The Capital's Curious Archaeology
Updated: Apr 20
What's in a Name - Part III
THE MOST INTRIGUING SUBJECT of archaeological investigation in the Ottawa Valley is, of course, the pre-colonial human occupation sites. There is still so little known, relatively speaking. Archaeologists have only scratched the surface (pardon the pun). Mystery and history abound on that subject and there are exciting discoveries being made every year. The newly documented history of the Bois-Brûlés, a Métis community of West Québec is a good example. So is the history of the settlements, camps, portage trails, and ancient mines; all part of the oral history that is only so recently being documented.
I was once on a tour of Edinburgh Castle, along with mostly North Americans. At the end of the tour, which brought us to St. Margaret's Chapel, the oldest building in Edinburgh, the guide mentioned that it was built in 1130, and then added with a chuckle that "ye canna find anything that old across the pond". I bristled. Staying behind to thank him and waiting until no one was around, I suggested that perhaps he should read outside his comfort zone and find out more about my home, a place where humans have been living equally complex lives for some 7 or 8 thousand years. It was his turn to bristle, and no one bristles better than an old Scot. I'm sure he expected a tip, but in the end, I'm an old Scot too.
Although our cities are only 200 years old, much archaeological investigation has occurred here because so much of the original settlement was lost by several all-consuming fires. Many of the earliest buildings that did not survive can be seen in the beautiful Stent & Laver print that graces the Home page of this blog.
The two oldest buildings in the area to have survived are the Christiana Chamberlin/Charron House in what, today, is Jacques-Cartier Park in Hull, built between 1806 and 1815, and the Commissariat Building by the canal entrance on the Ottawa River, built in 1826. It now houses the Bytown Museum.
It should not be surprising that some of the investigation done on the earliest buildings adds to our Capital's Curious History so, read on to take a tour through some of the Capital's Curious Archaeology.
Wright's Tavern: the history
WRIGHT'S TAVERN WAS BUILT OF STONE, one of the first stone buildings in the Ottawa Valley. Its construction began in 1819. Built in the Federal style and adorned with a beautiful cupola (bell tower), it became the emblematic building of the early settlement, that is until Parliament was built some forty years later.
In his 1824 report to the Assembly of Lower Canada, Philemon Wright described the building this way: In 1820, I also built a Stone building, say 40 by 41 - 22 feet high with lofts, the Stone Wall hewed on three sides of the building, which cost me about £1000.  He does not say what its purpose was and so, a certain amount of controversy surrounds this building today. Historians have never been able to agree on exactly what its purpose was.
The first time the building appears on a map or a painting is in 1823 when it is mentioned by Capt. Henry DuVernet of the Royal Engineers. He titles the painting, A View of the Mill and Tavern of Philemon Wright at the Chaudière Falls, Hull.
The painting has caused much confusion to historians, professionals and amateurs alike, because so much of the area has changed since 1823. As a result, some historians identified the building on the centre-right of the scene, as the tavern; likely because there are people in the doorway and balcony and a person is riding away from it. That building, though, is actually the smithy and triphammer mill, described by Philemon in his 1824 report as "a large Stone House, three Stories high, 30 by 63 ... with four bellows" (Note the four chimneys).
Looking again at DuVernet's painting, there is only one other building that might be the tavern mentioned in the title, and it would be the large stone building with the cupola behind the mill, in the centre.
In the J.F. Taylor archives , there is an official document dated 1817 containing details of a decision that there would be three taverns in Hull Township, one at Turnpike End (later, Aylmer) one at the Steamboat Landing (Museum of History, today) and one in the Common of Wright's village. Case closed, right?
Not so much.
Joseph Bouchette, Surveyor-General of Lower Canada, mentions only two buildings in his report to the Crown about the success of the settlement: the school and the meeting-house (sic).  Wright's Town borrowed its design from the many New England towns where Philemon and the other first settlers grew up. Most New England towns had a Meetinghouse with a bell at the center of a village Common where you would often find a tavern and store, and Bouchette would certainly have known that. The Meetinghouse could serve both political functions as well as religious gatherings.. So, it was a Meetinghouse.
