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Founding of Toronto, 1793

Part One

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

Niagara before Toronto In fact, the first session of the legislature of Upper Canada was held in the thriving lakeport 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.

The threat of war with the U.S. was looming, so 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. Simcoe order 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 would set up a tent camp at the entrance to the harbour, where Fort York now sits, and Simcoe would follow a week later with his wife and children. 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." 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. At the time Toronto was founded, the population of Montreal was about 18,000 and New York was 34,000.


Author Unknown