Archaeologists understand that the human history of Pukaskwa begins with huntergatherer groups of the Palaeo and Archaic periods (7500 BCE to 200 CE). Identified archaeological resources in the park date mainly to the Initial Woodland period (200-800 CE) and the Terminal Woodland period (600-1750 CE). These periods have a rich cultural history characterized by the introduction of distinctive pottery styles, and it is believed that at least some of the area’s “Pukaskwa Pits” (Maandawaab-kinganan) may have been created at this time.
Post-contact local history, that is, from the period 1700 to the mid-twentieth century, is characterized by rapid changes, waves of European exploration and development, fur trading, timber harvesting, mining, and settlement. By the 1840s, settlement in Upper Canada had expanded to a point where lands in Ontario’s near north would be opened to colonists – a fact related to the discovery of minerals in the area. The Robinson-Superior Treaty, 1850, assured harvesting rights for First Nations members. Later, seasonal fishing, trapping, logging (including up to 400 people in camps on the Pukaskwa River), mining, and recreational tourism became the mainstays of economic activity in the region. At the same time, the area became closely associated with shipping and the lore of shipwrecks. Early vessels hugged the coastline, making waters off Pukaskwa a regular sea-going transportation route well into the twentieth century.
Throughout the comings and goings of explorers and settlers, the presence of the Anishinaabe in this land remained steadfast. Stories are told of fishing, hunting and trapping, and even carrying mail for the Hudson Bay Company. Many Anishinaabe continue to practice a variety of traditional activities in the park, including camping, fishing, harvesting of plant materials, and traditional ceremonies.
The history of this region is a history of peoples’ connection to the land, and a deep sense of the power and mystique of the Lake Superior coast and its inland forests. This landscape, well exemplified at Pukaskwa, has formed part of the collective memory of Canadians for generations. The historian W.L. Morton considered it to be “as central in Canadian history as it is to Canadian geography, and to all understanding of Canada.” The rugged coastline has been called “the haunted shore” by author Wayland Drew in a photographic essay of the same name on Lake Superior. The archaeological objects, he went on to write, have a “beauty compounded by mystery and imagination, based in shared humanity.” Indeed, the power of this landscape, having found expression in books, art, and film, is so imbued in the Canadian imagination that even Canadians who have never visited the area may be familiar with it. Pukaskwa is now a place protected by partnering with local First Nations, where present and future generations of Canadians can walk on the same ground and feel a spiritual connection like that experienced by the Anishinaabe and those who followed – a meaningful experience that takes Canadians from imagining to real and inspired discovery.