Ontario did not get its present name until 1867. When France established a colony and claimed the area, it was referred to as part of New France. Because of the vastness of New France, and to avoid some confusion, whenever the area that is now Ontario is mentioned it will be referred to as ‘Ontario’.
4000 BC – 1000 AD
The first known inhabitants of Ontario arrived about 4000 BC. About 800 AD these inhabitants, the Wendat tribe, known by the French as “The Huron”, began farming and their population steadily increased. They lived in ‘Huronia’, an area near Georgian Bay, in what would now be the northern part of Simcoe County.
By 900 AD, in the north (approx where Sudbury, Parry Sound, Nipissing and Cochrane Districts are today) lived the Algonkin-speaking tribes (later to be divided into the Algonkin, Cree, and Ojibwa tribes). In the south were the Iroquoian-speaking tribes, including The Huron.
By 1000 AD, Vikings had found what is now Labrador, but they did not remain long. The next European visitor to Canada was John Cabot in 1497, and this was the beginning of several explorations into this ‘new land’, mostly in the Maritimes. Ontario remained (mostly) unvisited until the 1600’s.
In 1534 Jacques Cartier arrived and set out seeking a passage to the Orient. In 1535 he came as far as the area where the Ottawa River and St Lawrence River meet, but was unable to travel further due to the rapids. It would be several decades before any explorer could get past the rapids to enter Ontario.
King Henri IV of France founded a company in 1603 to colonize what was now called New France (all area west of the Maritimes, including Ontario). The company had a monopoly on the fur trade in an area that extended from Nova Scotia to Ontario.
In 1607, Pierre du Gast, Sieur de Monts, former Governor of Acadia, who previously had exclusive fur-trading rights in Canada, appointed Samuel de Champlain as his lieutenant, and set about exploring the land west of the Maritimes. In 1608 Champlain’s party arrived at what would later become Quebec City and cleared the land for colonization. Now having a ‘base’ for exploration, and not dependent upon their larger ships, the French started exploring the Ottawa River by canoe.
Sometime in the 1500’s the five Iroquois nations had come together as the Five Nations Confederacy, making themselves a force to reckon with. Wanting to dominate the fur trade, and to halt westward settlement, they were at odds with the Huron and their French allies. The Huron encouraged the French to fight with them to get rid of the Iroquois. Champlain obliged and in 1609 there was a confrontation with the Iroquois, won by Champlain when his men used rifles to kill three Iroquois chiefs. The Iroquois retreated with the understanding that they would not win in a war against the Hurons or New France without European weapons. So they negotiated with the Dutch to trade furs for guns. They also allied themselves with the English who used the Iroquois’s hatred of the Hurons to aid them in their disputes with the French colony.
Meanwhile, Champlain was anxious to explore, and knowing that the natives knew the area, he sent some of his men to live with the Hurons. The first was Étienne Brûlé in 1612. He was the first Frenchman to visit the area that would become Ontario. Champlain himself made the journey at least twice. In 1613 he traveled as far as the upper Ottawa river, and in 1615 he spent the winter in Huronia with the Hurons.
That same year, France insisted that Roman Catholic Jesuit missionaries be sent amongst the native population to spread the Catholic faith. The Hurons however, were resistant. The missionaries persisted though and in 1639 established the settlement St Marie Among The Hurons (near present-day Midland, Ontario).
In 1610, Henry IV died, and with him went the monies required to keep the company of New France going. In an effort to raise the funds, Champlain married and used the dowry to help the colony survive. It was not enough though, and he continued searching for new investors. In 1627 he was finally able to convince Cardinal Richelieu to invest. The Company of One Hundred Associates was established by Richelieu, and Champlain was made governor the new colony. Because of this Champlain is often referred to as the Father of New France.
The first priority Champlain had as governor was to strengthen the colony with more colonists. Ships with four hundred passengers set sail for New France but were intercepted by the English Kirke brothers, because, yet again, England and France were at odds. The Kirkes demanded that Champlain surrender Quebec, which he did reluctantly, only to find that the war between France and England had ended three months prior to Quebec’s surrender.
Regardless, the English took possession of Quebec on 29 July 1628, and Louis Kirke became governor. Meanwhile Champlain was in England trying to overturn the surrender. On 29 March 1632, the Treaty of St-German-en-Laye was signed, with England giving up possession of New France. Champlain was then able to return to governing his colony until his death on 25 Dec 1635.
