Highland Clearances

The Highland Clearances

Sutherlandshire 1896

The day will come when the big sheep will put the plough up in the rafters . . .
The big sheep will overrun the country till they meet the northern sea . . . in the end, old men shall return from new lands.

 The Brahan Seer ( 17th century Highland Prophet)


The earliest known depiction of the Scottish kilt, Public Domain

In the 1780s Scotland was uneasy. The Leslies of Rogart lived through turbulent times as did others in Sutherlandshire. Sutherlandshire was not the base of the Leslie Clan who came from Aberdeenshire in the Lowlands. They may have moved north in the early seventeenth century when the Covenanters rebelled against Charles the First in the Battles of Dunbar and Hamilton or even earlier when the Scots were defeated at Flodden, 1615.


McIan Rook of McDonells

From Eliza Ann Ogilvy,  The Book of Highland Minstrelsy, 1860, Illustration by R. R. McIan. Public Domain.

Many Scots were unhappy with the Union of 1707, uniting England and Scotland. They rose up unsuccessfully in 1715. They rose again in 1745 but lost in the Battle of Culloden.

The_Battle_of_Culloden David Morrier

The Battle of Culloden, April 16, 1746. By David Morier, oil on canvas, 1746. Public Domain

After Culloden

The field at Culloden. From Eliza Ann Ogilvy,  The Book of Highland Minstrelsy, 1860, Illustration by R. R. McIan. Public Domain.

After Culloden, the wearing of Highland dress including tartan and kilt was banned.


David Allan, The Highland Wedding, 1780. Public Domain

Bonnie Prince Charlie went over the “friendly Main” – the English Channel and did never come back again. In 1747 Britain passed the Heritable Jurisdictions Act decreeing that Scots who refused loyalty to the Crown would lose their lands by forfeit.


Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) by John Pettie. Public Domain

Between 1780 to 1854 the Seer’s prophesy came true.


From Eliza Ann Ogilvy,  The Book of Highland Minstrelsy, 1860, Illustration by R. R. McIan. Public Domain.

In the 1780s the landlords began to evict their tenants to make way for sheep. The Highlands were cleared of an estimated 90 per cent of their small farms or crofts. Displaced Highlanders went on hellships  to America, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Not all the hellships arrived.

Highland Clearances 1

Thomas Faed, The Last of the Clan, 1865. Public Domain.



The Emigrants, 1844, by William Allsworth. Public Domain.

Nicol, Erskine, 1825-1904; The Missing Boat

Erskine Nichol, The Missing Boat; Royal Holloway, University of London; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-missing-boat-12857

While some who left Scotland had means, most of the Scots had little more than they could carry. Although some were skilled tradesmen, most were simple crofters. Many only spoke Gaelic. Some have described the Highland Clearances as an ethnic cleansing; others say that it was only about money. The landowners could make more profit from wool than from the rents of their tenants.


From Eliza Ann Ogilvy,  The Book of Highland Minstrelsy, 1860, Illustration by R. R. McIan. Public Domain.

Many Highlanders joined new Regiments raised to fight in America, Ireland and later in the Napoleonic Wars.


The refugees from the Highland Clearances were not the first Scots to settle in Ontario. In 1778 Loyalists who had fought in the American Revolution against Washington and Highland soldiers and their families arrived in Upper Canada near Akwesasne in 1778  and 1779. However, many more came with the Highland Clearances.


Publication of United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Canada http://www.uelac.org/


Clan Cameron, from R. R. McIan, Clans of the Scottish Highlands, 1845.

1785 was the official beginning of the Highland Clearances. In the 1780s Donald Cameron of Lochiel began to clear his family lands which ran from Loch Leven to Loch Arkaig. Refugees from the Highland Clearances began to come to Canada. Father Alexander Scotus MacDonell arrived at Glengarry, eastern Ontario, in 1786 “with his whole parish”. (Wm. Perkins Bull, From Macdonell to McGuigan, Toronto: The Perkins Bull Foundation, 1939)

When the Napoleonic Wars began, the price of wool rose dramatically while the price of the beef from the crofters’ cattle fell. One shepherd, alone but for his hard-working collies, could manage sheep on as much land as 12 to 16 families of crofters had worked.



McIan to America

From Eliza Ann Ogilvy,  The Book of Highland Minstrelsy, 1860, Illustration by R. R. McIan. Public Domain.

Meanwhile the Scottish elite were running up debts to support a Regency life style, far away from the tiny crofts or farms who paid to support their “lairds” with the little they earned raising cattle.


The Highland Shepherd, 1859 (oil on canvas); by Bonheur, Rosa (1822-99); 49×63 cm; Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany; French, Public Domain


Allan Ramsay Portrait of Lady Jane Douglas, full-length, as a shepherdess seated in a landscape

Allan Ramsay – Portrait of Lady Jane Douglas, full-length, as a shepherdess seated in a landscape


Major William Clunes by Sir Henry Raeburn. Public Domain.

James Hunter, author of ‘The Making of the Crofting Community’, described the situation:

Many chiefs were as at home in Edinburgh or Paris as they were in the Highlands, and French or English rolled off their tongue as easily as – perhaps more easily than – Gaelic. Moreover, while away from his clan the typical chief, conscious since childhood of his immensely aristocratic status in the Highland society whence he came, felt obliged to emulate or even surpass, the lifestyle of the courtiers and nobles with whom he mingled. And it was at this point that the 18th century chief’s two roles came into irreconcilable conflict with one another. As a southern socialite he needed more and more money. As a tribal patriarch he could do very little to raise it.

 James Hunter, The Making of the Crofting Community, John Donald, 2nd Revised edition, 2006 quoted on line and accessed June 13, 2016 at http://www.clannada.org/highland.php


George Leveson-Gower, First Duke of Sutherland, by Thomas Phillips. Public Domain.

Hungry for more and more money, the large land-owners of Scotland turned out their tenants in larger and larger numbers. This almot severed the bonds between the clan chiefs and the crofters, but instead of blaming their lairds they blamed those who did the actual burning and pillaging of the crofts. The Highland Clearances have never been forgotten: in Scotland or by their many descendents in Nova Scotia, Ontario and other Canadian provinces. Canadian author William Perkins Bull recalled:

…the country north of the Tweed became practically one huge sheep-walk”. 

Bull, From Macdonell to McGuigan.



Berrydale, Caithness. Public Domain.

Berrydale in Caithness was just one of the estates in Scotland owned by the Marquess of Stafford who later became the Duke of Sutherland.


Good Company, 1807. Public Domain.


Crofters, Public Domain.

Countess of Sutherland

Elizabeth Gordon, Countess of Sutherland

James Loch

James Loch, factor or estate manager, for the Sutherlands

The Canadian Boat Song captures some of the sorrow of the Highlanders:

King Sheep2

Many came to Canada to escape the Clearances and were not always happy with what they found.

Journal and Transactions of the Wentworth Historical Society, Volume 1 Head-of-the-Lake Historical Society, 1892, 118

Archibald McKellar, “Recollections of Colonel Talbot”, Journal and Transactions of the Wentworth Historical Society, Volume 1 Head-of-the-Lake Historical Society, 1892, 118


Thomas Talbot, Attributed to J. B. Wandesford, Collection of McIntosh Gallery, The University of Western Ontario

The Crown granted Colonel Thomas Talbot, an Irishman of good family, 5,000 acres of land on the condition of conveying fifty acres out of every two hundred to an actual settler. He was also commissioned addition grants that covered in all about 28 townships with 618,000 acres of the Western Peninsula along the Lake Erie shore, south of the Thames River to Lake Erie and from Windsor in the West to all most Long Point in the East. He established himself on the bluff of Lake Erie, at what is now Port Talbot. The irascible Irish Colonel became a tyrant in his own petty kingdom. St. Thomas and Talbotville, Ontario, are named for him.

The Scottish Pioneers of Upper Canada, 1784-1855 Glengarry and Beyond Lucille H. Campey Dundurn 2005

Lucille H. Campey, The Scottish Pioneers of Upper Canada, 1784-1855: Glengarry and Beyond Dundurn 2005, 117.

The Colonel Talbot Settlement was the whole of the county of Elgin and part of Essex, Kent, Middlesex and Norfolk Counties.

His style of settlement was opposed by many, including government officials.  Fees were not being paid to the government in the appropriate time frame as Talbot’s power was increasing.  The only record of settlement could be found in Talbot’s “Castle” on maps with pencilled in names of settlers.  He could easily rub a settlers name off the map for reasons including personal dislike or political views.  The land would then be given to someone else, with the government not being involved at all.  Sometimes years and even decades would go by between the initial settlement and the issue of any legal papers to the settler, stating that the land was indeed theirs. 


nlc008916-v6Alexander, known as “Alastair Mhor”, Macdonell (July 17, 1762 – January 14, 1840), was the first Roman Catholic bishop in Ontario, and a leader who brought his clansmen from Glengarry, Scotland to Glengarry, Ontario.


Clan Macdonell of Glengarry. Illustration by R. R. McIan from James Logan’s The Clans of the Scottish Highlands, published in 1845.

Macdonell Wikipedia Commons

Bishop Macdonell, Wikipedia Commons

Macdonell was born Alexander McDonell in Glengarry, Scotland, in 1762. He was ordained at Valladolid and was devoted to his Catholic kinsmen and clan. When they were evicted in 1792 in the Highland Clearances, he led them to Glasgow where some found work in factories.  When his efforts to settle them in Glasgow failed, The Macdonell formed them into a British regiment, the Glengarry Fencibles. He was appointed their chaplain, the first Catholic British Army chaplain in centuries.

Old Photograph Bracara Loch Morar Scotland

Lochaber, Glengarry, Scotland

sto-m-charlottenburgh Glengarry County

Charlottesburgh Township, Glengarry County, Ontario

At that time it was against the law at the time for a Catholic to be an army officer. When the regiment was disbanded Father Macdonell appealed to the Crown to grant his clan land in Canada. In 1804, the Government granted 160,000 acres (650 km²) in what is now Glengarry County.  Macdonell came to Canada with his clan folk, founded churches and schools and organised the settlement. In 1812 he raised another regiment, the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles to defend Upper Canada against the Americans. Macdonell was conservative and got along well with the oligarchy that ran Upper Canada, the Family Compact. In 1819 he was made vicar Apostolic of Upper Canada. In 1826 Upper Canada became a diocese with Macdonell its bishop. Five years the British Government appointed Macdonell to the legislative council. He founded a seminary at Saint Raphael’s and a college at Kingston. He was not known for getting along well with his Irish Catholic parishioners. Macdonell died in Dumfries, Scotland, of pneumonia.



His local Scots clansmen called Macdonell Easbuig Mhor meaning The Big Bishop since he was six feet four inches tall and with a miter on his head looked like a giant. He sat on the Legislative Council and supported the Family Compact against the Rebels in 1837. He referred to red-headed and fiery William Lyon Mackenzie from Dundee as “that little tiger mayor”.

Back in Scotland, the Clearances continued. Those of Sutherland would become notorious for their brutality. Elizabeth Gordon, Countess of Sutherland (1765 – 1839) and her husband, the Marquis of

Elizabeth, Duchess-Countess of Sutherland' by George Romney, Cincinnati Art Museum

Elizabeth Gordon, Countess of Sutherland, by George Romney, Cinncinnati Art Museum

Stafford (later the first Duke of Sutherland) used their estate manager, James Loch, known as a “factor”,  their lawyer, Patrick Sellar, close relative of the Countess of Sutherland,  to do their dirty work. Some believe that the factors and their men burned down up to 2,000 crofts a day. Some families had lived in these thatched cottages for 500 years or more. In 1811 the Countess and her husband made more than 50 shepherds Justices of the Peace who could bring the law to bear on their crofters or “lotters” as they were called in Sutherland. One of the conditions such Justices of the Peace agreed to was to “clear” a set number of families annually.

Between the years 1811 and 1820, 15,000 inhabitants of this northern district were ejected from their snug inland farms by means for which we would seek in vain a precedent, except, perhaps, in the history of the Irish massacre.

Hugh Miller quoted in Mathilde Blind, The Heather on Fire. Kessinger Publishing, 2004, 72. 

During medieval times in Rogart small scale farming occurred in almost every glen and people lived by a clan or feudal system.  Small townships were found all around and people were subsistence farmers with economies relying on small black cattle – the original Highland cattle.  The Clearances changed this way of life forever in the early and mid 1800s.  People were cleared from the glens to make way for sheep which provided a much more profitable income for landlords.  

History, County of Sutherland, Accessed October 12, 2005 http://www.countysutherland.co.uk/66.html



Highland Croft, 1873 by Peter Graham

The Highland cattle that had been the mainstay of the crofters’ livelihood for centuries.



Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, Highland Drovers

Life in the Highlands was in pieces as displaced people starved. Sheep grazed where, for centuries, the Leslies and others had farmed.


Mother and dead child

Enter a captionFrom Eliza Ann Ogilvy,  The Book of Highland Minstrelsy, 1860, Illustration by R. R. McIan. Public Domain.

Young George Leslie saw all this. He never trusted the established elites as his fatheGripfastr and forefathers had. He never wanted to be beholding to anyone and was never happy working for or in partnership with anyone. He rejected all attempts to force him to act or think against his will, living true to the Leslie motto, “Grip Fast”. He hated poverty and died as a wealthy man. Unlike those Leslies around him who were horribly maimed by their service in the Highland regiments, he never became a soldier, but was not a pacifist either.

Some like the Leslies emigrated in good ships with no one’s help, drawing on savings. Landlords paid the passage of others, including some who were given no choice, but thrown into hellship holds, bound hand and foot. Others from Rogart went to the Prairies to join a pioneering effort at what is now Winnipeg. Lord Selkirk recruited Highlanders from Rogart, Dornach, Kildonan and the area to join his proposed settlement in Canada.

St. Boniface, in the Red River Settlement, circa 1860

Red River Settlement, circa 1860

Thomas Douglas, Fifth Earl of Selkirk

Thomas Douglas, Fifth Earl of Selkirk

Scaddings, 90

Henry Scadding, “Toronto of Old, The Canadian Journal, Toronto, Royal Canadian Institute, Vol. 8, 1873, 90.

My great-grandfather and grandmother became attached to the Selkirk settlement. They had a very bad time. They were to be disembarked at York Factory but dumped off at Churchill. My great-grandfather played the bagpipes during the march to York Factory to keep spirits up.

John G. Diefenbaker quoted in “Diefenbaker’s North, from TIMESPAN quoted in and accessed at  http://www.electriccanadian.com/makers/diefenbaker.htm

The_Fight_at_Seven_Oaks Charles William Jeffreys

Charles William Jefferys, Library and Archives Canada, Public Domain. Note this was painted almost a century after the Battle of Seven Oaks and owes as much to Hollywood westerns as it does to history.

The North West Company was a rival of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC’s). The North West Company worked with First Nations and Metis people damage HBC’s operations and wipe out Lord Selkirk’s settlement in Manitoba, Kildonan. The First Nations were rightly suspicious of the Scottish settlers fearing that British farms would eventually mean the end of the giant buffalo herds that all the Plains nations depended on.  The Metis feared that they would be crowded out and their lands taken. At the Battle of the Seven Oaks, June 18, 1816, North West Company men and Metis attacked the Governor of the North West Company, killing him and 21 others.


Chief Peguis stayed to bury the dead, the rest escaped to the bush, fearing retribution. In 1821 the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company amalgamated, but Rogart men were not anxious to head for the farthest frontiers, preferring the relative safety and security of Nova Scotia and Ontario.

Patrick Sellar

Patrick Sellar

In 1814 Patrick Sellar began burning Strathnaver in Sutherland.

Croft on fire


Patrick Sellar was charged of murder, but found not guilty. This modern publication pokes wry fun at the justice of two centuries before.


Strathnaver endured another clearance in 1819. A young stonemason, Donald MacLeod, was an eyewitness:

Rogart on fire

Duncan Macleod, History of the Destitution in Sutherlandshire, Edinburgh, 1841, 21


R. R. McIan, Clans of the Scottish Highlands, 1845

In 1819 John Beatty encouraged his sister Esther and her husband John Leslie to join him in Upper Canada where land was cheap and there were no lairds. They would have better farmland than the beautiful, stony fields of the Highlands where they were no longer wanted. Virtually all of the people who lived in Rogart were ‘cleared’ though not the Leslies although they were on the list to be cleared. These veterans of Waterloo and the Peninsular War had hoped they might be overlooked, but their houses were burnt around them, their stock sized and their belongings scattered. Homeless, thousands of Scots were on the move. In the 1820s the great Scottish migration into Canada began, as the Highland Clearances drove many off the land they had tilled for generations. By 1830 the Town of York’s population had grown to 2,860. By 1836 only thirty years later the population had more than tripled to 374,000. By 1841, it was 456,000. (C.C. James, History of Farming in Ontario, Toronto, 1914, 556-558.)




An Ejected Family by Erskine Nicol. Public Domain.

Young George Leslie had a skill and an interest that helped him and his family survive the Clearances. Since he was a child he had loved nature. As he grew into a young man, it was clear that gardening was his calling. When he left school at 16, he apprenticed as a gardener on Lord Anchorfield’s estate at Tarlogie, near Tain in Rosshire. He was an apprentice until 1822. He soon became known for his skill in landscaping. Young George was a hot commodity among the gentry who competed then, as now, for the best gardens. Lord Anchorfield put George Leslie in charge of the Arabella gardens where he worked until 1824.

Lord Anchorfield

Lord Anchorfield, Sir Alexander Morison (1779-1866). Painting by Richard Dadd, 1852. Sir Alexander Morison was one of the first psychiatrist. Richard Dadd was one of his patients in the Bethlem Asylum.

He could have found work on the large estates of Scotland until he died, but he disliked the conservatism and the regimented hierarchical nature of Scottish society.

Tarlogie House, Tain, Scotland

Tarlogie, Lord Anchorfield’s Estate, Tain, Scotland

In 1824 his mother and step-father decided to join John Beatty, in Upper Canada. George, young, ambitious, and reform-minded, was glad to leave.  On April 1, 1825 the Leslie sailed for Canada.

Farewell to Scotland

When the Island of Rum was cleared of all but one family in 1826, the year after the Leslies safely arrived in Streetsville, MacLean of Coll paid for his tenants to sail to Halifax in Canada on the “James”. Everyone on board caught typhus while at sea.



From the Archives of Nova Scotia, Public Domain


Highland Whiskey Still, by R. R. McIan

18190000 Loch Improvements in Sutherlandshire p 176 b.jpg

James Loch, Improvements in Sutherlandshire, 1819, 176.

James Lock, the factor responsible for the Sutherland Clearances, lost no opportunity to blame the lotters, as the crofters of Sutherland were called, who would rather make whiskey illegally that gather kelp on the rocky seashore where he removed them to.

Highland Whisky Still by R R McIan

Highland Whiskey Still, R. R. McIan. The deer was undoubtedly poached, as was the grouse hanging from the little boy’s hand. A border collie and a terrier keep watch should the laird’s men appear to break up the still.

Scots in Toronto never forgot the horror of the clearances and almost 50 years later still donated money to help those who were still being cleared.

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Globe, March 17, 1847 List of donors to aid the destitute in Scotland. The Highland was hit by the same blight that caused the Irish Potato Famine.

Skye Crofters

Grinding oatmeal, Skye, Public Domain

In 1851 Colonel Gordon of Cluny called his crofters to a meeting to talk about their rents. If they did not attend, they would be fined. Once they were inside the meeting hall, police overpowered, tied up, and loaded 1,500 tenants aboard ships bound for America.

collecting peat

Crofter carrying a load of peat, Public Domain.

Englishwoman Josephine Macdonell (nee Bennett) of Glengarry cleared Knoydart of the last of her crofters in 1853, forcibly evicting over 400 people from their homes. These included seniors and women in labour.  If Catholic bishops can haunt, then the ghost of Alastair Mohr Macdonell haunted Mrs. Macdonell.

Big Mary

Mairi Mhor Nan Oran  or Big Mary of the Songs (1821 – 1898), Gaelic poet who wrote of the Clearances.

When men came to clear Strathcarron in Ross-shire in 1854, women blocked the road. The police attacked the women with truncheons, in what has been called The Massacre of the Ross Women”. Donald Ross was an eyewitness and said that the constables:


. . struck with all their force. . . . not only when knocking down, but after the females were on the ground. They beat and kicked them while lying weltering in their blood . . . . (and) more than twenty females were carried off the field in blankets and litters, and the appearance they presented, with their heads cut and bruised, their limbs mangled and their clothes clotted with blood, was such as would horrify any savage.

Quote accessed June 13, 2016 at http://www.tartansauthority.com/resources/the-highland-clearances/

When the landowners tried to recruit troops to fight for the Crown, as their fathers and grandfathers had done fifty years before, the Highlanders were far less than enthusiastic about going off to Crimea. One tenant said,

…should the Czar of Russia take possession of (these lands) next term, we couldn’t expect worse treatment at his hands than we have experienced in the hands of your family for the last fifty years. 

