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Elixabeth Simcoe, First Lady of Upper Canada -- from the diary of Mrs. SimcoeWildlife
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 now Ontario.

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 Simcoe’s mandate, as the Queen’s representative, was to oversee the development of a political and clerical authority—loyal to Britain—as 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 at Penetanguishene).

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 persons—native or English—bringing her items or wildlife specimens to examine: Mr. Talbot…brought me a cake of dried hurtleberries, made by the Indians…but 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 species—We dined in the woods today and ate part of a raccoon; it was very fat and tasted like lamb if eaten with mint sauce—her 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 maintained it.

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: lady’s 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 scourge—especially for trippers, campers, and other outdoors enthusiasts—mosquitoes: …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 than ever.

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]…several kinds 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 and extirpations.

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 died—a captive in a Cincinnati Zoo—in 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…supplies 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 salmon—due to over-fishing, the damming (and silting up) of spawning tributaries, and habitat loss along those rivers and creeks—disappeared 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 south—with whom war would be waged in 1812—but those that could (or might) kill a man or his livestock livelihood.

Mrs. Simcoe’s 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 the wolf.

September 24, 1793: I hear that they kill rattlesnakes every day yet not a single man has been bitten….

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 rattlesnake—kill it. The last recorded sighting of a timber rattlesnake was in the Niagara Escarpment area—its main habitat in Ontario—in 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 man’s 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 loss—the clearing of forests—has 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 Ontario’s butternut trees have been infected—are dying—and there is no known cure.

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. Simcoe’s diary, of how it was then and what we’ve 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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