Originally published in the Richmond Hill Liberal, September 24, 2020
by Jim Vollmershausen
While the events that led to the Rebellion of 1837 were unfolding, the citizens of Richmond Hill were not on the outside, looking in – they were right in the middle of it.
In the decades following the arrival of the first settlers, the Richmond Hill area became a thriving agricultural community, served by many shops and businesses. By the 1830s, this prosperity began to attract a more affluent group of settlers who were buying up properties and beginning to influence local politics.
These newcomers tended to be British, Church of England, more well-to-do, and much more apt to turn to the ruling elite in York for assistance. The original settlers were much more self-sufficient. They had cleared land, built cabins, sowed crops and gained title to property. In their experience, the government in York did not have their interests at heart. By 1830, these two groups of Richmond Hill residents clearly represented the simmering conflict in Upper Canada between the ruling tories and the less-privileged reformers.
The man who came to lead the reformers was William Lyon Mackenzie. In the years leading up to 1837, Mackenzie worked tirelessly to effect reforms through his work in the assembly, his newspaper columns – he even took his grievances to Britain. Consistently rebuffed, by 1837, he was beginning to call for armed revolt.
Richmond Hill’s tory contingent – the Moodies, the Gappers, the O’Brians, and others – were not impressed with the reformers demands. Their view was that they were well served by the government in what was now known as Toronto.
Other families in Richmond Hill, however, were much more receptive to the reformers’ call for change. A couple of years of poor harvests, coupled with an economic recession that included tighter credit and the recall of loans made for very difficult times for farmers. By early December of 1837, MacKenzie’s call to arms seemed like a good option.
Emboldened by troops leaving Toronto to help suppress a rebellion in Lower Canada, men from Richmond Hill and areas to the north began to gather in response to MacKenzie’s appeal to take up arms. On Monday, Dec. 4, they began to march down Yonge Street from places like Holland Landing, picking up supporters as they went. Later that afternoon, Captain Hugh Stewart observed the marchers as they passed by Crews Tavern, just north of Richmond Hill, and raised the alarm. A number of loyalists met at Robert Moodie’s house, just south of the tavern.
After a first attempt to warn the forces in Toronto about the rebels failed, Moodie, his friend David Bridgeford, and others decided to ride south. Moodie, Bridgeford and Captain Stewart made it as far as Montgomery’s Tavern, near Eglinton Street, where the rebels were gathering. After being confronted by rebel guards, shots were fired, Moodie was fatally shot and Stewart was captured. David Bridgeford was able to evade the rebels and made it to Government House. By Dec. 7, there had been one skirmish south of Montgomery’s Tavern and a final, albeit short battle at the tavern itself – and the rebels were defeated.
In the end, Richmond Hill saw it all. The village contributed tory loyalists and rebel reformers to the Rebellion of 1837. A tory stalwart, Robert Moodie, was killed on the first day of action, and many rebels were captured and imprisoned. Though the rebels were defeated, their reform views did not disappear. In the thirty years between the rebellion and confederation, many of their issues were part of the ongoing process of change.
-Jim Vollmershausen is the president of the Richmond Hill Historical Society