First Nation People of the Scugog basin
Earlier Occupants: People have lived in southern Canada for more than 10,000 years. Groups of Iroquoian speaking people for centuries lived across what is now southern Ontario, (including here in the Scugog region). When the French explorer Champlain visited Ontario in 1615, he met a large population living in groups of palisaded villages near Georgina Bay. They occupied communal longhouses and grew corn and beans in fields they had cleared from the forest outside the villages.
These Iroquoians, who the French called Hurons, together with the nearby related Petuns and Neutrals, likely numbered over 60,000. The Iroquoians had only retreated to their fortified locations shortly before the French arrived. Stone and pottery artifacts found across the area are often related to these once numerous Iroquoians.
Death and Dispersal: Following contact with the French, European diseases swept through native communities bringing death to over half the populations. Then in the 1640s, warriors of the Five Nation Iroquois Confederacy from south of Lake Ontario launched attacks on the Ontario Iroquoians and by 1650 these once populous villages were burned-out ruins; the occupants either dead or dispersed.
Five Nation Iroquois: Villages of the Five Nations Iroquois soon began to appear along the north shore of Lake Ontario. We know that one Seneca Five Nation village was located at the mouth of the Rouge River, south west of the Scugog area. At first these Iroquois people were here to gather the valuable furs from this fur rich area, but soon Iroquois raiders began attacking other First Nation people who lived to the north.
The Algonquians: Up along the north shore of Lake Huron and east along the waterways over to the Ottawa valley, groups of hunter gathering people lived. They were different from the Iroquoians and they spoke variations of a language which linguists today call Algonquian. They included groups called Ojibwa, Mississauga, Ottawa, Nipissing and Algonquin, (not to be confused with the language name: Algonquian). These Algoquian speakers lived in small family groups in single-family bark covered wigwams and secured all of their needs from their environment. They hunted and fished and gathered plant material for food and medicine. Their staple food crop was wild rice gathered from shallow waters in late summer using their birch bark canoes. They were a caring and sharing people and they called themselves Anishinaabeg; meaning simply - “the people.”
The Move South: At first in response to the Iroquois raids, these highly mobile Anishinaabeg people simply retreated into the forests to avoid the conflicts, but traditions tell of how at some point they joined forces and repelled the intruders back south, all the way across Lake Ontario to the land they were from. Southern Ontario was once again open for occupation and by 1700, Mississauga and Ojibwa people, (sometimes called Chippewa,) were establishing their homes across the area.
First Families at Scugog: A tale told by an elderly Mississauga woman at Scugog and recorded in 1888, described how the first Mississauga families came to settle at Scugog in the 1700s. Her story tells of two Mississauga hunters who were in their canoe on Sturgeon Lake and discovered the mouth of the Scugog River. Following up the river, they liked the area around present day Lake Scugog and went back for their families and settled here. The two hunters were called Nika, (the word for wild goose,) and Gwingwik, (a bird called a shrike in English.) It’s interesting that when missionary Peter Jones visited Scugog in the 1820s, these two names in translated and modified forms were family names used among the Mississauga people living in the area.
Paradise Found: These Mississauga people from north of Lake Huron must surely have considered their new land to be a paradise. The unspoiled forests would have provided plentiful game and fur animals and plants of all kinds for food and medicine. Maple trees furnished sap for syrup and sugar and birch trees provided bark for wigwams and canoes. The extensive wetlands would have been rich in fish and waterfowl and the important wild rice was plentiful. Winters would have been milder than in northern Ontario, and of course there were no enemies now to watch out for. The Mississauga people undoubtedly would have flourished here for decades; -until things changed.
The British: During the century and a half of French occupation, relations with Native people had usually been respectful and fair, but in 1759 the French were defeated by the British. Of course this French defeat in no way meant that the Mississauga Ojibwa people had been beaten, (in fact they were never defeated militarily,) but with new players, the game changed.
Paradise Lost: While the French had never needed much land in southern Ontario, the British quickly required vast tracts of it on which to settle the floods of refugees who came pouring north following the loss of the Thirteen Colonies to the new United States. To their credit, the British government recognized Aboriginal ownership of the land and in fact issued strict guidelines by which Native lands were to be acquired. These niceties however seem to have occasionally been forgotten. Such must have been the case with the northern part of present day Durham Region, (including the former Township of Reach.) Reach Township stretching along the west side of Lake Scugog, makes up a large part of our present day Scugog Township, (including Port Perry.)
Swept Aside: In Reach Township the surveyors simply walked in and measured out the primeval forest into lots and concessions and non-native settlers arrived and chopped down the trees to make their farms. It seems that Mississauga people were living in the area when the first settlers arrived, but no treaty was made with them, and these true owners of the land were simply swept aside. When the missionary Peter Jones visited Scugog a few years later, there were about one hundred Mississauga people living in bark wigwams along the shore near where Port Perry is today.
