York’s Founding Fathers – Buttonville

York’s Founding Fathers – Buttonville.

A little under 30 kilometres northeast from downtown Toronto you will find a medium sized airport.  Starting as a grass airstrip in 1953, and becoming an official airport in 1962, Buttonville Municipal Airport is Canada’s 11th busiest airport.  The airport caters to the business elite, as well as the weekend pilots.   Yet many know of the Buttonville Airport, but not about the founding father.  His name is John Button.

John Button was born on May 18, 1772 in New London, Connecticut.  His parents were Joseph Button and Mary Ann Atwell, both of whom were from Connecticut.  John was the seventh child of eight children that Joseph and Mary Ann would have.  John was the fourth generation of Buttons born in the new colony of United States.

The whaling town New London would become the home of naval operations during the Revolutionary War.  On September 6, 1781, the town was burned and almost completely destroyed during the Battle of Groton.  John’s parents would die the following year.  Some of the Button family members were loyal to the King of England. Some other members were against British rule.  In 1790, John was still residing in New London. He was a cooper.

John Button was a Wesleyan Methodist.  In 1795, John married a lady by the name of Elizabeth Williams.  Elizabeth was born in New Brunswick, Canada in 1772 and she was a Quaker.  They married in Duchess County in the state of New York.

On April 21, 1794, John and Elizabeth welcomed their first child into the world.  The little boy was named Francis.  On May 21, 1798, the President of the Executive Council Peter Russell received a petition from John Button asking for land.  Records show that the Button family immigrated to Canada in 1799.  For the next two years, the family resided in the Niagara Region. The petition was granted in 1801 and Button received 200 acres on Yonge Street and a town lot in the city of York. It was at this time that John Button and his family came to York.

John Button would sell the 200 acres that were located on Yonge Street.  In 1803, the Button family was living on lot 7 on the 8th Concession of Markham.  The family consisted of John and his wife Elizabeth.  They had two sons, Francis and Newbury, who was born in 1778, and a daughter Sarah Elizabeth.  Sarah, who went by the name of Sally, was born in 1796.

In 1805, Button received a land grant of 200 acres adjacent to his present home at lot 8, 8th Concession Markham. In 1808, Button would buy the west half of lot 14 on the 4th Concession in Markham from Johann Shultz.  John Button would continue to purchase land in the area.  On December 22, 1809, he purchased part of lot 15, Concession 4 Markham from John Henry Burhmester.  He purchased the remainder of the lot on April 16, 1811.  John Button now owned a block of land that had a total of 300 acres.

The tension between the United States and the British Commonwealth was escalating.  James Madison had been elected President of the United States.  The Militia Act of 1808 was updated and was being enforced.  Every able-bodied man between the ages of 16 and 60 was to fight in the case of invasion of Canada.   John Button was among the abled.

Button became a lieutenant in the militia.  Button asked his commanding officer if he could organise a cavalry troop.  He was granted the position to do such.   Gathering volunteers and training them near his home, Button created the 1st York Light Dragoons.  Many of the men were yeoman by trade. The men had to supply their own horse, tack and saddle.  The Government would supply pistols to the men. It would not be long before Button’s Troop would see war.

Major-General Isaac Brock had been sent to Upper Canada in 1810 to help prepare for any conflict that may arise.  On June 19, 1812, President Madison declared war with Great Britain.  Brock was ready and militias amassed.

Button would be in command of the troops. George Henry Playter Jr. was the troops Quartermaster.  Joshua Clarkson held the title of Senior Sergeant and Christopher Hiltz was Sergeant.  Privates included Henry Pingel, Nicholas Hagerman and John Van Horne.   John Button’s troop spent most of the war carrying dispatches between Kingston, Toronto and Fort George in Niagara.  10 men from the troop were included in the force with General Brock during the Battle of Detroit on August 16, 1812. One man of the Dragoons would die shortly after.   Button’s son Francis also participated in the troop as a private.

