The coming of the capital of Upper Canada to Toronto – along with the very founding of the urban community itself – was an emergency defensive measure taken at a moment when British authorities expected United States forces to invade Canada. The genesis of the crisis lay in the Ohio country to the southwest. There, the First Nations struggled against the US after the end of the American Revolution to preserve their homelands and cultures from unwanted white settlement and influences. The British were allied to the tribes that had fought on the loyalist side during the revolution, which offended the United States and aggravated other Anglo-American tensions. This contributed to demands for the invasion and annexation of Canada. Then, in the spring of 1793, news from Europe announced that France had gone to war with Britain. This made hostilities seem more likely because France was an ally of the United States and worked to destabilize the Great Lakes frontier to Britain’s disadvantage. Faced with an impending invasion, the lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, decided to establish a naval base at Toronto and move his capital here from the exposed border town of Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) until calmer days returned and he could develop the colonial capital in his preferred location at modern London, Ontario.

John Graves Simcoe, 1791 (Toronto Public Library)

Before the news from France arrived, Simcoe had formed an ambitious plan to defend Upper Canada with forts and naval bases, including the development of Toronto as a central component of the scheme. However, in light of the imminent crisis of 1793, he abandoned most of his designs to focus specifically on Toronto because he had neither the time nor the resources to do more. Simcoe surveyed the site in May of that year, and then dispatched soldiers of the Queen’s Rangers from Niagara to Toronto in late July to begin the construction of Fort York to defend the entrance to Toronto Bay. That act was the birth of urban Toronto. Given how sparsely settled and isolated the Toronto area was in the 1790s, its history would have been much different had Simcoe not created a town here. Perhaps it might have resembled the slower growth of the Bay of Quinte or Hamilton Bay areas, with the appearance of a commercial rather than a governmental urban place occurring two or more decades later, by which time, another community, such as Niagara or Kingston, presumably would have gained an unassailable lead as the primary centre in the colony.

Plan of Toronto Harbour, 1793 (Library and Archives Canada)

On 27 August 1793, Simcoe named his new settlement ‘York’ to honour Frederick Augustus, Duke of York, second son of King George III, who had defeated a French army in the battle of Famars in northern France in May. Over the next year Simcoe erected defences at the site of Fort York and across the harbour near modern Hanlan’s Point. He also laid out a town site two kilometres east of the fort, built a sawmill on the Humber River north of modern Bloor Street, attracted farmers to the lands behind the town, and began construction of Yonge Street to improve the capacity of the Toronto Passage to move troops and supplies more efficiently than could the old Humber and Rouge routes.

The Upper Canada Frontier, 1790s (City of Toronto Culture)

In Simcoe’s mind, York’s defensible harbour would allow the British to control Lake Ontario and support military operations on the Niagara Peninsula if an Anglo-American war were to break out. As well, the Toronto Passage would enable troops and supplies to move to Lake Huron and then south to the Ohio country if the Americans were to seize control of Lake Erie and thereby cut the main route to Britain’s native allies in the west. Alternatively, the Toronto Passage would allow British forces to relieve York if Lake Ontario were to fall into American hands because reinforcements could travel northwest from Montreal along the Ottawa River and other waterways of the old fur trade route to Georgian Bay, and then swing south down the passage to the Upper Canadian capital.

There were, however, problems with his plan. The most serious was that his superior, Guy Carleton, Baron Dorchester, the governor-in-chief of British North America, thought Simcoe should concentrate his efforts on protecting the St Lawrence River instead of York. For Dorchester, the St Lawrence was Upper Canada’s lifeline to the rest of the British Empire, and needed to be a higher priority than Simcoe believed it should be, especially as Dorchester did not think that the difficult and undeveloped Ottawa River route could replace the carrying capacity of the St Lawrence fully in an emergency. Therefore Dorchester would not authorize funding from the military budgets to turn York into a strong provincial bastion, and thus Simcoe only could build modest defences with the limited resources available to him as civil governor of Upper Canada.

The Town of York, 1804 (Library and Archives Canada)

Fortunately the war scare passed by 1794 without an invasion and thus significant defences were not needed at that time. (The Americans defeated the Ohio tribes and negotiated a peace treaty with them, taking most of Ohio and other indigenous territories in the process; meanwhile, the British and the Americans signed Jay’s Treaty to resolve their particular differences, and French intrigue in the Great Lakes region failed to generate serious trouble for the Canadian colonies.)

When Simcoe returned to England in 1796, York was the provincial capital, and thoughts of moving the government to London in southwestern Upper Canada had evaporated. York had a small garrison of less than 200, and a civilian population of 400 spread about equally between the town and the surrounding countryside. Despite its governmental status, the settlement was very much a backwoods community: it was cut off from the rest of the province for much of the year because of the lack of east-west roads, in 1796 food was in such short supply that the army had to feed the civilian population, between 1796 and 1798 the settlers feared that the Mississaugas might attack them after a grim set of confrontations with the tribe (such as the murders of two natives on the Toronto waterfront), and in 1806 York’s inhabitants worried that they might have to abandon their homes as a forest fire raged nearby.

