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History of Toronto and County of York in Ontario
Part IV: Chapter I. The Town of York Founded


AT the time of the erection of Upper Canada into a distinct Province, as mentioned elsewhere, a separate government was assigned to it, and an administrator was appointed, with the title of Lieutenant-Governor. The office was conferred upon Lieutenant-Colonel John Graves Sirncoe, whose appointment led to his crossing the Atlantic m 1792, and taking up his residence at Newark (now called Niagara), the provisional capital. Newark, at this time, if we except Kingston, at the other end of the lake, was the only place ol importance in Upper Canada, and it naturally became the cradle of the Western Province. It had, therefore, some claim to become the permanent capital. Unfortunately for the town, its nearness to United States territory and the dangerous proximity of Fort Niagara dashed the hopes of its inhabitants in this respect. To Governor Simcoe's surprise, he found that the fort at the month of the river was shortly to be garrisoned by American soldiery, and that it did not belong to King George. Having made this discovery, and not approving the idea that the chief town of a Province should be placed under the guns of an enemy's fort, he turned his attention to other parts of the Province for the site of a capital. From the Gazette, published at Newark, we learn that "On Thursday, the 2nd of May (1793), Excellency the Lieutenant Governor, accompanied by several military gentlemen, set out in boats for Toronto, round the head of Lake Ontario by Burlington Bay." From Burlington Bay he proceeded eastward to the 1 lumber, and thence to the harbour of Toronto, of which he had heard favourable accounts from the Provincial surveyors. Here, despite the lowness of the land, there were many-and positive attractions. The spot had already been the site of a fort, "a place of meeting," and a mart for trade. It was sheltered from the lake, and in its harbour a fleet might safely ride. The geographical situation, moreover, was excellent. The die at length was cast: Toronto was to be the future capital.

Returning to Niagara, the Governor busied himself with the task of removal, and proceeded to make arrangements for taking formal possession of the site of Toronto, and getting the troops across to assist in laying the foundations of the town. Whatever counter-attractions other sites presented, there is no doubt that Sirncoe, in Irs heart, accepted Toronto. We say Toronto, but this was not the name he chose for his newly-found capital. The King's army was then in Holland, and his second son, the Duke of York, had command of the continental contingent. He it was that our soldier-governor had it in his mind to honour. Hence, York, and not Toronto, came for a time to be the name of the capital. Reporting to Quebec his having found a suitable site for the future metropolis Governor Simcoe writes in the following strain: "It is with great pleasure that I offer to you some observations on the military strength and naval convenience of Toronto, now York, which I propose immediately to occupy. 1 lately examined the harbour, accompanied by such officers, naval and military, as I thought most competent to give me assistance thereon, and upon minute nvestigation, I found it to be without comparison the most proper situation for an arsenal, in every extent of the word, that can be met with in this Province." Again, in writing to the Secretary of War, in London, the Governor speaks with equal warmth when he says that " York is the most important and defensible situation in Upper Canada, or that 1 have seen in North America. I have, sir, formerly entered into a detail of the advantages of this arsenal of Lake Ontario. An interval of Indian land, six-and-thirty miles, divides this settlement from Burlington Bay, where that of Niagara commences. The communication with Lake Huron is very easy, in five or six days, and will in all respects be of the most essential importance."

In such terms, which to us, in these piping times of peace, seem an exaggeration, did the first Governor of the Province speak of its infant capital. One would suppose that he was about to construct some Alexandria or Sebastopol, rather than a quiet city for the home of commerce, and a safe haven for the Provincial Parliament. Put to the test of 1813, the Governor's naval citadel—"the arsenal" of which he proudly speaks—cut a sorry figure, whatever disaster befell the invader. But there is much in the naming of a thing, as we may see in the appellation of our "Gibraltar Point," which, if i| ever put the town's enemies to flight, must have done so more by the terror of its name than by its frowning battlements. The times, however, were then warlike, and there was need of the cities of the lake being fortified. Moreover, we must remember that Simcoe did not stay in the country to put all hi$ plans into effect. Had he done so. York might have become the Quebec of the Lakes. What it has become we know to-day.

With such pomp and circumstance as were possible to the occasion Governor Simcoe set out from Navy Hall, Newark, on board His Majesty's ship, Mississaga, to take formal possession of the incipient capital. The date—for the event is worthy of a minute chronicle—was the evening of Monday, the 29th of July, 1793. Some portion of the troops had preceded the Governor by a few days, to make the necessary preparations for the State landing, and, doubtless, to act as a guard of honour in receiving his Excellency. As convoys of the Mississaga, others of the King's ships—the Ononclaga and Caldwell—set out to cross the lake, with, as we are told, a favourable gale, and having on board the remaining companies of the Queen's Rangers. As the interesting fleet leaves Niagara's dark stream, the sinking sun paves the water with gold. Cleaving their way over the lake, the forest-crowned Heights of Queenston, which in a score of years were to become forever famous, hide the reddening orb from view. Night falls upon the historic scene. With the morrow the fleet rounds the mole which forms a natural fender in front of the city and comes to moorings in the harbour of Toronto.

