Thunder Bay has a rich and exciting past. A brief history is told in the following sections.

We acknowledge that Thunder Bay is built on the traditional territory of the Anishinabek, which includes the Ojibwa of Fort William First Nation, signatory to the Robinson-Superior Treaty of 1850. We also acknowledge the contributions of the Métis peoples. 

Early Inhabitants

Humans have been living in this area for over 10,000 years, since the time of the Paleo-Indians. There is no written record from that long ago, but artifacts such as spear points, axe heads and scraping tools have been found that provide valuable clues about life after the glaciers retreated.

One Indigenous group that lived in Northwestern Ontario was the Shield Archaic Peoples, from around 7,000 BCE to 2,000 BCE. They were skilled at working the available copper and were some of the earliest people to develop the natural resources in the region, mining in the area from as early as 5000 BC.1  Trade for the copper tools they made stretched from Lake Superior to North Dakota (for flint) and the Atlantic Coast (for shells) as early as 500 BC. Fish hooks, knives and gaffs of the people who lived in the area 4,000 to 5,000 years ago are among the materials that have been found.

Although it is unknown if the Ojibway peoples are descendants of the makers of these copper tools, their settlements were the main culture in the Thunder Bay area when European’s made contact in the 17th century.2 Living on the north shore of Lake Superior and Huron, their reach extended from Georgian Bay to the prairies, a territory travelled quickly in their birch bark canoes.

Discover more about the history of Fort William First Nation and the area's First Peoples with a visit to Anemkii Wajiw (Mount McKay).

The Fur Trade

When the Europeans arrived in the 17th Century, they were told this site was called "Animikie," which translates as "Thunder." It was the French courier’s des Bois, who travelled the region transporting furs and goods, who would refer to the area between the Sibley Penninsula and the north shore of Superior as Baie de Tonnaire, or "Thunder Bay."3

The connection between Lake Superior and the Kaministiquia River was a vital link in the days of the fur trade, and it was first travelled using the Ojibway canoe. It was so important that as early as 1678, the French built a base there called Fort Caministogoyan.4 Later, after a take-over by the North West Company in 1803, a new fort was born, named Fort William.5

Thunder Bay's recreated Fort William Historical Park represents the fort as it looked in 1815 when it was at its height - an active community involved in the fur trade. Fort William was the centre of the Canadian fur trading economy, where trappers met traders and made deals for every day goods like tin pots. The Fort William trading post was noteworthy because many goods had practical uses for local First Nations, like tin kettles and steel traps, but it also was a promise of future European attention and investment in the area.6

 Despite being active partners in and benefiting from the fur trade, Indigenous people who traded with European settlers often ended up disadvantaged. For example, through the use of steel traps, catching animals became easier. As a result, European settlers overused these methods and harmed many animal populations and resources that Indigenous people relied on.7

By the middle of the 19th century, the fur trade boom had long since faded, and mining became the area's most important industry. Finds of copper, silver, and later gold rewarded those willing to take the risk and dig. For more than a decade, the well-known Silver Islet mine grew on a small rock in Lake Superior and, by its final years, stretched 1,250 feet below the level of the lake.8

Port Arthur and Fort William

In 1867, the newly formed country of Canada, established under the British North American Act, was interested in expansion. Much of this expansion was into territory traditionally held by First Nations like the Ojibway who lived in the Thunder Bay area. While bound by treaties that were supposed to be negotiated in good faith between equals, in many cases these were exploitative. For example, the Robinson Superior Treaty of 1850 reduced the land lived on by the Ojibwa people on the Northern shore of Lake Superior to a small reserve outside of Fort William. Their removal from their land did not merely cause hardship and a loss of resources, but also promoted violence against Indigenous people and their way of life.9

As the Canadian government was in talks with the Hudson’s Bay Company to buy Rupert’s Land, Simon Dawson was posted to Thunder Bay to select a starting point for a road to Fort Garry in the west. Among Dawson’s options were the Fort William location at the mouth of the Kaministiquia and "the Depot," a close site on Thunder Bay, across from the Sibley Peninsula.

Since it was used as a landing spot for ships since 1805, Dawson picked “the Depot” and a rivalry was born. Though a well-known community was at Fort William, the Kaministiquia River needed dredging to house ships, and early ice-making would lower the shipping season. Work on the Dawson Road through the rough Northern Ontario land began in 1869. Colonel Wolseley, arriving in 1870 on the way to the Riel rebellion, renamed “the Depot” as Prince Arthur’s Landing for Queen Victoria’s third son.10 At the end of the conflict, Prince Arthur (near the hotel’s current place, which bears its name) was a place with sheds and supply shacks - a point on the new road to the west and a point for Port Arthur. 

In the late 19th century, the twin cities of Port Arthur and Fort William were neighbours. The towns had a friendly rivalry, and they brought in immigrants from around the world. For example, today Thunder Bay boasts one of the largest settlements of Finnish people outside Finland. The saunas, the shops of "Little Finland" on Bay Street and Nordic skiing are just a few ways the City reveals its Finnish heritage. This is just one of the many international groups that has contributed to the vibrancy of local culture.

Expansion

In reply to a plea from the people of Shuniah Township, the Provincial Government passed a law separating a part of the Township to form the Corporation of the Town of Port Arthur in 1884.11 With the growth of population and business, part of Neebing separated to include the Town of Fort William in 1892.12 For both communities, early expansion came from the political plan of Canada’s founding fathers, who fought for western settlement and railway routes. The first turn of sod for the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the town square of Fort William in 1875 predicted a future of economic growth in transporting resources across Canada.