Fort York, 1804 (Library and Archives Canada)

York grew slowly, and by the outbreak of the War of 1812, aside from the garrison, it only had about 1,460 people, still divided evenly between the town and neighbouring farms. However, by that time roads connected York to communities to the west and east (opened in 1799 and 1801 respectively). In addition, there were brick parliament buildings (built in 1796-98 near modern Front and Parliament streets), a church (constructed in 1807 on the site of today’s St James’ Anglican Cathedral), a market (established in 1803 at today’s St Lawrence Market), plus a number of shops and taverns to serve the population.

In June 1812, the United States declared war on Great Britain. A month later American troops invaded Upper Canada. The US government had several objectives in the war, the greatest of which was the conquest of British North America; but by the time peace returned in February 1815, the Americans had failed to achieve their goals. British soldiers, local militiamen, and aboriginal warriors turned back the invaders, thereby enabling the nascent Canadian experiment in building a distinct North American society to continue rather than come to a violent end through foreign conquest. This meant that Toronto’s evolution would differ dramatically from neighbouring US communities in the Great Lakes region, as is clear through comparing today’s city with Rochester, Buffalo, Detroit, or Chicago.

Artefacts from the Battle of York, 1813 (City of Toronto Culture)

Despite the satisfactory outcome to the War of 1812 for Britain and her colonies, the conflict had been traumatic for the citizens of York. The town suffered three attacks. On 27 April 1813, the US Lake Ontario squadron from Sackett’s Harbour disgorged a large military force west of the settlement (near today’s Dowling Avenue in Parkdale). Supported by the guns of the United States Navy, the enemy army pushed the outnumbered defenders eastwards to Fort York. The six-hour battle ended when the British blew up the fort’s gunpowder magazine and retreated to Kingston. After the battle, in which casualties numbered 320 on the American side and 157 on the British, US forces occupied York for six days. Despite American agreement in the capitulation terms to respect private property and to allow the civil government to continue functioning without hindrance, the enemy robbed homes and torched the governor’s home and parliament buildings. (Those acts led to the retaliatory burning of the White House, Congress, and other public buildings when British forces captured Washington in 1814.) The invaders came back to a defenceless York on 31 July 1813 for two days and burned military facilities missed in April. The British returned to the scarred capital and rebuilt Fort York and the town’s other defences shortly afterwards. Then, in August 1814, the fort’s guns again opened fire in anger, dissuading the US squadron from attempting to enter Toronto Bay for the third time. Outside of these striking events, the townspeople spent three years worrying about their future, enduring shortages and inflation, and participating in the overall defence of the colony. Nevertheless, others, particularly among the leading merchants, found prosperity in the war by supplying the enormous demands of the colony’s defenders.

Toronto and the province as a whole changed radically between the end of the war in 1815 and the inauguration of railway construction in 1851. The town moved away from its status as an outpost on a threatened frontier to become an important administrative and commercial centre in a growing and maturing colony. The flow of American immigrants (which had dominated Upper Canada’s formative years and which had been fairly diverse ethnically) largely dried up because of the hostilities of 1812-15. Instead, newcomers from Britain took their place. These people crossed the Atlantic in search of better lives in the face of the financial and social turmoil that afflicted the United Kingdom after the end of the Napoleonic wars and the severe dislocations caused by Great Britain’s industrializing and modernizing economy. As a result of both immigration and natural increase, the population of the town, exclusive of the surrounding rural areas, rose from 720 souls at the end of the war, to 1,600 in 1825, to 5,550 in 1832, to 9,250 in 1834, to 14,250 in 1841, and to 30,775 in 1851.

Plan of York, 1818 (Library and Archives Canada)

By 1832, York had displaced Kingston as Upper Canada’s leading town, with an economy based on serving a rising hinterland as lumbermen and settlers cleared the forests and transformed the colonial landscape. The town’s expanding port and road networks facilitated development, helped further by something of a transportation revolution, marked by the coming of steamships on Lake Ontario (1816), the opening of the Erie and Welland canals (1825 and 1833), and by smaller innovations, such as the macadamization – or paving – of part of Yonge Street with successive layers of crushed stone (1830s). Industrial output, however, remained modest in the provincial capital during those years, with few operations expanding beyond workshop enterprises to meet local needs.

Third Parliament Buildings, 1834 (City of Toronto Culture)

As the capital of Upper Canada, the town attracted both government agencies and a large percentage of the provincial elite, whose influence and connections benefited the community. Furthermore, York’s premier place within the colony encouraged organizations with a province-wide interest to locate here, with the prep school, Upper Canada College (founded in 1830), being representative of these institutions. In turn, the concentration of governmental, commercial, and institutional power gave Toronto greater influence over provincial society than its rivals could hope to achieve. Thus for example, when the Church of England divided the old Diocese of Quebec in two in 1839, it was natural that the new Upper Canadian portion would be called the ‘Diocese of Toronto,’ that its cathedral would be St James’ on King Street, and that its rector, John Strachan, would be consecrated bishop. Another example of cultural growth was the existence of a healthy newspaper industry in the town, as represented by the seven papers published in the provincial capital in 1834 at the time the ‘Town of York’ became the ‘City of Toronto.’

