An overview of Toronto’s History

The French Colony (1615-1760)

The first European to set foot on the shores of Lake Ontario in the vicinity of what is now Toronto was French explorer Étienne Brûlé. He was part of the expedition led by Samuel de Champlain in 1608 that resulted in the founding of Quebec. However, the Toronto region had been inhabited for at least ten thousand years before the arrival of Brûlé in 1615. The indigenous inhabitants of the region were well acquainted with Toronto, as it was situated along a series of trails and water routes that connected northern and western Canada with the Gulf of Mexico. The “Toronto Passage” or “Toronto Carrying Place,” which followed the Humber River, constituted an important overland shortcut between Lake Ontario and the upper Great Lakes. The region was populated by the Huron and Petun tribes until approximately 1600, when they withdrew to land south of Georgian Bay. The Iroquois League, who lived south of Lake Ontario, were their rivals, and feuding between Iroquois and Hurons continued into the 17th century as French fur traders began to move into the area. By the mid-17th century, the Huron Confederacy had been significantly weakened by the introduction of foreign diseases brought by the French and conflict with the Iroquois, who subsequently occupied some of the former Huron territory on the north shore of Lake Ontario. The French subsequently dislodged the Iroquois in 1688, and the vacant lands were subsequently taken up by the Mississaugas from the Canadian Shield.

In the latter part of the 17th century, a village emerged on the east bank of the Humber River, in the vicinity of the present-day Old Mill. Called Teiaiagon, the village served as a trading post and a meeting place for traders from the east (French), north (Indian), and south (English). Its strategic location at the convergence of three significant trade routes and on the Toronto Passage, a shortcut to the upper Great Lakes and northwestern Canada, contributed to its prominence. Over time, the population of Teiaiagon consisted of a shifting amalgam of Mississaugas, Senecas (Iroquois), French fur traders and soldiers, and missionaries, such as the Jesuits. Concurrently, the French were establishing themselves along the St. Lawrence River and at Teiaiagon, while the British were setting up flourishing colonial settlements along the Atlantic Coast in New England and Chesapeake Bay. The hostilities that existed between Britain and France in Europe were carried over into the colonial settlements, resulting in intense rivalries between the two countries as they vied for control of the fur trade and other resources. The French and Indian War (1754-1763) was the result of this rivalry, as the two countries fought for control of the North American continent with the assistance of colonial and Native allies. This conflict subsequently expanded into Europe, becoming known as the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).

In the course of events, various forts and blockhouses were constructed by the French and English along the shores of Lake Ontario and elsewhere. In 1750, the French constructed Fort Toronto on the east bank of the Humber River. However, it was soon perceived to be inadequate in comparison with British forts like Fort Oswego. Consequently, a larger French fort, called Fort Rouille, was constructed three miles east of the Humber, on the grounds of the present-day Canadian National Exhibition. This was the final French fort in the Toronto area. By September 1760, the British had vanquished the French, who subsequently withdrew from North America, thereby bringing an end to French rule in what would later become Canada.

For the subsequent three decades, the Toronto area was under British control, although their presence was barely discernible. The fur trade was revived, with passes being issued by the British commander Lord Dorchester at Montreal for trappers to hunt at Toronto. In 1787, he negotiated the Toronto Purchase, which transferred the title to a fourteen-mile stretch of land along Lake Ontario from present-day Scarborough to Etobicoke, and nearly 30 miles inland, from the Mississauga Indians to the British. In exchange for relinquishing over 250,000 acres of land, the Mississaugas received 1700 pounds sterling and various goods. The American Revolution, which occurred between 1775 and 1783, had no pronounced effect on Toronto at the time. However, the post-revolution migration of Loyalists to populate the area north of Lake Ontario from the upper St. Lawrence west to Kingston, the Bay of Quinte, and Niagara regions would have a significant impact on the subsequent development of Upper Canada. Furthermore, the delineation of the border along the middle of the Great Lakes, following the recognition of the United States as a non-British entity in 1783, facilitated the formation of a distinct Canadian identity and contributed to the advancement of Toronto as a logical choice for the center of British influence.

