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  • Rick Henderson

How a Stone, leads to Three Roks, and Three Roks leads ... to a Spy

Updated: Dec 23, 2020

The Curious History attached to what is likely the oldest headstone in the Ottawa Valley.

From a painting entitled Adieu, by Alfred Guillou, 1892

ALTHOUGH NOT EXACTLY A CHRISTMAS STORY, this one begins from a Christmas visit to a father & mother's grave.

In 1985, my Dad was buried in Notre-Dame Cemetery in Hull, and this year, his beloved wife Gloria, my mother, has joined him there.

Together they now lie at the feet of Andrew Leamy, the pioneer industrialist in Wright's Town for whom the Lake is named. Andrew and his wife, Erexina Wright, are my great-great-grandparents; Erexina is the daughter of Philemon Wright Jr. and the step-daughter of Nicholas Sparks. Their graves lie on what was once a part of Andrew Leamy's Farm on Leamy Lake (Remember that fact for later).

Andrew, a devout Catholic and pillar of the Parish, donated 4 acres of his land to the Church, land that contained the family burying ground located today in the northwest corner of the cemetery. The Oblates purchased the rest of the cemetery's land, probably at Andrew's urging.

Andrew & Erexina Leamy, George Smyth, my parents Dick & Gloria & all the Leamy Family

The Stone

VERY CLOSE TO ANDREW LEAMY, and pretty much at my parents' feet lies a very old headstone, primitively carved from a limestone block with a hand-lettered inscription that is dedicated to GEORGE SMYTH.

The carved letters are shallow, and can only be fully read when the sun is directly overhead or if you shine a flashlight's beam across them. Some of the inscription now lies beneath the layers of earth that have built up over almost two hundred years. Since I was a boy, I have stood by this stone many times listening to my father tell the story of how George Smyth came to be buried there, so much so that George even seemed to me to be a member of the family. Even so, all that my Dad knew about George Smyth, the man, was precious little - only what was carved into the Stone. Its inscription reads exactly as follows:

Here

Lies the

Boddy of

George Smyth

son to Thomas Smyth esq. of Eli

zabeth Town, DE of

Jonstown, Upr. Provence

dround at the three roks

upon the River Reado

the 6 May 1809

Aged 20 years & 6 months


Three Roks upon the River Reado

THE STORY WE WERE TOLD is one that has been passed down through the Leamy family for years, told to my father by his two aunts, Dolly [1] and Liza, [2] and then told in turn to me and my brothers and sisters by our aunts as well. Dolly lived to be 94 and Liza, to 105. Dolly was Andrew's granddaughter and Liza was his daughter-in-law; she actually lived in Andrew's home for a time.

George Smyth, we were told, was a young man who drowned in the Rideau River in 1828. His body washed up one day on the banks of the Ottawa River and was found by Andrew and his team of lumbermen. Andrew decided that George would be buried in a beautiful and quiet corner of the family farm. The 1809 date carved into the Stone was his date of birth.

My father was an avid boater and although he had taken our family on boat trips through the Rideau Canal system many times over the years, none of us knew that "three roks upon the River Reado" was Hog's Back, so when I discovered that fact, it then occurred to me that 20-year-old George Smyth had probably drowned while working on one of Philemon Wright's timbering crews.

No one had ever had reason before to doubt anything about the story, as it was told to us ... that is until I found a thesis written by Carol Martin, Gatineau Valley historian,[3] in which she wrote: An article in The Evening Citizen (Ottawa: Saturday, August 31, 1929) contains an article on Smyth. According to this source, Andrew Leamy happened to be on the Ottawa river opposite the Rideau Falls when Smyth's body was found and decided to give it a decent burial in a quiet spot on his property. The Leamy family tradition places the date of the burial as 1828, a year after the start of work on the Rideau Canal.

So far so good ... but then she wrote: Bruce S. Elliott [4] reads the Smyth date as 1809 in his article, "The Oldest Tombstone in the Ottawa Valley?"

I went back to my father's transcription and realized that Dr. Elliott could be right. So, I began to search for more on George Smyth.