Um-hm. Keep reading ...
The problem for investigators arises when, in so many of the Wright letters, inventories, and notes in the archives, it can be read that it is named the New Stone Store, just as it is named on an 1824 map, drawn by John Burrows, Royal Engineer, and signed by Philemon Wright, himself. Okay, so Philemon himself called it a store, then that's it, right?
Nope, we're not done ...
In a later map, originally drawn by Surveyor Anthony Swalwell in 1844, it is labeled Office & Store. So after Philemon dies, his son Ruggles used it as the company office.
And lastly, there is a local historian who declared it was a toll booth (poste de péage, in French); simply a place where the Wrights collected the toll fees for the timber rafts using the Hull Slide, at the Chaudière Falls, literally at its doorstep.
Why there should have been any confusion over its purpose is beyond me. The stone building on the Common with the cupola was obviously a multi-purpose building that may have served as a tavern, a meetinghouse, a store, and an office, and given that St. James Church was only built in 1823, it may have been where church services were held as well!
Why I call it Wright's Tavern, though, is simply a preference, a choice on my part; one that fits elegantly into the narrative of our Capital's Curious History - better than calling it Wright's Tavern-Store-Office-Meetinghouse-Tollbooth-Church, right?
Wright's Tavern: the archaeology
STONEHENGE is the perfect picture to accompany this first part of the Curious Archaeology because with Wright's Tavern, it's all about the stones.
Wright's Tavern was built of stone with, of course, a stone foundation and we know it stood from 1819 until 1882 when it was involved in a significant fire. At that time, the tavern was owned by E.B. Eddy and was used as his personal office. Fortunately for historians, E.B. Eddy had put out a publicity poster that year, which showed Eddy's office prominently at the foreground of the artwork, and it is unmistakably Wright's Tavern in situ in 1882.
Many, if not most, of the buildings seen in the Eddy poster, were destroyed in the 1882 fire and then rebuilt on the original foundations; fire doesn't destroy stone. It's only reasonable to assume that something of Wright's Tavern remained after the fire and that at least its foundations would have been reused as well. Curiously, not all of the archaeologists who have investigated the tavern have agreed with that logic.
Archaeology involves digging into both history and earth ... or walls. First, comes the research into the history, followed by a careful polyphasic, georeferencing study of the maps. That's when you compare older maps to more recent maps, by overlaying one over the other using the identical, unaltered features that anchor one map to the other, to show exactly where to dig or search.
Fortunately, many insurance plans were drawn up for E.B. Eddy over many decades, so there exists a real historical record of the evolution of the buildings and their restoration or replacement.
In the case of Wright's Tavern, I did all of that and saw that the evidence pointed to the distinct possibility that the foundations of Wright's Tavern and perhaps some of its walls were incorporated into Building #3, the building that replaced the tavern in 1883.
A comparison of pictures of Building #3 to the Wright's Tavern in the 1882 poster revealed that Building #3: had the same openings as Wright's Tavern and both buildings had an external staircase that led down to the riverfront from the second floor. Equally curious was that E. B. Eddy chose to adorn the new building with a cupola.
A comparison of the 1878 and 1895 insurance maps reveals something significant that was completely overlooked by at least one archaeologist: a boiler room adjoining both Wright's Tavern and Building #3, survived the fire intact. This meant that the boiler room (now called Building #4) could be used as a georeferenced point for establishing the buildings' positions relative to each other, and the result was that the southeast corners of both buildings were exactly lined up. So, a portion of Wright's Tavern likely survived both fires.
Sometime after 1910, Building #5 was created when concrete was poured to form a wall between Building #3 and Building #6.
