By Erin Isaac
Roads, hiking trails, rivers, train tracks, or any manner of routes we use to travel often feel like historically benign spaces (at least to me).
For myself, driving along the 401 between Kingston and Toronto has inspired more frustration about traffic and “Ontario Drivers” than curiosity about the road’s history. It feels like a space that exists to carry people between places of significance rather than one in and of itself.
That is, that’s how I felt until I first watched Tony Robinson’s series exploring Britain’s Ancient Tracks. He begins each episode by acknowledging that:
“Britain is crisscrossed with an amazing network of ancient trackways. These remarkable routes are our oldest roads and have been travelled for more than 5,000 years. Walked by pilgrims and traders, hunters and invaders, Celts, Romans, Saxons, and Vikings, each track is bound up in myth, mystery, and legend. But what’s the truth behind all these megaliths, and burial sites, and ley lines, and hidden caves along these pathways and why were their mythic origins such an attraction for later generations? I’m going to explore these tracks, to connect the clues they’ve left hidden in the British landscape.”
Robinson’s series shows that these ancient tracks continue to exist into the present because they have often been continually used, albeit in different ways over time. Old trade routes might have evolved into modern highways. Old pilgrimage trails might now exist primarily for hikers’ use.
This got me thinking about my own country’s “ancient tracks.”
Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that Europe has an “older” history than North America, because North America’s colonial past is only a few hundred years old. But it would be a mistake to think the routes we walk, ride, or paddle are less “historical” than those abroad. And thus was inspired Historia Nostra’s Trackways minisodes.
In these videos, I’m not taking you to recognized heritage sites or museums. Instead, we’re just going for a walk and thinking about what these trackways have meant historically, and what they mean today.
The first Trackways minisode dropped in May and focuses on the history of the Maliseet Trail in New Brunswick.
The Maliseet trail is a popular hiking path about an hour west of the provincial capital at Fredericton. The trail was once part of a massive network of waterways and portage routes connecting the Wolastoq (which some call the St. John River) to the southern reaches of the Wabanaki Confederacy.
Some have called it the oldest known route in eastern North America. Its historical ties to Woodstock First Nation are the reason the trail’s history continues to be told and remembered.
This month’s minisode features an interview with Thomas Peace, an editor here at Active History and co-director of the Huron Community History Centre. In this discussion, Peace focuses on historical commemoration at Dundas Street in London, Ontario.
Entire books have been written about Ontario’s roads and road building, but we’re more interested in how road names are used to pay homage to the colonization of Indigenous lands. In this minisode we’re asking why Dundas Street was named for Henry Dundas and asking why roads named after controversial historical figures should be renamed.
Historia Nostra is on Facebook (@historianostrayoutube), Twitter (@historia_nostra) and Instagram (@historianostrayoutube). Follow us there to get updates on what we’re working on and to get notified when new videos go live. Erin Isaac (PhD student, Western University) is Historia Nostra’s creator, writer, and producer. Suggestions, collaboration pitches, or feedback should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.