Decolonizing Guelph’s Founding Story

As we acknowledge and celebrate the 192nd anniversary of the founding of Guelph by Scottish novelist John Galt, it is important that reflect on how we position our settler heritage within a present-day dialogue with Indigenous peoples.

Map of Guelph, 1827

Map of Guelph, 1827

Guelph’s founding story has been told through the narrative of the Canada Company, a colonization company that was chartered in 1825 and remained in operation until it sold its last parcel of land in the 1950s. Founded by John Galt (1779–1839), who became its first Superintendent, the Canada Company was responsible for colonizing over two million acres of land on the shores of Lake Huron, which became known as the Huron Tract. Galt arrived in Upper Canada in 1825, founded the towns of Guelph and Goderich in 1827, built a road between these “instant cities” in 1828, and was recalled to Britain by May of 1829.

This version of our founding story implied that Galt and the Canada Company settled a vast and unpopulated wilderness and negated, by omission, the rich history of the Original Peoples who have lived on these lands for millennia, as well as the atrocities enacted upon them by the same mechanisms of colonization that led to the establishment of our city and of this museum.

Municipal Boundaries Related to the Between the Lakes Treaty, No. 3

Municipal Boundaries Related to the Between the Lakes Treaty, No. 3

Guelph is situated on  Treaty 3 Territory: Between the Lake Purchase, the traditional territory of Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation. This territory is part of the Dish with One Spoon Covenant, an agreement between the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the Anishnaabe Peoples to peaceably share resources and welcome in newcomers as they entered Turtle Island.

Before the arrival of John Galt and the Canada Company in Upper Canada, the actions of Mohawk leaders Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant, 1743–1807) and Ahyonwaeghs (John Brant, 1794–1832) had shaped the regional landscape in significant ways. There is some evidence that Galt and Ahyonwaeghs knew one another—they were political figures operating in a geographic region separated by only 50 kilometres. Their stories are connected and need to be told together.

Piece of the first tree cut down in Guelph, April 23, 1827

Piece of the first tree cut down in Guelph, April 23, 1827

Much has been made, by Galt himself and by this Museum, of the felling of the first tree that marked this city’s founding. In Galt’s autobiography (published 1833), he describes the event: “The tree fell with a crash of accumulating thunder, as if ancient Nature were alarmed at the entrance of social man into her innocent solitudes with his sorrows, his follies, and his crimes.” Galt’s own words, re-read through a colonial lens, are more sobering than symbolic.

Guelph Museums marks the 192nd anniversary of the city of Guelph by providing space for historical truths and by meaningfully engaging present-day communities impacted by those histories. The Museum is repositioning our founding story in the context of Land and Treaty teachings, surfacing the historical legacies of the Residential School System, The Indian Act, and the Sixties Scoop, and presenting complex contemporary narratives through exhibitions guest-curated by members of our local Indigenous community.


Indianized – Until May 19

Konnón:kwe – Until May 19

Case Exhibitions:

Lacrosse: The Creator’s Game – Until August 18

Decolonizing Guelph’s Founding Story – Until October 27

Indigenizing Galt – Until January 12

Re-Reading Galt – Until January 12

Posted by Dawn Owen on April 26, 2019

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