John Graves Simcoe – The Making of the Man, Our City and Province

#1 - The Influence of John Graves Simcoe's Father

“Honour”.  To a gentleman of the 18th century this was not just a concept, it was a creed.  A creed that John Graves Simcoe practised as the foundation of his character and guide for his ambition. His father, Captain John Simcoe, set out for his  ons how to live in honour in his “Rules for your Conduct”.   In it he wrote “Cherish carefully that delicate and essential principle Honour, which, if pure will readily dictate what is fittest to be done, and what is to be avoided more than death.”  

Love of God, Country and King were one in the same to Captain Simcoe and were the key principles of honour from which all his instructions flowed. He told them “Remember always that you are a servant of the Public…Let no ill maxims, however general or successful, allure you from, nor ill usage slacken your devout discharge of your duty; you are sure of the noblest and most lasting reward, the testimony of a good conscience.” 

In his examples of how to live, Captain Simcoe assumed that his sons would follow a military career in the army or navy.  Using in his rules of conduct the examples of the detailed running of a ship or soldiering in the infantry, he wrote about the need to study and learn.  He urged them to understand the theory behind military operations, but also know the details of how a sailor or soldier perform their duties.  He goes on to tell them to always be vigilant, always be learning, always be loyal both to your superiors and to your men.  Use your officers and men humanely and be an example to them of temperance, modesty and obedience.

As we study how Simcoe lived his life and commanded the Queen’s Rangers, it is easy to see the effect of his father’s influence and how Simcoe tried to live by these precepts. The influence of his father’s teaching is especially apparent when comparing Simcoe’s life to others in the officer class such as Banastre Tarleton who served in the same capacity of John Graces Simcoe and became far more famous – and infamous.  

Captain Simcoe joined the navy as an ensign in 1730 at the age of 20 and earned his commission in 1739.  From there he worked through the ranks to become Captain of the HMS Kent in 1744.  In August 1747 he married Catherine Stamford and when the War of Austrian Succession ended in 1748, Captain Simcoe was put on half pay (essentially put on reserve with a pension) and settled comfortably in Cotterstock, Northamptonshire with his family. 

With the advent of the Seven Years War in 1756, Captain Simcoe was again put on active service first as Captain of the HMS St. George and later as commander of the new warship the HMS Pembroke, a 60 gun ship of the line.

Captain Simcoe saw in the hinterland of North America a wealth of resources and potential. He actively promoted the conquest of Canada to the Admiralty as he saw it as very important to the control of trade in the Atlantic, to the protection of the American colonies and to the opening of “new and vast channels of commerce”.  When the opportunity was presented to have the Pembroke assigned to the force attacking Louisburg and Quebec, he was an ardent enthusiast.

At Louisburg, Captain Simcoe met General Wolfe and became a friend and supporter. There he lobbied among the naval staff for Wolfe’s plans to conquer Quebec.

Captain Simcoe was interested in science and supportive of developing his staff. One notable beneficiary of this policy was James Cook who served as the Master’s Mate on the Pembroke. Captain Simcoe encouraged Cook’s study of navigation and cartography, and worked with him and Major Samuel Holland, Wolfe’s engineer and surveyor, to chart the St. Lawrence River. 

The French were known to have removed their channel markers and the British did not have reliable charts of the area. The three men focused on amalgamating what charts they had and then proceeding to survey the St Lawrence to create the charts necessary to safely lead the British expeditionary force up the St. Lawrence River to Quebec City.  Unfortunately, on May 15, 1759 while the Pembroke was sailing up the St. Lawrence, Captain John Simcoe died of pneumonia.  He never reached Quebec City.

However, Captain Simcoe’s work and influence flourished. James Cook become one of the most accomplished naval explorers in history. Samuel Holland became Surveyor General of Upper Canada and commemorated the threesome’s work when he surveyed a major portage road, Yonge street, which was to carry goods to the Upper Great Lakes and the Northwest.  This road connected Lake Ontario to the first navigable steam flowing north, which he called the Holland River.  It in turn drained into a bay he called James Bay which was part of a large Lake draining into Georgian Bay which he called Lake Simcoe after Captain Simcoe.  

John Graves Simcoe’s son, Henry Addington Simcoe, recalled in later life that his father always spoke of Captain Simcoe with veneration and respect and regarded him as a man of skill and accomplishments.