Thomas Ridout (1754-1829)
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By R. John Runciman, Ph.D., P.Eng.

A trusted colleague of First Nations and settlers alike, his innovative survey methods substantially improved the land allocation system.

About a five-minute walk east of Yonge Street, just inside the entranceway of Toronto’s St. James Cathedral on King Street East, stands a memorial stone to Thomas Ridout, English gentleman, Shawanese captive, United Empire Loyalist, member of His Majesty’s Legislative Council and Upper Canada’s third Surveyor General. A long-serving member of church and government, the Honourable Thomas Ridout left a lasting mark on Upper Canada. The memorial stone reads:

“The faithful Servant of Government for nearly forty years; he endeared himself to the inhabitants of Upper Canada, and so won upon their affections by his unremitting attention to their interests, and unwearied courtesy to themselves, that they justly considered him an ornament to the colony.”

Born, raised and educated in Sherborne, Dorsetshire, England, Thomas was the second-youngest of seven siblings. In 1774, at the age of 20, he followed his older brother Samuel and emigrated to Boston. Samuel had emigrated earlier and by 1774 was secretary to Horatio Sharp, Governor of Maryland. Using Samuel’s capital and contacts, Thomas was able to establish a successful business engaged in trade with the West Indies and France. For the period between 1775 and 1785, “Sugar, tobacco and wine were his merchandise” (Edgar 10).

On January 1, 1788, Thomas left Annapolis, Maryland, for Kentucky. Travelling alone and on horseback for the first leg of his journey, he passed over the Allegheny Mountains to Fort Pitt. On March 12, after the ice broke up on the Ohio River, he continued his journey by boat. The area he was travelling through was the region of a prolonged and bitter struggle between American settlers and the local native communities. It was a dangerous time to be travelling through this sparsely populated area, and he had attached himself to a larger group for protection. Northeast of Lexington, the group was ambushed and made prisoner of a band of Shawanese, Pottawatamies, Ottawas and Cherokee Indians. Virtually all of the captives were stripped of their belongings and executed. Thomas’ escape from a similar fate was attributed to his English origins and letters of introduction from several notable figures, including George Washington. He was placed in the protection of Kakinathucca (Edgar 354), a Shawanese chief, and taken to Detroit for ransoming. Kakinathucca was a kind person, who cared for and tried to protect Thomas. While this saved him from immediate execution, it did not prevent his general mistreatment over the next three months of his captivity. The conditions he endured can only be described as horrific, with other prisoners being tortured and burned alive and still others clubbed to death. After three months and 700 miles, his ordeal ended with his exchange to Colonel Peter Hunter, the commanding officer of the British garrison at Detroit (53rd regiment), who later became the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada.

Shortly afterwards, the regiment embarked for Montreal via Fort Erie and Niagara, arriving by mid-July. Thomas was warmly received in both the Niagara region and Montreal. Thomas subsequently remained in Canada. He later attributed this to both his experience as a captive and “other vicissitudes” (Edgar 370).

On May 26, 1789, Thomas married Mary Campbell, U.E., from the Bay of Quinte region. Settling first in the Montreal region, they eventually had 11 children together. Many of these children went on to notoriety, of one form or another, in their own right. Thomas Gibbs became the long-standing cashier (general manager) for the prestigious Bank of Upper Canada from 1822 to 1861, and John, in a duel against Samuel Peters Jarvis, became the last person to die in a duel in Toronto. It was during his time in Montreal that he received his first government position in the form of an appointment in the army Commissariat Department (Ladeli 92).

1791 was a historic year in Canada. In December, an act was proclaimed that separated the administration of Upper and Lower Canada, effectively creating the province of Upper Canada (today Ontario). John Graves Simcoe was named first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. Simcoe’s arrival on the Canadian political scene marked a period of sweeping change. One of his first activities was to create an independent office of surveying for Upper Canada, thereby severing its control from Lower Canada. He went on to make changes to the administration of settlement and defence, speeding colonization and improving the safety of the growing colony (Ladeli 89).

In June of 1792, Simcoe travelled upriver to the site of his newly established seat of government in Newark (renamed by Simcoe from Niagara and subsequently renamed Niagara-on-the-Lake). Thomas accompanied Simcoe, leaving his spouse temporarily in Lower Canada. Simcoe named D.W. Smith as the first Surveyor General of Upper Canada, and shortly afterwards, Thomas became a clerk in that office under Smith (Ladeli 92).

