Home > History | Endnotes | Names ]

Upper Canada
Historical Summary
17th-19th Centuries

Find summaries for:
Late 1700's 
and the 1790's  1800's  1810's  1820's  1830's  1840's  1850's  1860's  1870's+

Also: Costumes

These summaries are a supplement to the family histories and place the ancestor's stories in their historical context. They tell of only the major events that could have affected the ancestors living in these places and times, and are collected from several sources 1. Other historical summaries exist.

More Histories

Historical Summary
British North America,
The Canadas - Late 1700's
The European Seven Years War began as a financial venture to the British, but evolved into the first "world war" as they battled the French in both India and North America. It ended with a British victory. Quebec (called the Canadas by the English) and most other French possessions held since the defeat in 1759 were relinquished by treaty in 1763. This gave Great Britain sway over lands from the original Thirteen Colonies plus Nova Scotia and New Brunswick on the eastern seaboard through the Canadas to the prairies in the northwest and the Mississippi River in the southwest.

Discontented with British rule, taxation, and restrictions on expansion into the newly won territories, the Thirteen Colonies delivered grievances in 1775, were rebuffed, and the War of American Independence was begun. By 1783, The United States of America were independent and recognized by Great Britain. Immigrations of Loyalists from America and other Europeans were landing in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the Canadas, now comprising British North America. Their common border in the east was agreed upon, and exploration further extended British possessions up to the Arctic Ocean by 1789, and out to Pacific and Vancouver Island by 1792."To Europeans of the time, the challenge of early British North America seemed clear. It was to encompass the unknown, exploit its resources, develop commerce, and settle the wilderness." 1 G.Wynn in Brown 1987, p 201

Costumes of the Late 1700's

Historical Summary
Upper Canada 1790's
By the Constitution Act of 1791, King George III splits the Canadas (still officially the Province of Quebec to this point) into Upper and Lower Canada where rights are distributed equally among the two cultures: French Catholics and English Protestants. Some say this is to reward the French for their loyalty over the last few decades of "occupation". Some say George III feared the instability of joined but opposing cultures in this revolutionary age. Upper Canada's European colonization has continued since the American Revolution with Late Loyalists now settling the Niagara peninsula, the Bay of Quinte on the north shore of the St. Lawrence, and lower Ottawa valley, with many aboriginal peoples receiving new lands along the Grand River. The mostly American immigrants are attracted from New York and Pennsylvania by good, cheap land, and the encouragement of Upper Canada's first Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe. Simcoe renames Toronto as York and makes it his capital in 1793. Public works include the construction of roads extending outward from York: Yonge Street to the north, Dundas Street to the west, and Kingston Road to the east by 1799. Also by the decade's end, non-Anglican ministers are allowed to perform marriages.

Costumes of the 1790's

Historical Summary
Upper Canada 1800's
Settlement continues, yet at a much slower pace due to the Napoleonic wars in Europe. Notable arrivals include many Scots, Mennonites, and those settled by Talbot in the western London District. The economy also suffers when Britain forbids trade with Napoleon's growing empire, and blockades Europe's Atlantic coast. The colonies must fall in line, but with America's resentment towards this British presumption, conflict seems inevitable. Lt. Governor Gore publicly questions the loyalty of the recent settlers, driving the first wedge between the government and immigrant populations that are four-fifths American in origin.

The Town of York builds its first church in 1807 -- St. James, Anglican.

Costumes of the 1800's

Historical Summary
Upper Canada 1810's
International tensions escalate when Americans defy the British blockade and reopen French Trade. Britain continues to harass their trade ships and America declares war in 1812. US troops enter Upper Canada in the west and east, taking Sandwich (Windsor) and bombarding Kingston and blockading her harbour. American President Jefferson thinks Upper Canada basically an American colony, though early Canadian victories bolster Canadian confidence. Major-General Isaac Brock leads the response, retakes Sandwich and then Detroit, thereby winning the local aboriginal support of Shawnee Chief Tecumseh. Brock's troops prevail at the battle of Queenston Heights defending the Niagara frontier, but he loses his life during the first attack.

