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This is a contributing entry for Analyzing John Graves Simcoe in the Context of Canadian History and only appears as part of that tour.Learn More.
Born in England in 1752, John Graves Simcoe was the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada and is remembered in Canadian history as the man who ‘abolished’ slavery in our nation. Today, he is celebrated for all the work he did for our country and in the British government, as well. However, an important aspect of Simcoe’s legacy that is not widely known to Canadians is his military career for the British Army during the American and Haitian Revolutions. While the two revolutions did not specifically impact Canada, his British heritage allowed him to be remarkable in both England and Canada’s history, where he is commemorated as a hero to both countries. He lived as a brilliant general who only wished to keep his men safe and bring emancipation to those who needed it.

John Graves Simcoe in Exeter, England

Stone carving, Holy places, Relief, Memorial

Portrait of Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe

Portrait, Monarch, Painting, Art

In 1770, at the age of eighteen, Simcoe joined the British Army as part of the 35th Regiment of Foot. It was during this regiment that he was deployed to the colonies where he remained as a soldier on patrol. In 1776, he was promoted to captain of the 40th Regiment of Foot and commanded orders during the Siege of Boston [1]. With more power and respect from his fellow soldiers, Simcoe was able to fight for who he believed needed emancipation from the colonists’ grasp. It is outlined in his journal, A Journal of the Operations of the Queen’s Rangers from the End of the Year 1777, to the Conclusion of the Late American War, that Simcoe attempted to form a Loyalist regime that consisted of free Black loyalists willing to fight for Britain. However, Simcoe did not receive any free Blacks to aid in his fight, but instead, he acquired the Queen’s Rangers. These rangers made up a militia of loyalists from Staten Island whom Simcoe made known as one of the most successful British regiments during the American Revolutionary War [2].

In 1778, he was once again promoted to lieutenant colonel of the Queen’s Rangers for his impressive leadership during the sieges and battles of war. However, during ‘Simcoe’s Raid’ in 1779, which was a mission that burnt the supplies of the patriots on Staten Island, New York, Simcoe was captured by an enemy on the opposing side. He was released and returned to his regime in Virginia, where he continued to fight as colonel in an attempt to defeat the colonists [3]. Though Britain ultimately lost the Revolutionary War, Simcoe was promoted to Inspector General of Recruitment for the British Army, a role where he recruited soldiers and ensured they were trained to be the best soldiers possible [4]. He only carried this title for two years before he traveled to Upper Canada and became the first Lieutenant Governor of Canada in 1791.

Following his political career, Simcoe was enlisted once again into the army. This time, however, he was appointed major-general and was sent to Saint Domingue to fight in the Haitian Revolution, a battle that England did not particularly have a role in. During his time in office as Lieutenant Governor, he created The Act To Limit Slavery (1793), an act that would stop new slaves from being purchased and brought into Upper Canada (which will be examined in greater detail in the next entry). However, the reason that the British went to Haiti was not to aid in the Haitians’ emancipation, but instead to integrate themselves into the war and take over as the slave-owners instead of the French [5]. This raises questions regarding his intentions in politics considering he was attempting to abolish slavery in Canada yet maintain it in Saint Domingue. Simcoe managed campaigns and tried to complete battles, but his health was ultimately failing, forcing him to resign from both the war and his political career [6]. Before his death in 1806 in Exeter, England, Simcoe had been named Commander-in-Chief in India. This was a post that Simcoe never got to assume, for he passed away before he could. Simcoe left a legacy behind that would still exist in our modern society and will be remembered forever.

Most Canadians know the name of Simcoe one way or another, whether it be from their history books or simply by driving through Southern Ontario or Simcoe County. Nevertheless, many do not realize the military background that follows the incredible name. His impressive leadership allowed him to be promoted multiple times throughout his career and create a notable name for himself. Simcoe has gone down in Canadian history as a legend and a hero.

[1]  Simcoe, John Graves. A Journal of the Operations of the Queen’s Rangers from the End of the Year 1777, to the Conclusion of the Late American War. England: Printed for the author, [178-?], 1789.

[2] Lender, Mark Edward. The War for American Independence: A Reference Guide. Santa Barbara: ProQuest Ebook Central, 2016, 158

[3] Wilson, W. R. John Graves Simcoe. 2007. Retrieved 19 November 2020

[4] Glover, Richard. Peninsular Preparation: The Reform of the British Army 1795-1809. Cambridge University Press, 1963, 218

[5] Fryer, Mary B; Dracott, Christopher. John Graves Simcoe, 1752-1806: A Biography. Toronto, Dundurn Press, 1998, 192

[6] Riddell, William Renwick, The Life of John Graves Simcoe, First Lieutenant-Governor of the Province of Upper Canada, 1792-96. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1926, 72

Image Sources(Click to expand)

Exeter Memories Website

Dictionary of Canadian Biography