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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Toronto’s founding dog — and how he almost got eaten

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It was the summer of 1793. The summer our city was founded. On an early Tuesday morning, as the late July sun rose above Lake Ontario, a British warship sailed into Toronto Bay. She was the HMS Mississauga. She had sailed overnight from Niagara, arriving in darkness, waiting for dawn and a local fur trader to show her the way through the treacherous shoals at the mouth of the harbour. On board was the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada: John Graves Simcoe. His family was with him, too. The Simcoes had come to found a new capital for the new province: a tiny muddy town that would eventually grow into a booming metropolis of concrete and glass filled with millions of people.

The Simcoes weren’t alone. They had brought their pets with them. There was a white cat with grey spots and a big friendly beast of a dog. He was a Newfoundland. His name was Jack Sharp.

Newfoundlands are a Canadian dog. By the time Jack Sharp was born, his breed had already been living on the island of Newfoundland for centuries. They’ve been there so long that no one is entirely sure where they came from — how they were first bred or evolved. Some people like to say they’re descended from the big black bear dogs the Vikings brought with them across the Atlantic a thousand years ago. Others say their ancestors were the wild wolves of Newfoundland, or the domesticated hunting dogs of the local First Nations people. But most seem to think they were probably bred by the first European fishermen to come to Canada — sailors from the Basque Country and from Portugal who spent their summers fishing the waters off the coast of Newfoundland in the very early 1500s. However it happened, by the time the first colonists made the island their permanent home, the Newfoundland dog was solidly established as its own distinct breed.

They were perfect for life on the frontier. Big and strong and brave. Smart and loyal. They have webbed feet and a thick, waterproof coat, so they’re fantastic swimmers. Just like their cousins the St. Bernards, they’re famous for rescuing people. When the first European explorers headed west toward the Pacific, Newfoundlands were at their side — one travelled with the famous British-Canadian map-maker David Thompson; another with the Americans Lewis and Clark. The dogs became a familiar sight for Canadian pioneers.

Jack Sharp was one of those frontier dogs. He lived in Niagara-on-the-Lake back in the days when it was still a new settlement — so new it didn’t even have a church yet; an isolated outpost at the spot where the Niagara River meets Lake Ontario. It was called Newark back then, a tiny town with a tiny population. But for a few brief years, it was the centre of political power in Upper Canada: the brand new capital of the brand new province, which had recently been created as a safe haven for Loyalist refugees in the wake of the American Revolution.

The first Governor of the new province arrived at Niagara in the summer of 1792. It took John Graves Simcoe and his family nearly a year to make the long trip from England all the way out to the edge of the Canadian frontier. They spent two months sailing across the Atlantic, an entire winter stuck in Quebec City, and another two months travelling up the St. Lawrence and across Lake Ontario.

Back home in England, they’d enjoyed life on a sprawling country estate with a legion of servants to take care of them. At Niagara, life was much more rustic. They pitched a pair of elaborate tents on the banks of the river — the same canvas houses once used by the legendary explorer Captain Cook on his famous travels through the Pacific. The Simcoes still had plenty of help and lots of nice things, but life in Canada was much more difficult than it had been back home. The Governor’s wife, Elizabeth, even suffered from a bout of malaria.

Still, the Simcoes did all they could to bring their British way of life to Upper Canada — that was, in fact, part of their mission. While the Governor busied himself running his new province, Elizabeth kept a detailed diary, painted watercolours, did needlework and entertained the most powerful Upper Canadian families. Her calendar was filled with social events: dinners, dances, balls and card games with people like the Jarvises, the Russells and Chief Justice Osgoode. Even Prince Edward, the future father of Queen Victoria, came all the way to Niagara for an official state visit. And there were visits from important First Nations allies, too, like the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant, Thayendanegea.

Elizabeth also had a family to run. The Simcoes had brought their youngest children with them to Canada: Sophia was in her terrible twos; Francis had just turned one. Even with a pair of nurses to help, the toddlers were more than a handful. And Elizabeth was pregnant yet again. That winter in the canvas house, she gave birth to a baby girl they named Katherine.

Even on the frontier, the Simcoe children would grow up with plenty of pets. Once they got to Upper Canada, the Simcoes had been given a white cat with grey spots and a hound called Trojan. Trojan was a gift for the kids, but it was Elizabeth Simcoe that he loved best. He even slept in her room inside the canvas house at night. And soon, there was another new addition to the menagerie. Jack Sharp had been the sheriff’s dog. But when the Simcoes arrived, the big Newfoundland quickly fell in love with them. Before long, he had managed to adopt them as his own, joining their growing family.

