Sometime in the 1700s a village marked prominently on maps somewhere along the St. Lawrence River between Prescott and Gananoque disappeared from history. Clearly noted on maps from the 1600s when the the area was being explored by the French, this mysterious village has vanished from all records, its whereabouts unknown. Having been a significant enough settlement to be noted by explorers and mapmakers, what happened to it and why did it vanish from the landscape and all future maps? Using clues left behind in centuries old records, we will try piece together what happened and finally pinpoint a location for a possible archeological investigation.
THE SEARCH FOR TONIATA
Flea markets are always a great place to pick up cool pieces of nostalgia, memories and things you’d never find in a regular shopping mall. Attending one such flea market a few years ago I saw a vendor pull out an old framed map and ask his neighbour what kind of price he should put on it. Neither of them knew what value it had, so I quickly offered the contents of my wallet, which was $60. I got the map!
I left the flea market with an almost 300 year old map of the St. Lawrence River, Ottawa River and Lake Ontario! Dated to 1757 this old map was a stunning example of this country’s early explorations and mapmaking. Pouring over this incredible record from the age of Exploration in Canada, I noticed many recognizable villages and settlements in our area, but one stood out as something strange, a place called TONIATA.
Marked to be somewhere between Prescott and Gananoque on the north shore of the St. Lawrence, this village is clearly marked but I have never heard of such a place. Where did it go? A quick Google search revealed that this is regarded as “one of the great mysteries of early Canadian history” No one has been able to provide “the identification of the site of a First Nations village or camp known as Toniata.”
A school is named after this mystery village in Brockville, and their website clearly notes the oddity:
“From Champlain’s exploration of the Upper St. Lawrence, until the British captured Quebec, maps showed a spot named Toniata. This area was defined as being placed halfway between present day Ogdensburg and the Gananoque River. The name, which had various spellings on the old French maps, seemed to disappear as the British maps replaced the French maps.”
This general area would be as shown in the current Google Map below. Possible location marked with red marker.
Checking my own collection of old map references, Toniata appears on most 17th century French maps, with variations in spelling. Some maps call it ‘Tonthata”, others, “Toniata”.
One map calls it “Toniata Village of The Iroquois.” Further research revealed that there is an account called “Memoir Upon the Late War in North America, Between the French and English, 1755-60: Followed by Observations Upon the Theatre of Actual War, and by New Details Concerning the Manners and Customs of the Indians ; with Topographical Maps, Volume 2 by Pierre Pouchot, January 1, 1866” that describes how Toniata was south of Galots, or what is now Prescott, and how Toniata was a very distinct place of reference.
In 1654, Pere Simon le Moyne, a Jesuit priest, made the first recorded voyage of a European through the upper St. Lawrence. He was sent from Montreal to establish a mission at Oswego, NY. Along the way, he stopped at the village of Toniata where he observed native Indians fishing for eel.
Then, mysteriously, the maps after 1759 no longer mention the village.
Further research shows there was once a body of water called “Toniata River”. This river could be an important clue in locating the lost village, yet no rivers are called Toniata River today. It seems that is because its name was changed from Toniata River to Jones Creek after the British arrived in the 1700s. When the French arrived to the Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence River in the mid-1600s, they had named the small river Toniata River, being near the village of Toniata. The French described a village of aboriginal people, an area of eight miles adjacent to what is now called Jones Creek.
So, now we have a massive clue that will tell us where the lost village may be located, we just need to find Jones Creek. A visit to Google Maps and the McGill Digital Historical Atlas reveals a likely location.
It seems in the 1700s and 1800s, the Toniata River, or Jones Creek, was settled by Loyalists and made into a milling village known as “Yonge Mills”. Saw mills, grist mills, a hotel, and homes all dotted the area until it also faded from history. The 401 highway was built through the village and nothing now remains of Yonge Mills, or possibly Toniata. This is likely the spot of the original lost village…a quiet river meeting the larger St. Lawrence River. As in most cases in history, an original village is built upon by future inhabitants at a place of strategic and economic importance.
This place is situated on a high rocky plateau on the northeast side of the creek where it commands an impressive view down the mighty St. Lawrence in both directions, a necessary and common trait for a village to be built upon.
Our lost village has likely never been found because the area where it was likely located is in area of undeveloped land, an unexplored area of dense woods where any evidence of the village has likely been consumed by nature.
A small road, Sherwood Springs Road, winds past where the village of Toniata likely once stood 400 years ago, evidence of its bustling happenings lost in time under the leaves and grasses of nature.
Perhaps we should let this centuries old village remain quietly hidden, its secrets buried for eternity, or maybe Canadian archeologists would like to explore and unearth its remains, revealing more about early St. Lawrence Iroquois history, a chapter in time that has eluded much study, until possibly now.
Proceedings of the Royal Society of Canada: 1944
Memoir Upon the Late War in North America, Between the French and English, 1755-60: Followed by Observations Upon the Theatre of Actual War, and by New Details Concerning the Manners and Customs of the Indians ; with Topographical Maps, Volume 2, Pierre Pouchot, 1866
McGill Digital Atlas
Historical Atlas Of Canada by Derek Hayes