Within a year, Simcoe moved his seat of government to Toronto (later renamed York and, later again, Toronto). The living conditions in Toronto were primitive compared to those offered by Newark. Only the first of Toronto’s streets had been cleared from the forest, and these had only recently been hacked out by members of the Queen’s Rangers. Simcoe lived for nearly a year in his famous “canvas house” that had once belonged to the explorer James Cooke. Accommodations for his administrators were undoubtedly less inviting, lengthening the process of their relocation to Toronto (Ladeli 98).

Thomas soon became an up-and-coming figure on the political scene of Upper Canada. He became registrar of the County of York in 1796, sergeant-at-arms to the assembly in 1798 and Clerk of the Peace for the Home District in 1800. Thomas was appointed joint acting Surveyor General in 1799, a post he was to hold until he was appointed Surveyor General of Upper Canada in 1810, after the departure of D.W. Smith and the short but embroiled tenure of C.B. Wyatt. He subsequently held the position of Surveyor General of Upper Canada until his death in 1829.

The period of 1799 through 1829 was a time of tremendous change in Canada. Immigrants were pouring in from not only Europe, but from the United States as well. Fuelled by the promise of a stable society and land virtually for the taking, areas of Upper Canada were settled at an unprecedented rate. The office of the Surveyor General was responsible to the government for the fair and appropriate distribution of the land. Virgin areas of settlement had to be surveyed and mapped. Land areas reserved for the Crown and Church of England “Clergy Reserves” had to be set aside and the available 200-acre lots had to be distributed.

The system of counties, townships and concessions as previously established by Smith and Simcoe was proving to be unpopular and unsuitable for the conditions of Upper Canada in the early 1800s. The system then in use was termed a “single-front” system, where lines and concessions of a township were surveyed and the intervening lots allotted. These lots fronted road allowances on at least their front and back. To speed the development of the road network, responsibility for road clearing, construction and upkeep fell on the adjoining landholder. This resulted in each homestead being solely responsible for the concession roads fronting its property, a significant responsibility. Added to this was the fact that communities were not included in the original plan. The single-front system made the development of these communities difficult, adding to the dissatisfaction of the population (Ladeli 93).

In 1818, a series of popular modifications to the system of surveying and lot allocation were made. Thomas introduced a two-fronted system of land allocation, which, when implemented, divided each lot so that each concession road had homesteads on both sides. Lot sizes were now standardized at 200 acres, with each homesteader being allocated either the front or rear half of the lot. This effectively divided the responsibility of road construction and maintenance in half for each homesteader. This, in conjunction with a new policy for leasing the previously unavailable “Clergy Reserves,” substantially improved the land allocation system. An additional change to take place in this year was the passing of a new surveying act. This act, among other things, required that all surveyors pass a competency examination given by the office of the Surveyor General, ensuring proficiency of the surveyors (Ladeli 118).

After his death in 1829, the office of the Surveyor General began to deteriorate. Changes in settlement policies and the creation of the Crown Lands Office both contributed to this decline. Following a period where the office was embroiled in allegations of corruption and a series of short-term, ineffective leaderships, it was finally abolished in 1845 (Ladeli 129).

Throughout his life, Thomas was heavily involved in his local community. A church warden at St. James Church (now Cathedral), he also was a founding member of St. Andrew’s Masonic Lodge in Toronto. He was a strong supporter of early education in Upper Canada, sending some of his children as far away as Cornwall, to a school run by John Strachan (later Bishop Strachan of Toronto). He was appointed to the Board of General Superintendence of Education in 1812, and in 1826, became a member of the original Board of King’s College. Ridout was a captain in the York Militia in 1799, and several of his sons saw active military service in the American-Canadian conflict between 1812 and 1814. Thomas was active in politics, being elected a member of parliament for the West Riding of York in 1812 and appointed as a member of His Majesty’s Legislative Council in 1824. Considered a moderate, his family was “suspect to some of the other early established families” for its “frequently independent views” (McLean 65). This is all the more significant when it is recognized that Thomas was a contemporary to William Lyon Mackenzie, leader of the Reform Party, elected member of the Assembly for York County and leader of the Rebellion of 1837.

Thomas Ridout was a prominent and active participant in the early development of Ontario. The period of his life saw Upper Canada move from an impenetrable wilderness to a thriving, young and independent province with clearly defined boundaries and the foundation for a transportation network and education system that has survived to this day. It is without question that the dedicated actions of individuals like Thomas Ridout helped build the society we enjoy and often take for granted today.


The author would like to thank Nancy Mallett and Brian Gilchrist of the Cathedral Church of St. James, Toronto, and John Ridout, also of Toronto, for their generous contributions of time and information, which made the writing of this article possible.

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