The Toronto Purchase of 1787
In the early 1780s, the British begin to negotiate land cessions – at least that is how the British understand them – with the Mississaugas of the Credit, recognizing them as the landholders in what is now southern Ontario. Sir John Johnson is the son of Sir William Johnson and heir to his role of administering Indigenous affairs in the colony. He understands the importance of Wampum diplomacy, and his family lineage gives him legitimacy in the eyes of the Mississauga and inspires trust. He is tasked with acquiring land along the north shore of Lake Ontario to link the British forts of Kingston and Niagara and with acquiring lands for the settlement of incoming Loyalists - British settlers who remain loyal to the Crown during and after the American Revolution.
This is the moment when “Canada” truly becomes a settler colony: the Toronto area and all of what will become Upper Canada is now prime real estate in British eyes. Over the next several decades, the British will unilaterally reinvent the treaty process to ensure they gain full possession of this territory.
In 1787, Sir John Johnson and his deputy, Colonel John Butler, meet in council at the Bay of Quinte (near present-day Belleville) with more than six hundred Mississauga, mostly from the Credit.
At this council, the Mississauga are given presents and discuss possible British use of various tracts of land along the north shore of Lake Ontario, including at Toronto. The British perceive and record this as an agreement to sell the land, but it is unclear that the Mississauga knowingly agree to this – at least in terms of European legal concepts of land ownership – or see the gifts as payment. The Mississauga may have interpreted the presents received as a renewal of the Covenant Chain alliance and a reward for their military service during the American Revolution. They likely agreed to the British using certain territories in exchange for annual presents in perpetuity – a form of rent – on the understanding that the Mississauga could continue to hunt and fish in these territories as before.
What is the significance of this crucial Council? Certainly, the Mississauga would have understood the agreement in the context of the ongoing treaty relationship extended to them at the Treaty of Niagara. They readily agreed to share land because of Sir William Johnson’s promise that they could pull on the Covenant Chain whenever they were in need and would never live in poverty. They likely agreed to British use of certain territories in exchange for annual presents in perpetuity – a form of rent – on the understanding that the Mississauga could continue to hunt and fish in these territories as before. They could not have anticipated the large numbers of settlers who would settle on these lands and utterly transform them.
Only one text of the 1787 agreement has ever been found, but it is a blank deed that includes Doodem marks of three Mississauga Chiefs from the Toronto area on separate pieces of paper. The papers were presumably affixed to the deed drawn up after the in-person meeting. One of the Toronto-area Chiefs present at the Council at the Bay of Quinte is Wabakinine, who signs with the image of his Eagle Doodem. The boundaries of the ceded land are not recorded in the document. There is also no record of Wampum being exchanged or other treaty-making Protocol. The British legal procedures for land sales outlined in the Royal Proclamation are only partially followed.
Only Sir John Johnson, the three Mississauga Chiefs, and a few witnesses know exactly what was agreed to, and each remembers the details – particularly the boundaries – differently. Ten years later, Sir John Johnson says the ceded land was a ten-mile square along the central waterfront with either two to four miles on either side of the Humber River and another square of land to the north. To this day, there is no common understanding of the terms agreed to in 1787.
The following year, surveyor Alexander Aitken arrives at Toronto to survey the land the Mississaugas of the Credit have supposedly agreed to cede. It immediately becomes apparent that there is no shared understanding about the nature of the agreement reached or the boundaries of the land in question. More presents are distributed, which the British intend as payment for land, but despite this, Aitken is unable to complete the survey.
Presents, trade goods, the necessaries of life.
Gifts and exchanging gifts is a diplomatic practice that existed among Anishinaabek and among other Indigenous Peoples, and really it was about signalling intention, so if you brought gifts, then your intentions were honourable. You came as an ally, you wanted to have a discussion or potentially a negotiation in good faith. And every time we met, we had to reaffirm that relationship by the exchange of gifts to reaffirm that we’re both entering into this discussion with a good mind. Gifts were ancillary to treaties themselves. Gifts aren’t really a part of the treaty, they’re what allow you to have a discussion to eventually negotiate a treaty.
– Hayden King, Anishinaabe political theorist
Day Trip Exploring the 1787 Toronto Purchase: A Series of Activities
List of Gifts Given to the Mississaugas of the Credit in 1788 as Payment for the Toronto Purchase of 1787 – according to Nathaniel Lines, Interpreter
- 6 Bales Strouds (coarse woollen cloth)
- 4 Bales Moltons (linen cloth)
- 4 Kegs Hoes
- 8 Half Barrels Powder
- 5 Boxes Guns
- 3 Cases Shott
- 24 Brass Kettles
- 10 Kegs of Ball
- 200 lbs Tobacco
- 1 Cask containing 3 Gro Knifes
- 10 Doz. Looking Glasses
- 4 Trunks Linen
- 1 Hogshead containing 18 pieces Gartering
- 24 Laced Hats
- 30 Pieces Ribbon
- 3 Gro. Fish Hooks
- 2,000 Gun Flints
- 1 Box 60 Hats
- 1 Bale flowered Flannel
- 5 Bales Blankets
- 1 Bale Broad Cloth
- 5 pieces embossed Serge
- 1 Case Barley Corn Beads
- 96 Gallons of Rum
The Founding of York/Toronto, 1793
“Canada” is divided into Upper and Lower Canada in 1791. Two years later, John Graves Simcoe, Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, establishes the town of York, initially as a military post guarding the strategic Toronto Carrying-Place Trail to the upper Great Lakes. This guarantees an all-British route to the northwest, avoiding perilous exposure to the Americans on Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair. By 1794, the new outpost boasts fourteen houses and some farms. In 1796, it is designated the capital of Upper Canada.
