The Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837: Richmond Hill had a Ringside Seat

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.

The Moodie House – courtesy Richmond Hill Public Library

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.

David Bridgeford – courtesy Richmond Hill Public Library

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

Richmond Hill’s French Aristocrats

‘The tenure of the French aristocrats in Richmond Hill was short-lived’

Originally published in the Richmond Hill Liberal (May 30, 2019)
by Jim Vollmershausen, Vice-President, Richmond Hill Historical Society

Historic plaque about the de Puisaye Settlement located in front of St. John's Anglican Church Jefferson.

The de Puisaye Settlement 1799

In the fall of 1798 some 40 exiled French Royalists under the leadership of Joseph-Genevieve, Comte de Puisaye (1754-1827), emigrated from England to Upper Canada. The following year they were given rations and agricultural implements and settled along Yonge Street in the townships of Markham and Vaughan. However, these members of the nobility and their servants were unable to adapt themselves to a pioneer existence and by 1806 their settlement, known as Windham, was abandoned. De Puisaye lived for a time on an estate near Niagara, but returned to England in 1802. Erected by the Ontario Archaeological and Historic Sites Board.
The de Puisaye Settlement 1799 – Erected by the Ontario Archaeological & Historic Site Board at 12125 Yonge St. (positioned in front of St. John’s Anglican Church). – Richmond Hill Historical Society

Over 220 years ago, in 1798, a group of royalist exiles from revolutionary France arrived in Upper Canada and settled in what is now Richmond Hill. They were led by the Comte de Puisaye, a younger son of minor French nobility. De Puisaye, who fled to England during the French Revolution and subsequently led two unsuccessful military forays into France, was able to convince the British government to fund a plan to settle a group of French royalist officers in Upper Canada. Under this arrangement, this group of 41 settlers would receive the same land grants and assistance as the United Empire Loyalists who migrated to Canada following the American Revolution.

Portrait of the Comte de Puisaye in his later years.
Comte de Puisaye (in his later years). – Richmond Hill Historical Society

While some colonial officials were skeptical that these new high-born arrivals would be suited to the hardships of pioneer life, they nevertheless received Crown grants along both sides of Yonge Street between Elgin Mills and Stouffville roads, along with transportation, tools, and rations. Their arrival at their new holdings coincided with winter in late 1798, and the settlers, along with their servants, began the job of building cabins and clearing land under less than ideal conditions.

When spring arrived in the new settlement, named Windham in honour of the British official who had facilitated their new venture, some progress had been made — a number of cabins had been built, enough land had been cleared to think about crops, and a church was being planned. Spring, however, also turned Yonge Street into a quagmire. Supplies were much delayed, and a number of servants chose to abandon the primitive settlement for better opportunities. Progress ground to a halt as 1799 wore on, and the royalist pioneers seemed to be losing interest in pursuing their future in the wilderness. Early skepticism about their ability to prosper in Upper Canada’s hinterland was borne out.

Within a year of their arrival, a number of settlers simply left Windham for larger centers in the colonies or returned to Europe. Ten years after the first royalists arrived to start their new lives, only two families remained. Michel Saigeon became a successful farmer in King Township and Laurent Quetton St. George prospered as a fur trader in York. The tenure of the French aristocrats in Richmond Hill was short-lived.

Jerry Smith: A Man in His Time

Originally published in the Richmond Hill Liberal (April 2019)
by Mary-Jane Celsie

A look back at Richmond Hill’s internationally renowned watch and clock maker by Mary-Jane Celsie

The cover to a book published about Jerry Smith in 1998 that was co-written by Mary Jane Celsie and Jerry Smith’s daughter Audrey Smith. – Courtesy of RHHS
The cover to a book published about Jerry Smith in 1998 that was co-written by Mary Jane Celsie and Jerry Smith’s daughter Audrey Smith. – Courtesy of RHHS

When Jerry Smith, Richmond Hill’s internationally renowned watch and clock maker, died in January of 1953, the Liberal paid tribute in these words:

“In the passing of Jerry Smith, the Village of Richmond Hill lost a distinguished citizen. In him were combined rich qualities of heart, and mind, and soul which made him unique and outstanding. More than 50 years in business in Richmond Hill he was a landmark of this village, and his integrity and workmanship brought honour and credit not only on himself and family but to the whole community.”

