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John Graves Simcoe's Canvas House


It is, perhaps, an odd curiosity that there is more than one direct link between Cook and one of the most pivotal historical figures in Canadian history. The man in question was an Englishman of privileged birth who, for the brief period of 1796 through to May 1797, was the first Lieutenant Governor of what was then called "Upper Canada".

Almost every town and city in southern Ontario has a street or a park name after him. There is an entire lake that bears his name; indeed, many of the place names that exist in Ontario today were so-named by him. The man is Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe, who was born on February 25th 1752 in Cotterstock, North Hampshire, UK and died on October 26th 1806 in Exeter, UK. As has been several times reported in the society's journal,1 Simcoe's father, Captain John Simcoe, Royal Navy, commanded Pembroke (3rd rate, 64 gun, 1250 tons) in which Cook served as Master from 1757 to 1759. It was in Pembroke that Cook surveyed the area that became his first engraved and printed chart. It was a survey of Gaspe bay and harbour, and it was dedicated to the Master and Wardens of Trinity House of Deptford in 1759.2

It could be said that Captain Simcoe was Cook's mentor in methods of navigation (along with another important Canadian figure, Samuel Holland). For Cook, those few years in Pembroke were, possibly, the most important, perhaps pivotal, years of his career. It was where he learned and honed the skills that would give him the command of what were, arguably, the most significant voyages of exploration of modern times.

Pembroke, played a major role in a pivotal period in Canadian history: namely the fall and capture of the French fortress of Louisburg (about 200 miles east of Halifax in Cape Breton). The effort was part of the campaign to wrest the French as a political and military power from what was in a few years time to become known as, "Lower Canada". Although Captain Simcoe did not live to see it (in fact he was too ill to leave his cabin during the storming of Louisburg), Cook and Pembroke went on to participate in the capture of Quebec.

Captain Simcoe died before his time in the early morning of May 15th 1759 off Anticosti Island in the Gulf of St Lawrence. He died of pneumonia. His son was only seven years old. Later, his son entered into correspondence with Samuel Holland who told him, and us, the very little we know about his father's life. Apparently, Captain Simcoe was a "scientific man", a man who was more than merely competent in the "black art" of navigation and coastal charting. He was undoubtedly good at mathematics, including spherical trigonometry; he must have been precise, even fastidious with his measurements. He and Cook must have got along wonderfully.

And it was "like-father-like-son". John Graves Simcoe went on to become a "war hero" during the American Revolution, in command of the green-tuniced "Queen's Rangers", and was wounded twice.3 He was selected above many to be the very first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, even above the recommendations of Lord Dorchester the Governor of Canada at the time.3 Like his father, he was a man of recognized ability.

There is yet another connection between the Simcoes and Cook. It is not a particularly significant connection, and may not be relevant to anything more than our sense of curiosity and our fascination with the truly coincidental. During his four years as governor of Upper Canada, Simcoe required a tent. But not just any tent. It had to be of sufficient quality to house his family, wife and children, through the harsh Canadian winters. For this Simcoe asked as part of the fitting out of his mission, for

a Canvas House similar to that sent with the Governor of Botany Bay - as it might be highly convenient if not necessary in various expeditions 'twill be proper I should make4



returned to England at the end of the Third Voyage in October of 1780, there was an eventual sell-off of the left over goods and material, some of which must have been placed in store. The requested "Canvas House" was bought at a sale of the effects of Captain Cook, the one apparently used by Cook himself.


It was often referred to by Simcoe's wife, Elizabeth, in her diaries. When it finally arrived, just before winter set in, she wrote,

I have taken the canvas house we brought from England for my own apartment; it makes two very comfortable and remarkably warm private rooms; it is boarded outside to prevent snow lying on it.6

The canvas was laid on a wooden frame and boarded up outside for the sake of warmth. It was a room 22 by 15 feet with a floor, windows and doors, and warmed with a stove. Not really a "tent" in my mind, but nonetheless not exactly "first rate" accommodation for the Governor of Canada, his wife and children. Elizabeth Simcoe wrote that water beside the stove froze to the floorboards during a particularly cold day during the long Canadian winter. And in the summer it was so hot inside, they ate all their meals in a bower outside. I would say they were "roughing it". Still, the irony is thick. Simcoe was certainly aware the tents originated from Cook who his wife referred to as, "Cook, that famous explorer". One wonders if Simcoe realized the connection between his father and Cook. One also wonders if he went a bit out of his way to ensure it was Cook's canvas house that he procured, and no other.

Doug Reid



  1. Essar, Gary. "Samuel Weir, His Foundation and Governor Simcoe". In Cooks Log, page 30, vol. 30, no 2 (2007).
  2. Beaglehole, J.C. Life of Captain James Cook. 1974. And Skelton, R.A. James Cook Surveyor of Newfoundland. 1965.
  3. Fryer, Mary Beacock and Dracott, Christopher. John Graves Simcoe 1752-1806. Dundurn Press, Toronto. 1998.
  4. Cruikshank, E.A. The correspondence of Lieut. Governor John Graves Simcoe, with allied documents relating to his administration of the government of Upper Canada. Toronto: The Society. 1923-26. Vol. I, page 17.
  5. Thiel, Ron. "John Simcoe". In Cooks Log, page 505, vol. 10, no 1 (1987).
  6. Simcoe, Elizabeth (Mary Quale Innis ed). Mrs Simcoes Diary. Macmillan of Canada, Toronto, 1968.

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 39, volume 30, number 4 (2007).

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Wonderful journey reading about Cook being in Toronto..connection between he and the Simcoes...

By Brenda J keyes on 7/30/2017 1:34:59 PM Like:0 DisLike:0
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By Jean Mohnachev on 11/14/2015 9:38:52 PM Like:0 DisLike:0

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