Button was one of the militia men left behind and forced to surrender at Fort York.  He was taken prisoner on April 27, 1813.  While the terms of the surrender were being hammered out, the prisoners were kept in a blockhouse.  The prisoners were released shortly afterwards.

The war was long and tedious, but John kept his troops interested with the pursuit of law and order.  The Treaty of Ghent was signed on December 24, 1814.  This document officially restored peace and ended the war.  The troop now had the name of Captain Button’s Troop of Markham Dragoons.

John Button would continue to keep his troop concerned of security, of life and home after the war.  Button was not a fanatic, but he had seen the signs of revolution during his lifetime.  He did not want to be unprepared.

On March 30, 1815, John’s son Francis married Annie Marr.  Her father, William Marr, was in the Markham Dragoons.  The marriage of his eldest daughter Sarah Elizabeth took place in Markham in 1817.  She would marry Martin H. Stoutenburgh.

After the war, the militia had to return their pistols to the government.  By 1816, all the weapons were returned.  John Button stated that the cavalry were an elite class of the militia and needed to be prepared at all times.  He legally began to press for the troop to have arms.

Along with farming, John Button remained commander of the Dragoons.  His son Francis would be promoted cornet of the troop in July 1818. A cornet was the lowest commissioned cavalry officer and the rank was abolished in 1871. In 1820, William Marr would be appointed Lieutenant.

John and Elizabeth’s son Newbury died on October 24, 1823. He was 24 years old.

As John was a Methodist he would often hold sermons in his home.  Before 1830, he had invited his neighbours to hear Egerton Ryerson preach at his home.  Ryerson had not begun his campaign against the Family Compact at this time.  John Button was against the Anglican establishment, as many Methodists, but he did agree with the Family Compact.

On April 30, 1829, John’s daughter Elizabeth married Timothy Munro.  Daughter Pauline Mary would marry Reverend James DeGeer on June 2nd, 1829.  On October 29, 1831, John Button is promoted to Major by Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Colborne.  The commission would be retro-active to November 12, 1827.  On November 17, 1829, John’s daughter Anna would marry Jacob Marr.  Jacob was the brother of Francis Button’s wife Annie.

In 1830, John Button donated a part of his land for a Wesleyan Methodist chapel. The original log building was called Button’s Chapel.  The chapel and burial grounds were on the west part of Lot 14 on the 4th Concession Markham.   John Button would soon receive good news. After pressing the issue of having the cavalry being reinstated with weapons, approval was finally given to Button and his troop in 1831to carry permanent arms.

Political change began to surface in the region of York.  Reformers were popping up in all the regions.  They campaigned for change.  Voting was not secret and every man had to state their vote in public.  The Markham Dragoons were stationed at polling stations, usually held at a hotel or inn.  For Markham, voters had to travel to York to cast their votes.  On January 30, 1832, both John and his son Francis voted.  The pair voted for James E. Small, the candidate running against Reform leader William Lyon Mackenzie.  Mackenzie would win the election. On May 28, 1836, the newly appointed Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Francis Bond Head dissolved parliament. Bond Head was very Conservative and appealed to the Loyalists to vote as such. In late 1836, the Conservatives, who were led by The Family Compact, won the election. This forced Mackenzie and other key Reformers to lose their seats in parliament.

Change was happening in his own family.  The husband of Pauline Button was a Methodist Episcopal circuit minister.  His preaching was frowned upon by the elitist Family Compact members who followed Anglicanism.  Although John Button was a staunch loyalist many other Loyalists had him pegged as an American, as he was not British born.  Son Francis, grandson William and son in law Jacob Marr were fierce Loyalists and against reform.  On the other hand, Button had sons in law Timothy Munro and James DeGeer who both actively promoted reformation.

