Historicist: The Village of Teiaiagon
Torontoist has been acquired by Daily Hive Toronto - Your City. Now. Click here to learn more.



Historicist: The Village of Teiaiagon

The Five Nations of the Iroquois establish villages on the north shore of Lake Ontario in the 1670s, including one near the mouth of the Humber River, at the start of the Toronto Carrying Place.

To mark National Aboriginal History Month this June, Historicist will focus on aboriginal issues throughout Toronto’s history.

Kettle found at Baby Point in 1999, likely from the Teiaiagon era. It was found with a fragment of fur pelt inside. Image courtesy of Archaeological Services Inc.

Near the beginning of the 17th century, the Iroquois Confederacy, then consisting of five nations—the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca—began expanding their territory to include land in what is now southern Ontario, along the north shore of Lake Ontario. The north shore had been most recently occupied by the Huron-Wendat, but a reduction in the Wendat’s numbers, combined with increasing conflicts with the Five Nations in the area, prompted the Wendat to relocate, and left the north shore largely unoccupied. After initially setting up some seasonal outposts, the Five Nations would establish seven villages along the north shore in the early 1670s, during a time of relative peace between the Five Nations and the French. Two of these villages were at sites now within the boundaries of the City of Toronto: Ganatsekwyagon, along the Rouge River, and Teiaiagon, which was located just north of the mouth of the Humber, in the area now known as “Baby Point.”

Both Ganatsekwyagon and Teiaiagon were southern termini of the Toronto Carrying Place, an ancient trail system connecting Lake Ontario with hunting lands to the north and west. Archaeological evidence has been found of earlier communities along the same route and due to changes in the geography, many other earlier sites connected with the Carrying Place may now lay buried below the lake itself.

While the route of the Carrying Place followed the river system, most of the travel conducted along the route was, in fact, done over land. In her 2011 thesis on the Toronto Carrying Place, Annie Veilleux notes that “while canoe travel in south-central Ontario was limited to the lakes and the lower reaches of the major streams and rivers, the waterways provided a permanent system of landmarks to orient people travelling on foot along the dry highlands of the river valleys.”

Although evidence of the Carrying Place is preserved in the oral traditions of First Nations groups, written history about Teiaiagon, and indeed of all the north shore Five Nations villages, is scarce. The other six villages are first mentioned in French records around 1670. Some historians, including Percy Robinson in his 1933 book Toronto During the French Régime, have suggested that Teiaiagon was also established around this time, but no evidence of the village appears to exist prior to 1673.

Percy Robinson, centre, unveiling a plaque in Baby Point recognizing the area’s early history. Toronto Star, December 19, 1949.

When the north shore settlements were first established Ganatsekwyagon was the preferred starting point on the Carrying Place trail. This changed in 1673, when the French established Fort Frontenac at what is now Kingston. Percy Robinson indicates that one of the aims in building the Fort was to control the fur trade on the eastern part of Lake Ontario, thereby discouraging the Five Nations from trading with the Dutch, who were more easily accessible along eastern routes. Robinson explains that “the Iroquois, foiled by Fort Frontenac in their trade at Ganatsekwyagon, which they had reached along the north shore of Lake Ontario, now began to trade at Teiaiagon, which they reached by following the south shore round the western end of the lake.” The Carrying Place route from the Teiaiagon site was shorter than that from Ganatsekwyagon, but various accounts from fur traders describe the Teiaiagon route as considerably more difficult to travel.

Accounts indicate that all of the north shore settlements are believed to have been affiliated with specific nations within the Iroquois Confederacy; both Ganatsekwyagon and Teiaiagon were specifically Seneca villages. The population of Teiaiagon, however, was likely diverse. In addition to the various south shore Seneca, Anishinaabe, and European traders who visited Teiaiagon, the Five Nations groups permitted one another to hunt on each other’s land. Annie Veilleux writes that the individual north shore villages featured not only “people from throughout the Five Nations,” but also some Wendat who had chosen to live with the Iroquois, rather than relocate.

Section of a map indicating Teiaiagon and the surrounding area. Created by Claude Bernou, ca. 1681.

