John Graves Simcoe (25 February 1752 – 26 October 1806) was a British Army general and the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada from 1791 until 1796 in southern Ontario and the watersheds of Georgian Bay and Lake Superior. He founded York (now Toronto) and was instrumental in introducing institutions such as courts of law, trial by jury, English common law, and freehold land tenure, and also in the abolition of slavery in Canada.

His long-term goal was the development of Upper Canada (Ontario) as a model community built on aristocratic and conservative principles, designed to demonstrate the superiority of those principles to the Republicanism and democracy of the United States. His energetic efforts were only partially successful in establishing a local gentry, a thriving Church of England, and an anti-American coalition with select Indigenous nations. He is seen by many Canadians as a founding figure in Canadian history, especially by those in Southern Ontario.[3] He is commemorated in Toronto with Simcoe Day.

Early life

Simcoe was the only surviving son of John (1710–1759) and Katherine Simcoe (d. 1767). His parents had four children, but he was the only one to live past childhood; Percy drowned in 1764, while Paulet William and John William died as infants. His father was a captain in the Royal Navy who commanded the 60-gun HMS Pembroke during the Siege of Louisbourg (1758), with James Cook as his sailing master. He died of pneumonia on 15 May 1759 on board his ship in the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River, a few months prior to the siege of Quebec. The family then moved to his mother's parental home in Exeter. His paternal grandparents were William and Mary (née Hutchinson) Simcoe.

He was educated at Exeter Grammar School and Eton College. He spent a year at Merton College, Oxford;[4] he was then admitted to Lincoln's Inn, but decided to follow the military career for which his father had intended him. He was initiated into Freemasonry in Union Lodge, Exeter on 2 November 1773.[5]

Military career in American Revolutionary War

In 1770, Simcoe entered the British Army as an ensign in the 35th Regiment of Foot, and his unit was dispatched to the Thirteen Colonies. Later, he saw action in the American Revolutionary War during the Siege of Boston. During the siege in July 1776, he was promoted captain in the 40th Regiment of Foot.[6] He saw action with the grenadier company of the 40th Foot in the New York and New Jersey campaign and the Philadelphia campaign. Simcoe commanded the 40th at the Battle of Brandywine on 11 September 1777, where he was wounded. Legend has it that Simcoe ordered his men at Brandywine not to fire upon three fleeing rebels, among whom was George Washington.[7]

In 1777, Simcoe sought to form a Loyalist regiment of free blacks from Boston but instead was offered the command of the Queen's Rangers on 15 October 1777. It was a well-trained light infantry unit comprising 11 companies of 30 men, 1 grenadier, and 1 hussar, and the rest light infantry. The Queen's Rangers saw extensive action during the Philadelphia campaign, including a successful surprise attack (planned and executed by Simcoe) at the Battle of Crooked Billet.

In 1778, Simcoe commanded a massacre of ten Americans in their sleep in Lower Alloways Creek Township in Southern New Jersey. The attack on Judge William Hancock's house during a foraging expedition opposed by Patriot militia, also wounded five other Americans in their sleep. William Hancock was also killed, although he was not with the Americans. The massacre took place at night and with bayonets. On 28 June of that year, Simcoe and his Queen's Rangers took part in the Battle of Monmouth, in and near Freehold, New Jersey.

On August 31, 1778, Lieut. Col. Simcoe led a massacre of forty Native Americans, allied with the Continental Army, in what is today the Bronx, NY. This place is known as Indian Field[8] in Van Cortlandt Park, Bronx. NY.

During October 1779, Simcoe and 80 men launched an attack on central New Jersey from southern Staten Island known as Simcoe's Raid, from what is known today as the Conference House, resulting in the burning of Patriot supplies inside a Dutch Reformed Church in Finderne, including hay and grain; the release of Loyalist prisoners from the Somerset County Courthouse; and Simcoe's capture by Armand Tuffin de La Rouërie.[9][10][11] Simcoe was released at the end of 1779[12] and rejoined his unit in Virginia. He was involved in a skirmish near Williamsburg and was at the Siege of Yorktown. He was invalided back to England in December of that year as a Lieutenant-Colonel, having been promoted in March 1782.[13]

Simcoe wrote a book on his experiences with the Queen's Rangers, titled A Journal of the Operations of the Queen's Rangers from the end of the year 1777 to the conclusion of the late American War, which was published in 1787.[14]

