'Tarontos Lac': Geographer finds oldest known reference to Toronto on 340-year-old French map

Geographer Rick Laprairie has been studying early maps of the Great Lakes for about 25 years, but he recently came across what he calls "a piece of Toronto history that no one else had really noticed" — the earliest known map with what would eventually become this city's name.

"I was really trying to put together a list of maps that would Identify the geographic evolution of the area that Toronto sits on, as well as the names."  

During his research, Laprairie learned of a 17th century map of Ontario at the Bibliothè​que nationale de France in Paris. In March 2017, he ordered a high resolution, digitally enhanced copy of it and when he received access to it, he got the surprise of his life.

'I almost fell off my chair'

"I almost fell off my chair. I could actually read that name and I knew right then and there, it was something entirely new."

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In small lettering in one corner of the map was the name "Lac Tarontos," written on what is now Lake Simcoe. The term originates from the Mohawk word "Tkaronto," which means, "where there are trees standing in the water."  

The word describes the ancient fish weirs at the Atherley Narrows between Lake Simcoe and Lake Couchiching.  Indigenous fishers would drive stakes into the water at the narrows so they could hang their nets.

"The French in southern Ontario were explorers, fur traders and missionaries here trying to convert the Indigenous population to Catholicism before the British arrived," said Laprairie, who has written an article about his discovery that will appear Monday in the journal Ontario History.

"They also applied the name Tarontos to a number of waterways in southern Ontario, including the Humber and Severn rivers, as well as southern Georgian Bay," he continued.

In fact, the portage route that linked the Lake Simcoe-Georgian Bay area to the mouth of the Humber River would eventually be known as the Toronto Carrying Place Trail.

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"The portage up the Humber River as well as the Rouge River came to be widely known as a short route to the upper Great Lakes. The French actually established two trading posts here, so there was some French occupation and there was a fair bit of trading that was going on, up and down the Taronto portage," Laprairie said.

Cartographer Jean-Baptiste-Louis Franquelin drew the large map of New France in 1678. It is at least two years older than the one previously thought to be the earliest reference to "Taronto," created in the 1680s by French court official Abbe Claude Bernou.

"The French crown was very interested at the time in getting accurate and detailed information from recent explorations ... sent to France so they could get a complete and better picture of what was going on in their colony," Laprairie explained.

'A wonderful source for historians'

University of Toronto history professor Heidi Bohaker specializes in the Great Lakes region and relations between the Crown and Indigenous peoples. 

"One of the things the French empire and British empire did while they were colonizing is that they made maps of the lands they were claiming. So there was a really important role for those cartographers. The maps are a wonderful source for historians," she said.

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"One of the interesting things about how they were made is that a cartographer like Franquelin, who made this particular map, was based in Quebec City so he wasn't' travelling about making the map," Bohaker said.

"He's interviewing people who've been in the region. And that was quite typical of how these maps were made. He would make them based on older maps that he would have, and new information."

British colonel John Simcoe, the first lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, founded the town of York in 1793. Just over 40 years after being founded, York was incorporated as the city of Toronto, reverting to the former Indigenous name.

"The name Taronto had become so ingrained prior to ... Simcoe coming here, that it is because of the authority of the cartography that included that name that the city's fathers thought it would be acceptable to go back to that name." said Laprairie.

Bohaker says variations of the Toronto name have been used by Indigenous people for thousands of years and the early map gives us time to reflect.

'Long-time Indigenous homeland'

"It's an opportunity to think about Ontario as a long-time Indigenous homeland and what that means for ... those of us who have made our families' histories here as settlers," said Bohaker.

Laprairie says discovering an early version of the city's name is satisfying. "What it really does is completes the information that we have concerning some of the earliest appearances of Toronto on any map."

Laprairie says the effort he put into finding the historical detail about Toronto was worth it.

"A lot of this kind of work is a lonely exercise. When you come up with something that is entirely new, and has the significance of being the first, it is really quite exciting."