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Who These Ancient Villagers Were

In identifying these ancient tribes we are not altogether left to guesswork, for the journals of the first white explorers in America, coupled with the diligent researches of modern archaeologists, have rescued their identity and culture from the twilight of speculation.

In 1498, the Cabots explored the Atlantic coast of America from Newfoundland to Cape Hatteras. In 1535, the French navigator Jacques Cartier, first ascended the St. Lawrence basin as far west as Montreal. At this time the northeastern part of North America was peopled by two great races of Indians. The Algonquin were spread throughout Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, all eastern Canada except Southern Ontario, and all down the Atlantic coast. These included the Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Cree, Shawnee and Ojibway tribes and half a hundred others. It was these Algonquin who made life perilous for the English and Dutch settlers along the eastern sea board. Lying like an island in the midst of these Algonquin peoples, lay a second great race, inferior to them in numbers but superior in culture and social organization. This was the Iroquoian or Huron-Iroquois race, who occupied modern Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, and that part of Ontario lying south of the granite highlands. This race included the Cherokees, Susquehanna, Erie, Neutral, Tobacco Nation, Huron, and the Iroquois Confederacy of Mohawk, Oneida, Onondagas, Seneca and Cayuga.

The orthodox theory or modern archaeologists assigns to the whole Iroquoian race an original source in a limited area centered about the mouth of the Ohio River. Here they evolved their typical civilization, dwelling in stockaded villages, tilling the soil, and developing an advanced societal organization. To the north, in central Ohio, lived the mysterious Mound-builders, whose monumental works still persist to mystify .a later generation. Beyond the Mound-builders, lay a host of Algonquin tribes. About the 13th century the Iroquoians entered on one of those wholesale migrations which occur so often in the history of primitive man. The Mound-builders felt the first edge of their aggression and were exterminated, except for a few who were absorbed or driven north ward into Ontario. Their presence here is attested by the famous Otonabee serpent mound on the north shore of Rice Lake, and perhaps by two small mound graves on the south shore of Ghost Island, Balsam Lake. The stream of Iroquoian migration now split up into two main currents. The Iroquois pushed eastward into the State of New York and settled there. The Huron, the Tobacco Nation, and the Neutrals crossed into Ontario and drove out the Mound-builder refugees and their Algonquin patrons. The Huron, apparently, pressed on down the St. Lawrence valley to Montreal, and here in 1535, Cartier found their villages and conferred with their chiefs.

This was the time at which Victoria County supported its largest Indian population. Between the sterile granite wilderness of Dalton and Longford on the north and the morainic hills of Durham on the south lay country well suited for a Huron civilization. The soil favored their slender crops. Lakes and rivers gave them fish and convenient trade routes. The forests in all directions swarmed with game. Every natural factor invited occupation, and today some fifty-five Huron village sites have been located throughout the county.

Doubt is sometimes cast on the identity of these Huron tribes, and some recent writers refer to them as Algonquin. Their pottery, it seems, is not of the pure Huron type but is rather a blending of Huron and Algonquin art The ash beds, too, seldom indicate the "long houses" popularly associated with Huron settlements. However, Champlain, who passed through the Kawartha Lakes in 1615 and found Victoria County deserted, was told by his Huron allies that they themselves had occupied this territory and had only recently with drawn to the district west of Lake Simcoe in order to consolidate their position against their Iroquois enemies. This account is corroborated by the reports of the Jesuits who labored among the Huron from 1633 to 1650. These creditable witnesses assert in their Journal for 1639, that the Rock tribe and Deer tribe of the Huron had as late as 1590 and 1610 respectively, shifted west from Victoria County and amalgamated with the tribes in Simcoe County. This testimony should certainly be final. The differences in pottery designs probably denote extensive intermarriage with Algonquin tribes to the north. This becomes doubly probable when we remember that the Indian women, and not the men, made all pottery. As for the shape of their buildings, it is a mistake to insist on "long houses" in Huron villages. The long house was the exception ,found chiefly in large, compact towns, while the Jesuits testify that the typical Huron home was square, both the length and breadth being about thirty feet.

