The real story of how Toronto got its name
It is not unusual for names to spread from place to place, and Toronto is no exception. The name reached its present location -- and spelling -- after journeys both linguistic and geographical in nature. Linguistically, it originated as the Mohawk phrase tkaronto, later modified by French explorers and mapmakers. Geographically, it moved 125 kilometres south from The Narrows, where today's Lake Simcoe empties into Lake Couchiching at the city of Orillia.
Tkaronto means "where there are trees standing in the water," according to several Mohawk speakers and aboriginal language expert John Steckley. Mohawks used the phrase to describe The Narrows, where Hurons and other natives drove stakes into the water to create fish weirs. In 1615, Samuel de Champlain described these structures as blocking the channels, with a few openings left for catching fish in nets. Radiocarbon dating of surviving stakes reveals that the weirs at The Narrows were in use more than 4,000 years ago.
The Mohawk phrase began its southward movement about 1680, when Lac de Taronto (today's Lake Simcoe), appeared on a map attributed to French court official Abbé Claude Bernou. From there the name inspired Passage de Taronto in 1686 for the canoe route between lakes Simcoe and Ontario, which followed what we call today the Humber River. In turn, that river became known as Rivière Taronto, and in the 1720s a French fort east of the mouth of the Humber River, on Lake Ontario, was identified as Fort Toronto. This is where Ontario's capital city stands today.
Many French maps from the 1680s to the 1760s identify Lake Simcoe with variations of Lac Taronto. On Vincenzo Coronelli's 1688 map of the Great Lakes area, the name L Taronto appears above the words Les Piquets (the stakes). The earliest spelling of Toronto for the lake is on a 1695 map by Coronelli. The use of the spelling Toronto on British maps, such as Herman Moll's of 1720 and John Mitchell's of 1755, may have been due to its occurrence in the popular writings of Baron Lahontan, a French officer and author, published in 1703 and later.
This account may surprise some armchair historians. The most common meaning for Toronto given in current references is "place of meetings", derived from the Huron toronton. This origin was suggested by historian Henry Scadding in Toronto: Past and Present (1884), where he interpreted Récollet missionary Gabriel Sagard's 1632 definition -- il y en a beaucoup (there is much) -- to mean a gathering of tribes, or meeting place.
Other writers stressed the idea of "plenty" in toronton, as in the Huron's land of plenty. Historian William Kilbourn promoted that view in Toronto Remembered (1984), where he wrote, "So when anyone asks what Toronto means, I would suggest that the best reply is 'abundance'." Scadding had dismissed this theory in his Toronto of Old (1878).
The first time the name Toronto, alone, was used at the city's present site was in the Journals (1765) of Maj. Robert Rogers, a British ranger commander from the New England colonies, who described it as "a proper place for a factory." Rogers had seen the remains of Fort Toronto in 1760, after its destruction by the retreating French as the British captured their North American possessions.
The French had built the post in about 1720, originally naming it Fort Rouillé for Antoine-Louis Rouillé, the minister of marine and colonies. Abandoned in 1730, the fort was restored in 1740 and continued in use until 1759. Several 18th-century French and British maps identified it as Fort Toronto. In all surviving records, the fort's name is spelled Toronto.
In 1787, Governor General Lord Dorchester, finding the name Toronto in use at its present site, arranged what was called the Toronto Purchase from the Mississauga Indians, embracing over 1,000 square kilometres in the area of present Metropolitan Toronto and York Region. The next year surveyor Alexander Aitkin made a plan of the Toronto townsite, and Capt. Gother Mann drew a Plan of Torento Harbour. Why he spelled the name with an "e" remains a mystery.
Toronto was not the first settlement chosen to be the capital of Upper Canada. In 1792, before he left England, Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe chose Newark (today's Niagara-on-the-Lake) for that distinction. But once he arrived and realized Newark's vulnerability to attack from the United States, he suggested moving the capital to the forks of the Thames, present-day London. Lord Dorchester vetoed that location, but accepted Simcoe's selection of Toronto, in 1793.
Simcoe, who disliked Aboriginal names, introduced several English names in Upper Canada, including Lake Simcoe after his father, Captain John Simcoe. He substituted Humber River for Toronto River. On learning of a victory by the Duke of York in Flanders, Simcoe changed Toronto's name to York on August 26, 1793, to honour the duke -- George III's second son, Frederick Augustus.
However, his Anglophile preferences were challenged. British traveller Isaac Weld, who visited York in 1796, lamented the loss of sonorous Indian names in his Travels (1799), writing that "Newark, Kingston, York are poor substitutes for the original names of the respective places Niagara, Cataraqui, Toronto." As early as 1804, after Simcoe's return to his beloved England, a petition was submitted to the legislature to reinstate Toronto. Because York could be confused with New York and other Yorks, and because of its negative nicknames (Muddy York and Little York), the older name was restored on March 6, 1834.
Toronto has been the name of several other locations along the north shore of Lake Ontario. In late 1805, Alexander Grant, the administrator of Upper Canada, named Toronto Township at the mouth of the Credit River, 12 kilometres west of the Humber. Toronto Township was a municipality until 1967 when it became the town of Mississauga. Seven years later it became a city. Toronto Gore Township, to the northeast of Toronto Township, was formed in 1819. In 1974, it was amalgamated with the city of Brampton.
In 1817, a post office at the mouth of the Ganaraska River, 95 kilometres east of Ontario's capital, was called Toronto. Three years later, it was changed to Port Hope, with Toronto being given to a new post office where Dundas Street crosses the Credit River. Although a town called Toronto was laid out there in 1830, it was subsequently called Springfield, and by 1900 renamed Erindale. In 1828, the Toronto post office was moved five kilometres northeast to Cooksville.
When York was changed to Toronto in 1834, its post office was called Toronto City until 1837. After Cooksville was substituted for the other Toronto, "City" was dropped from the capital's postal name.
Just west of the mouth of the Humber, New Toronto post office was opened in 1892. It became an incorporated town in 1913. When Metropolitan Toronto was reorganized in 1967, New Toronto was amalgamated with the city of Etobicoke.
The historical, cartographic and linguistic evidence appears reasonably conclusive that the name Toronto is derived from the Mohawk description of the fish weirs at The Narrows at present-day Orillia, with the name migrating by way of Lac de Taronto, Passage de Taronto, Rivière Taronto, and finally Fort Toronto. All other theories -- "place of meeting," "plenty", "harbour", "lake opening", an Italian engineer called Tarento, trees on the Toronto Islands -- lack credibility.
As for The Narrows, in 1982 this ancient fishing spot was declared a national historic site. In more recent years, the stakes have been threatened by boating, anchoring, fishing, dredging and bridge construction, so the Parks Canada is considering nominating The Narrows for designation as a World Heritage Site.
Source: Rayburn, Alan (1994): Canadian Geographic - September/October '94. Ottawa, pp. 68-70.