Elizabeth wrote about the animals in her diary — and about the mischief they caused. When Jack Sharp joined Governor Simcoe on a long trip to Detroit, the big dog faced off against a raccoon and then attacked a porcupine and earned a neck full of quills. When Elizabeth left Trojan alone in her tent with a map she’d painstakingly drawn, the hound tore it to pieces. (Governor Simcoe, who fancied himself something of a poet, even wrote some verses to mark the occasion: “Upon the Dog Trojan tearing the Map of N. America.”)

Sadly, Trojan wouldn’t live to see Toronto. He met a tragic end in the spring of 1793 — on a strangely hot day in early April. The heat was sweltering, recorded as high as 45°C. It was so hot that Trojan fell ill. When one of Simcoe’s soldiers saw the symptoms, he made a terrible mistake: he thought Trojan had contracted rabies. He hadn’t — if he had, he would have been scared of the water and wouldn’t have waded out into the river to cool off like he did. But the soldier didn’t know any better: he shot the dog dead.So that summer, when the Simcoe family left Niagara, it was only their cat and Jack Sharp who came with them.

They left because Niagara wasn’t going to be safe anymore. Soon, the Americans would be taking over the other side of the river; it was one of the peace terms negotiated in the wake of the Revolution. The big guns of Fort Niagara were over there — just across the mouth of the river from Niagara-on-the-Lake. The tiny capital would be almost impossible to defend if the Americans decided to invade. And it seemed inevitable they would. Simcoe needed to find a new capital. Fast.

The spot he eventually picked was directly north across the lake from Niagara: a place called Toronto. There, a natural harbour had been formed by a long sandbar that would eventually become the Toronto islands. There was only one way into the bay, so it would be relatively easy to defend against an attack. That’s where Simcoe would build his new capital.

In the middle of July, the Governor sent a hundred soldiers across the lake to begin work. They were the Queen’s Rangers; some of them, the very same men Simcoe had commanded while fighting against the American rebels during the Revolution. At Toronto, his troops would build on land the British had “bought” from the Mississaugas years earlier (with a document so sketchy the Canadian government would eventually settle a land claim for $145 million). Simcoe’s men made camp at a spot near the entrance to the harbour, at the mouth of what would become known as Garrison Creek. There, they got to work felling trees, hacking away at the ancient forest that towered over the shore. Great pines and oaks came crashing to the ground. In their place, a military base began to take shape: Fort York. It was the beginning a brand new town. Simcoe would call it York; we call it Toronto.

Back at Niagara, the Simcoes were getting ready to follow the Queen’s Rangers across the lake. The Governor had just finished overseeing a session of the Upper Canadian legislature — one of the most important parliamentary sessions in Canadian history. Simcoe wanted to abolish slavery; the elected assembly balked. Slave-owning families like the Jarvises and the Russells were planning to bring their slaves with them to the new capital. Simcoe convinced them to accept a comprise: they could keep the slaves they already owned, but no new slaves could enter the province and the children of slaves would be freed when they reached the age of 25. The Act Against Slavery was the first law to abolish slavery in the history of the British Empire.

It was at the very end of that same month — on July 29th — that the Simcoes left Niagara. That night, the family and their pets climbed aboard the HMS Mississauga. She was a big warship: an armed schooner. An impressive way to travel — for a human or a dog.

As the Simcoes slept, the warship sailed north across the lake. Early the next morning, she made her careful way into Toronto Bay.

It was the middle of the afternoon by the time the Governor and his wife went ashore for the first time. And when they did, they brought the dog with them.

Jack Sharp was far from the first canine to ever set paw on this land. Wolves and foxes roamed the woods around Toronto. And domesticated dogs had been here as long as humans had. The people of the First Nations and their ancestors had been hunting with them on the northern shore of Lake Ontario for thousands and thousands of years before our city was founded. As the Wendat-Huron historian George Sioui points out, dogs played an important role in the spiritual life of his own nation. The first racist French missionaries — anxious to paint the First Nations as “uncivilized” — claimed those dogs were only being raised for their meat. “Like sheep,” they said. But in fact, dog meat was only consumed during important ritual ceremonies, and the people shared a close bond with their canine companions. The Wendat had long said that souls travel a path through the stars when they die: humans along the Milky Way and their dogs along a celestial dog path right next to them. In more recent years, as the first Europeans arrived, other dogs must have visited Toronto. Many of the explorers, fur traders and early settlers who passed through the area probably had dogs with them, too.

So Jack Sharp wasn’t Toronto’s first dog. Not by a long shot. But he was our city’s founding dog: the canine member of the first family to establish the town that would grow into our modern metropolis.