Unofficial spokesperson, one not to be trusted.
In 1794, one year after York’s founding, Governor Lord Dorchester informs Simcoe of a shocking discovery.
A plan . . . has been found in the Survey’r General’s Office, to which is attached a blank deed, with the names or devices of three chiefs of the Mississauga Nation, on separate pieces of paper annexed thereto, and witnessed by Mr. Collins, Mr. Kotte, a surveyor, since dead, and Mr. Lines, Indian Interpreter, but not being filled up, is of no validity, or may be applied to a land they possess; no fraud has been committed or seems to have been intended. It was, however an omission which will set aside the whole transaction, and throw us entirely on the good faith of the Indians for just so much land as they are willing to allow, and what may be further necessary must be purchased anew, but it will be best not to press that matter or show any anxiety about it.
Not only do the British not have a valid deed for the capital of Upper Canada, but relations with the Mississauga deteriorate precipitously in 1796, when Mississauga Chief Wabakinine, one of the signatories to the 1787 Toronto Purchase, is killed defending his sister from assault by a British soldier on the Toronto waterfront. The Mississauga from the Toronto area travel to Niagara, demanding satisfaction for the murder of their Chief.
Peter Russell, Administrator of Upper Canada, informs Simcoe:
Poor Wabikanyn (the Missassague Chief) was killed at York . . . Wabikanyn’s widow having unfortunately died in a day or two after, a report reached some Indians of the same nation . . . that she died in consequence of the ill treatment she had received from the Whites and her brother (who is said to be a considerable Chief) collecting them immediately together stopped Mr. Jones, the Surveyor, from proceeding with a survey he was making . . . And they all came down to this place [Niagara] for intelligence respecting the two supposed murders . . . I judged proper to give them a talk with some solemnity, and to make them a few presents . . . I cannot, however, shake off my apprehensions that some unfortunate family may yet, notwithstanding fall a sacrifice to their resentment, for Wabikanyn had many relations among the Chippewas and Lake Indians, and was greatly beloved by them, especially as they are not insensible of our present incapacity to punish them to any effect.
Russell meets with them. Recalling the 1764 Great Covenant Chain belt, he affirms the British commitment to the alliance:
Children, I have been told that Colonel Johnson gave you a great Belt which was to be the bond of friendship between you & us . . . I was very sorry to hear that you saw that belt received a cut by that unfortunate accident.
I do assure you it has received neither cut nor bruise which we will not endeavour to heal by our kindness. And to confirm our former friendship I give you this string. [Delivers Wampum]
And I hope you will tell your young men that we will do every thing to heal the difference, keep them quiet & you shall be satisfied.
The Mississauga are not satisfied. War Belts – Wampum Belts requesting military assistance – are soon passing between the Mississauga and their allies, the Western Nations. There are rumours of French and Spanish military support for a potential uprising against the British. Only 135 men are posted at York Garrison. The militia of the colony has insufficient arms and ammunition in the event of an attack by Indigenous Peoples, so the British fortify and upgrade their defences.
Peter Russell writes to General Robert Prescott:
A Chief named Nim-qua-sim (who has great influence over the warlike tribes, bordering on Lakes Huron, Simcoe, &c.) made a most inflammatory speech lately respecting this event to several Indians whom he had collected at York, and invited to meet him again in greater numbers in May or June next for the purpose of devising means of revenge.
The Mississauga approach the Haudenosaunee to join in a potential attack. Mohawk War Chief Joseph Brant persuades the Mississauga that although tiny York is vulnerable, Indigenous warriors cannot succeed against the British military.
While Brant forestalls the proposed Mississauga-Haudenosaunee strike against the British, colonial officials are increasingly worried about Indigenous military alliances as well as their lack of a valid deed to York. They appoint the first Indian agent at York to give out presents to the Mississauga separately from the Haudenosaunee. In a 1797 communication marked “Secret and confidential,” the Duke of Portland stipulates that the primary duty of the new appointee, James Givens, is
fomenting the jealousy which subsists between the Mississaugas and the Six Nations, and of preventing, as far as possible, any junction or good understanding taking place between those two tribes. It appears to me that the best and safest line of policy to be pursued in the Indian Department is to keep the Indians separate and unconnected with one another, as by this means they will be in proportion more dependent on the King’s Government.