Biography by Patrick Monaghan
John Graves Simcoe (1752-1806) was a British cartographer, soldier, and lieutenant governor of Upper Canada from 1791 to 1796. Named after his godfather, Captain Samuel Graves, John Graves Simcoe often distinguished himself from his father, also named John, by using his middle name of Graves. The third son of Captain John Simcoe, Royal Navy, and Katherine Stamford Simcoe, John Graves Simcoe was the first to survive to adulthood. His father was a decorated naval officer, commanding both the frigate Prince Edward and later HMS Pembroke. Captain John Simcoe died in 1759 during the siege of Quebec from pneumonia and was buried off the coast of Anticosti in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.
After the death of his father, John Graves Simcoe and his family moved from near Chelsea to the city of Exeter in County Devon. During this time, Katherine Simcoe enrolled her son in the first of a series of educational institutions, which later included Eaton and Oxford. After completing his schooling, Simcoe enlisted in the British Army, being commissioned as an ensign in the 35th Regiment of Foot in April 1770. Eventually, Simcoe went with his regiment to the Americas in 1775, taking part in the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775. Shortly after Christmas in 1775, Simcoe purchased a captaincy of the grenadier company of the 40th Regiment of Foot, likely with the help of now Admiral Samuel Graves. Graves served with the 40th at Brandywine, where he was wounded in the fighting. During his recovery, General William Howe awarded command of the Queen’s Rangers to Simcoe with the provincial rank of major. During the winter, the regiment returned to its full complement, while also adding a company of cavalry and a company of Highlanders to their number. This period also saw the regiment impose a greater deal of discipline, with Simcoe cautioning his men against the atrocities that would cause the local populace to resent their presence.
Trained and with experience in warfare in the Americas, Simcoe was prepared for the type of light infantry fighting that defined the Rangers on campaign. In the spring of 1778, he commanded the Rangers in two significant victories over the Americans. On March 18, 1778, Simcoe and Charles Mawhood set a trap for American forces using a feigned retreat away from Quintin’s Bridge in New Jersey, allowing British forces to surround and batter the Americans; only the timely arrival of militia with artillery prevented the American force from being annihilated. Simcoe mapped this battle, showing the movement of the Americans from their defensive works across the Delaware River, and tracing their later path of flight. The Battle of Quinton’s Bridge later took its name from the key feature of the battle, and demonstrated both Simcoe’s cunning, as well as his cartographical skills.
Simcoe mapped another battle, just three days after the victory at Quintin’s Bridge. After threats of violence against civilians on both sides, the siege of Salem, New Jersey, appeared to be at a standstill. However, a map drawn by Simcoe showed the approach of the Queen’s Rangers on the opposite side of Alloway Creek and their general position surrounding the house. In the early hours of the morning of March 21, Simcoe and his company struck the American position, killing several inside, including Judge William Hancock and his brother. Although he had been assured that Judge Hancock no longer lived in the home, Simcoe’s attack created a great deal of fuel for American propaganda presses. Simcoe criticized his troops for adding another civilian death to the growing list of those caught in the middle of the warring forces.
While Simcoe regretted the death of Hancock, he continued to inflict atrocities during the war. In August 1778, the Queen’s Rangers slaughtered a company of Stockbridge Indians loyal to the American cause in what would become known as the Stockbridge Indian Massacre. Mapped by Simcoe, the battle shows both an understanding of light infantry tactics and a ruthless plan in which the ambush turned to slaughter.
The end of Simcoe’s military career was defined by both his personal bravery and powerlessness to reverse British losses. In early October 1781 while under the command of General Charles Cornwallis, Simcoe and his Rangers were encircled at Yorktown, where they were facing the triple threat of poor supply, limited cold weather clothing, and tightening Franco-American lines. Simcoe proposed a daring breakout attempt, in which he and his Rangers would ride mounted through enemy lines and try to escape into open territory. Later, he proposed utilizing abandoned boats built by Benedict Arnold to ferry some of the army from Virginia into Maryland. In both instances Cornwallis, despite his appreciation of Simcoe’s initiative, declined, stating that the British would all share the same fate. After the surrender of British forces to George Washington on October 19, 1781, the British sent the sloop Bonetta north to New York City with the sick on board. Cornwallis permitted Simcoe to join the ship after advice from army surgeons, as he was ill from prolonged exposure to the elements with limited supply and clothing.
In December 1781, after convalescing in New York, Simcoe returned to England with other officers. He continued his recovery in Devonshire with Admiral Samuel Graves and Graves’s second wife, Margaret Spinckles Graves. During this time, Simcoe met Elizabeth Posthuma Gwillim, whom he married in 1782.
Following the creation of Upper and Lower Canada in 1791, Simcoe was appointed as the lieutenant governor of Upper Canada in 1792. Simcoe was pivotal in the establishment of the capital of the new colony at Newark (today Niagara-on-the-Lake) and operated a competent administration from the city. During his tenure, Simcoe oversaw the passage of the Upper Canadian Act of 1793 Against Slavery, the first emancipatory legislation passed by the British Empire. In this act, no existing enslaved person in Upper Canada was freed but the further importation of enslaved individuals was banned, and all children born into slavery would be freed at age 25. In the early 1790s, when war looked likely between the United States and Great Britain again, Simcoe looked to move the capital of Upper Canada. Simcoe was granted approval to move the capital to York (today Toronto). Poor health plagued Simcoe for the rest of his career. As a result he resigned in 1796, when he was unable to return to Canada after a voyage back to England.
Simcoe returned to army life later that same year, fighting briefly in Saint-Domingue (today Haiti) against Toussaint Louverture. He was replaced after less than a year in command of British forces on the island. Despite this setback, Simcoe was promoted to Lieutenant General, and later made Commander-in-Chief to British India, replacing his former commander Cornwallis in 1806, after his death in October 1805. However, Simcoe never formally assumed command before his own death in Exeter in January 1806. While controversial in some modern depictions of the period, Simcoe's career is typically remembered as one of a competent soldier, industrious statesman, and lifelong scholar. In Toronto, he is memorialized for his efforts against slavery and other achievements with John Graves Simcoe Day, which is celebrated the first Monday in August.