In 1813, the Americans destroy the British fleet and take control of the lower Great Lakes. York is occupied and the parliament buildings burned. Queenston and Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake) suffer similar fates. Two defeats drive the US attackers back beyond the Niagara River. Border skirmishes continue while the British blockade America's Long Island Sound, burn much of Washington, D.C. and attack Baltimore. Treaty is reached and fighting ends by 1815. Britain and America restore their pre-war borders, and eventually the two governments extend border treaties to include the 49th parallel from Lake-of-the-Woods straight through to the Pacific Ocean.

By mid-decade, the end of both North American and European conflicts allows immigration to boom and the population of Upper Canada surpasses 80,000. Sawmills proliferate, and roadways from York thru Montreal are completed. While the first Great Lakes steamship Frontenac plies Lake Ontario waters, the first steam-powered Atlantic crossing is accomplished in 26 days. Government funded education begins.

The dissatisfaction of the immigrant settlers resurfaces near decade's end when Robert Gourlay proposes a reformers organization and government overthrow. Disapproval with the colonial government stems from the lack of political representation and the great control vested in crown representatives, but in the eyes of the British government, it was seen to be the natural result of inviting the settlement of too many American 'revolutionaries'.

Map from 1813
Costumes of the 1810's

Historical Summary
Upper Canada 1820's
Government sponsored immigration became more purposeful in the 1820's. Britain aims to introduce more 'Imperial' stock, drawing from regions where industrial mechanization and reformed agriculture produce a surplus of emigres. Assisted migrations are lead to Peterborough, Perth, and the Rideau river valley. Corporate colonization begins in 1824 with lands being sold through the Canada Company. Cheap land and good wages are to be found by the disbanded soldier, the unemployed Scottish craftsman, the Irish Catholic tenant-farmer, and this mix produces a New World culture based in part on a mosaic of Old World customs, and the needs of the land-clearing pioneer. They live first in tents, then small log cabins, clearing about four acres a year. Where stumps repel plows, crops are sown and harvested by hand. And where settlers battle the forest to make a new life, they also yearn for the political freedom that neither the New or Old World provides.

Colonial government is dominated by the "family compact" -- rule based on conservatism and patronage. As the colony grows and communications improve, so to the strength of opposition of elected assemblies' and conflicts brew between "Reformers" and the Crown appointed officials. John Strachan (York's Anglican parish minister and school board organizer) argues that the overabundant clergy reserves be sold to profit the church and that dissenting assemblymen, and especially non-Anglican church leaders, are disloyal to the crown. The British colonial secretary proposes that American-born "aliens" may own property, but may not vote or hold office. The government-supported Bank of Upper Canada is formed in 1826 with only limited liability to its customers. Criticism of the new bank is published in the Colonial Advocate by William Lyon MacKenzie. He is raided by government sponsored thugs and his press destroyed and when the court awards him damages, MacKenzie's popularity as a Reformer soars.

Costumes of the 1820's

Historical Summary
Upper Canada 1830's
William Lyon MacKenzie is elected to a seat in the Assembly of Upper Canada in 1831 -- the year that control of local revenues passes to them from the crown. The Lieutenant-Governor expels MacKenzie from the Assembly, but must do so each year as MacKenzie is consistently re-elected.

Steamship service begins on the Atlantic with a record crossing time of 15 days, compared to sailing vessels' 60-day voyages. Immigration explodes when, in the early 1830's, Upper Canada receives 193,000 people from Ireland, the United Kingdom and Europe. Their destinations are York, London, Bytown (Ottawa), Hamilton, Cobourg and Kingston, and by the end of the decade, Upper Canada's population soars beyond 450,000 -- five times what it was a generation ago. Cholera outbreaks spread across the colony due to poor ocean-going conditions. To make room for the new settlers, the Indian Department isolates aboriginals on reserves, particularly Manitoulin Island where, as the new Lt.-Gov. Sir Francis Bond Head intends, "they can slowly disappear."

Immigration drives both the politics and economics of Upper Canada. York becomes her largest city at 13,000, elects MacKenzie as her mayor, and reverts to its original name of Toronto. The right to vote is extended to smaller land owners and the political pendulum swings closer to representative government.