As well as the political strife, there were environmental and economic disasters.  In 1832, a cholera epidemic arrived in York.  The cholera would again flare up in 1834. Poor harvests began in 1835, leading into an economic recession lasting for two years.  Banks began tightening credit.  This made times difficult for farmers.  Before long, the spark had been lit and a clash was inevitable.

Early in 1837, Markham had become bitterly divided. Reform rallies began to spring up all over the region. By October of that year, Mackenzie had suggested a coup d’état.  This was dismissed by fellow Reformers, but a revolt was suggested instead.  Ironically, at the same time Bond Head was ordered to send his troops to Lower Canada.  Lower Canada is now the province of Quebec.  The troops were sent to qualm rebellion that was happening there.  Mackenzie and his top officials could not have asked for a more opportune chance than what was presented to them.  A date of December 7, 1837 was set for the revolt.

Button was in contact with another militia man in the area. Lieutenant James Fitzgibbon had warned Bond Head about the possibility of rebellion. Bond Head dismissed his query as folly.  Fitzgibbon made preparations on his own accord.  John Button contacted Fitzgibbon on December 2nd 1837 to warn him of the gathering of weapons and the quickly rising signs of revolt that were taking place. Button also asks Fitzgibbon that his warning be taken as anonymous. Button then had begun to organise his troops for potential rebellion troubles.

Miscommunications between the key Reformers escalated the rebellion taking place earlier than the 7th of December 1837.  Many of the gathered rebel participants arrived at Montgomery’s Tavern on Yonge Street on December 3rd.  Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Moodie, a veteran of the War of 1812 and fierce Loyalist, was determined to warn officials in Toronto that the Rebels were marching down Yonge Street.  When Moodie was stopped at a checkpoint by rebel forces, he arrogantly protested the delay and fired his pistol into the air.  Rebel forces fired shots back thinking that they are being attacked.  Moodie was shot and was killed.

When news of the killing reached Bond Head later that day, he hurriedly boarded his wife and children on a ship in Lake Ontario.  Bond Head also appointed Fitzgibbon as adjutant-general of militia.  Fitzgibbon knew that the militia consisted of only 300 men.  Fitzgibbon also knew that he was only an assistant to Bond Head.  Against Bond Head’s orders, Fitzgibbon set up a picket line of militia to halt any further attempts into the city.  On December 7th, the Rebels attempted to invade the city but were stopped by Fitzgibbon’s forces.  The Rebels then scattered into the woods.  A full-fledge attack on the Rebels was scheduled to take place December 7th.  Fitzgibbon had heard that Bond Head had asked Allan MacNab to lead the charge.  MacNab had declined, and Fitzgibbon proceeded north on Yonge Street at noon that day with his troop, now consisting of 1,000 men.

The battle at Montgomery’s Tavern was very short-lived, lasting about an hour.  The rebels held back the first wave, but scattered in retreat when they knew they were outnumbered.  The militia continued to travel north, on the orders of Bond Head who joined the troop later that day, to burn Montgomery’s Tavern and the home of David Gibson.  James Fitzgibbon was troubled with the indecisiveness and erratic behavior of Bond Head.  Fitzgibbon resigned his position of general on 8th of December 1837.

Great Britain would send John Lambton, the Earl of Durham to become Governor-General.  He arrived in Canada in February of 1838.  His first duty was to examine why Rebellions were prevalent in the country.  1838 saw the strengthening of Colonial Rule, but this was only temporary.  Lambton, who went by the name of Lord Durham, indeed work on his assignment. He created commissions to oversee all areas of discord.  Due to what Lord Durham considered political betrayal from his own party, he resigned his position as Governor-General on October 9th, 1838.  He then returned back to England.   Lord Durham did not leave empty-handed though.  His commissions had given him plenty of information.

Lord Durham presented his ‘Report on the Affairs of British North America’ to parliament on February 11, 1839.  The Durham Report took the grievances and concerns and presented solutions that may satisfy all.  Two key points to the report were that Upper and Lower Canada were to become one Canada; and that Canada should create a responsible government.  The Act of the Union was passed in 1840.  In 1842, Upper Canada and Lower Canada united.

