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Chapter 5
Tories and Reformers
Table of Contents

Title Page
Author's Preface
1 The Road through Richmond Hill
2 First Peoples on the Land
3 The European Settlers Arrive
4 From Miles' Hill to Richmond Hill: The Birth of a Community
5 Tories and Reformers
A Picture of Prosperity and Contentment
The Most Pleasant Season
Maple Sugar Time
The Road to Rebellion
A Post Office and a Name on the Map
Colonel Moodie Rides Down Yonge Street
Rebels and Loyalists
Life and Death after the Rebellion
Aftermath of Rebellion
6 Stagecoach Lines and Railway Tracks
7 The Neighbours at Mid-Century
8 Fire Brigades and Fence Viewers
9 Picture Post Card Village of the 1880s and 1890s
10 Rails through Richmond Hill
11 The Flowering of Richmond Hill
12 The Village Transformed
Table of Illustrations

The Road to Rebellion

Certainly all was not happy along Yonge Street in the late 1820s and early 1830s. The coming of such families as the Gappers,Smiths, and Boyds created an entirely new class of settler. They were British, they were well-to-do, they were Church of England, and they allied themselves with the colonial elite in York. They felt themselves superior to the original settlers, who were from less privileged backgrounds, who were mostly non-Conformists, who enjoyed little access to the York elite, and who - worst of all, in the eyes of the recent British immigrants - were considered "Americans." The "happy myth of frontier democracy and equality" so beloved by the first wave of settlers was "fast disappearing with the advance of civilization on Yonge Street."13 Differences between these two groups helped divide Richmond Hill's population along political lines into parties identified as Tory and Reform, and led ultimately to the 1837 Rebellion.

Mary Gapper, the visitor-who-came-to-stay, easily assumed the Tory views of her brothers and of Edward O'Brien, the neighbour she married. As half-pay veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, local militia officers, justices of the peace, and staunch Church of England supporters, the O'Briensand the Gappers preferred to work through official channels to bring about the improvements they felt were needed in their Yonge Street district. With many friends among York's leading citizens, they naturally allied themselves with the province's closely knit political establishment - known to its enemies as the Family Compact.

"The new governor is said to be making himself very popular," Mary wrote of Sir John Colborne in November 1828. "He is ashamed of the state of the roads and I hope he will forward some arrangement for mending them." Meanwhile, she found the new Reform-dominated Legislative Assembly "very radical, and stupidly so," in setting itself up in opposition to Lieutenant-Governor Colborne and his way of bringing about improvements. 14

Edward O'Brien, leading member of the York CountyTory aristocracy in the years before the Rebellion of 1837. Audrey Saunders Miller,The Journals of Mary O'Brien, 1828-1838, Macmillan
At an election held earlier that year, the riding of York - an electoral district including present-day Richmond Hill and all of York, together with Metropolitan Toronto - had returned Jesse Ketchum and William Lyon Mackenzie, two of the more radical Reform members of that Assembly. Mary Gapper refused to believe that this pair represented the true wishes of the Yonge Street communities. Rather, she attributed their election to "the ignorance of the voters as to the real state of things, than from disaffection; or at least that the disaffection extended only to the provincial government and not to England." 15

Even after spending more than a full year at her brother's place, Mary still refused to take radical leader William Lyon Mackenzie seriously. "Our Yankee member seems to be disregarded," she wrote as the Assembly opened a new session in January 1830. "There are good hopes that things will go better than the last time." Mackenzie, of course, was playing an extremely important role in the Assembly, introducing several important measures, chairing a committee of inquiry into financial matters, and quickly emerging as the leading Radical reformer. 16

The Gappers and the O'Briens- now united by the marriage of Mary and Edward - grew ever more hostile to Mackenzie through the year 1830. Much of the animosity was personal, as Mackenzie challenged the right of Richard Gapper and Edward O'Brien to serve as directors of the newly founded Home District Agricultural Society. In any event, they sought to unseat Mackenzie in the forthcoming October provincial election and began campaigning for Benjamin Thorne, the mill owner who gave his name to the Thornhill community to the south.

Edward O'Brien dedicated himself to some hard campaigning. By late September, Mary found her husband "a good deal occupied in a way which I cannot assist, tho' I sincerely wish him success, canvassing for Mr. Thorne, so that when he goes out I never know when to expect him again. Sometimes he comes home to dine at eight, and sometimes sets out at six or seven in the morning that he may be able to redeem his pledge to Mr. Thorne without neglecting his own affairs." 17

