Queen’s Rangers 1791-1802

Old Fort York may be the most obvious legacy of the Rangers’ crucial role in Toronto’s origins over two centuries ago, yet they left many other monuments.  These are not grand statues of bronze or marble, but much more practical reminders of Canada’s Historical Regiment.  Everyone who lives in the city will know them, although they may not be aware of their link to The Queen’s York Rangers.  Yonge Street, the main commercial thoroughfare, was first built by Rangers.  They also constructed another major road, Dundas Street.  In the bustling financial district, both Simcoe and John Streets honour their erstwhile commander.  

There are more named after other Rangers who served or lived in the city during its early years, including Shaw (for another distinguished CO, LCol Aeneas Shaw), Jarvis (Capt. William Jarvis) and McGill Streets (Capt. John McGill).  And the Rangers’ surgeon, James Macaulay also bequeathed the names of five of his children to Toronto’s map, as Agnes, Alice, Isabella, James and Louisa Streets.

Unlike the many Rangers who settled in New Brunswick in the wake of America’s secession, John Graves Simcoe had been invalided back to his native England in 1781. Soon restored to health, the dashing colonel, now just turning thirty, made a most eligible bachelor.  Within a little over a year he took the hand of a pretty young heiress, Elizabeth Posthuma Gwillim, and built a proper manor in Devon for his new household.  However, the quiet ways of the country squire were not to the energetic colonel’s taste. In 1790 he successfully contested a seat for Cornwall and entered the House of Commons.  

The new parliamentarian’s passion was Britain’s future in North America.  When the legislature began to consider how to reconcile Canada’s French and English populations, Simcoe actively participated in the discussions.  The resulting Constitutional Act of 1791 divided the colony into two parts.  The lands largely populated by English-speaking United Empire Loyalists west of the St Lawrence became Upper Canada, known today as Ontario.  

Simcoe had great ambitions for the new colony, where he foresaw “a nucleus for a new British Empire to offset the loss of the old.” As luck would have it, King George III had read the book Simcoe had published about his exploits during the recent rebellion, and was favourably impressed.  When a senior official recommended the retired colonel as Upper Canada’s first lieutenant governor, the monarch readily gave his assent.

Well schooled in the Classics at Eton, Simcoe looked to ancient Rome’s colonial practices as the model for his new realm. These coloniaehad often been established by soldier-settlers, who both farmed the new lands and defended them from the Barbarians.  To carry out a similar task in Upper Canada, what would be better than a new corps based on the recently disbanded Queen’s Rangers?

On August 29, 1791, the King approved the “Establishment of a Corps of Infantry consisting of Two Companies to be raised and sent to Upper Canada.”  Soon officially named the Queen’s Rangers, the unit recruited its men at Chatham in Kent. Most of the officers had already served with Simcoe during the American campaign ten years earlier. They were keen to rejoin their former commander and needed little convincing.  When he received his letter of invitation in early February 1792, Aeneas Shaw, a veteran Ranger captain now on half-pay in Fredericton, immediately laced on his snowshoes and marched 400 kilometres to rejoin Simcoe, then in Quebec.  

In addition to the colonel’s good reputation, there were more tangible incentives for signing up.    After five years of service, other ranks would receive 50 acres of land in Upper Canada upon discharge, provided they lived on them. Officers were eligible for larger allotments.  Many of the early settlers in the Toronto area were beneficiaries of this arrangement. The Rangers had three basic jobs: Defence, construction and settlement. According to Simcoe’s plan, they would spend two days a week on military duty, two days on public works, and two for their own business.  

The King authorised the reborn Queen’s Rangers to wear the same uniform as their predecessors during the rebellion:  Green jackets, white breeches (green for the Hussars), topped by headdress sporting the crescent moon symbolic of Diana, Goddess of the Hunt.  They also retook as their emblem the one originally adopted in 1779, which combined the shield of defence inscribed “Queen’s Rangers 1stAmerns.,” the wreath of British unity, and the monarchy’s crown.

The new lieutenant governor had initially based his capital in Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake), and the Rangers built their camp in nearby Queenston.  Relations with the new American republic were still tense, and the town’s location so close to the border made it particularly vulnerable. A year after his arrival, on July 30, 1793, Simcoe moved his Regiment and family across Lake Ontario to the site that had so favourably impressed Robert Rogers thirty years earlier.  Once the French post of Ft. Rouillé, the new settlement was christened York, in honour of the Duke of York’s recent victory in the new war with France. Today it is Toronto.

Simcoe’s most important job was to build two roads to link his new capital with the rest of his colony. Rangers were soon cutting a track west to Burlington Bay, on whose shore Hamilton’s steel foundries now stand.  In April 1794 they also began work on a route north to the lake that today bears the name of their colonel’s father.  To flatter superiors back in London, the streets honoured Henry Dundas, the Secretary of State, and Sir Henry Yonge, Secretary for War, respectively.

The governor kept the Rangers hard at work in many other ways as well.   Their first years in York found them clearing the land for the town, building houses and government offices, and surveying surrounding lands for new settlement.  There were also more unpleasant distractions, most notably a war scare during 1794, when the American general “Mad Anthony” Wayne marched a force of 3,000 towards Ft. Detroit, then still in British hands.

In July 1796, Simcoe was granted leave to England to look after his health, which had never been very good.  Although he expected eventually to return, he was given other assignments and resigned as lieutenant-governor three years later. As for the Queen’s Rangers, Simcoe handed over command to Major Shank.  Along with Aeneas Shaw, who succeeded him as CO in 1798, they oversaw York’s continued transformation from encampment to town over the following years.

By the turn of the 19thcentury, as tensions with the United States waned, and Britain’s ongoing war with France demanded an increasing share of the treasury, there was less need to maintain a regiment in Upper Canada.  In May 1802 London ordered the Queen’s Rangers disbanded once again, and in October of that year the Regiment stood down. 

The Regiment’s late historian, Major Stewart Bull, summed up the Rangers’ accomplishments circa 1800:

The record of this Queen’s Rangers Regiment is much less colourful and spectacular than its predecessor…[But] the achievements of the Rangers of 1791-1802 – the roads, the beginnings of settlement, the first streets of Toronto – were more enduring.  Along with their famous commander they laid the foundations of the great province of Ontario, which must be forever in their debt.

<==Queen’s Rangers 1775-1783

York Militia 1793-1866==>