During this time, New France’s allies the Huron were facing difficulties of their own. Their country of Huronia provided few furs for trade, but they were able to act as middlemen between other tribes and the French. Their rivals were the Iroquois who wanted the position of middlemen. In 1648 the Iroquois attacked the Hurons. Because of recent epidemics that had cut the Huron population in half, and because the French had refused to arm them with guns, they were massacred. The Jesuit mission was also attacked and the missionaries were executed. Their settlement, St Marie among the Hurons was destroyed on 15 May 1649. The Huron that managed to survive left Huronia and scattered. Some went south seeking refuge with the Susquehannock, some went west, and others headed for New France.
The Iroquois continued their destruction by wiping out the Erie, “Petun” (Khionontateronon), and Neutral tribes. By the time they finished, southern Ontario was nearly devoid of population and the Iroquois had won control of the fur trade in the area. Although they lived south of Lake Ontario (Ohio, Pennsylvania), they were an influence on travel and growth in Ontario. Their control of the Mohawk River left only the St Lawrence River for access to the Great Lakes region for more than one hundred years.
Like the Iroquois, New France also wanted control of the fur trade to ensure profit for their growing colony, and to exclude the English. To do this, the French established trading posts and armed them with soldiers. Most of these posts were set up on what is now American soil (Fort Niagara, Fort Detroit).
After their success against the native population of Ontario, the Iroquois turned their attention upon New France. For twenty years, 1645-1665, the colony was under constant surprise attacks. Because of this, it was unsafe for any settler to clear or take care of their lands. New France suffered greatly and lost about 10% of their population. However, France wasn’t interested in the happenings in the New World as they were busy fighting a war with Spain. In 1661 France’s Prime Minister, Jules Mazarin, died and the colonists of New France sent a representative to France to request help directly from King Louis XIV.
King Louis XIV abolished the Company of One Hundred Associates, making Canada a proper colony instead of the property of a company. As a colony Canada would have a governor and an intendant who would report to the King. Then he sent military aid to help deal with the Iroquois threat. The Iroquois were suffering from a smallpox epidemic, and after getting a glimpse at the military re-inforcements, chose to sign a peace treaty instead of engaging in a full-fledge war. In 1671 several native Chiefs convened at Sault Ste Marie and gave consent for their tribes to become subjects of France.
Meanwhile… In 1659 Pierre Radisson and his brother-in-law Médard Chouart Des Groseilliers became partners to explore new trading territories not yet known to Europeans. They approached the Governor of Quebec and made it known they were willing to venture into the wilds to expand New France’s trading territory. The Governor was interested but insisted they conduct their exploration on his terms, be accompanied by two of his government employees, and give half the profits to New France. Radisson and Des Groseilliers were not impressed that they would have to take along two inexperienced persons, and left New France without the permission of the governor. By winter they had traveled as far as Lake Superior and made camp with the Ojibwa. Many at camp died that winter due to starvation, but come spring eighteen nations took part in the Feast of the Dead. Radisson and Des Groseilliers saw the opportunity to expand their fur trading and took it. They returned to Montreal with representatives and canoes filled with furs expecting the Governor to be pleased. Instead the governor fined them and imprisoned Des Groseilliers for disobeying his order.
After the homecoming they received in New France, they headed for France where they were rejected. So they set sail for England where they were granted a meeting with King Charles II. King Charles agreed to finance their expedition and they set out for Hudson Bay. Radisson’s trip was cut short when his ship was damaged in a storm, but Des Groseilliers completed the trip and spent a year collecting beaver pelts of impressive quality. With confirmation of better furs available, King Charles II chartered a new company in 1670 to be called Hudson’s Bay Company. The HBC was also to be used to encourage settlement and exploration of the Hudson Bay area. King Charles II named the area that the HBC covered Rupert’s Land in honour of his cousin, Prince Rupert. Rupert’s Land was all land surrounding rivers that flowed to Hudson Bay, and it covered nearly eight million square kilometers. Trading posts were established on Hudson Bay, and the nearby Cree tribe was made trading partners.
Back in New France… The governor, Louis Buade, Comte de Frontenac, formed a partnership with René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle to expand New France. In 1673 Frontenac traveled to Lake Ontario and had Fort Cataraqui, also known as Fort Frontenac (where Kingston is now located), built. The fort itself had actually been planned by the last governor of the One Hundred Associates Company but construction wasn’t started until Frontenac became governor. This would become the first permanent European settlement on the Great Lakes.
Under Governor Frontenac, exploration continued and by the 1680’s New France was able to extend their fur trade territory from the Ottawa River to include Lake Nipissing, the French River, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, and Lake Superior. But Frontenac’s gains in land spread the resources of the colony too thin, and with their expanding fur trade they were alienating their native allies.
The Iroquois were still seeking control of the fur trade and were still at odds with New France who were trading with their enemies. Frontenac had told the King that the Iroquois posed no threat to New France, and when he was recalled to France in 1682 he left New France in the precarious situation of not being ready to defend itself or its allies against attack. So when the Iroquois took on the tribes in the west (Ontario) they won.
