We do not know when the first European reached the Toronto area, although there is no question that it occurred in the 17th century. Earlier historians claimed that Étienne Brûlé, the protégé of Samuel de Champlain, travelled down the Toronto Passage from Huronia in 1615. However, later scholars believe that this view is incorrect. Brûlé had set out from Champlain’s Quebec to go up the Ottawa River and across central Ontario to live with the Hurons near Georgian Bay as part of an early French effort to build alliances with the natives. Champlain also travelled to Huronia in 1615 by the Ottawa route and then participated in a campaign against the Hurons’ Iroquois enemies in New York. Before setting off, Champlain let Brûlé join some Hurons on a journey south to recruit help from another aboriginal people at war with the Iroquois, the Susquehannocks of modern Pennsylvania. While earlier antiquarians thought that Brûlé came down the Toronto Passage, he likely travelled south on a more westerly route, not to Lake Ontario, but to Lake Erie, before crossing the Niagara River to continue southward. It made better sense for Brûlé to use a route to the west of Toronto to reduce the chances of being intercepted by Iroquois war parties and to work around the western boundaries of the Iroquois homelands in New York. (Champlain himself did not come near Toronto; instead, he travelled southeast from Huronia to the Bay of Quinte before crossing Lake Ontario to attack the Iroquois in 1615.)
Champlain and Brûlé’s presence in southern Ontario to fight beside the Hurons against the Iroquois symbolized the violence and traumas that afflicted the lower Great Lakes in the 17th century. The increasing European presence coincided with, and helped fuel, an escalation of warfare among the indigenous population. At the same time, some native groups, especially the Hurons, received Roman Catholic missionaries among them. In promoting the faith of the Europeans, the French priests began to undermine not only the beliefs but also the social structures of the tribespeople and generated serious divisions within communities.
Then, between 1634 and 1640, in what may have been the greatest human tragedy in this region, half of the aboriginal population of southern Ontario and elsewhere in the Great Lakes perished from terrifying new diseases that the newcomers inadvertently brought across the Atlantic Ocean with them. The Iroquois in New York suffered on a similar scale, and a critical motivation for escalating their war with other nations was to capture and adopt outsiders to replace their losses, in part to maintain enough of a population to preserve their social viability. During the 1640s and 1650s, the Iroquois confederacy defeated, destroyed, dispersed, or absorbed their aboriginal enemies in southern Ontario, including the Hurons, along with peoples in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other areas. Some Huron refugees retreated westward to join other displaced people in forming a new nation, the Wyandot, and others either fled eastward to settle near Quebec or disappeared into the native societies of the north. However, the largest group of surviving Hurons were absorbed as wartime adoptees into the Iroquois nations to the south and eventually were integrated as full members of the Five Nations Confederacy.
After the massive victory over their indigenous enemies, some Iroquois people moved to the Toronto area in the mid 1660s. Thus, its character shifted again, from being a hinterland for the now-dispersed Hurons of Georgian Bay, as it had been since the end of the 1500s, to a colonized area for the Iroquois of New York. At that time the Iroquois confederacy consisted of five nations – the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca – and it was this last tribe that established two communities in the Toronto area: Ganatsekwyagon near the mouth of the Rouge River and Teiaiagon on the Humber near modern Bloor Street. Both sat strategically on the main lines of the Toronto Passage. These settlements, along with five other Iroquois communities founded in Ontario at the same time, effectively controlled the main hunting and trading routes from the north to the Five Nations’ homelands in New York. We know that Roman Catholic missionaries worked at Ganatsekwyagon and Teiaiagon in the 1660s and 1670s, and thus they represented a verifiable indication of an early European presence in the Toronto area beyond that of seasonal traders and others who passed through the villages, including, perhaps most famously, the explorer René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle in the early 1680s.
The Seneca occupation of Toronto lasted for about two decades. We do not know what happened to Teiaiagon and Ganatsekwyagon with certainty, but a likely scenario is that their inhabitants left them and returned to New York in or before 1687. At that time these villages may have been close to being ready to re-locate as part of the natural movement of Iroquoian communities while a more immediate issue lay in their vulnerability to attack because of a war between the French and the Iroquois. Part of the evidence for Teiaiagon and Ganatsekwyagon being abandoned by 1687 is that a French military force travelled through Toronto that year after attacking Seneca villages in New York, but apparently encountered no Senecas here. However, there also is some unclear evidence that a reduced number of Senecas may have returned to Toronto for a few years after the French passed through the region.
