The name of the city in which I currently live is from the Mohawk word tkaronto, meaning “trees standing in the water.” The name is a good example of how place names can shift geographically. It is not unusual for a name to start in one place and, over time, move to eventually become associated with a different place entirely. It also has a long-standing false etymology attached to it.
Toronto, or tkaronto, was originally a reference to Native-American fishing weirs consisting of stakes, with nets strung between them, driven into the narrows between Lake Simcoe and Lake Couchiching, a location that is about 85 miles (137 km) north of the present city. Samuel de Champlain described the weirs in 1615.
Starting in the late seventeenth century, the name gradually drifted south, following a trade route from the interior to the shores of Lake Ontario. The name Lac de Toronto was applied to what is now called Lake Simcoe in 1680. Then the Passage de Toronto was used to describe the river route from Lake Simcoe to Lake Ontario via the Holland and Humber Rivers. Then what is now the Humber River, which runs somewhat west of what is now the city centre, began to be called Rivière Toronto. Eventually, the French built Fort Rouillé, also called Fort Toronto, located on the shore of Lake Ontario in what is now Exhibition Place. The French garrison abandoned and burned the fort in 1759 during the French and Indian War (Seven Year’s War), but the name Toronto stuck to the site.
In 1787 the British bought a thousand square kilometers of land from the Mississauga Indians in what was known as the Toronto Purchase. But in 1793, when the British constructed their first settlement on the site of what is now the city, they called it York, after the Duke of York, Frederick Augustus, who had just won a military victory in Flanders against the French revolutionaries. The name York was an unpopular choice, because many preferred the native name and because it could be confused with New York or any of a number of other Yorks, but it remained official until 1834 when the city was incorporated under the name Toronto. Vestiges of the York name remain, for example the neighborhood I live in is known as North York.
There is a story that Toronto is from a Native American word meaning “place of meeting,” supposedly a reference to a grouping of native villages on the shores of Lake Ontario. This origin is incorrect. This false etymology was first promulgated by historian Henry Scadding in his book 1873 Toronto of Old, in which he assumes the name comes from the Huron toronton, defined by Gabriel Sagard in his 1636 Dictionnarie de la Langue Huronne as “il y en a beaucoup” (there are many). Scadding mentions the “trees rising out of the water” explanation, but dismisses it as a misinterpretation by Europeans, who upon hearing the word assumed it applied to the tall trees in the area around the native settlements.
Rayburn, Alan. Dictionary of Canadian Place Names. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
“The Real Story of How Toronto Got Its Name.” Natural Resources Canada. 2011. Accessed 22 February 2014.
Scadding, Henry. Toronto of Old. Toronto: Adam, Stevenson, and Co., 1873.
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton