THE SETTLEMENT OF YORK COUNTY
In 1791, Quebec was divided and its wild bush county lying west
of the Ottawa River became, as Upper Canada, a separate province under the
British Crown. It was split up into counties the year following, and thus on
the 16th of July, 1792, came into being the County of York. It was created to
provide a territorial unit as an electoral division and for the militia. For the
next 58 years it served no further purpose.
In 1850, the townships and villages of this part of Canada were
entrusted with the management of their local affairs under elected councils.
The County of York became in that year a municipal body corporate to
provide services of common interest to local townships, villages and towns
that sent representatives to sit upon its county council. Toronto had
previously been granted a charter as a city and has had a separate history in
municipal affairs but not otherwise.
The pen that marked out the original limits of the county was in the
hand of John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant Governor of the province.
On the table before him lay maps of the lake waters and surveys showing
lands recently purchased from the Indians. The area of the county has since
varied, but when created a municipality it had a frontage on Lake Ontario of
30 miles from the mouth of the Etobicoke River on the west to that of the
Rouge on the east, and extended north to Lake Simcoe. It now has an area of
less than 30 miles square.
The territory fronting on Lake Ontario had been Indian hunting grounds
from time immemorial and in 1788 was the tribal property of the Mississauga
Indians whose winter lodges, covered with elm bark, stood on the banks of
the Credit River. In that year they sold to the Crown lands that now comprise
the County of York. For reasons that need not be detailed, the vendors were
afterwards hazy as to the terms of the bargain they had made at a three day
council fire. (Sloshed!!)
The County of York thus came into being in a state of nature, but it
was not naked. It was clothed in virgin forest save for a clearing of 300 acres
that the French had made around Fort Rouille, which stood till 1758 on the
grounds now occupied by the Canadian National Exhibition. John Baptiste
Rousseau, a fur trader, was living with his family near the mouth of the
Humber River. It was here that his wife, whose maiden name was Margaret
Clyne, gave birth to the first white child born in the County of York.
Conditions that were present in the pioneer days of Upper Canada
exerted a controlling influence on other important developments. In particular,
the manner in which the province received its settlers impressed a character
on its population that time has not effaced. This character differed widely
from that which was building up in the United States. There a stream of
mixed humanity poured west to extend the American frontiers. In this throng
were many families emigrating from the British Isles, but they found
themselves a small minority in the communities they helped to settle. In the
course of time their children absorbed the views and sentiments of their new
home, and from their homesteads, came men who helped to establish isolation
as the traditional policy of the American Union. On the other hand, the great
majority of the settlers in Upper Canada were British subjects who arrived in
small, group migrations. They felt isolated enough with an aggressive young
republic to the south and a French speaking population on their seaboard. As
a result, sentiment became at times more audibly British in the province than
in Great Britian itself. Separation from the Crown, annexation to the United
States and isolation in international affairs have never for this reason become
live issues in this part of Canada.
AN ACT OF GOVERNMENT
In 1758, the Mississaugas had drifted down from the north to obtain
squatter rights to the lands in the County of York, but the pathway along the
Humber remained in service.
After the British conquest of Canada, its fur trade continued for many
years the only extensive commercial undertaking in Canada, and in the hands
of canny Scots at Montreal, it became a profitable one. In 1788, these fur
interest were seeking a shorter and a safer route to their posts on the upper
lakes than the Ottawa River afforded.
They decided to establish a depot on the bay shore at Toronto and
convey their supplies to northern waters by cutting a wagon road along the
Toronto Carrying-place. Plans were worked out to the detail of pasturing
horses on the peninsula that is now Toronto Island. An application was made
to the government for a grant of lands and the necessary powers. It met with
favourable consideration. A government survey was made of the bay shore
and soundings were taken in the harbour. Purchase was made from the
Indians of the lands in the County of York. The fur traders were afterwards
obliged to abandon this project, but it was on the table at the time the
province of Upper Canada was created.
Time, money and patience have made the Toronto area an excellent
site for a large city, but under the conditions of 1793, it was an unpromising
location for a hamlet of any kind. It did not posess a mill seat and the streams
in the vicinity were not navigable. Had the settlement of the County of York
been left to individual enterprise, its development would have commenced at
a later date, and its growth would have taken a different course.
The authorities had some reason for locating the capital of the province
on marshy ground in an uninhabited wilderness. The project of the fur traders
to transfer some of their activities to the Toronto Bay area may have had an
influence. An Indian footpath gave its name to the largest city in Ontario.
