The Humber has a long history of human settlement along its banks. Native settlement of the area is well documented archaeologically and occurred in three waves. The first settlers were the Palaeo-Indians who lived in the area from 10,000 to 7000 BC. The second wave, people of the Archaic period, settled the area between 7000 and 1000 BC and began to adopt seasonal migration patterns to take advantage of available plants, fish, and game. The third wave of native settlement was the Woodland period, which saw the introduction of the bow and arrow and the growing of crops which allowed for larger, more permanent villages. The Woodland period was also characterized by movement of native groups along what is known today as the Toronto Carrying-Place Trail, running from Lake Ontario up the Humber to Lake Simcoe and eventually to the northern Great Lakes.
Étienne Brûlé was the first European to encounter the Humber while travelling the Toronto Carrying-Place Trail. Brûlé passed through the watershed in 1615 on a mission from Samuel de Champlain to build alliances with native peoples. The Trail became a convenient shortcut to the upper Great Lakes for traders, explorers, and missionaries. A major landmark on the northern end of the trail in Lake Simcoe was used to describe the trail as a whole, and eventually the southern end became known simply as “Toronto” to the Europeans.
A fort, Fort Toronto, was constructed about 1 km inland from the mouth of the Humber to protect the Trail, which eventually became the modern city of Toronto. During the 1660s this was the site of Teiaiagon, a permanent settlement of the Seneca used for trading with the Europeans. Popple’s map of 1733 shows a prominent river beside “Tejajagon” which we can only assume was the Humber. Its name is given as the Tanaovate River. French missionaries used the area for many years, including Jean de Brébeuf and Joseph Chaumonot in 1641, Louis Hennepin in 1678, and Rene-Robert Cavelier de La Salle in 1680.
However, no permanent European settlement occurred until the arrival of Jean-Baptiste Rousseau (not the famous author) in the late 18th century. Rousseau piloted John Graves Simcoe’s ship into Toronto Bay to officially begin the British era of control in 1793. Most of the British attention was focussed to the east of the Humber, around the protected Toronto Bay closer to the Don River. Settlement was scattered until after the War of 1812 when many loyalists moved to the area, who were joined by immigrants from Ireland and Scotland who chose to remain in British lands.
By the 1840s, agriculture had developed suffiently to support a grist mill and a sawmill, both built by Joseph Rowntree.
As the Toronto area grew, the lands around the Humber became important farming areas and were extensively deforested; in addition, some areas of the river’s flood plain were developed as residential. This led to serious runoff problems in the 1940s, which the Humber Valley Conservation Authority was established to address. But in 1954, Hurricane Hazel raised the river to devastating flood levels, destroying buildings and bridges; on one street, Raymore Drive, 60 homes were destroyed and 35 people killed.
The Metropolitan Toronto and Region Conservation Authority succeeded the Humber Valley authority in 1957 (the word “Metropolitan” was dropped in 1998). More recently, a task force within the TRCA was formed to further clear the Humber as a part of the Great Lakes 2000 Cleanup Fund.