York Harbour

Toronto at 185. The waterfront then and now

For at least 8,000 years the land, the Great Lake and local rivers where I reside have been the land and passageways for many indigenous peoples including in the 2nd millennium the Huron-Wendat and Petun First Nations, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit River. Today, after more than a century of newcomers from around the world, Toronto is still the home to many indigenous people and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to enjoy these lands and waterways.

Toronto is turning 185 this year. There’s a festival this weekend at Nathan Phillips Square: celebratetoronto.ca. I looked up some info for a related interest and put this account together.

When Europeans first traded from this area they started calling the main river using variations of the word Toronto and not the local Anishinaabe name “Cobechenonk” which meant “leave the canoes and go back”. Perhaps even then it was a parking lot! The Mohawk word Tkaranto meaning “where there are trees standing in the water”, is a very specific, sacred and ancient weir in Lake Simcoe. The French called Lake Simcoe Lac Toronto, and then called the passage to it the Passage de Toronto. Their first fort adopted the name as well. In 1759 Fort Rouillé (previously Fort Toronto) was destroyed by retreating French and New France ended in 1763.

No attempt was made to re-establish a European settlement in the vicinity until more than thirty years. In 1793, Governor John Simcoe, an aristocrat and war hero, popped by for 3 years with a hundred soldiers and drew up the foundations of York. York was to be near the Necheng Qua Kekong or Wonscotanach River, renamed the Don, four miles east of the former French stockade.

This painting of Toronto by Elizabeth Simcoe was made the same year, in 1793. The view is towards the Western Gap, then the only entry to the bay, today’s Toronto Harbour. This beautiful spot is where The Don meets Cherry Street and today is an industrialized wasteland about to go high tech with Google’s Sidewalk Toronto and Waterfront Toronto’s development. This is possibly Toronto Harbour’s first water painting, a kind of instagram/facebook post of the time.

“This evening we went to see a creek which is to be called the river Don. It falls into the Bay near the Peninsula. After we entered, we rowed some distance among the low lands covered with rushes, abounding with wild ducks and swamp birds with red wings.” – Elizabeth Simcoe’s diary, August 11, 1793

That same year Governor Simcoe established the capital of Upper Canada and named it York. Did her paintings help persuade him as well as there being a defendable harbour? A decade later the good townsfolk petitioned to have the name return to the more interesting sounding and local name Toronto.

The times were dangerous and unstable. The American Revolution had been lost by Britain and attacks were expected. The French Revolution just happened and with it another war. 20 years later the Americans burned the Town of York down in the War of 1812.

1834 – 41 years later after this painting, the town of York was incorporated and renamed Toronto (yay petitions). So here we are 185 years later. We could have been called the City of Cobechenonk, Necheng Qua Kekong, or York. According to my books we can thank the Mohawk, a few French traders, and petitioning townspeople for the name of our dear city, Toronto.

Happy 185th Toronto.

Here’s what this view looks like today: www.flickr.com/photos/mburpee/32912240578/

Published by


Digital Communications Professional