This weekend and next, we will examine the history of our neighbours to the north in Holland Landing, which has long held a strategic and historic place in the history of our area.
If we were to draw a line from what is now Holland Landing southeasterly to the mouth of the Rouge River, along the shore of Lake Ontario west over to the Humber and back north to Holland Landing, this wedge of enclosed land would represent a uniquely historic region containing three major trails all conversing at Holland Landing — the Humber, the Don and the Rouge.
These trails were not merely haphazard paths through the forest; they were the highways, the carrying places, that connected Lake Ontario with the lands lying beyond Lake Simcoe, that vast uncharted wilderness known by the Indian name Toronteau. At one time this name applied to all the area between Lake Ontario and Georgian Bay.
It was Champlain who brought the three lakes, Huron, Simcoe, and Ontario, to the attention of his Europeans masters, and it was right here at the northern end of this carrying place that “one of the first, if not the first, Christian mission was established in Upper Canada.”
This region centred on the carrying place was thickly inhabited by the Indigenous Peoples, a “rendezvous area for many tribes”, and from these inhabitants, at various times, all land in Upper Canada was purchased. It is interesting to note that the Toronto Purchase of the late 1700s did not include this area, and was to occur in the 1920s.
Gov. John Graves Simcoe was looking for a military advantage and decided that this shorter route better suited the purpose and wrote home about this easy portage between York (Toronto) and the waters of Lake Simcoe, which ran into Lake Huron, all of which was within 30 miles of York.
Thus, on Feb. 26, 1794, Augustus Jones began a survey of the Don Trail and by March 1794, he had blazed his path all the way to Holland Landing. This new road Simcoe would name Yonge Street in honour of Sir George Yonge, minister for war. Lake la Claies was renamed Lake Simcoe in honour of his father, and the river was to be called the Holland River after Major-Gen. Samuel Holland, surveyor general of Quebec.
After Yonge Street had been surveyed and laid out to Holland Landing in 1794, the government was determined to have the road opened as soon as possible as a means of attracting the fur trade through York (Toronto).
Settlers were expected to build the road, but much of the new road was left untouched.
Holland Landing can lay claim to having had four historic names over its history. During the early years, there were three separate names for the community that appeared on official documents, Gwillimbury Town, so named by John Simcoe, St. Albans, chosen they say because it sounded aristocratic, and Beverley, named by Peter Robinson to honour his brother Beverley Robinson.
We will learn more about Peter Robinson shortly. When the post office was established in 1821, the name was changed to Holland Landing and it stuck.
In 1799, plans were drawn up to build a mill and hostelry at Holland Landing and to run a ferry service on Lake Simcoe by Eli Beman and his son Elisha. By 1869, Beman’s sailboat was almost the only way for those on Lake Simcoe and north to communicate with the outside settlers to the south.
An incident of historical interest is recalled in a letter dated April 11, 1825, written by John Franklin (Sir), the Arctic explorer, to Peter Robinsons of Newmarket. He, along with his party, had planned to reach Fort George as early as possible that spring. Lake Simcoe still had ice and given that it was impossible to reach the Nottawasaga River, Eli Beman volunteered to “put the party through”.
Franklin writes that they reached the river with all their stores, indebted to Beman, stating that without his aid and that of the men with him, they would have had to remain some days on the other side of the Portage (Barrie).
On June 12, 1957, this portage used by Franklin was marked by a plaque. Franklin and his party would embark by canoe, or bateaux, and by traversing several portages, finally reaching the inland waters of Hudson’s Bay, where his ships awaited him.
In 1811, the North West Company, already established in Holland Landing from at least 1781, applied for more land at Holland Landing, Kempenfelt Bay and Penetang, strengthening hope that the original plan to channel the fur trade along Yonge Street might happen.
Unfortunately, those hopes died in 1821 when the company merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company and the idea was dropped.
The location of this early North West Company fort on the Holland River has been virtually lost to history. The only clue we have is that it was located along the river seven miles and 53 chains south from the entrance to Lake Simcoe. Has the lake receded; we just don’t know.
Locally, it was clear that the economy would be better based upon the resources of the area, resources of permanence rather than on an unreliable fur trade. Remember, the fur trade was diametrically opposite to the development of agricultural wealth, increased milling capacity, vast timber riches and the commercial exchange occurring from each.
Holland Landing is best known today for its local relic of the War of 1812, an anchor said to be capable of holding the largest ocean frigate. I have heard several stories about this anchor over the years.
The district of Penetanguishene was a strategic point on the Upper Great Lakes and was chosen as the site of a naval yard. Iron ships were constructed there and anchors at that time were not being made in Canada, so military authorities sent one forged in the dockyards at Chatham in England.
