“Invisible” Indigenous Guides Proved Indispensable to European Colonization of Canada and Muskoka
Boyer's Modern History of Muskoka
By J. Patrick Boyer
Did you ever have to ask somebody directions to a place you were trying to get to? Perhaps the person did not know, or was reluctant to help. Did they just shrug, “Well, you really can’t get there from here.” Nowadays, even your GPS can lead you, with precision, to the wrong location.
You get the idea: when travelling, we depend on others – those who made maps, built roads, put up signs, sent satellites into space to create the global positioning system, then programed your GPS app.
Now, suppose it is 400 years ago. You’ve time-travelled to the Atlantic coast of North America, and face wilderness. You see no route inland and need a local person to direct you, even take you. Well, the first thing to respect is that Indigenous people did not just happen to acquire, as a favour to aliens who showed up needing help, their deep knowledge of the land and skilled ways to travel great distances over it.
Millenniums of First Nation Experience in North American Travel
Millenniums-long civilizations in South, Central, and North America had forged networks of travel over pathways and waterways. Along these established routes Indigenous Peoples of diverse cultures conducted commerce, traded goods, exchanged information, made alliances, shared techniques, travelled to or returned from battle, and extended their nation or clan – sometimes through intertribal marriages to prevent warfare, other times by adopting women and children whose warrior husbands and fathers they had just slain in battle.
Their knowledge and experiences were passed down generations through Oral Tradition, the subject of last month’s broadcast. They honed many practical way-finding techniques, as well. All of which meant that First Nation guides were indispensable to foreigners wanting to explore and map North America’s interior.
By the early 1600s, Indigenous guides were using these skills escorting new arrivals through this region – first the irrepressible teenage explorer Étienne Brûlé, who overwintered with different First Nations and learned their languages; then Samuel Champlain, the map-making founder of New France. Two centuries later, in the 1800s, descendants of those guides led land developer Alexander Shirreff, then David Thompson, the fur-trader, explorer, and map-maker, as well as many British military officers, all trying to find a navigable inland canal route from Georgian Bay over Muskoka’s watershed to the Ottawa River.
A Well-Rounded Guide Required a Variety Pack of Talents
Whatever destination they had in mind, European and Canadian-born explorers depended on First Nation guides to lead them. Their reliance was based on the almost limitless skills an Indigenous wayfinder possessed, which should be noted.
First, a guide did not just sit in the bow of a canoe and point the direction. He paddled all the way, in the process discerning the right route by reading the landscape and drawing on his inherited knowledge.
Second, to travel the continent’s expressways of water or winter ice, and to cross long portages, he used native inventions for versatile light-weight travel – canoes, show-shoes, and toboggans. Europeans floundered at the edge of forested woodlands and rocky impasses when using their heavy wooden rowboats in shallow waters and crossing land-link portages, or when driving their cumbersome horse-drawn wagons in rugged terrain.
The reason we still have snowshoes, toboggans, and canoes in Muskoka today is because Europeans eventually saw the suitability of First Nations transport technologies for the Canadian Shield’s northland terrain and adopted them.
After Europeans and North Americas first made contact, it was the First Nations’ harmonious ways of living with Nature, and their thousands of years surviving because of that synergy, that enabled them to lead traders and explorers, prospectors and missionaries, surveyors and settlers into the interior without them starving, freezing to death, drowning, or being eaten alive.
This was because the true leader of the excursion was a human safety net. In addition to knowing routes, an Indigenous guide provided weather readings and noticed changing conditions.
He taught foreigners in his care how to live off the land once their supplies ran out – by spearing fish, catching birds or finding bird eggs, trapping animals, and which berries to eat and ones to avoid.
He showed them nature’s pharmacy – plants for healing wounds, scrapes, and stings; other plants to reduce sickness.
He trained them in repairing a leaking or broken canoe in the wilderness – or even how to make a new one.
He could read the stars at night for direction, and study landscape and wildlife behaviour during the day for clues about what was happening around them.
He knew places to avoid, and when they began crossing into territory whose occupants had to agree to their presence.
