Chapter 1

The First Nations

When Jacques Cartier, the French explorer who originally claimed Canada for France, sailed down the St. Lawrence River in 1535, the area around the Great Lakes was inhabited by approximately 250,000 indigenous peoples 1.

The Anishinaabe confederation, comprising the Algonquin, Mississauga and Ojibwa tribes, roamed across northern Ontario, Michigan and Wisconsin; the Huron nation had settled in central and southern Ontario; and the Iroquois nation occupied the shores along the St. Lawrence river, as well as the land south of Lake Ontario in what is now known as New York State.

The Hurons were an agricultural society. They lived in large, fortified settlements surrounded by cultivated fields, and their territory stretched from Penetanguishene in the west, through the Lake Simcoe and Peterborough districts, to Kingston in the east. During the summer months, the Hurons would travel north to the areas now known as Muskoka, Haliburton and Algonquin Park to hunt, trap, fish and trade goods with others they met along the way. One of their main canoe routes ran through Haliburton—north along the Gull River system (right past Bob Lake), and then south through the Burnt River watershed.

Typical Iroqouis Canoe

In 1648, the Iroquois confederation decided to take over the rich Huron hunting grounds in southern Ontario and launched a full-scale invasion. Heavily armed, the Iroquois massacred any Hurons they encountered and their war campaigns in 1649 and 1650 almost exterminated the Huron race. Iroquois tribes could now freely hunt and trap across southern and central Ontario, and a few small bands settled along the north shores of Lake Ontario, from where the waterways and trails led north. They established villages by Nappanee, Rice Lake, Port Hope, West Toronto and Hamilton.

Like the Hurons before them, the Iroquois would travel north along the Gull and Burnt Rivers systems to their summer hunting grounds in the Muskoka, Haliburton and Algonquin areas. Although no permanent native villages have been found in Haliburton, a number of large hunting camps were located in the vicinity. These camps include: Kashagawigamog (Kay-sha-gah-wiamog, the lake of long and winding waters) 2; Coboconk (Quash-qua-be-conck, where the gulls nest); and Bobcaygeon (Bob-ca-he-wan-up, at the very shallow currents). The closest camp to Bob Lake was located on the future site of the Clergy House on the shore of the Gull River in Minden.

Typical Iroquois Camp
The Clergy House Historic Plaque

Through the 1650s, the Iroquois gradually extended northward into Anishinaabe territory. Tired of Iroquois interference, the Anishinaabe went on the offence in 1662 and over the next 25 years, the two tribes fought across Ontario. Anishinaabe forces won a series of battles around Rice Lake, Haliburton Lake, Coboconk and Bobcaygeon, and a major triumph on the shores of Lake Kasagawigamog. According to local legend, Puffers Island in the southern section of the lake was the main camp of the Anishinaabe war chiefs. During a final battle in 1687 on the south shore of Lake Huron, the Iroquois were defeated before retreating into New York State. With the Huron gone and the Iroquois pushed out, there were very few natives left in southern Ontario and some of the Anishinaabe tribes moved south to fill the void.

For the next 90 years, the Mississauga, Algonquin and Ojibwa tribes lived peacefully, hunting and trapping across southern Ontario and trading with the English. For the most part, they used the same smaller camp sites as the Huron and Iroquois before them, but they also established major villages on Bigwin Island and near Peterborough, Orillia, Penetanguishene and Dorset.

With the influx of English settlers, who wanted land on which to build and farm, the British government initiated the Toronto Purchase in 1785 and a series of treaties that slowly pushed the native people from their homelands. For nearly 10,000 years, the peoples of the First Nations had lived and travelled throughout all of central and southern Ontario. By the 1880’s, less than 100 years after the Toronto Purchase was enacted, their territory had been reduced to about 25 reserves in Ontario and Quebec. From their reserves by Peterborough, Coldwater and Lake Couchiching, native parties continued to travel the Gull and Burnt River systems to and from the Muskoka and Haliburton areas to fish, hunt and trap and trade.

In his memoir Whispering Pines IV, John Hulbig Jr. 3 writes about a group of native women who visited his father’s farm at the northeast end of Gull Lake in 1931. They had walked up the Bobcaygeon Road from their summer camp on the Burnt River just north of Kinmount to sell their hand-made crafts. This is the last recorded mention that I found of natives travelling into Haliburton during the summer months. Now it is the cottagers and tourists who come up in the spring and go back home in the fall.

Footnotes

  1. Indians of Canada, Diamond Jenness, 1931
  2. Kashagawigamog Lake has many sites with native artifacts. They tend to be clustered around narrows and peninsulas but the specific locations of these sites are considered sensitive information by the provincial government and details are not available.
  3. Haliburton farmer, school bus driver, ambulance attendant and author.

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