The passage of the Durham Report pleased John Button greatly.  Order began to restore itself.  The pressure of unrest was now gone, and John Button began to farm again.  On September 4, 1842, John discussed plans to subdivide his land with Robert Baldwin.  John wished to create nine lots, all having ¼ of an acre of land. The land to be sold for these lots would be the south-west corner of Lot 14, Concession 4 Markham.  Five of these lots would face on to the 4th Concession Markham.  Button would sell these lots for $50.00.  The remaining four lots would face a lane behind the five lots.  These back lots would be sold for $40.00.

On October 6, 1847, John’s wife Elizabeth passed away.  Elizabeth was buried on the land where Button’s chapel sat. As for the times, John did not remain single for long after his wife’s death. Button married a widow of the name of Elizabeth Bradley in Toronto on June 14, 1848.  John Button would begin to sell the lots in 1848.

Major John Button was active in local affairs during his later years.  Button and his friend William Morrison helped lay out the tiny hamlet they called Millbrook.  In 1851 they applied for a post office under the name of Millbrook.  They found out the name Millbrook already had a post office. Morrison came up with the name that fit perfectly: Buttonville after John Button.  Industry in the hamlet in 1851 included a brick maker, a shoe maker, a mason and a carpenter. Buttonville had a general smithy shop as well as grandson John Button’s blacksmith shop.

It was time for John Button to take accolades on his accomplishments. This did not stop John from his affairs for the township. At the Yonge Street Agricultural Fair on May 27, 1859, Button’s colts won second place. Button was selected to be on a panel of coroner jury for the death of William Heaton.  Button was elected as part of the committee for the King’s Division in Richmond Hill on May 4th, 1860. King’s Division was a group for the Moderate Party.

John Button was to attend a great honour.  In September 1860, Major Button and approximately 160 fellow 1812 war veterans would travel to Niagara Falls.  His Royal Highness, Edward Albert, the Prince of Wales was travelling North America.  One stop was Queenston Heights, the famous battle site at where General Brock had died.  On September 18, 1860, speeches were made and the Prince laid the final stone at the Brock Monument. The veterans were there to see the event, and get a glimpse of the future King Edward VII.

In 1861, John’s health began to fail.  On November 9th, 1861 died on his farm in the hamlet that he created. Many friends and family members followed behind the body of the highly respected man as it travelled to his final resting place at Buttonville Cemetery.  He was buried with his 1st wife Elizabeth on November 12 1861.

John Button’s legacy travels far.  He had 9 children.  Many of them were involved in the military, politics and land.  His son Francis ended his career as Lieutenant-Colonel of the 1st York Light Dragoons.  Francis’ son William Marr Button was also in the Light Dragoons.  William was in politics as well, as a reeve and a magistrate.  Francis’ other son Newberry became a Justice of the Peace. The 1st York Light Dragoons is still active to this day. The troop that John Button created is now called The Governor General’s Horse Guard.

In 1953, Jim Leggat purchased land at the south-east corner off Woodbine and 16th Avenues. The land had a small landing strip for planes and a metal hanger.  In 1962, Michael C. Sifton, a member from a noted family in publishing and politics, purchased the land. Today, Buttonville Airport serves many.  The hamlet of today thought out from a man who saw a future for the small community north of Toronto.  Thank Major Button for the quaintness that is still Buttonville.


One comment

  1. Libby Herman · · Reply

    I love reading the details here of John Button’s life. I found out on ancestry.ca that he is my fourth great grandfather! My great grandfather was Delaski Marr, a physician in Chatham, Ontario. His father was Francis Button Marr, who was also a doctor. I always wondered where he got such a funny middle name. Turns out it was because his mother was Anna Button, John Button’s daughter that is mentioned in this article. She gave him her surname as a middle name. Thank you for providing an idea of what life was like for them when they were alive!

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