The Miles Family and Miles' Hill
In 1800 Abner Miles had moved his home, his family, and his businesses north from the town of York to land he owned at the corner of Yonge Street and Major Mackenzie Drive. For Miles himself, the move seemed to signify a change of pace from the busy life of a York merchant and tavernkeeper to the more tranquil existence of a country squire. For Richmond Hill, the move proved crucial: the Miles family and their businesses did much to establish a village nucleus at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Miles' early life remains a mystery. He was born about 1852, somewhere in Massachusetts, but we cannot pinpoint the exact date or location. Nothing is known of his education or early work. He may have "inclined to Quakerism," although "religion and politics were but secondary considerations" to this enterprising businessman. At some point he married a woman named Mercy, and together they had at least six children. Until his early forties, he signed his name Mihells or Mighells, suggesting perhaps Germanic family roots, before switching to the Anglicized name of Miles.1
By 1790, Abner and Mercy were living in the Genesee area of western New York, where Abner's combined general store, inn, and cobbling business served the first wave of settlers in that region. In June 1793, he petitioned Governor Simcoe for a land grant in Upper Canada, but was unsuccessful. Yet Miles was determined to settle north of Lake Ontario. In the spring of 1794, he wound up his business accounts in New York and attached himself to William Berczy's German settlers, who were moving from the Genesee country to Upper Canada.
Miles soon broke away from the Berczy group, however, and headed directly for Simcoe's new provincial capital at York. On August 26, he contracted to build a large log house in the town for Provincial Secretary William Jarvis. In November he purchased a house of his own, becoming one of the first residents of the new capital.
Abner Miles prospered during his few years in York. He worked as a contractor and lumber merchant, provided cartage services for the town, and invested in ships to import goods across Lake Ontario. He opened a general store on King Street, with a stock-in-trade of foodstuffs, liquor, clothing, tools, building supplies, and household goods - "everything every man wanted, from the Governor and his suite and the Garrison down to the newest arrival from the American Republic or from the Old Land." 2
By early 1796, Miles had expanded his King Street premises to include a public house serving food and drink and providing lodging for travellers. His tavern attracted a varied clientele - John Stooks and family put up there in June 1797 before travelling north to their land at Richmond Hill - and quickly became a focal point for auctions, dances, masonic dinners, and town meetings. Miles himself was named a constable by the Court of Quarter Sessions, chosen overseer of highways for the town, and appointed quartermaster for the York Militia.
Like many ambitious Upper Canada merchants, Miles speculated in land, and acquired upwards of two thousand acres (more than eight hundred hectares) in Markham,Vaughan, and Whitchurch townships. Perhaps Miles overextended himself, for through late 1799 and early 1800 his various business endeavours in York seem to have encountered rough times. 3 Whether motivated by financial difficulties or by the advantages awaiting an enterprising merchant north of town, Miles decided to move to his Yonge Street properties in 1800 - Lot 45 in Markham Township and lots 45 and 46 in Vaughan Township at Major Mackenzie Drive. On the southeast corner of Yonge and Major Mackenzie,Abner Miles built a new home for his family - wife, Mercy, son, James, and daughters Hannah,Lucy,Elizabeth,Sarah, and Mary.
While Miles meant to enjoy his later years as a country resident, he had no desire to retire from business and public affairs. In 1800, the same year that he moved north, Miles was elected tax assessor and tax collector for Markham,Vaughan,Whitchurch, and King townships. Soon he opened a store on Lot 45 East, carrying on the same trade that he had at Genesee and York. Across the road, on Lot 45 West, he operated a potash business, burning scrub brush and wood to produce raw ingredients for soap, candles, and other mainstays of pioneer homes.
Most important for the future development of Richmond Hill was the tavern Miles opened at the southeast corner of Yonge Street and Major Mackenzie Drive. It quickly became a favourite watering hole for Yonge Street travellers. "Stopp'd at Miles's and Dined," noted Ely Playter in his diary for November 1804. On another occasion, Playter "call'd at Mr. Miles & took Dinr." 4 Such was the beginning of the Richmond Hill hospitality industry that served the nineteenth-century traveller and proved so important in the town's development.
Still, it was the Miles children who confirmed Abner's status as the "father" of Richmond Hill. The marriages of his daughters Hannah Miles to James Playter,Lucy Miles to John Langstaff, and Elizabeth Miles to John Arnold marked the founding of three families who were to play important roles in the community's subsequent history. And Abner's twenty-six-year-old son, James Miles, inherited his father's lands and business activities.
James Miles built a substantial, two-storey, Georgian-style frame home for himself on the southwest corner of Yonge Street and Major Mackenzie Drive. There he lived with his aged mother, saw his sisters marry, remained a bachelor himself, became the grand old man of Miles' Hill, and over the years divided much of his father's vast landholdings among his siblings, nieces, and nephews.
Mary Gapper O'Brien, a well-to-do resident who lived south of the emerging hamlet, described a visit to James Miles' house in 1830. "We found him with dinner prepared in the kitchen, a large room with an immense fireplace, wooden walls and two tables," she wrote. "The place was under the conduct of a very deaf old lady who was, I believe, his mother. He is himself a tall man of fifty and dressed in a worn homespun frock coat with a pocket handkerchief bound round his head to relieve the pain of a headache. He received us in his usual composed and even manner." 5
Miles seems to have been well liked by all. Mary O'Brien called him "very good and civil" and "very respectable," and a local historian described him as "eminently fair in all his dealings, selling his produce at or below the current market price." 6 He maintained a public woodlot on the northwest corner of present-day Yonge and Arnold streets, where those in need could help themselves to a supply of firewood during the cold winter months.
Miles became affectionately known as "The Squire," a name reflecting his many-faceted role as community leader. He served as a lieutenant in the York Militia during the War of 1812, and was appointed a local magistrate and justice of the peace, performing marriage ceremonies in the absence of any ordained clergymen. The pioneer philanthropist donated parts of his land on the northwest corner of Yonge Street and Major Mackenzie Drive for a Presbyterian church,manse,cemetery, and public school. Sometime in 1811, Miles founded what may have been Upper Canada's first Sunday School, although classes begun that same year by Presbyterians in Gananoque usually receive the credit.
Sunday classes at Miles' Hill were held in a log settlement house on the west side of Yonge Street, just north of today's Presbyterian Church.Miles himself was teacher, dispensing a modicum of book learning to those children who showed up by choice or coercion each Sunday. He used the Bible as his principal textbook and disciplinary weapon - both spiritually and physically. To every pupil who could recite the Sermon on the Mount and the Gospel of St. John, chapters 14 and 15, Miles gave a New Testament and a pocket handkerchief as a gentle reminder that "cleanliness is next to Godliness." 7
Miles died in 1844, at age sixty-four, after catching a violent cold while returning home from Toronto on horseback. He was buried beside his father in the Presbyterian cemetery. His property on the southwest corner of Yonge and Major Mackenzie passed into the hands of his nephew, James Playter Jr., who farmed the land and ran a sawmill on the stream west of the house. This was the property bought by David Boyle in the early 1860s and renamed Braeside - the area that later yielded evidence of a Late Iroquoian Indian village.
1. Dictionary of Canadian Biography,vol. 5(Toronto:University of Toronto Press,1966- ),pp. 596-98; William Harrison,"Richmond Hill and Vicinity, Number 6," Local History Collection, Richmond Hill Public Library.
Copyright © Richmond Hill Public Library Board, 1991