In 1835 MacKenzie's Grievances Committee criticizes the constitution and legislature for Crown patronages. The response from Britain is courteous, yet vague. Lt.-Gov. Head states reformers are only out for financial gain. By 1836, Head condescends to the reformers and dissolves the parliament after a non-confidence vote in the Assembly. He ignores calls for labour reforms and bungles bank policy during a growing depression that is spreading from Europe and the United States. Great Britain's response is to openly reject responsible government in the colonies, and MacKenzie and his supporters begin speaking out for rebellion and drawing large crowds.

When Lower Canadiens rebel in the fall of 1837, MacKenzie gathers men for his own coup d'état. On December 4, MacKenzie and 800 followers march to Toronto, intending to burn the bridge on the Don River to cut off reinforcements and set up their new government. They are dispersed by local militia and MacKenzie flees to America to promote further actions. The British send a new Governor General to solve the rebellious Upper and Lower Canadians, but the ideas of Lord Durham are equally revolutionary. Durham meets the concerned parties and settles on responsible government as his solution. Although some rebels are hung, Durham banishes many to save them from execution. He returns to England and eventually resigns in the face of criticism, but Durham's legacy remained. The acceptance of Durham's Report on the Affairs of British North America by the new Queen, Victoria, spells the end of the current colonial governing in the Canadas.

Costumes of the 1830's

Historical Summary
Canada West 1840's
The Victorian Era has begun, and the decade opens with an ox roast in Toronto, celebrating the marriage of the new royal couple Victoria and Albert. By July 1840, the fear of further unrest with possible American involvement, Victoria joins Upper and Lower Canada to form one Province of Canada with its capital in Kingston. To its government of appointed representatives, a cabinet of ministers is added - responsible to the majority vote in the elected Assembly. Although the cabinet of ministers is split equally between French and English Canada, the French rightly observe they are being marginalized.

In what is now Canada West, reform efforts continue. Guaranteed elementary education begins and by mid-decade Ryerson opens the first Normal School in Toronto. Trade unions fight for better working conditions in the cities, and reformer George Brown publishes the weekly Globe newspaper.

Britain repeals the Corn Laws, and institutes free trade, reducing preferential duties and pricing. This hurts colonial producers of wheat, oats and barley. On the heels of a Great Famine in Ireland, the second major influx of Irish to Canada West begins arriving by 1847, overwhelming port cities. Over four years, 265,000 immigrants survive the 63 day trip, 15% having died of plague, typhoid, cholera and malnutrition on the way.

The immigrants are mostly farmers and labourers. Catholics seek out rural lives while Protestants tend to congregate in the cities. In Toronto, where churches are outnumbered by saloons seven to one, and drinking is the style, Baptist and Methodist sponsored temperance societies appear. Enoch Turner opens the first tuition free school there and King's College becomes the non-denominational University of Toronto.

Recent technologies improve communication and productivity. The telegraph is first used between Toronto and Hamilton, and extended to St. Catherines and Montreal by 1847. In the next year a suspension bridge over Niagara, a great feat in itself, will soon support emerging Toronto-based railways. Mining increases in the north.

In Europe, the late 1840's is a time of great upheaval. Although British North America avoids revolution, further reform is hotly sought after. Truer parliamentary government arrives in the new capital of Montreal when Reformers defeat the conservative Tories, and win the support of Governor General, Lord Elgin. The French language is legitimized when used in the throne speech of 1849. Rebels of ten years past are granted amnesty by the Queen, and the Rebellion Losses Bill causes such furore among defeated Tories, mobs burn the Assembly, and the government is temporarily moved to Toronto.

The Irish Famine
Costumes of the 1840's

Historical Summary
Canada West 1850's
Reacting to the recent arrival of so many immigrants, policies are put forward to restrict entry of the ill, and disabled -- even suggesting a fine for ship captains whose passengers ask for government aid. Focus also shifts to the plight of African-American slaves as portrayed in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Stowe's novel is based on the life of Canadian Black, Josiah Henson. The Fugitive Slave bill of 1850 makes Canada more attractive to escapees, and their testimony leads people like George Brown to support the Anti-Slavery Society.

Toronto continues to grow and develop. Now reaching a population of 30,000, it is a center for culture and industry, replete with taverns, inns and beer shops. At St. Lawrence Hall, excerpts of operas are performed. The first large scale factory begins constructing locomotives -- the first of which travels to Matchell's Corners (Aurora) on a maiden voyage in 1853. The Toronto Stock Exchange opens, and tailors strike protesting the advent of the sewing machine in the city. After a short stay in Quebec City, the government returns to Toronto, now the hub of a growing Great Western Railway network stretching from Detroit, Windsor through London, Hamilton, north to Barrie and south to Niagara Falls and New York City. The University of Toronto, former King's College, opens its School of Medicine.

