We knew not the nature of the bargain

On Oct. 17, 1818, somewhere in the Township of King, along the frontier of the settled parts of Upper Canada, four Ojibwe chiefs met with a group of colonial officials. After solemn negotiations intermixed with traditional ceremony, Chiefs Musquakie, Kaqueticum, Muskigonce and Manitonobe inscribed their totems on a treaty that was countersigned by Indian Department officials William Claus, James Givins, and Alexander McDonell. Known as Treaty 18, the agreement ceded all of the remaining Ojibwe territory in what is now Simcoe County, from the eastern border of London District to the Penetanguishene Road area and from Georgian Bay to Lake Simcoe and York County. In exchange for the ceded territory, measuring almost 1.6 million acres in total, the four Ojibwe bands were promised an annual gift of £1200-worth of trade goods and the continued rights to hunt, fish and live in the territory.

Ojibwe people had been living in what is now Simcoe County since the mid-17th century when they moved south from their homeland north of Georgian Bay into the former lands of the Huron. The Ojibwe hunted, fished and gathered their food. They lived in birch-bark wigwams or tipis and wore deerskin clothing decorated with intricate beadwork. In summer, each band gathered together in temporary villages and. in winter, they dispersed into smaller family groups.

European explorers and fur traders had been passing through what is now Simcoe County for centuries but it wasn’t until the late 18th century that Europeans began to show an interest in acquiring the Ojibwe territory for settlement. In 1785, territory between Matchedash Bay and Lake Couchiching was ostensibly sold to provincial land surveyor John Collins. In the fall of 1793, Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe’s expedition to Georgian Bay identified the Penetanguishene area as an ideal location for a naval and military post on the upper Great Lakes and, in 1798, the Ojibwe ceded the territory immediately around the harbour to the Crown. In 1815, three Ojibwe chiefs ceded a 250,000-acre corridor between Penetanguishene and Kempenfeldt Bay for the construction of a road, months after the route had already been surveyed, constructed and temporarily abandoned.

The cession of the Ojibwe territory to the Crown in 1818 occurred at a time when more land was sought by the government to fuel economic development and population growth in the young province. After signing Treaty 18, which the Ojibwe understood as an agreement sharing land rights in exchange for government support rather than a final and complete sale of all their territory, the provincial government lost no time in dispatching surveyors to the newly acquired land. For several years the Ojibwe bands continued to use their traditional territory much as they had prior to the cession of 1818, even as it was split up into townships and lots by colonial surveyors and settled by ever-growing numbers of white farmers.

In 1830, as the number of immigrant settlers arriving in the area increased dramatically, Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Colborne ordered the 550 Ojibwe remaining in Simcoe County to relocate to a 9,800-acre reservation between Matchedash Bay and the Narrows, along what became known as the Coldwater Road. The band of John Aisaince settled in a village built for them at one end of the road, at what is now Coldwater, and the band of William Yellowhead settled in another government-built village at the other end of the road, at what is now Orillia. Joseph Snake’s band settled on Georgina Island in Lake Simcoe, which had also been reserved by Governor Colborne. The relocation of the Ojibwe onto the Coldwater reserve reflected a broader government policy that sought to assimilate Indigenous people by placing them on reserves, teaching them agriculture and converting them to Christianity. To that end, Indian Department offices were established at Coldwater and the Narrows, where government agents instructed band members in agriculture. Most of the county’s Ojibwe people had already converted to Methodism in 1828.

In 1836, under pressure from prospective settlers around Coldwater and Orillia, the government compelled the Ojibwe of Simcoe County to relocate yet again in exchange for one-third of the proceeds from the sale of the former reserve lands to new settlers. Yellowhead’s band relocated from Orillia to Rama, where they purchased 1,600 acres for £800. Aisaince’s band relocated from Coldwater to Beausoleil Island and later to Christian Island. Joseph Snake’s band remained on their reserve on Georgina Island. It wasn’t until 1842, after complaints by the Ojibwe chiefs that it hadn’t been made clear to them that their share of the proceeds would only be paid out piecemeal as each plot of land was sold, that the government began making a regular annual payment to each band. The 1836 dispersal of the three Ojibwe bands created the three First Nations communities in Simcoe County today and opened up the last parts of the county to colonization.

Image: 1876 drawing of an Ojibwa person at their tipi on the Rama Reserve by English artist George Harlow White.

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