for such a purpose, mark a degree of degradation below brutality; and such is the state to which circumstances and situation can reduce humanity. It is the removal from social intercourse, the indulgence of indolence, the want of excitement, which can make the mind completely torpid, and at once extinguish taste, feeling and shame. The master of the house spoken of w-as tenant of a Clergy Reserve. But enough of this at present: there is quite enough to show why I had no reply to my queries in such a District.

"To carry on my estimate of population, I suppose that Little York might contain, hi 1817, of people, I shall not say souls, 1,200. There are thirteen organized townships m the District ; that is, such as hold tow n meetings for the choice of town office bearers, and to these, three others are united, each containing a few inhabitants. If to these thirteen townships, with their additions, are allowed 500 people each, the full number, I think, will be obtained as it stood in 1817.......................... 6,500

The above............................................................ 1.200
Total white population............................................. 7,700."

Mr. Gourlay personally reaped nothing but ignominy and imprisonment from his public spirit. As his statements could not be met by just argument, the prevailing faction resorted to the argument-um ad hominem, and employed the most villainous means of silencing him. The same species of persecution assaulted him, under the semblance of law, as was suffered in Great Britain by the Tookes, the Leigh Hunts, and the Cobbetts. Spies were sent about the country to dog him, in the hope that they might find something in his language upon which an indictment might be founded. The plan was successful. Indictments were found against h-m by packed Grand Juries, and cumulative prosecutions were set on foot hi order to leave him no loophole of escape. The sad story of Robert Gourlay forms one of the darkest chapters in the national history. He was cast into prison at Niagara, and detained there for many months, after which, by virtue of an old statute which his persecutors warped to their own ends, he was ordered to quit the Province within twenty-four hours, oil pain of death in case of his return. He accordingly left the Province, to which lie did not return until after the lapse of many years. But the people of Upper Canada in general, and of the Home District m particular, had abundant reason to bless his name. The shameful treatment to which he had been subjected drew public attention to his case, and was the indirect means of bringing about a better state of things. When, nearly forty years afterwards, he again set foot in the County of York, he found that a new dynasty had arisen, and that all the most grievous of the old abuses had been swept away.


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