Category: Scarborough

Settling in Scarborough

The Scottish settlers of Scarborough were known as heavy drinkers, but not so Robert Hamilton. My great-great grandfather, who settled in this Upper Canadian farming community in 1830, was a “pioneer total abstinence advocate,” and his opposition to alcohol almost prevented his barn from being built.

Between 1796 and 1826, the government granted land in Scarborough to Loyalists, military officers and a few other settlers. Most were absentee landowners, however, and the population only began to grow after 1815, with the end of the Napoleonic wars. The height of immigration occurred in the 1820s and early 1830s, with a huge influx of settlers from England, Scotland and Ireland.

Most of the Scarborough’s Scots came from lowland counties such as Lanarkshire and Dumfriesshire. Many had friends or relatives who had already settled in the area and encouraged others to follow. Robert was no exception: he was a weaver from Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire, and his in-laws, the Stobo family, were said to have been the first Lanarkshire settlers in Scarborough in 1824.

Robert and his wife, Elizabeth Stobo, and their six children stayed with the Stobo family when they first arrived. Soon they found a farm of their own, lot 25, concession III, and started to clear the trees so they could plant crops. 

Felling trees wasn’t as easy as it looked, however, as the Hamiltons learned. In 1832, three weeks after arriving in Scarborough, Robert Rae, Robert Hamilton’s brother-in-law, was helping clear the Hamilton farm when he was killed by a falling tree. The widowed Agnes Hamilton Rae brought up four children alone and eventually managed to purchase thirty acres of her own.

One of the traditions the settlers brought from Scotland was the custom of holding “bees,” in which neighbours helped each other with major projects, such as barn raisings. The person whose barn was being erected normally provided whisky to the volunteers, so when abstainer Robert Hamilton refused to serve any alcohol, the volunteers refused to help with the barn. The deadlock was broken when Robert gave the head carpenter the authority to oversee the barn-raising as he saw fit, and the carpenter approved the whisky.

Eventually, alcohol was no longer so central to the social lives of Scarborough’s Scots. Rev. James George, of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, founded the first recorded temperance society in the community in 1834 and, by the turn of the 20thcentury, no liquor was allowed at barn raisings.

Research notes: When I started to research this post, I just wanted to find out more about my ancestors’ lives, and I was excited to find references to Robert Hamilton on the website of The James McCowan Memorial Social History Society, This website gives an account of Robert Rae’s fatal accident. I wanted to learn more, so I ordered a couple of the booklets published by the society. When I read the footnotes, I realized that the McCowans are descendants of Robert and Agnes Hamilton Rae – and therefore distant cousins of mine!

Another excellent resource for the early history of Scarborough is The Township of Scarboro, 1796-1896, edited by David Boyle, Toronto, 1896, available online at Written to celebrate Scarborough’s first centennial, this is the source of the story of the barn-raising.

Scarborough produced another book to celebrate its second centennial anniversary. The People of Scarborough: A History, by Barbara Myrvold, published by the City of Scarborough Public Library Board, 1997, gives a comprehensive overview of the community’s history. It is also available as an online PDF at

Finally, I discovered that Robert Hamilton took part in a curling match between Scarborough and Toronto on a frozen Toronto Bay in 1836. This little anecdote didn’t fit into my article, but I wanted to mention it anyway because it led me to a charming painting of Toronto Bay (now called Toronto Harbour) in winter:

See also: 

From Lesmahagow to Scarborough

In the spring of 1830, eight months after my future great-grandfather James Hamilton was born, the Hamilton family set sail from Scotland for New York and a new life in Upper Canada. James’ parents, Robert Hamilton and Elizabeth Stobo, must have realized there were few opportunities for their children in southwest Scotland and decided to make the move.

Robert Hamilton, born in Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire, in 1789, was a weaver. He married Elizabeth Stobo at Stonehouse parish church, Lanarkshire, in 1816. She had been baptized in 1790, in nearby Avondale parish, “lawful daughter to Robt. in Braehead.”