Now, here's where the Curious Archaeology comes in, and remember that it's all about the stones.
The site visit provided a Eureka moment when inspecting the south wall of buildings #3 and #5. From inside the buildings, what we see is a poured concrete wall with what appears to be a previously-built four-foot stone masonry wall in front of it. That four-foot wall has no discernable purpose and is likely the vestige of a previous build - Wright's Tavern.
What's more, is that the stone wall ends before it ever reaches Building #6. When added to the existing foundation of Building #3, it is the exact length of the foundation of Wright's Tavern, as seen in the georeferenced composite!
Perhaps that doesn't make it our Capital Area's Stonehenge but it certainly is a big deal. More specific archaeological investigations should be done to show what stones remain of Wright's Tavern but wouldn't it be something if the remains were preserved and if someday, someone with deep pockets were to rebuild Wright's Tavern?
For anyone who wants to add their sleuthing skills to this investigation or simply wants a more detailed explanation of all of the evidence, my full report on Wright's Tavern is online and can be found by clicking here.
Gateno Farm: the history
WHEN PHILEMON AND FAMILY ARRIVED IN 1800, their first home was built on the banks of the Gateno River,  as he wrote the name, before he began to build his village at the Chaudière Falls. That first home had to be put up quickly so, like most pioneer homes, it was a blockhouse, as they called them - a log shanty. The Wright family baptized their shanty, calling it The Wigwam.
Although historians are correct in saying that the Gateno Farm was the first farm cleared in 1800, they overlooked the fact that Philemon Wright wrote that the farm belonged to his son, Philemon Junior and that it was his son that cleared it.  In fact, Philemon Jr. - the forgotten son - had a hand in building everything with his father in the new settlement until Phil Jr. died in 1821. (More about Phil Jr. in a future post)
Later, the farm would be bought by Andrew Leamy, who had married Erexina Wright, Philemon's granddaughter.
Gateno Farm: the archaeology
THE DIG IS A RECENT MOVIE ON NETFLIX, it is the perfect picture to accompany part 2 of the Curious Archaeology of the Capital area because it's all about the digging. The movie tells the story of the archaeological investigation in 1939 that uncovered the Sutton Hoo treasures.
The exact location of The Wigwam was unknown until historian, Benoît Thériault, did the research, combing the archives and historical texts to uncover the clues, one being the map below. From his research, Thériault believed he had located Philemon Wright's first and second homes. Archaeological digs followed: one in 1997 by archaeologist Marcel Laliberté, under the auspices of the NCC, and one in 2006 at the Leamy home nearby, which Thériault believed to be Philemon Wright's second home.
The 1997 dig uncovered several layers where they were surprised to find what appeared to be two homes. The first identified as building 200 was determined to be the remains of a house built of squared timber over a sand foundation. The second, identified as building 100, was a larger and more recent building with an added cellar, adjacent to the original building.
Since then, a new archive of Wright documents has been made available to the public, where I found an 1822 inventory of the Gateno Farm describing in detail the evolution of the buildings there pre-1808 and post 1808. The description of buildings 200 & 100 is exactly consistent with the history in the inventory.
Although the archeologists had little possibility of identifying exactly who occupied building 200, they concluded that it was an early 19th-century blockhouse, typical of the log shanties pioneers and logging camps had built across Canada and the US at that time. They also concluded that there was no evidence of any earlier occupation at or near the site. It leaves little doubt that building 200 is The Wigwam, and building 100 is the second larger home, at the same location. The 1822 inventory describes them:
On which said parts of lots were built before the marriage of the said Philemon Wright (Jr.) a wooden barn, covered with boards; the whole in dilapidated state, appraised at thirty pounds.
Also a block house (including a double chimney) covered with board shingles, having two floors, four windows, & one door, the whole in a very dilapidated state, appraised at twenty pounds.