Marriage and family

Simcoe convalesced at the Devon home of his godfather, Admiral Samuel Graves. In 1782, Simcoe married Elizabeth Posthuma Gwillim, his godfather's ward. Elizabeth was a wealthy heiress, who acquired a 5,000 acre estate at Honiton in Devon and built Wolford Lodge. Wolford was the Simcoe family seat until 1923.[15]

The Simcoes had five daughters prior to their posting in Canada. Son Francis was born in 1791. Their Canadian-born daughter, Katherine, died in infancy in York. She is buried in the Victoria Square Memorial Park on Portland Avenue, Toronto. Francis returned with his father to England when his tenure expired and joined the army. He was killed in an infantry charge during the Peninsular Campaign in 1812.

Member of Parliament

Simcoe entered politics in 1790. He was elected Member of Parliament for St Mawes in Cornwall, as a supporter of the government (led by William Pitt the Younger). As MP, he proposed raising a militia force like the Queen's Rangers. He also proposed to lead an invasion of Spain. But instead he was to be made lieutenant governor of the new loyalist province of Upper Canada.[15] He resigned from Parliament in 1792 on taking up his new post.

Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada

The Constitutional Act 1791 divided Canada into the Provinces of Upper Canada (Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec). The Act established separate governments and legislative assemblies for each province. Lower Canada was the French-speaking eastern portion, which retained the French code civil and protections for the Roman Catholic Church established when Britain took over the area after its defeat of the French in the Seven Years' War. Upper Canada was the western area, newly settled after the American Revolutionary War. The settlers were mostly English speakers, including Loyalists from the Thirteen Colonies, and also the Six Nations of the Iroquois, who had been British allies during the war. The Crown had purchased land from the Mississauga and other First Nations to give the Loyalists land grants in partial compensation for property lost in the United States, and to help them set up new communities and develop this territory.[16]

Simcoe was appointed Lieutenant-Governor on 12 September 1791, and left for Canada with his wife Elizabeth and daughter Sophia, leaving three daughters behind in England with their aunt. They left England in September and arrived in Canada on 11 November. Due to severe weather, the Simcoes spent the winter in Quebec City. Simcoe finally reached Kingston, Upper Canada on 24 June 1792.[15]

In a proclamation on 16 July 1792, he renamed several islands at the mouth of the archipelago at the head of the St. Lawrence river for the victorious Generals at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham (Amherst Island, Gage Island, Wolfe Island, and Howe Island).[17]

Under the Constitutional Act, the provincial government consisted of the Lieutenant-Governor, an appointed Executive Council and Legislative Council, and an elected Legislative Assembly. The first meeting of the nine-member Legislative Council and sixteen-member Legislative Assembly took place at Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) on 17 September 1792.

Following Simcoe's work precipitated by the Chloe Cooley incident, the Assembly passed the first Act Against Slavery in the British Empire in 1793, and the English colonists of Upper Canada took pride in this distinction with respect to the French-Canadian populace of Lower Canada. The Upper Canadians valued their common law legal system, as opposed to the code civil of Quebec, which had chafed them ever since 1763. This was one of the primary reasons for the partition of 1791. Simcoe collaborated extensively with his Attorney-General John White on the file.

The principles of the British Constitution do not admit of that slavery which Christianity condemns. The moment I assume the Government of Upper Canada under no modification will I assent to a law that discriminates by dishonest policy between natives of Africa, America, or Europe.

— John Graves Simcoe, Address to the Legislative Assembly[18]

Slavery was thus ended in Upper Canada long before it was abolished in the British Empire as a whole. By 1810, there were no slaves in Upper Canada, but the Crown did not abolish slavery throughout the Empire until 1834.

