The Mississaugas Move In - and Out
A century or more after the withdrawl of the Iroquoians, the hinterland north of Lake Ontario was home to a people whom the early Europeans identified as Mississaugas, a reference to their supposed earlier homelands near the Mishi-sauga or Mississagi River north of Lake Huron. These so-called Mississaugas - also known as Chippewas in English and Saulteaux in French - were in reality members of larger Ojibway or Algonkian groups who moved south from the harsher lands of the Laurentian Shield. 24 At one time, little more than two centuries ago, the Mississauga Indians alone controlled Richmond Hill, the entire York Region, and in effect what is now the richest industrial area of Canada, the "Golden Horseshoe." 25
Unlike the Iroquoians, however, the Mississaugas were semi-nomadic, moving rapidly across the land and establishing no permanent villages. During winter, they travelled to their hunting grounds, which stretched from along most of Lake Ontario's northern shoreline north to the heads of the rivers draining into it. In early spring they gathered at maple sugar bushes to collect sap. During the summer they speared salmon at camps by river mouths. In late summer they harvested the corn they had planted on the river flats in the spring. When fall arrived the camps broke up into family groups who again returned by foot or birchbark canoe to inland ranges where the larger animals could be hunted. 26
The last quarter of the eighteenth century brought the Mississaugas into direct contact with land-hungry Europeans. They supported the British Crown during the American Revolution in order to stop the westward advance of American settlement, only to find that postwar British authorities constantly requested more land surrenders. After Britain's defeat by the American colonists and the surrender of lands south of the lakes to the new United States of America, the British asked the Mississaugas to make some of their lands north of Lake Ontario available to Loyalist settlers.
Why did the Mississaugas barter away their southern Ontario lands so easily? They were naturally anxious to please the British to ensure the continued flow of manufactured gifts. They were also weakly organized and had a small population. In the 1780s, the Mississaugas on the north shore of Lake Ontario numbered approximately two hundred warriors, with a total population of only one thousand, grouped into half a dozen small bands spread out along 500 kilometres (about three hundred miles) of lakefront. They lacked a council of chiefs and did not hold regular councils with their Ojibway kinsmen to the north and west. 27
Finally, and most tragically, the Indians misunderstood the meaning of the land transfers. In their semi-nomadic life, the Mississaugas did not have as strong a sense of property as the Iroquoians, and this made them vulnerable to European land seekers. The Mississaugas saw themselves as "stewards" of land; the European concept of absolute ownership of land by individuals meant little to them. From the standpoint of the Mississaugas, argues historian Donald Smith, the initial purchases were simply "grants to the use of the land during good behaviour," an interpretation that suggested a kind of continuing stewardship. The agreements made no mention of the surrender of native rights over rivers, lakes, and land under the waters. The British assured them that they could "encamp and fish where [they] pleased." 28
Yet in the British view, agreements with the Mississaugas in the early 1780s extinguished native claims to lands along the west side of the Niagara River and territories north of the eastern end of Lake Ontario. Then in 1787 and 1788 the Mississaugas surrendered all of the central portion of their remaining lands on the north shore of Lake Ontario, from Etobicoke Creek, just west of Toronto, to the head of the Bay of Quinte. For Richmond Hill, the most important transaction began in 1787.
On September 23 of that year, at the Carrying Place on the Bay of Quinte, Deputy Surveyor General John Collins, acting for the Crown, bought from three Mississauga chiefs a tract of land afterwards known as the "Toronto Purchase." In August 1788, this agreement was ratified at Toronto, the boundaries of the land purchased were determined and in part surveyed, and the price in trade goods was paid to the Indians. The price totalled about £1,700 cash plus a number of bales and boxes containing cloth, blankets, laced hats, pieces of ribbon, brass kettles, mirrors, tobacco, fishooks, ammunition, tools, and ninety-six gallons (about three hundred litres) of rum. 29
The actual boundaries of the Toronto Purchase and other agreements along Lake Ontario's north shore remained uncertain to many. One white witness believed these purchases opened up the land behind the lake "as far back as a man could walk, or go on foot in a day." The Indians later believed, writes Donald Smith, that the area involved extended as far back as a gunshot fired on the lakeshore could be heard in the interior; hence their description of the agreements as the "Gunshot Treaties." 30
Upper Canadian officials had a more precise view of the Toronto Purchase. "I have always understood that a particular purchase was made in the rear of York, fourteen miles wide [about twenty-three kilometres] and twenty-eight [about forty-five kilometres] deep," wrote David Smith, acting surveyor general for Upper Canada in 1794. "Yonge Street, I suppose, was the intended centre for this purchase, having seven miles [about eleven kilometres] on each side." 31 In 1805, a group of Mississauga negotiators, including eight chiefs, met with British officials at the mouth of the Credit River. By the end of the meeting, it had been decided that the boundaries really were as David Smith understood.
With the arrival of white settlers in the 1790s, the Mississaugas began to realize what the land agreements really did mean to the British - the outright surrender of the land. While the British had recognized that the natives had certain tribal rights on the principle of prior occupancy, they believed these rights were all extinguished by the agreements. Once the white farmers obtained patents, they denied the Indians the right to cross over their farms. 32
Friction peaked during the mid-1790s. While staying at the house of a trader south of Lake Simcoe in March 1794, Augustus Jones witnessed an argument between two groups of Mississaugas over his right to run the Yonge Street survey through their lands. 33 That August at William Bond's property on the east side of Yonge Street near Bond Lake, "three Mississaugas or Chippewas" threatened Bond's hired man and "robbed him of all his provisions, and even the shirt from off his back." 34 Elsewhere, Indian women were molested by white men and in 1796 a Mississauga chief, Wabikinine, was murdered by a British soldier in an incident at York.
Native protests over land alienation and mistreatment by whites went unanswered, and the Mississaugas grew more resentful. Colonial officials at York and Niagara began to fear the possiblity of an Indian uprising. During the winter of 1796-97, the tiny coterie of soldiers and townspeople at York and the few settlers along Yonge Street were especially apprehensive. 35 But the Mississaugas were hardly in a position to rebel. Their numbers were small; they were weakened by disease and alcoholism; they were dependent upon the British for rifles and other manufactured goods; they lacked both European and Indian allies.
The dispossession of the Mississaugas was confirmed in August 1797 when Augustus Jones submitted his "Report on the Condition of Yonge Street." Jones himself was personally very close to southern Ontario's native communities. He fathered children and established family ties with both Mohawk and Mississauga women, and he hired Mississauga men to help with the Yonge Street survey. But in the summer of 1797, along the new Yonge Street roadway, from present-day Langstaff Road north to Bloomington Road,Jones noted increasing evidence of European territorial occupation. The Mississaugas had withdrawn to the Peterborough and Niagara areas, leaving Richmond Hill and the Toronto Purchase to their European successors.
25. Donald B. Smith,"The Dispossession of the Mississauga Indians: A Missing Chapter in the Early History of Upper Canada," in J.K. Johnston and Bruce G. Wilson, eds., Historical Essays on Upper Canada: New Perspectives(Ottawa:Carleton University Press,1989),p. 23.
Copyright © Richmond Hill Public Library Board, 1991