It arrived at Quebec late in 1814 and was shipped by bateau on the St. Lawrence River from Quebec to Montreal, carried by oxen over the road to Kingston and again by bateau to York (Toronto).
Captain Samuel Brock, grandfather of Mrs. Benjamin Cody of Newmarket, and a distant relative of General Brock, was dispatched to convey the anchor as far as the Holland River from where it would again be transported by bateau to Penetang, where it was destined for a large gunboat being planned to maintain English supremacy on the Upper Lakes. For a description of how it was moved to Holland Land you can read my article on NewmarketToday.
After traversing the rough road from York (Toronto) for four days, the edge of the Holland Marsh was finally reached but by then the war was over, and a courier arrived with a proclamation declaring peace. Thus, they merely hoisted the anchor from the sled and left it where it rested from 1815 to 1870. Now, it sits in Anchor Park in Holland Landing.
The Robinson-Beman family, kingpins in the Family Compact and a prosperous Newmarket family, took an active interest in the district north of Newmarket, near Holland Landing and beyond, though Newmarket remained their headquarters.
Robinson was a stepson of Eli Beman. In his efforts to rebuild the family fortunes, Peter Robinson, who would go on to establish Peterborough, had acquired, in part or in whole, Lots No. 103, 104, 105, 109 and 118 on the west side of Yonge Street, between the years 1814 and 1832. On the east side he owned Lots No. 106, 107 and 108.
Seeing a valuable mill site, he erected the famous Red Mill on Lot No. 106 in 1821. The construction was done by Enos Dennis, millwright and carpenter. At that time, Robinson was likely the only local man financially able to build such a mill. The first millers employed at the Red Mill were Isaiah Tyson and his two sons, Thomas, and John, who had recently arrived from Pennsylvania and had settled on Lot No. 107. Tyson obtained a 21-year lease on the mill.
His mill did prove a great convenience to the area settlers although it was under the control of the Family Compact. Robinson would also erect a popular roadhouse that he leased to Francis Phelps. Robinson thus became “founder, builder and owner” of the village of Holland Landing on Lot 107.
During the ninth Parliament of Upper Canada, the County of Simcoe was created and separated from the County of York. The first election to choose a representative for the new county was held in July 1828. Holland Landing served as the polling station for both constituencies.
William Benjamin Robinson was the first Family Compact candidate, and his opponent was John Cawthra of Newmarket. The returning officer at this famous election was George Lount, and the poll was kept open for one week.
Voters in those early days had to travel long, hard distances to register their preferences. Partisanship ran high. Each party had its own ‘house’ from which to dispense hospitality, with little or no restraint exercised regarding drinking.
I guess some wild going-ons occurred as the supporters of the two candidates made their drunken way along Yonge Street, cheering for Cawthra or Robinson.
Many incidents are related about the roughhouse tactics of those early political contests. Robinson kept open house at Phelps’s tavern; Cawthra did the same at Johnson’s Landing. Since voting was conducted on a pedestal where you shouted out your choice, it was sometimes doubtful if the voter would be permitted to leave in safety.
The men from the Scotch Settlement, on the other hand, greatly impressed with their responsibility, as they drew near the polling place removed their bonnets and knelt and asked for divine guidance in discharging their duty honourably.
Cawthra was elected by a majority of nine votes, the first ever representative for Simcoe County.
Holland Landing was part of the Yonge Street Church Circuit, an area of about 50 miles by 25 miles. Some of these meetings would continue for 22 days and more than 1,200 might attend.
On Sunday July 23, 1836, an important missionary meeting was held at Newmarket and attended by several of the Indigenous groups from the Holland Landing and Lake Simcoe area. Rev. Egerton Ryerson preached to a large gathering and Peter Jones, the famous Indian missionary and son of Augustus Jones, the surveyor of Yonge Street, attended. He was accompanied by the Indigenous of Holland Landing and Lake Simcoe with two of his native helpers. This is the first record of Jones visiting Newmarket with the Indigenous Peoples to the north.
In my article on the Toronto Purchase and the Crown’s relationship with the First Nations, I spoke of how the traders paid for their purchases and provided gifts for the Indigenous at their headquarters in Holland Landing, having moved it from Toronto at their bequest.
In part two next weekend, I will pick up the story with Holland Landing becoming ‘Rebel Country’ behind their local neighbour, Samuel Lount.
Sources: East Gwillimbury in the Nineteenth Century – A centennial History of the Township of East Gwillimbury by Gladys M. Rolling; Articles from the Newmarket Era; The Yonge Street Story 1793 – 1860 by F. R. Berchem ; The History of Simcoe County by Andrew F. Hunter; The History of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella
Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.