A Tale of Two Villages

Obajewanung and Port Carling

Article by J. Patrick Boyer

The road sign says only Port Carling, but ahead lie two villages.

Over thousands of years, Muskoka became familiar territory to people living in physical and spiritual relationship with it. Along the splashing Baisong Rapids on the swift-flowing river draining Lake Rosseau into Lake Muskoka, Ojibwe families created a village stretching across to Silver Lake, describing it, to assist way finders, as Obajewanung (narrows with a current.)

The community had over 20 well-built log homes. Living off the land and relying on themselves, Obajewanung people planted, cultivated, then harvested potatoes, corn, beans, squash and other vegetables. Game was plentiful in nearby woods while fish awaited in the waters. They built canoes to carry them into the lakes upstream and down, and to destinations beyond. An extensive network of woodland paths included their well-worn portage at the rapids.

Obajewanung was part of a vast and diverse network of Indigenous societies across North, Central and South America. Despite variations in appearance, languages, and culture, these First Nations interacted and communicated in many well-honed ways.

Then, over many centuries, Norse, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Russian, French, British and German people, with others from Asia and Africa, appeared on the Western Hemisphere’s Atlantic and Pacific coastlines. News of alien intruders and their activities spread among Indigenous people.

“Contact” is today’s word for the long-running mash-up between Indigenous Peoples and foreigners of distinctly different, mostly European, cultures. Yet whenever occurring, contact was never abstract. It had to happen in specific places and impact real peoples’ lives.

In addition to Obajewanung being beautiful and bountiful, the strategic Ojibwe people chose this location for its centrality in Muskoka’s perplexing labyrinth of waterways.

When a native guide paddled strangers to Obajewanung and asked the chief’s permission to come ashore, everyone from attentive elders to curious children silently observed the newcomers. Aware of what happened elsewhere, First Nations were now wary of white men with strange languages, clothing, tools and ideas about their territory.

In the opening phase of contact, the newcomers depended on Indigenous men to guide them, interpret languages and weather, help with paddling and carrying, and living from nature’s resources. After the explorers and fur traders, the next phases arrived with surveyors, road builders and settlers. Stumbling over Ojibwe words, the English-speakers called Obajewanung simply “Indian Village.”

In 1852, members of the settlers’ legislative assembly in the southern part of the province voted to “open up” wilderness lands north of the Severn River. Contact entered its next stage as logging crews felled forests northward from the river, government contractors developed colonization roads and homesteaders cleared more forest to farm Muskoka’s southern sections. By 1868, thinking settlement too slow, legislators added the enticement of free land for homesteaders.

Government surveyors imposed a gridwork of rectangular lots on Obajewanung’s vacant terrain for Crown Land Agents to grant free land to qualifying homesteaders. The earlier trickle of settlers coming to farm Muskoka became a flood. As part of the land clearance understanding, surveyors also measured off a ribbon of Obajewanung land beside the river for the Crown to hold as a token reserve for the Ojibwe.

In 1866, Gravenhurst’s A.P. Cockburn introduced the Steam Age to the district by launching Wenonah (First-born daughter) on Lake Muskoka. Initially, he improvised getting steamers onto upper lakes Rosseau and Joseph. Then, as Muskoka’s Liberal MPP in opposition, he parlayed his voting power in the legislature to support Ontario’s Conservative government for agreement to build a navigation lock at Baisong Rapids and dredge a navigable channel between Lake Rosseau and higher Lake Joseph to bring both to the same level.

Cockburn specifically befriended Public Works Minister John Carling, MPP for London, whose family owned a brewery. Cockburn brought Carling to Muskoka, touring him through scenic lakes aboard Cockburn’s steamers, and convincing him of the urgent need for both the locks and channel.

Back at the legislature, the two overcame strenuous opposition from MPPs ridiculing the “extravagant waste of public funds in unpopulated backwoods to connect a few remote beaver swamps.” In 1869, public works began lock construction and minister Carling consented when his friend Cockburn proposed naming the land beside them at Baisong Rapids in the beer scion’s honour.

By 1871, steamships seamlessly moved settlers and cargoes through locks where Ojibwe once portaged canoes. Yet people of emerging Port Carling also used canoes, and their village at the river narrows perpetuated Obajewanung’s role as a hub of lakeland activity.

By the 1880s, in a sort of reverse assimilation, settler society slipped into another First Nations pattern. The Ojibwe long had a mixture of full-time and seasonal residents in the district, which settlers now emulated. The stability and skills of permanent residents attuned to local conditions could mesh with more mobile people whose perspectives and resources were broader, to the mutual benefit of both.

In Muskoka’s industrializing stage of contact, steam transformed transport, farming, construction and manufacturing. Energy from waterfalls was no longer the sole form of power; logs became lumber in Port Carling’s steam-powered sawmill. Increasing steamships and workboats expanded the village’s importance as a transportation hub, intensified commerce and underpinned its hospitality services. Where Ojibwe artisans had crafted canoes, local settlers now built larger, heavier, sleeker boats.

