Notes on Nomenclature

There are several difficulties to do with nomenclature that have presented themselves in the course of this project. European mapmakers saw the “New World” as a blank slate on which to apply new names meaningful to Europeans. In many cases, aboriginal names for geographic features were preserved. “Toronto”, for example, is either a Wendat name meaning “meeting place” or a Mohawk word meaning “trees standing in the water”. Otherwise, we see such appellations as “New France”, “York” ,and “Bradford” that commemorate places in Europe or others that celebrate explorers and other notable persons (Lake Simcoe was named for Lieutenant Governor Simcoe’s father).

Some landforms had no recognized European name until quite late in our history. Others suffer from a surfeit of monikers, or the name changed over time. Our province, for example, has been known by three names since the end of the 18th century. Georgian Bay has had several names, including Baye de Toronto. Until the early 19th century, however, it was merely seen as Lake Huron. Using the most appropriate name for a given place and time period becomes a problem. It is, of course, paramount that the reader understands the meaning of the name applied. This often results in the use of the modern name even if it was not used in the time period being discussed. Georgian Bay, therefore, is always referred to as such since no other names will be recognizable to the reader. Ontario, on the other hand, has been referred to as “Upper Canada” from 1791 to 1840, “Canada West” from 1840 until 1867 and by its modern name thereafter. Before 1791, the region was part of the Province of Quebec, as outlined in the Quebec Act of 1774. Where some confusion may arise, the phrases “modern day Ontario” or “what is now known as Ontario” might be applied.

More problematic than historical vagaries surrounding modern (European) names is the use of aboriginal names. The First Nations cultures of the Great Lakes region had not developed written forms of their languages before the arrival of the Europeans. Had they done so, Europeans likely would not have made use of these systems anyway, so foreign would they have seemed to the newcomers. European chroniclers had to render strange languages into written form. As some of these languages used sounds that were not present in European tongues, this task proved difficult. Linguistic standardization is a relatively new concept and aboriginal names were spelt as each chronicler saw fit. This may cause problems for the historian in terms of recognition. Even names that are recognizable may be rendered several different ways. Muskoka, the name applied to a district in the Province of Ontario, comes from the name of a prominent area chief and a key figure in the above history. It has been written “Misquuckkey” and “Musquakie” as well as the version that has been preserved by modern cartographers. Aboriginal people often adopted European names, so “Musquakie” was also known as “William Yellowhead”. A search for a reference to William Yellowhead by an unsuspecting researcher may prove futile if the Anishinaabe name is used in the reference material. Aboriginal names were often passed down to the following generations. Musquakie’s father seems also to have been known as William Yellowhead. When Chief Canise died in 1793 on the shores of Lake Simcoe, the inheritor of his position was his son, “Canise”.

Many sources ascribe meanings to aboriginal names. Aboriginal names invariably meant something, as in the case of the name “Toronto” quoted above. The vast variation in given meanings has encouraged me to avoid applying translations to aboriginal names. These translations appear in many cases to be speculative and, in some cases, to be value-laden. The meaning of the Anishinaabe name “Manitonabe”, for example, is given by the famous local historian, Andrew Hunter, as “male devil”. “Manitou” is the name of an Anishinaabe spirit; the translation of “devil” seems to represent a Christian bias against so-called “pagan” beliefs.

The application of names, for all the problems it may cause, often presents interesting stories in and of itself. The name “Toronto” for example, first appears on European maps in reference to Lake Simcoe in 1673. Subsequently, it referred to Georgian Bay, the Severn River and the Humber River before coming to settle on the banks of Lake Ontario. Travelling names provide one of many sources of mystery surrounding the naming of the province after 1615.

Algonkian (Algonquian)

This is the name of a family of languages that includes Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi, Cree, Montagnais, Micmac, Algonkin and many others. It is, in fact, one of the largest language groups geographically and demographically in aboriginal North America.

The different spelling of Algonkian/Algonquian is likely the difference between English and French lexicography, the latter representing French, the former English.

Algonkin (Algonquin)

The Algonkin occupied southeastern Ontario and western Quebec around the Ottawa River at contact. Such groups as the Kichesipirini, Matouweskarini, Petite Nation and Weskarini were Algonkin speaking. The only Algonkin reserve in Ontario today is Golden Lake near the eastern boundary of Algonquin Park.


Anishinaabe has been translated as “original man” or “the people”. It has become the preferred appellation of Ojibwe speaking peoples in Ontario. Although it is not a new word, it has come into popular use recently. Anthropologists and other professionals have given us most of our labels for people outside of the mainstream. This practice is only now starting to change.

Canada West

After the 1837 Rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada, it was decided to reunite the Canadas under one government. Southern Ontario was known as Canada West from 1841 until confederation in 1867.


Chippewa is a common name applied interchangeably with Ojibwe or, in Southern Ontario, in opposition to “Mississauga”. The use of Chippewa is generally preferred to that of Ojibwe in the United States. Chippewa and Ojibwe are actually the same word rendered differently.