Quote accessed June 13, 2016 at http://www.tartansauthority.com/resources/the-highland-clearances/

With typical lack of tact or perception, the Duke of Sutherland, when asked to raise more Highlanders for the war in Russia, sent factor James Loch into Sutherland to get volunteers. He was despised only less than Patrick Sellar and Lord and Lady Stafford themselves. After six weeks he returned with no volunteers. Donald Ross wrote of it:

“In Sutherland not one soldier can be raised. Captain Craigie, R.N., the Duke’s factor, a Free Church minister and a moderate minister, have been piping the days for volunteers and recruits; and yet, after many threats on the part of the factor, and sweet music on the part of the parsons, the military spirit of the poor Sutherland serfs could not be raised to fighting power. The men told the parsons 

“We have no country to fight for! You robbed us of our country and gave it to the sheep. Therefore, since you have preferred sheep to men, let sheep defend you!”

Robert M. Gunn, The Tragic Highland Clearances, accessed June 14, 2016 at http://skyelander.orgfree.com/clear5.html

George Leslie Sr John McPherson Ross Painting


James Lesslie and Willion Lyon Mackenzie were business partners.

In 1854 the Highland Clearances officially ended although landowners continued to force people off their land for decades. In Canada “Rep by pop” threatened to break up the Reform Party, founded by Scots, including George Brown born in Alloa, Clackmannan, Scotland, James Lesslie from Dundee  and George Leslie from Rogart.  Reformers were known as “Grits” and they laid the foundations of the Liberal Party of Canada. The Grits attacked alleged governmental waste and corruption in railway schemes, especially in regard to the Grand Trunk Railway. Canada and the U.S. signed a Reciprocity Treaty, ensuring reduction of customs duties (June 6). The British North American provinces could now send their natural products (principally grain, timber, and fish) to the United States without tariff, while American fishermen are allowed into British North American fisheries.  Augustin Morin and Sir Allan MacNab formed a political coalition secularized the Clergy Reserves, ended seigneurial tenure and laid the foundations for the future Conservative Party. In 1854 the Charge of the Light Brigade was a singularly stupid moment in British military history.

In November 1854, The Times war correspondent William Russell, writing from the Crimea, reported that an attack by Russian cavalry had been repulsed, having come up against a piece of ‘Gaelic rock… a thin red streak topped up with a line of steel’ – a description that would later become ‘the thin red line’. Russell was describing the heroic part played by the 93rd Highlanders in the Battle of Balaclava, probably better known as the occasion of the disastrous charge of the Light Brigade.

Quote accessed June 16, 2016 at http://www.military-history.org/regiment-profiles/the-93rd-highlanders-and-the-thin-red-line.htm


The Thin Red Line by Robert Gibb, 1881, Oil on canvas

John A MacdonaldWhen Canada was borth with Confederation in 1867 our first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, was born in Glasgow, the son of Hugh Macdonald and Helen Shaw, from Kildonan, Sutherlandshire. His attitude towards adversity was one shared by other Scots:

When fortune empties her chamber pot on your head, smile and say, ‘We are going to have a summer shower.’

John A. Macdonald

Documentation suggests that between 1783 and 1881 170,571  landlords threw Highlanders being off their traditional lands. There may have been many more.

Highland Eviction

Highland Eviction accessed June 13, 2016 at http://www.pinterest.com Public Domain



The Cameron Family, Kildonan, 1905 accessed June 13, 2016  Public Domain at http://www.heathermacleod.co.uk/735

An image of an evicted Scottish family circa 1895 photographed on the ruins of their house

An image of an evicted Scottish family circa 1895 photographed on the ruins of their house, accessed June 13, 2016 at http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/scotlandshistory/jacobitesenlightenmentclearances/clearances/

Men of St KildaIn 1930 St. Kilda in the Outer Hebrides was evacuated because the people there were so poor.  The men in this picture do not even have shoes.


John G. Diefenbaker speaking at the dedication of a monument in Kildonan, Photo from TIMESPAN


John Diefenbaker (1895-1979), the 13th Prime Minister of Canada was Prime Minister in office (21 June 1957 – 22 April 1963). He was descended from the Bannerman family who were forced to leave their home in Strath of Kildonan just outside Helmsdale in Sutherland during the Highland Clearances in 1813. They travelled to Canada and joined Lord Selkirk’s settlement of Kildonan on the Red River.

Diefenbaker later recalled:

“All that remains there today is the occasional ruin. The ruin of my great grandfather’s cottage is still to be seen and is not more than two or three feet high.

So if it hadn’t been for the Highland Clearances, the first and thirteenth Prime Ministers of Canada might not have been.”



St. Kilda2

1930, the women of St. Kilda waiting to leave their home forever

Children of Kilda Outer Hebrides

Enter a captionThe children of St. Kilda, 1930

Oil painting on panel; A Scottish Crofter, by an artist from the circle of Erskine Nicol. Guernsey Museum Object No. GMAG 5901

Oil painting on panel; A Scottish Crofter, by an artist from the circle of Erskine Nicol. A romanticized painting, but perhaps he is reading Robbie Burns.


Robert “Rabbie” Burns
Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North,
The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth;
Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,
The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.
My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here;
My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer;
A-chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands wherever I go.
Farewell to the mountains high covered with snow;
Farewell to the straths and green valleys below;
Farewell to the forests and wild-hanging woods;
Farewell to the torrents and loud-pouring floods.
My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here;
My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer;
A-chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands wherever I go.

George Leslie’s birthplace, Rogart, Sutherlandshire and the deforested Highlands

Late 19th Century Photo of Rogart, Clan Leslie Tartan

Late 19th Century Photo of Rogart, Clan Leslie Tartan











Only the large country estates of the wealthy and the glens or valleys had trees in any significant amount.  George Leslie loved trees and apprenticed to gardeners in Estates similar to this one. He hated the hierachy and conservatism of Scottish society and came to Peel County (now Mississauga and the Peel Region) in the mid-1820s with his family.


Crofters. Public Domain.

The Forests of Canada

Burning Trees in a Girdled Clearing, Archives and Libraries Canada

Burning Trees in a Girdled Clearing, Archives and Libraries Canada

Winter - Impeded Travelers In A Pine Forest, Upper Canada, by George Harvey

Winter – Impeded Travelers In A Pine Forest, Upper Canada, by George Harvey

The Leslie Log Cabin in Streetsville later moved to Mississauga Road. Built by George and Robert Leslie in 1826. Photo courtesy of Harold and Valada Leslie. It has since been restored and is now a City of LG_leslielogMississauga Museum.


Some of the places where George Leslie first worked gardening and planting trees when he came to York, Upper Canada


18290000 Osgoode Hall built photo TARCH 1856

Osgoode Hall, build 1929, photograph, 1856 (City of Toronto Archives)

Upper Canada College 1831-1891 TPL

Upper Canada College 1831-1891 (Toronto Public Library)

John George Howard Parliament Bldgs 1834 TPL

The Parliament Buildings on Front Street where the CBC Building is today. By John George Howard, 1834 (Toronto Public Library)

Unknown  TPL

George Crookshank’s house, Bathurst west side, between Dundas & College (Toronto Public Library) Artist Unknown.

Sir William Campbell’s Jpise, Adelaide St. E. Painting by Owen Staples, 1912. (Toronto Public Library)

Bishop Strachan House ca 1885 TPL

Bishop Strachan’s House, Front Street, ca 1885 (Toronto Public Library)

Bishop Strachan House ca 1900 TPL

Bishop Strachan House ca 1900 (Toronto Public Library)


Sir William Allan’s Estate, ‘Moss Park’, Sherbourne St., w. side, s. of Shuter St. 1880 (Toronto Public Library)

Reference Letter for George Leslie 1826

Alex Baird, Head Gardiner, Arabella’s Farm, Tain, Rothshire, Reference Letter for George Leslie, 1826, Private Collection

Portrait of George Leslie as a Young Man, J. Doucette 2016

Portrait of George Leslie as a Young Man, J. Doucette 2016




Scottish Soldier

George Leslie Sr John McPherson Ross Painting

Rogart photo late 19th century

George Leslie’s father William and William’s cousin John Leslie were from Rogart, Sutherlandshire, Scotland. 

Rogart…even the inhabited land is everywhere encumbered with rock. Thompson, John, The Traveller’s Guide to Scotland & its Isles, 1824

Map Rogart

Clan Map of Scotland, Rogart is marked with a star

Raising of the 93rd

William Leslie was in the Fencibles, but some of these militia men also volunteered for short-term service in the new 93rd Regiment of Foot, known as the Sutherland Highlanders. The 93rd were a regular British army regiment or “regiment of the line” although the way they were recruited was anything but regular. It has been seen as the last great act of clan loyalty in Scottish history. Everything was soon to change and the loyalty of the Highlanders would be crushed in a great act of betrayal. The bonds which enabled the Countess to call on her clansmen would be violently cut and the old ways dead.

Rams horn and whiskey

Sutherland Fencibles painting

The Sutherland Highlanders had a good reputation in their dealings with the Irish. It is not recorded whether or not the Irish Catholic peasantry agreed with this benign assessment of their mostly Protestant occupiers.

The Sutherlands served in different places around Ireland including Tyrone.  Esther Beatty (1783-1867), eldest daughter of James Beattie (also spelled “Beatty”), of Omagh, County Tyrone, met & married William Leslie.  William had previously been married to Christina Ross who died in childbirth several years before.

Gallant Forty Twa

The Irish girls were attrracted to the bonnie laddies from over the Irish sea as this song recalls. The 42nd Royal Highland Regiment is better known as The Black Watch.

Uniforms 79th

Officer of the 92 Gordon Highlanders left, Sergeant of the Cameron Highlanders middle, enlisted man of the 42 Royal Highlanders (The Black Watch) right.

Officer of the 93rd Highlanders

Officer of the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders

The Sutherland Clearance had already begun when William Leslie probably went with John Leslie, his cousin,  to Spain with the 79th Cameron Highlanders to fight in the Peninsula Campaign against Napoleon and his armies. The Countess of Sutherland had betrayed her people by driving them by force off their land to make way for sheep in a protracted campaign that is remembered as the Sutherland Clearances. Many men preferred to enlist uner Alan Cameron of Erracht who was neither a clan chieftain or responsible for clearances. Deeply devoted to his soldiers, he raised the 79th Regiment of Foot privately and lead them into battle.

Alan Cameron Erracht and captured Cameron

Leslie family tradition says from wounds at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, but the scanty records available don’t support this. Robert Leslie’s obituary states,

They were preceded from Quebec a few months earlier by their father, John Leslie, who was a retired soldier of the British Army, having served in the 79th Highlanders [Cameron Highlanders] from 1793 to 1814, a full term of 21 years. He participated in all the celebrated engagements of the Peninsular war, including Nive, Nivelle, Pyrenees, Badajos [Badajoz], Ciudad Roderigo, Salamanca, and was shot through the arm and leg at Corunna, noted in history as the place of the celebrated retreat under Sir John Moore when he lost his life.

