Muskoka Becomes a Land Monument to Chief Musquakie
Boyer's Modern History of Muskoka
By J. Patrick Boyer
An outstanding leader who left his mark on this province, on the area we think of as Greater Muskoka, and on Muskoka District itself, was Ojibwe Chief Musquakie.
Everybody in Muskoka, and the hundreds of thousands of people connected with this far-famed district, I’m sure, want to know more about the man for whom our part of Ontario is named.
First, remembering that Indigenous peoples do not name places for themselves the way vain individuals of other cultures embarrassingly do, you might well ask – How did this naming come about?
Well, for uncounted centuries, this section of land was a prized Indigenous hunting ground. In 1615, the first map any non-Indigenous person drew of this area was Samuel Champlain’s. Across it he wrote “Chasse des cariboux” – place for hunting caribou, something he had learned from his Indian allies, the Wendats. Four centuries ago, caribou herds ranged here and First Nations hunted them.
A later map, created by French fur-traders, showed beavers across this terrain – again denoting it as a place for harvesting wildlife. Beavers outranked caribou as being map-worthy to the French, who were caught up in the lucrative if challenging fur trade.
“Musquakie’s Hunting Grounds”
By the 1840s, following regime-change, it was British fur-traders drawing maps. These pragmatic frontiersmen, who denoted places for the people or phenomenon they would encounter, to provide guidance and warning to any using their maps of this area, now wrote on them “Musquakie’s Hunting Grounds.” This region remained a First Nation place for hunting wildlife. Indigenous People knew that hunting rights here rested with Chief Musquakie and his clan members at Lake Couchiching to the south.
It was white men, not the Indigenous people they traded with, who put Musquakie’s name on their maps. By providing all the information that cartographers like to include, to indicate their knowledge of the place, it was they who introduced this naming.
From the mid-1800s, non-Indigenous people began calling these lands Muskoka and so, when the provincial legislature created the district as a distinct division, it too used the name Muskoka. This simplified spelling and pronunciation for Musquakie, whose name is found in historical records with a variety of spellings, became widely accepted.
The result of this mapping and naming history is that, of Ontario’s 22 counties and 11 districts, only one of the 33 honours a specific Indigenous person – Muskoka.
A Two-in-One Phenomenon
Now a second reason the name of Chief Musquakie became legendary in the 1800s is that two men were known by this same designation – not that there was a clone. The second was the great chieftain’s son. He was also such an important leader that the two chiefs imprinted their Musquakie name on Ontario history, as a two-in-one phenomenon. And his son Isaac, carrying the family name, was expected to be a third Chief Musquakie, until the Chippewas of Rama chose another member of their community to be their next chieftain.
One of the major impacts that the two Chiefs Musquakie, father and son, had on the province was the historic turning point when war broke out between the British and Americans in 1812. So here is the background leading up to that.
In 1796, Chief Musquakie canoed down to Fort York (now Toronto), on Lake Ontario’s north shore, to become acquainted with the new government of the British people. Five years earlier, Britain divided western Quebec into a separate colony, Upper Canada, for easier governing. Upper Canada in time would become today’s Ontario.
After that first sortie south, Musquakie went back the following year, 1797, to assess things further. This time he continued around Lake Ontario to Niagara, as well.
Upper Canada’s first governor, John Graves Simcoe, a military man who had fought American rebels on Long Island during their war of independence, used irregular tactics more akin to Indigenous warfare than regular British military maneuvers. He was highly impressed by Musquakie.
Military Acumen of First Nations
The power of the Ojibwe, wrote Simcoe, was “not to be slighted.” “Although they are not numerous themselves in this part of the country,” he added, “they can draw to a head most formidable numbers.”
When war erupted in 1812, Chief Musquakie, true to his reputation, did indeed marshal a formidable number of warriors, including his son. This war party travelled south, reaching Lake Ontario and the Niagara Peninsula, to help the British repulse the American invaders.
As well, from Lake Nipissing, Chief Commanda led a large party of Nipissings south into battle. Both chiefs Musquakie and Commanda were resourceful leaders resolved to keep Canada from falling to the United States.
These two Ojibwe chieftains knew the United States government and American settlers were aggressively removing Indigenous people from their own lands. Despite problems First Nations had with the British, they at least were doing more to accommodate Indigenous people than slaughtering and pushing them off their land, a policy being implemented by the Americans after they won independence from Britain and formed a separate country. London at least tried to maintain a working alliance with Indigenous people.
When these First Nation allies from the north arrived and began to battle invading American soldiers, British commanders were awed by their artful warfare – scouting out enemy positions, combining deception and surprise, deploying fear by unleashing savagery, and cunning shifts from strategic plan to tactical operations.
European commanders lined up their forces in opposing ranks then attacked one another across open fields – like two football teams facing each, other except with lethal weapons instead of a ball – the winner being the last one standing. First Nations considered such annihilating slaughters, and the concept of warfare producing them, utter folly, and a grievous waste of life.
Defence of the Provincial Capital
In 1813, the second year of the war, a naval battle gave Americans control of Lake Ontario, allowing invading U.S. forces to easily cross open waters. Fort York, and the settlement that sprouted around it, had become Upper Canada’s new capital in 1797, a defensive move. The colony’s first capital of Newark (renamed Niagara), was just a musket shot from the U. S. border.
