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Canadian Transport Sourcebook > All works> Annual Reports of the Waterloo Historical Society > The Trail of the Aborigines Through Waterloo County

The Trail Of The Aborigines Through Waterloo County

By A. F. Hunter, B.A.

The trail about which I intend to speak was mainly a canoe trail, with portages connecting stretches of rivers navigable for canoes. When the forest covered this country the flow of the rivers was more uniform than now, and canoe navigation less difficult. The melted snows of winter did not run off in the first weeks of spring with river floods, as they do now, carrying destruction to property and even to life. This present day condition is the result of the clearing of the land.

The aborigines who used the trail were canoe-using Indians,—not the Neutrals (although these did make use of the trail) but chiefly their predecessors, the Algonquin-speaking Indians, who were here before the Neutrals and have continued to be the in­digenous native tribes of Ontario. The Neutrals came and went; but the Algonquin tribes held their ground except for their tem­porary retreat during the occupation by the Neutrals, and the trails of the Algonquins, used by them from remote times, remained in use down to the coming of the whites.

It will be convenient to introduce the highway about which I am to speak, and which was evidently one of the great routes of the Province in aboriginal times, by the same passage from which I first realized its importance and general course. From Governor Simcoe's letter of Sept. 20, 1793, to Secretary Dundas, we read:—"A River (the Nottawasaga) some few miles beyond (Pene­tanguishene Harbour), whose entrance is said to be navigable, . . . . I apprehend to be the same which the Indians mention as affording a communication with the main branch of the La Tranche (or Thames)" p. 56, Simcoe Papers, Vol. II. The communication men­tioned was by the Pine River, an important branch of the Notta­wasaga, the Irvine River, the Grand River, then across to the Nith and finally to the Thames.

Simcoe's reference to this trail fitly begins this account of it. All such trails had been in use for centuries. Their directions de­pended upon the physical features of the country. The one under review, via the Nottawasaga River, passed within nine miles of Lake Simcoe and there was a trail or portage from near the outlet of the Pine River into the Nottawasaga, over to Lake Simcoe. On all the early maps from about 1680 onward, from Coronelli's (1688) to Charlevoix' (1740) and even to the conquest of Canada in 1759, Lake Simcoe was called Lake Toronto, and the district around it was called the Toronto Region. The word 'Toronto' means 'the place of meeting'. All the trails in Ontario of aboriginal times passed to and from that quarter. There was Champlain's trail corresponding mainly with what is now the Trent Valley Canal. There was the Humber trail from the city of Toronto overland to the Holland River and then to Lake Simcoe. The city has derived its name because the trail led to the Toronto Region, just as the Ottawa River led to the Ottawas, a nation in Michigan, etc. And then there was the trail to the Thames and the Detroit frontier. The aborigines shunned the frontier of the great lakes.

The Pine River received its name because it flows through the Pine Plains of Simcoe County. Many people have never heard of the Pine Plains, but have heard of Camp Borden, which is the same thing. The river comes down from the Blue Mountain escarpment, and was the southern boundary of the Tobacco nation of Indians. The Pine River and the Irvine River have their sources within half a mile of each other near Horning's Mills at the boundary between the Townships of Melancthon and Mulmur. Here there was an important portage over to the stream flowing southward to the Grand River. Another portage seems to have been used from a branch of the Irvine in Amaranth to the upper waters of the Nottawasaga River, but it was less used than the one at Horning's Mills.

And there are evidences that the aborigines used the main stream of the Grand River to its headwaters in Garafraxa, and then by still another portage over to the main branch of the Notta­wasaga River in Mono, but the Irvine seems to have been the favorite route.

The junction of the Irvine with the Grand, and the Falls on the Grand a short why above the junction, were important landmarks to the aborigines. Indian tribes for centuries made the Falls of the Grand River at Elora their most favorite camping place, doubtless because of the excellence of fishing at a cascade, where fish are stalled in their migrations. The late Dr. David Boyle, when teach­ing the school at Elora, formed a museum in which were many Indian relics found there.

In the Tenth Annual Report (1922) of this Waterloo Historical Society, at page 267, it is shown that Indian pottery fragments were found in the railway excavation behind the Dominion Tire Foundry. The city of Kitchener was therefore near the great trail of the aborigines, and Waterloo county was on the front street of the country during the Indian days.

The first white settlers everywhere selected spots for settlement near the canoe trail, and this was doubtless the rule which Betzner and Schoerg followed when they settled in Waterloo County. And so the Memorial Tower carries an additional meaning by being on the line of communication of aboriginal days. Mr. Breithaupt, in the Fourteenth Annual Report of this society, speaks of the main highway from Guelph to Goderich passing at the spot. There was a portage across to the Nith River in Blenheim Township; that river was used for a few miles, and then another portage reached the upper waters of the Thames.

Mr. W. J. Wintemberg lived formerly at Washington in Blenheim Township and examined the Indian sites in the neighborhood of the Nith River quite exhaustively. He found that sites of the Neutral Indians extended northward to the Nith, but not beyond it. Only a few exist as far north as the Nith, and none of those so far north as the Nith are what might be called large sites. Those found northward of the Nith he called pre-Neutral, and they were mostly quite small,—one or two camps in every case, indicating they were those of canoe Indians, who had camped for a while on their journey. In fact, the results he obtained seem to indicate the line of the Nith might be regarded as the boundary between the two kinds of Indians, if indeed they were contemporaries. His results appear in the Archaeological Reports of Ontario for 1899 and 1902.

The crossing from the Grand River to the headwaters of the Thames appears to have been in duplicate, just as that from the Nottawasaga to the Grand was in triplicate, as we have seen, since there is evidence of a portage from the Conestoga to the Avon, and then down the west branch of the Thames.

Some knowledge of the leading position this great trail held in the days before the white men is of the first importance. A reader of the early French narratives relating to this part of Canada will find various references in them that confirm the trail described in this outline sketch. Thus, as Daillon passed from the Hurons to the Neutrals in his journey of 1626 through the country of the Tobacco nation, he doubtless came by this route to the Neutrals and was perhaps the first white man in Waterloo County, unless some fur trader had antedated him, which is not improbable.

When the Hurons were dispersed in 1649-50, some of them fled to the country of the Neutrals. This route was the highway for them. As I have shown from Mr. Wintemberg's work, it does not appear that the towns and villages of the Neutrals were so far north as this route.

One of the last migrations of Indians to pass over this aborig­inal highway was the refugee band of Pottawattomies, as they fled after the Blackhawk war in Michigan in 1832. They settled finally on Christian Island, and have been absorbed into the Chippewa bands.

A complete survey is the only method that has value for in­vestigations upon the occupation of the country by the aborigines. Many persons speculate on the movements of the early travellers, missionaries and traders without the recognition due to the physical features of the country and the actual aboriginal haunts. Their library arm chairs take the place of field-work. This latter class of work is needed in every county in this Province.

When Mr. Breithaupt asked me, a few weeks ago, to address you, the circumstance that decided me was this: it would give me an opportunity to urge someone, no difference whom, to begin to record all the particulars about aboriginal remains in this county, which affords as good promise of a rich field as any other. It was the highway by which nations passed in the centuries that are gone,—"whole nations gone like last year's snow", and as the poet Bryant reminds us:

"And we have built our houses on
Fields where their generations sleep".
[Public Domain] Copyright/Licence: The author or authors of this work died in 1964 or earlier, and this work was first published no later than 1964. Therefore, this work is in the public domain in Canada per sections 6 and 7 of the Copyright Act. See disclaimers.