PUNTS AND FROG PONDS
On the 30th of July, 1793, His Majesty's Ship, The Mississauga, a top-
sailed schooner of 80 ton burden, approached the entrance to the bay of
Toronto bringing from Niagra Governor Simcoe's family and personnel. The
Governor arrived to establish the capital of his province.
A large tent was pitched to serve for a time as the Governor's residence
and audience chamber. Mrs. Simcoe had her baby Katherine with her, and
she was thus the first of many housewives who have been inconvenienced by
the scarcity of suitable housing in the Toronto area. She waited in good
humour for a cottage to be built.
Not only was the Governor dissatisfied with the site that had been
chosen for his capital, he thought its Indian name uncouth and displeasing to
the ear. While still residing in his canvas house, the Governor drew up the
Queen's Rangers on parade, and re-christened his capital the Town of York to
a salute of 21 guns. It was also to go by the alias of Muddy Little York for the
next 40 years. There was an adequate fall to drain the low lying bushlands
that extended to the west, but ditches were not dug for many years, and as the
hamlet grew slowly, its streets extended into undrained swamp lands. Until
municipal government was established in 1834, much of its area was a morass
in wet seasons and at all times there were ponds dotted around.
"The site," a visitor wrote in 1817, "is better suited for a beaver
meadow and frog ponds than for the habitation of human beings." It was also
written of Muddy Little York that its frogs gave advice to gentlemen plodding
home from Abner's Tavern. "Knee-deep! Knee-deep!" piped the deceiving
little fellows, but the huge bulls cautioned, "Better-go-round! Better-go-
It was a sight to behold Captain George Playter, the squire of
Todmorden, picking his way west along King Street by hopping from one
stone to another. This gentleman of the old school, who carried a gold headed
cane wore a 3 cornered hat, a skirted purple jacket, knee breeches and white
stockings with silver garters. The broad toed shoes he soiled were garnished
with gold buckles.
There was a lack of currency in Upper Canada and commercial
transactions were marked by sharp fluctuations in prices, long terms of credit
and heavy discounts for cash. As an instance, in 1806, 2 negro slaves in
servitude for life, were publicly offered for sale at York. The owner of these
chattels asked $150 for Peggy, a 40 year old woman skilled in soap making,
and $200 for her son Jupiter, a sound 15 year old. Three years' credit at
interest was offered a purchaser but a quarter of the price would be knocked
off for ready money.
In 1805, an open air market was held on Saturdays where the St.
Lawrence Market stands, and here were kept on display the public stocks and
a whipping post. William Jarvis and William Willcocks were the police
magistrates. Elizabeth Ellis was taught a lesson in their court for making her
tongue a public nuisance. She was sentenced to stand in the pillory for 2
hours on each of 2 market days. Clamped in a wooden frame with her head
sticking through a hole in the top, Elizabeth was presented to public scorn for
an urchin to tickle her nose with a feather or a spiteful woman to break an egg
over her face.
Many offences were classed as felonies punishable by death after trial
by jury. Among these were forgery and the theft of goods over the value of
five dollars. In 1798, Humphrey Sullivan, a tailor from Ireland, was on a
spree in York with his friend Flannery. Whilst they were in a tavern, the
friend wrote out an order for 3 shillings and 3 pence, forging the name of one
Flick. The befuddled Sullivan got the tavern keeper to accept it.
At the March assize, 1800, Sullivan was placed on trial for uttering the
document knowing it to be forged, in other words, for getting 85 cents worth
from the tavern keeper on a forged I.O.U. The jury found him guilty, and
Chief Justice Elmsley pronounced the death sentence.
"Sullivan!" said the judge. "May all who behold you and shall hear of
your unhappy fate take warning from your example. But although your crime
is great, it does not exceed the boundless mercy of God to pardon."
The gallows consisted of 2 posts joined by a smooth crosspiece over
which the rope was thrown. After Sullivan had been hoisted to dangle in the
air, the noose slipped over his head, and he found himself on his feet again.
The hang-man readjusted his tackle. "I hope, McKnight," observed the
unhappy tailor, "you get it right this time."
At the same assize, John Small, clerk of the Executive Council of the
province, stood his trial for a felony. He had shot in a duel and killed John
White, the Attorney General of the province. It was thought proper in York
Society of that day for a gentleman to send his card to a social equal who had
offended his honour, inviting him to a daybreak party of pistols for two, and
breakfast for one. At his trial, the jury brought in a verdict of acquittal. The
Crown prosecutor had refrained from calling witnesses to testify that the
accused had fired upon the deceased.