That was a danger Chief Musquakie had himself observed when scouting the area some years earlier to evaluate first-hand the military threat from Americans. Although York, being farther from the border on the north shore of Lake Ontario, was considered more defendable, it now lay open to attack from the U. S.
When the first wave of 300 invading American soldiers landed and attacked York on April 27, 1813, the only opposition they encountered were some 50 Ojibwe and Mississauga warriors. The British had withdrawn, leaving the settlement’s defence to Canadian militiamen, who had not shown up, and the Indians.
Chief Musquakie, then in his mid-40s, was severely wounded when a musket ball shattered his jaw. His son Musquakie also sustained wounds, yet continued leading the warriors until the American soldiers, after looting and burning much of York, were driven off.
That battle at York was one of many military encounters on both sides of the border for Musquakie, father and son, and their warriors. Their warfare in the Niagara Peninsula made the difference, as did Shawnee Chief Tecumseh’s inspiring and courageous leadership further south of an Indigenous coalition known as Tecumseh’s Confederacy, which British forces joined in battle.
It can rightly be said that, if not for resolute First Nation warriors, the British colony would have fallen to the Americans and Ontario today would be one more state in the Union and just another star on the United States flag.
Further Military Service Against Rebels
In 1817, the second Musquakie, “at the desire of his father,” became head chief of the Ojibwe people around lakes Simcoe and Huron. Two decades after that, in 1837, Upper Canada’s privileged and out-of-touch colonial regime faced armed rebellion by members of its own ill-treated society.
The fighting by farmers and others was militarily suppressed, but unrest continued into 1838 with American border raids by rebels who had fled. Based on how fearless and effective the Ojibwe had been in the War of 1812, the government summoned them to arms, as if Britain’s Indigenous allies were a standing militia of the Crown serving as a local defence force, rather than a sovereign people. At least the British pledged them soldiers’ pay.
The younger Chief Musquakie dutifully assembled warriors and led them south to the Holland Landing military depot, at the south end of Lake Simcoe, where they encamped, ready for battle. After waiting in readiness for some months, they were dismissed. The government decided conditions had stabilized without having to fight.
The Ojibwe were not paid their stipend for military service. Their food rations were suspended. Their families were languishing without them. The list of chiefs and warriors at Holland Landing included Musquakie, Bigwin, and many others who, except for being sidelined to support the British colonial administration, would otherwise have been north of the Severn River in Musquakie’s Hunting Grounds. To fight for the British, they had been required to abandon their fall hunt in Muskoka for winter food.
Land Treaties in a Twilight Zone
Back in 1815, acting as head chief in his father’s place, the second Musquakie and two other chiefs signed a treaty “surrendering” – the key word the British used – some 250,000 acres between Lake Simcoe’s Kempenfelt Bay and Georgian Bay. To be clear, that is a quarter of a million acres. The amount of money to be paid by the Crown to the First Nations whose lands these were was £4,000.
By 1818, when Musquakie’s son had formally succeeded his father as head chief, representatives of the Crown negotiated with him and other Ojibwe chiefs for further “surrender” of more than a million and a-half acres. Those one and a-half million acres – now parts of Grey, Wellington, Dufferin, and Simcoe counties – required only a yearly payment of £1,200 in perpetuity.
These two treaties, together, accounted for most of the Ojibwe’s territory in the region. The British felt they had acquired it, using the term “surrendering” land to describe losing it – viewing the treaty as a purchase agreement for outright sale.
Yet Musquakie and the other chiefs, understanding matters within their land-use concept of a Bowl with One Spoon, had reserved their right and that of their people and successor generations to range and hunt this very same territory – viewing the treaty not as a disposal of their land but an invitation to share it with others.
British settlers latched onto personal ownership of land in fee simple, and even spoke of land ownership as an individual right. First Nations saw land more like a public park, comparable to the English land-holding concept of “the Commons” – a space to be shared by all, under mutually accepted conditions.
That is why, to the chagrin of the British and annoyance of settlers, Musquakie and his people continued using their lands around Lake Simcoe and in Muskoka the way they had since time immemorial. They were not violating a treaty concerning their traditional lands, but living in accordance with the One Bowl land-sharing concept. However, they had entered a twilight-zone, because the British deemed treaties effectively terminated Indigenous presence on the land.
How Can People Survive without Land?
The immense territory in question was land on which Musquakie and countless Ojibwe generations had lived and hunted and fished to feed their families. Who could believe they had negotiated away their survival rights?
Did the British expect these people would simply evaporate into thin air?
The fact that First Nations did not vanish but remained on their land, inspired the British to attempt their first experiment with an Indian Reserve – a patch of land like a concentration camp for migratory people. That gambit did not work out, as we will see in a future program in this series.
Chief Musquakie’s historical importance far exceeds fighting for the British in times of invasion and insurrection. It goes beyond signing treaties and then pushing the British colonial powers to live up to their commitments. It even entails more than repeatedly pressing the British to make their required payments.
Ultimately, Chief Musquakie’s leadership ensured that his people secured a long-term foothold along Lake Couchiching’s shores, where they could survive and now live proud and strong today. And to their north is a land monument to him, “Muskoka.”