The Davenport Trail

Originally published July 5, 2011

Walking in the footprints of our Aboriginal peoples

Tollkeeper’s Cottage at Bathurst and Davenport

On July 6, Heritage Toronto will unveil three new historical panels to commemorate Davenport Road. Those panels cover the history of the road from its beginning as an ancient Aboriginal trail, through its widening into a rural road connecting villages like Carleton and Yorkville, to its present existence as a busy urban street.

To help us appreciate that history beyond the panels itself, we asked two writers to explore two very different periods of Davenport Road. Annie Vielleux, an archaeologist with Archaeological Services Inc., happened to be researching Aboriginal trails in the Toronto area when we were putting together the Davenport panels. Her contributions to our own research led to her article about the process of discovery she experienced in her work, and about how it relates to Davenport Road.

Jamie Bradburn, co-author of Torontoists’ Historicist series, has written a second article that brings us into Davenport Road’s “urban street” period. In the preparation of the Davenport panels, we noted how the intersection of Davenport Road and Yonge Street had been changed so dramatically by the coming of the automobile, and by early efforts to rid Toronto of gridlock woes. Jamie tells that story with flair.

Gary Miedema, Chief Historian, Heritage Toronto

Article by Annie Veilleux, Archaelogical Services Inc.

As a graduate student investigating historical landscape features, a great deal of my research has been conducted at the archives. Having worked at Archaeological Services Inc., an archaeological consulting firm based in Toronto, for many years, I was used to the joys and tribulations of archaeological fieldwork. I can now attest that archival fieldwork has its similar ups and downs. I have experienced deep frustration. Spending countless hours aimlessly looking for something (anything!) remotely relevant to my research topic is almost like having to survey a woodlot full of hawthorns in 35 degree weather. I have also experienced moments of pure excitement. Finding that little-known eighteenth-century map and journal was almost like finding that 4,000-year-old projectile point in what looked like empty farmer’s field.

My work at ASI, most recently in the Built Heritage and Cultural Heritage Landscape Planning Division, has inspired me to investigate how people, past and present, come to know and ascribe meaning to cultural landscape features, focusing on the Toronto Carrying Places. This series of overland routes, the best known of which followed the Humber River, connected Lake Ontario to the Upper Great Lakes by way of Lake Simcoe. In fact, the landscape north of Lake Ontario has invited the development and continued use of a number of major transportation routes for millennia. Prior to the imposition of artificial survey grids on the landscape, overland routes were shaped by the natural topography, avoiding swampy lowlands, rocky outcrops, and other natural impediments.

Between the Humber and Don Rivers, an ancient trail now long hidden underneath the asphalt of Davenport Road avoided difficult terrain by following the base of the 13,500-year-old shoreline of Glacial Lake Iroquois. The history of the Davenport trail begins with early Aboriginal peoples who inhabited and visited the north shore of Lake Ontario before recorded history. This ancient footpath, however, was but a small part of a much larger meshwork of interwoven trails along which life was lived. For thousands of years, Aboriginal children learned by following and listening to their elders as they walked the trails that linked their settlements with hunting, fishing, and harvesting grounds, as well as trade routes that tied the north shore to northern Ontario, the Atlantic coast, and the Midwest. Aboriginal peoples created the Davenport trail and other ancient footpaths through the accumulated imprints of countless journeys.

For European newcomers, the landscape north of Lake Ontario was entirely foreign, and those who ventured along its ancient trails experienced their new surroundings step by step. It can never be stressed enough that wherever Europeans travelled in what is now the City of Toronto, including the Davenport trail, they did so in the footsteps of countless others who went before. Early Europeans followed Aboriginal guides, mimicking their routes and movements across the landscape. As they followed the Davenport trail, sights, sounds, and smells, at once familiar to the Aboriginal guide and strange to the European newcomer, were constantly slipping away only to be quickly replaced by a myriad of other sensuous impressions as the landscape unfolded before them. Thus, step by step, the newcomer made sense the landscape on the north shore of Lake Ontario while the local guide reaffirmed his or her accumulated knowledge of it.

Davenport Road in 1851

But how do we start making sense of the Davenport trail today, especially since it has long been paved over, first with wooden planks in the mid-nineteenth century and then expanded and covered with layers of asphalt in the twentieth century? While it is now impossible to gain first-hand experience of ancient landscape features such as the Davenport trail, historical information can be gathered from a variety of sources. While early Aboriginal peoples left no written records of their lived experiences along the trail, clues concerning these experiences can be unearthed, through archaeological fieldwork, from the traces of their settlements and special purpose sites that still remain today. Clues can also be gathered from the oral traditions and histories that have been passed on to their descendants. Documents created by early French explorers, missionaries, fur traders, and later on by British soldiers, surveyors, and settlers, can provide information on the route and various uses of these trails before large-scale settlement. This documentary evidence, recovered through archival fieldwork, can take many forms, including journals, letters, maps, ledgers, reports, and so on.

In the course of my own research on the Toronto Carrying Places, I have discovered that just as forest footpaths can be relatively ephemeral and elusive on the landscape, so too are their traces in the ethno-historical record. Relevant documents are quite hard to find, long-hand originals are difficult to read, and most can be interpreted in a number of different ways. However, just like early European explorers followed in the physical footsteps of their Aboriginal guides, as a new archival explorer, I followed in the metaphorical footsteps of historians that went before me.

Survey of the Township of York created by Alexander Aitken around 1793 (Ontario Archives)

It was in the research files of Percy James Robinson that I (re)discovered a copy of the survey of the Township of York created by Alexander Aitken around 1793. Robinson (1873-1953) was a teacher, historian and author of Toronto during the French Régime: A History of the Toronto Region from Brûlé to Simcoe1615-1793(1933, 1965). The Percy James Robinson fonds (F 1080), located at the Archives of Ontario, contains transcriptions and reproductions of archival documents that he collected from various repositories in the course of his own extensive research on the history of the north shore. I had been asked to keep an eye out for early maps illustrating the Davenport trail and when I came across a blurry black-and-white photocopy of Aitken’s survey map (in three sections I might add), my heart skipped a beat. Was the dotted line really the Davenport trail? Was I reading the map properly? I counted the concessions up from the lake, comparing the dotted line’s location with the location of Davenport Road on more recent maps of Toronto. I checked it twice, and even three times. There it was – the Davenport trail winding along the foot of the escarpment between the Humber and the Don Rivers. The survey map even illustrated where the Davenport trail intersected with the portage along the Humber River, across from where the Old Mill stands today.

Plan of Dundas Street, created in 1795 by Surveyor General D.W. Smith, (Ontario Archives)

Sometimes, exciting finds can happen quite unexpectedly. My colleague at Heritage Toronto ordered the following Plan of Dundas Street, created in 1795 by Surveyor General D.W. Smith, from the Ontario Archives in the hopes that it would perhaps show where Dundas Street was originally meant to cross the Humber River. His curiosity in this respect was more or less satisfied by the document, but to his surprise, the plan also showed a footpath running along the base of the escarpment between the Don and the Humber Rivers. Even through an exercise in complete specificity, he had happened upon an answer to a different question. In his own words: “Jackpot.”

Davenport Road in 1954

Obviously, these were not new discoveries. They were, however, new discoveries to my colleague and I, as I am sure they will be new to most of you and to many people who will see the 1793 survey map on one of the plaques commemorating the Davenport Road. It is finds like these, and being able to share them, which make the long and tedious hours at the archives, where often the elusive trails we follow lead into a seemingly impenetrable forest, an excursion that is well worth the effort.

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