Wounded Cameron PiperJohn Leslie is listed in the records of Royal Hospital Chelsea Pensioners, 79th Cameron Highlanders. The records note that he was “severely wounded right arm” and that he was a laborer from Rogart, Sutherland. Before he fought in Spain, he served in Canada during the War of 1812. John Leslie had served in Canada as well. He is described in the “British Regimental Registers of Service, 79th Foot Soldiers, 1st Battalion, 1809-1816, as having dark complexion, a round face, brown eyes, dark hair, and as being a laborer from Rogart, Sutherlandshire.


December , 1808. Retreat to Corunna, a death march. Over 5,000 men died.


Arm Wound Corunna


(c) The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

These are the kinds of wounds sustained by John and William on the retreat from Corunna. William died, John survived.

Healing arm wound Corunna


18151000 OR's of the 95th Rifles 71st HLI and 79th drawn during the occupation of Paris 1815


(c) The Highlanders' Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) The Highlanders’ Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

18140410 42ndblackwatchcanal Toulouse

By the time of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 John Leslie was on a pension back in Rogart and William Leslie was dead. The 93rd were in North America where the Sutherland Highlanders were decimated at the Battle of New Orleans.

Battle of New Orleans

The 79th Cameron Highlanders were at Waterloo. While William and John Leslie were not there, Norman Leslie from Rogart was.

Highland Regiments at WaterlooCamerons at Waterloo


Arthur Wellesley, The Duke of Wellington

Knox Leslie obit

While George Leslie was never a soldier, his sons both joined the Queen’s Own Rifles and John Knox Leslie rose to become the Colonel of the Regiment. The sporran of the Highland Company of the Queen’s Own Rifles was borrowed from that of the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders.

Highland Regiments would go on to play a vital role in Canada’s military history.

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Canada’s Johnny Appleseed


George Leslie Sr.

George Leslie Sr.

George Leslie’s was Canada’s very own “Johnny Appleseed”, but who was the original Johnny? And how was George like Johnny?


John Chapman “Johnny Appleseed”

The original “Johnny Appleseed” was John Chapman (1774-1845). The myth of Johnny Appleseed has him wandering around America, scattering apple seeds here and there. Like all myths, it has an element of truth. John Chapman was responsible for apple trees and orchards in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and other Mid-Western states. However, just like George Leslie, he was a skilled nurseryman who grew trees, sold trees and promoted trees. He was responsible for supplying the nursery stock that started the orchards of those states just as George Leslie was responsible for supplying the nursery stock that started orchards across Canada, including Ontario. Like George Leslie, John Chapman was a trained professional who apprenticed as a gardener. Like George Leslie, he carefully selected and tested varieties of fruit trees that would thrive in the growing conditions around the Great Lakes. John Chapman was generous with his trees, giving thousands away, just as George Leslie. Both were deeply religious men committed to their faith and their communities. Both were famous in their day, much quoted and admired.

twenty_ounce 300 dpiThere are differences. John Chapman’s orchard was much bigger than George Leslie’s, George had 250 acres; John Chapman, had a 1,200 acres. John Chapman was an eccentric who wore rags and died of exposure in 1845, just two years after George Leslie opened his nursery in Leslieville. George Leslie was highly respectable: an Alderman, School Trustee, Justice of the Peace and “Squire” Leslie to those who knew him.

Americans are good at myth-making; Canadians tend more towards the cold, hard truth. We have few myths: the Maple Leaf Forever Tree is one. John Chapman lives on in children’s stories and Disney popularized the myth in his movies. I have included a link to Walt Disney’s “Johnny Appleseed” here. George Leslie lives on in the name “Leslieville” and is forgotten except in the last few years when my books and articles have made his name more familiar so that even a condo project is named “George” after him.

So let’s see if you think George Leslie deserves to be recognized as “Canada’s Johnny Appleseed.”

SweetBoughIn 1832 he organized the first exhibition of fruit in Ontario.

Then came the time when a few men saw the possibilities of the future if fruit-culture was undertaken in a systematic way. George Leslie, one of the earliest nurserymen in Toronto, organized a fruit exhibition in 1832, but a few specimens of apples, some wild plums, and some small fruit [berries] were all he could procure. He brought trees from New York, organized a nursery, and succeeded in interesting others in the subject. 

(Canadian History, No. 10, June, 1900, 263)

seek no futher appleIn 1834 George Leslie was one of the founders and first Directors of the Toronto Horticultural Society. He opened a seed and grocery store was on Front Street. Like many others George Leslie purchased his first stock of seeds from London, England. Often the seeds were not viable or the plants successful in the very different growing environment of Ontario. George Leslie secured and tested seeds and young apple saplings that were suitable for Ontario.  He faced difficulties finding enough varieties of trees and plants. He was also concerned about quality. In the late 1830s he travelled to the US looking for suitable stock. In the spring he found two men in Rochester, New York, who had similar views and ambitions to his own, George Ellwanger and Patrick Barry.

Both businesses had large greenhouses. The 1840s and 1850s were a golden age of greenhouses. For the first time technology was available to make large sheets of plate glass and iron frames. Soon “crystal palaces” went up, heated by boilers and steam. For the first time, fruits and vegetables became available and affordable for the middle classes year round. George Leslie used every possible opportunity to market his products especially his apple trees.

Sorting applesIn 1841, when the Horticultural Society began holding annual exhibitions, George Leslie was an energetic participant and supporter, as were some other market gardeners. Exhibitions were an excellent opportunity to advertise their seeds, exchange information and encourage the public to plant orchards, especially of apples and pears.  In an era without television, radio or Internet, there could be no better way to promote products.

In 1842, George Leslie leased 20 acres of land from Charles Coxwell Small for a 21- year term. Small, member of the Family Compact and Clerk of the Crown, was owner of extensive lands in the area. (Coxwell Avenue is named after him.) Small may have thought he got the better of the deal when he found someone foolish enough to lease his 20 acres of mucky swampland on the shores of Ashbridges Bay. The Toronto Nurseries was built on tamarack-covered swamp (Larchmount Avenue recalls this). These 20 acres of rich black mud were the core of his nursery which would expand to 200 acres, the largest in Canada. George Leslie did not buy that land until the lease ran out in 1863. Then Small demanded an exorbitant price from Leslie and apparently got it.

Red AstrachanGeorge Leslie valued that soft, rich dark muck and others recognized its worth. Orchards flourished then and now on the shores of the lower Great Lakes, especially Lake Ontario. The microclimate is ideal for fruit-growing. Though the Niagara Fruit Belt did not exist then, George Leslie’s fruit trees helped to create it.

In the 1840s, the “New Town”, west of the original “Old Town” (King and Parliament area), grew rapidly. Yonge Street became an important thoroughfare. Sensitive to “Location! Location! Location!”, in September 1843 he moved his seed store to Yonge Street on the east side, south of King Street. He advertised the expansion of his business:

Having twenty Acres in the liberties of the city, in course of breaking in, as a Nursery and Seed Garden, he can now supply the public with Fruit and Ornamental Trees, Shrubs, Roses, Herbaceous Flowering Plants, &C., at a cheaper rate than they can be got from New-York or Rochester.

(The British American Cultivator, Vol. 3, No. 3, March 1844)

Primate appleLeslie was a skilled user of the media using advertising, interviews, and stories in newspapers and journals to promote the growing of trees and his business. He became good friends with another Reformer George Brown, who, in 1844, established The Globe. The connection worked well for the nurseryman. People in southwestern Ontario could pick up the Toronto Nurseries catalogue at the Western Globe in London and buy apple trees and other fruit trees.

In the spring of 1845 George Leslie began to advertise his new partnership with Ellwanger and Barry. He still offered a full array of seeds at his Yonge Street store including importations from J. Wresch & Son, London, England.  He also promoted his new nursery:

G. L. would also invite public attention to his Nursery Establishment, for the cultivation of FRUIT and ORNAMENTAL TREES, on a more extended scale that has been hitherto attempted in Canada. Trees and Flowering Plants will be carefully packed, so as to bear transportation to any part of the Province, should their passage take two weeks.

(Globe, February 18, 1845; Globe, March 25, 1845; The British American Cultivator, New series, Vol. 1, No. 9, Sept. 1845)

Maiden's Blush appleHere is an ad from a little later in the spring of 1845.

Toronto Nursery and Seed Store

THE undersigned would respectfully inform their friends and the Public , that they have entered into a Co-partnership, for the purpose of carrying on the

in the City of Toronto. THE NURSERY ESTABLISHMENT is situated as above, on the Kingston commenced three years ago by GEORGE LESLIE. The Tract of Land, 20 acres in extent, is admirably adapted to the purpose.  Upwards of ten acres are already planted with Trees, Shrubs, &c. And more will be planted this Spring, and arrangements are being made with a view to make this the most extensive and useful Establishment of the kind yet attempted in the province. They have on hand, and now for offer for sale a superior collection of


The collection of Fruit Trees comprises the most valuable and approved varieties, adapted to our latitude, either here or in the well-known MOUNT HOPE NURSERIES, Rochester, New-York, with which this Establishment is now connected. The collection of ORNAMENTAL TREES, SHRUBS, ROSES, HERBACEOUS PLANTS, etc. etc. is quite extensive, and are offered at moderate prices.

Public Grounds, and other places requiring large quantities of Trees and Shrubs, will be laid out and planted, by contract, at low price.

All articles sent from the nursery are carefully packed for which a small charge, covering expenses, will be made. Packages will be addressed and forwarded, agreeable to the advice of persons ordering, and in all cases at their risk. A large supply of Fresh and Genuine, GARDEN, FIELD and FLOWER SEEDS, constantly on hand at their SEED STORE AND NURSERY DEPORT on Yonge Street between King Street and the wharf.


Orders by Mail (post-paid) from any part of the country if accompanied with a remittance, or a satisfactory reference in the City of Toronto, will receive prompt attention. Priced Catalogues will be furnished gratis in all post-paid applications.

27TH March, 1845.

(Globe, April 1, 1845)

Young Leslie

George Leslie at the age of 40. By Joanne Doucette

The December issue of The British American Cultivator included an article promoting the partnership of Ellwanger and Barry and their Mount Hope Nursery with George Leslie’s Toronto Nursery. Their catalogue offered 171 varieties of apples, 141 of pears, 35 of plums, 48 of cherries, 8 of apricots, 38 of peaches, 6 of nectarines, 6 of quinces, 26 of grapes, 7 of currants, 8 of raspberries, and 24 of strawberries. As well, they sold 70 varieties of street and shade trees; 78 different
ornamental shrubs; 37 different conifers; and many other plants, including roses and peonies. (The British American Cultivator, New Series, Vol. 1, No. 12, Dec. 1845, 357-358.)

Early harvest apple 300dpiIn late 1845 the City of Toronto purchased part of George Leslie’s Yonge Street property for $5,000 in order to extend Colborne Street through to Yonge.  That spring the Leslies moved to a home on the Kingston Road near the nursery.

