In Memory of Philemon Wright Jr.
NOVEMBER 30TH, 1821 - THE 200-YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF HIS DEATH
In remembrance of a man who does not have a headstone, I reprint this excerpt from my book
Walking in the Footsteps of Philemon Wright.
The Road to Grenville - November 30th, 1821
BEING Philemon’s oldest son, and having had much experience building other roads in the new settlement, Philemon Junior (Phil) was put in charge of building the road that would complete the land link between Wright’s Town and Grenville. This would make the journey to Montreal much quicker for the settlers, as the only option was a day-long journey by packet boat to Grenville.
Building roads was a difficult process that required labourers to clear the trees and brush, remove the boulders, and fold the ground from the sides to the middle with plows and shovels. Then, the rocks were crushed to make gravel, the road surface flattened, and the macadam was applied to the road’s surface. The road was usually only wide enough to accommodate the width of a wagon or sleigh and had to follow the lay of the land. When it was completed it could be quite treacherous, most especially in the wintertime.
On November 30th, winter was fast approaching and snow was already on the ground. The work had to be wrapped up because the ground would soon be frozen solid. The men in the work crew were preparing to go home; everyone was anxious to return to their families.
Phil got into his coach to make the long trip back to Wright’s Town where his wife Sally and their eight children were waiting for him. Little Erexina, the baby, was just one year old. On a snowy, steep hill leading out of Grenville near the Rivière Rouge, Phil’s coach overturned and he was thrown free. He hit the ground hard and his neck snapped.
On that cold, snowy road, at the very young age of 38, Phil died.
Upon receiving the news of her husband’s death, Sally must have been overwhelmed. A young mother of only 31 years of age, newly widowed and grieving terribly, she would have been completely aware of her vulnerable situation in the small and isolated community that was Wright’s Town. She had her children and her farm, of course, and was surrounded by a large extended family, but what would the future hold for her? We can’t know what torment she must have gone through.
What we do know, is that an earnest young man by the name of Nicholas Sparks had been recruited in 1816 in Wexford, Ireland by Phil’s brother Ruggles to work in the family firm of P. Wright & Sons. We also know that Nicholas became a trusted courier and manager.
Nicholas was determined to make his mark in Wright’s Town. In 1823, when someone approached Philemon Wright with the offer to buy a piece of land across the river, Nicholas overheard the conversation and asked The Squire if he could borrow the 95 pounds needed to purchase the land. Philemon had no need for the scrubby patch of land, so he agreed to lend Nicholas the money.
Nicholas was now a young man with property. His status in the community would soon grow when the land that he owned - largely covered in cedar bush and swamp - would become central to the plans for building both the Rideau Canal and Bytown.
In 1826, Nicholas became a member of the Wright family when he married Sally and took in her eight children.
It’s likely that before Nicholas built his big stone house across the Grand River in what would be Bytown, he and Sally began their new life together in a new home on the Gateno Farm.
The Last Word
In the time I have spent tracing Philemon Wright Sr.’s footsteps, it has often occurred to me how fortunate it is to be remembered, as he is, more than 200 years after one’s death.
Abigail, herself, was remembered in a very special way: With a gala performance entitled “Je t’aime, Abigail!” performed in her honour at the celebration of Hull’s bicentennial in the year 2000.
Philemon’s sons, Ruggles and Tiberius, and his grandson, Alonzo, all captured the attention of historians as pioneers of the timber trade in the Ottawa Valley. Each has an impressive monument erected to his memory, as have both Philemon and Abigail.
Indeed, most of the lumber barons - so many of whom got their start in the employ of P. Wright & Sons - have towns, lakes, streets, parks or buildings named after them: Nicholas Sparks, Andrew Leamy, John Egan, Thomas MacKay and J.R. Booth; all are remembered.
But one person has not been quite as fortunate. One person’s life story was practically lost; almost completely erased by the vagaries of time. That person is, of course, Philemon Jr. Phil, the son who helped his father pack the family’s belongings onto the sleighs as they prepared for their journey to the Township of Hull in 1800. Phil, who helped fell the trees that would be used to build The Wigwam (the nickname given to their first home). Phil, who sawed the lumber and hammered the nails by his father’s side to create the mills, build the bridges and plow the roads of Wright’s Town. Phil, the young man who took his father’s dream in hand, managed the farms while his father and younger brothers guided the great rafts that became so emblematic of Canada’s young identity; making their fame.
In the end, the surprising result of this journey of mine is how my walk in the footsteps of Philemon would become so much more a walk in the footsteps of both Philemons; a walk on a path that would lead to a large piece of the story that was untold about the son as well as the father.
The only person to have written anything of note about Phil was Bertha Hannah (Wright) Carr-Harris in her book The White Chief of the Ottawa. A granddaughter of Ruggles, she leaves little doubt in her book that Phil was both important to the family and loved.
History, in general, though, has not been kind to Phil. He is barely mentioned in the history books and he was seldom mentioned in the surviving letters of the family. His letters in the archives are the business letters from P. Wright & Sons, with little of a personal nature. But the worst cut of all is that he has no headstone.
When Phil died, St. James Church was not yet built and the cemetery was not yet consecrated, but that can’t be the reason why Phil had no stone.
There is little doubt that St. James Cemetery was used as the town’s burial ground, probably from the time the settlement began. The headstone that bears the earliest date in the cemetery belongs to Phil’s sister Mary (Polly), whose death occurred in March of the same year that Phil died. Ruggles’ infant son was also buried there in 1821. So, one must ask, why are the graves of Rug’s child and his sister Polly marked, but not Phil’s?
It must be that when Phil died, his wife Sally and the family likely decided that Phil’s grave should be close to where they knew their own final resting places would be.
The Squire would have chosen for himself the obvious place of honour in the cemetery, at the top of the hill. Surely, when Phil died, the family decided that Phil should rest either in the enclosure where his parents would rest in their time, or in the enclosure next to them with Sally, in hers. All must have thought that Phil’s grave would surely be marked in time.
Many have said that Nicholas Sparks must have loved The Squire because Nicholas was interred in that enclosure right next to Philemon, but I think the reason has more to do with Sally and Phil, than with Nicholas.
So, that is where I will hopefully place a marker for Phil, one day; a memorial from his 3x great-grandson, who spent a little time ...
Walking in the Footsteps of Philemon Wright.