Toronto (Canada) : Mapping Indigenous roots

Patty Winsa

Source -

Early settlements

Toronto11toronto islandsHanlan’s Point on Toronto Island depicted almost two centuries ago. Much of the city’s Indigenous history is poorly understood.  (JAMES GREY PAINTING 1828)

1. Clovis people, around 11000 BC: Archeologists haven’t found any evidence that Clovis, the precursors of most of North America’s Indigenous people, lived in Toronto after the glaciers retreated, but archeologist Ron Williamson believes it is possible. A fluted Clovis stone point has been found as close as the Rouge River in Markham and bones of mastodons, the elephant-like animals they most likely hunted, have been found near Christie Pits and during excavations for the Eaton’s department store at College and Yonge Sts. The Clovis are a prehistoric people whose tools were first uncovered near Clovis, N.M., in the 1920s and ’30s.

Holcombe point edit 0Holcombe point: the city's oldest artifact.  (ROM)

2. Spear point, around 8000 BC: The city’s oldest artifact, a Holcombe point — named for a beach in Michigan where similar stone tools were first found — was discovered by an elementary student here in the 1970s. The spear point, which dates from 8400 to 8000 BC, would have been used by some of the area’s earliest Indigenous people, who hunted small mammals and migratory caribou. The point, flaked from a sedimentary rock known as chert, is rare in the Toronto region. It’s at the ROM.

3. Withrow, at least 5,000 years old: In the late 1800s, archeologist David Boyle examined an Indigenous cemetery disturbed during roadwork on a high point of land overlooking the Don River. The remains of 30 people were apparently buried in one area, and more in another. A newspaper story reported Boyle found a handful of artifacts including a stone axe, chisel and knife and pottery fragments, and recovered a number of skulls and other bones. Boyle was appointed by the Canadian Institute Museum as the country’s first full-time professional archeologist in 1888. His collection of 50,000 artifacts, including a 7,000-year-old slate point from Withrow, was transferred to the ROM in 1914.

4. James Gardens, around 2000 BC: 4,000-year-old spearheads and stone tools were discovered in the 1920s in a homeowner’s backyard. Archeological Services Inc. (ASI) examined the objects in 2007, after the man’s grandson read a story about similar objects in the Star, and dated the spearheads. The other tools were from the Woodland period, about 1000 BC to AD 1000. All items were returned to the family.

5. Ancient occupation and burial site, around 800 BC: In the early 1970s, an ancient cemetery site near Grenadier Pond was documented by an archeologist. A second rumoured site called Bear Mound, next to High Park’s Grenadier Restaurant, was investigated by an archeological firm, which found no evidence to support it.

Huron-Wendat villages

3toolsHuron-Wendat perforating tools and a fastener from around 1440 to 1460 found during an excavation in the Village of Brooklin, which is part of Whitby. Similar implements would have been used by the Huron-Wendat in the city.  (CARLOS OSORIO / TORONTO STAR)

The Huron-Wendat were committed farmers who typically exhausted the fertility of surrounding soils before moving on to a different site. Partial excavations at a number of sites in Toronto, dating from around 1300 to 1500, have revealed evidence of longhouses surrounded by fences, called palisades, made of wooden stakes, as well as human remains. Thousands of artifacts have been recovered including stone and animal bone tools and fragments of ceramic vessels and pipes, which were believed to contain spirits. Many of the sites have only been subject to test excavations in the ’50s and ’60s, so there is little known about them. More is known about:

7longhousesAn artist's interpretation of Alexandra, a Huron-Wendat village in Toronto that existed around 1350.  (SYSTEM)

6. Alexandra, 1350: Discovered during an archeological assessment in 2000, detailed excavations by ASI showed evidence of 16 longhouses and thousands of fragments of vessels and pipes, stone tools and shaped bone tools. The pattern of the houses suggest there were phases of occupation of the site. One of the semi-subterranean sweat lodges on the site had portions of a woven mat on its floor.

4parsons 0Reconstruction of a St. Lawrence Iroquoian vessel found at the Parsons site in northwest Toronto. This style of pottery, typically made in the St. Lawrence Valley, was probably made by people from there who joined Parsons, says archeologist Ron Williamson.  (ARCHAEOLOGY SERVICES INC.)

7. Parsons, 1500: One of the most-studied villages is a 1.2-hectare site that was first excavated in the 1950s by U of T students as part of a field school run by the Ontario Archaeological Society. It was excavated again in the late 1980s by ASI. The village was twice as large as other sites due to the amalgamation of smaller communities who joined for protection. Excavations showed evidence of longhouses and subterranean sweat lodges surrounded by a defensive palisade. Pottery and pipe fragments found here, similar to other sites in southern Ontario, suggest groups across a large geographic area were in contact with each other. ASI’s collection from Parsons is housed at the University of Waterloo. The Huron-Wendat nation is currently exhibiting material from Parsons in Quebec City.

Huron-Wendat ossuaries

8. Moatfield, 1300: A village — and ossuary containing the remains of about 90 people — was discovered here during the expansion of a soccer field in 1997 when a fence post was driven into the centre of the burial site.

9. Tabor Hill, 1300: The burial site, on the summit of a hill overlooking Highland Creek, contained the remains of 472 people associated with the Thompson site, although researchers say more than one community may have been buried here.