Richmond Hill's Earliest Inhabitants
The Palaeo-Indian peoples depended on the caribou for their survival. They ate its meat; they turned its hide into clothing and tents; they used its bones and antlers for tools. They also fished and hunted other animals such as mastodon, moose, and elk in the coniferous forests, along the river valleys, and around swamps and lakes. They used wood for fuel and spear shafts, and gathered wild plants and fruits to supplement their diets during the growing season. 1
Palaeo-Indians kept little personal equipment, since mobility was crucial to their survival. Virtually all that remains of their tools in southern Ontario are fragments and by-products of their chipped stone industry. But one such small stone scraper from a location known as the Mortson Site suggests that Palaeo-Indians were in Richmond Hill at one time.
The small stone scraper discovered here measures 39.6 millimetres long and 30.0 millimetres wide (about one and a half inches long and one inch wide), and is made from a kind of stone known as Fossil Hill chert. The use of this material, according to archaeological investigators, "may imply its manufacture by Palaeo-Indian peoples."2 This was the first tentative identification of a Palaeo-Indian artifact within the town of Richmond Hill - although the more recently explored Esox Site on a rise of land 300 metres east of Lake Wilcox has since revealed several other Palaeo-Indian artifacts.
About nine thousand years ago, numerous discrete hunter-gatherer populations known as Archaic peoples appear to have become established in the area. From about 7000 to 1000 B.C., Archaic bands moved through southern Ontario and the Richmond Hill area. They relied on a more diversified food-gathering economy than their predecessors, their camp sites served for longer periods of time, and they left more evidence of their occupation.
During early Archaic times, a deciduous forest cover replaced much of the earlier coniferous forest. Maple and beech trees now predominated, with hemlock and basswood as important secondary species. Pine and oak sprouted on well-drained soils, elm and ash on more poorly drained terrain, while cedar, ash, and tamarack were found in swampy areas. Only occasional clearings broke this closed-canopy forest through the Peel Plain and South Slope physiographic regions during the Archaic period. On the more exposed Oak Ridges Moraine to the north, where trees were more prone to wind and fire damage, clearings were larger and more numerous. 3
During the Late Archaic Period, the population density of southern Ontario may have approached one person per forty square kilometres (about one every twenty-five square miles). This population was divided into hunting bands, each composed of several hundred members. In summer, the various segments of the band may have gathered under the leadership of a recognized headman. Supported by abundant catches of fish, the hunters might have enjoyed each other's company, arranged marriages, and celebrated rituals. When autumn came, band members usually broke up into smaller groups that scattered in search of game in different parts of the band's territory. 4
Such seasonal activities drew one of the Archaic band families to a location known as the Silver Stream Site, situated near a headwater tributary of the Rouge River west of Leslie Street, halfway between Major Mackenzie Drive and Elgin Mills Road. Archaeologists suggest that this camp site may have been used seasonally over a number of years - for catching fish in the spring spawning season and hunting white-tailed deer and gathering nuts in autumn. 5
Silver Stream has yielded twenty-seven artifacts distributed over an area of some four thousand square metres (about thirteen thousand square feet), implying a sustained occupation. And the identification of one Genessee-type projectile point among the fragments suggests the site was occupied during the Late Archaic Period - about 1800 B.C. Yet Silver Stream is not alone. By 1988, archaeologists had located fourteen sites within Richmond Hill as having Archaic-period components.
As Palaeo-Indian culture evolved into Archaic, so Archaic culture evolved into the Early Iroquoian period of Richmond Hill's prehistory. The Iroquoian peoples gradually moved from a semi-nomadic lifestyle and a hunter-gatherer economy to a more village-centred, agricultural existence, with a significant amount of corn being grown. Perhaps their spring and summer gatherings at fishing sites - which were valued most for their social interchange - led gradually and naturally to permanent village living. 6
The earliest Iroquoian site (A.D. 1280-1320) in Richmond Hill documented by archaeologists is situated on the east side of Lake Wilcox. The site extended at least 150 metres (about 500 feet) from north to south and covered an area of 1.2 hectares (about three acres). The village appears to have had at least five longhouses, large structures constructed of cedar saplings and rendered with cedar or elm bark. Village residents hunted deer and harvested fish, mostly perch, from Lake Wilcox. There seems to have been a focus on the exploitation of bush honeysuckle, perhaps for medicinal purposes. 7
The Wilcox Lake Site is the earliest Iroquoian village identified to date in York Region. Archaeologists suggest that it may represent a transitional occupation between one of the Early Iroquoian groups along the north shore of Lake Ontario and the Middle Iroquoian population known to have inhabited the western Lake Simcoe region in the early fourteenth century. 8
Copyright © Richmond Hill Public Library Board, 1991