Holland’s Landing Depot

On September 30, 2010, the Ontario Heritage Trust and the Town of East Gwillimbury unveiled a provincial plaque at the Town of East Gwillimbury Civic Centre in Sharon, Ontario, to commemorate the Holland’s Landing Depot.

The bilingual plaque reads as follows:


    The Royal Navy Depot Holland Landing, constructed during the War of 1812, stood just north of this site on the east bank of Soldiers’ Bay. Its buildings and other facilities served as an administrative and transshipment centre within a network of roads, waterways, portages and posts that connected Lake Ontario to the upper Great Lakes. To avoid American forces in the Niagara-Lake Erie-Detroit River corridor, British authorities moved vital supplies from York (Toronto) through this depot to Georgian Bay to support the successful war effort on the upper lakes. In addition, they distributed gifts to Aboriginal allies in the region from this site. After the return of peace in 1815, officials gradually concentrated most local military operations at Penetanguishene, which led to the decline and abandonment of the depot in the 1830s. Afterwards, travellers occasionally used it for shelter until it was transferred to private ownership in the 1860s.


    Le dépôt de la Marine royale de Holland Landing s’élevait au nord de ce site, sur la rive Est de Soldiers’ Bay. Centre administratif et de transbordement construit lors de la guerre de 1812, il dessert tout un réseau de routes, de voies navigables, de portages et de postes entre le lac Ontario et le secteur supérieur des Grands Lacs. À l’époque, les forces américaines occupent le couloir Niagara-lac Érié-rivière Détroit. Les autorités britanniques se servent de ce dépôt pour les contourner et acheminer des fournitures essentielles entre York (Toronto) et la baie Georgienne, et ravitaillent ainsi les troupes qui mettent l’ennemi en déroute dans la région des lacs Supérieur et Huron. En outre, ce dépôt leur permet de faire parvenir des cadeaux à leurs alliés autochtones. En 1815, une fois la paix rétablie, la plupart des opérations militaires locales sont organisées à Penetanguishene : le dépôt, de moins en moins utilisé, est abandonné dans les années 1830. Les voyageurs l’utilisent parfois pour s’y abriter, jusqu’à ce qu’il devienne une propriété privée dans les années 1860.

Historical background

Early settlement and transportation in the vicinity of Lake Simcoe

The expansive marsh and pine-forested area surrounding the east branch of the Holland River has a history that stretches back before the earliest written records. Archaeological findings provide evidence of Paleo-Indian encampments and hunting dating back almost nine millennia to the Archaic period.1 Closer to the present age, the Wendat (Huron), Petun and later peoples from the Anishinabek Nation gained prominence in the region.2 It has been suggested that, “the Holland River, Lake Simcoe and the Severn River were considered one stream” by the First Nations peoples.3 The French were the first European people to recognize the complexity of these waterways.4 The interior route was acknowledged as having great value by First Nations travelers, French missionaries, North West Company traders and British soldiers alike. Travelling north from Lake Ontario it provided a timely shortcut to what is now known as Georgian Bay, Lake Huron and the Upper Great Lakes without having to travel south, confront the falls at Niagara and then navigate northward again on Lake Erie.5

Several different interior routes existed; however, one of the most prominent was to arrive at the area of Holland Landing by land and then board canoes (later flat-bottomed bateaux) for a journey down the river and into Lake Simcoe. Offering a shortcut from the Severn River route, these small vessels would then enter Kempenfeldt Bay and land at the present-day city of Barrie. From that point there was a nine-mile (14.5-km) portage to Willow Creek and then upon re-entering boats travelers would continue down the creek to the Nottawasaga River and onward to Georgian Bay.6

Throughout the 1780s, successive British governors requested surveys of the Upper Great Lakes and the possibility of creating a means of communication following the traditional First Nations’ routes between Lake Ontario and Lake Simcoe.7 When Yonge Street was completed in 1796 (starting at York and spanning to the Holland Marsh) these trails would parallel and occasionally criss-cross the meticulously surveyed and unbending road.8 The importance of the interior route took on new meaning at this time, as British authorities looked for methods of transportation that were less perilously close to the new and expanding American republic to the south.

