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Ontario - French Exploration

Ontario was originally discovered by French explorers who traveled up the St. Lawrence River into Ontario looking for a northwest passage to China and India.

The east was an important centre for trade at that time with many rare commodities such as silk, spices and gold. One can only imagine the disappointment these early explorers must have felt when they realized that they were in such a wild and uncivilized place. However their disappointment would have been short lived when they realized the enormous bounty of the fur trading industry. 

In 1534 Jacques Cartier, a French explorer had traveled as far west as the Gaspe Peninsula. In 1535 he was the first white man to ever sail up the St. Lawrence River. Champlain had already founded the city of Quebec when in 1610 he sent a young eighteen year old Etienne Brule west into the hinterland to make friends with the native people, The Hurons. He lived for many years among the native people and learned their language and customs. Champlain first ventured into Ontario in 1613, traveling up the Ottawa River as far as present day Pembroke and returning two years later and traveling all the way to Georgian Bay by the Mattawa River-Lake Nipissing-French River route, and then south on to Lake Simcoe, and his allies, The Hurons. The relationship between Champlain and the Hurons was strengthened even further when in 1616 he spent the winter with them. This alliance between the Huron people with the French against the Five Iroquois Nations people with the British would continue on for the next 150 years.


In 1626 two Jesuit missionaries set off from Quebec City and Montreal and made friends with the people of the Huron Nation. Their intent was to bring religion to the natives, whose customs and beliefs differed greatly from those held by the Roman Catholic Church. From 1634 to 1649 they traveled the backwoods of Ontario to preach and convert. In 1639 a permanent mission Sainte Marie Among the Hurons was set up consisting of a church, a cemetery, a hospital and several other buildings. From Montreal; to Georgian Bay it was the largest settlement of Europeans with nothing else comparing to it in size. From 1648 to 1649 the mission was besieged with raids from the rival Iroquois Nation and the Jesuits themselves burned the mission to the ground to keep it out of the hands of the Iroquois. Many of the missionaries, along with their Huron counterparts were captured and killed.

The first fort built in Ontario was Fort Frontenac, in 1673 on the site of present day Kingston. Built by the French it was the first in a chain of forts that was built to protect French fur trading interests in the New World from the British.

In 1670 Charles II of England granted a group of traders the right to trade in the areas that could be reached by Hudson’s Bay. Hundreds of years later, The Hudson Bay Company still exists and is the oldest mercantile company in Ontario.


The first French fort on the site of present day Toronto was built in 1720, but at that time it was little more than a single building housing a store. In 1750 a larger structure surrounded by a palisade was constructed at the mouth of the Humber River and in 1751 a genuine fort was built on the site of the Canadian National Exhibition 4.8 km east of the original fort and was called Fort Rouille.

 

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