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The Toronto area was first settled by native peoples around 11,000 years ago. The name “Toronto” is often but incorrectly said to have come from a First Nations (native Indian) word meaning “meeting place”. Instead, it originally applied to the narrows where lakes Simcoe and Couchiching come together, some distance to the north of the present day city of Toronto.
Few Europeans lived in the area of Toronto before the American Revolution though the French briefly established Fort Rouillé in the 1750s. The arrival of significant numbers of Loyalist refugees during and after the American War of Independence led to the purchase by Britain of land from the native inhabitants of the Lake Ontario shore. Lt. Governor John Graves Simcoe chose what would be named the Town of York to be the new capital of the colony of Upper Canada in the 1790s, mostly thanks to its sheltered bay and distance from the U.S. border. Major streets, Kingston going east, Dundas going west and Yonge going north, linked the tiny community with the rest of the colony.
During the War of 1812, American troops captured and briefly held York. Partly in retaliation for their burning of the colonial legislature British troops burned government buildings in Washington, DC, later in the war.
In 1834, the Town of York became the City of Toronto, with William Lyon Mackenzie as its first mayor. In 1837, Mackenzie, out of office, led a rebellion against British authority in the colony which featured a short battle at Montgomery’s tavern near the modern intersection of Yonge and Eglinton.
Immigration, mostly from Britain, industrialization and railway construction fueled the city’s growth during the 19th century. The city also expanded its boundaries, absorbing a number of nearby communities which are now neighbourhoods of Toronto. In 1867, with the creation of the Province of Ontario, Toronto again became a capital.
Toronto in the early years of the twentieth century experienced the sort of outward and upward physical growth which challenged both the political structures and infrastructures of so many North American urban areas. Not even a devastating fire which consumed a large part of the downtown in 1904 seriously interrupted the city’s emergence as Canada’s second metropolis. Toronto both expanded outward by further annexation and built upwards with a new generation of commercial buildings in the downtown core.
This growth was fuelled by Ontario’s economic growth and facilitated by a new urban infrastructure. The street railway and other utilities facilitated the rapid growth in the Toronto area’s population. Concrete sidewalks replaced wooden ones, while electricity supplemented and came to overshadow gas as a source of light and heat. The completion of the Ashbridges Bay Treatment plant in 1913 marked a critical change from dumping untreated waste into Lake Ontario . Public transit began in 1910 (the Toronto Transportation Commission was established a decade later) and the Toronto Hydro-Electric System began its operations in 1911. The construction of the Prince Edward Viaduct across the Don River linking Bloor Street with Dundas Street overcame a major natural obstacle to travel.
After World War Two, new waves of immigration from Europe, the Caribbean and Asia swelled Toronto's population and changed the traditionally British character of the city. Toronto would also surpass long-time rival Montreal as Canada's largest city and financial capital. Continued growth in the population of the city and surrounding communities led in 1954 to the creation of Metropolitan Toronto, essentially a federation of the various municipalities. In 1998, this structure would give way to the present single political entity the so-called “mega-city” of Toronto. Toronto's continued growth into the 21st century sees the city as the fourth largest metropolis in North America, only behind Mexico City, New York and Los Angeles.
Toronto has seen a resurgence on the international stage in recent years, holding major political forums, international festivals and the Pan-Am Games in 2015.
For an illustrated, warts-and-all history of Toronto, see The City of Toronto's official history.