YORK'S BLOODED GENTRY
In 1798, a mass immigration into Upper Canada had been planned of
families whom the revolution had made exiles from France, and who had
found an asylum in England where they had been living for years as a public
charge. Roman Catholic priests, many noble families, and a multitude of other
persons. Maintaining them in England had become a heavy burden and a
special tax was being levied for the purpose. The British government
proposed to form these French emigres into regiments of militia and to ration
and maintain them until they became established on free land grants in Upper
The authorities at York had received instructions early in 1798 to
make arrangements for this large immigration into the province. The council
set aside Gwillimbury, Whitchurch and 2 unnamed townships, a block so
remote at the time as to be inaccessible for man or beast save in the winter
In choosing this location, the Honourable Members of the Executive
Council had a purpose of their own to serve. They felt that the hamlet of York
lay exposed to a surprise attack by northern Indians whose youth were drawn
to man's estate with their tomahawks unfleshed. The large body of Frenchmen
in the north end of the county would provide the scalps required and form a
protecting shield for the residents of the Town of York.
The Council expected a working party to arrive on the Durham boats.
Quite to the contrary, they brought a notable company of aristocrats. A
miserable time was had by the nobility who found themselves stranded
without resources on bush lots in the upper Yonge Street wilderness. On the
restoration of the French monarchy in 1815, they all flocked home to receive
honours at court. Life in the wilds of Upper Canada proved a heart break for
every member of the little party that disembarked in 1798.
In 1801, Timothy Rogers left Vermont and arrived at the Town of
York. He selected his lands, and returned to Vermont to get the party of
Quaker settlers he planned on bringing to York. In 1802, the 27 families from
Vermont and Connecticut settled on their land in and around the Town of
Newmarket. The Quakers were exclusive in their discipline, and their church
policy of expelling members who contracted an out-marriage was suicidal.
By 1830, York townships were becoming mixed settlements of Anglicans,
Lutherans, Methodists, Mennonites, Presbyterians and Tunkers with frequent
intermarriages among neighbouring families. Every outmarriage occuring in
the Quaker society resulted in the expulsion of a member.
The Quaker meeting house on Yonge Street was a small building, plain
as plain could make it. The room was entered by separate doors, the one for
the shawls and bonnets, the other for the broad brims and butternut
homespun. There was no pulpit, no separate ministry, no sermon, no scripture
reading, and no song. The congregation sat in a dead silence waiting for a
spiritual message. As the worshipper spent hours staring at the solemn faced
elders who sat with fixed eyes under the broad brims on the one side, and
under the grey bonnets on the other, his mind was apt to wander off to the
pressing cares of field and fold.
A contrast to the silence of the Quaker service was found in the noisy,
open air camp meetings which the Methodists conducted on the farm of Jacob
SILVER SNUFF BOXES
In 1817, Robert Gourlay recorded complaints from every section of the
province of lack of schools, churches, capital, markets, cash money and
especially passable roads. It was agreed on every hand that what Upper
Canada required was an active immigration of farm settlers bringing some
capital with them.
In startling contrast to the stagnation in Upper Canada, was the stir and
bustle that was taking place across the border. Humanity continued to pour
westward from New England . Such a mass movement of landseekers carried
prosperity with it, and was drawing from Upper Canada discouraged settlers
who left their lonely clearings to join the westbound throng.
In 1825, a streak of light pierced the clouds of gloom. In that year,
12,818 immigrants came up the St. Lawrence and thus began a great
migration of landseekers that in 15 years cleared and fenced the fields of
York County. By 1831, the influx into the province exceeded 50,000 persons
This wave of immigration, which retained its distinct character till
1838, was composed of tenant farmers who came from all sections of the
British Isles to resume farming on "estates" of their own in Upper Canada.
Theirs had not been a hurried flight, and for most of them it had been a forced
departure. The conditions in their homeland that dislodged them tell the sort
of people they were.
By 1825, wars, and their costly victories, laws and their unforseen
effects, had destroyed the security of the Old Country farm tenant. For
centuries the English parish had its lord of the manor who dwelt amid the
fields of his estate and enjoyed exclusive sporting on the parish commons
over which others had defined rights to gather fuel and graze livestock. Of the
seperate farms in a parish, some were occupied by freeholders, others were
held under lease, often for a term of 3 lives. The remaining lands, sometimes
a third of the whole, were cultivated under an ancient common field system.
Such farming practice may have been uneconomic, but it provided the
parish labourer with the right to gather fuel, graze a cow or two, work a
garden patch, harvest a strip of grain and thatch a rick of his own. The farm
labourer was on the bottom of the ladder, and under such conditions, there
was slow growth in the population of England.