The landings on the east branch of the Holland River

Following France’s declaration of war on Great Britain in 1793, Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe decided it was important to review the colony’s transportation and communication network. That fall he set out with a surveying party to review firsthand possible inland communication routes between Georgian Bay and Lake Ontario. On October 11, 1793, Deputy Provincial Surveyor Alexander Aitken wrote that Simcoe and the surveying party camped near the Lower Landing in an area believed to be near present-day Soldiers’ Bay and the future site of the Holland’s Landing Depot.9 This uninviting area, however, was not the natural first choice of landing in the area. “The Pond to the West and the North part of the Village,” a surveyor later wrote of the area in 1811, “is very shallow water with a very deep mud and some Bullrushes.”10 Considering the natural impediments of the pond, the two established landings — both having been used by countless generations of First Nations travelers — were used instead.11 The Lower Landing, near Soldiers’ Bay, was a point closer to the convergence of the two branches of the Holland River as they headed toward Lake Simcoe. The Upper Landing, on the other hand, was at a bend of the river further south which met with traditional footpaths and in 1796 the spot where Yonge Street terminated. Of the two transshipment points, the Upper Landing had become the most prominent further boasting a fortified structure known in several contemporary accounts as the “Pine Fort.”12 This wooden building acted as a combined shelter, defensive structure and storehouse for First Nations’ gifts and was an early landmark easily recognizable to non-native inhabitants in an otherwise seemingly endless terrain of forest and marshes. As the two traditional landings met the requirements of most travelers, the situation on the Holland River remained relatively unchanged for the first two decades of Upper Canada’s existence.

The War of 1812 and the naval and military establishment at Holland Landing

With the American declaration of war on Great Britain in 1812 Upper Canada’s interior naval defenses were bolstered and domestic shipbuilding expanded to meet the wartime demand.13 The British loss at Moraviantown in the fall of 1813 gave American forces control of the Detroit River and resulted in the interior route becoming the principal means of supply to the Upper Great Lakes.14 In spite of its notable navigational drawbacks, the inauspicious pond was chosen as the spot for a new naval and military establishment at the mouth of Lake Simcoe. Close to the Lower Landing, it provided a wide — though shallow and muddy — shelter from the Holland River. The pond also boasted an expanse of dry land around it that could easily accommodate the requisite barracks, storehouses, and docks required for a minor shipyard and naval depot.

Supplies required for the war effort on the Upper Great Lakes were stored at the site officially referred to as the Royal Navy Depot Holland Landing. Everything from ammunition and artillery to sundries and ships’ chandlery was packed on flat bottom boats at the depot’s wharf and sent down the river to Lake Simcoe and onward through the system of waterways and portages to Georgian Bay and beyond. The establishment also acted as the distribution centre for gifts given annually to First Nations, taking over the role that the original Pine Fort situated near the Upper Landing had played.

In 1815, watercolourist Robert Irvine15 painted a landscape showing the depot at the height of its operations. Against the backdrop of a seemingly endless coniferous forest, the painting shows a bateau landing on Soldiers’ Bay, five log and clapboard structures, a yard surrounded by a stockade at the back of the central structure and several large bell tents.16 Sir Edward Owen in his 1815 report on the state of the navy on the Great Lakes observed that there were two boat crews employed by the Commissariat at the depot for the forwarding of goods.17 The establishment, not only offered what one British officer remarked, “a Considerable depot of Naval Stores,”18 it was the administrative centre for the southern portion of the interior navigation route. British Admiralty pay lists — compiled at the depot — show a complement of 28 shipwrights, one head clerk and two store porters based at Holland Landing and deployed from there to the head of the Nottawasaga River.19 In spite of the relative success of the strategically important depot, Sir Edward Owen was not fond of its location which he wrote, “seem badly placed upon a shallow pond, almost choked up with hedge and rushes. The Upper Indian landing is a better situation upon a sand bank of ten or twelve feet [3 or 3.6 m] high, by which the water is deep as to permit good Vessels alongside of it without requiring a Wharf.”20 Although Owen did not recommend its closure, his words describing the inherently impractical nature of the depot foreshadowed what would be its eventual demise.

News of the end of the war arrived at a depot filled with items waiting to be forwarded to the stations along the interior navigation route. In the fall of 1815 there were over 21,000 pounds (9,525 kg) of flour, an equal amount of salt pork and 719 gallons (3,269 l) of rum,21 as well as gun powder, cannon and a 4,000-pound (1,814-kg) kedge anchor22 allegedly destined for transport to the ship yard at Schooner Town (present-day Wasaga Beach).23 In the letter accompanying Owen’s 1815 report it was recommended that the Admiralty expand naval operations at Gwillimbury and acquire the land of the Upper Landing as a naval reserve.24 This ambitious suggestion, however, did not come to fruition. Over the next decade the men stationed at the depot were slowly demobilized25 and the majority of the stores removed with the notable exception of the large anchor which was left in the depot’s yard. By the 1820s, it appears that the depot’s role as a storehouse for gifts given annually to the First Nations had supplanted its naval and military uses.