He opened his nursery to the public: “The Public are respectfully invited to visit the Nursery, and judge of the manner in which business is carried on.” George Leslie and other reputable nurseries faced competition from itinerant peddlers who lied about their wares and sold trees so badly neglected that they died soon after they were sold to farmers. Of course, the solution to the problem was Toronto Nurseries, if customers would:

… bring their waggons to the ground, and have their trees taken up, and carried home with them. They may then often be planted within forty-eight hours after being dug; and if the following directions are carefully followed, success may reasonably be anticipated.

Crap apple1
Visiting the nursery gave potential buyers the opportunity to see the growing conditions for themselves.  As well people were beginning to visit nurseries (and cemeteries) almost as if they were public parks which, for all intents and purposes, did not exist in the Toronto of the 1840s. Since people were intrigued by greenhouses, this could be an outing for the family and George proceeded to develop his nursery grounds into an arboretum.  George Leslie did not start most of his trees in his nursery, but instead imported trees from Britain, including some of Toronto’s most common street trees such as Norway maple, European ash, London plane tree, Scotch elm, etc. The Leslies left many specimen trees to grown in their nursery. 40 years later Leslie’s Grove, the nickname locals gave to the tree nursery, had, according to the Leslies, “European and American forest trees of large size…in our grounds, some of them measuring over two feet through.”

Blue pearmain2

In the spring of 1848 George Leslie sold his seed business, known as “The Toronto Nursery Depot” to William Gordon and announced that “his whole personal attention will in future be given to the Nursery Business” (The British Colonist, March 28, 1848) Though William Gordon bought out the name, stock and “good will” of the seed business, George kept the seed store itself. Having just built it, George Leslie did not intend to lose it. He put the store, “one of the best built frame structures of the time”, on rollers and towed it his new nursery. (Globe, May 6, 1893) George Leslie continued a business arrangement with William Gordon, supplying him with fruit trees, shade trees, ornamentals, flowers and greenhouse plants.

In 1848, George Leslie bought out Ellwanger and Barry’s interest in the Toronto Nursery for $5,000. The public reason for ending the partnership was the increasing demands made by Mount Hope Nursery on George Ellwanger and Patrick Barry. Given George Leslie’s attitudes towards authority, he was not easy to work with; the relationship was doomed from its start.  George Leslie, though reputed to be an amiable soul, was tenacious, stubborn and, above all, his own man.

In the fall of 1848 George Leslie placed large advertisements in the Globe now boasted that he had a “variety of large well grown healthy Trees, of the most approved varieties, [that] now equals any between this and New York.” His nursery had now grown beyond the initial 20 acres and he offered 40,000 apple trees for sale. He had planted them in 1843 and took pride in his “well grown healthy Trees.” He also offered a wide variety of nursery stock for orchards, vegetable and flower gardens, including his beloved Dahlias. He also offered plants at wholesale prices to other nurserymen. Each year he put out a new catalogue with this on successfully transplanting and growth plants and trees (Globe, September 16, 1848)

Apple pickers2His reputation was growing. He began writing articles for farm and horticultural journals. In November, 1848, The Farmer and Mechanic pointed out that Leslie was a valuable resource for Canadians:

This respectable firm [Ellwanger & Barry] have been connected with Mr. George Leslie’s nursery business for the past four years which connexion, however, is amicably dissolved; and Mr. Leslie having procured all the best varieties cultivated, and perfected arrangements for procuring new ones as they from time to time are ushered into notice, a full and complete assortment of the choicest fruit trees may be had at the Toronto Nursery, each warranted to be true to their sorts, at as low a price as can be had in any part of the United States. 

(The Farmer and Mechanic, Vol. 1, no. 2, Nov. 1848, 42)

On March 14th, 1849 George Leslie played on Canadian nationalist sympathies to take a shot at the heirs of Johnny Appleseed, his American rivals:

I have been engaged in the business of tree culture for twenty years in this neighbourhood. In recommending varieties of fruit, I shall mention only such kinds as personal observation has convinced me are quite suitable for this neighbourhood. …Canada has a right to share, with other parts of North America, the profit and honour of having her fruit shipped to all parts of the world. 

(The Farmer and Mechanic, Vol. 1, no 7, April, 1849, 188 –193)

Cover Leslie catalogue Apple varietiesHe promoted the growing of apple and other fruit trees throughout his life – not by wandering by foot scattering seeds here and there, which the real John Chapman never did even though the American legend Johnny Appleseed did. Instead he used his shrewd business sense; his friendships with politicians, others in the trade and other Scotsmen; his ability to communicate his life of trees and his reputation as a nurseryman to promote fruit growing at every opportunity. One can sense his sadness that many Canadian farmers did not value orchards or appreciate the potential for exporting a valuable red, round cash crop to Britain and the rest of Europe. That spring George Leslie wrote another article encouraging the planting of orchards in a different publication also aimed at farmers. He recommended his catalogue, as well as his favourite fruits. (The Canadian Agriculturist, Vol. 1, no. 4, Apr. 2, 1849, 100-102) In another article for The Canadian Agriculturalist published in June, 1849, he encouraged landscaping, claiming that the planting of shrubs and shade trees was “a work of genuine patriotism, as evidencing the wealth and increasing greatness of the country.” Planting trees also should that the homeowner had both “superior intellect and a refined taste.” (The Canadian Agriculturist, Vol. 1, No. 6, June 1, 1849, 157-158)

He continued to write articles giving practical advice on subjects such as pruning fruit trees, but he was also busy in another business in which he made more money than he did selling trees. That business was real estate. Around 1850 George Leslie had some of his land north of Kingston Road between Jones and Hastings, survey into lots for market gardeners and butchers. This was the first residential subdivision in Leslieville and filled with Irish Catholics, many of whom were refugees from the Irish Potato Famine. Throughout his life, discrimination on the basis of creed was abhorrent to Leslie.

Blue pearmainBy the early 1850s, a wider audience was beginning to tune in to George Leslie’s crusade for trees, especially fruit trees. William Henry Smith, in his Statistical Account of Canada West, 1851, commented on the new interest in fruit growing:

…we heard, two or three years since, of a Toronto merchant, having a residence a short distance from the city, who sent some apples from his orchard to Scotland, and made a profit of £40 on the small quantity sent.

(William Henry Smith, Canada Past, Present and Future, London: T. Maclear, 1851, 419)

On February 5, 1852 Caroline Anne Davis Leslie died at the age of 32. They had been married 15 years. Her cause of death is not known but a cholera epidemic was raging in Toronto at that time. George Leslie was now alone with young children: George Jr. (aged 11), John Knox (6), Caroline Jane (4) and Esther Ann (2). He seems to have thrown himself into his work, continuing to exhibit and win at that fall.

Early in the 1850s Robert Baldwin commissioned George Leslie as a Justice of the Peace. George Leslie also was a school trustee for nine years. The village school was next to his General Store at Curzon and Kingston Road. The locals began to refer to him as “Squire Leslie”.  While not officially elected as Mayor, he was the leading figure in the village. Leslie’s catalogue of February 1853 reflects his optimism:

In presenting to the public a new edition of a descriptive Catalogue, the Proprietor of the Toronto Nursery takes the opportunity of acknowledging that his efforts to keep his Establishment up to the requirements of the times have been duly appreciated. This is evident from the greatly increased and steadily increasing demand for his productions, from all parts of the United Provinces. It is highly gratifying to him, to receive so many assurances that the articles sent from here prove satisfactory and are almost invariably successfully transplanted. He will continue to persevere in endeavouring to maintain this, the largest, the most correct and complete in the Canadas.

To effect this, the grounds have recently been considerably enlarged; their extent is now SEVENTY ACRES, and the general favorable result attending Nursery productions sent form here, proves that the ground is entirely suitable for the purpose.

For the last few years, a regular correspondence has been held with some of the principal Nurseries in Great Britain and the United States. The leading Horticultural Periodicals of the day are carefully consulted; and no pains are spared to add to the Stock all acquisitions of merit; these are procured only from Nurseries of high standing and reputation, and can be fully relied on.

Ornamental Deciduous and evergreen trees have lately been much in request, and this demand is likely not only to continue, but greatly to increase. To keep the assortment as extensive and varied as possible, importations of seedlings are yearly made from England, exclusive of what are raised here. It is thought that in the ornamental department, the Toronto Nursery will bear a favourable comparison with similar establishments anywhere else, in all trees and shrubs proper for the climate.”

…Amateurs, Nurserymen, Wholesale Buyers, all who feel interested in Horticulture, and the public generally are invited to visit and inspect the grounds. To each, every attention will be paid, and all necessary information imparted.

Persons at a distance in want of trees, and communicating by letter, will have their orders as faithfully executed as if they personally present…

George Leslie,
Toronto Nursery,
Toronto, C.W.

(Descriptive Catalogue, Toronto Nursery, 1853)

New horizons were opening up for apple trees and the Toronto Nurseries. In 1856 the Grand Trunk Railway (G.T.R.) advertised that it was opened from Montreal through to Toronto. Trains delivered nursery stock much faster and much more efficiently. The G.T.R. stopped at the level crossing on Kingston Road less than half a mile west of Leslie’s Nursery.  At the same time as the railways began to crisscross southern Ontario, the economy boomed. People wanted and now could afford flowers, shrubs and trees. With the development of civic pride in Toronto, members of the public began calling for more trees, even petitioning for street trees. A 1857 Letter to the Editor pleads:

Wretched looking wooden awnings disfigure our finest thoroughfares, and not a solitary tree is to be seen to lend its grateful shade to the passerby!  This state of things should not continue.  Unsightly awnings should at once be removed, and a commencement made to plants some of our principal streets with trees. The expense would be a mere trifle; and the beauty as well as the healthfulness of shade trees would amply repay the inconsiderable outlay incurred…All who desire to join in its prayer can call during the day at Mr. Armour’s, and sign this document.

(Globe, September 7, 1857)

Landscape architecture was beginning to become a formal profession, separate from gardening.  George Leslie was quick to see the benefits of working with landscape professionals. He worked with early landscape architect, William Mundie, a fellow Scot, based in Hamilton. George Leslie took orders for Mundie at the Toronto Nurseries. In this period “the Garden Cemetery” made new graveyards like St. James Cemetry and the Necropolis, as well as the St. John of Baptist Cemetery on Woodbine, more attractive through planting trees and shrubs. George Leslie was eager to supply the need:  

Gentlemen planting largely, Corporations planting Public Grounds and Cemeteries, will be supplied with large or small Trees at reasonable prices. 

(Globe, April 4, 1855)

Advertisement from the Canadian Horticulturalist.

Advertisement from the Canadian Horticulturalist.

