A primordial-looking swamp near my house. It's probably full of plants introduced by Europeans but hey, I'm doing my best here. (my photo, obviously)

A primordial-looking swamp near my house. It’s probably full of plants introduced by Europeans but hey, I’m doing my best here. (my photo, obviously)

February 19, 2015: Oops! Forgot to mention that the Queen’s Native Students Association will be showcasing a Historical Indigenous walking tour of Kingston in the Lower Ceilidh of the JDUC on March 16. This should have some good information for those interested!

For a while I have wanted to write something about the pre-colonization history of the Kingston area. The idea came to me strongly one night when I was looking at an 1884 plan of Gordon Street (University Avenue) which shows the stream that used to run through it between Union and Earl. (You can see the plan here; the “old water course” is drawn as running through lots, including buildings, so maybe by this point it had been dammed up or something.) This stream was likely fed by a pond located around present-day Victoria Park, as quoted by Agnes Maule Machar.

Anyway, to make a long story short, it suddenly hit me that at one time there was no Gordon Street, there was no Victoria Park, there was just a little forest stream making its way through the trees. When you’ve spent a long time thinking about a place in terms of the built environment, as my interests generally lead me to do, it’s a strange feeling to realize that city streets and buildings have a relatively short and abrupt history here. This led me to want to investigate the pre-contact Aboriginal history of the place that would be Kingston.

I’ve found this is easier said than done. In the first place, this is an area that I don’t have expertise in (I learned a lot, but please forgive any mistakes!), and secondly, Kingston was not a hotspot for the Indigenous peoples who lived in southern Ontario. They appear not to have concentrated here, at least not in large numbers, or for significant periods of time. So what I’ve done in this post is outline the broad settlement developments of southern Ontario, using the book Before Ontario: The Archaeology of a Province, supplemented by some Kingston-specific information. There are some Aboriginal archaeological sites around Kingston, but I haven’t looked into them for this post. (Ding ding, future blog idea!)

Let’s start at the very beginning. About fifteen thousand years ago, the ice sheet covering Ontario began to retreat, leaving the southern part of the province exposed and surrounded by melt-water lakes. A few thousand years later, when the land was ice-free, the first people began to move in from the south. But unfortunately, the Kingston region couldn’t have been home to anyone but fish at this time, because it was underwater! The Great Lakes’ water levels fluctuated continually as the ice retreated northwards, with Lake Ontario originally being significantly larger than it is today. Even when water levels shrunk, Kingston remained underwater until about 10,000-9,000 years ago. During this time, the landscape was a mix of tundra and boreal forest, home to animals such as woolly mammoths, mastodons, and giant beavers!

An approximately 5 centimetre long asymmetrical stone knife from Ontario, c. 10,000-8,000 BC. Royal Ontario Museum.

The early peoples of southern Ontario likely became familiar with the Kingston area, as the St. Lawrence River has been an important waterway basically since day one. Once lake levels finally stabilized about 6,000 years ago and hunter-gatherer tribes began to “settle down” somewhat, perhaps some of them stopped here a while and enjoyed the water as we do today. Or maybe, generations later, their descendants came and made some clay pots…

An Iroquoian clay pot from Ontario, c. 900-1300 AD. Royal Ontario Museum.

That is a total guess, but the French name for the Kingston area, Cataraqui, came from the original Mohawk name Katarokwi, meaning “a place where there is clay.” (There was also an Algonquian version, Cataracoui, meaning “great meeting place.”)  Katarokwi is an incredibly appropriate name, as I learned last year while trying and mostly failing to dig a garden in my backyard. I wouldn’t be surprised if lots of clay goods were made in the region. Clay pots and smoking pipes first appeared in Ontario about 2,400 years ago, but the example given above is circa 900-1300 AD. Incidentally, that period is another important time in the development of Aboriginal cultures in Ontario, because it is when key crops like maize, squash, beans, tobacco, and sunflower began to be cultivated, often in vast fields.

The centuries between about 500 and 1300 AD may also have seen the introduction of Iroquoian speakers to Ontario – before this time, proto-Algonquian speakers had lived on the north shore of Lake Ontario. The Kingston region became a seasonal home for these peoples, who included the Huron-Petun to the west and St. Lawrence Iroquois to the east, and also the Five Nations Iroquois – Mohawk, Seneca, Oneida, Cayuga, and Onondaga – who lived south of the lake. However, it’s important to note that although the Five Nations Iroquois may have visited, they did not live on the north shore of Lake Ontario until the seventeenth century.

By the end of the fifteenth century, Iroquois settlements, often comprising many large longhouses and hundreds of families, had grown to town-size, so the fact that nothing like this has been found in Kingston shows it really was not a permanent home. It also goes without saying that there wasn’t anything like a town in the area when the French arrived here in 1615.

An Iroquoian stone calumet from Ontario, perhaps depicting childbirth, c. 1600-1650 AD. Royal Ontario Museum.

There is a lot of interesting, and very tragic, Aboriginal history after European contact, but it gets more complex and I would rather give it its due in another post. It’s a bit frustrating not to have a lot of specific information about pre-contact Aboriginal people in the Kingston area, but I hope what I’ve scraped together here is useful. I would highly recommend the book Before Ontario which goes into the details of archaeological sites in Ontario and how they are interpreted, but keeps things in layman’s terms. It also has a short conclusion with an Indigenous perspective on the excavation of historical Aboriginal sites.


Images are all from the ROM’s Collections. Their image search engine is not terribly up-to-date so I can’t link to each image. However you can find the “First Peoples” section here. I used images from “Personal Artefacts” and “Tools, Utensils, & Equipment.”

The Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre at Queen’s sent me a document which helped a lot with this post.

Munson, Marit K. and Susan M. Jamieson, eds. Before Ontario: The Archaeology of a Province. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013.


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