Decline of the establishment

After the end of the war several factors led to the slow decline and the eventual abandonment of the depot. Most significantly, the reduction of American hostilities and the demilitarization of the Great Lakes through the 1817 Rush-Bagot agreement26 diminished the strategic importance of the interior communication route to Georgian Bay. The same agreement saw the eventual centralization of Royal Navy resources in Penetanguishene which became the primary naval establishment in the region by 1830.27 The Holland’s Landing Depot continued to be used for annual First Nations gift giving ceremonies until the late 1820s.28 By 1830, however, Penetanguishene had also eclipsed the depot in this regard, becoming the primary store for such gifts and reporting over 6,000 visits alone during the summer of that year.29 Not required as a naval post, and of limited importance as a government storehouse, the decade of the 1830s saw the abandonment of the Holland’s Landing Depot.

By the beginning of the 1840s Sir Richard Bonnycastle observed that the site was derelict, being “formerly a military post and naval depôt.”30 In 1851, an act of parliament was passed which facilitated the sale of Admiralty reserves throughout the united Canadas including the land situated, “on the east branch of the Holland River, in the town plot of Gwillimbury … west side of Meadow Street, containing together about four acres [1.6 ha].”31 George Tremaine’s map of York County does not provide any clear indication of ownership of the property in 1860;32 land registry records reveal, however, that in 1862 the title for the lot 116W — at the centre of the depot site — was held by the Crown but granted to James McClure.33 McClure is listed in the land registry as holding a mortgage on the property in 1865. By the late 1870s, the York County Atlas showed that the property that the depot stood on and most of Soldiers’ Bay was then owned by “Wm. Stephenson.”34 Around the same time, the old anchor that had been left at the depot at the end of the War of 1812 was moved south to the prosperous settlement of Holland Landing to become the marquee gateway to the town’s Anchor Park. With the anchor’s removal the last notable vestige of the depot and its vital role disappeared from Soldiers’ Bay. Although the Holland’s Landing Depot came to a rather quiet end it played a critical role in the security and progress of the colony that would become Ontario.

The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Michael Eamon, BA (Hon.), MA, M.Phil., in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2010

1 Andrew M. Stewart, “Intensity of Land-Use Around the Holland Marsh: Assessing Temporal Change from Regional Site Distributions,” in Lawrence J. Jackson and Andrew Hinshelwood, eds., The Late Palaeo-Indian Great Lakes: Geological and Archaeological Investigations of the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene Environments, Archaeology Paper 165, (Gatineau: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 2004), pp. 85-116; and Gordon Charles Dibb, Late Palaeo-Indian settlement patterns along the margins of the Simcoe lowlands in south central Ontario, Unpublished M.A Thesis, 1985, Trent University, in Bata Library, Trent University, Peterborough.

2 See: Andrew F. Hunter, History of Simcoe County, (Barrie: Simcoe County Council, 1909), Vol. 1, p. 10; Alan D. McMillan, Native Peoples and Cultures of Canada, (Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1988), pp. 64-74; Olive Patricia Dickason, Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1994), pp. 122-139; and Donald B. Smith, “The Mississauga and the Building of Yonge Street, 1794-1796,” in Wyn Millar, ed., The Simcoe Legacy: The Life and Times of Yonge Street, (Toronto: Ontario Historical Society, 1996), pp. 5-6.

3 Edwin C. Guillet, Early Life in Upper Canada, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963), p. 385.

4 This is clearly illustrated in Bellin’s 1745 map by the Great Lakes and tributaries including Lac Toronto (also called Lac aux claies and Lac Clie) and later renamed Lake Simcoe. British Library, 70620.(1), Nicholas Bellin, Partie occidentale de la Nouvelle France ou Canada, printed in Paris, Nuremberg and London, 1745.

5 One of the most comprehensive accounts of the Toronto era in the age of early European contact remains Percy James Robinson, Toronto During the French Regime: A History of the Toronto Region from Brulé to Simcoe, 1615-1793, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1933.

6 An early description of this route can be found in: David William Smyth, A Short Topographical Description of His Majesty’s Province of Upper Canada in North America to which is Annexed a Provincial Gazetteer, (London: W. Faden, 1799), pp. 23-26.

