Revisiting the Parsons Site

In preparation for the Huron-Wendat Trail celebration on Saturday June 15th, we thought we would revisit the Parsons Site – a site that is being honoured with a plaque by the City of Toronto, Heritage Toronto and ASI this weekend.


During the 1950s, the Ontario Archaeological Society (OAS) carried out excavations at the Parsons Site: a hugely important ancestral Huron-Wendat village site dating from the mid-to-late fifteenth century and located just northwest of Finch and Keele in North York.

Fast forward to 2013 – nearly 60 years after the initial investigations at Parsons – and the City of Toronto, Heritage Toronto and ASI are coming together to celebrate the rich history of this area by naming the newly developed Finch Hydro Corridor the “The Huron-Wendat Trail”. This Saturday June 15th, a plaque presentation and bike tour, led by ASI’s Chief Archaeologist Dr. Ron Williamson, will take place at Driftwood Park and many of the Huron-Wendat are coming down from Wendake, QC, to take part in the commemoration.

The eastern section of the 1989-90 excavation trench showing Houses 9, 8, 10 and the east palisade.
The eastern section of the 1989-90 excavation trench showing Houses 9, 8, 10 and the east palisade.

Starting in 1952, Dr J. Norman Emerson of the University of Toronto (Fun Fact: He also founded the OAS), ran a
series of field schools and excavations at the now famous site. It soon became clear that the students at U of T – and the new members of the OAS – were digging a very rich area indeed. Many attempts were made over the years that followed to designate and preserve the site, including a proposal in the ’60s to turn it into a reconstructed village for educational purposes, but such initiatives were ultimately unsuccessful. There were growing concerns about what would happen to the site as development loomed in the region and parts of the area fell victim to development projects in the late ’70s that ignored archaeological protocol. It was apparent that Parsons needed to be further examined, understood and reported on – and a final opportunity for additional research would arise almost 40 years later.

The year was 1989 and the company was Archaeological Services Inc. ASI was retained at the time by the Metropolitan Works Department to excavate an unexplored section of the Parsons site to make way for a watermain route. This new excavation would also solve the old problem of a lack of data from the initial excavations in the ’50s. Two years of exploration would begin in ’89 and a final account of the Parsons site would, at long last, be written and distributed.

Why is Parsons considered such a rich site? Well, because the 1989/1990 excavations represent about one-tenth of the village’s estimated area and only one longhouse can be said to be (almost) fully exposed. You see what we mean when we say “a big village”, right?

But, that’s not all. During those two years of excavation, ASI located and analyzed:

  • 10 longhouses

    Topographic plan and cross-section of the 1989-90 excavation area.
    Topographic plan and cross-section of the 1989-90 excavation area.
  • Soil features representing subterranean sweatlodges
  • The eastern and western parts of a palisade
  • Over 200 subsurface cultural features
  • More than 3,000 chipped lithic fragments
  • Four midden (refuse) areas
  • 30 ground stone artifacts
  • Six “exotic” metal items, including two rolled tubular beads
  • More than 6,000 total artifact

The village at Parsons housed a large community of people living along the Humber watershed beginning in the mid 1400s. This was a continual occupation, as there are also seventeenth-century sites present on the property. The site itself is more than twice the size of many of the known villages in the Humber region. The occurrence of exotic trade items indicate that the people at Parsons were involved in long distance trade and therefore could be considered fairly cosmopolitan and well-traveled.

We recognize Parsons as one of the most important models for Late Woodland village life in the Humber Valley and we’re looking forward to Saturday’s event where we will celebrate, acknowledge and identify the Huron-Wendat contribution and presence in the region of Toronto. Looking forward to seeing you there!

Written by: Claire van Nierop