Two centuries of postal history trace York’s rise to Toronto

By Jesse Robitaille

This is the first story in a multi-part series exploring Toronto’s postal history from the formation of York in 1793 through the present day.

Now derided by some Canadians as the sarcastic “centre of the universe,” present-day Toronto served as the heart of the fledgeling Province of Upper Canada soon after its establishment in 1791.

Two years later, with Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) still serving as the British colony’s first capital, Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe made his first visit to the site of the “Toronto Purchase” (also known as Treaty 13).

First negotiated in 1787, revisited in 1805 and finally settled in 2010, the Toronto Purchase saw the local Indigenous community – the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation – surrender about 250,000 acres of land to the British crown. The deal was made in exchange for “149 barrels of goods and a small amount of cash” – £1,700 altogether – according to the 1986 book Toronto Observed. The goods included 2,000 gun flints, 120 mirrors, 24 brass kettles, 24 laced hats, a bale of flowered flannel and 96 gallons of rum.

While British officials surveyed the site in 1788, the government only began using the land after Simcoe’s first visit in May 1793. Two months later, he and his wife Elizabeth moved there permanently, and by August, he named the new settlement York.

Rejecting the area’s Indigenous name – “Tkaronto,” meaning “place where trees stand in the water” – Simcoe named the settlement after Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, who was King George III’s second son.

It wasn’t long before the new settlement “began booming,” said Zoé Delguste-Cincotta, curator of the Town of York Historical Society, which manages Toronto’s First Post Office (TFPO).

Plans for a capital in nearby London, also founded in 1793, fell through. Four years later, with a population of just 241, York was named the capital of Upper Canada. Its harbour off Lake Ontario and interior access via Yonge Street – first built in 1794 – would eventually make York “the centre of trade and commerce” in the colony, added Delguste-Cincotta.

“More and more people came to live in this once-isolated corner of the globe.”

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