There had been periodic fighting in the 17th century between the French of the St Lawrence Valley and the English on the eastern seaboard for dominance in northeastern North America. Conflict continued into the 18th century, marked by three major wars: Spanish Succession (1702-13), Austrian Succession (1744-48), and Seven Years' (1754-63 in North America, 1756-63 in Europe). During these great struggles for empire, Toronto sat within territory claimed by France, and played a modest role in the interaction between whites and natives, an interaction based on alliance-building through diplomacy, personal relationships, trade, and gift-giving.
European Axe Heads, 17th and 18th Centuries (City of Toronto Culture)
Although our understanding of the French presence in south-central Ontario is far from complete, we know that the French had traded in and around the Toronto Passage on an occasional basis since the 17th century. Then in 1720 they established a small fur trade post on the Humber River, but abandoned it within a decade because it could not compete with British traders across Lake Ontario. They returned in 1750 to build another small post on the Humber. Their objectives this time were to break the trade and diplomatic relationship that existed between the Mississaugas and the British at Oswego (the latter's main Lake Ontario post) as well as to acquire furs from both the local area and from more northerly people who came down the Toronto Passage on their way to trade with the British. Looking to the future, the French thought they might be able to persuade the local Mississaugas to help destroy Oswego because they had participated as French allies against the British in 1745-46 during the War of Austrian Succession.
Lake Ontario and Region, 1750s (City of Toronto Culture)
The volume of trade at Toronto in 1750 exceeded expectations, and thus the French found that they could not store enough goods at their little post to exchange for furs. At the same time, the natives suggested that they might be willing to turn their backs on Oswego if the new post could meet their needs for European goods. Therefore, the French abandoned the Humber site in favour of a new one located about five kilometres to the east on the grounds of today's Exhibition Place. Constructed in 1750-51, Fort Rouillé (or Fort Toronto) was more defensible in case the natives should decide to loot the increased quantities of supplies that were stored there. Nevertheless, Fort Rouillé was a humble establishment, with only 10-15 soldiers typically serving in its garrison. The main French presence in the region lay across Lake Ontario at the mouth of the Niagara River at Fort Niagara (at modern Youngstown, New York), with Fort Rouillé functioning as an out-station of Niagara.
Gunflints from Rouillé, 1750s (City of Toronto Culture); French Musket Lock, 1763 (L'Encyclopedie, Denis Diderot)
Fort Rouillé proved its worth in building a French alliance with the native population after the outbreak of the Seven Years' War when the local Mississaugas agreed to participate in the capture of Fort Oswego in 1756. However, in 1757 (at a time when smallpox ravaged the indigenous population of the lower Great Lakes) the precariousness of the alliance with the region's First Nations also was demonstrated when 90 warriors surrounded Fort Rouillé and threatened to kill its 11-man garrison. However, a relief force of 63 soldiers from Fort Niagara reinforced the small post before the tribespeople could act. Ironically, the natives were French allies on their way to fight the British on the Lake Champlain front and would participate in the capture of Fort William Henry later that year. The French in Fort Rouillé may have given offence to the war parties by not providing them with the presents or respect that the warriors had expected to receive. For their part, the people at Fort Rouillé may not have had much to offer because Britain's Royal Navy had captured many of the ships carrying goods across the Atlantic and thereby had created severe supply shortages in the French colony.
Fort Rouillé Monument (City of Toronto Culture)
In 1758, British forces re-occupied Oswego and captured Fort Frontenac (at modern Kingston, Ontario) along with French vessels on Lake Ontario and stores intended for the fur trade. These events left Fort Rouillé exposed, and its garrison received orders to burn the post and retire to Fort Niagara if the British were to appear off Toronto. Then, in 1759, new orders informed the Toronto garrison that if Fort Niagara were to be threatened, the French were to ask Mississauga warriors to aid the larger post. That year, the British besieged Fort Niagara, destroyed a relief force from the Ohio country sent to rescue it, and then captured the French stronghold. With that fatal blow to French interests in the Great Lakes, the soldiers of the garrison at Toronto burned their small fort and retreated to Montreal. Immediately afterwards, British troops from Niagara crossed Lake Ontario to Toronto in a number of whaleboats to inspect the charred ruins. They returned to Niagara with a Mississauga chief, Tequakareigh, to begin the process of negotiating a new relationship between the two peoples.