Governor Simcoe’s Village (1793-1812)

John Graves Simcoe - click to enlarge

In 1791, Britain divided the colony of Quebec into the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada. The former encompassed the area now known as Ontario, which was initially populated largely by Loyalists. The latter included the present-day province of Quebec, which remained predominantly French. The impetus for dividing the colony into two separate provinces had come from the Loyalists, who objected to having French laws and culture imposed on them in their new surroundings. Consequently, the two provinces exhibited distinct cultural, legal, and land tenure characteristics, as well as separate elected assemblies representing their respective interests. In 1792, John Graves Simcoe, the inaugural Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, arrived at Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake). Simcoe had served with the British forces during the American Revolution as the commander of a Loyalist regiment called the Queen’s Rangers. Although both Newark and Kingston were already established towns in Upper Canada, Simcoe believed that Toronto was a superior site for the capital from a military and naval standpoint. On July 30, 1793, Simcoe arrived at Toronto with his wife, Elizabeth, their servants, and members of the Queen’s Rangers, who would serve both as soldiers and laborers in establishing the new town.

Unfortunately for Simcoe, his superior Lord Dorchester did not concur with his assessment of Toronto as the optimal location for a military and naval stronghold in Upper Canada. Dorchester favored Kingston, and since he was the authority on military expenditures, Simcoe lacked the financial backing he needed. Nevertheless, he was able to oversee the construction of a log hut garrison, the laying out of a ten-block town site, and 100-acre park lots north of the town, running from Queen Street (originally called Lot Street) up to Bloor. Simcoe intended to give these lots to government officials from Niagara as compensation for having to move to what was then a wilderness outpost. Additionally, he initiated the clearing of Yonge Street up to the Holland River, which opened the lands above the town to wider settlement and provided a vital link to the town’s markets. Simcoe ordered the Queen’s Rangers to erect the first modest public buildings of the town, including those for parliament, courts, and religious services. He also gave a new name to the town, calling it York, after the British commanding general the Duke of York. In the fall of 1796, Simcoe returned to Britain on leave and was reassigned to military duties in the West Indies. Although his tenure in York was relatively brief, he played a pivotal role in laying the foundation for the city’s future growth and prosperity.

In the years following Simcoe’s departure, the town continued to grow at a modest rate. At the first town meeting in July 1797, 241 inhabitants were enumerated. The initial population at York consisted of British officials and their families, soldiers, and a small assortment of laborers, storekeepers, and craftsmen. Contemporary correspondence indicates that labor and materials were in such short supply in York’s formative years that not only were costs driven up but the ruling class often had to wait to have their homes built. This demand served to attract shopkeepers and skilled tradesmen to the town, which by 1812 had a population of a little over 700. In the decade preceding 1812, numerous new edifices were erected, including inns and hotels, a jail, two new military blockhouses situated to the east and west of the town, and in 1807 the inaugural church, known as “the English Church” but subsequently designated St. James. The land surrounding York continued to be developed, primarily by post-Loyalist Americans who eagerly embraced the rich farmland situated to the east and west of Yonge Street above the town. As York expanded and transportation to and from the town improved, merchants began to arrive who carried a larger and more varied selection of goods, and who imported their products directly from Britain or New York rather than obtaining them from Kingston or Montreal, which were both larger and more established towns. Socially, the population was divided into two distinct groups: The official ruling elite comprised a close-knit group of upper-class and distinctly British families who held the reins of power and were favoured with special privileges, including the grant of large “park lots” north of the town (which were later christened “The Family Compact”). In contrast, the working-class merchants, labourers and craftsmen constituted a significant proportion of the population. One notable aspect of York’s social structure was that it did not have a Loyalist foundation; its inhabitants were thoroughly British. The farm settlements above the town were predominantly populated by Loyalists and recently arrived Americans. This demographic would become significant during the conflict with the United States and the events leading up to the Rebellion of 1837. However, prior to the War of 1812, Governor Simcoe’s vision for York was gradually becoming a reality.