Simcoe's first priority was the Northwest Indian War between the United States and the "Western Confederacy" of Native Americans west of the Appalachian Mountains and south of the Great Lakes (the Shawnee, Miami, Wyandot, and other tribes). This conflict had begun in 1785, and was still raging when Simcoe arrived in 1792. Simcoe had hoped to form an Indian buffer state between the two countries, even though he distrusted Joseph Brant, the main Indian leader. Simcoe rejected the section of the Treaty of Paris (1783) which awarded that area to the US, on the grounds that American actions had nullified the treaty.[19] However, the French Revolutionary Wars broke out in 1793. The government in London decided to seek good terms with the United States. Simcoe was instructed to avoid giving the US reason to mistrust Britain but, at the same time, to keep the Native Americans on both sides of the border friendly to Britain. The Indians asked for British military support, which was initially refused, but in 1794 Britain supplied the Indians with rifles and ammunition.[20]

In February 1794, the governor general, Lord Dorchester, expecting the US to ally with France, said that war was likely to break out between the US and Britain before the year was out. This encouraged the Indians in their war. Dorchester ordered Simcoe to rally the Indians and arm British vessels on the Great Lakes. He also built Fort Miami (present-day Maumee, Ohio) to supply the Indians. Simcoe expelled Americans from a settlement on the southern shore of Lake Erie which had threatened British control of the lake. US President Washington denounced the "irregular and high-handed proceeding of Mr. Simcoe."[21] While Dorchester planned for a defensive war, Simcoe urged London to declare war: "Upper Canada is not to be defended by remaining within the boundary line."[22] Dorchester was officially reprimanded by the Crown for his strong speech against the Americans in 1794.

Simcoe realised that Newark made an unsuitable capital because it was on the Canada–US border and subject to attack. He proposed moving the capital to a more defensible position, in the middle of Upper Canada's southwestern peninsula between Lake Erie and Lake Huron. He named the new location London, and renamed the river there the Thames in anticipation of the change. Dorchester rejected this proposal, but accepted Simcoe's second choice, the present site of Toronto. Simcoe moved the capital there in 1793, and renamed the settlement York after Frederick, Duke of York, King George III's second son. The town was severely underdeveloped at the time of its founding so he brought with him politicians, builders, Nova Scotia timber men, and Englishmen skilled in whipsawing and cutting joists and rafters.[23]

Simcoe began construction of two roads through Upper Canada, for defence and to encourage settlement and trade. Yonge Street (named after British Minister of War Sir George Yonge) ran north-south from York to Lake Simcoe. Soldiers of the Queen's Rangers began cutting the road in August 1793, reaching Holland Landing in 1796. Dundas Street (named for Colonial Secretary Henry Dundas) ran east-west, between York and London.

The Northwest Indian War ended after the United States defeated the Indians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. They made peace under the Treaty of Greenville. While still at war with France, Britain could not afford to antagonise the US in the Jay Treaty of 1794, Britain agreed to withdraw north of the Great Lakes, as agreed in the Treaty of Paris (1783). Simcoe evacuated the frontier forts.

Later career

Memorial in Exeter Cathedral

In 1794 Simcoe had been appointed Major-General. In July 1796 poor health forced him to return to Britain. He was unable to return to Upper Canada and resigned his office in 1798.

He served briefly as the commander of British forces in Saint-Domingue (later Haiti). There, in the spring of 1797, he defended the coastal town of Saint-Marc but lost Mirebalais and the Central Plateau to the forces of Toussaint Louverture, leader of the slave revolt and by that point commander-in-chief of the French Republican forces on the island.[24] This campaign signalled the end of the English attempt, in collaboration with planters, to restore slavery and other aspects of the ancien regime to take over the rich, sugar-producing island while France was involved in internal affairs of its Revolution.[25][26]

Simcoe was appointed colonel of the 81st Foot in 1798, but exchanged the position for the 22nd Foot less than six months later. He was also promoted to Lieutenant-General and was made commander of the Western District. In 1806, he was appointed Commander-in-Chief, India (to succeed Cornwallis, who had died shortly after arriving in India.) Simcoe died in Exeter before assuming the post. Gerard Lake, 1st Viscount Lake, was reappointed to replace Simcoe.

