Pioneers on Bayview Avenue and Leslie Street
Richmond Hill's early European settlement was not confined to Yonge Street. By late 1794 present-day Bayview Avenue and Leslie Street were also welcoming newcomers - William Berczy'sGerman-speaking settlers who had been promised land in return for working on the construction of Yonge Street.
Surveyor Abraham Iredell was only then completing his initial partial survey of Markham Township, the municipality stretching east from Yonge Street, and named for William Markham, Archbishop of York (England), who was a friend of the Simcoes. Behind Yonge Street, the township was divided into concessions running north from today's Highway 7 to Bloomington Road, each concession consisting of five two-hundred-acre (eighty-hectare) lots. Unlike the arrangement on Yonge Street, but in conformity with most of Upper Canada, two of every seven lots were set aside for special purposes - one as a clergy reserve to support a Protestant clergy in the colony and the second as a Crown reserve for the government's future use.
Iredell was able to settle Berczy's people on their lands by mid-November. They would be the first European inhabitants along the second and third concessions, today's Bayview Avenue and Leslie Street in the southeastern part of Richmond Hill, and along the fourth, fifth, and sixth concessions farther east in Markham.
The Berczy settlement impressed John Ogden, a traveller from New York who passed through Upper Canada in the autumn of 1794, as "an excellent tract of land, much of which is open white-oak woods." The settlers had been "furnished with everything to make their situation comfortable and enable them to improve their land to advantage," continued Ogden, "and no doubt in a short time will make a fine settlement." 11
Reality proved much more difficult than Ogden could have guessed. Most of the Berczy settlers spent the winter of 1794-95 in miserable conditions. They found themselves in the midst of the Upper Canadian wilderness, too late to profit from the 1794 crop year, dependent on government and company supplies to get them through the cold winter months. They begrudged the time they had to spend working on the construction of Yonge Street. Many probably regretted leaving comfortable homes in Europe and Pennsylvania.
Conditions did not quickly improve. Crop failures of 1795 and 1796 brought the spectre of starvation and drove many of the settlers to York in search of food. Peter Buckendahl of Lot 18 on the second concession died of exposure while trudging into the capital; his dog returned home and took the family to his body. 12 Five other heads of families died within the first eighteen months. About a third of the Berczy people moved back to Niagara and spent several years there.
The German Land Company of New York had spent a large sum of money equipping the settlers and provisioning them for two years. But in 1795 it held no documents from the Upper Canadian government as evidence of its title to the lands. Berczy was finally informed in 1796 that deeds would not be issued to himself, his associates, or the settlers because they were unnaturalized aliens. Berczy's American backers withdrew their support and no further money could be obtained from any other source. Berczy himself left the colony. The homesteaders were alone in the Markham bush.
Yet within a short period of time, the Berczy settlement "served as a signpost" to direct other settlers of German origin to Markham Township.13 In the late 1790s and through the early years of the 1800s, they migrated north from New York and New Jersey, and especially from Pennsylvania. Some left their homes for personal or family reasons, some were disillusioned with the new American republic, others were simply attracted by Upper Canada's free or inexpensive land. Some were recent arrivals to North America and spoke only German, while others had lived in the New World long enough to become bilingual. All were newcomers to Upper Canada. 14
The Berczy settlers and later German Americans who persevered along the second and third concessions formed the pioneer core of the southeastern part of present-day Richmond Hill. Among them, according to Berczy's "Settlement Report of 1798," they occupied lots 16 to 20 on the second concession - the block of land bordered by 16th Avenue on the south, Bayview Avenue on the west, Major Mackenzie Drive on the north, and Leslie Street on the east:
No such list could remain unchanged for long during the period of rapid population movement that took place in much of North America at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In 1803, Berczy's "Census of Markham Settlers" shows the following names on the second concession:
Copyright © Richmond Hill Public Library Board, 1991