May 18th, 2022
Beaches Living Guide Spring/Summer 2015

First Nations on the East Side

Buried Artifacts, Forgotten Villages and Spiritual Islands

Before our city founders settled in Toronto, this was traditional territory of the Mississauga. While First Nations peoples certainly had a presence in the Beaches area, few details remain, almost like a collective amnesia had taken hold on our city.

The Hole in our History

One explanation for the lack of written records is that First Nations history is passed down orally. However, another documented by historians is that a kind of collective omission took hold in the writings of the mid-nineteenth century.

“References to the presence of Aboriginal peoples in the Don Valley and in Toronto more generally, decline precipitously after the early decades of the nineteenth century,” wrote Jennifer Bonnell in her book, Reclaiming the Don. “ mid-century Aboriginal people had largely disappeared from depictions of Toronto, their legacy firmly relegated to a pre-settlement past.” That, of course, doesn’t mean they weren’t here.

Prehistoric First Nations Artifacts Unearthed at Ashbridges

When the settlement of the Beaches’ first European residents, the Ashbridges, was excavated during 1998 to 2000, they found evidence of prehistoric native occupation – ash pits, ceramics and tools that show settlement in the area went back as far as 8,000 years ago.

The Perfect Campsite at Withrow School

It was the perfect site. A sandy knoll that provided an excellent lookout over the Don Valley for observing game. Going back as far as 4,000 years, generations of small family groups of First Nations had used this site to camp, living in skin tents during the hunting season. An excavation was done in 1886, and a plaque once marked the site, saying in part: “Of the many native sites in the city, Withrow is one of the few for which we have archaeological evidence.”

An Iroquoian Longhouse Village on Highland Creek Watershed

Far up the Highland Creek watershed, at the entrance to Birkdale Ravine near Brimley Road and Lawrence Avenue, is the former site of an Iroquoian village that existed around 1250. A Scarborough Historical Society plaque paints a picture of the way the village once was, based on what they learned in the 1956 excavation.

A protective fence surrounded the village, where many families lived together in large longhouses made from poles and bark. A line of fireplaces for cooking and heating extended down the centre of the house. They were fishermen, hunters and farmers, growing corn, beans, squash and pumpkins. Pottery, parts of pipes, tools and projectile points were found at the site. They buried their dead in two ossuaries on a nearby hillside, where the remains of 472 people were found.

A Lost Seneca Village at the Mouth of the Rouge

For two decades from the 1660s to the 1680s, the Seneca, part of the Five Nations Iroquois along with the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Cayuga, had a village called Ganatsekwyagon near the mouth of the Rouge River. Another, Teiaiagon, was on the Humber River near today’s Bloor Street. These were strategic locations on the Toronto Passage, the travel route up the Humber to Lake Simcoe and eventually Georgian Bay. Another such passage went up the Rouge River, to the Holland River, to Lake Simcoe.

By 1700, the Mississauga, who had migrated from their homelands much farther north, occupied the villages.

One anecdote from early land surveyor F. H. van Nostrand, said the Mississaugas continued to use the Rouge route until the late 1800s. One or two families travelled together in small bands, hunting, trapping and trading their way up the river. Along the way, they’d sell basketry, maple sugar and leather goods. The remains of this village is a National Historic Site called Bead Hill, but is not open to the public due to its sensitive nature.

The Toronto Islands were a Spiritual, Sacred Place for the Mississauga

Mohawk legend tells the story of the creation of the Toronto Islands in a violent storm, based on a 1954 Globe and Mail interview with Mohawk Historian William Smith and summarized by Victoria Jane Freeman in her University of Toronto thesis, Toronto Has No History.

On a day long before the coming of the white man [the Great Spirit] was in a mood of anger and, as he often expressed himself forcefully, the winds that day came with a terrific roar, laid the forests flat as matchsticks, whipped the waves as tall as treetops on Lake Ontario and made the earth tremble with their violence…There was no island then off the northern shore of Lake Ontario but when the sinking and upheaval finished and the storm had ended an island had been formed and that island is now Toronto Island.

The Toronto Islands were a spiritual place for the Mississauga, where they went to recuperate from illness, believing the island had special healing powers. They grew wild rice in Ashbridges Bay and thrived on the abundant whitefish, salmon and trout in the waters.

The Islands were lumped in with the 1787 Toronto Purchase, where the Mississauga sold lands from the Etobicoke River (Creek) to Scarborough for a mere £1,700, often regarded as one of the biggest swindles in history. The Mississauga objected that the Islands and key camping and hunting sites along Toronto’s rivers were never part of the deal. They would never have willingly sold their spiritual place.

They used rivers to take advantage of spring and autumn salmon runs, acting as hunter-gatherers and travelling their territory throughout the year. Recorded sites include the Nechequakekon campsite in present-day Leslieville, about a half mile east of the Don River, and another campsite near Todmorden Mills.

Pigs, Flowers and Bricks: A history of Leslieville, Joanne Doucette; Heritage Toronto article, It’s Not the Trail; It’s the Land it Crosses, Ron Williamson; Ontario Heritage Trust; Toronto Plaques, Allan Brown; The History of Toronto: An 11,000-Year Journey, City of Toronto; Toronto Has No History, thesis, Victoria Jane Freeman, University of Toronto, 2010; Reclaiming the Don, Jennifer Bonnell

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