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How Toronto got its name

Posted by Chris Bateman / March 2, 2013

toronto nameIn March of 1834 the City of York voted to drop its colonial moniker for a title more befitting of the area's history. The move, a rare show of respect for native culture at the time, cemented the legacy of a Mohawk word that had traveled what is now southern Ontario for over a hundred years, being applied to lakes, passages, and rivers, before it finally settled here.

Toronto was first applied to a narrow stretch of water between Lake Simcoe and Lake Couchiching at present-day Sophie's Landing. The word, Anglicized from Mohawk, was spelled tkaronto and taronto and is used to describe an area where trees grow in shallow water.

lake toronto mapThe name, misunderstood and confused by various old-world explorers, bounced around the area between Lake Simcoe and Lake Huron. On various early maps it was applied to a canoe trail on the Humber River and Lake Simcoe itself. Later, the Humber River, before it was named by John Graves Simcoe after a tidal estuary in northeast England, was called Rivière Taronto after the portage trail.

As the Humber carried south the water of countless creeks and streams, it also brought the Toronto name to the Lake Ontario shore.toronto lacThe first colonial settlement on this part of Lake Ontario was Fort Rouillé, a French trading post depicted in drawings with a high wooden fence at what is now Exhibition Place, just beyond the foot of Dufferin Street.

The Seneca-Mohawk villages of Teiaiagon and Ganatsekwyagon (precise English spellings vary) were within today's city limits at the mouths of the Humber and Rouge rivers respectively.

The small complex - alternatively known as Fort Toronto - was founded in 1750 and contained a soldier's quarters, kitchen, a forge, and an ammunition store. It and Magasin Royale, another earlier fortification on the Humber River near Old Mill, were built to attack vessels servicing a rival British trading post at Oswego, N.Y..

Rouillé was abandoned and burned by its own troops retreating at the end of the Battle of Quebec in 1759, a key battle that led to France ceding much of its land claims in North America.fort rouille34 years later, John Graves Simcoe, ordered a garrison built at what is now Fort York at the mouth of Garrison Creek. The English military leader believed the location inside the enclosed Toronto harbour would be easy to defend. The Islands wouldn't become separated from the mainland for another 65 years.

The town of Dublin, renamed York by Simcoe for Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, the second son of then-King George III, developed on the waterfront to the east of the military base.toronto fort yorkPrior to the construction of Fort York, a second encampment would be built on the other side of Garrison Creek. This short-lived base was destroyed in 1813 during the Battle of York. During the fight, the British army were forced to retreat to Kingston, leaving its armed citizens in the streets.

Before abandoning their garrison, the British set light to their artillery storage area and a ship, the HMS Sir Isaac Brock, under construction at the docks. The gigantic explosion that tore through the fort as the gunpowder ignited killed 38 soldiers, including American leader Zebulon M. Pike, and wounded 222 more.

The Americans occupied York for less than a week before deciding to leave with goods looted from across the town. Despite the wishes of their leader, the Americans raided and burned several buildings, including the town's printing press and Legislative Assembly building for Upper Canada, located on Front Street between today's Berkeley and Parliament streets.

The town was retaken by the British when the Americans departed for their original position further down the shore. The returning the troops built what is present day Fort York near the destroyed garrison and repelled several raids in 1813 and 1814.toronto front streetThe town of York recovered from its temporary occupation and grew to surround the old fort. In 1834 the province's legislative council, the leaders of the area around what had become the largest city in Upper Canada, voted to incorporate the community as a city. A group of local citizens thought then was as good a time as any to rebrand the community.

The name Toronto, then recognized as an alternative name for the region, was favoured over York partly because the original York in England was considered so grim.

William Bent Berczy, a member of the Legislative Committee representing Kent, said Toronto had a "musical sound" and was " in every respect much better" than the original title. The others largely agreed, and the city of Toronto was officially founded that same year.

The York name lives on in East York, North York, York Region and the countless other York-related streets and communities in the GTA, while Toronto has continued to travel. Torontos in the United States, Australia, and U.K. all derive their name from that narrow stretch of water near Orillia.

Chris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Top photo by A Great Capture in the blogTO Flickr pool. City of Toronto Archives, Ontario Archives.



Nathan / March 2, 2013 at 02:52 am
Minor note: for a brief period of time, roughly 1791 to 1793 the township was called Dublin, before Simcoe changed it to York. [cf. Augustus Jones' survey in 1793...]
DL / March 2, 2013 at 07:14 am
Wow...the place looked halfway nice before the lefties got a hold of it and forced their agenda down everyone's throats.

Probably didn't happen back then because everyone had their own musket.

Born in the wrong era, I was.
Benedict replying to a comment from DL / March 2, 2013 at 07:51 am
You sure were! I hope you don't choke to death on my agenda!
Tone / March 2, 2013 at 08:53 am
In the Huron native language Toronto means, "Stick in the mud". Great article!
bradtacs replying to a comment from DL / March 2, 2013 at 10:21 am
Wow that has to be one of the stupidest comments of the day. What does it even have to do with the article?
Duggan / March 2, 2013 at 11:06 am
One of the men who lit the fort magazine a mr. matthias sanders took shrapnel to his leg and few days later it became infected. Lingered for three weeks with gangrene before passing away, he is buried up at thornhill cemtery off of yonge street near where he used to own land.
DL / March 2, 2013 at 11:43 am
Not stupid, accurate. You're just miffed that I'm right.

