The History of Discovery Harbour

The Old Establishments: An Overview

In the beginning... the Naval Establishment

The roots of Discovery Harbour can be traced back to his Majesty's Naval Establishment on Lake Huron. In 1793, Sir John Graves Simcoe noted the strategic importance of Penetanguishene Bay as a potential site for a naval base. 

Here, the steep-sided, deep water bay would be an ideal spot for the protection and maintenance of ships and could serve as a vital transport link from York to the northwest. The events surrounding the War of 1812 provided the spark to construct an active naval dockyard at Penetanguishene. By 1817 the British Navy, anxious to patrol and protect the Upper Great Lakes against a future attack, began construction in earnest.

The Naval Establishment would soon become a permanent home to the warships H.M.S Tecumseth and H.M.S. Newash, put in ordinary by storing their rigging and armament and maintaining their 70-foot hulls. Other vessels including the supply ships Bee, Mosquito and Wasp, were kept busy transporting cargo and supplies. By 1820, the base maintained over 20 vessels, supplied British posts to the northwest, and housed over 70 personnel, including officers and their families, sailors, civilian workers and soldiers. The Naval Establishment was also the winter home of Lieutenant Henry Wolsey Bayfield early in his surveying career, and provided a stopover for Sir John Franklin en route to his second polar expedition in 1825.

The Military Establishment

As relations with the Americans improved, the British began to gradually withdraw their naval commitment for the defence of Canada. In 1828, a large military force was moved from Drummond Island when that territory was ceded to the Americans. Many soldiers and settlers then made their homes at Penetanguishene as they joined the small military contingent, which practiced drill and remained ready for war. By 1834, the Navy shipped out and the base was now fully a military one, maintaining daily drill and garrison routines. Impressive Officers' Quarters and Soldiers' Barracks were built as the Military provided the defence of the post.
Meanwhile, the officers, their families and French traders took an active part in the life of the first permanent residents of the community and were joined by British Army pensioners who settled in the area. You can read many of their names in today's Penetanguishene telephone directory!

The King's Wharf Area and Historic Ships

Integrally linked to the Naval Storehouse, the King's Wharf area served a vital function for the transportation and storage of supplies.

HMS Tecumseth: H.M.S. Tecumseth was one of two warships that were kept in ordinary at the Naval Establishments in 1817. Originally built in Chippewa in 1814, H.M.S. Tecumseth spent her time transporting troops and supplies in the aftermath of the War of 1812. Along with her sister ship H.M.S. Newash, H.M.S. Tecumseth was eventually stripped of her rigging and armament and placed in her final mooring in anticipation of further action. No such request ever came, and the ships eventually broke up and sank to the bottom of Penetanguishene Bay.
Bee: The Bee was one of three major transport vessels at the Naval Establishment. Schooner rigged, she was designed to travel the waters of the Great Lakes and served as an important link in carrying essential equipment and supplies. Her sister ships were Mosquito and Wasp.

The Dockyard

This area tells the dockyard story of civilian personnel who were employed by the British Navy. A variety of artificers or tradesmen including sawyers, shipwrights and blacksmiths worked under the direction of the quarterman to maintain vessels and buildings.

The task of ship and building repair at Penetanguishene was made more difficult because of lack of money, manpower and materials. Budget restrictions were common. The sawpit operation was slow and a request for the addition of a steam-powered sawmill was turned down. New copper boilers for the steam kiln were also deferred. The need for short-term repairs to many of the vessels made it necessary to use green, unseasoned wood. By the fall of 1820, two of the three transport schooners needed major work and  H.M.S. Tecumseth and Newash showed signs of deterioration. The demanding needs of a fleet of ageing boats soon outgrew the capabilities of the shrinking dockyard operation, despite the diligence of the quarterman and personnel.

Sailors' Barracks

The sailors stationed at Penetanguishene came from varied backgrounds; some having seen action in the Napoleonic Wars and the British-American conflict (The War of 1812). For many, a posting at such a remote base may have been met with apprehension, but it was at least a source of employment in an era when thousands of naval men were searching for work. Because of the location, sailors would also be entitled to isolation pay.
Many routines of shipboard life may have been transferred to on-shore life at Penetanguishene, including sleeping in hammocks and regular watches. After long days of tending gardens, repairing ships and rigging, and eating burgoo and hardtack desertion was sometimes the preferred option! Muster lists from the time were dotted with "R's" - a letter indicating a sailor had "Run". Drunkenness became a popular form of escape, made possible by saving up daily grog (rum) rations.

Assistant Surgeon's House

Medical needs at the Naval Establishment were attended to by the Assistant Surgeon, Clement Todd. In addition to working in his house, Todd spent a lot of his time in the small hospital that was located up the hill beyond the original Naval Storehouse. Supplies were provided by the Kingston Dockyard, and included sheets and blankets, tea, sugar, rum, wines, lemon juice, soap and towels, scales, warming pans and candles. As the lone medical person at this remote outpost, Todd's duties were extensive. Captain Roberts wrote, "...the responsibility attached to the duty of an assistant surgeon at an outpost in Canada far exceeds any he would be liable to serving on board a ship..."

Medical practices in the early part of the 19th century were an interesting mix of observation, science and sometimes superstition. Practice, inquiry, and documentation were flourishing among the medical professionals of Western Europe and Great Britain at this time. Yet parallel to this was the expanded popularity of using leeches as agents for bloodletting. From 1800-1825 leeches were used to such a great extent overseas that they were becoming scarce, particularly in the British Isles.

Todd would have had current medical information at his disposal, and no doubt utilized similar practices. However, he also showed an avid interest in botany as a source of treatments. A collection of plant specimens, along with his personal records of seasonal phenomena and the medical use of plants and the soil, were sent to England for further study. In 1828 Todd published an academic paper and is considered the earliest to record these types of observations in Upper Canada.

