Waterloo Region’s Conestogo. Why isn’t it Conestoga?

conestogoRecently, I was showing a house on Queenston Road in Preston, and I happened to notice that the streets were laid out in a grid pattern. There are not many areas in Waterloo Region that follow a grid pattern. The reason, I’ve been told, is because the first settlers arrived in Waterloo Region before the surveyors. The first white settlers in the area were Mennonites. A steady stream of Mennonite families migrated early in the 1800s to the Region of Waterloo from Lancaster County Pennsylvania. The Mennonites followed the lay of the land and set up their communities following the Indian trails and rivers in the natural contours of the landscape.

The Mennonites established communities in areas that would eventually become Cambridge, Waterloo, Kitchener and many smaller centers, many that were absorbed into these three cities and some that weren’t. One of these is Conestogo.

We know that Cambridge got its name quite recently when the three cities of Galt, Hespeler, and Preston got together for a vote. (Galt won). Kitchener got its present name during World War I.  And, Waterloo took its name, like many Ontario towns, from Europe.

I always thought that Conestogo was named after the wagons. But it wasn’t. It was named after a river. But what river was it named after? And what was the river named after? Here’s some history for you. Hang on.

It was common practice early in the occupation of the Americas for native nations to call themselves something like “the people of…”  to give themselves names and in turn, other native tribes were named by associating some feature of their location, their habits, their customs or their dress. It is commonly accepted that the name Conestoga is derived from an Indian word describing a place. There is some controversy as to where this was exactly but the long and short of it is, eventually the term came to denote the Conestoga River, sometimes called the Conestoga Creek (in Pennsylvania).

The Conestoga River, is a tributary of the Susquehanna River flowing through the center of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. It was named after a small tribe of the indigenous Iroquoian-speaking Susquehannock people, called the Susquehannocks by the English of Maryland and Virginia. It’s an Algonquin name, Sasquesahanough, meaning “people of the muddy river”. However, the tribe was called the Conestoga by the English of Pennsylvania (from Kanastoge, meaning “place of the immersed pole”, the name of their village in Pennsylvania). Before Iroquois conquest in the 1670s, the Conestoga tribe, had lived along the river.

The village of Conestoga (Pennsylvania) was reported to have two thousand inhabitants in the 17th century, and up to seven thousand people or more may have then lived in the watershed of the Conestoga River. But they mostly got pushed out by other tribes and then early settlers. Finally, the remaining Conestoga-Susquehannock in the area were slaughtered around 1760.

Long story short, by the time the Mennonites were leaving Lancaster County, the Conestoga Indians were long gone, but the river that bore their name remained.

Then one day in 1806 Benjamin Eby and Henry Brubacker, two young men from Lancaster County made a trip through the northern part of what became Waterloo Region and upon arriving on the south side of a river Benjamin Eby said that the stream had a strong resemblance to the Conestoga Creek in Lancaster County Pennsylvania and so they decided that it should be called the Conestoga River.

It’s just like we have a London and a Paris, a Moscow, a Thames River…in Ontario. I think the early settlers were nostalgic, not too creative and maybe a little home sick.

The spelling, Conestogo (with an o instead of an a) was probably a mistake on the part of Ezra Eby. In fact the original spelling should have been Conestoga with an “a” but that was changed officially in 1865 to Conestogo by the postmaster of the day, based on the early writings of Eby.

So the village of Conestoga will was established in around 1830. The name was officiated to Conestogo by the postmaster thirty years later. But everything else has an a, not an o, except for the wagon. (a conestogo wagon, the Conestoga Parkway, Conestoga College…)

So here we are.

The Conestoga River is a river in Waterloo Region in Western Ontario. It joins the Grand River at the town of Conestogo. A dam built on the river for flood control formed Conestoga Lake, which covers an area of about 23 square kilometres.

Along the banks of the Grand River, in the small town of Conestogo, there is a 27-hole golf course, owned by Golfnorth, called the Conestoga Golf and Country Club.

There are some great houses in Conestogo. It’s a great place to live. Conestogo is a well kept secret, so close to Waterloo but still it’s own little hamlet. In fact, if you’re in Conestogo you’re closer to RIM Park and the new offices of RIM than you would be if you were at University of Waterloo or Uptown Waterloo.

Edit: Feb 11 2019

I received an email today regarding this post. I’m not certain now if a mistake was made or if there were different spellings. Here’s the email.

I was struck to read your article and the assertion that a mistake was made in the spelling of Conestogo. You’ll be pleased to learn that in fact, many people in the Lancaster of the 1820s used that spelling. I’ve been studying a system of navigation improvements made during that time period and read the meeting minutes book of the “Conestogo Navigation Company.”

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