There is evidence of Indigenous human settlements in the area going back to 700 BC. The Middle Woodland culture were hunters and gathers who lived in the Bruce Peninsula area from about 700 BC to 800 AD. By the 14th century there is evidence of a large Iroquois village of 500 people with twelve long houses at Port Elgin, on the west side of the peninsula. The eastern lands were inhabited by the primarily agricultural Huron-Petun people when the first French explorers and Jesuit priests arrived in the 1600s. The Huron-Petun lived in longhouses, grew crops like corn and hunted.
The main Jesuit mission, at Huronia near present day Midland, was overrun by invading Iroquois from the south in 1649. The Jesuits were killed and the Hurons were forced to abandon the whole area. The Iroquois then used the region as their hunting ground.
After the mid-1600s the Ojibway (sometimes known as the Chippawas), from the Lake Superior area, began to send trading parties to Montreal to trade fur. The Iroquois frequently killed these trading parties and so the Ojibway and their allies retaliated and forced the Iroquois (Mohawk) out. The Ojibway held the area for some generations but their population was decimated by western diseases like smallpox and measles.
In 1836 at the Treaty of Manitowaning, a huge tract of land, 1,500,000 acres, was surrendered by the Ojibway due to the mounting pressure for land by the European and Canadian settlers. This land was known as the Huron District, or the Queen’s Bush. The remaining part of Bruce County, above the line drawn from the mouth of the Saugeen River to the mouth of the Sydenham River (roughly north of Owen Sound), was called the “Indian Peninsula” and was held by the Ojibway.
The Queen’s Bush was eventually divided into the three counties of Huron, Perth and Bruce in 1849, and this is where the Beaver Valley is located. Further land treaties followed and eventually the remaining parts of the peninsula were incorporated into Bruce County. Today there are just two First Nations reserves. Saugeen First Nation is at the mouth of the Saugeen River and Cape Croker First Nation is on the east side of the peninsula north of Wiarton.
Indigenous peoples continued to live in the Beaver Valley in scattered settlements until at least the 1870s. Wesleyan missionaries were active in the area even before the settlers arrived in the 1850s, and “it was said that some of the early settlers, as they went through the bush, heard the Indians singing Christian hymns.” (Split Rail Country, 95)
There is some evidence of an Indigenous people’s trail that ran from Collingwood to Midland circling south around the Beaver Valley and then heading north-west. This trail may have run through Vandeleur, at the top of the ridge overlooking the Beaver valley just south of the current Beaver Valley Ski club. (Split Rail Country, 281).
The Campbell family that settled in the Beaver Valley in 1856 reported that the ‘Indian people’ brought them watercress to eat and that the ‘Indians’, curious about the white women, came to see the white babies, and they became good neighbours. (Split Rail Country, p. 99) In 1879, when their daughter Mary Anne Campbell was married, their Indigenous neighbours gave her a willow basket and a pair of wooden knitting needles as a wedding gift. (Split Rail Country, p. 118).
The Moore family settled at Victoria Corners close to Thornbury and their history recalls encounters with the local Indigenous peoples in the 1850s or 1860s:
“In the evenings the Indian people would visit the home, opening the door without warning, and sit cross-legged on the floor of the large kitchen where they would sit in silence and listen to the music and the fellowship. When it was time to leave they would rise and utter a single word in the Native language that may have meant ‘good-night’ and return to their teepees that were pitched behind the present barn. The Indians were a peaceful people who believed all property was held in common but they were never known to steal.” (Split Rail Country, 277).
Learn more about the history of the area.