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In Memory of Philemon Wright Junior.*

Updated: Apr 4

First published - November 30, 2021. The 200th anniversary of his death.

*Excerpt from the book Walking in the Footsteps of Philemon Wright.

The first American Macadam Road - 1823

The Road to Grenville - November 30th, 1821

BEING Philemon Wright Sr.’s oldest son, and having had much experience building other roads in the new settlement, Philemon Junior 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. 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, 1821, 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.

Philemon Junior 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 a one-year-old. On a snowy, steep hill leading out of Grenville near the Rivière Rouge, Philemon Junior’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, Philemon Junior died.

Upon receiving the news of her husband’s death, Sally[1] 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 Philemon Junior’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 Sr., known by many as The Squire, 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.

On November 2, 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 built on Philemon Junior's 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.

His wife, Abigail, as well has been remembered for being the strong pioneer woman who was a leader of the nascent settlement; a woman who was both a loving wife and capable partner to Philemon.

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 McKay and J.R. Booth; all are remembered.

But Philemon Junior has not been quite as fortunate. His life story was practically lost; almost completely erased by the vagaries of time. He was 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. It was he who helped fell the trees here, that would be used to build their first shelter that they fondly called The Wigwam. It was he 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. It was he who took his father’s dream in hand and managed the farms while his father and younger brothers made their fame guiding the great rafts that became emblematic of Canada’s young identity.

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 unveiling the untold story about the son and the bond he had with his father. The Squire began his dream with his older brother Thomas, but when Thomas died in the first year of the settlement, it was Philemon Junior who filled the role of partner for his father. Philemon Junior's death must have been a crushing blow to the family.

The only person to have written anything of note about Philemon Junior 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 Philemon Junior was both important to the family and loved.

History, in general, though, has not been kind to Philemon Junior. 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 Philemon Junior died, St. James Church was not yet built and the cemetery was not yet consecrated, but that can’t be the reason why he had no stone.

There is little doubt that St. James Cemetery was used as the town’s burial ground, quite possibly from the time the settlement began. The headstone that bears the earliest date in the cemetery belongs to Philemon Junior’s sister Mary (Polly), whose death occurred in March that same year. Ruggles’ infant son was also buried there in 1821. So, one might ask, why are the graves of Ruggles' child and his sister Polly marked, but not Philemon Junior’s?

It must be that when Philemon Junior died, his wife Sally and the family decided that his grave should be close to where they knew their own final resting places would be.

The Squire chose for himself and Abigail the obvious place of honour in the cemetery, at the top of the hill. Right beside his large, stone-fenced plot, is an enclosure that is equally large and equally prominent and in it was placed Nicholas Sparks when he died, 9 years before Sally would join him.

Upon noticing where Nicholas and Sally Sparks are interred, many imagine it is because of Nicholas Sparks' place in history, but I think their prominent place there has more to do with Sally's marriage to Philemon Junior than it does with her marriage to Nicholas. I am convinced that the family decided to lay Philemon Junior in the enclosure where Sally rests, right next to where his parents would rest in their time. All must have imagined that Philemon Junior's grave would be marked in time.

So, hopefully someday I will be welcomed to place a marker for Philemon Junior in one of the two enclosures; a memorial from his 3x great-grandson, who spent a little time ... Walking in the Footsteps of Philemon Wright.


[1] Philemon Junior's wife, Sally, is Sarah Olmstead, the eldest child of Gideon Olmstead and Esther Andrus. Gideon and Esther arrived in the Township of Hull 1801 and settled in the Deschênes area on their farm sometime between 1802 and 1808. Gideon donated the first acre of what would be the Olmstead (Bellevue) Cemetery of Aylmer. Gideon was also a carpenter who had a hand in building Philemon's mills and rafts. He also commanded the Hull militia and was Justice of the Peace at one time in the settlement. Philemon Junior and Sally were married on May 23, 1808 and had eight children together.

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Sheilagh McDermott
Sheilagh McDermott
Nov 30, 2021

And my 4th Great Grandfather so thank you for giving his story. Would love to see a story written on Sally in detail. Given that she was married to two very important men in Ottawa's history and that Nicholas Sparks took on a large brood of Philemon II's children, there is a great story in that.

Rick Henderson
Rick Henderson
Dec 28, 2021
Replying to

I wrote about her in my first book, Walking in the Footsteps of Philemon Wright, but as you know, there isn't a lot of material to access as a source.

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