While he is well-known in history for his role in Upper Canada history, not as much is known about John Graves Simcoe's life before he came to Canada and after he moved on after four years of service here. I discovered an individual who enjoyed an incredible life before and after he strolled through our local history. I hope that you enjoy learning a little bit more about this intriguing figure in our history.
Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe was born in 1852 in Cotterstock, Northamptonshire and brought up in Devonshire.
Simcoe was the son of Captain John Simcoe and Katherine Stamford. Captain Simcoe was commander of the British warship HMS Pembroke, part of the British military expedition to Québec in 1759 under the immortal General Wolfe who led to the conquest of New France. He died from pneumonia near Anticosti Island in May 1759, prior to the actual conflict. John Graves Simcoe was seven years old at the time.
The future founder of York (Toronto) attended first Eton College and then in 1760 entered Merton College at Oxford. After graduation, Simcoe opted to pursue a military career and, in 1770, he attained a commission entering the army as an ensign in the 86th Regiment of Foot.
Upon the outbreak of the British American War in 1775, he embarked for America as the adjutant of his regiment and was actively engaged for over two years in the hostilities. Simcoe arrived in America two days after the Battle of Bunker Hill and sought unsuccessfully to raise a corps of free Black troops.
During the subsequent siege of Boston, he purchased a captaincy in the 40th Regiment of Foot. With this regiment, he participated in campaigns in Long Island, New York City and in New Jersey. In 1777, he was severely wounded in the battle of Brandywine in Pennsylvania, but he did manage to enter Philadelphia with Sir William Howe's army.
In October 1777, he took command of a new provincial regiment, a group raised among the American Loyalists called the Queen's Rangers with the provincial rank of major. The Rangers were active in campaigns in Pennsylvania, Richmond and Yorktown. Simcoe was to achieve great personal success and a reputation as a tactical theorist.
You can read about the Queen’s Rangers in one of my earlier articles on NewmarketToday. Throughout the war Simcoe was noted as an officer of exceptional initiative, energy and courage. Once, in 1779, he was taken prisoner, having narrowly escaped with this life, but he was to be released shortly afterwards.
We find him in 1781 with General Cornwallis and the army that would surrender at Yorktown to George Washington, the last battle of the war. Simcoe was engaged in this six-year conflict from beginning to the end.
He was to return to England, invalided, after having been named a colonel. In 1782, he married Elizabeth Posthuma Gwillim, the daughter of Colonel Gwillim of Old Court, Hereford, settling down at Wolford Lodge, Dunkeswell on his estates as a member of the country gentry. He lived a quiet life until 1790, when he became a member of the British Parliament for St. Mawes in Cornwall.
On Sept. 12, 1791, Simcoe received a commission to become the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada. Simcoe writes that he had hoped for an independent governorship, and was disappointed when he was made subordinate to Guy Carleton, Lord Dorchester, who was commissioned governor-in-chief of both Upper and Lower Canada on the same date
In 1792, John Graves Simcoe finally arrived in Upper Canada with Mrs. Simcoe. Soon after taking his oath of office, he issued a Proclamation of the Division of Upper Canada into 19 counties of which York was the fourteenth.
He begins to energetically organize the new province, providing especially for its agriculture and military defence. Large bodies of Loyalists from the U.S. began to arrive soon after. You will remember he was the architect of Timothy Roger’s plan to bring Quakers from Pennsylvania, Vermont, and New Jersey to our area via land grants.
He moved the capital of the province from Newark (Niagara on the Lake) to a small settlement on the Thames River, now the city of London. He soon becomes interested in a spot at the mouth of the Don River on the shore of Lake Ontario where the French Fort Rouillé dating from 1750 had stood, a good military and commercial base that would attract the Indigenous peoples from the north shore of Lake Huron who were currently carrying their furs westward to Michilimackinac. Having determined to move his capital, in 1793 Simcoe founded York, which would become the city of Toronto in 1834.
Governor Simcoe immediately ordered a fresh survey; a town plot was laid out at Toronto that Simcoe would name York in honour of the King’s son. Eventually this muddy, mosquito-infested settlement became the capital of Upper Canada.
On Sept. 25, 1793, Simcoe set out on horseback to explore the western route for himself. Returing on Oct. 11, they camped for the night on the eastern branch of the Holland River, only to discover that they were following another trail, known as the Ellerby Road that lead directly to the Don River and York.
Simcoe was not impressed with the Humber Trail and decided that the shorter route was better suited for the colony’s needs, writing enthusiastically to the British minister Henry Dundas, to adopt this shorter trail that was known intimately to the Indigenous peoples as an “easy portage between York and the waters that fall into Lake Huron of not more than thirty miles.”
