Speculations on the Seneca Outpost of Tinawatawa

The following vignette, “Speculations on the Seneca Outpost of Tinawatawa” is an unsolicited and unedited article written by Joachim Brouwer. The opinions and conclusions of the article are that of the Author.

By late 1700’s, the Mississauga Ojibways, the Anishinaabe were nominal owners of the Niagara corridor, a fertile flat belt of land stretching from western New York to the head waters of the Thames River. The Anishinaabe sold their holdings to the British government in 1784, who in turn deeded part of it to the Six Nations Iroquoian Confederacy for their loyalty to the Crown during the American Revolution.

Canoeist approaching the giant oxbow of the Grand River near Cainsville.

The Mohawk Iroquois, the most populous of the ‘nations’ established their villages on the west side of the giant oxbow of the Grand River, near present day Cainsville, just downstream from Brant’s Ford. The other `nations’ spread out along the lower parts of the river.

The Iroquois League or Confederacy (Haudenosaunee meaning `People of the Longhouse’ is a newer term), had been using much of the Niagara corridor  as a hunting ground  after `dispersing’ their linguistic  kindred  the Neutrals,  the Attawandaron or most properly the Chonnonton  (‘people who tend deer.’)

The forests in the Niagara corridor teemed with deer, bears and wild turkeys. Rattlesnakes as thick as a man’s arm was reported by the Sulpician priests Francois Dollier and Rene Galinée when they visited here in 1669. Passenger pigeons could be batted to the ground with sticks. In fact, the north shore of Lake Erie was described on some French maps as `Chase de Castor des Iroquois’ or `Iroquois beaver ground.’

The Five Nations (the Tuscaroras would be added in 1712) established or repurposed existing settlements throughout Southern Ontario, including one, that can be nicknamed `the town of many names’. Quinaouotuan, Outinouatawa, Tinaouatoua and Tinawatawa have all been used to designate the fabled Seneca habitation. Famed historian Francis Parkman, called the place Otinawatawa, referring to it as a kind of Iroquois colony. Another author refers to it as a `hub’ village.

Some of these Iroquois settlements may be better called outposts and were located on high points of land, at the confluence of streams and /or the junction of walking trails. The traditionally ascribed location for Tinawatawa, the easiest name to use for the Seneca habitation is in a hilly part of Flamborough Township, just east of Westover, about twenty- five kilometers northwest of Hamilton, which meet two of the three requirements above. But not perhaps the most important one.

Numerous meandering trails crisscrossed the Niagara corridor.  The `Iroquoian Trail’, just inland from the southern shore of Lake Ontario crossed the Niagara River near present day Lewiston and proceeded into the ancestral Six Nations lands in New York. This is King Street St. in Hamilton and #8 Highway today. In fact, many of the bends and twists of these busy thoroughfares follow the path of the original trail.

The better-known Mohawk trail, sometimes called `The Great Road’, which also had also its eastern terminus in the Mohawk Valley paralleled the upper escarpment, probably crossing the upper Niagara river at `Black Rock’ near present day Fort Erie. The Mohawk Trail winded its way the other way, northwest to Huronia, the ancestral homelands of the Wendat Iroquois.

The Detroit trail, the Highway #401 of its day, spun off The Great Road somewhere in the Dundas Valley, connecting to the head waters of Thames near London and paralleling the south shore of Lake Saint Clair before reaching Fort Pontchartrain (Detroit). Much of the Detroit trail has been incorporated into Wilson Ave. in Ancaster and Highway #2 to Woodstock and beyond.

Outdoor educator and author Bob Henderson has written about a `portage’ trail that existed between Dundas and Cainsville using existing waterways. Both Ancaster Creek and Sulphur Springs Creek were probably navigable for considerable lengths earlier. Both are oriented towards the Grand River. Fairchild Creek could have served as the western leg of the portage route. The portage trail may have been used by various aboriginal groups to ferry trade goods from the head of Lake Ontario to the largest water course in Southern Ontario.

Henderson speculates that the busy corner of present day Rousseau and Wilson Avenues in Ancaster where Ancaster Creek passes under a busy bridge, turning sharply east was the junction of the Mohawk trail,  the Detroit trail and  the `portage’ trail. He suggests it may also be the true location of Tinawatawa.

The existence of Tinawatawa is firmly placed in time, if not place.  In one of the most amazing co-incidences in Canadian history, the Seneca Iroquois village was where, on September 24, 1669 Adrian Jolliet, brother of Louis, discoverer of the Mississippi River met Rene Robert Cavalier De La Salle, discoverer of the mouth of this auspicious body of water.

The naming and plaquing, on a huge boulder no less, of La Salle Park in Aldershot by The Wentworth Historical Society in the 1920’s supposedly established incontrovertible proof that this is the place where La Salle and his entourage made landfall in late August 1669 and stayed over two weeks. However, a more recent OHS plaque at the north end of the park, near North Shore Blvd. diverges from the commonly understood narrative, suggesting that Tinawatawa, La Salle’s final destination was located between Brantford and Dundas.

Rene La Salle and his European companions Dollier and Galinée, on their way to the Ohio River had come to Hamilton Harbour/Burlington Bay after visiting the Seneca capital Ganondagan near present day Rochester, New York where they had gained the services of a Seneca guide, returning to his hometown or posting of Tinawatawa.

