How Did the Don River Get Its Name?

Painting of the Don River
Painting of the Don River by Elizabeth Simcoe, 1793. Image from the Archives of Ontario.

We see the word “Don” every day: Don Valley, Don Mills, Don Valley Parkway. All of these names originated from the Don River, but where did the Don River get its name?

The Don River was named by Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe in 1793 after he likened the appearance of its wide river valley to the River Don in Yorkshire, England. The origin of the River Don’s name in England is derived from the name Dôn, a goddess of Celtic mythology, supposedly named after the old gaelic word for water.

Before the Ontario river was given the name Don, however, it went by a few other names. In 1788, Crown Surveyor Alexander Aiken recorded the name of the river as Necheng Qua Kekong. This is also the name he used on the first English maps to designate the Don. While the name didn’t stick, Aiken’s lasting legacy is that he later created the first city plan for Toronto.

Simcoe’s wife Elizabeth referred to the river as Wonscoteonoch, a phrase used by the First Nations Peoples to mean black burnt country, a reference to a forest fire that charred part of the area to the north. While her husband gave the Don its name, Elizabeth Simcoe is responsible for naming Scarborough, Ontario, which she based on Scarborough, England.

Elizabeth Simcoe’s other major contribution is that much of what we know about the couple’s experiences in Toronto is due to her diary, which captures Elizabeth’s early impressions of the beauty of the Don Valley area.

“This evening we went to see a creek which is to be called the river Don. It falls into the Bay near the Peninsula. After we entered, we rowed some distance among the low lands covered with rushes, abounding with wild ducks and swamp birds with red wings.” – Elizabeth Simcoe’s diary, August 11, 1793