Clement Todd joined the British Navy in 1812 and was posted to Penetanguishene by 1819. In 1821 he married Eliza Caldwell from Markham and the couple remained at the Naval Establishment until 1827.


These graves are from the military period of the Establishments and are marked with their original tombstones. The hardships of travel at this time are clearly demonstrated in the story of one of the graves. For soldiers sent to Upper Canada, regimental headquarters were established at Kingston or York where detachments were sent on to small outposts such as Penetanguishene. The earlier regiments came in over the muddy ruts of the Penetanguishene Road, which ran from Penetanguishene to the head of Kempenfelt Bay on Lake Simcoe. It was on this route in June 1831, that two brothers, Privates John and Samuel McGarraty of the 79th Regiment, died in strange circumstances. When travelling, one brother become ill and was left in the care of the other. When their comrades returned with help both were found dead. It was said that fever claimed one and the terror of being alone in the woods claimed the other.

Commanding Officer's House

After a review of the existing conditions of the Naval Establishments on the Great Lakes, the Royal Navy announced that Post Captains would be appointed to command certain naval bases. In 1819, Captain Samuel Roberts was selected to command the base at Penetanguishene. Roberts was an experienced naval officer with a distinguished career, and this opportunity provided some financial security after the war. Noting that he felt "highly honoured" by the posting to Canada, Roberts coordinated all personnel and activities at the Penetanguishene base for two years. Under direction from Kingston, and the list of Instructions for Officers, Roberts' duties included providing written orders, inspecting operations and financing, approving estimates for supplies, monitoring conduct and even acting as a magistrate.

No doubt life at Penetanguishene was made a little easier by the permission granted to bring along Roberts' wife Rosamond and her sister Letitia. But the Roberts women did find their accommodation unrefined. The house was in poor condition; in 1820 it was noted that "the wind has a thorough passage through every part of it and in wet weather the water rises above the flooring". Although repairs were eventually carried out, Captain Roberts' request for an office, separate from his living quarters, was never fulfilled and this greatly inconvenienced normal family life.

Social life at the Naval Establishment was sometimes lonely. Drunkenness was a common problem with the sailors and this inhibited the Roberts family from taking daytime walks. Lieutenant Bayfield even noted that although beautiful and accomplished, he feared the Roberts women were going to "bloom unseen and unadmired in the woods...". The Roberts women would have passed much of their time pursuing hobbies, needlework, reading and writing. Within their limited social circle, dinner and tea-and-card parties would also have been popular.

Naval Surveyor's House

" is my ambition to render this work so correct that it shall not be easy to render it more so..." (Henry W. Bayfield, 1831)

Perhaps no phrase better summarizes the life and career of Lieutenant Henry Bayfield, meticulous hydrographer for the Royal Navy. Hydrography in the Royal Navy was a relatively new concept when Henry Bayfield assumed command of the Great Lakes Survey in 1817. The Office of Hydrography of the Royal Navy had been founded only 22 years earlier in 1795, and the survey of the Canadian Lakes was one of the first marine surveys the navy conducted outside of home waters. Initiated in 1815, the original intent for this massive undertaking was to improve charts for the British Navy. After some initial work, Bayfield was instructed to shift the base of his operations from Kingston to Penetanguishene. In the summer of 1820, he and his crew covered harbours on Lake Erie and the east coast of Lake Huron, surveying 6000 islands. A house with office was constructed at Penetanguishene for Bayfield at the end of that summer and he spent the winter plotting data for future chart work. The ice on Georgian Bay was still ten inches thick in the middle of May 1821, but by the end of that month Bayfield and his crew were back to work, accurately charting up to 100 islands per day.

It is difficult to imagine the hardships of surveying the Great Lakes, but Bayfield's writing from summers on Lake Huron gives us a hint of how arduous the task was. He and his crew were frequently out until November and December, and they often took shelter at night under their small boats, using sails as cover. Only the smoke from their campfire protected them against summer mosquitoes, and the provisions they carried often went bad. So difficult were the conditions that an outbreak of scurvy was noted amongst the crew in 1820 and 1821. During one expedition, Bayfield and his men resorted to catching crows and gulls in an effort to get more food!

Upon his completion of the Lake Huron survey in 1823 Bayfield went on to survey Lake Superior, the St. Lawrence River and portions of the Maritimes and Labrador over the next 25 years. He retired as Admiral in 1867 and spent his final years comfortably in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, passing away in 1885 at the age of 90. His life's work still forms the basis for many of today's navigational charts.

Keating House

For 20 years James Keating served as Fort Adjutant of the Military Establishment at Penetanguishene. As Adjutant, Keating was responsible for coordinating all aspects of overall operation for the garrison. The importance of the Fort Adjutant lay in the continuity that he provided to the entire military apparatus at Penetanguishene. While other senior officers came and went as their detachments rotated through the Canadas, Keating was always on hand to maintain the required flow of organization and authority.

Officers' Quarters

Built in the 1830's the impressive Officers' Quarters is the only original building left at Discovery Harbour. As in all parts of Upper Canada, military officers at Penetanguishene were privileged. The Officers' Quarters provided a high level of accommodation for those in charge of the garrison units at Penetanguishene. Since much of the day-to-day supervision was delegated to subordinates, higher-ranking officers would often pursue cultural and recreational activities such as recitals, theatre, entertaining local dignitaries and sporting events.

Online Resource Materials    (General War of 1812 info)   (transcript of A.C. Osborne’s “Migration of Voyageurs from Drummond Island”)   (more British than Canadian, but might appeal to some)  (the Dictionary of Canadian Biography – English)  (the Dictionary of Canadian Biography – French)  (history of Ojibway people)   (Métis related materials)

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