In 2010, genealogical records could be hard to find online, especially records of early settlers in Upper and Lower Canada but I did manage to track down our George, son of Thomas Smyth Esq. of Johnstown (now Brockville). It turned out that LIEUT. THOMAS SMYTH ESQ. was the man who gave his name to Smiths Falls. With so few settlers on the Rideau at that time, Philemon would most certainly have known him.

I was certainly pleased to have quickly discovered the Thomas Smyth from Elizabethtown, whose son George had drowned in the Rideau River but search as I may, I could not find additional information about George's birth or death. I did not dig any deeper into the history of the Stone since that time.


The Spy

PAUL COUVRETTE, one of Ottawa's leading professional photographers, sent me a message that he might have some information that would help to solve the "mystery" surrounding George Smyth.

Following my visit to my parents' grave, I had posted this picture of George's Stone lying next to the large memorial of Andrew and Erexina on my Facebook page and Paul put his sleuthing magic to work - knowing that a couple of beers at the BDT were riding on his finding something.

Having uncovered so much more genealogical information about the Smyth family than I ever did ten years ago, we began furiously sending links to each other about what we were finding.

Imagine my delight when I found out that Thomas Smyth was a member of one of the most distinguished families of British Secret Service agents to serve during the American Revolutionary War.

The Smyth family of spies was led by Thomas's father, DR. GEORGE MONTAGUE SMYTH, and uncle, Patrick, who both spent several stints in prisons for their efforts; always escaping. Thomas's brother, Terence was equally involved and even his mother - only ever known as R.I. Smyth, who smuggled messages to the British when her husband couldn't. (How deliciously intriguing; the original Mr. & Mrs. Smith - I wonder if Angelina & Brad knew?)

(More about this very Curious History in a future blog)


A new story for George

THAT GEORGE SMYTH'S FINAL RESTING PLACE is located on Andrew Leamy's Farm was always known, so the story of when George lived and died likely became tangled up with Andrew Leamy's life. Someone long ago assumed that Andrew must have laid him to rest but that assumption created more mystery than history.

I now know that George Smyth was born in 1788. What the Stone was always telling us, was exactly what was written: that George died on May 6, 1809, at the young age of 20 years and 6 months. But the Stone may have a deeper story to tell us and its graven words may carve out a different chapter of history than that which we have all been told for lo these many years.

Questions must arise when we know that it was not Andrew Leamy who so carefully placed George Smyth into his grave. Andrew Leamy was born in 1816! Who was it then, that laid him to rest in this peaceful corner of the family farm.

Before Andrew owned that piece of land, it was owned by his wife Erexina's father, Philemon Wright Jr. and it was the first farm ever cleared in the Ottawa Valley, the Gateno Farm - the Wright family's first homestead in the valley. [5]

Was it Philemon Jr. or his father the Old Squire that received George Smyth's mortal remains and buried them as if he were a son? I have little doubt that it was Philemon Sr., simply because there are too many clues that tell us so:

  1. That a burial ground was opened up there for George Smyth alone, shows that there was grief for this man's tragic passing, especially knowing that no other grave from this time can be found in the whole valley - many had died before and after George Smyth in the new settlement. Drowning deaths in the timber industry were not infrequent events.

  2. That George's father was known to whoever buried him. With so few settlers on the Rideau River in 1809, Thomas Smyth Esq., the first settler at Smiths Falls, must have been well-known to the Wrights, as would his son George.

  3. That a Stone was put in place, roughly carved by a practiced hand at a time when there were few stone carvers in the settlement. It would have taken precious time away from someone's needed work.

The Leamy family story of George Smyth will now be told differently, I think, whenever we visit the family burying ground. This is how I will be telling it:

George Smyth, a strapping young 20-year-old lumberman, fell into the raging Spring torrent at the Three Rock Rapids while working on one of the Wright lumbering teams. He drowned and his body was never retrieved.

After days, weeks - maybe even several months - and after having run the course of the Rideau, and traveling over the Falls, George came to rest on the north shore of the Ottawa River. His body was found by a work team on the shore of the Gateno Farm, this being a busy area where the giant rafts were built before traveling downriver to Quebec City.