On Feb. 26, 1794, Augustus Jones was instructed to begin a survey of the Don Trail and, by March 1794, it was completed to Holland Landing, a key moment in our local history. Simcoe would name this new ‘road’ Yonge Street in honour of Sir George Yonge, the minister for war; Lake la Claies was renamed Lake Simcoe in honour of his father, and the river named the Holland as a token of respect for Major-General Samuel Holland who had been Surveyor-General in the old province of Quebec.
A key factor in the development of our area points to a letter dated June 30, 1791, when Simcoe wrote to Henry Dundas: “There are thousands of the inhabitants of the United States whose affections are centred in the British Government and the British name, many of them have already taken refuge in Canada.”
In Simcoe’s correspondence, he makes various references to Timothy Roger’s Quakers and, in 1793, he wrote: “From some intimation I have received relative to the wishes of a large body of Quakers to emigrate from Pennsylvania, I propose sending a proper person to hold intercourse with them which they are too wary to commit to writing.”
At the same time, he also wrote to Dr. Phineas Bond of Philadelphia that “the information which Capt. Stevenson has given me, that many of the people of the Society of Friends have thoughts of settling in Upper Canada, appears to me of much importance to the future prosperity of the province.”
Simcoe’s governorship lasted only about four years. Simcoe had some legislative triumphs and many more administrative frustrations. He succeeded in his first legislative session to pass bills establishing British civil law, trial by jury, the use of British Winchester standards of measure, and a provision for jails and courthouses.
Most notably, Simcoe passed the Act Against Slavery on July 9, 1793, aimed at ending the sale of enslaved people by Canadians to Americans. The act also liberated enslaved people entering Upper Canada from America but did not free existing enslaved adults already in residence. The legislation came 40 years before the Slavery Abolition Act, which later outlawed slavery in most of the British Empire.
He began the policy of granting land to American settlers, confident they would become loyal members of the colony, and aware they were the main hope for rapid economic growth. He thought their loyalty could be attained starting with a solid land-granting system. It soon was apparent that Simcoe was an avid planner but rather a poor administrator. He granted entire townships to individuals who would serve as local gentry. Most of his grants were more than 500 acres, with the best locations going to officers of government. He was the creator of the dreaded Family Company.
Two significant roads were constructed during Simcoe’s term designed primarily for military purposes, and to influence the direction of future settlements. Dundas Street ran from Burlington Bay to his chosen site for London and Yonge Street, which ran north from York to Holland Landing.
There were some failures as well. Simcoe proposed a re-establishment of the Queen’s Rangers regiment, but of the 12 companies he sought, only two infantry companies were created. To Simcoe’s dismay, Carleton retained command over their deployment, condemning their fate to become that of road builders.
His initiatives for the economic and social growth of the colony had disappointing results. Simcoe wanted to attract the trade of the western American settlements, seeing the southwestern peninsula of Upper Canada as the future centre not only of the province, but of trade with the interior of the continent.
He appointed lieutenants of counties and introduced a Court of King's Bench. He proposed municipal councils and urged the creation of a university with preparatory schools. None of these ideas grew roots. Although Simcoe had few critics in the province, he could not persuade the imperial government in Britain to finance his projects or to exempt him from the military authority of Guy Carleton, based in Québec.
In 1796, neuralgia and gout spurred a leave of absence to England. Simcoe was to resign his post in 1798 and would never return to Canada.
Simcoe remained active in the military. In 1797, he commanded British forces in Saint-Domingue (Haiti). The appointment included a promotion to Lieutenant General however he resigned after only five months due to ill health.
Back in England, Simcoe accepted the command of the Western District but did not receive another active field command.
In 1806, General Simcoe was appointed Commander-in-Chief in India, but on his way there he was stricken with a fatal illness and return to England. He died on Oct. 26, 1806, at age 54. His body was taken to Dunkeswell Parish and buried in a vault under his private chapel at Wolford Lodge where a plain stone is located on the outside wall, with a simple inscription indicating his resting spot.
So how was his legacy remembered? The town of Simcoe bears his name, as does Simcoe County. The August civic holiday is known in Toronto as Simcoe Day. Schools and streets throughout Ontario are named after him, including John and Simcoe streets in Toronto. A statue was erected in his honour in 1903 at Queen’s Park.
He is credited with founding the town of London, Ontario on the River Thames. While Lake Simcoe is not named for Simcoe it is named it after his father, Captain John Simcoe. East, North and West Gwillimbury were named after his wife’s maiden name, Gwillim.
I would heartily recommend that you read some of my earlier article on Newmarket Today for more about Simcoe’s accomplishments in Canada and his part in the building of our province.
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.