By Paul Willoughby, President of the York Pioneer and Historical Society
On early maps of Canada the area we know as Etobicoke is shown as an insignificant part of a vast forest covered tract of land known as 'Indian Hunting Grounds'. The river flowing along its eastern boundary appears on Champlain maps as early as 1632. Originally called The Toronto River, it was renamed Humber by John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada.
The east bank of the Humber river, near its mouth, gave access to the Toronto Carrying Place, a 28 mile Indian foot path as old as human life in North America. Etienne Brulé, a young French protégé of Champlain, who traversed The Toronto Carrying Place in the early 1600's was probably the first white man to set foot in Etobicoke. Rene-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de la Salle, the great pathfinder in the New World, passed over The Toronto Carrying Place at least four times and often sheltered his boats in the Humber.
The first white settler in the area was Jean Baptiste Rosseau, a French trader. He was trading at the mouth of the Humber by 1791 and had a log home at the foot of The Carrying Place by 1798.
After the defeat of the French of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, the area came under British rule. On December 26, 1791 the British Parliament passed The Canada Act, providing for the establishment of Upper and Lower Canada, each with an Executive Council and Elected Assembly. Colonel John Graves Simcoe, a veteran of the American War of Independence was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. He soon recruited a new corps of Queen's Rangers, of which he had been a commander, for the colonization and defence of the Province. The corps was made up of half-pay officers and skilled artisans such as carpenters and blacksmiths. In 1793 Simcoe chose the site of Toronto, which he called York, as his capital.
In the fall of 1793 the Lieutenant Governor established on the west side of the Humber River the King's Saw Mill which has been recognized as Etobicoke's first industry. The location of this historic mill was a little south of the site of the Old Mill, the present ruins of William Gambles Stone Grist Mill.
In 1794 a road was surveyed west of York across Etobicoke. Built between 1795 and 1798, it parallelled an old Indian trail from the King's Saw Mill west to Etobicoke Creek. Almost a decade later this original Dundas Street was moved north to its present location.
In 1787 Lord Dorchester, the first Governor General of Canada executed the Toronto Purchase with the Mississauga Indians. This involved all the land from the Scarborough Bluffs to Etobicoke Creek and northerly for 28 miles. This encompassed all of present day Etobicoke. There was a dispute over whether the Humber River or Etobicoke Creek was the western boundary of the Toronto Purchase. Finally the Indians allowed Surveyor Alexander Atkins to survey as far west as Etobicoke Creek but insisted that the river be the eastern boundary. The government paid the Indians 10 Shillings to settle the dispute over ownership of the land from the Humber to Etobicoke Creek. All of this gives rise to the story that Etobicoke was once sold for 10 Shillings.
The Canada Act of 1791 allowed for the establishment of counties, towns and townships. York County was one of 19 counties. The area in the south-west corner of York County was surveyed into a Township. The boundaries were the Humber River, Lake Ontario, Etobicoke Creek, Toronto Township, the Gore of Toronto, and Vaughan Township. The area covered approximately 44 square miles. It had many names, the original "Wah-do-ge-kaug' being Ojibway for "Where the Black Alders Grow". Several interpretations of this were used including 'Ato-be-cooke' A-doo-be-keg, and Toby Creek'. Finally in 1795 Simcoe gave his blessing to the name Etobicoke.
In 1805 a census showed 84 persons residing in the Township. By the second census in 1809 this had risen to 137.
In 1793 the militia lands comprising 4,150 acres were laid out in Etobicoke. Of this number 1,530 acres were granted to Samuel Bois Smith, Major in Command of the Second Corps of the Queen's Rangers. Smith was a veteran of the Revolutionary War. This tract of land encompassed all the lake frontage from the Centre Road (Kipling Avenue) to the Etobicoke Creek and all the land along the east band almost to what is now Bloor Street. Samuel Bois Smith and Jane Isabella Gamble, daughter of Dr. John Gamble, Surgeon of the Queen's Rangers, were married in 1799. They built a substantial home south of the Lakeshore Road which although greatly altered over the years remained until 1955. This large almost undeveloped tract of land proved itself to be a hindrance in the early development of the Township.
The Lakeshore Road was first opened through the Township in 1804 but because of the few settlers and the large land grants, was poorly maintained.
Also around 1795 Simcoe granted land to half-pay officers and government officials. These 200 acre parcels were located along the lake and further north in the Township. Many of these people did not settle on the land so development was slow. Many soon sold this land. Some United Empire Loyalists came to Canada as well as some American citizens who came as a result of the promise of free land. This ended with the War of 1812. After the War of 1812 with the United States, discharged soldiers once again came to Etobicoke receiving their grants of land.
The Army Bill Act of 1812 enabled paper money to circulate in the province. This was needed for the payment of taxes. An 1821 memorandum shows taxes in Etobicoke were: 4 cents per annum per acre of usable land; 1 cent per acre of bushland; 32 cents for a horse; 16 cents for an ox; and 4 cents per head of livestock. A tax of 42 cents was levied on a vehicle kept for pleasure. Buildings were taxed based on the number of fireplaces and windows.
The early 1820's saw Britain experiencing very high unemployment. Within the first half of the the 19th Century, eight million people left Britain for Canada. Newcomers to Etobicoke who were entitled to grants of land from the Crown were given 'Tickets of Location' which authorized them to seek out and take possession of the land allocated to them. A Crown Deed was granted only after prescribed settlement duties had been performed. Being a small township the few land grants were soon taken up and many people had to buy their lands.
As early as 1806 William Cooper built grist and saw mills on the west side of the Humber just below Dundas Street. Settlers in Etobicoke on the west side soon began petitioning for a bridge over the Humber to reach these mills. The Dundas Street bridge was finally built in 1816.
The Silverthorn Family who were United Empire Loyalists came to Etobicoke just after the 1805 census and settled on the west side of the Township. They built large saw and grist mills on the east side of the upper reaches of Etobicoke Creek in 1807. They laid out a road from Dundas Street to Burnhamthorpe Road providing easy access to the mills. The old throughfare is still called Mill Road.
At first all local authorities was in the hands of the Justices of the Peace for each of Upper Canada's four judicial districts. Etobicoke was located in the Home District. In 1841, with the passage of the District Council Act, ratepayers were able to elect members of council. The Warden and Treasurer were still appointed by the Governor-in-Council. The Baldwin or Municipal Corporations Act of 1849 increased the authority of municipal councils making all positions elected. Etobiocke Township was divided into five wards and the first elections were held. The first council meeting was held at noon on Monday,January 21,1850. From this time on Etobicoke started to grow more rapidly.
At one time the Township of Etobicoke contained 18 communities ranging from small crossroads to villages and towns. Mimico, New Toronto, Long Branch, Humber Bay, Alderwood, The Queensway, Lambton Mills, Kingsway Park, Sunny Lea, Islington, Summerville, Eatonville, Richview, Westmount, Highfield, Thistletown, Smithfield & Claireville. As the township grew other communities evolved such as Rexdale and Markland Wood. In 1953 the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto was formed (which included the Township of Etobicoke to the west and Scarborough to the east with York, North York, East York and Toronto in between.) In 1967 all the small communities which were previously separate within the Township of Etobicoke were amalgamated to form the Borough of Etobicoke within Metropolitan Toronto. In June 1983, the Borough of Etobicoke became a city. The present population is 329,000 people.