When first rail line from the west was finished in 1882, the growing flow of grain from the Prairies shaped the area’s economy. Built in 1884, the Horne Elevator was the first elevator created at the Lakehead, and by the 1920s, the Lakehead ports handled the most grain in North America, and was among the busiest grain docks in the world.

While the best silver mined came from the Island on the Sibley Peninsula, there were operations in Current River and Shuniah in the late 1800s. As silver mining came to its close and the railway was finished, logging became the top industry. Bush workers used horse-drawn sleds to pull logs to riverbanks and then move them to sawmills on Lake Superior.

Unfortunately, much mining and logging was difficult on the environment, with specific cost to Indigenous groups. One of the reasons for this was the increasing number of projects that were carried out on First Nations land. For example, the building of the Jackfish Lake Mine not only polluted the environment, but significantly reduced the local resources of wildlife and fisheries.13

 

Amalgamation

Port Arthur and Fort William amalgamated in 1970 amalgamated in 1970 and became the City of Thunder Bay, located on the traditional territory of the First Nations people. The coming together of many cultures is shown in the City’s creation - two towns that grew side by side. Explore the history of Port Arthur and Fort William on a historical walking tour or with a visit to a local museum or the City of Thunder Bay's Records and Archives.

During rumours that Port Arthur’s application for City status included a request to Annex Fort William, Port Arthur and Fort William both applied for and received City designation in April 1907. Over the next 63 years, the question of merging continued. In 1920 and 1958, public plebiscites defeated each attempt, and many politicians had their say one way or the other. One of the most passionate activists was Port Arthur Mayor Charlie Cox, who, in an attempt to hold both offices, ran as a mayoral candidate in the Fort William Municipal Election of 1948.13

On October 26, 1964, Saul Laskin, Mayor of the City of Port Arthur, presented a written plan to the Provincial Cabinet requesting a study of the many problems facing five of the larger cities in the Lakehead area. Soon this plan by the City of Port Arthur was endorsed by the City of Fort William, the Lakehead Chamber of Commerce, and the Fort William-Port Arthur and District Labour Council. These entities included the City of Port Arthur, Fort William, Neebing, Paipoonge and Shuniah.

In early 1965, the heads of the five cities sent a letter to the Hon. J.W. Spooner, the Minister of Municipal Affairs, requested that the region and its concerns be studied. In response, by September of 1965 Spooner announced that Eric Hardy would perform a local government review for the Lakehead.

The Provincial Government accepted the recommendations of the Hardy Report, and, as a result, the City of Thunder Bay was created through a Provincial bill on May 8, 1969, and became a reality on January 1, 1970. Led by Mayor Saul Laskin, the new City consisted of Fort William, Port Arthur and the nearby Towns of Neebing and McIntryre.

Since amalgamation, developments such as Lakehead University, Confederation College, and Fort William Historical Park have increased the community profile as an education centre and tourist spot. The City has hosted sporting events like the 1974 Ontario Winter Games, the 1981 Jeux Canada Games, and the World Nordic Skiing Championships 1995.

Local legends

Ojibway legends and local lore have created many stories surrounding the many natural wonders in the area. Some of the most well-known stories are new legends written in the book Tales from Tom Tom. Some other legends stories include The Legend of Ouimet Canyon or The Sea Lion of Silver Islet found here.

More information

For more information on the history of the City of Thunder Bay, visit the City Archives. You can also locate and contact other Local History Resources, including local museums, archives, and organizations. 

Citations:

(1)    Michel Beaulieu and Chris Southcott, North of Superior: An Illustrated History Of Northwestern Ontario, 14.

(2)    “Ojibwe.” Kiinawin Kawindomowin Story Nations. https://storynations.utoronto.ca/index.php/ojibwe/

(3)    Balado decouverte. “Thunder Bay / The French Period.” https://baladodecouverte.com/circuits/1016/thunder-bay--the-french-period

(4)    Balado decouverte. “Thunder Bay City Hall.” https://baladodecouverte.com/circuits/1016/poi/11558/thunder-bay-city-hall

(5)    Ontario Heritage Trust. “Fort Kaministiquia 1717.” https://www.heritagetrust.on.ca/en/plaques/fort-kaministiquia-1717

(6)    Jean Morrison, Superior Rendezvous- Place: Fort William in the Canadian Fur Trade (Toronto: Dundurn Books, 2007): 60.

(7)    Beaulieu and Southcott, North of Superior, 42.

(8)    Elizabeth Arthur, ed., Thunder Bay District-1821-1892: A Collection Of Documents (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973). 

(9)    Tricia Logan, “Settler Colonialism in Canada and the Metis,” Journal of Genocide Research 17, 4 (2015): 434.

(10)   Scollie, Frederick Brent. “Falling Into Line: How Prince Arthur’s Landing Became Port Arthur.” https://www.thunderbaymuseum.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/PR-XIII-1985-Scollie.pdf

(11)  “Municipality of Shuniah: Residents Guide 2019.” https://www.shuniah.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Shuniah-Residents-Guide-2019.pdf#:~:text=Shuniah%20is%20the%20Ojibway%20word,of%20Oliver%20Paipoonge%2C%20and%20more.

(12)  “Neebing-History.” https://www.neebing.org/en/explore-and-play/history.aspx

(13)  Rasporich, Anthony W. “Twin City Ethnopolitics Urban Rivalry, Ethnic Radicalism and Assimilation in the Lakehead, 1900-70.” Urban History Review 18,3 (February, 1990). 

 

 

 

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