The Toronto Purchase

People have been living around the Great Lakes for some 12,000 years. Reimagining ancient history in the Americas is a recently burgeoning area of study, but understanding ancient North American societies still involves some guesswork. There’s also so so much to talk about and there are so many factors overlapping each other that zeroing in on even a particular topic is just skimming the surface. Unfortunately, at this point in historiography, recorded history in now Canada is mostly limited to European records. And this blog being mostly interested in the city of Toronto, I’m looking at a particular interaction or two that paved the way for the city today. All that to say that I just want to acknowledge that the subject of interactions between European colonials and aboriginal groups in North America has layers and layers of issues of injustice, very few of which I’m tackling today. Alright, that’s my caveat. Let’s get into it.

The 16th and 17th centuries were a pretty rough time for the people living in the area between Lake Ontario, Lake Simcoe, and Georgian Bay. Lots of rival societies warred back and forth, vying for and protecting land to farm, fish, hunt, and live on. Even more devastatingly, populations had been decimated due to unintentional and intentional passing on of influenza and smallpox from European explorers and settlers.  The stories of these peoples are too many to give proper attention to here, but the fact that these were populations treading water is important to know as a background look at the story of The Toronto Purchase: The opportunistic, rather tragic origin of Toronto.

The Toronto Carrying Place

The network of lakes and rivers in Canada was integral to trade for both indigenous peoples and European traders. Canoes were WAY faster than walking (still are, actually. Ever seen someone trying to run alongside a canoe? Chumps!). Portaging was an important part of any river and lake travel, and the portage route roughly from Lake Simcoe to Lake Ontario was known as the Toronto Carrying Place.

The Toronto Carrying Place as documented by the French. You can see where current Toronto is roughly on the bottom right there

The Mississauga people were in control of the Carrying Place by the end of the 17th century. After that rough 16th and 17th century, the Mississaugas lived in relative peace there post-1700. There were trading posts at strategic places around Lake Ontario around the turn of the 18th century, and the Mississaugas were active in trading, mostly with the French. A small French trading post was set up along the Carrying Place in 1749, named Fort Rouille. It came to be known as Fort Toronto (after the Toronto Carrying Place).

Trading at Fort Rouille by Frederick Challener in 1926
A painting done in 1926 showing this decidedly French artist’s rendition of Fort Rouille. No, you’re not alone in thinking that looks like the CN tower in the background. Dude went all Nostradamus on us!
Fort Rouille
Fort Rouille depiction sans patronizing depictions of the Mississaugas

The French folks at the fort had pretty good relations with the Mississaugas. I mean, there were breakdowns, of course.  Like the time when a bunch of armed Mississaugas showed up around Fort Toronto in 1757. The commander freaked out, called for reinforcements, and shot at them before asking them what they were up to. Turns out they were on their way to Montreal to support the French during a British invasion. Classy move, commander.

Britain took over from the French in the area during the mid 18th century, and soon those French trading posts became British ones. Jean Baptiste Rosseaux, a rep for Britain’s Indian Department, showed up in 1787 and built a house on the east bank of the Toronto River, which would be renamed the Humber river soon after. In the first of a couple Toronto “firsts” in this post, his house has been called the “first permanent European residence.”  It was around this time that the British colonial government saw the necessity of really establishing themselves in strategic places along trade and border routes, especially in light of the recent American insurrection south of the border (you know, that pesky insurrection that became kind of a big deal). So they approached some of the leaders of the Mississauga people to consolidate their ownership of the Carrying Place land that wasn’t really theirs.

 The Toronto Purchase?

The meeting involved John Johnson, another rep for the Indian department, and Wabakine, Neace, and Pakquan, all Mississauga chiefs (I found the spelling of their names recorded in three or four different ways). The details are a bit sketchy, but apparently the officials had the chiefs sign on the dotted line before the rest of the “contract” was complete, essentially asking them to write a blank cheque before the British filled it in with “a whole bunch of land.” The actual area specified in the agreement was vague, and the terms were unclear.  It’s important to understand here that like those involved in the supposed purchase of Manhattan, private ownership as understood by the Europeans was kind of a novel concept for the Mississaugas. Land that was occupied by a group or family that allowed them the exclusive right to hunt and fish was all good, but that applied to the whole clan as permanent “owners.”  So it was their understanding that they could still hunt and fish and camp within this land they agreed to also let the British folks set up some camps on.