A few days after they arrived, the Simcoes pitched their canvas houses just across the creek from Fort York, where they could watch as the Queen’s Rangers hammered and sawed away. That’s when they brought the children ashore, along with the nurses and servants. By the end of the first week of August, the entire family, including Jack Sharp, was living in the fancy tents at the mouth of Garrison Creek. In the months to come, the town itself would begin to take shape: the first ten blocks were carved out of the woods where the St. Lawrence Market neighbourhoood is now. From George Street over to Berkeley; from Front Street up to Adelaide.

It’s easy to imagine what life in Toronto must have been like for Jack Sharp. Splashing in the shallows of the harbour as waterfowl scattered into the sky. Playing with the Simcoe children on the beach. Racing through the old forest, chasing chipmunks, rabbits and squirrels.

But for the humans, life on shore at Toronto was even harder than life at Niagara had been. There, at least, the settlers enjoyed an established town. Here, the town was still being built. Many of the province’s other most powerful families were shocked by the Simcoes’ living conditions. As Peter Russell wrote to his sister, “you have no conception of the Misery in which they live…” The other leading political families dragged their feet, staying at Niagara as long as they could before following the Simcoes across the lake.

The First Family of Upper Canada suffered through an entire winter at Toronto. But the most terrible moment of the Simcoes’ time in Canada came the following spring. Katherine Simcoe had been a very healthy baby; she was more than a year old now, beginning to walk and to talk, old enough to start playing with the cat and Jack Sharp. But in April she suddenly fell very ill. It may have been malaria or some other similar disease. A fever turned into a terrifying night of uncontrollable spasms. By morning, she was gone. She was buried in a new cemetery near the fort; today, it’s a park we call Victoria Memorial Square, just a bit south-east of Bathurst & King.

For the Simcoes, death was never far away. The previous fall, Jack Sharp had had his own brush with mortality. And Governor Simcoe, too.

It came during a long trip north. Simcoe wanted to find the best route from Toronto all the way up to Lake Huron. Easy movement through the province would be vital in case of an American invasion. And that was seeming ever-more imminent: the British were now at war with France, the Americans’ allies, caught up in the violence that engulfed Europe in the wake the French Revolution. Simcoe was worried the trouble would spread across the Atlantic — which it soon would with the War of 1812. The Simcoes’ peaceful life at Toronto felt precarious. Enemy ships might sail over the horizon at any moment; enemy troops might emerge from the woods. As she slept in her canvas house at night, Elizabeth had nightmares about it. In fact, when the Simcoes finally sailed home to England, French warships would be waiting to chase them out of the mouth of the St. Lawrence. Both John Graves Simcoe and his son Francis would eventually die in the fight against Napoleon.

So that September, Simcoe and his men headed north with the help of Ojibway guides. Jack Sharp went with them, too. They travelled up a portage route called the Toronto Carrying-Place. The big dog made for something of an awkward passenger in a canoe, but they made quick progress up the Humber River, through the marshlands far to the north of Toronto, and then along the Holland River to a lake the French called Lac aux Claies.

When they arrived, Simcoe renamed the lake, like he was renaming just about everything he found in Upper Canada. He called it “Lake Simcoe” — not after himself, but after his father, who had died in Canada during the last war against the French, just a few months before the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.

There, Simcoe found his route north. It wouldn’t be hard to get from Lake Simcoe to Lake Huron — and to make things even easier, he would have a road built north from Toronto toward the Holland River. He named the road after a friend, the British Secretary at War: Sir George Yonge.

But getting home now — with Yonge Street still just a dream — would prove to be an unexpectedly perilous challenge.

As Simcoe, his men, his dog and the Ojibway guides all headed back south toward Toronto, their luck began to turn against them. One man had nearly severed a toe and couldn’t walk anymore; others would fall ill. The party was forced to split up. The group Simcoe was with only had enough food for one day, but had a five-day journey ahead of them. From there, things quickly got worse. They were taking a different route home than the one they’d taken north: this time, they were heading along the eastern fork of the Toronto Carrying-Place portage route, which headed south down the Rouge River. They got lost along the way, stumbling through the woods for days on end, never quite sure where they were. Meanwhile, their rations were growing dangerous low. If they didn’t find home soon, they would starve.

Things were getting desperate. So a plan took shape. If they didn’t find Toronto that day, they would have no choice. They would kill Jack Sharp. And then eat him.

The Newfoundland was spared just in the nick of time. First, the men came across a surveyor’s line. It was a good sign. And then, through the trees they spotted it: Lake Ontario. They finally knew where they were: just a few kilometers from the tiny new Upper Canadian capital. They were ecstatic. That morning, they wolfed down the rest of their food for breakfast and then finally headed west toward home.

The founder of Toronto was saved. And so was Toronto’s founding dog.


Image: another famous Newfoundland dog in an 1831 painting by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, “A Distinguished Member of the Humane Society.”

A version of this post originally appeared on the The Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog. You can find more sources, images, links and related stories there.