King Street, 1829 (Library and Archives Canada)

Municipal incorporation came about in 1834 because the structures and laws in place to govern York were inadequate to meet the needs of a growing community for public services, such as sewers, improving the farmers’ market, and otherwise creating urban amenities. A few officials had been elected at town meetings from 1797 to look after minor matters, such as impounding stray animals, while provincially-appointed magistrates had levied modest local taxes and had addressed issues such as supervising taverns and protecting public health in the ‘Home District,’ the larger political division of the province that included York. Faced with the mounting administrative needs of its capital, the provincial government passed legislation to transform the town into the colony’s first incorporated municipality, an event that took effect on 6 March 1834. Thereafter, an elected city council with new powers, including taxation, attended to public affairs. The city’s first mayor was the radical politician and newspaperman, William Lyon Mackenzie. At the time, the city’s boundaries were Bathurst Street in the west, Dundas in the north, and Parliament on the east, although there was an area beyond under city control, called the ‘liberties,’ which extended to Dufferin on the west, Bloor on the north, and, on the east, the Don River south to Queen, and then eastwards beyond Ashbridge’s Bay (in 1859 the liberties were abolished as separate entities).

City of Toronto Wards and Liberties, 1834 (City of Toronto Culture)

Although the community grew in population, prosperity, and sophistication between 1815 and 1851, the period witnessed substantial trauma and stress. The economy went through ups and downs as represented by several grim periods of recession in the 1820s and 1830s. Many people lived in poverty, but received little help, which came mainly from charitable organizations without adequate resources to meet the demands placed upon them. Then, in 1837, a poor house opened. That sad occasion reflected Torontonians’ embrace of new trends in the western world, such as the comparatively recent phenomenon of treating poverty through incarceration, although the poor house (and the provincial lunatic asylum that opened in the 1840s) at least provided alternatives to the jails where the unfortunate otherwise might end up. As was typical, poverty’s symptoms found expression in increased incidences of drunkenness, violence, and crime. In 1849, a fire devastated the city blocks encompassed by Church, George, King, and Adelaide streets. In 1832, 1834, and 1849 (and again in 1854 and 1866), the terror of cholera struck, carrying off hundreds of souls with each visitation. A horrific typhus epidemic in 1847-48 stole 1,100 lives, largely among Irish immigrants passing through the city on their way to what they had dreamt would be a better life in Canada.

The most famous crisis between 1815 and 1851 was the Rebellion of 1837, in which former mayor William Lyon Mackenzie led an armed mob down Yonge Street on 5 December with the goal of overthrowing the provincial government. However, loyal citizens repulsed him in a short skirmish near modern College Street, and then dispersed his forces two days later in a counterattack against his headquarters at Montgomery’s Tavern (on Yonge, north of modern Eglinton Avenue). Despite the relative ease with which loyalists crushed the insurrection, the Rebellion Crisis symbolized how polarized public life had become in the colony, and represented the desperation of people who felt disenfranchised by the colony’s limited democracy and who had been devastated by a worldwide depression that hit at about the same time that Mackenzie and his followers incited rebellion. The denouement of the crises, including a heavy-handed official response, combined with violent border raids into Canada from rebel sympathizers (mainly Americans), set in motion several years of deep discord in the colony, although by the late 1840s significant democratic reform had been achieved in the colonial government.

William Lyon Mackenzie, C.1834-37; Boxes Made by Prisoners of the Rebellion, 1838 (City of Toronto Culture)

One of the British government’s solutions to the problems that had led to the revolt was to amalgamate the two colonies of Upper and Lower Canada in 1841 into a single ‘United Province of Canada’ (sub-divided into ‘Canada East’ and ‘Canada West,’ although the old names of Upper and Lower Canada remained popular with the public). In part the union was designed to dilute the impact of pro-rebel sentiment that had been concentrated among the francophone population of the lower province in contrast to the faster growing and more loyal upper colony. The government of the united province first met in Kingston, Toronto’s old but now-smaller rival. Parliament would move to Montreal (1844-49), then to Toronto (1849-51), shift to Quebec (1851-55), come back to Toronto (1855-59), and travel again to Quebec until new and permanent government buildings opened in Ottawa in 1865. Within the now-united colony, Toronto fell behind Montreal and Quebec as the third-largest city of the newly-expanded province.

Toronto, 1854 (City of Toronto Culture)

In the long run, the loss of the capital in 1841 did not threaten Toronto because the city had become large and diverse enough economically, at least in Canada West, to absorb the blow during a decade marked by a great increase in population, trade, and confidence. In the 1840s, a recognizably modern city began to take shape, partly as an expression of Toronto’s size, but also due to the innovations of the early Victorian era. For example, gas home and street lighting came in 1842 and a waterworks opened at about the same time. (However, the waterworks was designed primarily to help fight fires; health problems associated with bad water would persist for decades to come.) In 1846 a telegraph line provided almost instantaneous communication between Toronto and Hamilton, followed by a quick expansion into other communities in North America, which presaged a future that would be marked by rapid communications, railways, industrialization, and greater economic and cultural integration for Toronto in the larger life of the western world.