The early history of North Simcoe stretches back many centuries before the onset of development and industry. Then, some 20-30,000 first nation peoples, primarily the Wendat (Hurons), farmed and trapped the area from their villages on local rivers. Trade with neighbouring villages and tribes followed well-established water routes and overland trails.
In 1610 the first European in the area, Etienne Brule, arrived from Quebec to develop fur trade relations with the Wendat. The year 1615 saw the advent of Roman Catholic missionaries living in and visiting the native villages, culminating in the establishment of Sainte-Marie among the Hurons on the Wye River in 1639.
In 1649 St. Ignace II, as named by the Jesuit missionaries who visited or lived there, was a relatively new Wendat village on a plateau about 50 feet above what is now known as the Sturgeon River in Tay Township. The village proper comprised 29 buildings, including a chapel – priests’ residence, occupied some 6 acres, and was surrounded by fortifications measuring some 2,000 feet in the round, including 2 main gateways. About 2 thousand people lived there.
The Wendat chose village sites for their defensive advantages: high ground, surrounding river and/or ravine and nearby year-round spring. Villages were fortified by palisades of pine trunks, some 15 feet tall. The people lived in long-houses, about 20 feet in width and up to 100 feet in length, with 20-100 people per house. These dwellings were constructed of saplings, their pointed and charred ends planted in holes in the ground. A census of the Huron nation by the Jesuits in 1639 reported 32 active villages, consisting of about 700 lodges and 20,000 people.
1649 saw the culmination of the war between the Wendat and their French allies against the Iroquois confederacy based in what is now upper New York State. A large Iroquois war party attacked and overran several Wendat villages, including St. Ignace II. At nearby St. Louis, on the Hogg River, the raiders captured two Jesuit missionaries, Jean de Brebeuf and Gabriel Lalemant, and brought them to St Ignace II, where they were tortured and killed. These events led the Jesuits to abandon and burn their headquarters at Ste. Marie on the Wye River, after burying the remains of Brebeuf there. They then retreated with their remaining Wendat converts first to Christian Island and then to Quebec in the following year. They took with them relics (small bone fragments) of the martyrs.
The Jesuits returned to Canada in 1842. Interest in and reverence for Brebeuf, Lalemant and the other missionaries martyred in Huronia led to attempts to locate the martyrdom site. The Jesuits concluded that it was located on the east half of Lot 4, Concession 7 (off Gervais Road, about two kilometers south of the CPR right of way). At the summit of “Martyr’s Hill” or “Mount of Martyrs” they built a wooden chapel, the original Martyr’s Shrine, in 1907. Later a two-story hostel was added. However over time the site was discredited as unsuitable for a large Wendat village.
In 1925 the original Shrine was dismantled and most of the lumber and furnishings were transferred to the present Shrine, which opened in 1926 on the Wye River near Ste. Marie. Some of the relics of the martyrs were brought to the new Shrine for veneration by pilgrims.
In 1930, Pope Pius XI canonized Brebeuf, Lalemant and 6 other martyred missionaries as saints, the first saints of North America. In 1940 they were declared patron saints of Canada.
In 1932 Alphonse Arpin of Midland suggested that the true martyrdom site would be found on the west half of Lot 5, Concession 9 (off Rosemount Road). A local woodsman, he had studied in depth the 17th century Jesuit Relations (missionary reports to their superiors) dealing with the missionary villages and the trails between them. Together with his associate, Thomas Connon of Elora, he found and walked the historic trails to substantiate his conclusions. Both Arpin and Connon died in 1936, and it was only after their deaths that archeological investigations verified their claim. A plaque on the Rosemount Road site commemorates their zeal.
Cranston, Herbert J. – Huronia, Cradle of Ontario’s History – Historic Huronia Sites Association, 1949.
Fox, William Sherwood ; St. Ignace, Canadian Altar of Martyrdom, McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1949
Haskill, Mary. Nosing into the Past: Life and Times in Huronia. Huronia Museum, 2002.
Hunter, A. F. – A History of Simcoe County – Barrie Ontario, County of Simcoe 1909.
Leitch, Adelaide A.: The Visible Past, the Pictorial History of Simcoe County, The County of Simcoe, 1992
Tay Heritage Committee http://www.tay.ca/en/your-municipality/tay-heritage-committee.asp