Explore the vestiges of the hamlets and villages that have been swallowed up by Toronto’s relentless growth.
Over the course of more than two centuries, Toronto has ballooned from a muddy collection of huts on a swampy waterfront to Canada’s largest and most diverse city. Amid (and sometimes underneath) this urban agglomeration are the remains of many small communities that once dotted the region now known as Toronto and the GTA. Before European settlers arrived, Indigenous Peoples established villages on the shore of Lake Ontario. With the arrival of the English, a host of farm hamlets, tollgate stopovers, mill towns, and, later, railway and cottage communities sprang up. Vestiges of some are still preserved, while others have disappeared forever. Some are remembered, though many have been forgotten. In Toronto’s Lost Villages, all of their stories are brought back to life.
About the author
Ron Brown is a freelance travel writer and photographer. He has published twenty books on the visual heritage of Ontario, including The Lake Erie Shore: Ontario's Forgotten South Coast; Behind Bars: Inside Ontario's Heritage Gaols; The Train Doesn't Stop Here Any More: An Illustrated History of Railway Stations in Canada; Ontario's Ghost Town Heritage; and Top 100 Unusual Things to See in Ontario. He is past chair of the Writers Union of Canada, and is active with the Travel Media Association of Canada, Access Copyright, where he sits on the board of directors, and the Book and Periodical Council. He lectures and directs bus tours based on his book topics. He lives in Toronto.
- Winner, Heritage Toronto Award
Excerpt: Toronto's Lost Villages (by (author) Ron Brown)
1. Along the Lakeshore
Toronto’s First Vanished Villages
TEIAIAGON AND GANATCHAKIAGON
As the glaciers that covered the Toronto region melted northward, humans followed. The first were nomadic hunters searching the then tundra for roving herds of elk, caribou, and other subarctic wildlife. The growth of forests saw succeeding cultures replace the earlier occupants. The oldest prehistoric artifact found in the Toronto area is a chert spear point discovered by a school student and dated to eight thousand years ago; other artifacts of similar age have been few.
By the 16th century, the sedentary Hurons and Petuns occupied the fertile lands south of Georgian Bay, away from their traditional enemies, the Iroquois Confederacy, who occupied the Finger Lakes region of New York state. South of Georgian Bay, the Hurons and Petuns established large village compounds of longhouses, surrounded by sturdy wooden palisades. They came to the Lake Ontario shores to hunt in the Rouge and Humber marshes and fish around the Toronto Islands, but established no villages on those shores.
Through the 17th century as the Europeans arrived, mainly in search of the beaver, the lifestyles of the Indigenous Peoples shifted. Now they concentrated on hunting the valuable beaver pelts to trade for tools, guns, and liquor. Alliances were formed, the Iroquois aligning with the Dutch and English traders, the Hurons with the French. The main trading route between Lake Simcoe and Lake Ontario was known as the “Toronto Carrying Place,” following the Humber River and over a height of land before descending to Lake Simcoe. (At the time, the early French knew our “Lake Simcoe” as Lac Toronto.)
As the fur supply became depleted south of Lake Ontario, on what is now the American side, north of Lake Ontario the Iroquois launched a string of deadly raids that either killed off or chased away the Huron and Petun populations. The missions established by the French missionaries to “Christianize” the “savages” lay in smouldering ruins. Fort Ste. Marie near Midland is a reconstruction of such a mission complex, which had lain on this site.
Following their violent dispersal of the Petun and Huron in 1650, the Iroquois built a string of seven villages along the north shore of Lake Ontario. Two of these were within today’s Toronto region. Each was to protect one of the two southern termini of the Toronto Portage, one branch of which followed the Rouge River, the other the Humber.
The village overlooking the Rouge was Ganatchekiagon, built by the Seneca (of the Iroquois Confederacy) on a high promontory upstream from the river’s mouth. This strategic position allowed the Seneca to control the trade routes east and west along the north shore, as well as the main route along the Rouge. Archaeologists now know the location as the Bead Hill site. The site overlooking the Humber was Teiaiagon, and is known now as the Baby Point site. Both were palisaded compounds of longhouses, in which an estimated six to eight hundred people would live. The river-mouth marshes provided ample fish and fowl.
