How Muskoka came to be: A History of Muskoka

Friday Aug 04th, 2017


If you’ve been to Muskoka and have been lucky enough to enjoy all that this beautiful area has to offer, you may have wondered about the history and the people who settled the area.  What brought settlers to this rugged terrain in the first place?  Who were they and how did they manage to hack out an existence from the wilds they would have encountered?

The Muskoka region in Ontario is made of several townships, including the Town of Huntsville, Bracebridge, Gravenhurst, and the Muskoka Lakes, Georgian Bay and Lake of Bays areas.  This area comprises part of the Canadian Shield, and so although it is rocky, it boasts rich mineral deposits and a wealth in forest.  Black and white spruce, tamarack, white birch, balsam, jack pine and poplar all thrive in this area, and the terrain is broken by gorgeous lakes, some of which are visited by thousands of tourists every year.

Natives of the largely Algonquin and Huron tribes meet the earliest explorers like Samuel De Champlain in the early 17th century.  The name “Muskoka” is thought to mean “not easily turned back in the day of battle” and is derived from the name “Mesqua Ukee”, a Chippawa tribe chief.  This chief, Mesqua Ukee, signed treaties between the natives and Canada in which Canada was granted 250,000 acres of land.  Although missionaries followed the explorers, the land was vastly empty of settlers until the 1868 Free Land Grant and Homestead Act.  This act granted 200 acres of land to those who met a certain list of conditions, including;

  1. The applicant must be at least 18 years of age
  2. The applicant must use the land for settlement and cultivate it
  3. The applicant must clear 15 acres of their land grant
  4. The applicant must build a 16ft x 20ft home
  5. The applicant must live on the property for at least half the year for a period of 5 years

Once all of the conditions had been met, the settler could apply for a land patent and at that point, officially become the owner of the 200 acres, although Canada would retain the rights to both minerals and pine trees.  In fact, timber licenses were granted to lumberman who paid dues on all timber cut, and could be harvested right from a settler’s property.  Logging roads were also build on many a settler’s property and the land owner even had to pay a fee if they’d cut more than their allowable yearly allowance. 

Although land and timber first brought people to the area, it was tourists who later flocked to Muskoka and in response; enterprising entrepreneurs built it up to what it is today.  Alexander P. Cockburn was the founder of the Muskoka Navigation Company and, with the help of one Benjamin Hardcastle Johnston (the first postmaster in the area), pressed for a lock and canal, which allowed for passenger carrying steam ships to come from all over the world.



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