The following buildings were built during the marriage of the said Philemon Wright and Sally Olmstead to wit:
A wooden house, two stories high, adjoining the block house herein before-mentioned, covered in board shingles, having three floors, with a cellar, seventeen windows, five doors in the first story, two doors in the second story & two flight stairs; the whole in an unfinished state, appraised at seventy five pounds.
Also one frame shed covered with board shingles, in good state, appraised at fifteen pounds.
Hundreds of artifacts of a personal nature were found during the dig, including shards of ceramics and cutlery, medicine bottles, combs, buttons, parts of dolls, marbles, tobacco pipes, and a large fired-clay pot.
The 2006 dig at the Leamy farm uncovered the foundation of the Leamy home. It revealed that an early to mid-19th-century building had been damaged by fire at one point but they could not confirm whether it was or wasn't Philemon's second home.
Curiously, these digs happened with little attempt at contacting members of the Leamy and Wright families. If they had, both the 1822 inventory and a full written description of the Leamy home could have been put in the hands of the researchers, and that would have certainly shed some light on what they were looking for.
According to the oral history of the Leamy family, the Leamy house was built for Philemon Jr. and Erexina. Another later inventory tells us that the house was completed in 1823, so Philemon Jr., who died in 1821, never lived in this house. Instead, it was probably first inhabited by Erexina and her second husband, Nicholas Sparks whom she married in 1825. By 1830, they moved into a grander stone home in Bytown.
The Curious Archaeology of the Gateno/Leamy Farm in this case is not so much what was proved or disproved by the digs but rather that the best historical evidence came from the digs into the family's closets and attics.
WHAT IS MOST CURIOUS OF ALL, though, is the fact that so little importance has been placed on the places, buildings, and events of our Capital's past. There are no plaques in place to tell us where they are or what they were, little has been done to ensure their preservation - in fact, a bike path covers the foundation of the Leamy home and the site of The Wigwam.
There is a famous quote that says: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
Given the central role that the Timber Industry plays in the Capital's Curious History, I think we should do more for our roots.
 Appendix to the XXXIIIIRD Volume of the Journals of the House of Assembly of the Province of Lower-Canada. Fourth Session of the Eleventh Provincial Parliament; Sketch of the First Settlement on the Ottawa or Grand River; The Committee having requested from P. WRIGHT; 1824
 James Finlayson Taylor was the long-time clerk for P. Wright & Sons, married to Mary (Polly) Wright, Philemon and Abigail's eldest daughter. The Taylor Fonds is managed by the Aylmer Heritage Association.
 A topographical description of the province of Lower Canada - with remarks upon Upper Canada, and on the relative connexion of both provinces with the United States of America; Joseph Bouchette, pg. 252
 "Built primarily for public religious exercises, New England’s wood-frame meetinghouses nevertheless were closely wedded to the social and cultural fabric of the neighborhood and fulfilled multiple secular purposes for much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As the only municipal building in the community, these structures provided locations for town and parish meetings. They also hosted criminal trials, public punishments and executions, and political and religious protests, and on occasion, they served as defensive forts, barracks, hospitals, and places to store gunpowder." (learn more by clicking here or here)
 Burning Down the House: The Archaeological Manifestation of Fire on Historic Domestic Sites, Dena Doroszenko; Northeast Historical Archaeology; Volume 31 Special Issue: Historic Preservation and the Archaeology of Nineteenth-Century Farmsteads in the Northeast.
 Philemon did not misspell the name of the river because the evidence shows that the origin of the name that he and others used was Algonquin: Tenàgàdino Zìbì. (Click here for more on this.)
 The farm and the land were officially registered with the Surveyor-General in Philemon Jr.'s name on April 25, 1808. Appendix to the XXXIIIIRD Volume of the Journals of the House of Assembly of the Province of Lower-Canada. Fourth Session of the Eleventh Provincial Parliament; Sketch of the First Settlement on the Ottawa or Grand River; The Committee having requested from P. WRIGHT; 1824