In 1857 the Toronto Horticultural Society incorporated. George Leslie was one of those who signed the Articles of Incorporation. In 1859 the Horticultural Society had a special meeting to deal with the land offered to them by George William Allan for use as a public garden. Allan leased, free of charge, to the Horticultural Society the five acres around the centre portion for five years. Edwin Taylor designed the grounds. George Leslie was a Director and donor. The trees there came from his nursery and probably from John Gray, Leslie’s chief competitor and fellow member of the Toronto Horticultural Association.  (Statues of the Province of Canada, Toronto: Stewart Derbishire & George Desbarats, 1857, 831-832)

Ad frin tge Globe, April 1, 1845. April 1st or April Fool's Day was George Leslie’s birthday. He tended to introduce new advertisements on his birthday.

Ad,  Globe, April 1, 1845. April 1st or April Fool’s Day was George Leslie’s birthday. He tended to introduce new advertisements on his birthday.

George Leslie was also one of the founders of the Provincial Exhibition, forerunner of the Canadian National Exhibition (C.N.E.).  He showed his seeds there in 1858 and continued to exhibit over the years, winning many prizes. However around 1858 George Leslie stopped competing for prizes for vegetables in fairs and exhibition. His efforts now were solely directed at winning awards and recognition for his trees, shrubs and flowers. When the Provincial Exhibition incorporated in 1879 George Leslie Jr. was one of the Directors. Toronto Nurseries exhibited often over the years. The Leslies stayed active in the Exhibition throughout their lives and John Knox Leslie became the Ex’s Treasurer. They were also involved in the Toronto Electoral Division Society’s Agricultural Society and the Fruit Growers’ Association.

Another young man became more successful as a politician. Leslie bought over many young Scots, probably as indentured servants or apprentices, to work in the nurseries. John McPherson Ross came to Toronto from Scotland in 1854. He went to work for George Leslie, in 1863. Presbyterian Ross defied anti-Catholic sentiment when, on September 7, 1874, he married Annie Mulcahey, an Irish Catholic who refused to convert to Protestantism. While many Protestants would have summarily fired Ross for marrying a “mick”, George Leslie was far more open-minded. John McPherson Ross became the Toronto Nursery superintendent and later Mayor of East Toronto. George Leslie trained his men so thoroughly that they succeeded in their own businesses.

George Leslie’s nursery grounds were becoming popular as a garden.  At that time there were no public gardens “over the Don” and few in the City of Toronto. Though private, many local people and from Toronto enjoyed a visit to “Leslie’s Grove” so that it became an unofficial park.  Leslie’s Grove stretched from just north of Queen Street to Ashbridges Bay’s shore south of Eastern Avenue.  In a Letter to the Editor of the Agriculturist, in 1860, his future son-in-law praised George Leslie’s gardens:

Having occasion lately to visit some of the nurseries about Toronto, it may not be amiss for me to drop a hint or two upon some points not unseasonable at the present time.  Leaving home at half-past 3 a.m., by the early train, I arrived at the nursery of Mr. Leslie a little after five.  As gardeners never sleep after sunrise, I felt sure of finding Mr. L. about his premises even then.  It happened, however, that he was in the farther part of his grounds and thus I was left to take a quiet stroll through them.  Be sure that is was an hour of exquisite enjoyment.  The sun had risen – not in fiery splendor, betokening a burning day, very common at this season.

The air was soft and balmy, and so reviving; the trees laden with blossoms, filled the air with their delightful fragrance, and the numerous birds… 

(Canadian Agriculturist, Vol. 12, 1860, 281)

Like Johnny Appleseed, George Leslie was always generous with his time, money and trees, donating to worthy causes:

TREES.—Mr. George Leslie, of the Toronto Nurseries, has lately sent a handsome donation in the shape of 150 trees of different sorts to the Agricultural Society of Kingston, for the purpose of adorning and beautifying the grounds around the crystal Palace, belonging to the Association there. Such a present is alike honorable to the giver and must be very gratifying to the recipients. 

(Canadian Agriculturist, Vol. 12, no. 11, June 1, 1860, 260)

Assorted apples 300He also established his own prize and became a judge in fairs and exhibitions. The first winner of the Toronto Nursery prize was George Vear, gardener to D. Macpherson, who had the best collection of gooseberries.

As his nursery grew larger, his advertisements grew longer. This reflected Toronto Nurseries’ success, but also George’s concern about competition from peddlers like Johnny Appleseed had been:

BEWARE of American Tree Agents, who sell inferior stuff, at higher prices than Canadian Nurserymen.  All Agents for these Nurseries have my signature to a certificate to that effect.

(Canadian Agriculturist, Vol. 13, no. 5, Mar. 1, 1861, 159)

He continued to use agents, suing the dissatisfactory ones from time to time, usually without success.  He commissioned other nurserymen to act on his behalf. For example Charles Chapman in Ottawa was Toronto Nursery’s only agent in that area and distributed the George Leslie’s catalogue at his own nursery. Sometimes consignments of his trees and shrubs were auctioned off in batches in other parts of Canada as they were in Prince Edward Island in 1881.

In 1862 George Leslie took over a local institution that helped to make their fortune. A Post Office, usually in a general store, was an essential component of a rural village. People came in to pick up their mail. Of course they usually purchased something, perhaps something that they had not planned like dahlias or forsythia or even a tree. The post office name changed to “Leslie” and was in Leslie’s General Store at the northwest corner of Kingston Road and Curzon Street.  He was Justice of the Peace, nurseryman and biggest employer in the village, owner of the general store which housed the Post Office, issuer of his own currency and large land owner (in relative terms).

Even American horticulturalists who knew about Johnny Appleseed also knew about the Toronto Nursery by the 1860s. An American trade journal praised George Leslie’s Descriptive catalogue of fruit trees, shrubs, etc. of 1860:

We are apt to think our brethren of the north, with their cold climate, must necessarily be limited in their enjoyments. A glance at this splendid and very accurate catalogue will speedily dispel such an idea.

(The Gardener’s Monthly and Horticultural Advertiser, Vol 2, 1860, 154)

The Toronto Nursery was one of a list of nurseries of the United States and Canada. George Leslie still faced competition from Ellwanger & Barry in Rochester. Their advertisements for 1864 are remarkably similar.

By the mid-1860s the name “Leslieville” was used in the city and county directories. George Leslie himself may have encouraged the use of “Leslieville”. City Directories were not neutral. They included descriptions and reviews of businesses, usually flattering. “Conflict of interest” was not a widely held concept or value at that time. The directories relied on advertising.  In an 1867 Directory, praise for George Leslie was probably well paid for, but it also reflected the liberal view that prosperity was the natural reward for hard work:

In all its departments every care and attention that a thorough knowledge of and experience in the nursery line may suggest, is readily taken advantage.  From this fact, and the already high reputation of the Toronto Nurseries, continued prosperity must be the reward.

By 1868 George Leslie’s advertisements claimed the Toronto Nurseries was the largest in Canada. There was about 80 acres in the main block of the Toronto Nurseries between Pape Avenue on the west, Leslie Street on the east; Kingston Road on the north and Eastern Avenue on the south. Another 20 acres lay south of Eastern Avenue, on the lake. He owned or leased other land totaling about 150 acres.

In 1869 George Leslie Sr. was 65 years old and his sons began to take over more of the work of Toronto Nurseries. For the next twelve years John Knox Leslie (Jack) was in the nursery business with his father and brother George Leslie Jr. Though officially Postmaster, George Jr. was more hands on, doing physical labour with his father in the nursery. Jack Knox became the clerk in the store and also the telegraph operator for the business and village.

George Leslie (April 1, 1804- June 14, 1893) Painting attributed to John McPherson Ross. Courtesy of Leslie Sparks

George Leslie (April 1, 1804 – June 14, 1893) Painting attributed to John McPherson Ross.
Courtesy of Leslie Sparks

Leslie Nurseries and streetcar 1916

As the nineteenth century progressed, people were becoming more aware of the interrelationships between trees and the environment, particularly the water cycle.  Fruitgrowers’ President D. W. Beadle spoke of the need to plant shelter belts and forests:

… our health and length of years, and the sanitary condition of the country, depend on the influences these noble forest trees exert upon them. They stand, if I may so express it, as gigantic capillary ducts, for the daily attraction and repulsion of fluids, set in motion by the force of the sun, which raise these fluids gently from, and gain return them to the bosom of the earth, and in this way they are made the instruments in regulating and graduating the permanency of rainfall. While inhaling carbonic acid vapours, and condensing them in the shape of woody fibre as so much stored up heat for our future use, they daily accumulate and emit that pure oxigen [sic] element without which human life could not exist.

(The Canada Farmer, v. 1, no. 10 (Oct. 15, 1869), 391)

In 1872, George Leslie sold an important book by Canada’s leading landscape architect: H. A. Engelhardt. The Beauties of Nature Combined With Art. Montreal: John Lovell, 1872. For sale at all seed stores and at by Leslie & Sons, Toronto Nurseries.  (H. A. Engelhardt, The Beauties of Nature Combined With Art, Montreal: John Lovell, 1872) Two years later H. A. Engelhardt designed Mount Pleasant Cemetery.  Garden cemeteries were becoming highly popular and this was to be Toronto’s showpiece. George Leslie and Sons won the contract to supply the trees, shrubs and other plants, working closely with Engelhardt. James M. Goodall, a Highland Scot like George Leslie but a Catholic, supervised the work.  By 1875 they had turned the wooded ravine and plateau into a peaceful and proper resting place for the Victorian dead. Goodall went on to become the City of Toronto’s inspector and responsible for planting over 40,000 trees along the City’s streets. Many of those trees came from the Toronto Nurseries. Cemeteries, like Mount Pleasant, became valuable arboretums with species of trees from around the world and many interesting and unusual cultivars. George Leslie was renowned for his fine hemlocks, a dark evergreen often thought appropriate for hedges, particularly in cemeteries. (It is ironic that George Leslie who did so much to beautify the graves of others now lies himself in an unmarked grave in the Necropolis.)

By the time he supplied the plants for Mount Pleasant Cemetery, George Leslie had two large greenhouses and the Leslies were recognized as experts in horticulture. They attended conferences in both Canada and the U.S. For example, George Leslie Jr. attended the meetings of the State Pomological Society of Michigan. There was a discussion about the decline in the number of varieties of apples, a concern that is shared today.

Crab apple2

George Leslie Sr. was known for training younger men to be gardeners and trained some of his competitors. In 1870, Canadian-born William Rennie opened a seed store. Toronto had about a dozen seed houses, including those of George Leslie, James Fleming, George Keith, William Rennie and Joseph Adolphus Simmers who was also one of Leslie’s apprentices. George Leslie knew all of these men well. They met and shared a wee drop of scotch. Tain, where young George had worked for Lord Anchorfield, had produced good whiskey since the Middle Ages. Glenmorangie distillery there still makes fine single malt whiskey.

