How We Got Here

I once asked my wife, Anne, so when your ancestors first travelled to the Orillia/Oro area in the early 1830s, how did they get here?  It was a time when there were not many roads and much of the travel overland was on foot.  Trans-Atlantic Steamships were not in common use, so ocean travel meant sailing ships and smaller sailing vessels on the inland routes.  The question of how travel to this area has evolved over the years is an interesting one. 

For thousands of years, this area has been a travel route as well as a destination for the Indigenous peoples.  We know this because of the Mnjikaning Fish Weirs at the Narrows.  Some of the oldest fish weirs date to over 5,000 years ago.  Lakes Simcoe and Couchiching were a travel hub with many rivers and portage routes leading into and out of the area.  The Indigenous trade routes extended vast distances across the North American continent.  Trade expeditions went as far as the East Coast, the Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico. 

Present-day remains of the Mnjikaning Fish Weirs

The first European to travel to this area was Étienne Brûlé in 1610.  He was joined by his protégé Samuel de Champlain in 1615.  They travelled the Northern Ontario Route (Ottawa River – Lake Nipissing - French River – Georgian Bay to the Coldwater Road portage or Severn River) to get here. 

Etienne Brule among the Iroquet, 1610 

Shortly after 1615, the French fur trade was in full swing through this area.  Initially the fur traders used the Rouge River route to travel from Lake Ontario to Lake Simcoe.  This route required a portage across the Oak Ridges Moraine to the eastern arm of the Holland River near present day Aurora.  By 1619 the fur traders were primarily using the Toronto Carrying-Place Trail.  This trail followed the east arm of the Humber River north past present day Kleinburg followed by a long portage through the Nobleton area to the western branch of the Holland River and on to Lake Simcoe (called Ouentironk meaning “Beautiful Water” by the Wendat at the time).  The lake was later variously referred to as Lac aux Claies (Lake of Trellises and origin of the name Laclie Street) and Lac de Taronto.  The name Taronto or Toronto was derived from the Mohawk word tkaronto meaning “where there are trees standing in the water” and referred to the fish weirs mentioned earlier at the Narrows.  The Huron drove stakes made from saplings into the sediment to corral fish.  The saplings would have sprouted branches and leaves with time, hence the reference to trees standing in the water.  The south end of the Toronto Carrying-Place trail was protected by a series of forts, one of which was called Fort Toronto.  Toronto also became the name of the settlement on Lake Ontario.

Toronto Carrying-Place Trail

The canoe routes and portages were the only ways to get to this area until 1796.  When John Graves Simcoe renamed the settlement of Toronto as York, he also renamed Lake Toronto as Lake Simcoe.  When Simcoe arrived in 1793, he began the construction of Yonge Street from Lake Ontario to Holland Landing.  Yonge Street was intended as a military supply route to the Upper Great Lakes that was free from American interference.  Once the trail was cut through the woods, it became the primary travel route to Northern Ontario from York.  During the War of 1812, the supply route to Penetanguishene went up Yonge Street to Holland Landing, across Lake Simcoe to Kempenfelt Bay then along the Nine Mile Portage to Willow Creek and the Nottawasaga River to Georgian Bay.

Following the War of 1812, additional roads were started although the early roads were little more than walking trails.  Yonge Street became a passable road (with horse and wagon) all the way to Holland Landing by 1816.  The Penetanguishene Road was started in 1814.  Yonge Street was extended to Kempenfelt Bay and the Penetanguishene Road by 1827.  A network of “colonization” roads was started northeast from the Penetanguishene Road starting in 1830, but most travel north of Kempenfelt Bay at that time was by water. 

Until 1832, travel on Lake Simcoe was mostly by canoe or by Durham Boats.  In 1832 the Steamer Sir John Colborne was built, followed by the steamer Emily May.  These steamers carried people and goods around to all of the towns and villages around Lake Simcoe.

Durham Boat

When Anne’s ancestors first came to this area in the early 1830s, they sailed from Glasgow Scotland.  The sailing ships of that time took about a month to travel from Glasgow to Quebec City, although it could take longer if the weather was not favourable.  From Quebec City, passengers travelled up the Saint Lawrence in smaller boats.  Horses drew the boats along the shore at the rapids while the passengers got out and walked.  They would have stopped in Montreal and Kingston along the way to rest and buy supplies.  From Kingston, the most common way to travel at that time was by lake schooner to York (or “muddy York” as it was called at the time).  Before 1833 there was no passenger service from York up Yonge Street to Holland Landing so most people would have walked.  Some people would arrange to hire a horse and wagon to carry their supplies.  There were inns along the way for the weary travellers to stop and rest.  Once at Holland landing, travel north on the Holland River and Lake Simcoe would have been by canoe or Durham Boat.  In the case of Anne’s ancestors, they probably travelled by Durham boat to Hawkestone.  From there they would have walked to their destination, Rugby.  The sideroads were not well developed in the early 1830s and were not yet suitable for horse and wagon.  The new pioneers probably made many trips back and forth on foot to bring in their supplies from the lake.  The travel time from Quebec City to this area was about one month. 

There were many Scottish and other European families that arrived in this area in the early 1830s. They all started to put down their roots and build a country.  But that is another story.


-Fred Kallin