I found conflicting records of what the Mississaugas received from this deal. One archive says it was 10 shillings (like 75 bucks today), another says each of the 1,800 clan members received supplies such as blankets, tobacco, agricultural tools, etc. Others say that the British gave the Mississaugas about £1,700 worth of supplies, but that was a separate gift that has since been appropriated as “payment” in the Toronto Purchase, when really it was irrelevant. Either way, by a European valuation of the land, it was a severe underpayment and not really done in good faith. Because the details were/are so suspect, the apparent arrangement didn’t last as either group had hoped.

Post-Purchase British Survey Party

In 1788, a bunch of surveyors came through and surveyed the land from the “purchase.” They were promptly chirped and harassed the whole time by the Mississauga people as they traipsed and stumbled through the wilderness. I’ve been thinking about it like this: Imagine if you thought you bought a house from someone (by “bought” I mean got someone to sell a Forest Hill mansion to you for a couple hundred dollars), but when you came to move in, the owners were sitting on the porch and looking at you suspiciously as you carted couches through the door. Vice versa, imagine if you told someone they had an open invitation to come and stay at your house any time, and they show up with a truck and all their stuff the next day. Super awkward.

Now that the British “owned” this land, they were quick to hand out land grants to better settle the area on the Northern coast of Lake Ontario between the Don and Humber River. Most of those land grants didn’t have time to be issued or built upon, because Upper Canada was established and our buddy John Graves Simcoe came along to provide his uniquely colonial vision.

In May of 1793, he went on his first tour along the shore of what is the golden horseshoe today. In his first letter reporting back about the Toronto area, Simcoe made no mention of any Mississaugas, he just talked about his plans for setting up soldiers, and a lighthouse, and a town. He did come across “Messessagues” in September, and gave them rum and tobacco as a response to being given duck and beaver meat (Weak trade. Vice for sustinence). It was around this point Lake La Claie was renamed Lake Simcoe (Apparently after a different Simcoe, but I’m not convinced).

Interesting side note – John Graves Simcoe travelled up from Lake Ontario to Lake Simcoe, and him and his crew got lost on the way back south. His response was to order a straight road from Lake Simcoe to Lake Ontario (and I mean straight-up straight. Through forests and over rivers kind of straight). They started clearing forest for the road soon later, and it would eventually become Yonge Street.

 Toronto Purchase Episode II: Attack of the Zones

The department of Indian affairs approached the Mississaugas again in 1805 to sign another purchase contract.  It went down mostly because the government wanted some more land, and also because they didn’t actually have a map of the land they “owned.”  There was also a turnover in the leadership of the Mississauga, and they were clearly and vocally unhappy with how they were treated by British settlers in the decades following the initial 1787 agreement. Two of those chiefs that signed in 1787 had died*, but 8 showed up for this meeting, which spanned a few days in August of 1805.

The contract was very similar, but included another 70,000 acres for Upper Canada (from Etobicoke River to Burlington Beach) for a total of 250,880 acres. In an account of the conversation, Quinepono, speaking on behalf of the Mississaugas, voiced concerns about how they were treated by those they thought they had entered a respectful agreement with. He told of being yelled and shot at when he approached British farmers, having their dogs shot by said farmers, and a number of broken promises. He also reiterated that his people wanted to retain the right to freely fish on the Humber and Etobicoke rivers as well as to land, unaccosted, on the beach.

Map from in 1805 agreement. Look at all those distinctive landmark features!
Same agreement (in red) with modern(ish) comparisons.
Signatures on the agreement in 1805. 

The rest, as they say, is also history. As Upper Canadians came in on land grants or on business, they established themselves all around the golden horseshoe. If they were aware of any kind of free fishing agreement, they didn’t really respect it. As anyone who is familiar with Canadian history will know, times only got worse for Ingidenous people.


In 2010, the Indian Claims Commission offered $145 million in financial compensations for land claims to the Toronto Purchase land.

*As Fort York was established and more British soldiers, traders, and merchants moved in, the Mississaugas didn’t really have a choice but to move West and some moved North. They still traded with the folks in the garrison. Wabakine, you may recall, was one of the Mississagua chiefs who signed in 1787.  Him and a small band came into the fort to trade and were assaulted by a soldier in the early evening. The story is a bit fuzzy (and not helped by the fact that only sources for recounting it are British). Some accounts say the soldier was demanding they give back a dollar they took and he got into a physical altercation, others say the soldier offered Wabakine’s sister a dollar to sleep with him and when she refused he got aggressive, and Wabakine woke up and went to defend. Either way, the soldier repeatedly hit him with a stone, including doing so while he was already on the ground. At the soldier’s trial, some people claimed they saw Wabakine (Waipykanine) two days later, but claimed he did not “seem well.” Either way, Wabakine was murdered, and the soldier was not convicted.

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