The next Governor of New France was Marquis DeNonville who arrived in 1685 with 600 troops. During this time the Iroquois had allied themselves with the English, and when DeNonville arrived in Cataraqui they weren’t interested in negotiating. In 1687 France sent 800 more soldiers to aid DeNonville in “negotiations” and they somewhat succeeded until 1689 when the Iroquois staged an attack on Lachine. DeNonville was recalled by the King and Frontenac returned as governor.
In June 1689 war between England and France was again declared. The colonists of New France were prepared to do battle with their English neighbours for control of the fur trade. In 1691, preparations were made in New England to invade Canada and for the next several years the British tried to conquer Quebec. They were unsuccessful and the borders remained unchanged. In 1697 the war was ended with the signing of the Treaty of Ryswick, with the French agreeing to return all confiscated British land in America.
New France also suffered economically. The fur trade was starting to dwindle due to European fashion no longer demanding as many furs. In 1696 King Louis XIV had all fur trading posts in the west closed.
In 1701, one hundred years of fighting amongst native nations was put to an end when 1,300 delegates representing more than 40 nations signed a peace treaty. Things weren’t going so well for the newcomers -- peace between England and France did not last long and in the early 1700’s they were yet again at war, both in Europe and in the New World. While the French in the colony were winning their battles, their European counterparts were not. So treaty by treaty the French lost their colony to the British. And it was a vast colony - by 1700, New France covered territory that stretched east-west from Newfoundland to the Prairies, and north-south from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico.
In 1713, Louis XIV signed the Treaty of Utrecht giving England Hudson Bay, all of Acadia (now Nova Scotia & New Brunswick) and Newfoundland. France would keep the island of Ile Royale as well as any island located in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
In 1720 the colony, now estimated to have about 25,000 inhabitants, was divided into three areas: Quebec, Three Rivers, and Montreal. And each of these areas was further divided into parishes. The area that is now Ontario was part of Montreal District.
While there was tentative peace in the colony the British and French weren’t taking any chances. Each spent their time strategizing and building new forts to defend their parts of the colony. The British build a fort at the mouth of the Oswego while the French built one at the mouth of the Niagara. Fort Cataraqui was rebuilt, replacing the wood structure for one made of stone. And a fort was built in what is now Toronto.
These preparations paid off when war was declared in 1745 and again in 1756. The French started off strong but by 1758 they were on the losing side of the war, and in 1760 Montreal surrendered and with it all other French forts effectively ending the war. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 had France give control of most of their North American colonies to England. New France was then rechristened Quebec.
The British now had claim to the northern half of the continent as well as control of the fur trade. This encouraged enterprising immigrants to enter the fur trade. Several Montreal businessmen founded the North-West Company (NWC) and within a quarter century had the monopoly on the fur trade much to the chagrin of the Hudson Bay Company. Both companies were competitive, each having over 200 trading posts. Unfortunately there just weren’t enough furs to support both companies and each one pushed their traders further and further west in order to keep up with demand. The HBC, hoping to increase profits by diversifying, started mining and whaling.
In 1774 the Quebec Act established the borders of the province of Quebec. The area would include the land as far west as the Mississippi River, as far south as present-day Ohio, as well as all of present-day Ontario. The Act also established English criminal law and restored French civil law. The government would be headed by Governor Sir Guy Carleton.
During all this upheaval there was little settlement in Ontario, what there was was mostly native tribes, military personnel, and fur traders. However, this would soon change with the arrival of refugees of the American Revolution. In 1775 the US colonies declared independence from Britain sparking a war between England and the colonists. Those who remained loyal to the British Crown soon found themselves unwelcome in their new home and headed North to Canada. The first settlers started arriving in 1776 but the majority of Loyalists arrived after the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783.
By the time of the Treaty settlement in Ontario was starting to grow. British forts encouraged settlement nearby, the forts would protect the settlers and the settlers would provide the forts with goods and services.
The British government forbade the purchase of land, instead instituting land grants. They would purchase land from the Indians through treaties and would then parcel it and grant it to settlers. Each grant was given freely in accordance to status and rank. To further encourage settlement and ensure the land was settled by those loyal to the British crown, land grants were given to Loyalist and Military families.
In 1788 the area west of the Ottawa River was divided into four districts: Lunenburg (which went as far as the Ganonoque River), Mecklenburg (to the Trent River), Nassau (to Long Point), and Hesse (to Lake St Clair). Each district had its own court headed by three judges, and a Land Board to handle land grant requests. As settlers arrived they were granted land along the waterways, starting with South-Eastern Ontario and moving west towards present-day Windsor.