7 A safe route to Michilmackinac or Mackinaw was a preoccupation of Governor Frederick Haldimand who on at least two separate occasions in 1780 and 1784 requested officers to undertake surveys including an inland passage. In 1788, his successor Lord Dorchester requested that another officer, Gother Mann, undertake a survey of all coasts and harbours of Lake Ontario, Erie and Huron reaching as far as Sault Ste. Marie. Mann took great care to map Georgian Bay and Matchedash Bay which was known as the end of the First Nations’ inland passage. See: Simcoe County Pioneer & Historical Society Pioneer Papers, 4 (1911): p. 11; and Fred Landon, Lake Huron (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1944), pp. 286,289.

8 Library and Archives Canada (LAC), MG 11, Colonial Office 42/171, Map #33, “Road from York to Matchedash” attached to Croker’s Letter of the 6th July 1816, State of the Naval Establishments in Canadas & Survey of the Lakes by Sir E. Owen,” Reel B-137.

9 Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), Peterborough, Ontario, Crown Land and Surveys, Journal of Alexander Aitken, “York, Road to Lake Simcoe,” 11 October 1793, p. 257.

10 MNR, Crown Land and Surveys, Surveyors’ Letters, L & F, Volume 35, Number 120, Samuel Wilmot to Thomas Ridout, 9 April 1811.

11 MNR, Crown Land and Surveys, F.N.Book.436 , Volume 6, Samuel L. Wilmot, “A Plan of the Village of Gwillimbury …,” 9 April 1811; LAC, MG 11, Colonial Office 42/171, Map #35, “Town of Gwillimbury” attached to Croker’s Letter of the 6th July 1816, State of the Naval Establishments in Canadas & Survey of the Lakes by Sir E. Owen,” Reel B-137; LAC, NMC 13819, “Tremaine's map of the county of York, Canada West, compiled and drawn by Geo. R. Tremaine, from actual surveys. Toronto. Published by Geo. C. Tremaine 1860.”

12 For early references to the “Pine Fort” see: Alexander Macdonell, “Diary of Governor Simcoe’s Journey to Matchedash Bay,” in A. Cruikshank, ed. The Correspondence of Lieut. Governor John Graves Simcoe, Volume II, (Toronto: Ontario Historical Society, 1924), pp. 70-79; J. Ross Robertson, ed. The Diary of Mrs. John Graves Simcoe Wife of the First Lieutentant Governor of the Province of Upper Canada, 1792-6, (Toronto: William Briggs, 1911), p. 298; Smyth, Gazetteer, p. 154.

13 For more on the early-War state of naval forces including the Provincial Marine see: Robert Malcomson, Lords of the Lake: The Naval War on Lake Ontario, 1812-1814, (Toronto: Robin Brass Studio, 1998), pp. 25-37.

14 Barry Gough, Through Water, Ice and Fire: Schooner Nancy of the War of 1812, (Toronto: Dundurn, 2006), p. 114.

15 British artist Robert Irvine was actively painting in Upper Canada from 1812–1817.

16 Royal Ontario Museum, Sigmund Samuel Trust, 977.177.1, “The Naval and Military Depot at Holland Landing, Upper Canada, 1815,” by Robert Irvine, watercolour, gouache.

17 LAC, MG 11, Colonial Office 42/171, “Croker’s Letter of the 6th July 1816, State of the Naval Establishments in Canadas & Survey of the Lakes by Sir E. Owen,” p. 154, Reel B-137.

18 Letter Major-General Robinson to Commodore Sir Edward Owen, 12 August 1815, original at Library and Archives Canada, copy found in “Military Records,” file, East Gwillimbury Historical Society.

19 LAC, MG 12, Admiralty, Yard Pay Books, ADM 42/2170, “A Pay List for the 28 Artificers employed at Holland Landing and Kempenfelt Bay… November 1814 to May 1815;” ADM 42/2173, “A Pay List of One Clerk and Two Store Porters sent … to the Posts at Holland Landing and the Head of the Nottawasaga Creek… 25th November 1815;” Reel B-6005.

20 LAC, MG 11, Colonial Office 42/171, “Croker’s Letter of the 6th July 1816, State of the Naval Establishments in Canadas & Survey of the Lakes by Sir E. Owen,” p. 153, Reel B-137.

