Toronto is an Iroquois Word

By Suzanne Methot of Dragonfly Consulting Services Canada

TORONTO – At many gatherings in Toronto, people acknowledge that they are on “Mississauga territory.” That didn’t happen 20 years ago, and that makes it a good thing – non-Aboriginal people are beginning to understand the history of Canada from another perspective, and Aboriginal peoples are regaining a sense of their own history, as well as the strength necessary to share that history.

However, when we acknowledge Toronto as “Mississauga territory,” we commit a grave error in inclusive practice: we superimpose a Eurocentric frame of reference on what is included, not included, and valued in the discussion.

Toronto has been the site of human habitation for over 10,000 years, and archaeological digs have identified many pre-contact Aboriginal settlements and burial grounds within what we now know as the city of Toronto:

  • Parsons: excavated in 1952-53, this settlement was located on a promontory overlooking Black Creek, near today’s Finch Avenue West and Keele Street, and yielded 250,000 artifacts including stone and copper tools, ceramic pots, and human and animal remains, along with 10 longhouses, subterranean sweat lodges, a palisade, and four middens; occupied in the early 15th century, it is twice the size of nearby villages and may be the result of the amalgamation of two or more communities (the majority of ceramics on the east edge of the site are distinct from other ceramics, which may point to people who joined the village as a distinct cultural or familial group)
  • Downsview: located 2 kilometres south of Parsons, this village was on a flat summit and terraced side of a hill along the bank of Black Creek
  • Black Creek: located 2 kilometres south of Downsview, this Humber Valley settlement was on a low terrace of the Black Creek floodplain and features a rare double palisade
  • Sandhill: this ancient burial ground was located west of today’s Yonge Street, south of Bloor Street, in the Bay Street area; when the burial ground was uncovered by development in 1797, the public carted away numerous loads of sand mixed with human bones, which, when crushed, became part of the mortar used to construct nearby buildings
  • Allenby: this village was inhabited between 1400 and 1700 CE, and was located near an artesian spring on what is now known as Roselawn Avenue, west of Avenue Road; Allenby Junior Public School is built on a hill that is not a natural geographical feature but is actually a human-made storage system for food stocks
  • Thompson: this village was located on the north bank of Highland Creek; excavated in 1956, it is thought to be the earliest settlement in the Markham region
  • Alexandra: located near Mary Ward Catholic Secondary School in Scarborough, this village was occupied in the mid-1300s, and featured longhouses, sweat lodges, and middens; excavation yielded 20,000 artifacts such as bone awls, bone beads, graded stone axes, ceramic pottery, and seashells from the eastern seaboard, which points to an extensive trading network in the Americas
  • Broadview-Withrow: this 5,000-year-old village was located near today’s Withrow Avenue Junior Public School; excavation revealed 60 human skeletons and numerous artifacts
  • Sunnybrook Park: the excavation of this settlement yielded spear points, pottery, arrowheads, and human remains, and has been dated to 5,000 years
  • Woodbridge: this settlement was home to 3,000 people
  • Tabor Hill: located near today’s Lawrence Avenue East and Bellamy Road in Scarborough, this ossuary was disturbed by construction for a subdivision and overpass for Highway 401; it contains the mixed remains of 475 people who had been previously interred, then moved and placed in the pit during village relocation
  • Moatfield: this ossuary near today’s Leslie Street and the 401 was rediscovered in 1997 during the expansion of a soccer field; the bones of 90 people were found and then relocated to a secret location in the general area of the original grave site
  • High Park: 10 burials in a single grave site, dated to between 6,000 and 2,000 years old, were rediscovered in 1921 during road construction on the west side of the park north of Grenadier Pond; some remains were in a sitting position and others were smaller, juvenile bones; all were covered in red ochre
  • Bathurst-Eglinton, Dufferin-St. Clair: once villages, these were among the 8,000-plus sites destroyed across Toronto during development and urban growth from 1951-1991

These are just some of the thousands of sites present on the north side of Lake Ontario throughout the GTA and beyond, and they all share common cultural features, such as longhouses and mounds, that indicate they are Iroquoian.

South-central Ontario has a complex history. There is evidence that people lived in the area 11,000 years ago, when downtown Toronto was under the water of Lake Iroquois, Davenport Road was the shoreline, and mammoths and mastodons were the game of choice. Between 7,000 and 2,000 years ago, the shoreline began to look like the one we know today, including the Scarborough Bluffs and the Toronto Islands. At some point, Indigenous people began using the Toronto Passage – the Humber and Rouge rivers – as a shortcut between Lake Ontario and Georgian Bay. It was a vital link in the trade route that ran from the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Superior.