Statistics show that school attendance is up, with one quarter of labourers' children and one half of merchants' going regularly. Teaching is the only profession not to bar women -- a position that was hard won by them this decade. They receive the lowest pay, are relegated to the lower grades, and so become more numerous than the male teachers. Most women marry at age 23 this decade and many are domestic servants who immigrated recently on their own.

Canada receives control of postage and produces its first stamp. Canada also adopts its own currency based on the decimal system and the dollar as in the US. Agricultural societies encourage better treatment of horses. An undersea telegraph cable is attempted but fails. Above ground wires promote faster news delivery for companies like the new Canadian Press Association.

In 1856 John A. Macdonald becomes government leader from Canada West. Law reforms reduce the number of death penalty offences, and allows wives to own and control the transfer of property, but wide-sweeping political reforms are desired. Alexander Galt suggests a federal union of British North America, like in the United States. By 1859, "Rep by Pop" becomes a familiar slogan -- representation by population in the Province of Canada would increase cabinet seats for the more populous Canada West. Spliting West and East into separate provinces again is another suggestion. John A. Macdonald moves the capital of the United Canadas to Bytown, which has since been renamed Ottawa, and commissions new parliament buildings.

Map from 1857
Costumes of the 1850's

Historical Summary
Canada West in the Early 1860's
The Province of the United Canadas receives its first royal visit. Edward Albert, Prince of Wales (future King Edward VII) tours Canada West in 1860. New roads, railways and steamship travel allows many to see the Prince, while telegraphs allows others to read daily updates of his stay. Edward Albert opens Hamilton's new steam-powered water pump, providing "city water", reducing disease and improving fire protection from hydrants. As the first horse-drawn streetcars ply the streets of Toronto, just north of the city the first Queen's Plate horse race is run, named in honour of Edward Albert's mother Queen Victoria.

South of the border, Abraham Lincoln is elected president of the United States on an anti-slavery platform. Severe divisions exist over the question of slavery. South Carolina has already left the Union, and within a year the south declares itself the Confederate States of America, and the Civil War begins. It is guessed that around 60,000 fugitive slaves now live in Canada West.

Response to the American Civil War is varied in the British North American colonies, yet the pressures to form political unions remain. Canada East is opposed to confederation if it means rep by pop and losing seats. The government of John A. Macdonald and George-Ettiene Cartier is pro-rep by pop, yet falls over a self defence issue with Great Britain. The Maritimes speak of their own union once the proposal of a much needed transcontinental railway is shelved. Even so, in 1864 the provincial leaders meet in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, confederation is agreed upon among four provinces and with Governor General Lord Monk's support, resolutions are drawn up for British North America in Quebec City.

Canada West in the Late 1860's
For the next three years, the future of confederation remains unsure. Tensions ease in 1865 as the American Civil War ends, yet Britain still tries to convince the Maritimes to commit. The parliament buildings are completed and the Canadian Provincial government moves in, but Prince Edward Island flatly rejects the BNA Resolutions and opts out. When a group of Irish Nationalists, known as the Fenians, attack Canadas East, West and New Brunswick from the American bases, feelings again turn to mutual defence. President Andrew Jackson denies the Fenians refuge, and they are defeated, yet he openly suggests BNA annexation. Consensus among the remaining provinces is reached, John A. Macdonald presents the British Parliament with the Resolutions, and the Queen ascends.

On July 1, 1867, the provinces of Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia become the Dominion of Canada with its capital in Ottawa. John A. Macdonald is Prime Minister, and Lord Monk is Governor General. Canada East takes its original name of Quebec. Canada West becomes the Province of Ontario, with Toronto as its capital.

The T. Eaton store opens in Toronto. A permanent telegraph link to Europe is confirmed in Newfoundland. Photographs make their first appearance in newspapers, and Northern Ontario is created out of the newly purchased Hudson's Bay Company land.

Costumes of the 1860's

Continue with the history of Ontario in the 1870's