21 LAC, RG8, C-Series, Volume 120, #3, “Statement of Provisions etc. remaining at Holland River, Kempenfeldt Bay, Nottawasaga and Nottawasaga Bay, Upper Canada 21 November 1815.”

22 Markings on the anchor, which has rested at Anchor Park in Holland’s Landing since 1870, show that it was forged in Chatham, England and weighs “35-3-0” or approximately 4,000 pounds. Various newspaper articles and local histories have remarked upon the anchor; however, one of the most detailed accounts is written by 19th-century freemason and historian John Ross Robertson of what he termed the “Strange Relic of the War of 1812 That Never Reached Its Destination.” J. Ross Robertson, Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto: A Collection of Historical Sketches of the Old Town of York from 1792 until 1833, and of Toronto from 1834 to 1908, Fifth Series (Republished from the Evening Telegram), (Toronto: J.R. Robertson, 1908), pp. 54-57.

23 There is an Ontario Provincial Plaque commemorating the Schooner Town located at the Schoonertown Parkette near the site of the former base, River Road West and Oxbow Park Road, Wasaga Beach Provincial Park, Simcoe County. For information, see the Ontario Heritage Trust's online plaque database.

24 LAC, MG 11, Colonial Office 42/171, “Croker’s Letter of the 6th July 1816, State of the Naval Establishments in Canadas & Survey of the Lakes by Sir E. Owen,” p. 11, Reel B-137.

25 There is no clear indication when the last personnel left the Holland Landing Depot. In June 1817, orders were sent to dismiss any remaining artificers in the region of the new Penetanguishene establishment, yet there was still confusion over the nature of the store porters at Holland Landing and Nottawasaga. This appears to have been resolved by 1818 and George Chiles, the longstanding clerk at Holland Landing, begins to correspond as the “clerk in charge, Penetanguishene.” This timeframe for personnel being stationed at the Holland’s Landing Depot is corroborated by The National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office, London) finding aid to Admiralty records which lists the existence of muster and pay rolls for the Depot between the years 1814 to 1817 only. See letters: Robert Hall, Kingston to George Chiles, Holland Landing ff. 2 June 1817; Lieutenant Kent, Penetanguishene to George Chiles, Holland Landing 2 July 1817and Thomas G. Ridout, York to George Chiles, Penetanguishene 12 September 1818. Originals at Library and Archives Canada, copies found in “Military Records,” file, East Gwillimbury Historical Society and National Archives Research Guides, Royal Naval Dockyards, Military Records 41, see this website.

26 There is an Ontario Provincial Plaque commemorating the Rush-Bagot Agreement, located in front of the Stone Frigate building on the grounds of the Royal Military College of Canada, Highway 2, Kingston. For information, see the Ontario Heritage Trust's online plaque database.

27 Owen in 1815 recommended the centralization of Royal Navy operations at Penetanguishene and over the next decade this would come to fruition with the closing of Schooner Town and Drummond Island posts. The decline continued and the Royal Navy presence was not long lived at Penetanguishene with it ceasing operations there in 1834. See: Barry Gough, Fighting Sail on Lake Huron and Georgian Bay: The War of 1812 and its Aftermath, (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2002), 159-167.

28 Hunter, History of Simcoe County, Vol. 1, p. 15.

29 LAC, RG8 C-Series, Volume 1328, #11, Letter Sir John Colborne to Military Secretary, Head Quarters Québec, 30 November 1830.

30 Sir Richard Bonnycastle, The Canadas in 1841, Volume I, (London: Henry Colburn, 1841), p. 34.

31 14-15 Victoria (1851), c. 67.

32 City of Toronto Archives, County York, Canada West, Tremaine, 1860, MO 4.

33 Copy of the Township of East Gwillimbury, Land Registry page for Lot. No. 116 in the 1st Concession West, obtained from the York Region Land Registry Office at 50 Bloomington Rd W, 3rd Floor Aurora, ON L4G 3G8. The ‘Grantor’ for this parcel of land is listed as the ‘Crown’, with James McLure noted as the ‘Grantee’ and the ‘Instrument’ as ‘Patent’. The instrument used by the Crown, or representatives of the Crown, to convey title to a homestead grant in Upper Canada was known as a land patent. Before title to a homestead was granted by the Crown, the homesteader had to meet certain conditions of residency and cultivation for a fixed period of time.

34 Illustrated Historical Atlas of the County of York, 1878; reprint, (Toronto: Peter Martinand Associates, Ltd., 1969), p. 38.