Elizabeth Posthuma Simcoe, 1762-1850
This upcoming civic holiday honours the first Lieutenant Governor, John Graves Simcoe. A detailed biography on John Simcoe is available on the Historical Narratives of Early Canada website which provides a good account of his military and historical achievements.
Credit in the development of Upper Canada could be shared with his adoring young wife, Elizabeth. This post will glance through Elizabeth Posthuma Simcoe's unique contributions in art, writing, and her support in shaping this new Canadian frontier.
Born in Northamptonshire, England on September 22nd in 1762, Elizabeth arrived into the world filled with bittersweet anticipation. Her father, Colonel Thomas Gwillim passed away several months before Elizabeth's birth while posted to Germany on January 29, 1762. No specified cause was recorded on the manner of his death. Elizabeth's mother, Elizabeth Sophia Gwillim, died within 24 hours after childbirth. In this midst of this deep sadness, her aunt, Margaret Spinkes, took over the care of her baby niece. Both the aunt and the aunt's mother chose to name her Elizabeth Posthuma--her first name in honour of her mother and her middle name to reflect the passing of her parents.
On June 14, 1769, her aunt Margaret married Admiral Samuel Graves. They met in the previous winter. The Admiral was 56 years of age and a childless widower. Margaret Spinkes was 42 years old. The Admiral saw Elizabeth as the child that he was unable to have and both aunt and uncle raised Elizabeth with the best of all intentions.
As Elizabeth was growing up, her family encouraged her to develop a positive outlook on life by providing various resources for her to explore. She developed her writing skills and wrote voraciously to family and friends far and wide; she explored the countryside on foot and on horseback and wrote copious details of her journeys; and she developed her artistic skills in sketching and painting. She also studied botany and that knowledge dovetailed nicely with her interest in painting landscapes.
In 1777 when Elizabeth turned fifteen years old, she met a handsome commanding officer twice her age. At the age of 30, the wounded Lieutenant Colonel, John Graves Simcoe, returned to England to convalesce after the British Army's defeat in Yorktown. Admiral Graves extended an invitation for John Graves Simcoe to stay at Hembury Fort House while recuperating. Since Elizabeth had a large dowry, the aunt and uncle paid careful attention to the men who showed an interest in her. In John Grave Simcoe's case, John's parents were close friends. Admiral Graves was the godfather of John Simcoe and had Admiral Graves' surname for his middle name.
Over time and daily interaction in residence, both John and Elizabeth quickly fell in love to the delight of Margaret and Admiral Graves. The two remained in contact and by September 1782, John and Elizabeth became engaged. On December 30, 1782 they were married. Soon after they were married, Elizabeth purchased five thousand acres of land and built a forty-room mansion and called it Wolford Lodge.
Fast forward to nine years later, after the births of five daughters between 1783 and 1790, her first son, Francis, was born in 1791--two more daughters (one in Toronto and the other in England) and one more son was born (in England) later for a total of nine children). In the same year, her husband accepted an assignment to travel to Upper Canada as the new Lieutenant Governor. Ensuring that her children were cared for, her children either remained at Wolford Lodge and stayed with other family or they came along with her.
Elizabeth Simcoe began painting Canadian landscapes and waterways. She captured the Magdalene Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on her journey to Quebec City.
When the couple arrived in Quebec on November 11th of 1791, Elizabeth sketched her first sleigh ride which she expressed as quite 'jolty' and the journey as very cold.
As the Simcoes settled in Quebec, on December 26th, The Constitutional Act of 1791 came into being and was the first step in amalgamating the land for this new country. On June 5, 1792, the Simcoes continued on their journey through Upper Canada in Ottawa and stayed at the Chateau de Ramezay which could be one of the oldest buildings in Canada.
She wrote in her journal:
Sun. [June] 17th—The joy I felt in finding myself in spacious apartments was checked the next day by finding the heat more insufferable than I had ever felt. The thermometer continued at 96 for two days, and the heat was not ill-described by a sentinel who exclaimed, "There is but a sheet of brown paper between this place and hell." In the town are abundance of merchants' storehouses, the doors and windows of which are iron, and many of the houses, as well as churches, are covered with tin. By these circumstances, I believe, the heat is increased. The Government House is built on arches, under which are very large offices, which might be made very comfortable summer apartments. (The Diary of Mrs. Simcoe, 1911)
The Simcoes traveled to Kingston and briefly considered Kingston as the capital of Upper Canada but the location and geography did not appear to be suitable. Days later, they sailed to Niagara where Elizabeth captured the breathtaking Falls in water colour. The family stayed here in Newark (today is called Niagara-On-The-Lake) for several months. On January 16, 1793, her daughter, Katherine, was born.
She wrote in her journal her impression of the Falls:
On the American side the river passing over a straight ledge of rock has not the beauty of the circular form or its green colour, the whole centre of the circular falls being of the brightest green, and below it frequently seen a rainbow. (The Diary of Mrs. Simcoe, 1911)
Even today, her words appear to ring true. Many current visitors can attest to the same visual beauty from its roaring depths.
In July, her ship, the Mississauga, entered the Toronto Harbour.
John and Elizabeth explored this region by canoe, horseback, and on foot and John noted that this harbour appears well protected by the Toronto Islands in the south and he named spit on the Island, Gibraltar Point.
Sadly, not all of Elizabeth's journey was positive. Elizabeth's daughter, Katherine perished on April 1792 at 14 months old. She was buried in the Old Garrison Burying Ground which is currently a park renamed Victoria Memorial Square near Fort York. CityNews wrote an article on this interesting plot of land.
On a happier note, her first son Francis Simcoe survived the Frontier. The family created a lovely castle in his honour and named it, Castle Frank.
Sadly, Castle Frank is no longer standing and through time, several changes to the landscape occurred. On September 11, 1796, the family returned to England and never returned to Canada to enjoy this residence.
Elizabeth's diary entries are worth reading and revisiting. Consider perusing these interesting titles to appreciate her remarkable journey:
On this special day, consider riding to the Toronto Islands by ferry and visiting Gibraltar Point, gaze down the brilliant green Falls in Niagara, Ontario, stroll through Fort York and watch the British soldiers march in formation, and reflect on Elizabeth's journeys as you wander along the Castle Frank Brook on your travels. Much of the Canadian and Toronto traditions were inspired by John Simcoe and then brought to life in muted colours and lively written text by Elizabeth Simcoe centuries ago.
Enjoy the long weekend!