No Reserve: Missionary Jones made a number of visits to the Mississaugas of Scugog in the late 1820s, and on one visit he lamented in his journal that, “these original proprietors of the soil have no reserve and now have to pray to their great father the King for a place to lay their bones.” It is ironic and quite tragic that nobody seemed to understand that these, ”original proprietors,” had never given up their legal title to the land. The problem may have been made worse by their not understanding the language and strange ways of these newcomers.
Whiskey Traders: A second problem, and perhaps one with more immediate consequences, concerned unscrupulous and uncontrolled British traders. After more than a century of exposure to all manner of French trade goods, including guns and ammunition for hunting, native people had forgotten many of their traditional survival skills. Each year they depended more and more on manufactured items they received in exchange for their valuable annual catch of furs. The French traders had treated them fairly, but now the new breed of trader found it much to their advantage to dispense liquor at the trading sessions. Not having any alcohol in their traditional culture, native people were perhaps more vulnerable to its affects, but in any event, all too often the trade negotiations ended with the furs gone and little or nothing to show for them. Poverty and addiction often followed.
Booze In the Lake: Missionary Jones on his 1820s visits to Scugog promoted Christianity and sobriety and he was pleased to record in 1827 that a trader had brought two barrels of whiskey to a trading session and that the Mississaugas had simply dumped it into the lake. Despite the general rejection of alcohol by native people after this time, unfortunate stereotyping has continued to the present day.
Departure from Scugog: In 1830 Jones recorded in his journal that, “the, Schoogog Indians, have removed from that place to Lake Simcoe and to Mud Lake.” (Mud Lake and Chemong Lake were alternate names for present day Curve Lake First Nation, north of Peterborough.) Several factors may have influenced their departure. In the first place the Mississaugas may have felt that the growing number of newcomers were squeezing them off their land, and no doubt spoiling their hunting. As well an 1829 dam across the Scugog River at Lindsay was raising the water level on Lake Scugog and may have been objectionable. Certainly several years later this flooding was blamed for a mysterious illness affecting people around the water. Also at about this time new reserves for Native people were being established at Coldwater, (west of Lake Simcoe), and at Mud Lake.
At Mud Lake and On to Balsam Lake: In 1828 missionary Jones had noted in his journal that Jacob Crane was the Chief of the Scugog Mississaugas. On March 12, 1833, Jones recorded the names of several people he had baptized at Mud Lake. Among the names were Mary Crane age 3, born at:”Schugog,” and infant James Crane, born at Mud Lake. The parents of these children were Jacob and Morningstar Crane. Three years later, in 1836, there is a record that part of the band at Chemong Lake, (Mud Lake), under the leadership of J. Crane had, “removed to Balsam Lake.”
And Back to Scugog: In 1843 the Mississaugas of Balsam Lake reserve applied for permission to relocate to Lake Scugog where the soil and climate would be better suited to agriculture. The government of the day was vigorously promoting native people give up their traditional ways and settle down to farming. However with the Scugog area quickly filling up with settlers, no reserve was forthcoming, so Jacob Crane and his people paid with their own money for an 800 acres landlocked tract on Scugog Island. In 1844 they moved back to their old familiar haunts. But hemmed in by newcomers and without access to the water, it is doubtful whether the old place would have seemed the paradise that it once had. Jacob Crane appeared as Chief in the 1851 and 1861 census at Scugog Reserve. Later in 1861 Jacob Crane died.
Surviving: For the next century or so the Mississaugas of Scugog Island survived. For years their lives were supervised and controlled by Indian agents and missionaries; residential schools took away some of the children. Farming was tried, but it didn’t catch on. Some eked out a living hunting and trapping and fishing with wild rice harvesting and gardening. Some developed a cottage industry making ash splint baskets and axe handles to be sold to non-natives. Many of those baskets were works of art! In the 20th century, some people worked off reserve in the cities to the south. A number of the young men served in the two world wars. It is reported that Scugog First Nation sent all of its eligible young men to serve in World War I, thereby establishing an enlistment record. In World War II several members served in the signal corps as Ojibway Code Talkers, doing their part to keep the vital communications service secure. By the 1980s, population on the reserve had fallen below 15 members. The population at MSIFN has now rebounded for various reasons to about 100
A New Era: Then in the 1990s permission was obtained for the Missisaugas of Scugog Island First Nation to establish a Charity Casino, and prospects brightened considerably. First Nation members now at last had employment opportunities at home. Each year now, hundreds of thousands of dollars are given out by the Baagwating Community Association, (the charitable arm of Scugog First Nation), to worthy causes throughout the broader community and beyond. Efforts are ongoing to revitalize the culture. Ojibwe language classes, elder teachings and cultural workshops are conducted throughout the year. A drum social is held in late winter and Aboriginal Day celebrations take place at the start of summer. 2011 marked the 15th anniversary of the popular Scugog Pow Wow, attended by people from across North America. So today, despite years of tragic adversity and wrenching change, the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation are an amazing success story, and as they were in the old days, they continue to be a caring and sharing people!
Prepared and written by Dan Denby, co-ordinator of the Ojibwa Heritage Section, Scugog Shores Museum,
in collaboration with the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation.
Illustrations courtesy Charles W. Jeffrey's Picture Gallery of Canadian History