What a scene of bustle and commotion must the land-locked bay then have witnessed, its solitudes broken in upon by the intrusion of some companies of a regiment winch was to hew a town out of the forest, and in time give place to the serried ranks of industry, and the march of incoming battalions of many-tongued commerce. Bouchette's often-quoted picture of the harbour at this time wil| bear another transcribing. It is a reminiscence of bis hydrographical survey of the ports of Ontario, as detailed in his#account of "The British Dominions in North America." Says Surveyor Bouchette: "It fell to my lot to make the first survey of York harbour in 1793. Lieutenant-Governor the late General Simcoe, who then resided at Navy Hall, Niagara, having formed extensive plans for the improvement of the colony, hail resolved upon laying the foundations of a provincial capital. I was at that period in the naval service of the lakes, and the survey of Toronto (York) harbour was entrusted by his Excellency to my performance. 1 still distinctly recollect the untamed aspect which the country exhibited when first I entered the beautiful basin, which thus became the scene of my early hydrographical operations. Dense and trackless forests lined the margin of the lake, and reflected their Averted images in its glassy surface. The wandering savage had constructed his ephemeral habitation beneath their luxuriant foliage — the group then consisting of two families of Mississagas—and the bay and neighbouring marshes were the hitherto uninvaded haunts of immense coveys of wild fowl. Indeed, they were so abundant," adds Mr. Bouchette, " as in some measure to annoy us during the night."

In this sanctuary of nature Governor Simcoe proceeded to build his civic and legislative altar, and to rear, under the name of Castle Frank, a domestic shrine among the sombre pines of the Don. With the erection of primitive buildings for the meetings of the Provincial Legislature, a beginning was made to clear a site for the town. Under the Governor s eye the building of the new capital had its first start, and what at a later date was to be marked as the path of the sword was meantime being wearily won for the axe and the plough. Outside of the little clearing the spirit of the woods rested upon the whole scene, for the forests covered the Province as with a garment. But the soldier-administrator had a practical eye for his work, and speedily set the troops—the Queen's Rangers—to the necessary task of road-making, and the opening of lines of communication with the interior. Yonge Street, an artereial line connecting the infant capital with the Holland River and the water-way to the west, was the first great achievement of the troops. Dundas Street, a main post-road traversing the Province, and giving access to the large and fruitful region of settlement in the peninsula, was another sagacious undertaking. But we are somewhat anticipating. As yet the Governor, his officers and officials were, with the troops, only effecting a landing at the new capital—an historic proceeding of which we have no detailed account from an eye-witness. Each reader may therefore form his own idea of the significant scene—of the troops landing material of war at the entrance of the harbour, to be stored in the fort which was to command the approaches to the tow n; a company of stalwart soldiers cutting a pathway from the garrison to the Don; and the Governor and his suite disembarking by the stream on the banks of which he was to hoist his canvas tent, and on the heights to the north subsequently erect his summer home. But if the scenes connected with the formal landing and laying out of the town had no special chronicler, and, so far as history relates, were attended at the time w ith no civic or military display, within a few weeks occasion arose for general rejoicing in an event which happened in the outer world, advantage of which was taken to baptize the Town of York, and mark the natal day of the infant capital. Just a month after the occupation of the .place, news came from England of successes over the French in Flanders, in which the Duke of York and the English troops had taken part, though the lustre of victory was not fated to last. Having determined to call the town by the appellation of York, Governor Simcoe, on hearing the news of the Duke's engagement with the enemies of the Crown in Holland, conceived the idea of a military demonstration, which would not only commemorate the event, but associate it with the naming of the town and harbour. Hence was issued the following General Order:—

"York, Upper Canada, 26th August, 1793. His Excellency the Lieutenent-Governor having received information of the success of His Majesty's armies under His Royal Highness the Duke of York, by which Holland has been saved from the invasion of the French armies, and it appearing that the combined forces have been successful ia dislodging their enemies from an entrenched camp supposed to be impregnable, from which the must important consequences may be expected, and in which arduous attempt the Duke of York and His Majesty's troops supported the native glory; it is His Excellency's orders that on the raising of the union flag at twelve o'clock to-morrow, a royal salute of twenty-one guns is to be fired, to be answered by the shipping in the harbour, m respect to His Royal Highness, and in commemoration of the naming of this harbour from his English title, York. E. B. Littlehales, Major of Brigade."