The couple’s four eldest children, Elizabeth, Janet, Agnes and Robert, were born in Lesmahagow between 1817 and 1824. But times were increasingly difficult for the cottage weaving industry and, around 1820, Robert moved to Glasgow for a factory job. The two youngest children, Margaret and James, were born in the city. The Hamiltons had decided before they left Scotland that they would go to Scarborough Township (now part of the vast city of Toronto, Ontario.) Several members of Elizabeth’s family had already settled there and were doing well in the timber business. The Hamiltons stayed with the Stobo family until they rented land of their own, a farm on Concession III, Lot 25.

Two of Robert’s sisters, Agnes Hamilton, wife of Robert Rae, and Janet Hamilton, wife of John Martin, also immigrated to Scarborough later with their families. His older sister, Margaret, stayed in Scotland with their father because she was not well. “Let me know particularly how sister Margaret is and if you think there is any prospect of her getting better,” Robert wrote his father on May 27, 1830 in his first letter home since arriving in Scarborough.

The gravestone of Robert Hamilton and Elizabeth Stobo in St. Andrews Presbyterian Church Cemetery

Although he continued as a weaver, Robert also had learn to farm. He told his father that in the first days after they arrived, they were busy planting potatoes. They also expected to grow Indian corn and get a cow or two. Most of Scarborough’s Scottish settlers took to farming with enthusiasm and, following the founding of the Scarboro Agricultural Society in 1844, there was an annual Scarboro Fair with competitions for the best livestock and produce. Robert’s name was not on the society’s membership list, perhaps because he abstained from alcohol. The fair involved a great deal of consumption of ale and whiskey. Robert seems to have been more interested in intellectual pursuits and was the first vice-president of the Scarboro Subscription Library, founded in 1834.

Elizabeth died in 1853, age 63. Robert was listed in the 1961 census, living on his own. By then, his children were all married and farming in Scarborough, in nearby Markham, or elsewhere in southwestern Ontario. Elizabeth was married to William Oliver, Janet to Robert Reid, Agnes to James Green, Robert to Janet Smith, Margaret to James Gordon and James to Isabella Glendenning. James and Isabella were now running the family farm.

Robert died in 1875, at the age of 86, and was buried next to his wife in St. Andrews Presbyterian Church Cemetery. Their gravestone has been lying on the ground for many years.

Revised Dec. 27, 2016 to add and correct information.

See also:

Janice Hamilton, “The Glendinnings of Scarborough”,, posted Dec. 16, 2016

Janice Hamilton, “Thomas Whiteside and Sarah Murdoch, Scarborough Settlers”,, posted Nov. 9, 2016

Janice Hamilton, “Settling in Scarborough”,, posted Jan. 2, 2014

Janice Hamilton, “The Missing Gravestone of Robert Hamilton and Janet Renwick”,, posted Oct. 28, 2015, revised Dec. 27, 2016 

Research Remarks: 

There is a considerable amount of information about the early settlers of Scarborough, and I will write about them again. Of course, sometimes it is hard to know what is really true and what is just local lore. The Township of Scarboro, 1796-1896, edited by David Boyle, Toronto, 1896 and available online at includes the names of many early settlers, such as people who were founding members of community groups.

Several modern histories of the Scarborough area have been published and are available in libraries, while the website of the James McCowan Memorial Social History Society,, written by the descendants of another founding family of Scarborough, is both entertaining and informative.

Despite an error in the transcription of the Hamilton headstone (Robert is incorrectly listed as Albert), one of the most helpful resources I have found is a transcription of the gravestones in St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Cemetery (Bendale), published by the Ontario Genealogical Society, Toronto Branch. Because I have ancestors from four intermarried families buried there (Hamilton, Stobo, Glendenning and Whiteside), and because first names were repeated through several generations, this booklet is helpful in sorting everyone out.