Penetanguishene Museum

A Short History of Penetanguishene

pencen_6Penetanguishene is a Algonquin name devised by the Abinaki tribe meaning “place of the white rolling sands.” Though the Abinaki’s territory was north of Huronia, Penetanguishene Bay with its shallowness and high rising hills was a perfect spot to fish and hunt.

Visitors to Penetanguishene are sometimes confused when they hear references made to “Penetang.” Many have thought that Penetanguishene and Penetang are two separate towns. In reality, they are the same – locals shortened it when the Grand Trunk Railway serviced the town. This is either because “Penetang” fit much more easily onto the sign attached to the railway station, eight letters were easier (and cheaper) to print, or “Penetanguishene” was just too hard to pronounce for first-time visitors!

Either long or short, however, the town of Penetanguishene is one of the oldest in Canada west of Quebec City. In 1615, after the mapping of Lakes Ontario, Erie and Huron, the Governor of New France sent Etienne Brule, an 18-year-old coureur de bois, to Huronia to learn the ways of the Huron Nations and establish and consolidate commercial fur trade contacts. Brule landed in Toanche, and befriended the Hurons, living among the Huron until his death 1633.

Following the same canoe path and again landing at Toanche, Samuel de Champlain, the Governor of New France, arrived in Huronia two years after Brule on August 1, 1615. Together with Father Joseph Le Caron, they held the first mass in Canada west of Quebec City at  Carhagouha - Huron village on August 12, 1615.

Champlain arrived in order to cement an alliance with the Huron in which he promised to help them fight the Iroquois in exchange for a Huron-French trade alliance.

In 1629 while war was waging between France and England, Brule betrayed Champlain, and guided the English fleet up the St. Lawrence River where the English and Iroquois captured Champlain and Quebec.  Because Brule’s treason and other indiscretions, the Hurons turned on him, killing and eating him in 1633.

The Recollets, led by Father LeCaron, laboured alone in Huronia for 11 years trying to convert the Indians to Christianity.  In 1626 they invited the Society of Jesuits to help them with their task.  All French activity ended in 1629 with the fall of Quebec.   When the French regained control in 1634, the Jesuits alone returned.

The Jesuits and Ste. Marie

Between 1639 and 1649 the Fathers of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits or “Blackrobes”) built and managed a French missionary settlement on the Isiaragui (now the Wye) River they named Ste. Marie.

Surrounded by palisades for protection, inside the settlement they erected a church, hospital, stables, blacksmith forge, carpentry shop and kitchen.  French artisans worked within the community and in the fields and vineyards around it.  By 1649 the population of over 60 people 1300 km. from Quebec and the rest of New France was incredible – Montreal had been founded with 52 people only seven years earlier.

On February 18th, 1644, Ste. Marie was declared the first place of pilgrimage in the Americas north of Mexico.  Five years later it lay in smoldering ruins, and eight men, including Fathers Jean de Brebeuf and Gabriel Lalemant had died by torture at the hands of the Iroquois.  Always rivals in the fur trade, encouraged by the English and Dutch, and seeking revenge for the Champlain-led attacks of 1615, the Iroquois destroyed the Huron nation in Huronia in 1649.

The remaining Huron dispersed to Christian Island with the surviving missionaries.  The next spring, faced with starvation, they withdrew to Quebec.  It would be another 150 years before Penetanguishene was again a focus for European settlement.

The Naval and Military Establishments

In November 1793, a small fleet of five canoes came to the entrance of Penetanguishene Bay.  The canoes held John Graves Simcoe, first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, Deputy Provincial Surveyor, Alexander Aitken, four officers from Niagara and Fort York, a dozen soldiers, and several Indians serving as guides.   Their purpose was to find a solution to a problem that had emerged in the thirteen years since the American Revolution of 1776.  The appearance of a new nation had created a tense border through the Lower Great Lakes that continually threatened the trade and exploration route to the North and West through Lakes Ontario and Erie, the southern alternative to the French River route.  The powerful Northwest Company had had boats seized by the Americans and was demanding that the government find a secure route by which they could open up the West, free of American interference.

Simcoe’s military training realized the advantage of Penetanguishene Harbour’s narrow entrance that could be defended from strategically placed cannon.  The high land running along both sides of the three-mile long bay offered perfect protected anchorage.  It was the perfect place to maintain warships that could protect an alternative trade and exploration route across Lakes Huron and Superior to give access to the West.

Simcoe’s views prevailed and on May 22nd, 1798, William Claus, Superintendent of Indian Affairs purchased the land around the harbour of Penetanguishene for cloth, blankets an kettles valued at one hundred and one pounds Quebec currency on behalf of the British Government.  Five Ojibwa chiefs signed the treaty that transferred all land north of a line from Ste. Marie to Nottawasaga Bay and included most of the present Tiny and Tay Townships and the sites of the present-day Midland and Penetanguishene.

The Arrival of the French Settlers 1828-1850

The present day cultural fabric of Penetanguishene is the result of a mixed heritage. French Canadians populated the area in two stages.  The first group left their homes on Drummond Island in order to remain on Canadian land, while the second group traces its roots to Quebec.

The boundary survey decision of 1822 that awarded Drummond Island to the Americans affected the lives of the British military and numerous civilians.  Two days after the post was turned over to the Americans on November 14, 1828, British forces sailed for Penetanguishene carrying 81 men, women and children.  Family groups of approximately 75 “voyageurs”, of largely French Canadian and Indian heritage that had shown loyalty to the British Government during the 1812-1814 soon followed.

The trip from Drummond Island took fourteen to eighteen days and the “bateaux” were extremely crowded as they often carried up to 18 people along with provisions and household goods.

In the years following 1828, the Government granted tracts of land to the voyageurs along the western side of Penetanguishene Bay.  The names of the settlers became affixed to various points of land along the bay.

Many of the men from voyageur families became adept guides and were chosen to conduct parties of traveling military personnel and dignitaries through the wilderness tracts.  As the families grew older and married, their descendants settle in other nearby towns such as Coldwater, Waubaushene and Victoria Harbour.

Settlers from Quebec came to the Lafontaine area from Batiscan in the County of Champlain in the early 1840s.  Names such as Tessier, Marchildon, Beaudoin, Brunelle, Marchand, Maurice and Toutant can be traced to this migration.  The best choice of land naturally fell to the earliest settlers who chose land they could farm in the spring and summer.  In winter and fall they turned to hunting and fishing to supplement their food supply.  In this wilderness each man had to be a jack-of-all-trades, practicing any skill he might have in carpentry and building.

A short time later, a second group of settlers arrived from County Joliette, Quebec via bateau to Coteau Landing near Montreal, then through Peterborough and Barrie by foot or cart, along Old Military Road to Penetanguishene.  Names of this group included Marion, Beausoleil, Desroches, Laurin and Bonin.

The early lumber mills of Penetanguishene were filled by the third wave of settlers to arrive from the Counties of Vaudreuil and Soulanges who specialized in trades of woodcutting and lumbering.  Chretien, Charlebois, Leblanc, Beauchamp, Pilon, Dault (D’Aoust), Asselin and Lalonde were associated with this group.  Many of these families chose to establish their homes around and to the south of Perkinsfield in Tiny Township.

Penetanguishene played an important role in the life of early settlers providing both a market for their farm produce, shopping and town services.  An intermingling of families occurred so that today descendants who arrived in these three groups form a large proportion of the population of Penetanguishene and the surrounding area.

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