Alexander McDonald AllanOne apprentice was special: a man after George Leslie’s heart – and his youngest daughter’s. Alexander McDonald Allan trained to be a lawyer, but his heart was not in books. He gave up his studies, supposedly for his health, to do manual work as a gardener. He spent several years travelling in the U.S. learning about horticulture. After that he returned to Canada and apprenticed at the Toronto Nursery. While there he fell in love with the beautiful Essie Leslie. On June 21, 1873, they married.

Alexander McDonald Allan wrote frequently on rural matters with articles, letters to the editor, etc. in the Canada Farmer, the Farmer’s Advocate, the Weekly Globe, the Horticulturist and the Country Gentleman. He became editor and owner of the Huron Signal and a director and eventually President of the Ontario Fruit Growers’ Association. He was in demand at fairs and exhibitions across North America to judge the fruit growing competitions. In 1886 the Canadian government appointed him Commissioner on Fruits at the Independent and Colonial Exhibition in London. Allan pioneered the export of fruit. In 1886 he shipped over 100,000 barrels of apples to Britain. He also helped developed markets for Canadian fruit in continental Europe, including shipments to Norway and Sweden, Germany and even far off India. He organized the Imperial Produce Company of Toronto, which became one of Canada’s largest fruit exporters. He also founded the London Fruit Co. to sell Canadian fruit there. The Pall Mall Gazette called Allan “The Fruit King of Canada.” (Henry J. Morgan, The Canadian men and women of the time, Toronto: W. Briggs, 1898, 11-14)

In 1876, the Province of Ontario asked the Fruit Growers’ Association to undertake a display at the International Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. This was a major World Fair, on the 100th Anniversary of American Revolution, but it had been a bad fall with heat and little rain. The plum crop failed totally and the pear crop was poor. The apple crop was also damaged. George Leslie was not just an exhibitor — he was on the Provincial Advisory Board. Despite the drought, George Leslie & Son, of Leslie exhibited 35 varieties of apples; 23 varieties of pears; 15 varieties of plums; ten varieties or grapes as well as currants, gooseberries, and raspberries. The pears sound off the tongue like poetry:  Blood-good, Pratt, Beurre d’Aremberg, Steven’s Genessee, Belle Lucrative, Kirtland, Vicar of Winkfield, Duchesse d’Anglouleme, Winter Nelis, Louise Bonne de Jersey, Clapp’s Favorite, Flemish Beauty, Beurre Giffard, Des Nonnes, Easter Beurre, Tyson, Hazel or Hessel, Buffam, Glout Morceau, Napoleon, Beurre Diel, Mount Vernon, and Bartlett.

The Montreal Telegraph Co. had an office in the Leslie General Store. This allowed the Toronto Nurseries to receive, confirm and even bill orders for plants, seeds, and other products, over the telegraph wires, a distinct competitive advantage, just as e-mail and the Internet are today. Through the telegraphic skills of John Knox Leslie, they were able to specialize in mail order. By the end of the decade the Toronto Nurseries appears to have absorbed William Lambert’s nursery to the east as well as to have expanded north of the Kingston Road. An 1879 advertisement for Toronto Nurseries boasted that the nursery was now 200 acres. (Canadian Horticulturist, May, 1879)

Apple pickers1By 1877, George Leslie was 73 years old, but still involved in the Industrial Exhibition. The Exhibition moved each year from city to city around the Province, however, many groups pressed for it to be permanently held in Toronto. The first annual fair was held in Toronto during September 1879.  George Leslie Junior was one of the Directors when the Exhibition incorporated. The Leslie sons stayed active in the Exhibition throughout their lives until John Knox Leslie was caught up in a financial scandal in 1908. They were also involved in the Toronto Electoral Division Society’s Agricultural Society, the Fruit Growers’ Association, the Florists’ Club and similar organization.

1870 Catalogue page 7

1870 Catalogue, Toronto Nursery, page 7

In 1880, the Agriculture and Arts Association of Ontario presented George Leslie with a special silver medal. His nursery stock was “Gold Medal Nursery Stock” and that medal from the Toronto Horticultural Society is still in the possession of one of Leslie’s descendants. That year George Leslie testified before the Ontario Agricultural Commission on forestry. George Leslie Jr. was an expert witness before the Agricultural Commission in 1881. The Leslies told how they had begun by importing very young seedlings mostly from the Lawson Seed and Nursery Company, Edinburgh. They found it cheaper to import than to raise them from seed here, but grew the seedlings to selling size here. They sold trees and shrubs for orchards, shelterbelts, lawns and roadside planting.  For street trees George Leslie Jr. particularly recommended European ash, Norway maple, Silver maple, Horse chestnut, and Basswood (Linden), street trees found throughout Toronto today. George Leslie Jr. also liked Purple beech, European weeping birch, Scotch elm, and American elm (nearly wiped out later by Dutch elm disease).

Apple blossoms 5 16 2015 Spring Rapids RdIn 1881 the Globe interviewed George Leslie Sr. and Alderman Boustead, City Commissioner, about the proper planting of shade trees on city streets.  People often planted “bush trees” – uncultivated or wild trees that they had dug up from the forest to transplant to their city property.  These trees usually did not survive because of the damage to their roots. George Leslie Sr. listed his favourite trees for city streets: European ash, Scotch and American elms, the Horse chestnut, Basswood or Linden, the Norway maple, Silver maple, Sugar maple, Walnut, birches and Lombardy poplars.  The newspaper commented on the lack of municipal funding for trees:

There is no civic appropriation for either the planting or care of trees, but the City Commissioner says that he spends as much as $500 some years on this branch of public work.  This money he takes from the general health appropriation. 

(Globe, April 25, 1881)

Horse Chestnut planted by George Leslie, one of the survivors of rows of trees that lined both sides of Queen St E in Leslieville. This one is at Queen and Caroline.

Horse Chestnut planted by George Leslie, one of the survivors of rows of trees that lined both sides of Queen St E in Leslieville. This one is at Queen and Caroline.

Agricultural Commission representatives visited the Toronto Nurseries:

As you approach Leslieville you find a wooded neighbourhood. There is half a mile of the Kingston road shaded with large trees, planted in the public ground, and north and south, a hundred acres extend, covered everywhere with young trees of a thousand kinds, interspersed with towering plantations, dotted here and there with mighty trees, the monarchs of the grove.  When we learn that thirty years ago there was scarcely a tree in sight, we see that it is in the power of man, if he choose, in no long period to reproduce the forest.

(Ontario Bureau of Forestry, Annual Report of the Bureau of Forestry for the Province of Ontario, Toronto, 1882, 29)

That summer the Toronto Nursery sent a large number of trees to Britain for sale in the “Old Country”. Nothing could be a surer mark of success that this. Now, considered widely as the most authoritative tree man, George Leslie Sr. offered practical advice on growing trees to the Province of Ontario. He disapproved of monoculture tree plantations with long rows as is the common in today’s silviculture:

If trees are planted by the acre, ten acres or more, they should never be planted in rows; planting in rows is never practiced in Europe where thousands and thousands are planted every year.  They are planted in, or dotted in, as the grounds suits, among rocks and stones from three to five feet apart.  Plantations set for timber and other uses are better mixed with evergreens, such as spruce and pine trees. Those procured from the nurseries are always the cheapest.  When the ground can be ploughed deep it helps the growth of the trees. 

(Appendix Report of Fruit Growers’ Association, 1882)

18790528GL Apple trees 18790429GL Apple trees competitor and George 18770423GL Ad 100000 Apple Trees 18750507GL Ad for apple trees Geo Leslie 18730410GL Apple trees Leslie and rivalGeorge Leslie once more made the newspapers. The Leslies had built new barns with lumber from trees that they planted 40 years before. This was sustainable forestry at a time when most thought the giant White pines of Ontario would be there forever, waiting to be chopped down and floated to the sawmill.  His colleagues admired his success, widely spoken of in the trade.

Desirous of making improvements in the east end of the city, Mr. Leslie proposed the opening up of a new street through his own lands, south of Queen street, and to his energy and liberality are largely due the creation of what was at first called South Park street, now Eastern avenue, he donating the right of way through his own grounds, a length of some 2,000 feet, equal to several acres.  Under his supervision, and entirely at his own expense, this avenue was planted, as were other streets in the neighborhood, the rows of horse chestnut in front of the Queen street property being considered the finest in the Dominion. 

(Globe, May 6, 1893)


Toronto Fire Dept 1892

Toronto Fire Dept 1892

In 1881 on the way to their annual picnic, the fire fighters of the East End paraded through Riverside and Leslieville and visited the Toronto Nursery. George Leslie had not forgotten his days as one of Toronto’s first volunteer firefighters. Delighted by their visit, he promised each man a tree from his nursery. On May 8, 1882 he distributed the trees he had promised on their 1881 visit. A few weeks later, the fireman had their next picnic and expressed their appreciation to Leslie:

The procession passed along Mill road, Boulton street, and DeGrassi street to the Kingston road, and then to Leslieville, accompanied by the Riverside Drum and Fife Band, which played excellently along the route. The band serenaded Mr. George Leslie at his residence and gave three cheers for the speedy recovery of Mrs. Leslie from her late accident.

(Globe, May 25, 1882)

Fire EngineGeorge Leslie, though unsympathetic to thieves, was a great benefactor to Leslieville. George Leslie planted trees along Leslieville’s streets of Leslieville, including Eastern Avenue and Queen Street. According to the Globe, “Mr. Leslie did much to open up and develop the east end, planting many trees that now afford grateful shade to pedestrians.” (Globe, June 26, 1893)

The Leslie’s were still generous with their trees and with their land. When George Leslie donated the land to build the fire hall at the corner of McGee Street and Kingston Road, he also donated “enough shade trees to plant along the front.”(Globe, March 24, 1883)  Leslie encouraged urban forestry, and growing street trees throughout his career. In an interview a few years later, he was asked about the Ontario Fruit Growers’ Association:

Toronto Old and New p 171

Yes, I have been interested in it from its formation; and now I read THE CANADIAN HORTICULTURALIST with much pleasure, but I think you should devote more attention to the subject of Forestry. 

(The Canadian Horticulturist, vol. 9, no.2, 1888)

In 1883, as everyone expected Leslieville to vote to join Toronto, real estate values boomed. George Leslie sold some of his property west of Carlaw Avenue south of Kingston Road. In June that year, Morse Street was built from Kingston Road down to Eastern Avenue. All of George Leslie’s lots and those of Samuel Sewell, the deceased patriarch of the black community, were sold on one day by public auction. George Leslie was the Executor for Sam Sewell’s estate. A large community of former slaves and some free men and women of colour lived at the four corners where the street many called Sewell’s Lane (Logan Avenue) and Kingston road crossed. George Leslie lined both sides Morse Street with shade treesHe retained land on the west side of Morse Street as part of his nursery. The Globe noted that it was “thickly planted with young trees and shrubs, giving the locality a woodland aspect. The soil is a rich black loam of great fertility. (Globe, June 7, 1883)

19070928 CDNCOUR Apple pickers

In 1884 the City of Toronto annexed most of Leslieville after a referendum. Speculators bought up more market gardens and abandoned brickyards to subdivide for working-class homes:

New houses are springing up like mushrooms in all parts of Riverdale, and quite a boom has commenced in real estate. Property is changing hands daily, and small houses suitable for mechanics, etc., find purchasers as soon as they are completed. The prospects of annexation to the city of Toronto sometime during the ensuing year has induced many small capitalists to speculate.