Jerry Smith was born at Edgeley, now part of the city of Vaughan; his great-grandfather had made the trek from Somerset County to York County in a Conestoga wagon in around 1799. Perhaps prophetically, a prized possession that made the trek with them was a large grandfather clock that remains a family heirloom to this day.

The young Jerry Smith was not interested in watchmaking as a boy. He wanted to be a telegraph operator, and even built a working telegraph key from household objects like an old lever watch plate and a door lock bolt at age 11. He worked with the Grand Trunk Railway for eight years. However, at age 24, he enrolled in the Canadian Horological Institute on King Street in Toronto — the foremost school for watchmakers in Canada — and graduated with a Diploma Grade A 1, one of only three students in Canada to achieve this level.

Jerry Smith’s shop and home in the building that remains in situ beside the Yonge Street entrance driveway to the McConaghy Centre now. It has had many changes made over the years. – Courtesy of RHHS
Jerry Smith’s shop and home in the building that remains in situ beside the Yonge Street entrance driveway to the McConaghy Centre now. It has had many changes made over the years. – Courtesy of RHHS

Jerry Smith set up shop in Richmond Hill in 1899, first in the Lorne Block on Yonge Street and shortly after that in the yellow frame house that still stands on Yonge St., directly south of McConaghy Centre. In 1900, he married Effie Hollingshead. The couple had 11 children: nine girls and two boys. He was a warm and involved father — his youngest daughter, Audrey Smith Koenig, recalled that he himself cut the girls’ hair, even singeing the ends with his butane lamp to prevent splitting.

Known for his precision — as well as his innovations in creating timepieces — Jerry Smith’s expertise was sought after by clients as far away as Quebec, British Columbia, England and even India. At the time of his death, he was recognized the world over for his skill and craftsmanship. It’s perhaps fitting that his last words were, “What time is it?”

— Mary-Jane Celsie is a member of the Richmond Hill Historical Society and the director of content with the Richmond Hill Central Library.

Susannah Maxwell: A Life Well Lived

This past February, Richmond Hill Public Library’s Local History and Genealogy Librarian Peter Wilson shared the story of Susannah Maxwell, one of Richmond Hill’s prominent historical figures with the Richmond Hill Liberal.

Susannah Maxwell, circa 1880s (courtesy of the Richmond Hill Public Library)

At the time of her death in February of 1923, she had reached the astounding age of 117 and only a month short of her next birthday. She was likely the oldest person in Canada at the time of her death, made even more remarkable by the life she led. Born to free black parents in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, she barely escaped being captured and sold into slavery after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. She and her family escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad, eventually settling in the Brick Tenement on Yonge Street across from St. Mary’s Anglican Church.


Lot 3 on Yonge Street (courtesy Richmond Hill Public Library)

While Susannah could earn what was known as a York Shilling, or about 12.5 cents per day in Richmond Hill, she could make as much as 50 cents per day 7 miles away in Markham. To support her family she would make the trek until she collapsed on her way home in a blizzard. She likely would have died if she had not been found by a dog who alerted others to her location. She eventually ran a laundry business out of her home with two of her daughters, Mary and Matilda, or Tillie as she was known. Mary died in 1899 and the Village Council agreed to pay for her funeral and grave in the Presbyterian Cemetery. Tillie died in 1920.

Susannah was an early orphan, and early widow and a mother who outlived all of her children.

Read the full story in the Richmond Hill Liberal. The story was also picked up by CityNEWS and was broadcast on February 28, 2019 and is viewable through their website.

The Richmond Hill Public Library has a number of items related to the story of Susannah Maxwell in the Mary-Lou Griffin Local History Room.