This article is a response to a series of comments you can find on Spacing Wire, in which someone compares Toronto to a “crossroads” or “meeting place.” The poster claims this label makes sense because the word Toronto originates from an aboriginal word meaning “meeting place.” There was no post contradicting the definition, probably because we have all heard this claim before and most of us accept it. Upon further investigation of the matter, one finds the definition of Toronto as “meeting place” to be rather controversial.
According to several government and web sources, the name linguistically originates from the Mohawk phrase tkaronto which means “where there are trees standing in the water,” referring to where local tribes planted tree saplings to corral fish. A portage route from Lake Ontario to Lake Huron apparently led to the widespread use of the word.
The name first appeared in print around 1680 as Lac de Taronto by French court official Abbe Claude Bernou, referring to what we now call Lake Simcoe. A 1688 map by Vincenzo Coronellii identifies the location as L Taronto above the words Les Piquets (the stakes). The spelling was changed to Toronto for Coronnelli’s 1695 map of the lakes.
The common reference of Toronto meaning “meeting place” probably comes from the historian Henry Scadding’s 1884 publication Toronto: Past and Present based on the writings of French missionary Gabriel Sagard. Sagard traveled greatly among the Huron people and published L’histoire du Canada in 1636, which included a dictionary of the Huron language. The Huron word toronton appears as “place of meetings,” but no exact location is given. Historian William Killbourn goes so far to suggest in his 1984 publication Toronto Remembered that toronton actually means “plenty” or “abundance” as opposed to “meeting place.”
Another reference comes from several 18th century maps used by British and French officers that identify Fort Toronto, (near the exhibition grounds) built in 1720 and in use (sporadically) until 1759.
In 1778 Governor General Lord Dorchester secured the Toronto Purchase from the Mississauga people, which saw an area of 1,000 square kilometers come under ownership and control of the British.
The area was made capital and renamed York in 1793, by John Graves Simcoe in honour of a victory by the Duke of York in Flanders. Simcoe apparently disliked aboriginal names, but many of his contemporaries disagreed with his decision. After Simcoe’s return to England a petition was submitted to the legislature to reinstate its previous identifier (Toronto) and the name was restored on March 6, 1834.
This analysis is definitely not an exhaustive one, but the debate over the original name of Toronto, which so many people assume to mean “meeting place,” might help us to challenge other misconceptions about our city. Is Toronto really the most multicultural place on earth? Are we really the centre of the universe? Is Robarts library really sinking? The list goes on.
Photos courtesy of the Toronto District School Board and Open Doors Ontario