Between 600 and 1600 CE, corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers were introduced from the south, and Iroquoian villages began to take on their well-known appearance: multi-family longhouses, sometimes enclosed by palisades, surrounded by cultivated fields. During the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries, some of these people moved north to amalgamate with the Huron (or Wendat) Confederacy – which was also an Iroquoian culture – around Georgian Bay and Lake Simcoe. Others moved northwest and west to form the Petun (or Tionnontate) society around the Nottawasaga highlands and the Neutral (or Atiouandaronk) society around the Niagara peninsula. This led to larger confederacies that were stronger in warfare. It might also have been a calculated move to secure greater access to waterways. As a result of the amalgamations, the Huron-Wendat moved south from their traditional lands, using the now uninhabited area around Toronto for hunting, fishing, and settlements.

Between 1634 and 1640, half the Aboriginal population around the Great Lakes died from European disease, which meant the society now calling themselves the Haudenosaunee (“people of the longhouse”) – who were called “Iroquois” by the French – had to capture and adopt outsiders to replace their losses. Competition for European trade was also a factor in the Haudenosaunee decision to destroy, defeat, disperse, or absorb the Hurons and other Iroquoian peoples living around the Great Lakes, including the Petun, Erie, Tobacco, Neutral, and Susquehannock. Some Hurons fled eastward toward Quebec and created a new nation, called the Wyandot. Others sought assistance from the Three Fires Confederacy – the Odawa, Potowatomi, and Ojibwe, collectively known as the Anishinabek – who were Algonquian-speaking societies living farther north. However, the largest group of surviving Huron were adopted by the Haudenosaunee when the Haudenosaunee created the Five Nations Confederacy (which included the Seneca, Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, and Cayuga nations, later joined by the Tuscarora to create the Six Nations Confederacy). The Odawa halted Haudenosaunee expansion northwest, but with the Huron withdrawal, the Haudenosaunee controlled south-central Ontario. By 1650-1660, the area around Toronto – and as far away as Pennsylvania, the Ohio Valley, and the lower Michigan peninsula – was Haudenosaunee territory.

Sketch by C.W. Jefferys of the Parsons Archaeological Site (The Picture Gallery of Canadian History)

Sketch by C.W. Jefferys of the Parsons Archaeological Site (The Picture Gallery of Canadian History)

7Archaeologists have excavated two Seneca villages in Toronto: Ganatsekwyagon, near the mouth of the Rouge River, and Teiaiagon, on the Humber River near the Baby Point neighbourhood. These villages – along with other villages established at the same time – were located in strategic sites that allowed the Seneca to control the Toronto Passage, negotiating with the Anishinabek and other Algonquian-speaking societies from northern Ontario around access and use for hunting and trading. It was during this time that Toronto began to appear on maps created by French traders.

“Tkaronto” originally referred to the area around Lake Simcoe, but then came to refer to a larger region that included the site of present-day Toronto. Speakers of various Iroquoian languages disagree on the most correct translation: some say Tkaronto refers to the reflection of the huge trees that grew on the edge of the lake, which were visible for miles offshore when the Haudenosaunee returned to Tkaronto from canoe trips to New York State; some say Tkaronto refers to the wooden stakes that the Huron and then the Haudenosaunee drove into the water to create fish weirs, first near where Lake Simcoe empties into Lake Couchiching, and later at the mouth of both the Humber and Rouge rivers, near the Seneca villages on the Toronto Passage. In any case, both refer to a place where trees are in the water. The idea that Toronto means “meeting place” came from Henry Scadding, a 19th-century English historian who documented the fact that Aboriginal peoples from many nations would meet at the fish weirs to discuss politics and other matters including hunting, trapping, and fishing rights.

Like all Haudenosaunee settlements, the Seneca villages were abandoned after about 20 years, to allow the land and game to replenish. Both Ganatsekwyagon and Teiaiagon were also vulnerable to attack by the French during the so-called “beaver wars” of the late 17th century, which may have caused the Haudenosaunee to relocate back to their original homelands in New York State.

Toward the end of the 17th century, Algonquian speakers from central and northern Ontario replaced the Senecas in the Toronto area. Some of these Anishinabek came to be known as the Mississaugas, because they came from the area of the Mississagi River on the north shore of Lake Huron.

There are various theories on why the Anishinabek came to live in Toronto. Some Mississaugas say that they defeated the Haudenosaunee in war. Others say that the Anishinabek oral histories refer to an older story of conflict (perhaps with the people who became the Huron), and do not apply to the late 17th century. The Haudenosaunee say that they had to abandon southern Ontario because of continuing warfare with the French and other enemies in the Ohio Valley, so they negotiated with the Anishinabek to form an alliance, with the Mississauga acting as tenant-caretakers of Tkaronto. This alliance ensured that the Haudenosaunee wouldn’t have to fight to maintain control of and access to southern Ontario.

