How Conestogo Got Its Name – Part 2

In Part 1 called How Conestogo Got Its Name – Part 1 I offered some background into the relationship between Conestogo Ontario and an area in southeastern Pennsylvania where the name originated.

Actually it is not correct to suggest that Conestogo Ontario was named after the town called Conestoga in Lancaster Pennsylvania. As I mentioned in the Part 1, “Conestoga Indian Town” was the Indian village where the remnants of the Susquehannock nation resided from roughly the early 1700s till the few remaining members (then called “Conestogas” were slaughtered by white vigilantes called the Paxton Boys.

Some historians suggest that the natives commonly referred to as “Susquehannocks” may have referred to themselves as “Conestoga” because this is the name they chose when they migrated back to form their ancestral village on the banks of the Conestoga River.

It is commonly accepted that the name “Conestoga” is derived from the Iroquoian word “Kanastoge” meaning “at the place of the immersed pole”. The name “Susquehannock” on the other hand was a term used by an Algonquian interpreter (from another tribe) to describe the tribe. That term means “People of the Falls” or “People of the Muddy River” – a reference to the significant falls at a point in the Susquehanna River.

There is some controversy as to the exact location of the Indian village called “Conestoga”. But in any event, the early Pennsylvania Mennonite settlers of Waterloo County (in Ontario) did not name the village of Conestogo after the Indian village in Pennsylvania. It was the river in Waterloo County that was first called the Conestoga River. The village of Conestoga came later. And the change of spelling to Conestogo came even later.

The story (taken from Ezra Eby’s A Biographic History of Waterloo Township) took place in 1806. This was just a few years after the first Mennonite settlers started arriving in the Waterloo region from Lancaster County. Two men from the Lancaster Mennonite community were scoping out the northern part of the Waterloo area. Their purpose was to see for themselves what potential lay there for themselves and others back in Lancaster County. Here is how it is described by Ezra Eby (local residents of Woolwich township will recognize many of these names):

“Benjamin Eby and Henry Brubacher, two young men from Lancaster County, arrived at George Eby’s, who had settled on the old J. Y. Shantz farm a little to the south-east of Berlin on the 24th day of May, 1806. They came on horseback. The object of their coming was to make a thorough inspection of the nature of the country in which their relatives had so largely invested.

During the first week in June [1806] these two parties in company with George Eby made a trip through the northern part of this Township and Woolwich. They left old Abraham Erb’s place early in the morning and made a trip through the dense forest northward, crossing what are now the farms of Joseph M. Weber, Menno S. Weber and Moses Shantz.

They crossed into Woolwich a little west of Martins Meeting House and made their way straight across the farms of Aaron S. Shantz, Paul Martin and Levi Cress, arriving on the south side of the Conestogo River about fifteen rods below where now is the St. Jacobs Bridge and E. W. B. Snider’s Roller mills.

Here Benjamin Eby made the remark that this stream with its beautiful rising on the north side, bears a strong resemblance to their Conestogo in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to which George Eby replied, “Then this stream shall be called ‘The Conestogo,'” which name it has borne ever since.”

Just a note on the use of the spelling “Conestogo” (with an “o”). I believe this is probably a mistake on the part of Ezra Eby. In fact the original spelling was “Conestoga” (with an “a”) until it was changed in 1865 by the Conestoga(o) Postmaster of the day. Since Eby was writing in 1895-1896 he would have been familiar with the “o” version of the name.

The village of Conestogo(a) came somewhat later, in roughly 1830. It was established by its founder David Musselman who purchased the land where the original village now stands, and built the first sawmill in Woolwich on Spring Creek (in roughly 1840). Then in 1844 he dammed the Conestoga River and built the first flour mill in Woolwich.

“Conestoga” was an appropriate name for the village because it is located where the Conestoga(o) River flows into the Grand.

I believe remnants of both of Musselman’s mills still remain. Perhaps sometime in the future I will post some photographs of historic buildings and points of interest in present day Conestogo.

I also hope to do more research into the pre-white settlement of the area around Conestogo. This land was passed in the late 1700s and early 1800s to the Pennsylvania Mennonites through a transfer from Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant the leader of the Six Nation Grand River settlement.

The lands along the Grand River had been granted to the Six Nations by the British Crown after the American Revolutionary War. The Crown had purchased them from the Mississaugas. Hopefully I will be able to find out more about the Mississaugas and any settlements they or other native tribes may have had in the area of Conestogo.

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