Construction of a highway gave Port Carling land access and a second main street; their intersection fitted out with a swing bridge. The dual system allowed large vessels to function in an integrated water-land transport system. Villagers and visitors alike benefitted, enjoying the best of two worlds with scenic travel on both water and land.

Adopting the slogan “Hub of Muskoka,” Port Carling’s shops, bank, schools, library, churches, community hall, hotels, livery stables and motor vehicle garages, boat factories, marinas, golf clubs, playhouses, nightclubs, restaurants and vacationer facilities secured the evolving village’s place as a lively, popular and special part of the Muskoka experience – a story for the history books.

In 1940, Leila M. Cope became Port Carling’s librarian. By 1956, Cope had developed her account of village history, based on her immersion in village life, shared reminiscences of Port Carling’s charter families with her husband, John Cope, cultural osmosis and research at the library. That year, A History of the Village of Port Carling, the Hub of the Muskoka Lakes by Leila M. Cope was published. In 1972, the Herald-Gazette Press in Bracebridge re-issued the popular book in a large second printing.

Like many accounts from the time-period, Cope’s book begins with arrival of Europeans: “The first white men paddled from McCabe’s Bay (Gravenhurst) in birchbark canoes.”

Replete with facts and photos of the settler families, their businesses and community organizations, Cope’s account of village history does not mention Obajewanung or Ojibwe people, nor even where those first white men obtained the canoes or who guided them to the hub of the lakes.

This much was recorded for posterity: “When the first white man came about 1865, there were still a few Indians encamped on the shore of Silver Lake. By 1878, those of the hunting and fishing way of life gave place to more aggressive settlers. Roads were being built where there had been trails; a small bridge replaced the log over the stream where the locks are now; log houses superseded huts; dugouts took the place of birchbark canoes.”

It was a skimpy sketch. Yet by narrowly focusing on substance and progress as her settler society saw it, Cope failed to disclose the past that remained equally present.

In 1940, Maureen Benson Simcoe, a member of the Rama community who had married Scots-Canadian Percy Bartleman, tucked her infant son into the bow of her canoe. James “Jim” Bartleman heard waves lapping against the canoe’s sides as his mother paddled from Lake Couchiching to the remnant of Obajewanung reserved for Ojibwe beside a big curve in the now named Indian River.

The forested sloping riverbank had wooden buildings, tents and, up by the sidewalk along Port Carling’s main road, wooden shops where both Ojibwe and Mohawk crafters sold tourists hand-woven baskets incorporating quill designs and the sensuous aroma of sweetgrass, wood-carved souvenirs, toy birchbark canoes, and sometimes paddles and snowshoes. With Muskoka now passing through its “Indian Tourism” phase of contact, men often wore fringed buckskin clothing and feather headdresses to appear more authentic in the eyes of visitors from the cities.

Summering Indigenous People also came, ironically, like vacationing visitors themselves, from permanent homes. They had never stopped “returning home” from Ojibwe reserves at Rama and Parry Island. Indeed, on the principle of strength in numbers, they invited Mohawks from Wahta to join them. Mixing was limited, but they shared the joy: people marginalized by settler society had their own piece of Muskoka, in the very heart of Port Carling. Coming in numbers every summer, their lives wove intimately into village life.

Jim Bartleman grew up with his family, living full-time in Port Carling, visiting relatives at the Indian Village, learning every dimension of village life. When they lived in a tent near the dump, he found and read discarded comic books. Witnessing this, Percy Bartleman showed Jim serious books in the village library. The bright lad never again returned to comics. In time, after a foreign service career at top levels, being advisor on foreign affairs to Canada’s prime minister, and representing the Crown as Ontario’s first Indigenous lieutenant-governor, Bartleman wrote award-winning books about “a different Muskoka” from his perspective of life in a village that had been his home, too.

“Within a block of a few square miles, Port Carling’s winners and losers squeezed into a small village of no more than 500 permanent residents and several thousand summer dwellers,” recalls Bartleman. “In my youth, I imagined the village was like every other place. Only later did I realize it would be hard to find another place in Canada where the contrasts were so pronounced between rich and poor, sophisticated and rude, city and country, Gentile and Jew, American and Canadian, descendants of original settlers and newcomers. We Indians were the invisible brown minority at the bottom of the heap, which at least gave me an ideal observation deck.”

With one village inside another like a Russian doll, each community is curiously shadow and substance of the other. The reality of the interconnectedness of the two communities is something to ponder, whether on a Port Carling bench in what is now officially James Bartleman Island Park or while boating through the locks on either side of this island. While the Port Carling of today is a reflection of the impact of first contact and the settlement that followed, the importance of Obajewanung ranges far deeper than shared in history books.