In 1750, the French constructed Fort Rouillé, near the grounds of today’s Exhibition Place. In order to trade with the French, the Mississauga camped along the shore of Lake Ontario and on the Toronto Islands (which were then a peninsula). They also had a camp and council fire at today’s Queen Street West and Shaw Street (the site of today’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health), as well as a fish camp at Church Street and Front Street East, near today’s Berczy Park (a creek used to flow along Church). To check on any activity on or near the lake, the Mississauga scanned the territory to the south using the hill where Casa Loma is now situated. The name for today’s Spadina Avenue comes from the word “ishpadinaa” in the Anishinabe language: it means “hill or sudden rise in the land.”

After the French surrendered to the British at Montreal in 1760, Britain negotiated a peaceful relationship with both the Haudenosaunee and the Mississauga. The Mississauga continued to hunt, fish, gather, and trade throughout the Toronto region, and both Mississauga and Haudenosaunee warriors fought alongside their British allies during the American Revolution. After the United States became independent, Loyalist refugees fled across the border to British territory, joined by many Haudenosaunee, who, as British allies, were no longer welcome in the United States. These Haudenosaunee returned to the north side of the lake, settling in communities such as Grand River and Tyendinaga.

Like the Seneca before them, the colonists realized that Toronto was a well-protected site, perfect for Loyalists and other settlers; it also provided passage north to more abundant hunting grounds that would ensure the survival of the fur trade. So the colonists entered into approximately 20 different agreements with various Mississauga groups, and, in 1787, arranged the Toronto Purchase, paying three groups of Mississauga £1700 in cash and goods, which they later claimed gave them the rights to over 1,000 square kilometres of Toronto, including York Region, Vaughan, and King Township. By 1847, however, the Mississauga were reduced in numbers (and therefore influence) and had given up much of the land they had received under these agreements. When a group of Mississauga were forced from their village on the banks of the Credit River, they purchased reserve land from the Haudenosaunee at the Six Nations of the Grand River community – which had been created in 1784 under the Haldimand Treaty – and settled there, naming themselves “the Mississauga of the New Credit.” It is this group that people refer to today when they acknowledge Toronto as “Mississauga territory.”

So: the early Iroquoian cultures moved north. The Huron-Wendat moved south. The Haudenosaunee moved north and west. The Mississaugas moved south. And the Haudenosaunee moved north again. But that’s just recent history. If you go farther back, the Mississauga – like all Anishinabek – originated along the eastern seaboard, something confirmed by the Anishinabe oral prophecy of the Seven Fires, which recounts a migration west. Go farther back in Haudenosaunee/Iroquoian culture, and there are signs indicating that Iroquoian cultures moved north from the Hopewell mound-building culture. Given their reliance on the Three Sisters (corn, beans, and squash), some say that the Haudenosaunee originated in Central or South America, where corn is the staple crop, or that they were joined by immigrants from the south. Yet somehow, this complex history – these complex and sacred stories of origin and identity – have been reduced to a 300-year-long narrative, beginning with and defined by European land agreements.

The history of Canada does not begin with the arrival of Europeans or with land agreements signed with Europeans. By prioritizing that narrative, we commit the grave error of superimposing a Eurocentric frame of reference on what is included, not included, and valued in the discussion. The history of Toronto is much longer than 300 years.

The colonists spoke of owning the land. Indigenous peoples believe that they are caretakers of the land, interconnected with all of creation. By prioritizing the Mississauga agreement with the Crown and assuming that the Mississauga “own” this territory as a result, we reproduce the idea that it is possible (and desirable) to own creation. The fact is, Toronto has played host to no less than three distinct peoples (the Huron, the Haudenosaunee, and the Mississauga), two different cultures (Iroquoian and Algonquian), and was the site of many trade gatherings and inter-tribal ceremonies. History is a debate informed by reason and logic, but it’s also contingent on the positioning of the teller. By omitting or failing to mention relevant aspects of the story, we fail to ensure a balance of perspectives.

The past is always with us. Say the name Toronto, and you speak of the place where the trees are in the water. Speak the name Ontario, and you speak of Skanadariio, the “handsome lake” or “sparkling water.” Canada, or Kanata, is “the village” where we all make our home. Haudenosaunee words, and a long Haudenosaunee history.

Dragonfly Consulting Services Canada enables and supports the development and implementation of equitable and inclusive instruction, programming, and services. Our unique approach locates Aboriginal peoples in contemporary society and encourages learners to make connections between their own lives and the experiences, perspectives, and histories of Aboriginal peoples.

University of Toronto, Department of Anthropology | Ontario Archaeological Society | Heritage Toronto | Archaeological Services Inc. | Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation | Taiaiako’n Historical Preservation Services | “The Real Story of How Toronto Got its Name,” by Alan Rayburn, Canadian Geographic(September/October 1994) | Collections and Objections: Aboriginal Material Culture in Southern Ontario, by Michelle Hamilton (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010)

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