With this military pageant, and the salute from garrison and harbour, which must have scared the wild fowl from the bay and dumbfoundered the Mississaga hanger-on in the camp, the rough, unhewn site of the future capital rose to the dignity of a town, while the old oaks by the maid of the lake bowed their heads in recognition of the honour. The echoes of the cannon's thunder, we can well suppose, would carry news to the rival but provisional capital across the lake, which would be badly received, and jaundice the liver of every inhabitant of Niagara. Not yet, however, was its full-blown conceit to be humbled. York was still unprepared for the assembling of Parliament. Though the first meeting of the Executive Council of the Province was held at York nearly a month before the military demonstration we have chronicled, there was as yet no building m which to give the honourable gentlemen shelter. We must imagine therefore that the weighty affairs of State were discussed in that canvas tent of the Governor's which had done duty for the great discoverer, Captain Cook, in his historic voyages. The Council, we learn, remained in session until the 5th of September, when it broke up, and the Government returned to Niagara. Meantime, the work of laying out the town advanced ; and ere the woods had put on their autumnal glory several huts were built, and some portion of the region surveyed. In October we find the ever-active Governor back on the north shore of the lake, where he and his family wintered. Before the close of the season he personally conducted an exploration of what was thenceforth to be known as Lake Simcoe. Shrewdly discerning the importance of communication northward, he determined to open up a highway to its waters. Ordering the surveyors to mark out a practical route thither, the winter was spent by the troops in felling part of the timber. This highway to the north, however, was not constructed until the winter of 1795-6 ; and the early years of the succeeding century had arrived before it was opened out to the shores of Ontario. The road, which is thirty-two miles ia length, was called after the English Secretary of War, and has ever since borne the name of Yonge Street. Other expeditions throughout the year 1794 were undertaken by the Governor, and nearly every portion of the Province was embraced m the circuit of his travels. The Governor periodically returned to Newark to summon and prorogue Parliament and direct the affairs of State. J he buildings which he had ordered to be planned for the Legislature at York meantime had been proceeded with, and streets were beginning to branch out from the site of the new Westminster. With all his enthusiasm and practical energy, however, the development of the town was necessarily slow. The plan of the city was extensive, and before k could be built the forest had to be cleared. Yet there was progress as the years went by.

Of the year 1795 there is little to chronicle, save the going and coining of the war-ships on the lake, and the occasional expeditions of the Governor. The legal machinery of the Province seems this year to have been put in motion for we learn for the first time of the arrival at York of Chief Justice Osgodie, accompanied by Attorney-General White, who were going to different parts of the Province to hold circuit. We also learn that the prosaic round of life in these early times was enlivened by the occasional festivity of "a ball," and the reception of some Old World visitor. At Navy Hall, and in his famous tent at York, the Governor's hospitalities were both lavish and kindly. It was in June of this year that the Due de Liancourt and his travelling companion paid their historic visit to the provisional seat of Government, and were treated with marked consideration and courtesy by the Governor. Alas! the return for this was the noble Duke's babbling about desertion among the troops, and his defamation of the character of the people of the new capital.

The following year is notable for the definitive surrender of Fort Niagara to the Americans, together with other posts on the frontier held by Britain. To Governor Simcoe, as an old campaigner in the Revolutionary War, this no doubt was distasteful, and must have increased his antipathy to the people of the Republic. To the Six Nation Indians, who were now settled on their reserve on the Grand River, this also was repugnant, for it meant the abandonment forever of their ancient territory. It also brought home to the chiefs of the confederacy the conviction that they had gained little by their fealty to Britain, and had benefited nothing by their alliance, on many a hard-fought field of battle, with the troops of the British Crown. The improvident character of the concessions of the Treaty of 1783 were now becoming apparent, and there was much involved in the sacrifices that Simcoe, doubtless, could ill bear. Whether his known dislike to his republican neighbours engendered the fear i 1 the British Cabinet that this might lead to international complications, or whether the Governor had to thank the Due de Riancourt for more of his politeness, it would be difficult to say, but suddenly the news fell upon the young colony that its first administrator was to be transferred. In September, 1796, Simcoe left Navy Ilall for San Domingo, and the Province that owed so much to him was to see him no more. With what devotion and sturdy fidelity he had served the King in his new Province of Upper Canada there is no need to tell. He gave the colony his every thought, and worked resolutely to put it on its feet. Could he have had his own way, it is not too much to say that it would not long have remained a mere stripling by the side of the nation to the south of it. But he was too independent to be an official truckler, and had been brought up in a school that knew little of dissimulation. The student of history can have nothing but respect for the bluff old soldier.


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