Following present day Waterdown Road, La Salle and his entourage came to a cleft in a steep rock face that became known as the Niagara Escarpment. This scenic vista was overrun by mills and factories in pioneer white settler times and fittingly called Smokey Hollow. From here, La Salle turned in the opposite direction of the current road, crossing Grindstone Creek, going through the recently named Souharrisen Natural Area and arriving at Lake Medad where they stayed one night.

Lake Medad, also called Lost Lake is mostly known as Hidden Lake today and owned by a golf course of the same name. The virtually inaccessible body of water, partially fed by underground stream is barely visible from the nearest public road, Parkside Drive.  Lake Medad has also been cited as the true location of Tinawatawa.

On the 300th anniversary of La Salle’s journey, reputed local historian Roy Woodhouse produced a map showing La Salle’s route to Tinawatawa, including the final portion along Grindstone Creek and into the Beverly Swamp. Before farmers in the area diverted stream water for their animals and crops, Grindstone Creek was much broader and deeper and could have been navigable to Millgrove. Woodhouse does not include the overnight stay in Lake Medad.

A formal archeological survey in 1960 by McMaster archeologist William C. Noble supposedly established the headwaters of Grindstone and Spencer Creeks near Westover as the location of Tinawatawa. The series drumlins in area would have made it ideal for scanning the landscape below. Iroquois observation platforms have been noted in their ancestral homeland towns.

However, in a letter to author Michael Powers dated November 9, 1982, Noble says that Tinawatawa was probably located between Burlington Bay and Grand River. From his excavations of numerous Neutral/Chonnonton villages and towns, Noble believed that both the Westover and Lake Medad sites had been abandoned by the time La Salle arrived.

James Coyne of Elgin County was the first person in the modern era to write about the Chonnonton people. In a 1895 monograph titled The Country of the Neutrals where he details Dollier and Galinée’s nearly one year long journey in Canada, Coyne writes that Tinawatawa was located midway between Cainsville and Burlington Bay.

Frank Severn, who has written extensively about the Niagara region believes that in late September 1669 that La Salle traveled on the trail between Burlington Bay and the Grand River and met Joliet. In 1744 the celebrated cartographer and philosopher Charlevois Bellins produced a map that clearly shows Tinawatawa under one of its many spelling located almost exactly in the middle of a trail linking two major bodies of water.

A key piece of evidence that Tinawatawa was located further south is that Galinée says it took two days and one night to reach the Grand River from Tinawatawa. It was here where that the two Sulpician priests began their voyage to reach the Potowatamis in the Sudbury area. La Salle, feigning illness and unwilling to continue to share control of the expedition to the Ohio returned to Fort Frontenac (Kingston).

The distance from Westover to the Grand River as the crow flies is only about 24 kilometres. However, Dollier and Galinée would have probably have travelled in an L shape similar to the current road configuration, making a bee line from Westover to the portage trail near the junction of Powerline Road and Regional Rd #52.

It is somewhat difficult to believe that Dollier and Galinée, weighted down with trade goods and provisions could have travelled the entire distance, well over 30 kilometres from Westover, via the portage trail to the Grand River, in two days. The proposed site of Tinawatawa, represented by the purple arrow may only be a slightly shorter distance to the Grand River than Westover. However, the well blazed and trod portage trail could more reasonably have facilitated a two-day journey.

In conclusion, while the Westover site is still favored as the location of Tinawatawa, the matter is far being settled.


  1. Coyne, James. The Country of the Neutrals: From Champlain to Talbot. Times Print, St Thomas, 1895.
  2. Henderson, Bob. Every Trail has a Story: Heritage Travel in Canada.  Dundurn Press, Toronto, 2005.
  3. Henderson, Bob and Bandow James `Watch Your Step: Where was Tinawatawa?’. Ontario Professional Surveyor, Summer 2009.
  4. Johnston, C.M. The Head of the Lake: A History of Wentworth County. Wentworth County Council reprint, Hamilton, 1967.
  5. J.E. Wodell `By Medad’s Marshy Shores’ Pen and Pencil Sketches: Wentworth Landmarks edited by Alma Lauder-Leith.  Spectator Printing Company Limited, Hamilton,1897.
  6. Montague, Pat. The Wampum Keeper. Double Dragon Publishing, 2002
  7. Noble, William `Souharissen’s Chiefdom: An Early Historic 17th Neutral Iroqoian Ranked Society’, Canadian Journal of Archeology 1985
  8. Parkman, Francis. The Discovery of the West:La Salle. Rinehart and Company New York and Toronto, 1956
  9. Parmenter, Jon. The Edge of the Woods: Iroquoia, 1534-1701. Michigan State University Press, East Lansing, 2010.
  10. Power, Michael. A History of the Roman Catholic Church in the Niagara Peninsula 1615-1815, Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Catharines, Ontario, 1983
  11. Aboriginal Ontario: Historical Perspectives on the First Nations edited by Edward S Rogers and Donald B Smith. A publication of the Ontario Historical Studies Series. Dundurn Press, Toronto, 1994
  12. Severance, Frank Old Trails on the Niagara Frontier 2nd Edition Burrows Brothers, Cleveland, 1902.
  13. White Marion, `On Delineating the Neutral Iroquois of the Eastern Niagara Peninsula of Ontario’ Ontario Archeology #17, 1972.
  14. Woodhouse, Roy. `La Salle’s Probable Route to Tinawatawa’ Wentworth Bygones, The Records and Papers of the Head of the Lake Historical Society. Volume 8, 1969.

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