The limited number of written accounts makes it difficult to provide precise details about the size and layout of Teiaiagon. Victor Konrad, in his 1981 article “An Iroquois Frontier,” cites the markings on French maps of the period, which indicate that the north shore settlements were smaller than the larger Five Nations towns on the south shore. Correlating these markings to the better-documented accounts of the south shore villages, Konrad writes that “since smaller Iroquois villages usually contained about 20 to 30 structures and an estimated population of from 500 to 800 persons, it is conceivable that the north shore villages were of similar size,” although he notes that the populations may have grown larger when people returned from hunts.

Although the primary accounts from traders emphasize the north shore settlements as trading points, evidence suggests Teiaiagon and the other north shore villages were just as self-sufficient as their south shore counterparts. Teiaiagon grew the staple crop maize in nearby agricultural fields, and may have also grown other vegetables such as squash. Konrad argues that “these settlements were as much home as the heartland villages of their brethren to the south of the lake. Fundamental components of the Iroquois cultural identity and way of life were transferred to the north shore: the longhouse, the matrilineal and matrilocal social system, and maize agriculture . . . It was an extension of the homeland.”

Percy Robinson suggests that Teiaiagon may have been fortified with a palisade to protect it from attack, and indicates that “traces of a palisade were discovered on Baby Point in 1889 by Mr. A.F. Hunter,” one of the first people to undertake an interest in the archaeology of the area, although it is possible that these remnants were from another development at the site. The main structures in Teiaiagon were the traditional Seneca longhouses; although no visual depictions of Teiaiagon exist, a 1720 map of Fort Frontenac includes a drawing of a longhouse believed to be typical of the north shore settlements, which shows construction similar to the structures on the south side of Lake Ontario.

Detail of a longhouse. Plan du Fort Frontenac ou Cataracouy. 1720. From the Boston Public Library.

One of the few first-person accounts of Teiaiagon comes from Father Louis Hennepin, a Récollet missionary who visited in the late autumn of 1678. In addition to containing many of prejudices of his era, Hennepin’s writings are now believed to be unreliable, although historians have not specifically questioned his claim to have visited Teiaiagon.

Hennepin mentions Teiaiagon by name, and writes that his party first arrived there on November 26, 1679. “We bartered some Indian corn from the [Iroquois], who could not sufficiently admire us, and came frequently to see us on board our brigantine, which for our greater security we had brought to anchor [in the Humber], though before we could get in, we [ran] aground three times, which obliged us to put 14 men into canoes, and cast the ballast of our ship overboard to get her off again.” Hennepin’s party for nearly three weeks at Teiaiagon, which he attributed to poor sailing weather, but he provides no other details of the village itself.

Other accounts of Teiaiagon were published later, including the papers of the trader and explorer Robert de La Salle, who visited the village multiple times around 1680 on his way up the Carrying Place, and who identified Teiaiagon as a preferred site of north shore trading during this time. In addition to fur and maize, other items traded at Teiaiagon likely included other foods and tools. Records also suggest that the French frequently provided liquor. Victor Konrad cites several French accounts to indicate that many of the north shore sites, including Teiaiagon, were the scenes of recorded violence, which was likely precipitated by alcohol. Percy Robinson cites “an obscure tract entitled Histoire de l’eau de vie en Canada,” describing an incident in which six French traders provided the entire village with alcohol, “after which the six traders engaged in the debauch which the savages call ‘ganiary,’ running about naked with a keg of brandy under the arm.”

Map showing the “small village of the Iroquois.” Louis Hennepin, A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America, Vol. I (A.C. McClurg and Co., 1903: Chicago).

The Seneca appear to have left Teiaiagon sometime around 1687, when the Five Nations back to the south shore. Several reasons have been offered for this apparent retreat, with the most common one linking their departure to French attacks on some of the north shore villages to the east, in a revival of what is now known to history as the Beaver Wars or Iroquois Wars. Although some historians have suggested that Teiaiagon may also have been attacked by the French at this time, there is no record of this, and it is considered most likely that residents of Teiaiagon moved back to the south of lake before any confrontation took place there.

Sketch map of the Teiaiagon site, in Baby Point, drawn by A.J. Clark in the early twentieth century. The star indicates the location where Clark found a tool. From Clark’s unpublished field notes at the Archaeological Survey of Canada, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Gatineau, Quebec.

Some confusion remained for some time amongst historians, however, because the north shore villages remained on area maps for several decades. The strategic location of the settlements made them ideal spots for settlements, and once the Five Nations left the north shore, the lands were soon occupied by the Mississaugas. The Mississaugas may well have occupied the actual Teiaiagon site as a seasonal outpost shortly after the Seneca abandoned it; archaeological evidence of a Mississauga settlement has also been found on the west side of the Humber.