It was about the time that the Senecas lived here that the word ‘Toronto’ and its variations began to appear on French maps. At first they designated Lake Simcoe to the north with that name, which derived from an Iroquois term meaning ‘where there are trees in water.’ The native reference was to a weir (or pole and net system) for catching fish. The location of the most prominent weir in the area was in the fast-moving waters between lakes Couchiching and Simcoe. Through vague understandings of Ontario’s 17th-century geography ‘Toronto’ gradually came to refer to a larger region that included the site of the present city. (The old and still-popular Victorian romanticism that claimed that ‘Toronto’ means ‘meeting place’ was based on research by an antiquarian without an adequate understanding of native languages.)
Towards the end of the 17th century, Algonkian speakers from central Ontario replaced the Senecas in the Toronto area. Some of these individuals of the larger Ojibway (or Anishinabe) society came to be known as the Mississaugas, and it was these people who dominated the history of the region to the end of the 18th century.
Historians debate why the Algonkians supplanted the Iroquois in this region. Some suggest that they defeated the Iroquois in war, basing their views largely on oral traditions that tell of Algonkian victories in combat over an Iroquoian people. Others argue that these oral histories instead recall an older story of conflict (perhaps with the people who became the Hurons), and thus do not apply to the late 17th century. Instead they believe that the transition from Iroquois to Ojibway/Mississauga settlement arose out of a process of negotiation between the two peoples. According to this view, the Iroquois thought that they had to abandon southern Ontario because of the pressure exercised by their French and First Nations enemies (such as the people of the Ohio country where the Five Nations had expanded in the mid 1600s). Therefore, the Iroquois wanted to encourage people to move into southern Ontario who might form an alliance with them, as the Ojibways did upon their arrival here.
Unlike Iroquoians such as the Hurons and Iroquois, the Algonkian Mississaugas did little farming beyond establishing small garden plots in southern Ontario. Instead, they followed the more northerly hunter-gatherer subsistence patterns that they had known before coming south. They tended to live in seasonal settlements, and travelled through their new territory to utilize different resources during the course of the year, such as through catching salmon on the rivers that flowed into Lake Ontario during the spring and autumn salmon runs.
There had been periodic fighting in the 17th century between the French of the St Lawrence Valley and the English on the eastern seaboard for dominance in northeastern North America. Conflict continued into the 18th century, marked by three major wars: Spanish Succession (1702-13), Austrian Succession (1744-48), and Seven Years’ (1754-63 in North America, 1756-63 in Europe). During these great struggles for empire, Toronto sat within territory claimed by France, and played a modest role in the interaction between whites and natives, an interaction based on alliance-building through diplomacy, personal relationships, trade, and gift-giving.
Although our understanding of the French presence in south-central Ontario is far from complete, we know that the French had traded in and around the Toronto Passage on an occasional basis since the 17th century. Then in 1720 they established a small fur trade post on the Humber River, but abandoned it within a decade because it could not compete with British traders across Lake Ontario. They returned in 1750 to build another small post on the Humber. Their objectives this time were to break the trade and diplomatic relationship that existed between the Mississaugas and the British at Oswego (the latter’s main Lake Ontario post) as well as to acquire furs from both the local area and from more northerly people who came down the Toronto Passage on their way to trade with the British. Looking to the future, the French thought they might be able to persuade the local Mississaugas to help destroy Oswego because they had participated as French allies against the British in 1745-46 during the War of Austrian Succession.
The volume of trade at Toronto in 1750 exceeded expectations, and thus the French found that they could not store enough goods at their little post to exchange for furs. At the same time, the natives suggested that they might be willing to turn their backs on Oswego if the new post could meet their needs for European goods. Therefore, the French abandoned the Humber site in favour of a new one located about five kilometres to the east on the grounds of today’s Exhibition Place. Constructed in 1750-51, Fort Rouillé (or Fort Toronto) was more defensible in case the natives should decide to loot the increased quantities of supplies that were stored there. Nevertheless, Fort Rouillé was a humble establishment, with only 10-15 soldiers typically serving in its garrison. The main French presence in the region lay across Lake Ontario at the mouth of the Niagara River at Fort Niagara (at modern Youngstown, New York), with Fort Rouillé functioning as an out-station of Niagara.
Fort Rouillé proved its worth in building a French alliance with the native population after the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War when the local Mississaugas agreed to participate in the capture of Fort Oswego in 1756. However, in 1757 (at a time when smallpox ravaged the indigenous population of the lower Great Lakes) the precariousness of the alliance with the region’s First Nations also was demonstrated when 90 warriors surrounded Fort Rouillé and threatened to kill its 11-man garrison. However, a relief force of 63 soldiers from Fort Niagara reinforced the small post before the tribespeople could act. Ironically, the natives were French allies on their way to fight the British on the Lake Champlain front and would participate in the capture of Fort William Henry later that year. The French in Fort Rouillé may have given offence to the war parties by not providing them with the presents or respect that the warriors had expected to receive. For their part, the people at Fort Rouillé may not have had much to offer because Britain’s Royal Navy had captured many of the ships carrying goods across the Atlantic and thereby had created severe supply shortages in the French colony.
