York’s Founding Fathers – Pefferlaw

York Region has many facets.  We have the urban space as well as rural areas.   At the North end of York Region lays Lake Simcoe.  This lake was vital to the creation of York Region, as well as all the little waterways that feed in and out of it.  Ironically, the pioneers of the north region were actually retired military personnel who found it hard to find work in their homeland after the Napoleonic Wars.   Three kilometres south of the beaches of Lake Simcoe lays the little town of Pefferlaw.  One man is known to have single-handedly created the town.  I am pleased to introduce to you, William Johnson.

William Johnson was born in Chirnside, Berwickshire, Scotland on September 19, 1784.  His father was named William Johnstone  and his mother was named Jean Fife.  Both of his parents were born in the Berwick area.  He was the fifth child born to the couple.  William II had an older sister Margaret born in 1776, and three older brothers; John born in 1778, James born in 1780, and George born in1782.  William II also had two younger siblings; a sister Janet born in 1788 and brother Robert born in 1791.

The family lived on the farm homestead which was named “Pefferlaw”.  The named is used in a local ditty about the fair maidens that live there.  Pefferlaw was also referred as the heather field on the farm, which translates into ‘beautiful greensward’.

At the age of 17, William Johnson II altered his name, dropping the  ‘t’ and ‘e’ from his last name of Johnstone.  This is the name that he entered the British Royal Navy with in 1801.  William Johnson entered as a second Lieutenant, the lowest commissioned officer in the Navy.  Johnson is listed in many naval records during the Napoleonic Wars.   He was at the siege and blockades of Cadiz Spain from 1803 until 1808.  Johnson was listed as an officer on the HMS ‘Blake’, a courageux-class warship that was  launched on August 23, 1808. He was involved at the sieges of Tarragona during 1811 to 1813. William Johnson had the notable  distinction of leading landing parties with efficiency.  By the end of 1813, Johnson had made full Lieuntenant.

After 1815, the Royal Navy did not see much in the way of military action.  William Johnson was a causality of this.  A great fear of navy officers was to be “stranded ashore on half-pay”.  This meant that the officer was not on active duty or was retiring. Since there was no military action, there was not enough work for the officers.  William Johnson retired as a Captain and began to receive his half-pay.  Many of the peacetime ex-naval men were strongly encouraged by the British Government to immigrate to British North America.

William Johnson decided that immigration would be most benefit to him.  As a retired military man, he was entitled to a free land grant from the government. He applied and was granted the land on March 24th, 1819.  In that year Johnson boarded a ship and began his trip to the new land.  Crossing the Atlantic usually took 6 weeks.  Johnson’s voyage took 3 months. Upon landing in Montreal, Johnson began to walk the 554 kilometres to the Town of York.

Once he reached York, he proceeded up the makeshift road of Yonge Street to Holland Landing. Crossing parts of Lake Simcoe and Indian trails to get to his granted land in Georgina Township.  The Township had only been surveyed and laid out in 1817, so Johnson was not the first land grant in the area.  Just prior to William’s grant, another ex-naval man by the name of Captain William Bourchier.  Bourchier had participated in the War of 1812 who remained in Upper Canada.  Bourchier was granted 1200 acres at the 7th and 8th Concession in Georgina Township.  Georgina Township would issue 44 land grants in the year of 1819.

William Johnson received the 2nd patent for the area.  His grant was at lot 6, Concession 7.  Arriving at the lot, Johnson began constructing a little wooden cabin and clearing the land. He named his land “Auld Castle” in honour of his family home in Scotland.   The land was dense in forest mixed with cedars, maples and beech trees.  It was hard work.  William’s sister Margaret and her husband John Lyall immigrated in 1819 as well and settled the adjoining property.  Sadly, Margaret passed away the following year.  She had 7 children with John Lyall. She was buried in a small cemetery on Auld Castle. Early in the 1820’s, began constructing a mill on the fast flowing river south of his home.  Before the construction of the mill could be completed, a severe storm caused flooding and swept the mill away.

William Johnson did not let the ruin of the mill break his spirit. He never once thought that he would not rebuild the mill. Yet life distracted him for a while.  Johnson fell in love with a lady whose family lived on the Cook’s Bay of Lake Simcoe.  Her name was Roxanna Smalley.  Roxanna was born in Pennsylvania to parents William and Susan Smalley.  The Smalley family came up to Upper Canada in 1801 as United Empire Loyalists.  On March 18, 1823, William Johnson and Roxanna married.  As there was no preacher within 18 miles of their home, they married by certificate and blessed by their families.  It was signed by Justice of the Peace James O’Brien Bourchier, the younger brother of  Captain William Bourchier.

