An Intro To Manitoulin Island: A Brief History

Manitoulin Island is a place with a ton of history and culture. Packed into more than 2700 square kilometres of island are many cultures, each with a unique history! When thinking about the history, though, we have to go back thousands of years before any person set foot on the island. Many people flock to Manitoulin to enjoy the natural features we know and love, which were formed by forces over millions of years!

The Quick History Of Manitoulin Island

Most of the features on Manitoulin Island were uncovered in the last 15,000 years after the last glaciers retreated. Tourists will likely notice the effects of these glaciers: large areas of smoothed, bare, exposed bedrock, with a lot of lichen and moss growing in the barrens. Not long after the glaciers melted away, prehistoric peoples moved in, and archeologists discovered evidence of this at a site called Sheguiandah. With artifacts dating back at least to 10,000 B.C., this is one of the oldest sites found in Ontario!

The first known peoples to settle here were a confederation of three nations of the Anishnawbek people: Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi, collectively identified as “the People of the Three Fires.” They gave us the name of the island, too: Manitoulin is an Anglicized form of the Ojibwe Manidoowaaling, which means “Cave of the Spirit”; the modern Odawa name for Manitoulin Island is Mnidoo Mnis, meaning “Spirit Island.” These names come from stories of an underwater cave where a powerful spirit lived.

Many of the Indigenous people suffered from the arrival of diseases with the first European settlers. The North Channel above the Island was a popular route to Lake Superior for French voyageurs and coureurs des bois, independent trappers hunting valuable beaver fur. Father Joseph Poncet, a French Jesuit, set up the first European settlement in 1648 – a mission near Wiikwemkoong. 

The Anishnawbek peoples of Manitoulin, already weakened by disease and settler encroachment, were forced from the Island in the “Beaver Wars” of the 17th Century. The land was uninhabited for more than 150 years until Indigenous peoples began resettling it after the War of 1812. The British took over and set aside the land as a refuge for Indigenous peoples in 1836; in 1862, a treaty opened up most of the Island to non-Native settlement. 

Settlers began arriving, clearing farms, and Manitoulin became notable for its turkey production and sheep-rearing. When outdoor tourism became popular, the island became a destination for outdoor recreation; now, it is one of the main drivers of our economy.

Tidbits Of Island Culture

Life on Manitoulin Island produced a unique culture among the settlers. People avoided scurvy by getting their vitamin C from a local fruit called the hawberry, which is why the settlers born on Manitoulin Island had the nickname “haweaters.” The Haweater Weekend in Little Current celebrates this fact and the hawberry’s unique place in Manitoulin cuisine! 

However, it’s the Indigenous peoples of the Island who provide the oldest cultures. The site of the first European settlement is now part of the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory; despite the antiquity of the settlement, the Council of the Three Fires – the oldest political organization in Ontario – has not relinquished the title to the land to the government by treaty or otherwise. It is the only Indigenous community in Ontario to repeatedly refused to sign a treaty. The Island is the ancestral home to the six Anishinaabe First Nations: including the Wiikwemkoong, there are the M’Chigeeng, Sheguiandah, Sheshegwaning, Aundeck Omni Kaning, and Zhiibaahaasing First Nations. The Great Spirit Circle Trail gives tourists a valuable Aboriginal perspective on the natural beauty and cultural history of Manitoulin Island.

Getting to and around Manitoulin also has a past: a trip aboard a ferry, like the Chi-Cheemaun (Ojibwe for “big canoe”), is a tourist tradition dating back to the 1930s. Back then, tourists were ferried between Tobermory and South Baymouth in a small wooden vessel called the Kagawong. If you come to Little Current for the Haweater Weekend, look for the Island’s first lighthouse: built in 1866, it was essentially a wooden box two stories high with a cage on top to protect the lantern!

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