But yes, fascinating article. Wished I'd lived back then!
EricM / March 2, 2013 at 11:48 am
More pieces like this one please!
Malcolm replying to a comment from bradtacs / March 2, 2013 at 12:39 pm
It has nothing to do with the article -- DL is just desperate for someone to pay attention to him.
PhilipC / March 2, 2013 at 01:06 pm
Another minor detail,the Battle of York took place on April 27, 1813, not 1812 and the Americans attacked York again on July 31, destroying the barracks at the fort and the blockhouse on Gibraltar Point to deny the British any living accomodations. A third descent on York by the Americans in 1814 ended in failure as they were repelled by the British in their rebuilt fortifications at the site of present day Fort York.
steve replying to a comment from DL / March 2, 2013 at 02:14 pm
Yes stupid, a meaningless comment with no context or reality to any situation you can think of.
asa / March 2, 2013 at 02:28 pm
east york gets a shout out a small suburb of metro but, the former city of York gets no love ? come on
DownLow replying to a comment from DL / March 2, 2013 at 02:59 pm



Sean / March 2, 2013 at 03:57 pm
tkranna was how they pronounced it, fyi.
Johnny / March 2, 2013 at 04:27 pm
MORE articles like this please. Great work Chris.
Chris Bateman replying to a comment from Nathan / March 2, 2013 at 04:36 pm
Good note. I've added that in.

@PhilipC: I've tweaked those dates.
lday / March 2, 2013 at 04:59 pm
Teiaiagon and Ganatsekwyagon are located not at the river's mouth but at the fords where it is safest to cross the rivers.
The 'sticks-in-the-water' were a weir constructed to aid spear fishing. Please give the Toronto River back it's real name as there are too many Humber Rivers in google!
Matt / March 2, 2013 at 05:04 pm
On a side note, "Lost Rivers", the documentary on buried urban waterways playing this weekend at the Bloor would probably be enjoyed by those who dug this terrific article.
David replying to a comment from Matt / March 2, 2013 at 05:49 pm
It's a fascinating film, well worth watching. Particularly interesting was a city in (Italy/Germany?) where people were wandering the sewers (and mapping them) against the law and the the city essentially co-opted them because their knowledge of the underground rivers was valuable city data.
Mark / March 2, 2013 at 06:27 pm
I enjoyed this article and just have a couple of comments, the garrison that was destroyed by the invading Americans in the Battle of York took place on Tuesday, April 27, 1813, not 1812. Also, the American leader General Dearborn was in full knowledge of the looting of private property and the burning of public buildings by his men and he did nothing to stop the men under his command. Reverend Strachan, who helped draft the Articles of Captulation, presented them to Dearborn who kept delaying the signing of the document so that his troops would have more time to plunder the town. Rev. Strachan, said in his own words "that, if the capitulation was not immediately signed, that we would not receive it, that the delay was a deception calculated to give the riflemen time to plunder, and after the town had been robbed they would then perhaps sign the captitulation, and tell us they respected private property after it had been robbed".
don / March 2, 2013 at 10:04 pm
You might want to check on which legislative building was destroyed by the Americans. I believe it was at Front and Parliament; not the later one at Front between Peter and John
Get Thee A Time Machine replying to a comment from DL / March 2, 2013 at 11:34 pm
So do we.
Duggan replying to a comment from don / March 3, 2013 at 01:23 am
You are right, after it was burnt down, the site became a jail, then it went industrial and now is where Queens park put the war of 1812 museum all year.
Cutch / March 3, 2013 at 02:44 am
I've always wondered why that U of T sign has TORONT in glass and the final O in metal. Did they run out of glass or something? LOL. It must be a structural thing.
George replying to a comment from DL / March 3, 2013 at 05:47 pm
DL - you're an idiot. grow up a little, and let go of your hate.
junctionist / March 6, 2013 at 07:11 pm
Actually, the first European settlement in Toronto was Fort Toronto in 1720 at the mouth of the Humber River on the east bank. It was a French trading post that was abandoned after a decade, though the French continued to use the First Nations portage from Lake Ontario to Lake Simcoe along the Humber River. It could use a monument, but there are now historical signs along a walking trail south of Lake Shore. The beautiful Humber Bay Arch Bridge is a great monument to the fact that the Humber Bay is really the starting point for European history in Toronto and profoundly important for First Nations history too.

Historian Percy Robinson said that the British chose the name "York", a strongly British name, because they wanted to distance their new settlement here from the French settlement history in the area. His book, ;Toronto During the French Regime', might still be the seminal text on the topic, though I'm sure there's more recent work out there as well.
SJ replying to a comment from Tone / October 25, 2015 at 12:53 pm
I believe in reference to fish weirs!
Don / October 25, 2015 at 05:19 pm
For a little while a village 100 km east of York used the name Toronto, but then in 1817 decided on Port Hope.
patrick lynch / March 25, 2016 at 11:52 pm
I wonder who named it Dublin in 1791.
Beast York Inc / March 26, 2016 at 08:49 am
Beast York WHAT! The Beast lives on!
Pix / March 27, 2016 at 02:26 pm
Someone has to write articles that are historically accurate. this is not.
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