He built cooking fires for food, and warming fires against the darkness and chill of night.
He was a grunt-labourer who carried heavy gear over portages.
He knew when and where and how to shelter.
In short, a wayfinding Indigenous guide was not only the navigator, but also a means of transport, a weatherman, hunter, fisher, doctor, labourer, negotiator, and indispensable – if arm’s length – companion.
Why Guiding Paleface Explorers was a Profound Challenge
It is hard to imagine a more bizarre challenge.
First of all, a Euro-Canadian exploration party was no day-camp outing on a calm lake, but a serious high-risk venture, with rapids to shoot, heavy gear to move, and portages to make. These alone were valid reasons for an Indigenous guide to not take novices into vast rugged terrain.
Then the Indians hired to guide, paddle, and do the heavy lifting were deemed inferiors by the self-esteemed civilized Christians hiring them, and treated accordingly. Who wants to bother with that?
Yes, better weapons and new goods could be bartered for animal pelts or bought with money earned guiding explorers and others. But on the flip side were strong reasons to shy away from alcohol’s dangers, disagreements, and death in the bush.
Also, shyness and linguistic barriers were two more factors.
But that’s only half of the problem. Why being a guide became a dilemma for such well-suited men had to do with those seeking their help. Contact brought together different races with contrary cultures. An Indian guide travelled with stubborn men who considered him their inferior and either distained him or treated him as a child. They held fixed ideas about how things should be done, based on practices in other places and equipment used in different conditions. Most begrudged having to learn new ways. Many were reluctant to adapt. They wanted to be famous discoverers, without discovering much of anything.
Imperious Assumptions about Other People’s Land
In the bargain, indispensable Indigenous guides were treated as invisible non-persons.
The new arrivals called America’s First Nations “heathens” because their patterns and objects of worship were different from their own quite bizarre religious beliefs. They called them “savages” although the cruelties practiced by Europeans on humans in the same era, with their crusades, inquisitions, vile prisons, and sadistic torture chambers, were easily a match for the barbarity of Indians.
Upon arrival, colonists also claimed to have “discovered” new lands which they accordingly tagged a “New World” and claimed for themselves. Ever since, this side of the Atlantic has been known as the New World. What really happened, when Europeans reached places well-known to millions who had already been dwelling here for thousands of years, was nothing more than land being “discovered” by aliens who simply had never been here before. The land was only “new” to them.
It is as if a spaceship landed in Muskoka and the folks who emerged saw Earth for the first time and claimed our entire planet for themselves. To continue this parallel with the nature of Contact, the new arrivals from some distant planet would then declare the society they found an aberration – because we differed from what was familiar to them. In an imperious manner they would next declare our planet “empty” and we, living in our homeland, would be rendered into invisible non-beings.
Why Indispensable Indian Guides Appeared to be Invisible
Because of their racism and their vanity, most foreign men who depended entirely on native guides for their lives failed to mention them in their reports. It was as if they had travelled alone to “discover” new places, rather than having been guided by Indians to places already known. By extension, many non-Indigenous historians who began chronicling the exploits of explorers and settlers through their colonizer’s eyes, omitted the role of First Nation guides and the importance of Indigenous wayfinding methods entirely. With their belief in being racial superior, they fashioned a selective false history. In turn, this version of events would be taught in schools to generations of settler children.
Indian guides: indispensable, yet invisible.
At Baysville an Ontario Historic Site maker, cast in long-lasting bronze, records the names and dates of English explorers who crossed Lake of Bays – teaching generations who’ve seen it that these remarkable foreigners did it all by themselves. “Weren’t they wonderful? Aren’t we fortunate, children, that our forebearers were such courageous men!”
Now, what was the reality.
In 1613, Samuel Champlain, the governor of French colonies in North America and a seasoned explorer and map-maker, wanted to explore the interior. He believed he could find the Pacific Ocean and China, where he wanted to trade for silk. He headed from his settlement on the St. Lawrence up the Ottawa River. Champlain and his party encountered a human barrier. The Guardian of the River, fearsome Chief Tessoüat, had established a strategic camp with his Algonkians at a narrow passage.
