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John Graves Simcoe

Portrait of Colonel John Graves Simcoe, [ca. 1881]
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Colonel John Graves Simcoe, [ca. 1881]
Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, 1791-96
George Theodore Berthon (1806-1892)
Oil on canvas
Government of Ontario Art Collection, 694156

John Graves Simcoe was born at Cotterstock, England in 1752, the only son of John and Katherine Simcoe. He was educated at Oxford and entered the army as a ensign of the 35th Foot in 1770.

He was posted to Boston at the beginning of the American Revolution in 1775. His agitation for the creation of a special formation of light troops designed to fight the Americans on equal terms led to the creation of the Queen's Rangers in 1777, a loyalist unit under the command of the newly appointed Major Simcoe.

He took part in several operations in New York and Virginia before being invalided home as a Lieutenant-Colonel in 1781.

Simcoe's personal fortunes improved when he married Elizabeth Posthuma Gwillim the following year. She provided a significant financial support for his career, enabling Simcoe to purchase and restore Wolford Lodge as a major estate.

His nine years as a half-pay officer were spent managing his estate, pursuing military promotion and appointments and corresponding with members of his former command about land claims and problems faced by loyalists.

He entered Parliament in 1790 but took little part in debates. At about the same time he was notified that his campaign for preferment had been answered through the commission as first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada.

In this capacity, Simcoe was instrumental in organizing the first civil government in what is now Ontario. Following the instructions of the Home Secretary, he organized the legislative and executive bodies which were to govern the province for the next fifty years.

The Simcoe Family was part of the landed gentry of Great Britain which provided the administrators, military officers and clerics of that society.

The family first came to prominence during the 1750s when Captain John Simcoe commanded one of the British vessels during the sieges of Louisbourg and Quebec where he was killed.

During his career he established connections with leading naval officers including Admiral Samuel Graves, who served as the godfather for his eldest son, John Graves Simcoe.

Simcoe began the process of road construction and the survey of town and rural lots on which organized settlement were to be based. A major part of Simcoe's duties in Upper Canada included the maintenance of good relations with the Indians in the territory ceded to the United States in 1783. During the negotiation of Jay's Treaty in 1793 Simcoe devoted much of his time to retaining the alliance with the western tribes while stopping short of openly supporting the resistance to American authority.

In 1796 Simcoe returned to England on leave but his command was changed from Upper Canada to Santa Domingo where he was expected to restore order by coping with a French invasion and slave revolt. He spent only eight months on the island and returned to England in 1797. In 1799 he was promoted to the rank of Major-General in command of the garrison at Plymouth and his rank was increased again two years later to Lieutenant-General in command of coastal defence in Devonshire. Most of his time in this period was spent organizing and planning defensive measures against the expected invasion from France. In 1806 Simcoe was appointed to the command of British forces in India, but during a diplomatic mission to Portugal he became seriously ill and died shortly after returning to England.

Under the Constitutional Act, 1791, the western portion of the Province of Quebec was established as a separate entity with its own Lieutenant-Governor and Assembly. As the first incumbent in the office, Simcoe established the basis of government that was to endure in the province for the next fifty years. He stamped it with his view of a strong executive, composed of the Lieutenant-Governor and an appointed Executive Council, which would establish policies with an Assembly largely confined to the approval of money bills to meet these policies.