The team would have promptly brought the news to the Wrights. It would not have taken long to figure out that this was the body of the poor, young unfortunate George Smyth.

Philemon ordered the men to wrap the body carefully and bring him by cart to the place he had already chosen to be a burying ground, a very short distance away. He then ordered that word be sent to Thomas Smythe Esq. to inform him that his son has been found. That would be at least a three-day journey through wild country, where nothing but "Indian paths" existed.

Then, at some time soon after, Philemon himself decides to fashion the memorial stone for young George. The practiced hand of a Master Mason went to work to quickly shape the Stone and carve the inscription. The words are written with the same peculiar spelling that we see in his many letters, where the river is named Reado, Upper Canada is the Upr. Provence and stones become roks.


A simple Stone's impact on the Capital's Curious History

DR. BRUCE S. ELLIOTT WAS RIGHT, after all, the Stone is the oldest known headstone in the Ottawa Valley, carved in 1809, and that being so, it changes the history of the first permanent settlement of the Ottawa Valley. [6]

Carol Martin was meticulous in her history of the burial grounds to tell the whole story of all of the burying grounds. She pointed out that people in the valley had been burying their dead in unmarked graves for thousands of years - a practice continued by the first settlers in the colonial era, who had small burying grounds in practically every farm.

So, it may be presumptuous in history to claim any firsts, but each era has its beginning and there can be little doubt that the Stone in the burying ground in Hull, that carries the name of George Smyth, marks the spot where life in the new settlements of our Capital region is first commemorated.


Merry Christmas everyone and Happy Holidays!

[1] Stella Erexina "Dolly" Leamy (1886-1980), married to Jules Laverdure, was the granddaughter of Andrew and Erexina (Wright) Leamy.


[2] Elizabeth Stuart "Liza" McCall (1879-1984), married to Michael "Charles" Leamy, who was Andrew and Erexina's youngest son.


[3] Jean Carol Craig Martin, historian, "In Memory of" Chelsea's Historic Cemeteries: Community Institutions from Pioneer Times to the Present, Thesis submitted to

the School of Graduate Studies and Research in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the M.A. degree in History; Université d'Ottawa / University of Ottawa.


[4] Dr. Bruce S. Elliott, Professor Emeritus, Carleton University - 18th-19th century social history; gravestones, cemeteries and memorialization; history of eastern Ontario and western Quebec; immigration from 1760 to 1875; Author of Irish Migrants in the Canadas: A New Approach (click here for more info); "The Famous Township of Hull": Image and Aspirations of a Pioneer Quebec Community (click here for full article), The Oldest Tombstone in the Ottawa Valley?, and many others.

The Leamy / Gateno Farm still in situ 1933

[5] For years, historians have written that the Gateno Farm was Philemon Wright's first farm; the farm that he first cleared after arriving with his family to the Ottawa Valley in 1800. What has been overlooked, however, is that in his 1824 report to the Assembly of Lower Canada, entitled Sketch of the First Settlement on the Ottawa or Grand River, Philemon gives his son Philemon all the credit for this farm, writing the following:

No. 1 - 1800 - This Farm was begun by P. Wright Junr. and is called Gateno Farm, this was the first begun upon the Grand or Ottawa River and was used as, a farm for raising stock upon. Owing to the spring waters covering it about once every 7 years, sometimes we are obiliged to put the Stock and Cattle on the highlands, as the waters remain about 10 days upon this fine meadow. This Farm is now managed by Sarah Wright. (Sarah is Sarah "Sally" Olmstead, wife of Philemon Jr. and after his death in 1821, wife of Nicholas Sparks)


[6] As Carol Martin points out in her thesis, Thomas Wright, Philemon's older brother, died in 1801 and there is a memorial stone for him in the Chelsea Pioneer Cemetery. However, about his original burial place and the burial places of another early settler, Carol Martin writes: ... it is very likely that both he and Thomas Wright were first laid to rest in graves on their family homesteads. Thomas cleared his homestead across the Gatineau River from the Gateno Farm. There is very little likelihood that Thomas was buried in Chelsea.

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