Simcoe was buried in Wolford Chapel on the Simcoe family estate near Honiton, Devon. The Ontario Heritage Foundation acquired title to the chapel in 1982.[27]


The 1903 unveiling of the General John Graves Simcoe monument at Queen's Park in Toronto.
Statue of John Graves Simcoe first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada by Walter Seymour Allward 1903 Queen's Park (Toronto)

Many places in Canada were named in honour of Simcoe:

  • The town of Simcoe in southwestern Ontario
  • Civic Holiday, a statutory holiday celebrated throughout Canada under a variety of names by region,[31] was established in honour of Simcoe by the Toronto City Council in 1869.[32] Other Ontario municipalities and then other provinces soon took up the holiday as well, leading to its Canada-wide status, but without any attribution to Simcoe. In 1965, the Toronto City Council declared the holiday would henceforth be known as Simcoe Day within Toronto.[32] Attempts have been made to have the official provincial name—still Civic Holiday[31]—amended, but none have succeeded.
  • Governor Simcoe Secondary School in St. Catharines, Ontario
  • Governor Simcoe Public School. Grades K – 8, in London, Ontario. The now closed and demolished school was located at the corner of Simcoe and Clarence Streets.
  • Simcoe Street and John Street in downtown Toronto, along with Simcoe Place (office tower) in downtown Toronto, are all located near the fort where Simcoe lived during his early years in York.
  • Simcoe Street, Simcoe Street United Church, and Simcoe Hall Settlement House in Oshawa.
  • Simcoe Street in New Westminster and Simcoe Park was named by Colonel Moody in reference to the surveying of the area after the city of Toronto.
  • The Simcoe Fairgrounds in Simcoe.
  • Simcoe Street, Simcoe Street School and the Simcoe Street School Tigers Bantam Baseball Team of Niagara Falls
  • Simcoe Island, located near Kingston, Ontario
  • Simcoe Hall, located on the St. George campus of the University of Toronto
  • John Graves Simcoe Armoury, located on Industrial Parkway in Aurora, Ontario

There are two places named for Simcoe with the title Lord, but Simcoe was not made a Lord in his lifetime. They are the following:

Captain John Kennaway Simcoe, the last member of the Simcoe family, died without issue in 1891 and was survived by widow beyond 1911.[2][better reference needed]

In popular culture

  • A fictionalised version of Simcoe is a primary antagonist in the 2014–2017 AMC drama Turn: Washington's Spies, portrayed by Samuel Roukin.[33] He is portrayed as an extraordinarily brutal and sadistic villain, but this characterization is only moderately supported by historical evidence, such as the 1778 massacre of sleeping Americans he ordered. Further, the backstory given to the Simcoe character – born and raised in British India, the son of a doctor who died in the Black Hole of Calcutta – is entirely fictional.