In 1758, British forces re-occupied Oswego and captured Fort Frontenac (at modern Kingston, Ontario) along with French vessels on Lake Ontario and stores intended for the fur trade. These events left Fort Rouillé exposed, and its garrison received orders to burn the post and retire to Fort Niagara if the British were to appear off Toronto. Then, in 1759, new orders informed the Toronto garrison that if Fort Niagara were to be threatened, the French were to ask Mississauga warriors to aid the larger post. That year, the British besieged Fort Niagara, destroyed a relief force from the Ohio country sent to rescue it, and then captured the French stronghold. With that fatal blow to French interests in the Great Lakes, the soldiers of the garrison at Toronto burned their small fort and retreated to Montreal. Immediately afterwards, British troops from Niagara crossed Lake Ontario to Toronto in a number of whaleboats to inspect the charred ruins. They returned to Niagara with a Mississauga chief, Tequakareigh, to begin the process of negotiating a new relationship between the two peoples.
The Seven Years’ War came to an end with the ratification of the Treaty of Paris in 1763. New France – including Toronto – passed from French to British rule. That change was not uncontested: in 1763-64 the Pontiac War tore through the Great Lakes when natives rose to resist the new order in which only one European power now dominated the region, whereas in former days, when Britain and France competed against each other, the tribes could play the white powers off each other to protect aboriginal interests. With the elimination of France, the indigenous peoples found that they were shown less respect by the British than before when they had been wooed to ally with George II against Louis XV, or at least stay neutral. As a result, the cost of trade goods rose, fewer presents were forthcoming from colonial officials, and, to the south of the Great Lakes, settlers began to settle on native land on a new and frightening scale. The closest fighting to Toronto occurred along the Niagara River, where Senecas from western New York attacked British forces, perhaps influenced in part by a false rumour from a French trader, Luc de la Corne, that France had sent a fleet to retake its lost colony. Some Mississaugas from Toronto travelled to Detroit to participate in the rising there, but the majority, influenced by leaders such as Wabbicommicot, remained at peace. The conflict came to an end when the British and First Nations worked out a tense but viable relationship with each other in the mid 1760s.
With the end of hostilities, the Mississaugas continued to hunt, fish, gather, and trade through the Toronto region as before, and a handful of Britain’s new French-speaking subjects as well as some anglophone traders took advantage of the opportunities to profit from the fur trade centred on the Toronto Passage. Perhaps the best known of these traders were Ferrall Wade in the 1760s-70s, and Jean-Baptiste Rousseau, who built a house on the lower Humber in the 1770s or 1780s.
To the south, many colonists rose up against the Crown in the American Revolution of 1775-83. During the conflict, the loyalists recruited native allies to shore up their cause against the revolutionaries. Mississaugas from the Toronto area joined Crown forces to fight on the lower Great Lakes front in New York and elsewhere. With the rebel victory and Britain’s recognition of the independence of the new United States in 1783, a large number of United Empire Loyalist refugees settled on the north side of the Great Lakes to remain within British territory, as did a substantial portion of the Iroquois people of New York, who took up land along the Grand River north of Lake Erie and at Tyendinaga near modern Belleville.
Two of the many concerns that arose out of the new situation centred on replacing the fur trade in the south and the need to accommodate the loyalists. Therefore, traders and officials began to examine Toronto’s potential, not only because of its passage to the north, but also because it sat on a well-protected bay that could be developed for settlement and defensive purposes. In the reorganization of the Great Lakes region after the American Revolution, various individuals petitioned the Crown for land in and around the Toronto area. Then, in 1787 the government paid the Mississaugas £1700 in cash and goods to acquire Toronto in order to open the way for Euroamerican settlement. (Natives, however, did not ‘disappear’ from Toronto, and now, in the early 21st century, the city is home to a large, diverse, and dynamic First Nations population.)
After the Toronto Purchase, a handful of settlers began to clear land in south-central Ontario for farms. Their actions heralded the beginning of the transformation of the local environment away from a fur trade economy to an agricultural one that would be far less accommodating to native peoples than before. At about the same time, in 1791, the British government divided the ‘Old’ Province of Quebec (which then included Toronto) into two new colonies, Upper and Lower Canada (equivalent to the southern portions of today’s Ontario and Quebec). Two years later the capital of the upper province would be located in Toronto during a fearful period of threatened American invasion.