Archaeology Opens a Window on the History of Indigenous Peoples in the GTA

Archaeological investigations in the Greater Toronto Area have identified nearly 300 sites related to Indigenous occupation — a powerful reminder that this area has been the homeland of Indigenous peoples for more than 10,000 years. Each site — whether a small, briefly-occupied hunting camp or a large village that housed hundreds of families — tells the story of the people and their way of life on the land.

The Anishinaabe, Huron-Wendat and Haudenosaunee have all made this region their home at various times in the past.

The Huron-Wendat lived in the area now known as ‘Huronia’, located south of Georgian Bay, when early French explorers established trading relationships with them in the 16th century. Archaeological evidence shows that the ancestors of the Huron-Wendat had inhabited the Toronto area for generations before that. They established large villages where they farmed corn, beans and squash, exhausting the land and relocating every 20 to 30 years.

Typical artifacts encountered on Wendat sites include ceramic pots and smoking pipes, stone hunting and skinning tools, and bone artifacts for fishing, sewing and ornamentation.

Wendat archaeological artifacts
Typical ancestral Wendat artifacts

The Huron-Wendat Nation was decimated by warfare with the Haudenosaunee Iroquois, and their dispersal exacerbated by illnesses brought to the New World by Europeans. They eventually fled Huronia around 1650, and today have established communities in Wendake, Quebec and in the American states of Kansas and New York.

The Haudenosaunee, or “people of the longhouse”, includes the Six Nations of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora. Although their homeland was located south of Lake Ontario in the Finger Lakes region, the Haudenosaunee controlled most of Southern Ontario after the 1660s.

Among some of the most well-known archaeological sites in the City of Toronto are the Seneca villages of Teiaiagon and Ganatsekwyagon, at the mouths of the Humber and Rouge Rivers respectively. These villages were strategic trading locations that controlled access to the west and east branches of the Toronto Carrying Place Trail, giving the Haudenosaunee access to the upper Great Lakes and the source of the lucrative fur trade.

Teiaiagon and Ganatsekwyagon were also connected east-west by the Davenport Trail, an overland route along the former north shore of Lake Ontario. The Haudenosaunee abandoned their villages after 1695, leaving the Greater Toronto region without a permanent First Nations settlement.

Charlevois Bellin map
Charlevois Bellin Map of 1744

As allies of the British during the American Revolution under Captain Joseph Brant, the Haudenosaunee were granted a tract of land along the Grand River. Today, the Six Nations Reserve (No. 40) is located approximately 25 kilometres southwest of Hamilton, between the cities of Brantford, Caledonia and Hagersville.

In 2018, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) Archaeology team will spend their Staff Day at the Mohawk Institute, assisting with excavations as part of the Save the Evidence campaign.

According to oral traditions, Anishinaabe peoples migrated from the east coast into the northern Great Lakes region around A.D. 1400. They lived a primarily nomadic lifestyle north of Lake Ontario on the Canadian Shield, well into the time of Contact.

The Anishinaabe began moving south in the 17th century, traversing southern Ontario on their seasonal rounds and establishing villages along the north shore of Lake Ontario, even re-occupying those formerly abandoned by the Seneca.

The Anishinaabe who settled in the Greater Toronto area include people who identify as Ojibway, Chippewa, and Mississauga. One of the most notable Anishinaabe legacies in the Toronto region is the naming of Etobicoke Creek, which was derived from “Wah-do-be-kaug”, an Ojibwe expression meaning “Where the Black Alders Grow”.

Etobicoke Creek
Present-day Etobicoke Creek

The Mississauga were largely fishers and hunters, and participated in casual maize horticulture. By the late 18th century, the Mississauga resided along the north shore of Lake Ontario and in the Trent River valley, while the Chippewa resided near Lake Simcoe, the Bruce Peninsula and the Thames River valley.

TRCA strives to work with Indigenous communities to find ways to include elements of Indigenous culture and history into our projects, parks and trails.

During the creation of the Heart Lake Medicine Wheel Garden, for example, TRCA collaborated with the Peel Aboriginal Network, and an Anishinaabe elder selected the garden location based on a vision he experienced. When TRCA archaeologists conducted a survey in the proposed locale, an Indigenous archaeological site was found, linking the past to the present in a tangible way.

TRCA archaeologists continue to collaborate with Indigenous communities to share knowledge both past and present, weaving an even richer cultural fabric for future generations to enjoy.