They barred travelers from continuing until something of value had been taken from those ascending or descending their waterway. Going downstream, for instance, Wendat traders canoeing their harvest of beaver pelts to Québec for barter with the French could only continue after their canoes were lighter by a number of fine furs. Here Chief Tessoüat refused Champlain’s request for information about the Ottawa River’s headwaters.
Champlain was going upstream trying to find the large saltwater lake beyond it. Tessoüat also refused Champlain’s request for guides to take him there. Had Champlain been able to explore that northern region, he likely would have found that saltwater sea before the English and we’d be calling it Champlain’s Bay instead of Hudson’s Bay.
But that is not how history played out, because savvy chieftain Tessoüat denied both requests. Why? Because he did not want to share knowledge of First Nation territory with outsiders. He had seen how they claimed it for themselves.
Indigenous Resistance to Outsiders Curtails Guiding
Champlain wrote in his diary: “I have often wished to make this discovery, but I couldn’t do it without the savages, who don’t want one or any of our people to go with them.”
This was just one of many similar frustrations Champlain experienced. In his biography, historian S.E. Morison explains, “No Indian wished to show him any new country; all tried to keep him out, suspecting that to let the palefaces into the source of their furs would be bad business. And of course, they were right.”
Northern Indians were always cagey about explorers, Morison adds, instinctively refusing to open their country up to Europeans whom they tolerated “only as military allies and traders. Champlain could never get farther than Lake Nipissing, and then only on the excuse of recruiting a war party.” That was in 1615, when he came into the Georgian Bay region and the area of Muskoka first appeared on a European’s map, marked as hunting grounds for caribou.
In his introduction to Early Days in Muskoka, my grandfather George Boyer describes how, in the 1800s, “the early explorers sent here at a time when government institutions in this part of Canada were just taking shape” found that “Indians who knew the waterways of Muskoka seemingly did not wish to have the territory become well-known.”
There were plenty of examples of this resistance to intruders. In 1826, at Holland Landing Military Depot down at the south end of Lake Simcoe, Lieutenant Henry Briscoe of the Royal Engineers was repeatedly frustrated trying to launch his exploratory expedition of the Huron-Ottawa Tract. Canoes not ready when they were supposed to be. Hired Indigenous guides repeatedly failed to appear for duty. Throughout the 1800s, other members of the Royal Engineers who’d been ordered to explore and map the Huron-Ottawa Tract reported similar problems. Later, so would Ontario land surveyors. The annoyed English-speakers began calling natives “lazy Indians” because they did not recognize the reality of passive resistance to invasion.
Others were more perceptive, and civil. Alexander Shirreff in 1826 and David Thompson in 1837, exploring across Muskoka’s watershed to the Ottawa River, knew native guides were essential, respected them, and wrote of them in their diaries. On June 15, 1837 Thompson described engaging three Metis and Indigenous “canoe men” – Paul la Ronde, Jean Baptiste Taron gee kee ra ree, and Antoine Sae te ron quis.
Premonitions of European Intruders Bringing Dark and Dangerous Times
On balance though, it was not a winning arrangement, as the bleak experiences of guides accompanying the paleface parties made increasingly clear. Men around campfires, listening to guides trade tales of their many trials and tribulations with explorers, heard some hilarious experiences, but also learned about horrific episodes. And through long winters, they heard foreboding elders warn about the future – another reason to sidestep European foreigners wanting their help.
The rising fear was that the ever-increasing number of European intruders presaged dark and dangerous times. And indeed, as decades advanced, negative attitudes in the steadily expanding settler population began hardening against First Nations.
How this played out we’ll examine in more broadcasts of Muskoka’s Modern History on Hunter’s Bay Radio throughout 2023, and a full explanation is offered in Putting Muskoka on the Map / From Indigenous Wayfinding to Satellite Imaging, my fulling illustrated book now available on-line at www.muskokabooks.ca and in-store at Muskoka booksellers.