Magazine article History Today

Toronto: Patricia Cleveland-Peck Visits a Canadian City That Looks to the Future Yet Has an Intriguing Past

Magazine article History Today

Toronto: Patricia Cleveland-Peck Visits a Canadian City That Looks to the Future Yet Has an Intriguing Past

Article excerpt

TORONTO IS A YOUTHFUL CITY by European standards but the wilderness on which it stands was populated by hunters well over 10,000 years ago. At this time the area was in the grip of an ice age and when this Finished leaving a huge lake, ancestors of the Iroquois settled along the shore. By the time the Europeans were lured there by the fur trade in the seventeenth century, Huron, Seneca and Mississauga peoples used the area for hunting and fishing. The French fur trader Etienne Brule attempted to make allies of the Huron as protection from rival tribes but by the time the French established their trading post, most of the Huron had died from European diseases.

In 1756 France and Britain were at war and three years later the British captured Toronto. They took little interest in it, however, until they lost the American War of Independence, following which a flood of pro-British United Empire Loyalists swept northwards. It was to cope with this influx that the province of Upper Canada came into being. The British purchased over 250,000 acres around the site of Toronto from the Mississauga people for 149 barrels of goods and around 1,700 [pounds sterling]. Later another payment was made--but it was not large.

John Graves Simcoe, a veteran of the American war, was appointed lieutenant-governor, his task to establish a city in this wilderness. At this time the seat of legislature was at Niagara-on-the Lake (then known as Newark) and this small town is worth a visit, partly because it was the first British foothold in the area, with several of the military sites including Historic Fort George and Butler's Barracks restored and open to visitors and its own Niagara Historical Society Museum--and partly because it is one of the prettiest villages in Canada.

Simcoe was accompanied by his wife Elisabeth and her diaries and sketches offer an unrivalled picture of life at the time. Elizabeth, a wealthy gentlewoman from Dorset, took enthusiastically to life in the wilderness. The Simcoes were eager to see Niagara Falls. 'It is the grandest sight imaginable particularly the circular form of the grand fall with the brightest green colour and a glorious rainbow ...' wrote Elizabeth. Later she descended the steep hill to Table Rock where today you can not only appreciate the same sight but also take a lift and walk down tunnels blasted though solid rock to emerge on viewing platforms at the back of the falls.

Their house at Newark was not ready for the family (Elizabeth was accompanied by the two youngest of her eleven children and a daughter was born in Canada) but Elizabeth soon made a home for the family in a 'canvas house'--a marquee once used in the Pacific which her husband had purchased at the sale of Captain Cook's effects in London. A visitor described it as being 'papered and painted....' adding, 'You would suppose you were in a common house.' When Prince Edward, father of Queen Victoria, paid a visit, the Simcoes relinquished the tent to him and moved into their half-finished house.

As further conflict with the Americans loomed, Simcoe made an exploratory trip north. He selected a marshy wilderness of oak and maple for the new city of Toronto, mainly because it was blessed with the makings of a good harbour. His surveyor Joseph Bouchette wrote of the place, 'Dense and trackless forest lined the margin of the lake ... the wandering savage had constructed his ephemeral habitation beneath the luxuriant foliage ... and the bay and neighboring marshes were the hitherto uninvaded haunts of immense coveys of wildfowl.' Simcoe effected a transformation--neatly laying out the city in a settlement of ten blocks and changing the name from Toronto (he professed 'an abhorrence of Indian names') to York after George III's son, Frederick Duke of York. It was changed back in 1834.

Elizabeth assisted in choosing a site 'on rising ground' for her canvas house which also served as the lieutenant-governor's office. …

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