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John Graves Simcoe

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Thumbnail portrait of John Graves Simcoe 1752-1806
John Graves Simcoe
John Graves Simcoe (1752-1806) was born in Northamptonshire, England, the son of John Simcoe, a Royal Navy officer, and Katherine Stamford. In 1770 he obtained a commission as ensign in the 35th Foot, purchased a captaincy in the 40th Regiment of Foot in 1775 (while in Boston), and in 1777 obtained command of the Queen's Rangers with the provincial rank of major. Simcoe took particular care to bring the Rangers up to strength and teach them skills that would serve them well for the duration of the Revolutionary War. In 1779 Simcoe was captured in an ambush and spent six months as a prisoner before being invalided home to England. His personal gains from the war included the rise to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, a record of being a consistently successful British regimental commander, and a name for being a tactical theorist; a reputation enhanced following the publication, in 1787, of his Journal of the operations of the Queen's Rangers. While convalescing, Simcoe met and married Elizabeth Posthuma Gwillim, a fortunate match which provided him with significant financial support, including the means to acquire Wolford Lodge, situated on a considerable estate at Honiton in Devon. In order to pursue a military or colonial appointment, Simcoe ran successfully for a seat in the House of Commons in 1790. His perseverance was rew​arded later that year when he was promised the lieutenant governorship of what was to be the province of Upper Canada.

Thumbnail image of Wolford Lodge, Devonshire
Wolford Lodge, Devonshire
Simcoe's long-range goal was to oversee the development of Upper Canada into a model British colony. Before he arrived in Upper Canada, Simcoe formulated some elaborate plans for the development of the new province. Many of them did not receive the necessary support from the imperial government or the legislative assembly, such as the public support of education, the endowment of the Church of England in Upper Canada, and the development of the Queen's Rangers militia based on the Roman military model. Other initiatives, such as road building, the promotion of settlement, and the establishment of a naval force on the Great Lakes in preparation for an American invasion were set in motion. In 1796, while visiting England on a leave of absence, Simcoe received word that his posting had been changed from Canada to Santa Domingo. Various other posts followed, and in 1806 Simcoe was named commander-in-chief in India. Before he could take up the position, however, Simcoe was sent on a diplomatic mission to Portugal where he became seriously ill. Simcoe died at home October 26, 1806, and was buried in Wolford Chapel, which is now owned by the Ontario Heritage Trust.

Many of the developments which had their foundations in Simcoe's plans for Upper Canada were particularly relevant to the county that now bears his name.

In 1793, while travelling through the area, Simcoe re-named Lac-la-Clie after his father, British Navy Captain John Simcoe (1710-1759), who died en route to Canada a month before the siege of Quebec began; and the lake's western bay after Richard Kempenfelt (1718-1782), Rear Admiral of the Blue Squadron of His Majesty's Fleet and a friend of John Simcoe. Later, the townships of North, East and West Gwillimbury would be named in honour of his wife, Elizabeth Posthuma Gwillim.

Thumbnail image of Naval and Military Establishment, Penetanguishene
Naval and Military Establishment
Along the shores of Georgian Bay Simcoe discovered that the harbour at Penetanguishene would be suitable for a government post from which supplies could be sent to other military posts in the upper Great Lakes. In 1814 Sir George Head was sent to superintend the construction of the military establishment at Penetanguishene. After travelling over land from Halifax, Head arrived in Penetanguishene in 1815. He related his experiences in "Forest Scenes," published in 1829. The post was moved from Penetanguishene to the Nottawasaga River in 1815, but was moved back again in 1818.

Thumbnail image of a Plan of Kempenfelt Village
Plan of Kempenfelt Village
In a move primarily to promote better access to the upper Great Lakes, and secondarily to facilitate settlement, Yonge Street was put through from York to Holland Landing in 1796. A military road linking Kempenfelt Bay and the harbour at Penetanguishene was explored by Samuel Wilmot in 1808, and surveyed in 1811; settlement commenced on the Penetanguishene Road in 1819. As the land was surveyed, the Coldwater, Gloucester, Sunnidale and Centre (Hurontario) Roads were also developed to allow easier access to land grants.

Thumbnail image of 1808 Surveyor's map of Simcoe County
1808 Surveyor's Map
The majority of Simcoe County's townships were surveyed for settlement in 1820 or 1821. At that time, the constituent townships were: Adjala, Alba, Amaranth, Artemisia, Aurelia (Orillia), Essa, Euphrasy, Flos, Innisfil, Java, Luther, Mara, Matchedash, Medonte, Melancthon, Merlin, Mono, Mulmur, Ora, Osprey, Proton, Ramah, Sunnidale, Tay, Tecumseth, Thora, Tiny, Tosorontio, Vespra, West Gwillimbury, and Zero. (Java and Merlin would later be combined to form the Township of Nottawasaga). Early town sites included Barrie, Bond Head, Bradford, Coldwater, Holland Landing, Kempenfelt, Middletown, Orillia, and Penetanguishene.

As an indirect result of Simcoe's efforts to abolish slavery in Upper Canada, a Negro militia unit was raised during the War of 1812. The men were free Canadians who were loyal to Britain. Following the war, these soldiers were provided with military land grants in the Wilberforce Settlement, Oro Township. Ceremonies designating the Oro African Methodist Episcopal Church a National Historic Site of Canada took place in 2003.

Simcoe's contribution to the development of Upper Canada was recognized when an "Act for the better division of this province" (38 Geo. 3 [1798]) was proclaimed 1 January 1800, whereby the boundaries of the new county of Simcoe were constituted. Another 43 years passed before Jacob Æmilius Irving was appointed the first Warden and the councillors met to conduct the business of the County. Since 1843, more than 140 men and women have served as Warden of the County of Simcoe. The County's crest is a combination of the coats of arms of the Simcoe and Gwillim families.

Thumbnail image of the old Simcoe County Crest  

Simcoe County Crest

Portrait of John Graves Simcoe 

John Graves Simcoe

Further Reading

  • Cook, R. & Belanger, R. (Eds.). (2006). Dictionary of Canadian Biography. [Electronic version]. http://www.biographi.ca/EN/
  • French, G. E. (1978). Men of colour: An historical account of the black settlement on Wilberforce Street and in Oro Township,
  • Simcoe County, Ontario, 1819-1949. Stroud, Ont.: Kaste Books
  • Head, G. (1829). Forest scenes and incidents in the wilds of North America: being a diary of a winter's route from Halifax to the
  • Canadas, and during four months' residence in the woods on the borders of Lakes Huron and Simcoe. London: J. Murr
  • ay
  • Hunter, A. F. (1998). A History of Simcoe County. Oshawa: Mackinaw Productions.
  • Gwillim, E. P. (1965). Mrs. Simcoe's diaries (M. Q. Innis, Ed.). Toronto: Macmillan of Canada.
  • Simcoe, J. G. (1924). The Correspondence of Lieut. Governor John Graves Simcoe, with Allied Documents Relating to his
  • Administration of the Government of Upper Canada. (Cruikshank, E. A., Ed.). Toronto: The Ontario Historical Society