(Toronto Daily Mail, October 23, 1883)

In 1888 George Leslie was 84 and knew that the Toronto Nursery’s (and his own) were numbered.

George Leslie began selling more of his nursery including some property at the northwest corner of Eastern Avenue and McGee Street to Edward Blong for $1,500. It also became housing. In 1887 the City of Toronto gave George Leslie permission to open another sixty-foot wide street through the nursery grounds in order to sell the land for housing. The City also graciously accepted George Leslie’s gift when he gave the street to Toronto.

In January, 1888, George Leslie, was ill again.  As the Globe put it in 1893:

Resigned to the inevitable, Mr. Leslie…bears the infirmities of his great age cheerfully and uncomplainingly, grateful for many mercies—notably that his wonderfully retentive memory is so little impaired.

(Globe, May 6, 1893)

In a similar vein, John Chapman, Johnny Appleseed said,

Do not worry at being worried; but accept worry peacefully. Difficult but not impossible.

In 1888 the Toronto Horticultural Society sold the Toronto Horticultural Gardens to the City of Toronto. In 1901 it was renamed “Allan Gardens” after George William Allan who had, in 1858, offered part of his estate to the Horticultural Society. In the spring of 1888, George Leslie, one of the founders of the Toronto Horticultural Society and on the first Board of Directors of Allan Gardens, was 84. He wrote a series of articles detailing his early days in the nursery business “when nurserymen and seedsmen were very few and very far between”. (Globe, June 8, 1883)

As he watched houses and streets creep over his fields, George Leslie mused on his accomplishments:

From a beginning of twenty acres my nursery reached fully 250 acres, while Messrs. Ellwanger & Barry, by honesty, hard work and constant application have made for themselves a great name. It is wonderful what good may be accomplished by honest perseverance. Although I have grown old in the business my interest are as fresh as ever, and looking about this country almost from ocean to ocean it gratifies my old heart to know that my labors have to some extent helped to beautify and enrich many homes.

(George Leslie, “Horticultural Reminiscences”, The Canadian Horticulturist, Vol. 12, No. 6, June, 1889, 157-158)

Later that year, J. E. Smith took the streetcar to Kew Gardens and passed George Leslie’s orchards on Queen Street near Pape:

After crossing the Don, we passed through the little villages of Riverside and Leslieville, so close together that it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began. Then the houses began to scatter. There were nursery gardens, with their rows of tiny young trees; one or two orchards, very pretty in spring when the blossoms are out, and prosperous-looking now, with the fruit showing through the foliage. But, on the whole, this part of the road is not interesting.

(The Dominion Illustrated, Vol. 3, no. 71, Nov. 9, 1889, 299)

In the summer, hundreds flocked to Leslie’s Grove to hear Band Concerts, especially military bands like that of the Grenadiers. People now routinely treated Leslie’s private arboretum as a public park. But the trees were no longer in good shape; the sons did not pay the same attention to them as the Squire.


In October, 1892, George Leslie was bed-ridden in great pain. However, that fall the Toronto Nursery succeeded in selling trees and shrubs to a customer in Korea. Towards the end of May, 1893, the Leslie brothers got the welcome news that their shipment had arrived safely and that all of the saplings and bushes were thriving. The customer decided to order more.

On May 6, 1893, the Globe published an extensive interview with George Leslie Sr. He recalled his childhood and how he came to Canada as well as the growth and development of Leslieville. The Globe commented on his sometimes irascible personality:

Decided in character, adhering closely to his convictions, he, in establishing a business followed persistently what was considered the proper course. 

(Globe, May 6, 1893)

George Leslie died on June 14, 1893, with his family around him. Out of respect, the City of Toronto flew its flag at half-mast. George Leslie was a pioneering nurseryman and one of the founders of the Toronto Horticultural Society, Allan Gardens, the Toronto Exhibition and the Fruit Growers’ Association. He was one of the founding members of the Reform Association of Canada which became Canada’s Liberal Party of Canada. George Leslie stood back and watched his sons run for office while he remained the unelected Squire of Leslieville. He provided the site for the Leslieville Presbyterian Church and built it with his brother Robert. George Leslie’s name is first in the Church’s register of members. In a time of religious intolerance, he was a tolerant man, providing a safe place for refugees from slavery and from the Irish Potato Famine. Both the black community and the Irish, whose chosen colour was green, thrived in a rainbow Leslieville while the larger world of Ontario was dominated by the Orange Lodge.

Though he did not wander from place to place dropping apple seeds like the mythical Johnny Appleseed, he was responsible for many orchards. He supplied the trees; educated the farmers about fruit growing; helped find ways to market Ontario fruit in Britain; and lobbied for government support for the industry. He provided, sometimes free of charge, the trees lining Canada’s streets, gracing parks, cemeteries and public places. Thousands of his trees were planted on Toronto Island, but also along country roads and as shelter belts down farm lanes and around farmhouses.

On June 27, 1893, Mayor R. J. Fleming and all of Toronto’s City Council attended George Leslie’s funeral en masse. His old friends William Helliwell, William Rennie, Hugh Miller, J.P. and John Laidlaw were the pallbearers along with Mayor Fleming and Alderman Lamb for the City of Toronto and Peter Macdonald and Joseph Mitchell from the Leslieville Presbyterian Church. His family was there: George Leslie Jr., John Knox Leslie; his daughters Caroline and Esther; son-in-laws Robert Cumming Jennings and Alexander McDonald Allan, along with many grandchildren and other relatives including an aged Calvin Davis. George Leslie Sr. was buried next to Caroline Anne Davis, his first wife.

Gradually the nursery lands were sold off.

Attitudes towards trees had changed. On December 17, 1917, Riverdale residents protested when the City of Toronto cut down a beech believed to be 200 years old. On December 31, 1883, another old landmark had been cut down and no one complained.  This was the tall, old elm that had stood at Queen and Pape Avenue in front of the house where Alexander Muir had lived when he wrote the “Maple Leaf Forever”. Locals believed was “a hanging tree” where men had been lynched.  The fallen elm was sawn into sections that were given to all of Leslieville’s butchers for butcher’s blocks. When two more well known trees were chopped down in 1885, few complained:

Other changes have also been made in this locality. The two great trees which have stood sentry, grim as Gog and Magog, for so many years past at the top of Willow street [Pape Avenue from Eastern to Queen], have been laid low by the woodman’s axe. The one that obstructed the sidewalk on Queen street was of gigantic size, and in its removal another old landmark has gone.

(Globe, Nov. 13, 1885)

In 1924, when the founding of the C.N.E. was remembered in the Globe, the first Committee was listed (Globe, August 22, 1924). A number of familiar names were on the roster of the first Directors, including George Leslie Jr., but by the mid-1920s the term “Leslieville” had almost completely faded from use.  Those few who knew or remembered of Leslie and Leslieville with nostalgia:

Do You Remember When?  Though Present News Come Quick and Fast, ‘Tis pleasant to recall the past… When George Leslie had his nurseries in Leslieville, and his sons George and John were with him in the nursery business? 

(Toronto Star, July 17, 1926)

For decades George Leslie, Canada’s Johnny Appleseed, was forgotten except by family and older Leslieville residents. But that changed too as local history became more popular. Residents of many communities began researching, publishing and pushing for more recognition of historic sites. Thanks to the Streetsville Historical Society and others, in 1978 the Leslie Log House was designated a historic property under the Ontario Heritage Act. On May 24th, 1994 the Leslie Log House was moved from its original location, now surrounded by factories, to a new site in an orchard, a far more congenial setting.

In Toronto a number of activists led walks and informed their community about Leslieville, George Leslie and the Toronto Nursery. Some of those would go on to found the Leslieville Historical Society. Brian Astl who was with LEAF’s Leslieville Tree Festival wanted to celebrate George Leslie’s memory with a plaque. His energy and commitment helped gain Heritage Toronto’s support and approval. I researched and wrote the text for the plaque. Councillor Paula Fletcher, Toronto-Danforth, gave her political and moral support to the plaque project, as did many others, including local merchants and business owners and William Leslie of Clan Leslie.

On Saturday, June 20, 2009, as part of the Leslieville Tree Festival, a kilted piper led Leslie heirs, local activists and a crowd of interested neighbours and friends from Ashbridge Estate past the “Maple Leaf Forever Tree” on Laing Street and George Leslie’s General Store to Leslie Grove Park. Robert Prowse from Heritage Toronto’s Board, Councillor Paula Fletcher, George Leslie’s descendent Caroline Floroff and dignitaries unveiled a Heritage Toronto plaque in Leslie Grove Park. The plaque says:

Leslieville is named for gardener and businessman George Leslie who established the Toronto Nurseries in the area in 1845. His greenhouses and extensive fields produced everything from flowers to ornamental shrubs and trees. Leslie’s trees were transplanted to provide shade in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, in Allan Gardens, and along some Toronto streets. By the 1870s, Toronto Nurseries advertised itself as the largest business of its kind in Canada.

At the same time as Leslie was earning an international reputation as a horticulturalist, he and his family played important roles in the growing community of Leslieville – including that of postmaster in the Leslie Post Office located in their family store. The Leslie legacy lives on in this park, once the family’s property. Leslie Grove was the affectionate name given to the now lost, leafy oasis of the Toronto Nurseries. Heritage Toronto

In May, 2011, the Leslie Log Cabin Museum opened.  A City of Mississauga plaque also marks the site.

Although he was far from being the crazy saint that Johnny Appleseed is portrayed as in American folklore, what George Leslie stood for stood for is universal. His legacy is found across Canada in the trees on the streets, in parks and backyards and along country roads. In the 21st century many share his vision of sustainable forestry, of farms integrated with woodlots and shelter belts, and a vibrant urban forest. A landscape of houses and neighbourhoods surrounded by flowers and shrubs under a green canopy is as relevant as when he stared across the rocky, deforested hills of  Scotland and thought, “Trees, trees, trees.”

Having read this, will you remember and tell others about Canada’s “Johnny Appleseed”? In writing this I felt like the detective on “Dragnet”. No myths are necessary: “The facts, Ma’am, just the facts.”

19100917 CDNCOUR Vol. VIII, No. 17 man and apples