  1. ^ a b c Read the ebook Visitation of England and Wales (Volume 5) by Joseph Jackson Howard (page 14 of 25). Ebooksread.com. Retrieved 24 July 2013.
  2. ^ a b Robertson, John Ross (1911). The Diary of Mrs. John Graves Simcoe. William Briggs. 
  3. ^ Inoru, Kita (4 August 2014). "John Graves Simcoe: The Man Behind Toronto's Simcoe Day". 
  4. ^ Slater, John G. (2005). Minerva's Aviary: Philosophy at Toronto, 1843–2003. University of Toronto Press. p. 3. ISBN 0802038700. 
  5. ^ Union Lodge. Minute Book (1766–1789). p113.
  6. ^ "No. 11681". The London Gazette. 6 July 1776. p. 1. 
  7. ^ Jarvis Archives and Museum "John Graves Simcoe and the Queen's Rangers.". Retrieved 8 May 2015.
  8. ^ "Death in the Bronx". www.americanrevolution.org. Retrieved 15 January 2018. 
  9. ^ Hester, John. "Queen's Rangers raid brings destruction and terror." The Star-Ledger. Retrieved 8 May 2015
  10. ^ Cote, Joe (4 August 2008). "If you don't like Toronto, blame him". Toronto Star. pp. AA6. 
  11. ^ Wilson, W. R. (2007). "John Graves Simcoe". Retrieved 16 September 2008. 
  12. ^ Read,George Breakenridge. The Life and Times of Colonel John Graves Simcoe (Toronto: George Virtue, 1890), p. 63
  13. ^ "No. 12283". The London Gazette. 30 March 1782. p. 2. 
  14. ^ A Journal of the Operations of the Queen's Rangers, from the End of the Year 1777, to the Conclusion of the Late American War, 1787
  15. ^ a b c Dictionary of Canadian Biography SIMCOE, JOHN GRAVES
  16. ^ Gerald M. Craig, Upper Canada: the formative years, 1784–1841 (1963) ch 2
  17. ^ Thomson, Hugh C.; Macfarlane, James (1831). The Statutes of th Province of Upper Canada Together with such British Statutes, Ordinances of Quebec, and Proclamations as Related to the Said Province. Kingston, U.C.: Francis M. Hill. pp. 24–25. Retrieved 1 September 2017. an island at present known by the name of isle Tonti, to be called Amherst island; an island known by the name of isle au Foret, to be called Gage island; an island known by the name of Grand island, to be called Wolfe island; an island known by the name of isle Cauchois, to be called Howe island 
  18. ^ Early Canada Historical Narratives "An Act to Prevent the Further Introduction of Slaves"
  19. ^ Taylor, pg. 269
  20. ^ S. R. Mealing, "SIMCOE, JOHN GRAVES," Dictionary of Canadian Biography (2003)
  21. ^ Taylor, pg. 284
  22. ^ Taylor, pg. 287
  23. ^ Peppiatt, Liam. "Chapter 46: The Smith Homesteads". Robertson's Landmarks of Toronto Revisited. 
  24. ^ Madison Smartt Bell, Toussaint Louverture, New York: Vintage Books, 2007, p.143
  25. ^ Fryer, Mary B.; Dracott, Christopher (1998). "17 San Domingo". John Graves Simcoe, 1752–1806: A Biography. Toronto: Dundurn Press. 
  26. ^ Smith, Donald b (1987). "Simcoe in Haiti". Horizon Canada (112). 
  27. ^ "Wolford Chapel (Devonshire, England) <sic>". Ontario Heritage Trust. Retrieved 23 August 2016. [permanent dead link]
  28. ^ "History – The Townsend Family and Raynham Hall". Retrieved 31 January 2014. 
  29. ^ Townsend Cemetery#History
  30. ^ The real Castle Frank
  31. ^ a b Holidays in the Provinces and Territories Archived 2 September 2014 at the Wayback Machine.
  32. ^ a b Toronto.com – A holiday with history Archived 28 September 2011 at the Wayback Machine.
  33. ^ "Turn – Cast – Amc". Amctv.com. Retrieved 4 January 2017. 

Further reading

  • Craig, Gerald M. Upper Canada: the formative years, 1784–1841 (McClelland & Stewart, 1963) ch 2
  • Fryer, Mary Beacock, and Christopher Dracott. John Graves Simcoe 1752–1806: A Biography(Dundurn, 1998) online
  • Mealing, S. R. "SIMCOE, JOHN GRAVES," in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–. Retrieved 6 October 2015, online.
  • Mealing, Stanley Robert. "The Enthusiasms of John Graves Simcoe." Report of the Annual Meeting. Vol. 37. No. 1. The Canadian Historical Association/La Société historique du Canada, 1958. online
  • Read, David Breakinridge. The Life and Times of John Graves Simcoe. Toronto: George Virtue, 1890.
  • Riddell, William Renwick. The Life of John Graves Simcoe, First Lieutenant-Governor of the Province of Upper Canada, 1792–96 (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1926.)
  • Scott, Duncan Campbell. John Graves Simcoe (Toronto: Morang & Company, 1905) online
  • Taylor, Alan (2006). The Divided Ground (1st ed.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 978-0-679-45471-7. OCLC 58043162. 
  • Wise, Sydney F. "The Indian Diplomacy of John Graves Simcoe." Report of the Annual Meeting. Vol. 32. No. 1. The Canadian Historical Association/La Société historique du Canada, 1953. online

Primary sources

  • Simcoe, John Graves. The correspondence of Lieut. Governor John Graves Simcoe: with allied documents relating to his administration of the government of Upper Canada (2 vol. The Society, 1924)

External links

Parliament of Great Britain
Preceded by
Sir William Young
Hugh Boscawen
Member of Parliament for St Mawes
Succeeded by
Sir William Young
Thomas Calvert
Government offices
Preceded by
new title under Governor in Chief of British North America Guy Carleton, 1st Baron Dorchester
Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada
Succeeded by
Peter Russell
Military offices
Preceded by
Sir Hew Dalrymple
Colonel of the 81st Regiment of Foot
Succeeded by
Sir Henry Johnson
Preceded by
William Crosbie
Colonel of the 22nd (the Cheshire) Regiment of Foot
Succeeded by
Sir James Henry Craig