and Mrs. Simcoe's
by Donald W. Cress
Two hundred and ten years ago, John Graves
Simcoe, and his wife, Elizabeth, returned to England concluding
his stint (1792-1796) as the first Lieutenant-Governor of
Upper Canada. Mrs. Simcoe, an accomplished sketcher and dedicated
diarist, left a legacy of no small importance: her diary,
which contains some of the most singular extant references
to the late eighteenth-century flora and fauna of what is
Edited by J. Ross Robertson, it was published
by William Briggs of Toronto, in 1911, as The Diary of Mrs.
John Graves Simcoe. A facsimile edition was printed by Coles
Publishing Company, Toronto, in 1973.
Upper Canada, as a political entity, was
formed by a proclamation in 1791 which divided the old province
of Quebec into two: Upper and Lower Canada. John Graves Simcoes
mandate, as the Queens representative, was to oversee
the development of a political and clerical authorityloyal
to Britainas well as coordinate the creation of such
infrastructure as political centres (e.g. the founding of
York) and lines of communication (i.e. the Dundas Road and
Yonge Street north to Lake Simcoe and on to the naval post
The Upper Canada of 1792 consisted, mainly,
of sparsely populated villages, hamlets, and farms, along
the north shores of the St. Lawrence River, Lake Ontario,
the Niagara River, Lake Erie and the eastern banks of the
Detroit River. There were also a number of scattered villages
of Chippewa and Iroquoian First Nations Peoples.
Elizabeth Simcoe, the First Lady of Upper
Canada, was a woman of insatiable curiosity regarding the
local flora and fauna, customs and habits of both the local
Loyalist population and aboriginal. Her diary has abundant
references to personsnative or Englishbringing
her items or wildlife specimens to examine: Mr. Talbot
me a cake of dried hurtleberries, made by the Indians
tastes of smoke.
While it must be noted that Elizabeth
Simcoe, the wife of a pragmatic career military man, made
notations mostly regarding the utility of the various speciesWe
dined in the woods today and ate part of a raccoon; it was
very fat and tasted like lamb if eaten with mint sauceher
reports do provide us with an idea of what the land and wildlife
was like as evolution had produced it and as the natives had
Some things have changed little over the
intervening two centuries. She lists, as signs of spring,
collecting maple sap, and the return of geese, ducks, and
red-winged blackbirds. A tally of the wildflowers of spring
that Mrs. Simcoe mentions differs little from what we would
discover today: ladys slipper, mayapple, sarsaparilla,
golden thread, trillium, wild lilies and Indian turnip (i.e.
Jack-in-the-pulpit). And of course, there are the requisite
references to that great Ontario scourgeespecially for
trippers, campers, and other outdoors enthusiastsmosquitoes:
beyond the Twelve-Mile Creek we encamped on a point
without noticing that the field abounded with a coarse weed,
which is such a harbour for mosquitoes that the tent was filled
with them. Another entry: The mosquitoes were more troublesome
Not all comparisons of the wildlife in
1796 versus 2006 are positive, however.
Elizabeth Simcoe mentions the black duck:
Some Indians brought [from Lake Simcoe]
of ducks, which were very pretty as well as very good. The
large black duck is esteemed one of the best. The abundance
of wild rice, off which they feed, makes them so much better
than wild ducks in England.
Black ducks are still plentiful, especially
on the Canadian Shield, but are in somewhat of a state of
change. Because it breeds readily with the far more common
mallard, and because mallards have adapted quite successfully
to the environmental changes wrought by modern man (as well
as the game-farm raising and transplanting of mallards by
man), the black duck is facing extinction, of a sort, due
to hybridization and habitat loss.
Unfortunately, there have been extinctions
The flights of wild [passenger] pigeons,
wrote Mrs. Simcoe on October 30, 1793, in the spring and
autumn is a surprising sight. They fly against the wind and
so low that at Niagara the men threw sticks at them from the
fort and killed numbers; the air is somewhat darkened by them.
I think those we have met with here [York] have been particularly
good. Sometimes they fix a bullet to a string tied to a pole,
and knock them down.
Unfortunately, due to over-hunting, the
clearing of food trees such as oak, and the disturbance and
destruction of habitat and breeding sites, the last passenger
pigeon dieda captive in a Cincinnati Zooin 1914.
It took man little more than a century to exterminate a population
that was estimated to be in the billions.
A similar fate was shared by the Lake
Ontario subspecies of the Atlantic salmon. Mrs. Simcoe makes
several notes concerning this once-abundant fish: An Indian
us with salmon which the rivers and creeks on this shore [Lake
Ontario] abound with. Also: At eight this dark evening
we went in a boat to see salmon speared. Large torches of
white birch bark being carried in the boat, the blaze of light
attracts the fish, when (sic) the men are dexterous in spearing.