Reported findings of First Nations artifacts in the Baby Point area have been a regular occurrence since the nineteenth century. Some of the findings were found by archaeologists like A.F. Hunter and David Boyle who were specifically looking for artifacts, whereas others were found during the course of urban development. Percy Robinson, writing in 1933, claims that “hundreds of graves have been opened and are still encountered when excavations are made.” Although such discoveries were frequent, Baby Point was not initially recognized as specifically being the Teiaiagon site. A 1928 Toronto Star article announced the discovery of Teiaiagon in North Toronto, a site now understood to be considerably older than the north shore Five Nations villages.

Moose antler comb, likely of Seneca origin, from the 1680s, found at Baby Point. Image courtesy of Archaeological Services Inc.

In 1999, development in Baby Point uncovered the graves of two women who were buried with several objects, prompting the first detailed, modern archaeological investigation connected with Teiaiagon. One of these objects is a comb made from a moose antler, consistent with Seneca origin and likely dating from the Teiaiagon era. Archaeologist Ronald Williamson describes it in Toronto: A Short Illustrated History of Its First 12,000 Years: “The carved, morphing figures, together with the etched lines, form a powerful object of adornment representing the ideology of the Seneca and other seventeenth-century Aboriginal groups. It is replete with references to medicine, either for healing or malevolent purposes, shape-shifting and transformations, and possible journeys and transitions from one world to another.” Williamson also notes that the remains of both women “were moved out of the service trenches in which they were found and reinterred nearby during ceremonies performed by a Six Nations traditional chief.”

In 1949, the York Pioneers and the Township of York unveiled a plaque in Baby Point to recognize the history of the early area, including Teiaiagon and the Carrying Place. More recent commemoration of the site can be found in the plaque series marking the Shared Path Discovery Walk along the Humber River, a joint effort of numerous heritage groups. These plaques tell the stories of the many peoples who have a history connected to the Humber and its surrounding lands, including the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca village of Teiaiagon, and the Mississauga settlements. The plaques include text in English, French, and Ojibway.

Achaeological Services Inc., City of Toronto Archaeological Master Plan Background Research Report: The Archaeology and History of Teiaiagon, Baby Point, City of Toronto, Ontario. Submitted to City of Toronto Cultural Affairs Unit (August 2005); Eric Arthur, Toronto: No Mean City, 3rd ed., revised by Stephen A. Otto (University of Toronto, 2003); Martin S. Cooper, Etienne Brule: Hog Town or Hog Wash (Archaeological Services Inc., n.d.); The Globe [and Mail] (August 7, 1920; August 2, 1999; July 23, 2011); Edwin C. Guillet, Toronto: From Trading Post to Great City (Ontario Publishing Co., 1934: Toronto); Louis Hennepin, A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America, Vol. I (A.C. McClurg and Co., 1903: Chicago); Victor Konrad, “An Iroquois frontier: the north shore of Lake Ontario during the late seventeenth century” in Journal of Historical Geography, Vol. 7, No. 2 (1981); D.B. Read, “The Story of a Dagger” in The Canadian Magazine of Politics, Science, Arts and Literature, ed. by J. Gordon Mowat, Vol. 2, No. 3 (January 1894); Percy J. Robinson, Toronto During the French Regime: A History of the Toronto Region from Brule to Simcoe, 1615-1793, 2nd ed. (University of Toronto, 1965); The Toronto Star (November 17, 1900; December 19, 1949; July 17, 1999; March 11, 2006); Annie Veilleux, Knowing Landscape: Living, Discussing, and Imagining the Toronto Carrying Place, MA Thesis (Graduate Programme in Interdisciplinary Studies, York University, 2011); Ronald F. Williamson, ed., Toronto: A Short Illustrated History of its First 12,000 Years (James Lorimer & Co., 2008: Toronto); Ronald F. Williamson and Annie Veilleux, “A Review of Northern Iroquoian Decorated Bone and Antler Artifacts: A Search for Meaning” in Ontario Archaeology, Vol. 79-80 (2005).

The author is indebted to the staff at Archaeological Services Inc. for their assistance in providing information and access to articles in the preparation of this article. Any errors of fact or interpretation, of course, lie solely with the author.

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.