Monday, September 20, 2010

# 1 ~ Toronto's Name, Then and Now

I love learning the origins of place names.  When you wander around Toronto, there are countless secrets lurking behind the names of our streets.  Some hold the names of our municipal forefathers, who were either grand enough or infamous enough to leave behind a legacy in our nomenclature.  Toronto is mostly a city of newcomers, and some of them bare the names of other places, a touchstone to past origins for those who laid out our city.  Learning the story of place names is one part history lesson and one part quest for identity.

Toronto itself has picked up several nicknames over the years.  At the end of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth century, Toronto was an industrial centre, and we eventually earned the nickname "the Big Smoke".  As a religious centre, at one time there was a church on almost every block, so we became "the city of churches".  In the same vein, our Protestant, British nature gave us the names of "the Queen City", because of our obsessive love of Queen Victoria, "Toronto the Good", because you had a hard time getting drunk or watching a show on a Sunday, and "the Belfast of Canada" because of our historic mistrust of Irish Roman Catholics.  We were "hogtown" because pork production was a major industry in early Toronto, and in the early 1800s, there were nearly more hogs in Toronto than people.  More recently, we've had simply "T-Dot", "the GTA", or "the 416" to set us apart from our northern 905 neighbours.

But what's the story with the word "Toronto"?  Sadly, there is no straightforward answer. 

The first European to set foot in the Toronto area is thought to have been Etienne Brule, a Frenchman who was sent west from Quebec by Champlain to live among the Hurons, to study their language and learn the culture.  Living with the Hurons and travelling with them, he is said to have wandered between New England's Chesapeake Bay to Duluth, Minnesota and everything in between.  I like to think of him as Toronto's first exchange student, and his was the inaugural visit for waves of Europeans, and the cultural apocalypse that they brought with them. 

By 1688, the first of three French trading posts had been built in the Toronto area.  The first was built near the present day Old Mill area.  The second was built near the mouth of the Humber River, a few hundred metres north of the lakeshore.  It was called "Fort Toronto".  The third, built on the site of the present day CNE grounds, stood from 1750 to 1759.  Officially known as "Fort Rouille", it was also more commonly referred to as "Fort Toronto".  Already we see that 250 years ago, the name "Toronto" had cropped up.

The exploration undertaken by the French, and then the British, meant map making.  A French map from about 1685 shows a village called "Teiaiagon", which was centred around modern Jane and Annettte streets.  On the map, the body of water that we now know as Lake Simcoe is identified as "Lac Taronto".  This is one of the early spelling variations of "Toronto".

Above, the 1685 map showing Teiaiagon and "Lac Taronto" in the red square.

The Humber River, which flows from "Lac Taronto" south into the modern harbour, was an aboriginal portage route for hundreds of years.  A long accepted explanation is that "Toronto" is derived from a Huron word, meaning "place of meeting".  One can imagine the various aboriginal peoples meeting to trade, to explore, and to fight up and down the banks of the Humber River.  This definition, the meeting place, comes to us from the Huron word "toronton".  One of Toronto's earliest historians, the Reverend Henry Scadding, mentions it in his 1884 book, "Toronto : Past and Present".   He'd picked it up from the 1632 writings of a French missionary named Gabriel Sagard. 

Another definition, taken from the same Huron word, was that of bounty, and suggested that Hurons meant the land offered up plenty of resources to fulfill their needs, but Scadding and others had dismissed this by the end of the 1800s.

In recent years, there has been a more widely accepted explanation.  Many now think that the name Toronto comes from the Mohawk word "Tkaronto", which means "where there are trees standing in the water".   According to several Mohawk speakers and aboriginal language expert John Steckley, this is the true meaning of "Toronto". Mohawks used the phrase to describe The Narrows, where Hurons and other natives drove stakes into the water to create fish weirs. In 1615, Samuel de Champlain described these structures as blocking the channels, with a few openings left for catching fish in nets. Radiocarbon dating of surviving stakes reveals that the weirs at The Narrows were in use more than 4,000 years ago.

The Mohawk phrase began its southward movement about 1680, when Lac de Taronto (today's Lake Simcoe), appeared on a map attributed to French court official Abbé Claude Bernou. From there the name inspired "Passage de Taronto" in 1686 for the canoe route between lakes Simcoe and Ontario, which followed what we call today the Humber River. In turn, that river became known as Rivière Taronto, and in the 1720s, the afforementioned second French fort, east of the mouth of the Humber River, on Lake Ontario, was identified as Fort Toronto. This is where Ontario's capital city stands today.

So, the most commonly accepted definition of Toronto is
"where there are trees standing in the water". 
It may not sound as profound as "place of meeting",
but it's a lot more environmentally friendly than
"the Big Smoke".

In 1791, the Province of Upper Canada (now known as Ontario) was created, separating us from Quebec.  John Graves Simcoe, a British militiary officer who had formerly seen action against the American Revolutionaries, was sent to be our first lieutenant-governor.  He explored the Toronto area, and founded our town as the provincial capital in 1793.  Simcoe had a great admiration of British sounding place names, and not too much of an ear for their ancient aboriginal names.  The name "Toronto" had to go.  Lake Taronto was renamed Lake Simcoe (in honour of his father, apparently).  Toronto was too bizarre a name for a provincial capital, so he named his new town "York", after the Duke of York, the second son of King George III.  There was a simple little rhyme making the rounds that impugned the military capabilities of the Duke of York ...

"The Grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men,
He marched them all up the hill,
and marched them down again!"

The Grand Old Duke of York and Albany, one of the many sons of King George III, from a portrait painted about 1793, when Simcoe's new town was named "York" in his honour.  The Town of York would revert to its ancient aboriginal name of "Toronto" on 6th March, 1834.

It didn't take the Town of York very long to pick up a few unfortunate nicknames of its own.  There was no pavement, of course, but the town struggled to find the resources to even have boards put down along our early roadways.  With the poor conditions, we were soon nicknamed "Muddy York" ... as in "Muddy York Walking Tours!  Get it?  We were sometimes nicknamed "Little York" because of our giant neighbour, nearby "New York", and the derogatory nicknames got old pretty fast.

We would be the Town of York for forty years, from our inception in 1793, until our incorporation as the City of Toronto in 1834.  On 6th March of that year, we became the first incorporated city in the province, which gives us Torontonians just one more thing to lord over our neighbours. 

There are still a few reminders of our old days as the "Town of York".  We have York University, the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, and so on.  No matter what nicknames we accrue in the future, at least we can make our "best guess" as to where we picked up the name "Toronto".

THEN : The Town of York, about 1803

NOW : The modern City of Toronto Skyline.