The manner of destroying the fish is disagreeable, but seeing
them swimming in shoals around the boat is a very pretty sight.
On June 16, 1796, she writes: Numbers of Indians
resort here [at the mouth of the Credit River] at this season
to fish for salmon
There is abundance of salmon caught
in this river.
The Lake Ontario salmondue to over-fishing,
the damming (and silting up) of spawning tributaries, and
habitat loss along those rivers and creeksdisappeared
by the end of the nineteenth century.
It is also interesting to note from the
above excerpt, and others not cited here, that the local native
peoples had already learned that money was to be made from
the over-fishing and hunting of edible wildlife to be sold
to the whites. In fact, their own natural and conservation-wise
lifestyle was, even then, in a state of decay.
There were also the enemies.
Not the Americans to the southwith whom war would be
waged in 1812but those that could (or might) kill a
man or his livestock livelihood.
Mrs. Simcoes diary includes a few
references to the depredations of wolves (and bears) on sheep
and pigs. Another entry states: Near the river we saw the
track of wolves and the head and hoofs of a deer. The workmen,
who reside in a small hut near the place, heard the wolves
during the night, and in the morning saw the remains of the
deer. The Indians do not kill wolves; they seldom take trouble
that does not answer to them, and the wolves are not good
to eat and their skins are of little value.
Nevertheless, as more settlers and their
livestock populated Upper Canada (and later, Ontario), bounties
were put on the grey wolf and it was extirpated from the southern
portion of the province. In an ironic coup for nature, the
grey, or timber, wolf has been replaced by the more cunning
coyote, probably in far greater and adaptable numbers than
September 24, 1793: I hear that they
kill rattlesnakes every day yet not a single man has been
May 2, 1794: The Governor killed seven
rattlesnakes with a small stick
December 18, 1795: Mr. Jones, the surveyor,
says seven hundred rattlesnakes were killed near Burlington
Bay this summer. They live in caves, and in very dry weather
go down to the lake to drink; they are sluggish, and, as they
move in numbers at a time, probably would be easier destroyed
The attitude then was: see a rattlesnakekill
it. The last recorded sighting of a timber rattlesnake was
in the Niagara Escarpment areaits main habitat in Ontarioin
1940. Its Georgian Bay relative, the Massassauga rattlesnake,
is fairing only slightly better.
There was also killing just for the (supposed)
fun of it: A fine eagle was shot at the town [York].
The poor bald eagle suffered an even more
insidious desecration due to modern man. It, too, was almost
extirpated from southern Ontario due to the toxic effect of
DDT, which was used as a pesticide for several decades. The
organo-chlorine chemical got into the food chain and was ingested
by adult eagles; the result was reproductive failure.
Another species that Mrs. Simcoe mentions
in her diary has become endangered due to mans inadvertent
meddling: I saw very fine butternut trees [along the Don
River]. The nuts are better than walnuts. Butternut trees,
at the northern edge of their range, were never found growing
in high density profusion. Habitat lossthe clearing
of forestshas caused much of its decline, but so has
the introduction of an alien disease, butternut canker, which
is believed to have made its way into Ontario on infected
plants imported from overseas. It has been estimated that
perhaps as many as one third of Ontarios butternut trees
have been infectedare dyingand there is no known
Not all is gloomy, however. There are
positive steps being taken. The Committee for the Status of
Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) has been established;
laws such as the Wildlife Conservation Act and the Endangered
Species Act have been enacted to not only protect the endangered
wildlife, but also the ecological niches they inhabit.
There are other, more species-specific,
actions being taken. Massassauga rattlesnakes, for example,
have been given a newer, more positive lease on life due to
a concentrated effort to educate the public about them (i.e.
no more see it, kill it, mentality). Also, barriers
and tunnels have been built along the Georgian Bay portion
of Highway 69/400 where road-killed rattlesnakes were becoming
far too common.
There is even good news for butternut
trees. The Ontario Forest Gene Conservation Association has
been established with a group assigned specifically to finding
disease-resistant butternuts. These will be used to propagate
a healthy backup resource of butternut seedlings.
We have had the opportunity to learn from
eyewitness accounts, such as Mrs. Simcoes diary, of
how it was then and what weve done wrong. Elizabeth
Simcoe, I am sure, would be happy to see how we are finally
responding after more than two hundred years of ignorance,
neglect and destruction.
This is an original story,
first published in The Country Connection Magazine,
Issue 51, Spring 2006. Copyright Donald W. Cress.
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