On this day in 1834, 180 years ago, the city of Toronto was incorporated. Due to its key position on Lake Ontario and its access to many rivers (such as the Humber, Don, and Rouge), Toronto was a highly influential and important settlement throughout history and to this day. This post will largely cover Toronto’s history (albeit succinctly) up to the city’s incorporation.
Prior to English settlement, the area made up of present-day Toronto was inhabited by various First Nations peoples, including the Neutral, Seneca, Mohawk, Cayuga, Wendat, and Mississauga (from which the Toronto suburb is named after) nations. By the mid-1750s, the French had began exploring the northern shore of Lake Ontario where Toronto is today located. The French would build a trading post in this area name Fort Rouillé, located around Exhibition Place (where the Canadian National Exhibition, or The Ex is held every August) in 1750. By the 1760s however, the French abandoned Fort Rouillé after their defeat by the British in the Seven Years War.
It would be another war that would greatly influence Toronto’s history pre-incorporation. During the American Revolutionary War, Loyalists (roughly, those American colonists loyal to the British crown and did not want to be part of America) from the Thirteen Colonies settled in large numbers in the lands constituting modern-day Toronto. In 1787, the British negotiated the purchase of the lands constituting Toronto (almost a quarter million acres) from the Mississaugas of New Credit. Two years later, John Graves Simcoe declared this area to be known as “York”, functioning as the capital of Upper Canada (modern-day Southern Ontario, contrast with Lower Canada being the area of the province of Quebec situated along the St. Lawrence River).
Previously, Newark (mind you, not the one in New Jersey, but on the Niagara Peninsula, present day Niagara-on-the-Lake) was the capital of Upper Canada, but due to the threat of an American attack, York became the colony’s new capital. At the time, York was largely a bay formed by the Toronto Islands, with Fort York defended the settlement from attack. Simcoe also ordered the construction of military service roads to allow easy communication between York and Kingston, and York and Newark. Kingston Road (still exists in some form today) formed the eastern route out of Toronto, Dundas Street the western route (also exists in some form today, moving all the way through southwestern Ontario, through London and towards Windsor), and Yonge Street northwards to Lake Simcoe. Yonge Street still exists to this day; at almost 1896 km in length (counting the portion of the street known as Highway 11), it was popularly known as ‘the longest street in the world’.
Yet another war would influence Toronto’s history in its early days. In 1813 during the War of 1812 (I know, confusing), York was attacked and burned by invading American forces. Despite the presence of Fort York, the garrison was lightly manned, therefore unable to adequately repulse the Americans. Following this defeat, a stronger fort was constructed west of the fort’s original position, easily turning back the Americans after another attack in 1814. While originally on the city’s coast, this newer fort (that which exists to this day) is now hundreds of meters inland, due to land reclamation.
After York’s “baptism by fire” during the War of 1812, it was decided to further elevate the status of this important community. On March 6th, 1834, the town of York was incorporated, changing its name to Toronto to distinguish it from New York City, as well as remove its negative image as ‘dirty little York’ by the local inhabitants. Toronto is derived from the original Mohawk name for the area, tkaronto, meaning ‘where there are trees standing in the water’. William Lyon Mackenzie would be Toronto’s first mayor. It was Toronto’s first mayor that was grandfather to William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s prime minister through the Great Depression and the Second World War (and also the prime minister featured on the Canadian fifty dollar bill). Happy 180th birthday Toronto!