The First White Man in Victoria

The first white man in Victoria county was a Frenchman. In 1615 Samuel de Champlain, the great explorer, went up the Ottawa River by canoe with two French companions and ten Huron Indians. He crossed through Lake Nipissing, skirted the east shore of Georgian Bay, and finally reached the Huron country in the County of Simcoe. Here he undertook to join a party of 2500 warriors on an expedition into the heart of the Iroquois country. The flotilla of war canoes left the shores of Lake Couchiching on September 10, 1615. Champlain in his Journal, makes brief mention of the territory through which they passed:

"We continued our journey toward the enemy and went some five or six leagues through these lakes (Couchiching and Simcoe.) Then the savages carried their canoes about ten leagues by land and we came to another lake, six to seven leagues in length, and three in breadth. From this lake flows a river (the Trent system) which discharges into the great lake of the Entouhonorons (Ontario). After traversing this lake, we passed a fall and continuing on our course down this river for about sixty-four leagues, entered the lake of the Entouhonorons. On. our way we portaged around five falls, in some cases for four or five leagues. We also passed through several large lakes on the river system. The river itself is large and abounds in good fish. All this region is certainly very fine and pleasant .Along the banks it seems as if the trees had been set out for ornament in most places; and it seems that all these tracts were in former times inhabited by the savages, who were subsequently compelled to abandon them from fear of their enemies."

In spite of the mistiness of this description and Champlain's notorious errors in estimating distances, we should have little difficulty in tracing his course across this county. He would skirt the east shore of Lake Simcoe as far as the Talbot River, and here, on the south bank, on Lot 12, Concession 9, Thorah Township, step ashore at a spot still known traditionally as "Champlain's Landing." He would cross by the ancient trail, now Portage Road, to Balsam Lake. Before dams and locks were built at Rosedale there was little difference in level between Balsam and Cameron lakes, and Champlain would probably get the impression that they were one long body of water, hence the dimensions which he gives. He could not, however, fail to notice Fenelon Falls, then not the meek, domesticated sluice way of today, but a virgin cataract, eighty feet wide, foaming down twenty-three feet into a rocky gorge; and we are not surprised to find it mentioned in his narrative. Further details of his trip must be left to speculation. We do know that for centuries the Indians portaged direct from Bridgenorth on Chemong Lake, to Peterboro, a distance of six miles, thus saving a fifty-mile detour through Deer Day and Clear Lake, and a spot on the high sandy shore near Bridgenorth is known traditionally as "Champlain's Rest."

The great Frenchman passed back through this territory once again. The expedition against the Iroquois was a failure; Champlain himself was wounded; his Huron allies refused to lend him a canoe in which to descend the St. Lawrence to Quebec; and he was compelled to pass the winter with them. The return trip to Simcoe County was a trying ordeal. The war party waited on a lake north of Kingston till December the 4th, when the lakes froze solid; and then started for home on snowshoes. Mid-December saw Champlain and his twenty-five hundred warriors swarming in a dark rabble across the snowy surface of Sturgeon, Cameron and Balsam Lakes. They reached their goal two days before Christmas. Some authorities have supposed that the long temporary camp of the party was at Bridgenorth, but there is nothing in Champlain's narrative to suggest this. Besides, Bridgenorth is less than eighty miles from the Huron country by the most circuitous route, and it is hardly conceivable that the picked men of the nation, eager to reach the warmth and comfort of their villages, would take nineteen days (at a speed of four miles a day) to cover this distance on snowshoes.

The Downfall of the Huron

The warfare between the Iroquois and the Huron, in which Champlain's expedition of 1615 was only an incident, came to a sudden end in the middle of the century. In 1649, while Charles the First was being executed in England, the Iroquois determined to close in on Simcoe County with their entire force. The chief Huron towns were stormed. The inhabitants were butchered or taken captive. Three of the Jesuit Fathers, Daniel, Brebeuf and Lalement, suffered martyrdom. A remnant of the doomed nation fled for the winter to islands in Georgian Bay, there to waste away with starvation. With the return of the Iroquois in the spring of 1650 a little handful of Hurons paddled with the surviving Jesuits by the Ottawa route to Quebec. Others fled far to the north and west of Lake Huron. Today their only representatives are a few hundred half-breeds in Oklahoma and at Lorette, near Quebec. The Iroquois campaigns of 1649-50 practically exterminated the Huron race.

For nearly a century the Iroquois roamed unhindered over the deserted country of the Hurons. They planted villages on the shores of Rice Lake and the Otonabee River and tilled the soil there. There is a tradition of a Mohawk camp in Oak Orchard, Sturgeon Point, but its authenticity is uncertain, and the relics found there may belong to the earlier, Huron period.

Annals of the Red Man

Victoria County


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