The Road to Rebellion
Certainly all was not happy along Yonge Street in the late 1820s and early 1830s. The coming of such families as the Gappers,Smiths, and Boyds created an entirely new class of settler. They were British, they were well-to-do, they were Church of England, and they allied themselves with the colonial elite in York. They felt themselves superior to the original settlers, who were from less privileged backgrounds, who were mostly non-Conformists, who enjoyed little access to the York elite, and who - worst of all, in the eyes of the recent British immigrants - were considered "Americans." The "happy myth of frontier democracy and equality" so beloved by the first wave of settlers was "fast disappearing with the advance of civilization on Yonge Street."13 Differences between these two groups helped divide Richmond Hill's population along political lines into parties identified as Tory and Reform, and led ultimately to the 1837 Rebellion.
Mary Gapper, the visitor-who-came-to-stay, easily assumed the Tory views of her brothers and of Edward O'Brien, the neighbour she married. As half-pay veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, local militia officers, justices of the peace, and staunch Church of England supporters, the O'Briensand the Gappers preferred to work through official channels to bring about the improvements they felt were needed in their Yonge Street district. With many friends among York's leading citizens, they naturally allied themselves with the province's closely knit political establishment - known to its enemies as the Family Compact.
"The new governor is said to be making himself very popular," Mary wrote of Sir John Colborne in November 1828. "He is ashamed of the state of the roads and I hope he will forward some arrangement for mending them." Meanwhile, she found the new Reform-dominated Legislative Assembly "very radical, and stupidly so," in setting itself up in opposition to Lieutenant-Governor Colborne and his way of bringing about improvements. 14
Even after spending more than a full year at her brother's place, Mary still refused to take radical leader William Lyon Mackenzie seriously. "Our Yankee member seems to be disregarded," she wrote as the Assembly opened a new session in January 1830. "There are good hopes that things will go better than the last time." Mackenzie, of course, was playing an extremely important role in the Assembly, introducing several important measures, chairing a committee of inquiry into financial matters, and quickly emerging as the leading Radical reformer. 16
The Gappers and the O'Briens- now united by the marriage of Mary and Edward - grew ever more hostile to Mackenzie through the year 1830. Much of the animosity was personal, as Mackenzie challenged the right of Richard Gapper and Edward O'Brien to serve as directors of the newly founded Home District Agricultural Society. In any event, they sought to unseat Mackenzie in the forthcoming October provincial election and began campaigning for Benjamin Thorne, the mill owner who gave his name to the Thornhill community to the south.
Edward O'Brien dedicated himself to some hard campaigning. By late September, Mary found her husband "a good deal occupied in a way which I cannot assist, tho' I sincerely wish him success, canvassing for Mr. Thorne, so that when he goes out I never know when to expect him again. Sometimes he comes home to dine at eight, and sometimes sets out at six or seven in the morning that he may be able to redeem his pledge to Mr. Thorne without neglecting his own affairs." 17
When a vote was finally taken, O'Brien declared the results a tie between the two slates, while the meeting's secretary (a Reformer) counted a majority for the Reform candidates. Such was a typical Richmond Hill political meeting in the years preceding the 1837 Rebellion. The gathering broke up in confusion, and the two sides subsequently held separate nomination meetings.
While the October 18 election gave the Tories an overall majority in the Legislative Assembly, Mackenzie and Ketchum won re-election as Reform members for York. Again in 1834 and 1836, following a redistribution of seats, three of York County's four one-member ridings elected Reformers. Those three ridings included parts of present-day Richmond Hill: the First Riding (Vaughan and King townships) elected David Gibson; the Third Riding (Markham Township) chose Thomas David Morrison; while the Fourth Riding (Whitchurch Township) returned John McIntosh.
Despite such successes at the local level, Reformers remained frustrated in their attempt to bring fundamental change to the province. They were unable to control arbitrary actions of the lieutenant-governor and his appointed Executive Council. They opposed Church of England control of the clergy reserves, which included large, undeveloped blocks of land along today's Bayview Avenue and Leslie Street. They protested the close links between government and business that resulted in money being diverted from local road improvements to grandiose canal schemes.
It was probably late summer or early autumn of 1837 that Mackenzie decided to incite rebellion, although the precise date cannot be determined. 19 With troops withdrawn from Upper Canada to help suppress the Lower Canada Rebellion, the task appeared quite simple. Toronto workers would seize the lieutenant-governor and secure several thousand muskets stored at the city hall. Then the successful rebels would only have to wait for their friends and supporters among York County farmers to march down Yonge Street and arrive in the city.
Mackenzie travelled up Yonge Street in mid-November to look for proof of support and convince key men that a rising was both possible and necessary. On Friday, December 1, he penned his appeal to Upper Canadians to take up arms. On Saturday he addressed a meeting at Stouffville, calling on his audience to rise up and overthrow the government. Sunday he rode back towards Toronto and spent the night at David Gibson's home in York Township. Meanwhile, to forestall a government crackdown on rebel activities, Mackenzie's cohorts advanced the date of the rising from Thursday, December 7, to Monday, December 4. For better or worse, the rising was about to begin.
Early Monday morning, men began to march. Groups left Holland Landing,Sharon, and Lloydtown between eight and nine o'clock, with more to follow from East Gwillimbury and other northern areas. Along the way, supporters were picked up in the various townships through which the groups passed. The men coming down Yonge Street through Richmond Hill broke into smaller groups and hid their arms in wagons to prevent discovery. 20 The designated meeting place was Montgomery's Tavern on Yonge Street, north of present-day Eglinton Avenue.
Copyright © Richmond Hill Public Library Board, 1991