The First Nations in the Region of Peel
The Region of Peel as it is known today sits on the Peel plain, 715 feet above sea level and is within sight of the Niagara Escarpment and is comprised of the Cities of Brampton and Mississauga and the Township of Caledon. Today Peel is a center of industry and a regional transportation hub in Southern Ontario, as well as a major gateway into Canada. As recently as 200 years ago, however, Peel was nothing but wilderness, inhabited by Native Canadians.
Through careful research at archaeological dig sites scattered around the Region of Peel, archaeologist have been able to piece together some basic information about the First Nations in the area before the coming of the Europeans. Archaeologists believe that the earliest people to live in the Region of Peel were nomads who left very few remains for researchers to study. However, further excavations have uncovered artifacts that range in dates from 3000 BC to 1550 AD and reveal much about life in the Region of Peel before Native contact with European explorers.
The period ranging from 3000 BC to 1550 AD has been subdivided into categories. Some artifacts have been found that date to Early Woodland Period, approximately 3000 to 2400 BC. However, the majority of First Nations artifacts that have been unearthed in the Region of Peel have been dated to the Middle and Late Woodland Periods, roughly 2400 BC to 1550 AD. These artifacts tell archaeologists much about pre-contact Native society in the Region of Peel. The discovery of copper, shells and obsidian indicates the existence of a wide spread trade network. In addition, archaeologists are able to track trading patterns in the area by noting the patterns that appear in pottery that is uncovered, as each tribe produced distinct patterns.
Archaeology has also provided information regarding how the First Nations lived before contact. Research indicates that some First Nations lived in long houses, long narrow structures made of wood that were between 20 and 25 feet wide and up to 300 feet long. It is believed that up to 20 or 30 families would have lived inside, each with its own fire. From this, it is also possible to speculate as to what day to day life would have been like for the inhabitants of the village, which would have consisted of multiple long houses, protected by wooden palisades.
Based on eyewitness accounts and archaeological research Native men, women and children all would have had different duties. For example, men were in charge of hunting large game, while women picked berries, trapped small game, made clothing and cooked. Children would have been in charge of looking after the village garden, while the elderly were seen as the keeper of cultural memory and charged with the task of handing down legends and family history from one generation to the next.
According to the accounts left to us by European explorers, the first contact that the First Nations had with Europeans occurred in the 16th Century, around the year 1500. When the Europeans arrived in the New World they found a world rich with resources that were ripe for harvest, particularly beaver pelts which were used to make the felt hats that were becoming fashionable in Europe at the time. In return for beaver pelts and other furs, the Europeans gave glass beads, knives, axes and other metal goods which became highly prized among the First Nations. In addition, the First Nations also lent their extensive knowledge of local geography to the Europeans in order to help them find the best hunting grounds for trapping game, as well as knowledge of medicinal plants, and crop plants, such as corn and squash. Unfortunately, the First Nations also found themselves caught up in the rivalry that existed between the French and the English so that by the start of the 18th Century most of Southern Ontario had been depopulated due to infighting among the various tribes, fighting between the French and the English and the Natives lack of immunity to European diseases such as small pox and measles. The result of this was that many tribes from Northern Ontario, such as the Mississauga tribe, began to move into the areas that had previously been settled by the Iroquois and Algonquians.
The first encounter with the Mississaugas took place in 1640 and was recorded by Peter Jones who gave them the name, “Oumisaga.” He wrote that the Mississaugas were a branch of the Ojibwas tribe living along the shores of Georgian Bay. When groups of Mississaugas were found living along Lake Ontario, all of the First Nations groups living in the area were assumed to be of the Mississauga tribe, even though evidence has since revealed that very few of the Mississaugas relocated from Georgian Bay.
The Mississaugas people lived in wigwams, and traveled seasonally in small bands, as food sources dictated. They were known among the First Nations as transmitters of information. This role was greatly facilitated by their location at the mouth of the Credit River and the start of the portage between Toronto and Lake Simcoe. As a result their tribal symbol was an eagle sitting in a pine tree and was believed to represent watchfulness and swiftness in carrying messages. As the French began to withdraw from the Region of Peel, the Mississaugas began to turn more and more to the English, having become dependant on European trade goods.
In 1787 the Toronto Purchase was prepared. This was a land deal that deeded the land, upon which the city of Toronto would later be built and included a provision for providing land to the Mississaugas. However, this part of the deal was never actually written down. In 1793, with newly acquired Native land a military road was built to link the town of York and the lands to the west. Known as Dundas Street, this once followed the path of an old Native trail. Later as more land was acquired, roads such as Hurontario Street were built to encourage development of the wilderness with settlers and new settlements.
By the start of the 19th Century, the traditional beliefs of the Missisaugas were in decline. After the land that had been granted by the government had been set aside, the Missisaugas were left in the care of Christian missionaries who began converting them to Christianity. As result when a bad flood occurred in 1804, the Mississaugas took it as a sign that spirits were angry with them and sold more of their land to the Government in 1805. The Mississaugas were forced to sell the northern portion of their tract of land in 1818, which comprised their best hunting grounds. It is in this area that the Region of Peel was later founded with Brampton as the county town.
The increase in trade also caused problems for the Mississaugas. As the Mississaugas were not actually given deed and title to the land they lived on they had very few rights when it came to the problem of settlers encroaching on their land. The result of this was that by the mid 1840s the forests had been severely depleted and the salmon fishery destroyed by the construction of mills and damns along the river. Also the depletion of the forests around the mouth of the Credit River meant that the Mississaugas were forced to go farther and farther afield in search of maple trees to tap for sugar. As the early records of the Township of Chinguacousy indicate the Mississaugas came to the Heart Lake area in the spring time to tap the maple trees.
By the spring of 1847, the Mississaugas had been so devastated by the loss of land and disease that they sold the remainder of their reserve to the Government and moved on land that they had previously given to the Six Nations Grand River Reserve in 1796. Today the Mississaugas live on the New Credit reserve near Hagersville, Ontario.
They are trying to adapt to life away from the water and are attempting to attract businesses to their new industrial park. They have also filed a land claim for the Toronto Islands, claiming that they were never surrendered and are asking for financial compensation.
The Mississaugas and the first settlers to move into the Region of Peel almost 200 years ago would have been unable to envision that the wilderness of the Peel plains would eventually develop into the diverse and thriving communities that exist today.