To increase agricultural returns, a series of Enclosure Acts were
passed, and by 1790, and end had been made to common field tillage, a
change that increase manyfold the marketed farm produce of the kingdom, but
in the process the parish cottager lost his rights on the land and was reduced
to the position of a casual day labourer tethered to his parish by the laws of
settlement. The only security left him was his right to parish pauper relief.
Small farmers held on for a long time, but the years of despair saw the
farmers of York County coming up the St. Lawrence in 1825.
Tenant families who joined in this exodus usually made an orderly
departure in a dignified manner, after diligent enquiries and careful
preparations. Neighbours marked the occasion by giving a farewell party, and
as the Tory Islands faded from sight, the emigrant felt a lump in his throat and
in his waistcoat pocket a small silver box on which was engraved: "Presented
on the occasion of your departure for America by a few friends as a token of
A family with some means could establish its settlement in Upper
Canada in comparative comfort. The voyage from Plymouth to New York on
a clipper consumed from 4-7 weeks. The captain of the fast sailing ship, The
Ontario, provided a good table. The dinner included soups, fresh mutton,
beef, pork and veal, roasted turkeys, geese, plum pudding, pastry, oranges
and wines. A cabin fare was $140. There was a library aboard and in fair
weather a pleasant time was had. Steerage passengers who stayed below deck
and found for themselves paid $18 passage money. The great majority of the
settlers came steerage to the St. Lawrence, conserving what funds they had.
Unpartitioned living and sleeping quarters were provided in the hold that had
a height of five and a half feet between decks, and for provisions, a passenger
was required to bring aboard 50 pounds of oatmeal or its equivalent.
Farm lots in York County were more expensive than in districts further
west, and it follows that those who settled in this area had more than the
average amount of money in their wallets. In 1831, newcomers deposited
1,600,000 pounds in the banks, and the townships of Scarborough, Markham,
Vaughan, York and Etobicoke felt the benefit of this immigration from its
THE VOICE OF TORONTO
In 1833, the Town of York had govenment buildings of solid
construction for its land offices, banking houses, many merchant shops and
small frame churches. But, there were problems. No constable was available
to preserve order, and there was no provision for removing filth from the
streets and hogs were the public scavengers. Its main road remained a mud
road along which stagnant water lay in open ditches.
Drinking water was carried indoors from shallow wells and in warm
weather Asiatic cholera cast the shadow of its sickle on the muddy streets of
York. In 1832, 600 persons died of this disorder over which medical science
had no control. Many of the corpses were interred in the Strangers' Burying
Grounds, a six acre potter's field a mile and a half out of town at the north
west corner of Bloor and Yonge Streets. In 1833, the stricken were lying
awaiting death in open sheds the government had provided at Richmond and
Peter Streets. As a sanitary precaution, tar barrels were burnt in the vicinity to
dispel some malegnant humidity in the air, and at regular intervals,
gunpowder was exploded.
The absence of local municipal services in York is easily explained:
taxes were not being levied to pay for them. The community on Toronto Bay
was called a town, but this was a courtesy title. It was an unorganized hamlet
and for municipal purposes, it formed part of the Home District which
included several counties.
By 1833, conditions were unbearable, and the official aristocracy,
stirred up by Sheriff William B. Jarvis devised a remedy that proved startling.
From an unorganized hamlet, York was suddenly was raised by statute to the
proud estate of an incorporated city with wide powers of municipal self
government under an elected council of 20 members. The first council of the
City of Toronto was elected by wards, in 1834 under open polling conducted
at convenient Taverns. The Reform ticket won, and William Lyon Mackenzie
was appointed the first Mayor of Toronto. Among his duties, the mayor sat as
a magistrate in the police court, and the last person to stand in the public
stocks at Toronto was a woman sent there by Magistrate Mackenzie for
throwing her shoe at his face in open court.
The members of Toronto's first council borrowed money from the bank
on their personal endorsements, promising to repay it out of a higher tax levy.
The proceeds were used to lay plank sidewalks. The irate property holders
seized their first opportunity to vote Mackenzie and his followers out of
For Muddy Little York, the horn of progress had sounded. Industry,
Intelligence, and Integrity had climbed aboard the coach. Crack went the
whip of higher taxes, the horses of industry sprang into their collars and the
City of Toronto was on its was to glory. Steam engines were then being
installed to supply industrial power. The population increase from 4,000 in
1832 to 15,000 in 1842. After a long struggle and many trials, Toronto had
established itself as the commercial and industrial centre of the province.
*Taken from the book The Settlement of York County by John Mitchell,
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