Then came the pushback. Anxious to regain control of the fur trade, in the 1690s the northern Anishinaabe tribes, including today’s Ojibwa and Mississaugas, raided the Seneca villages, pushing the Iroquois back across the lake in what are known as the Beaver Wars. By 1700 the Seneca villages lay vacant — becoming Toronto’s first vanished villages.
In 1991 the Bead Hill site was designated a National Historic Site. Excavations have unearthed a bone haircomb decorated with figures drinking from a goblet, which indicates European contact. Other finds include stone tools, effigy pipes, burial artifacts, ceramics, and the remains of many meals — as well as countless beads typical of a Seneca village of significant size.
The site lies within and adjacent to the newly created Rouge National Urban Park, the world’s first national urban park, and remains the Toronto area’s only undeveloped First Nations archaeological site. Although many artifacts have surfaced, Parks Canada has yet to publicly mark the location. There is as yet no plaque nor interpretation centre, although both are in the works. The park entrance lies along Kingston Road in the Rouge Valley.
By contrast, the Baby Point site (named for Jacques Baby, Inspector General for Upper Canada) has been known for many decades, and now lies buried beneath housing. Below the site, on the floor of the Humber Valley, two prominent historic plaques within a Story Circle recount the story of Baby Point and of the lifestyles of the early Indigenous Peoples.
The Europeans Arrive, in Numbers
The year was 1793, and the shore of Lake Ontario was heavy with forests. The few clearings were hazy with smoke from the campfires of Indigenous hunters, while ducks flapped across the little lagoons that hid in the frequent river mouths. Well-worn foot trails and portages wound through the dark woods linking the all-important rivers and lakes. To the inhabitants of the day, the rivers were their highways.
Those routes were as important to the lakeshore’s first non-Indigenous settlers as they were to the Indigenous populations. Eastern Ontario and the Niagara Peninsula already had a few crude villages ringing some little harbours, but with the arrival of John Graves Simcoe in 1793, that pattern began to spread, and that spreading, two hundred years later, would be the seemingly endless sprawl of the Greater Toronto Area.
This, the oldest of European Toronto’s “lost villages,” has undergone many transformations. From the earliest “Toronto,” a cluster of wooden huts in a dark forest clearing in the 1790s, “York,” as it was renamed by Simcoe (who disliked using Indigenous names), had evolved by the 1830s into a handsome, if muddy, provincial town of banks, churches, and stores. In the 1850s the railways began to transform what was by that time again called Toronto into a smoky and industrial city. And yet another transformation since has removed most of the old industries, replacing them with condos, townhouses, and soaring glass skyscrapers.
The enormity of the changes belies the scant time in which they have occurred: 1793, after all, is only a little more than two centuries ago. Yet it was in July of that year that John Graves Simcoe, commander of the Queen’s Rangers, landed in the schooner Mississauga on the low shore of “Toronto,” to a silent woodland. His job was to find a site for and to lay out a new capital for Britain’s new province of Upper Canada. The existing capital, Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake), was too exposed to the Americans, with whom Britain had just fought the War of Independence. With him were chief surveyor Augustus Jones and his deputy, Alexander Aitken.
Rather than choose the grounds around the old French Fort near the foot of today’s Dufferin Street, as proposed in a plan prepared by a Captain Gotherman five years earlier, they chose instead the head of the swampy harbour where a creek they named the Don River flowed into the bay. Here they laid out ten square blocks, five along the shore, and two deep.
Brown has written a book of great service...Toronto’s Lost Villages is a compendious buffet of civic history.
Literary Review of Canada
Other titles by Ron Brown
Top 170 Unusual Things to See in Ontario
Ontario's Ghost Town Heritage
Backroads of Ontario
Top 160 Unusual Things to See in Ontario
Canada's World Wonders
Dundurn Railroad 6-Book Bundle
Rails Over the Mountains / Rails to the Atlantic / Rails Across Ontario / and 3 more
Rails Over the Mountains
Exploring the Railway Heritage of Canada's Western Mountains
Top 150 Unusual Things to See in Ontario
Dundurn Railroad 5-Book Bundle
In Search of the Grand Trunk / Rails Across the Prairies / Rails Across Ontario / The Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore / Rails to the Atlantic
Rails to the Atlantic
Exploring the Railway Heritage of Quebec and the Atlantic Provinces