It’s Not The Trail: It’s The Land It Crosses

By Ron Williamson, originally published January 13, 2010

The origin of the name “Toronto”

I was recently asked to participate in a conference in which I explored the concept of place as that might relate to the origin of the word Toronto and the carrying place trails. While acknowledging that there continues to be discussion about the origin and meaning of our city’s name, it is essential to recognize that a sense of place is about “memory” and that memory tends to narrow through time, especially across centuries and cultures. If the original term used to describe a trail was actually exceedingly expansive in its original intent, what does that mean for how we think about and interpret the trail today?

The notion of an expansive sense of place came to mind recently when Luc Laine, a Huron-Wendat leader, was discussing his return to his ancestors’ territory in Toronto which he referred to as Wendake. He clearly included Toronto in the use of the term Wendake, which in my experience is commonly used to describe the territory between Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay, the seventeenth century homeland of the Wendat. I was therefore surprised to hear Wendake (or Huronia) used in that expansive way to include the north shore of Lake Ontario region. It was this use of Wendake, in a broad sense, that led to these comments.

Excerpts from a letter from Percy Robinson to Rev. H.J. Cody regarding the origin of the word Toronto

In a newly-discovered 1948 letter by Percy Robinson, the noted early twentieth century historian, to Reverend Henry John Cody, the then recently retired Chancellor of the University of Toronto, he stated that with respect to the effort to determine the origin of the word Toronto, it may have applied to “a special region” and that Nicolas Perrot, a 17th century explorer, interpreter, and fur-trader, used Toronto in his memoirs to apply to the old Huron country evacuated in 1650. He also noted that Toronto was used by Cadillac in a letter at the turn of the seventeenth century and by the remnant populations of the exiled Hurons, Petuns and Neutrals as the name of the region from which they had been expelled fifty years before by the Iroquois.

Coronelli – 1689. This very inaccurate map contains the words Les Piquets under L. Taronto

This expansive sense of the word is at first glance at odds with the meaning of Dalondo – spelled Tkaronto, which was the word used by Mohawk speakers to describe “where there are trees standing in the water” at the Narrows between Lake Couchching and Lake Simcoe, seen marked on the 1689 Coronelli map as Les Piquets. This is the place where various Algonquian-speaking nations and Hurons had for thousands of years driven stakes into the water to create fish weirs as described in 1615 by Samuel de Champlain as structures blocking the channels with a few openings left for catching fish in nets. Many scholars now believe the origin of the term Toronto is related to this Mohawk word and site reference.


Percy Robinson’s tracing and translation of Galinée’s second map of 1670

By 1670, Lake Simcoe is also found labeled on a number of early French maps as Lac de Taronto and in 1686, the canoe and portage route between lakes Simcoe and Ontario, which followed what we call today the Humber River, was known as the Passage de Taronto. In turn, that river became known as Riviere Taronto.

These references may seem surprising in that the most common understanding for Toronto is “place of meetings,” derived from the Huron toronton. This meaning was suggested by historian Henry Scadding in Toronto: Past and Present (1884), in which he interpreted Récollect missionary Gabriel Sagard’s 1632 definition – il y en a beaucoup (there is much) – to mean a meeting place where there are many people.

Percy Robinson in discussing Scadding’s understandings also interestingly noted, however, that the late seventeenth century French soldier-observer Lahontan placed a group called the “Torontogueronons” (probably his own term for the Huron) around the outlet for Lake Simcoe, linking the term toronton with the Huron country. Robinson went on to hypothesize that the use of the word in Scadding’s sense to mean “place of meeting” might have related to the Orillia region where the Huron met and traded with Algonquian-speaking nations.

Toronto Purchase from the Mississaugas in 1787

In 1787, Lord Dorchester, finding the name Toronto in use at its present site, arranged what was called the Toronto Purchase from the Mississauga Indians, encompassing the surrender of over 1,000 square kilometres in the area of present Metropolitan Toronto and York Region. This agreement was later renegotiated in 1805 and is yet currently subject to further negotiations between the federal government and the Mississaugas of the Credit. This purchase involved the use of Toronto in an expansive nature although not its largest sense as in a century earlier when it applied to all of south central Ontario.

To return to the use of the term to describe the western carrying place along the Humber River, it’s use is consistent with the most expansive sense of the term when we think of it connecting the lower and upper great lakes. The linear fabric of watercourses on the north shore of Lake Ontario would have provided a permanent system of landmarks to orient travelers. As canoe travel would have been limited to the lower portions of the waterways, these watercourses would also have tended to orient foot travel to parallel paths to avoid negotiating steep ravines, swampy lowlands, and troublesome water crossings. These systems linked Lake Ontario to the upper Great Lakes through Lake Simcoe. Perhaps the busiest and best documented of these routes was that which followed the Humber River valley northward over the drainage divide to the East Branch of the Holland River although another trail of equal importance and antiquity and used earlier than the former by the French, extended from the mouth of the Rouge River northward to the headwaters of the Little Rouge and over the drainage divide to the East Branch of the Holland River at Holland Landing.