Children soon blessed the couple.  Son William was born on January 7, 1823. A second son was born on January 22, 1825 named George.

One day one of William’s cows wondered off.  Johnston set out to look for the creature.  He began looking east and set out among the trees.  He noted that the trees were of great quality.  Shortly before he found her, he noted a large, fast river.   He had a brainstorm.  He decided that he wished to buy this property and build his mill there.    On October 12th, 1826, he purchased the land the cow had found.

A daughter Jean was born on Christmas Eve 1826. William Johnson Sr wrote his brother Robert in  Scotland asking if he could borrow some money so he may build the mill at the new location.  His brother agrees and suggested that the new location be called Pefferlaw.  William thought that there was no more perfect name than Pefferlaw.  Construction began on the mill at where the large river merged with a small creek.   Johnson again purchased more land in the area on March 8th, 1830.  William Johnson began to write diaries of events in the area.

The couple were blessed to have more children.  A daughter named Susan was born May 5th, 1828. Daughters Anne was born in 1829 and Jean ws born on Februrary 14th, 1830.  A son James was born August 16, 1831.  With great sadness, the couple lost their son George on May 20, 1832.  The couple did keep a girl for general duties, and hired more when it was needed to help with childrearing.

By the time of young George’s death, William Sr had built a saw mill, a grist mill and a woolen mill in the little town.  A lake service was now available on a ship called “Simcoe”.   The lake service  was still unpredictable and once on the roads, the journey continued to be bumpy.  The town was still enticing fellow immigrants to the Eastern part of Georgina Township.   One of these immigrants was his younger brother Robert.  In 1833, Robert and his wife along with their two daughters Ann and Jean came to the little town.  In August of that year, William and Robert built the first general store on the road leading to the mills.  On December 2, 1834, Robert received his land grant on Lot 22, Concession 5 in Georgina Township.  Robert would go on to build the first 2-storey  brick home in the area right next door to the store.

William and Roxanna welcomed a son on August 18, 1833 and chose the name of George for the child.  2 more daughters were born to the pair. Daughter Margaret was born September 13, 1835.  The youngest daughter born was Janet Roxanna on October 11, 1837.

William Johnson had no troubles with his neighbours, but the neighbours had a problem with a friend of William’s.  William was involved with the local politics in the area.  William Johnson was appointed as a magistrate and a Justice of the Peace.  He also sat on the Council for the Home District.  Sometime during Johnson’s tenure, he met a feisty Scot by the name of William Lyon Mackenzie.  A journalist with a newspaper denouncing the “Family Compact” and demanding changes in reform.  Mackenzie was a council member in the Assembly, and became the City of Toronto’s first mayor.

Johnson admired Mackenzie’s tenacity and the pair ended up being friends.  Johnson was the only Georgina Magistrate that supported the reform party and the call for political change.   Mackenzie would often visit Johnson, and vice versa.  It is said that William attended the July 1831 Reform Party meeting in Newmarket.

Many of the residents of Georgina were descendants of United Empire Loyalist or recent Upper Class British settlers. Many held on to the old, conservative beliefs  of the old country.    Loyalty and aristocracy were prominent.  One problem is that Upper Canada did not have a noble class.  A few men made such a class.  This select class of people held much of the political and judicial power.  The Family Compact influenced the balance in the Executive and Legislative Councils. This group had the ear of the Lieutenant-Governor.  The elected Legislative Assembly   was left with little power.  Along with the political bias, the Family Compact also favoured land grants to fellow clique members.

Upper Canada had the powerful Bishop John Strachan heading the Family Compact.  As well as political strength, this Anglican churchman professed his beliefs, and granted to church and state.  The new magistrate for Georgina was Thomas Mossington.  Neighbours and close friends to Mossington includes the Bourchiers, the Jacksons and the Sibbalds.  By 1837, political strife was strong and neighbours soon became divided.

Many of Georgina’s inhabitants did not participate in the Rebellion of 1837. They did watch the insurrection very closely.  The skirmish at Montgomery’s Tavern on December 7, 1837, led to the rebels and reformers to be arrested.  Those who escaped, including William Lyon Mackenzie, crossed the border into the United States.  If you were suspected to be involved with the rebel plan, magistrates came for you along with the Protestant Fraternal organization members called Orangemen.  Many thought that Orangemen were the muscle behind the Family Compact.