Mary Gapper O'Brien, chronicler of Yonge Street life in the late 1820s and early 1830s. Audrey Saunders Miller,The Journals of Mary O'Brien, 1828-1838,Macmillan
Reform supporters called an October 7 election meeting at Mrs. O'Hearne's Tavern in Richmond Hill to nominate Mackenzie and Ketchum for re-election. But local Tories tried to use the same meeting to nominate Benjamin Thorne and Charles Thompson, and secured Edward O'Brien's selection as chairman for the session. According to Mackenzie's own account, Tories like Richard Gapper,David Bridgeford, and Hugh Stewart "delivered speeches abusing [me] in very gross and often disgusting language," while O'Brien himself "lost all self-command, and went on to abuse [me] in a strain at once so vulgar, coarse and indecent that it astonished everyone present." 18

When a vote was finally taken, O'Brien declared the results a tie between the two slates, while the meeting's secretary (a Reformer) counted a majority for the Reform candidates. Such was a typical Richmond Hill political meeting in the years preceding the 1837 Rebellion. The gathering broke up in confusion, and the two sides subsequently held separate nomination meetings.

While the October 18 election gave the Tories an overall majority in the Legislative Assembly, Mackenzie and Ketchum won re-election as Reform members for York. Again in 1834 and 1836, following a redistribution of seats, three of York County's four one-member ridings elected Reformers. Those three ridings included parts of present-day Richmond Hill: the First Riding (Vaughan and King townships) elected David Gibson; the Third Riding (Markham Township) chose Thomas David Morrison; while the Fourth Riding (Whitchurch Township) returned John McIntosh.

Despite such successes at the local level, Reformers remained frustrated in their attempt to bring fundamental change to the province. They were unable to control arbitrary actions of the lieutenant-governor and his appointed Executive Council. They opposed Church of England control of the clergy reserves, which included large, undeveloped blocks of land along today's Bayview Avenue and Leslie Street. They protested the close links between government and business that resulted in money being diverted from local road improvements to grandiose canal schemes.

Home built by Richard Gapper on the east side of Yonge Street near today's 16th Avenue, later occupied by the William Duncan family.
The more radical Reformers increasingly rallied around William Lyon Mackenzie, the fiery Scot who sat for York in the Assembly, served as the first mayor of the new city of Toronto in 1834, and kept passions aflame through the columns of his newspapers. Acting through the legislature, Mackenzie had drawn up his Seventh Report on Grievances, with no apparent results. He had been rebuffed when he took his cause to Britain. Armed revolt was the last resort.

It was probably late summer or early autumn of 1837 that Mackenzie decided to incite rebellion, although the precise date cannot be determined. 19 With troops withdrawn from Upper Canada to help suppress the Lower Canada Rebellion, the task appeared quite simple. Toronto workers would seize the lieutenant-governor and secure several thousand muskets stored at the city hall. Then the successful rebels would only have to wait for their friends and supporters among York County farmers to march down Yonge Street and arrive in the city.

Edward and Mary O'Brien's home in Vaughan Township, as it appeared in 1968.
Through the autumn of 1837, an increasing number of farmers from townships north of Toronto were prepared to follow Mackenzie into rebellion. They had been hit by a series of poor harvests since 1835.

Then an economic recession through much of 1836 and 1837 led to a tightening of credit and a recall of loans by Upper Canada's banks, moves which hit farmers especially hard.

Mackenzie travelled up Yonge Street in mid-November to look for proof of support and convince key men that a rising was both possible and necessary. On Friday, December 1, he penned his appeal to Upper Canadians to take up arms. On Saturday he addressed a meeting at Stouffville, calling on his audience to rise up and overthrow the government. Sunday he rode back towards Toronto and spent the night at David Gibson's home in York Township. Meanwhile, to forestall a government crackdown on rebel activities, Mackenzie's cohorts advanced the date of the rising from Thursday, December 7, to Monday, December 4. For better or worse, the rising was about to begin.

Early Monday morning, men began to march. Groups left Holland Landing,Sharon, and Lloydtown between eight and nine o'clock, with more to follow from East Gwillimbury and other northern areas. Along the way, supporters were picked up in the various townships through which the groups passed. The men coming down Yonge Street through Richmond Hill broke into smaller groups and hid their arms in wagons to prevent discovery. 20 The designated meeting place was Montgomery's Tavern on Yonge Street, north of present-day Eglinton Avenue.


13. F.R. Berchem,The Yonge Street Story, 1793-1860: An Account from Letters, Diaries and Newspapers(Toronto:McGraw-Hill Ryerson,1977),p. 199.

14. Audrey Saunders Miller,"Yonge Street Politics, 1828 to 1832,"Ontario History,vol. 62,no. 2(June 1970):102.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid., p. 106.

17. Ibid., p. 111.

18. Ibid., p. 113; Colonial Advocate,October 14, 1830.

19. Colin Read and Ronald J. Stagg, eds., The Rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada: A Collection of Documents(Toronto:Champlain Society,1985),p. xxxvi.

20. Ronald John Stagg,"The Yonge Street Rebellion of 1837: An Examination of the Social Background and a Re-assessment of the Events," Ph.D. dissertation, University of Toronto, 1976,p. 104.


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