Muskoka,has a rich and unique history, reaching back into the 1800’s. Muskoka is actually named afterMusquakie (William Yellowhead), one of the men who played an important role in both the settlement at Coldwater and in broader Anishinaabeg/British negotiations during the mid-nineteenth century. The name marked a place that these people continued to use as their hunting territory (Lake Muskoka) into the twentieth century. In addition to the Wahta Mohawk Nation, who moved to Gibson Township from Quebec in 1880, the Anishinaabeg have a long and continued history in Muskoka and along the Georgian Bay shore.
Contrary to popular belief, the history of these people in the region is not undocumented. According to Joan Lovisek’s 1991 dissertation on the Anishinaabeg, only Europeans exclusively used the well-known French River route from the Ottawa River to Lake Huron. The Anishinaabeg had other routes, some of which passed through Doe Lake (and Lake Vernon near Huntsville) and connected to the Muskoka River. After 1800, Lovisek suggests that Doe Lake periodically served as a trading station in the fur trade.
By the 1870s, the European population had exploded and was quickly beginning to impede on Anishinaabeg land use. Between 1871 and 1881, the railway reached Muskoka and the population grew by over five times. As these pressures increased, complaints arose from the Anishinaabeg, who had not participated in the Robinson-Huron Treaty (1850), over Euro-Canadian use of their hunting and fishing lands. In 1911, over fifty years after their complaints had first been lodged, the Indian Department received testimony from the Anishinaabeg regarding the extent of their unsurrendered and unceded hunting territory.
Going through this history reveals a complex Aboriginal geography that includes many places that are familiar to cottagers around Bracebridge, Huntsville, the Haliburton Highlands and Algonquin Park. John Bigwind from the Rama Reserve, for example, claimed that his family’s hunting camp was at Cedar Narrows on Lake of Bays (Trading Lake), not too far from where Robinson’s General Store in Dorset sits today. There, in addition to drying furs, Bigwind’s family grew corn, potatoes and pumpkin; they buried their dead on Bigwin Island
In addition to these more customary practices, the Anishinaabeg also responded to the arrival of a tourist economy by guiding and craft work. Cottage country was not just a place where Anishinaabeg hunted and passed through, it was a place where they lived, and called home.
Photo Notes: Inscribed in pencil, l.l.: G H W; vso c.: Mary Lake, Muskoka / Aug 9 / 1875 Recto of Acc. JRR 3038