Map ascribed to Louis Jolliet (after 1673) showing Ganatchakiagon and the Rouge trail

1909-10 copy of Franquelin’s map of 1688 showing Teiaiagon, Gandatsitigaon, and their portages

Given the physiographic, hydrographic, and ecological foundations on which these major north-south trails were established, they are likely of great antiquity.

Map of Various Iterations of Rouge Trail – Archaeological Services Inc. 2009

Recently, our firm, with the help of Rouge Park, the TRCA and First Nation partners, has demonstrated the correlation between various iterations of the east route and archaeological evidence of 14th through 16th century ancestral Huron settlements and it is reasonable to presume that the residents of these communities simply availed themselves of the same access routes and resources that were of importance to their ancestors.

York North Archaeological Services’ proposed route for the northern terminus of the Rouge trail (WHBC 1993)

Following the Huron, Petun and Neutral dispersal by the Iroquois in the mid-17th century, the Senecas established Ganatsekwyagon near the mouth of the Rouge River by 1670 and at least by 1673, Teiaigon, at the mouth of the Humber River. By 1700, the Mississauga, who had migrated southward from their homelands much farther north, occupied the villages. According to F.H.van Nostrand, an early land surveyor and ancestor of noted Toronto architect John van Nostrand, the Mississaugas continued to use the Rouge trail into the late-1800s, camping in small bands of one or two families, hunting, trapping, trading or selling their wares such as basketry, maple sugar, and leather goods. Late 19th to early 20th century trap lines can have been documented around the Holland River.

Whoever had control of the access to these routes was in command of the traffic moving through Lake Simcoe to Georgian Bay and the upper Great Lakes. It is not an exaggeration to think of these trails as part of a Great Lakes system linked to the adjacent Ohio River system and eastward to the Atlantic coast. Indeed, a map showing economic connections millennia ago might not be all that different from a modern map showing “free trade” connections today, with the bulk of trade flowing north-south between Canada and the United States rather than east-west across Canada.

While these trails played an important part in long-distance trade, people would also travel them in order to exploit the fish and fur-bearing mammals available to them across south-central Ontario. They also served, in part, to define the territories of pre-contact communities.

Chewett map of 1813 showing a historic road along the Rouge River

There is no doubt that the concerns of the new colonialists were expressed in similar patterns to those established much earlier. With advancing colonial settlement and the need to move military supplies across the land, these routes formed the basis for the earliest roads.

In this way, the earliest European presence along the north shore was therefore also largely defined by the area’s strategic importance for accessing and controlling long-established economic networks.

Toronto now refers to an expanding area of suburban settlement around the original harbour on the north shore or Lake Ontario that was chosen by Simcoe in part for its proximity to the Toronto Passage ─ one could argue that the original meaning expressed the idea of the expansive movement of goods and people across a vast land.

Also, the Carrying Places would have had varying terminal points depending on the season, the water levels, the sizes of the traveling parties, or other unknown factors. Sections of the trail could have varied for other reasons, such as travelers’ wishes to visit certain Aboriginal settlements or to exploit the fresh water fisheries of various streams or lakes. Similarly, early European settlers may have found it easier to get to their neighbour following a bye road rather than use the often impassable survey road. It is likely that multiple by-trails would have been in use at the same time, which makes their depiction as a singular line unreasonable. Indeed, the maps of the versions of the Humber and Rouge trails as we now understand them are but snapshots of what the trails looked like at a particular moment in time.

Interpretive trails should take advantage of the amorphous spirit of the branches of the Toronto Carrying Place. I stress this because I think it essential to view these trails not only as the economic arteries of the country, but as a symbolic backbone, reflecting First People’s notions of the land. Simply, it’s not the trail; it’s the land it crosses.


Peter Carruthers, David Montgomery and Randall White have long been interested in the Carrying Place Trails and together they have advanced our understanding of these trails through their ongoing research. Also, Archaeological Services Inc. has been conducting intensive research on the Rouge Trail in recent years and that work has been coordinated by Annie Veilleux. The work of these individuals is reflected in these comments. Thanks to Andrea Carnevale for her assistance in coordinating images.

Dr. Ron Williamson is Managing Partner and Chief Archaeologist at Archaeological Services Inc. and is the Director of the Archaeological Master Plan of Toronto. He served on the Board of Heritage Toronto from 1999 to 2006.

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