Council of Three Fires

The Potawatomi, Odawa and Ojibwe formed a loose confederation in the 18th century. The three peoples shared similar languages and cultures and lived in increasingly close proximity with each other beginning in the 17th century. As with most First Nations alliances, there was little or no coercive power to enforce unity. The alliance simply cemented a partnership that already existed.

Five (Six) Nations

The Tuscarora were not admitted into the confederacy until 1722. For this reason, the Haudenosaunee are referred to as the Five Nations before 1722 and the Six after that date.


This is the name given to the confederacy and Iroquois people by its members. It is the name used in this website.  The league is figuratively depicted as a longhouse. The Mohawk are the eastern doorkeepers and the Seneca the west. The Onondaga have a very special status as the keepers of the central fire, the most important symbol of Haudenosaunee unity. Haudenosaunee means “the people of the Longhouse”.


The name that is most commonly applied to the original inhabitants of northern Simcoe County is not a aboriginal word. “Huron” is a French word that may have meant “ruffian” or “rustic”. As it was apparently a reference to the “exotic” appearance of the Wendat, it was originally somewhat derogatory.


Like Algonkian, Iroquoian refers to a family of languages that includes Huron, Petun, Erie, Neutral, Susquehannock and the languages of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.


The Iroquois are the six nations that belong to a confederation first established in the “Finger Lakes” of upstate New York. The six nations are: Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk and Tuscarora.


This name refers to a particular Anishinaabe speaking group originating around the mouth of the Mississagi River that flows into the North Channel of Lake Huron.

The Mississauga were, no doubt, prominent among those who migrated into Southern Ontario. The name has sometimes been applied to all the Anishinaabe speaking peoples of Southern Ontario but is also used to distinguish certain groups from those who prefer the name Chippewa.

It is not known whether the distinction between Chippewa and Mississauga has any basis in the origins of the people who came to Southern Ontario or whether it is merely a matter of preference.

Odawa and Ottawa

Like the name “Ojibwe”, Odawa refers to a group of people that originally identified themselves as members of local bands. The stresses of the seventeenth century forced these people to identify (or be identified) with a larger entity. Modern scholars see Odawa as a dialect of Anishinaabe but, clearly, a separate identity developed in the past and persists to this day

Ottawa is likely more familiar to most students of history than Odawa. The latter has, however, come to be more accepted in Canada. Ottawa is still favoured in the United States.

The Odawa were very active in the fur trade after the fall of Wendake. Many European chroniclers referred to any Algonkian-speaking people involved in the fur trade as “Ottawa”. This is misleading. Often, these people would be Ojibwe or Potawatomi or other western nations.

Today, many Odawa live among other Anishinaabe people in Canada.  The Manitoulin reserve of Wikwemikong is the only Canadian reserve on which Odawa people form an identifiable majority.


This is the common language of the Chippewa, Mississauga, Saulteaux, etc. Alternative spellings have been “Ojibwa” or, even, “Ojibway”. Ojibwe originally referred to one of the many groups of hunter-gatherers in the Upper Great Lakes; it has come to be applied to all who speak a common Algonkian language (Anishinaabemowin).  Many now see Ojibwe as a dialect of Anishinaabemowin along with Odawa, Potawatomi and Algonkin.


The name “Ontario” had been applied to the lowest of the Great Lakes for hundreds of years. In 1867, the name was adopted for the new province of Ontario.


“Petun”, like “Huron” is a French name applied to these people. The fact that it has five rather than seventeen letters means that it may continue to be favoured over the more appropriate Tionontatehronnon in the years to come.


This name will likely be unfamiliar to most readers. The people who lived in the shadow of the Niagara Escarpment and tended their crop of tobacco referred to themselves by this name. It remains uncertain as to whether this name is applied to a single nation or a confederation of two.


A more familiar name for the Tionontatehronnon is the Tobacco people. This name obviously derives from the importance of that crop to these people.

Upper Canada

After the conquest of New France by the British in 1760, the southern portion of the present province of Ontario was part of the colony of Quebec ruled by the Governor in Quebec City. In 1791, however, the colony was divided between Lower Canada (Quebec) and Upper Canada (Ontario). The colony was, however, administered by a Lieutenant Governor who continued to take orders from the Governor in Quebec City.


Wendat, like Haudenosaunee, referred to a confederacy of four (or five) nations rather than a single tribe. Unlike “Huron”, it is an aboriginal name and it is what the “Huron” called themselves. As such, it has been the preferred appellation in this account. The use of Wendat in place of Huron is becoming more common but the well known history of this nation makes such a change difficult. Many people recognize the name Huron but few can identify the Wendat with the history they studied in school.

Wyandot (Wyandotte)

The similarity between “Wendat” and “Wyandot” is no coincidence. Wyandot is, in fact, a corruption of the former. The Wyandot are not exactly the same people as the original residents of “Huronia”. Some of the survivors of Wendake fled to the nearby Tionontatehronnon. When the latter dispersed the following summer, as a result of Haudenosaunee pressure, they fled west taking the Wendat refugees with them. Over time, these people began to be called the Wyandot though most of the population probably traced their ancestry back to the Blue Hills rather than Wendake.