Monday, March 5, 2012

Toronto's First Cat

Toronto when it was just a few days old

The cat arrived on a July morning in 1793. Toronto was just a few days old. It had only been a week and a half since one hundred British soldiers sailed into our harbour and came ashore at the mouth of a creek they would call the Garrison. That's the spot where they pitched their tents and started taking axes to trees. Enormous old oaks and pines crashed to earth as the men began to clear away the ancient forest that had been growing here since prehistoric times. In its place they would build Fort York – and a few kilometers to the east, the first few blocks of a new town. This was going to be the new capital of the new province of Upper Canada, away from the border and easily defensible – ready for the inevitable war with the Americans.

It was in the early morning of their eleventh day clearing trees that a great big British ship sailed into the harbour. This was the HMS Mississauga. On board was the man who had sent them here: John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant Governor of the new province. He had sailed overnight from Niagara-on-the-Lake (the temporary capital) to oversee the construction of what he hoped would some day become a thriving metropolis, a testament to the glory of the British Empire. And he brought his family with him.

The next evening, he and his wife Elizabeth found a spot across the creek from the fort to pitch their own tent. It was an elaborate canvas house with two rooms, doors, wallpaper, windows and floors – even a stove to keep it warm. This was the very same tent that had once been used by one of the most super-important and famous European explorers ever. Captain James Cook had lived in it on his travels around the Pacific Ocean, right up until he "discovered" Hawaii, tried to take the indigenous king hostage, and was killed.

Now, in the forest of Toronto, the tent was home to the ruler of Upper Canada, his wife, and three of their children. They'd left the older ones behind in England, but brought their toddlers – Sophia and Francis – with them. Their youngest daughter, Katherine, was a brand new baby girl: she'd been born just a few months earlier in that very same tent.

She wasn't the only new addition to the family, either. At Niagara-on-the-Lake the Simcoes had gotten three pets: two dogs (who I'll talk about in another post) and a cat. And since they'd all come along for the trip to Toronto, (assuming none of the soldiers brought a cat along with him) this cat was the very first house cat to ever set paw on this land. Elizabeth Simcoe wrote a paragraph about him in her diary, just a few weeks after they arrived:

"I brought a favourite white Cat with grey spots with me from Niagara. He is a native of Kingston. His sense & attachment are such that those who believe in transmigration would think his soul once animated a reasoning being. He was undaunted on board the Ship, sits composedly as Centinel at my door amid the beat of Drums & the crash of falling Trees & visits the Tents with as little fear as a dog would do."

Toronto's first cat was a badass.


That painting was done by Elizabeth Simcoe herself about ten days after they arrived. It's looking west from what's now the Port Lands. You can see the tiny little white specks of the first huts at Fort York and the tall masts of the ships that brought the Simcoes and the others here. 

Katherine, sadly, didn't live a very long life. The baby got sick in the spring and died. She was one of the first people buried in a cemetery that's still there, kind of, preserved as park called Victoria Square just southeast of King and Bathurst. You can read more about her and the other people buried there here.

You can read more about the canvas house from the Captain Cook Society here

As for wild cats, the internet is being weirdly unhelpful on this, but I suspect there would have been some prowling those woods in the days before our city was founded: bobcats and lynx and maybe even mountain lions.

Interestingly, the canvas house wasn't only the connection between James Cook and our Lieutenant Governor. Cook had served under Simcoe's dad on a ship called the Pembroke, which is how he learned how to be a great big important ship captain guy.

This post is related to dream
01 Metropolitan York
John Graves Simcoe, 1793


  1. Seriously, what did this article really and truly have to do with the cat?

    1. Oh hush. Adam's article's are usually a jumping point from which to discuss the broader history of our fair city. Personally I like that he uses the cat as a touchstone. How much do you think the first real settlers here wrote about their cats?

  2. Pumas (mountain lions as they are called in non-mountainous areas) have been reintroduced into southern Ontario; they are still extant in northern Ontario. I saw one from the VIA train between Brantford and Aldershot about two years ago. It did not have the extremely pointy ears - though the ears were pointed - or bob tail of a lynx and was about the size of a Labrador retriever. Not sure what the farmers think of reintroducing a predator into a range where it had been extirpated, but then I suspect they were not consulted.
    But for the entry in Elizabeth Simcoe's memoir, there would be no other way of ascertaining when the first cat arrived in Toronto. A minor point of history to some, but of interest to others.

  3. Painted a great picture of a moment in time. Thanks.