SHEPARD, JOSEPH, farmer, militiaman, mill owner, office holder, and political organizer; b. probably 10 Aug. 1765 in New Hampshire; m. 11 April 1803 Catherine Fisher, and they had four sons and at least four daughters; d. 3 May 1837 in York Township, Upper Canada.
Born of Irish parents, Joseph Shepard chose to come to Upper Canada as a young man. Although the year of his arrival is unknown, he may have been the Joseph Shepard who applied for and received, but did not take up, a loyalist grant of land in Kingston in 1790. This possibility is consistent with the tradition that he was an Indian trader in the Bay of Quinte area before coming to the Home District. Shepard may have come to York (Toronto) as early as 1793, but the first record of his being there is his successful application for land near by early in 1796. A report of 1797 identifies him as living in Hope Township, and it may well be that he moved in and out of York before settling on his property in 1798.
The 200 acres Shepard acquired were on Yonge Street, some eight miles north of York, in the midst of the forest. Within a few years he also acquired the next lot. Later he acquired other land in the area and 100 acres in Tecumseh Township, the latter as a reward for his service in the War of 1812. As a private in the 3rd York Militia, he was at the battle of York in April 1813, suffering injuries in the explosion of the powder magazine serious enough to warrant a lifetime pension.
Shepard’s original lots became a very profitable farm on which he built a sawmill and a grist-mill run by his sons. A man with a social conscience, he shared his success, giving the land and some money for the erection of an Anglican church, now known as St John’s, York Mills. Also, between 1804 and 1823, he served three times as assessor for York Township and twice as pound-keeper and as overseer of highways and fences. In 1819 he and Jesse Ketchum* were selected by the town meeting to oversee the building of a bridge on Yonge Street.
Shepard’s concern for his fellow citizens made him an early champion of reform, a political position unusual for supporters of the Church of England. For almost two decades before a reform movement emerged in the 1820s, he was one of the leading voices of reform in the Home District. In 1807 he served as the chairman of two meetings that supported judge Robert Thorpe’s campaign against the government. In June 1812, shortly before the beginning of the war, Shepard stood in York East and Simcoe for election to the assembly on a platform of no repeal of habeas corpus. Administrator Isaac Brock* wanted repeal to facilitate dealing with disloyal elements in the population but Shepard opposed giving such power to non-elected authorities. He was soundly defeated by the government candidate, Thomas Ridout*, because of a split in the anti-repeal vote.
When the Farmers’ Storehouse Company was created in 1824 to store members’ produce and to buy and sell for them, Shepard was a founding director, the company appealing to his populist democratic sympathies. In the late 1820s two issues occupied his attention, the alien question [see Sir Peregrine Maitland*] and the fate of judge John Walpole Willis*. Shepard was on the four-member “central committee of the inhabitants of Upper Canada” that in April 1827 sent Robert Randal* to England with petitions opposing the Naturalization Bill. In July 1828 he was one of 44 men who issued a notice calling for a public meeting to discuss grievances. The meeting, held in York on 5 July, passed resolutions, in the form of a petition, opposing the dismissal of Willis and calling for reforms.
That same year Shepard became involved with William Lyon Mackenzie*. Although he is reported to have been, like many reform-minded men, leery of Mackenzie’s intemperate actions, he was persuaded to nominate Mackenzie in York County for election to the assembly. He continued to do so for the next five elections, until the riding was divided in 1833. In the general election the next year, with Mackenzie running in one of the new York ridings, Shepard was nominated for another, but he gracefully declined in favour of David Gibson*, a younger man.
Shepard died a few months before the rebellion of 1837. All four of his sons participated in the uprising and his farm was used as a staging area for those going south to John Montgomery*’s tavern. His wife assisted by tying strips of cloth around their arms to identify them as rebels. Joseph Shepard had worked to take political power away from the non-elected minority and it is not surprising that his family tried to follow the principles he had established.
AO, Land record index; MS 451, York Countork Township, St John’s Anglican Church cemeterork Mills [Toronto]; RG 1, C-IV, York Township; RG 22, ser.305, 1837. PAC, RG 1, L3, 448A: S2/58; 450A: S3/232; 493A: S misc., 1788–95/89–90; RG 5, A1: 49388, 50743–46, 50763–64. PRO, CO 42/343: 200–1; 42/347: 60–61; 42/ 348: 148–63; 42/385: 51. Town of York, 1793–1815 (Firth). York, Upper Canada: minutes of town meetings and lists of inhabitants, 1797–1823, ed. Christine Mosser (Toronto, 1984). Canadian Freeman, 13 Dec. 1827; 11, 24, 31 July 1828. Constitution, 10 May 1837. M. A. Graham, 150 years at St. John’s, York Mills (Toronto, 1966). P. W. Hart, Pioneering in North York: a history of the borough (Toronto, 1968). Robertson’s landmarks of Toronto, vols.1–3.