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The Naming of Oshawa


Oshawahnah? Strange name. Almost looks like Oshawa the great city where I live so I took note when my sister, Jennifer Copeland, sent me this link in response to a comment I made on Facebook. In particular this line jumped out “The Indians were under command of Tecumseh and his deputy, Oshawahnah, chief of the Chippewa.”

Now Tecumseh is well known to all due to his stirring oratory & brilliant military prowess … not to mention having a street in Oshawa named after him. But Oshawahnah?

I shared this information with Glenn McKnight & presto he found photos of Oshawahnah. The pronunciation, Oh-Saw-Wah-Unh-Hunh, comes from some local First Nations friends.

First who are the Chippewa Indians? Source
“The Ojibwe (also Ojibwa or Ojibway) or Chippewa (also Chippeway) are among the largest groups of Native Americans–First Nations north of Mexico. They are divided between Canada and the United States. In Canada, they are the second-largest population among First Nations, surpassed only by Cree. … Because many Ojibwe were historically formerly located mainly around the outlet of Lake Superior, which the French colonists called Sault Ste. Marie, they referred to the Ojibwe as Saulteurs. Ojibwe who subsequently moved to the prairie provinces of Canada have retained the name Saulteaux. Ojibwe who were originally located about the Mississagi River and made their way to southern Ontario are known as the Mississaugas.”

Just north of Oshawa is the Scugog First Nation Their website notes “The Mississauga Nation, a branch of the Ojibway of the Three Fires Confederacy, moved southward from the Sault Ste. Marie area around 1695. Moving into south-eastern Ontario with the fur trade, the Mississauga established territorial family hunting grounds as far east as Kingston and as far north as Lake Nipissing. The Mississaugas, over time, settled into community groupings at the mouth of the Credit River, on the shores of Rice Lake, on the shores of Little Mud Lake and on the shores of Lake Scugog.” In 1838 they bought the First Nation land on Scugog Island. As their history notes “The Ojibway people were disappointed and disheartened to learn that they had to pay for merely a portion of the land, which they had previously occupied for many years.” mentions “in the early days of Reach, the settlers were not far off from Indians … A considerable number of the Mississauga tribe – the same tribe who once lived on the site of Toronto – had encamped for years on the side of Lake Scugog.”

The Oshawa Creek was a natural gateway to Lake Ontario & North. At this time the Native population was fairly mobile. “Scugog Island was not settled quite as early as Reach Township, although it was surveyed by Major S. Wilmot in 1816. About this time it seems to have been uninhabited. There were some Mississauga Indians who camped at times where Port Perry now stands, but they did not live there permanently at first, but moved back and forth between the Kawartha Lakes and Lake Ontario. A trail led from Curts’ Point to Lake Ontario; and that trail was a portage over which the Indians had to carry their canoes and belongings when they required better hunting or fishing. It was a long tramp; but at that time there was no other connection between Scugog and Lake Ontario.”

The Pedlar Papers repeat the story about this area being an Indian hunting ground Thomas Conant a local author and businessman in his book “Upper Canada Sketches” mentions natives and includes a painting of an encampment.

As for Oshawahnah just who is he? Well unfortunately I could not find much information on him. We know he fought with Tecumseh & the British against the Americans. We also know he had a long life. in a item dated 1860, APR. 9 notes “Aged Indian chief Shaw-a-no [Oshawahnah], Tecumseh’s second in command at the Battle of the Thames, lives at Walpole Island reservation on the Canadian side of Lake St. Clair. Still mentally alert and worth a visit.” Another entry on that page refers to him as “Oshawahnah, the principal chief of the Indians on Walpole Island, Ontario.” This island is in Lake St Clair.

Oshawahnah is also mentioned as still living in 1861

It turns out Oshawahnah was also known as John Naudee.

A search of that name finds Sha-wah-wan-noo also known as John Naudee & speculation that as he would have been a young warrior in 1813 he might not have been Tecumseh’s second in command. Additional information says he lived from 1846 to his death in 1870 on Walpole Island. It is claimed that he hid Tecumseh’s bones & later recovered them & buried them on St Annes’ Island which is next to Walpole Island.

Which takes us back to Oshawahnah err I mean Oshawa. Now how did Oshawa get its name? The Pedlar Papers mentioned above also note the native origin of the name Oshawa & its native pronunciation Osh-aw-e with the emphasis on the first & last syllables.

The City of Oshawa webpage finds this: “In 1842, the inhabitants of the area applied to the Government for the establishment of a post office in the settlement. The application was granted but a name had to be chosen for the post office. After several meetings, the consensus was that the name Sydenham, by which the wharf was known, would be acceptable. Two visiting Indians were asked for their opinion of this name. They suggested the Indian name “Oshawa”, the literal translation of which is “that point at the crossing of the stream where the canoe was exchanged for the trail”.

Contrary to the common perception there were a lot of ethnic groups in this area from the earliest days. We think of the War of 1812 as being a war of the British and (future) Canadians against the Americans. The truth is much more complex settlers were varied in origin, religion, & allegiance. Many European settlers did not want to fight: some for religious reasons, some due to family ties or other personal factors. Yes the natives did fight with us – but even there their motivation was not just to help the British as it is often portrayed. They hoped to stop the American expansion & keep a part of their homeland as their own. A “little” detail not addressed in the final peace settlement between the British & Americans. That settlement gave the Americans back the land we won a decision some question given that we “won” the war. But by so doing & being gracious in victory (a Canadian trait) the British avoided giving the Americans a grievance that if left to fester could have lead to further conflict. As for the natives …

So is Oshawa named after Oshawahnah? It appears not. Just one of those interesting coincidences … “no story here” some would say. But by looking into it we can see there is a lot of missing history to be discovered.

First Nations People did live here & travel north from Oshawa. They were part of the same broad tribal group as Oshawahnah. Did any with a local connection take part in the War of 1812? I would presume so. I presume they would have known of Oshawahnah either at the time or later. Would a First Nations person with a sense of humour given a version of the name of their leader as the name of “our” city? I would have – but there is no suggestion at all that they did. Would they smile at the remembrance of their People & leaders caused by the “coincidence” of Oshawa/Oshawahnah name – I hope so.

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Photo taken in Oshawa’s Memorial Park June 23, 2012

Do you have any additional information? I would love to hear from you Robert T. Bell 905-725-6955

For a more fanciful version of this story see my video at:

Early Oshawa History

Another of my interests is local history. Yes I sell real estate & know about Oshawa & area today – but I am also interested in the people of the past. Here is a series of interviews with Grant Karcich the author of a new book “The Scugog Carrying Place”. It tells the tale of early settlement in the Oshawa area & how it followed ancient native trails. It is an excellent book.