How the Spanish River Got Its Name

by Andy Thomson on March 14, 2012


There have been a number of explanations for how the Spanish River derived its name. The most common story that I found in books and websites involved a group of Ojibwa (Anishnabe), from the North Shore area, who ventured to the southern United States on a trade mission. They allegedly brought back with them a Spanish-speaking young woman, either as a captive or as a gift, from another Aboriginal nation from the Spanish controlled territory west of the Mississippi River. She married the son of a chief and taught her children to speak Spanish. The French-speaking fur traders in the area recognized the language and called them “Les Espagnoles.” After the arrival of the British, they became known as the Spanish, and the river where they lived, the Spanish River.

In spite of the generally accepted theory of the Spanish origin, I believe there is a more plausible explanation. This version  was put forth by a reporter who called himself “The Wanderer” in an April 4, 1885 article in the Globe. He wrote: “Shortly after the [1760] conquest of Canada by the British, a Spanish adventurer, who appears to have been in the British Service at one period, wound his way up the Great Lakes to Algoma. His name and lineage are now uncertain, though two of his grandsons live on Spanish River at present”.

The credentials of “The Wanderer” are unknown, but much of what he wrote coincides with the memories of Louis Espagnol’s – one of the two grandsons referred above -granddaughter, Jane Espaniel (the anglicized version of Espagnol) McKee. She stated that Louis’ grandfather was the original Spaniard and that his name was Emmanuel. Emmanuel’s son became a prominent figure in the area and was known by various names such as Frise (curly hair) or the Spaniard in the Hudson’s Bay records, and Espaniole in government documents.

This is supported by a note written in 1837 by T.G. Anderson, a government official in Manitowaning, to request that the chief ’s flag be replaced as it had worn out. Anderson identified him as “The bearer (the Spaniard) … lives in the vicinity of La Cloche,” which was close to the Spanish River.

Confirmation also comes from JohnMcBean, the Hudson’s Bay chief factor of the Lake Huron District from 1821 to 1837. In 1827, McBean wrote in his journal that a person he called Frise came often to the post with his sons. Later, McBean (1834 journal) used Frise interchangeably with “Spaniard.” Strangely, McBean never refers to him as a chief, or that he was Spanish-speaking, but there are references to him living near the Spanish River. Frise may well have lost his ability to speak Spanish, but he was referred to as the Spaniard due to his father’s ethnic origin.

In McBean’s journals, there is a strong association with the Spaniards and the river, so it is easy to understand why the Europeans came to call the river after the family who lived by it. The Spanish River, however, was not the name used by the Anishnabe.

According to Sagamok elder Peter Owl, the original name was Minitegozibe, meaning “river of many islands.” From the beginning of the 19th century, newcomers gave the river various names. The French first named the river Aouechissaton in 1657 and then changed it to the Tortue in 1774. On a British map of 1809, it was called the Estiaghicks. McBean called it the Eskimanitigon on his 1827 map of the region, as it was the name he understood from his hunters. However, the Spanish name prevailed  and it was the name given by the English cartographer H.W. Bayfield on an 1822 map of the upper Great Lakes. The Minitegozibe name has been reintroduced and the new Ontario park on the Spanish River is now called the “Spanish River Valley Minitegozibe Signature Site.”


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