John Graves Simcoe (February 25, 1752 - October 26, 1806) was the first lieutenant governor of Upper Canada (modern-day southern Ontario) from 1791-1796. He founded York (now Toronto) and was instrumental in introducing British institutions such as the courts, trial by jury, and for abolishing slavery in Upper Canada long before it was abolished in the British Empire as a whole (it had disappeared from Upper Canada by 1810).
Simcoe was born on February 25, 1752 in Cotterstock, Britain. In 1770, after graduating from Eton College and Oxford, he entered the British army. He obtained a commission in the 35th Regiment of Foot, and was sent to Boston to fight in the American Revolution. He purchased a majority in the 40th Regiment, but then in 1777 was made commanding officer of the 1st American Regiment (the Queen's Rangers) of loyalist volunteers. Simcoe was one of the army's most successful commanders during this war. He achieved the rank of lieutenant-colonel and was wounded three times before being captured in 1779. He returned to Britain two years later.
The Province of Upper Canada was created under the Constitutional Act of 1791. This law stipulated that the provincial government would consist of the Lieutenant-Governor, an appointed Executive Council and an elected Legislative Council. Simcoe was selected as the Lieutenant-Governor, and made plans to move to Upper Canada with his wife Elizabeth and daughter Sophia, leaving three other daughters behind with their aunt. They left England in September and arrived on November 11, too late in the year to make the trip to Upper Canada, and spent the winter in Quebec City. The next spring they moved to Kingston and then Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake).
Simcoe's first priority was to establish a provincial government. The first meeting of the nine-member Legislative Council and sixteen-member Legislative Assembly took place at Newark on September 17, 1792.
Simcoe soon realized that Newark made an unsuitable capital because it was right on the US border and subject to attack. He proposed moving the the capital to a more defensible position the middle of Upper Canada's southwestern penninsula between Lake Erie and Lake Huron. He named the new location London and renamed the river as the Thames in anticipation of the change. The Governor-General, Lord Dorchester, rejected this proposal but accepted Simcoe's second choice of Toronto. Simcoe moved the capital to Toronto in 1793 and renamed the location York after Frederick, Duke of York, George III's second son.
As a military-minded leader, one of Simcoe's major works after founding York was the construction of several roads connecting York to various larger towns in Upper Canada. The Kingston Road runs along the north shore of Lake Ontario to Kingston about 260km to the east. The Dundas Road, named after Simcoe's friend Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, starts on the Lake Ontario shoreline running north, but soon bends westward to its namesake a similar distance to the west near Hamilton, with plans to continue it to London, Ontario where he had wanted to form the capital of Upper Canada. His most notable bit of roadbuilding remains Yonge Street, running from the shoreline in the middle of York directly north until it hits Lake Simcoe (then known as Lake Toronto). Built by the newly reformed Queen's Rangers between 1793 and 1796, the road was extended several times to eventually develop into the world's longest street, at some 1200km. Although military in nature, these roads were more influential in trade and settlement, opening wide areas of southern Ontario to easy travel and dramatically increasing settlement rates.
Simcoe's most notable achievement was the limitation of slavery. Initially, Simcoe proposed the outright abolition of slavery, but the Legislative Assembly opposed this because many Loyalists brought slaves with them to Upper Canada after the American Revolution. As a compromise, Simcoe passed legislation that allowed for gradual abolition: slaves already in the province would remain enslaved until death, no new slaves could be brought into Upper Canada, and children born to female slaves would be freed at age 25. This effectively ended all slavery in 1810. The act remained in force until 1833 when the Emancipation Act abolished slavery in all British holdings.
In July 1796 poor health forced Simcoe to return to Britain. He was unable to return to Upper Canada and resigned his office in 1798. He later served briefly as governor of St. Domingo (Haiti) and commander of the Western District in Britain. In 1806, he was appointed commander-in-chief of India but died before assuming that post. He was buried in Wolford Chapel on the Simcoe family estate in Exeter.
Along with Lake Simcoe, the town of Simcoe in southwestern Ontario is also named for him. Civic holiday on the first Monday in August in Ontario is often called "Simcoe Day" in honour of Simcoe. Simcoe's regiment still exists as the Queen's York Rangers, an armoured reconnaisance regiment of the Canadian Forces reserves.
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