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 found it wasn’t easy to find the story of the First Nations, the French traders and soldiers, and the early English and European settlers. The common stories are vague and even conflicting. I’m not entirely sure why I’m curious but historical stories have always fascinated me. Perhaps I’m still connecting with a city I didn’t grow up in and the waterfront I enjoy. Perhaps, like many, I’m trying to learn about who was here before settlers.
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.
When the Europeans first traded from this area they likely didn’t refer to Toronto’s largest river (today’s Humber River) in the Anishinaabe name “Cobechenonk” or use one of the many other local words for geographical features. They casually borrowed a word from a different indigenous group from and for a different place. A place with a lot of fish near Orillia in the middle of Ontario. The French used variations of the Mohawk word Tkaranto for four different places connecting to a small but significant spot called Tkaranto. That word translates as “where there are trees standing in the water” and is a very specific, sacred and ancient fishing weir above today’s Lake Simcoe. This ancient and bountiful hunting place, which is now beside a highway and marina, must have been important as the French called the whole lake by the weir as Lac Toronto (today Lake Simcoe), and then called the route to it as the Passage de Toronto (today’s Humber River). 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. The name in Southern Ontario only persisted on maps.
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, which he or Elizabeth, his wife, renamed the Don, and four miles east of the former French stockade on the Cobechenonk (today’s Humber River).
The painting below shows Toronto Bay and was done by Elizabeth Simcoe the same summer they arrived, 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 zone about to redeveloped by Waterfront Toronto.
“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 location as the capital of Upper Canada and named it 1804 York. In 1884, the 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 after Simcoe’s arrival Americans burned the Town of York down in the War of 1812.
In 1834, 41 years later after this painting, the town of York was incorporated and renamed Toronto. The earlier petition worked. So here we are 185 years later as Toronto. We could have been called the City of Cobechenonk, Necheng Qua Kekong, or York. According to my arm chair research we can thank the Mohawk, a few French traders and map makers, and petitioning townspeople for the distinct name.
Happy 185th Toronto.
This may be the location of Elizabeth Simcoe’s painting today.