After the attempted  at Montgomery ‘s Tavern, chaos broke out.  Rebels were running for their lives.  The Government forces were looking for any person that they though was involved in the failed takeover.  Families were torn, having relatives on both sides of the rebellion. All were in a panic.

On Christmas Day 1837, William Baldwin had the Orangemen arrive at his home. Some of these men were his former friends and family members.   He was arrested on the spot for the charge of high treason. Johnson wrote in his diary about the ‘indignity of being unlawfully arrested for high treason by vile Orangemen with no order but their pistols’.  He was taken to James O’Brien Bourchier’s home and detained there until he was brought to York on December 27th.  He was to answer to a special commission’s inquest into the skirmish on December 7.    Johnson came home on December 29th completely exhonorated of the treason charges.

Life remained static in the township for a time but friendships were lost.  After 1837, William Johnson used his home as the Centre for the Reform Party in Georgina. According to his diaries, Johnson spoke of his desire for change with the guests that came to his home.  Twice Robert Baldwin visited Johnson, once in 1847 and again in 1848. Robert Baldwin was the Premier of Canada West.  Baldwin would be instrumental in the creation of ‘Responsible Government’. Every Christmas day, William wrote in his diary about the anniversary of his arrest.

William Johnson believed in the Temperance Movement.   Many believed that the consumption of alcohol led to the evils in society.  In 1841, Johnson established the first Temperance in Georgina Township.  In 1844, Johnson held a meeting with the local Catholic parishioners who pledged to refrain from alcohol.   Temperance became more than  the preaching of tea-totalling.  It became a way of life.  Abstainance became the symbol of industry, displine, and cleanliness.  More involved was the addition of religion, mainly Methodism.  Temperance now became a practice of godliness.

Life in the little town of Pefferlaw  continued to grow.  Captain William still continued  to socialize and run the mills.  He entertained visitors, including his friend William Lyon Mackenzie.   Mackenzie was included in the amnesty act  that Baldwin and LaFountain had reformed in February 1849.  One his visit to Canada later that year, William Lyon Mackenzie arrived at Johnson’s  home.

William was also a determined man in regards to the town of Pefferlaw having a post office.  He travelled to York to appeal to the government for a post office.  He wrote letters and he pleaded to whomever to obtain his goal.

On November 17, 1845, Roxanna Johnson died.  The beloved wife of Captain William was 53 years old.  She was buried beside their infant son George in the little cemetery on the land that they lived on.

From the vision he saw when looking for his wandering cow, Johnson’s village was now successful. His brother Robert continued to run the store.  Robert would also become a Justice of the Peace and a local councillor. A school was built in the village and many of the Johnson children attended.  Captain William’s son George would build a new store.  He became the miller and lumber merchant, as well as the dry goods and hardware.   Johnson’s son James was the Postmaster and son William would run the wool and carding mill.

On March 28th, 1851, Captain William Johnson died at his home.  William was 66 years old.  He was buried alongside his wife on his property.   William remained an active part of the community right up to his death.   Soon after his death he received his wish.  His daughter opened the first post office in the town and became a postmistress.

The property of Auld Castle was kept in the family.  Dr. Charles T. Noble would marry Captain Williams’s daughter Margaret.  He would eventually own the property.

The quaint village would carry on its growth.  In the 1860’s, The Morning Glory Hotel began operations.  The Mansion House Hotel would open in 1884.  The Canadian Pacific Railway would run through the village.  Along with the railway came a bank in 1906.  The Mansion House would change its name, becoming the Hotel Belevedre .  The railway station would remain in operation until the mid 1990’s.

Even with all the businesses and the railway, Pefferlaw never grew past the point of becoming a town.  The Pefferlaw creek still flows through the village.  You can see the still evident history of William Johnston’s dream in the dam area.  You could almost have a sense of that wayward cow wandering in the street.  Who would believe a  Captain in the Navy making a village inland of a large lake all because his cow ran away?



  1. Robert Holden · · Reply

    It was never the CPR that ran through Pefferlaw; it was the Grand Trunk Railway which was later merged into the Canadian National Railways. Otherwise, this was an informative historical sketch about the founding family of Pefferlaw.

    1. Thank you Robert for the clarification

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