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The Capital's Curious History - or What's in a Name?

Updated: Feb 24

Looking across to Bluff (Nepean) Point, Sleigh (Entrance) Bay & Barrack (Parliament) Hill - by Henry Pooley, 1830

There weren't always politicians here

BETWEEN 10,000 and 13,000 years ago the National Capital area was entirely covered by a big inlet of the Atlantic Ocean, which only began to recede after the last period of glaciation of the Canadian landmass. It's hard to imagine that there may have been seals and dolphins frolicking in the Valley at one time but that being the case, there must have been people hunting and fishing here on its shores. Those people would have given that sea a name; something like Kichi Gami, which translates to Great Sea. Well, because we don't know who they were, and we don't know what they called it, we named it the Champlain Sea. That's the first curious factoid of the Capital's curious history.

When the glaciers melted and the sea receded, the land bounced back, and the Ottawa Valley came to be. The first humans began to rummage around the Valley somewhere around 6500 BCE and from that point on, the history of the Ottawa River watershed is inseparable from the history of the Anishinàbeg Algonquin Nation. Though their territory was once considerably more extensive, the Algonquin heartland has always included the entire length of the Ottawa River.[1] Now, even though for centuries the Algonquin called the river Kichi Zìbì - meaning great river - that name likely would have been long forgotten, had it not been attached to a lookout on the parkway and a really great beer. With the renaming of the Ottawa River Parkway, its original known name finally returns to the river in a prominent place.

Celebrated French explorer Samuel de Champlain, for whom the sea was named (go figure!), was among the first European explorers to paddle up the river in 1613, and even though he was accompanied by an Algonquin guide, he insisted on giving a name to everything he saw ... Like the guide couldn't just have told him what the places were called!!?

So, when he wrote his reports, Kichi Zìbì became la rivière des Algommequins, Pasapkedjiwanong (river that passes between the rocks) or Àgòhìgahigan (curtain) became la rivière Rideau, and the great falls named Akikojiwan (kettle falls) by the Algonquin, the people who lived here, became Asticou,[2] likely because his guide was Montagnais. In the end, though, Samuel just translated the word to French and they have since been called les chutes de la Chaudière.

He wouldn't be the last person to do something like that.

Fur phoques sake! - The impact of the fur trade

SO, while we're at it, what about the names Ottawa and Gatineau? Surely, they got those right ... right? Not quite. Here's the scoop:

Throughout Canada's early colonial period, the Ottawa river and its tributaries became coveted fur trade routes and as a result, there were frequent conflicts along the Ottawa's entire length. Ultimately, it made the river a pretty dangerous place to be.

The conflicts over the fur trade - and disease brought from contact with the Europeans - made it difficult for the Algonquin people to hold on to their traditional areas of habitation. Throughout the 17th-century, there were a series of conflicts known as the Beaver Wars (aka the French and Iroquois Wars) involving the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (aka the Iroquois or Five Nations), numerous other First Nations, and French colonial forces.

The Haudenosaunee waged a campaign to increase their territorial holdings and to get access to animals like beaver and deer (not seals, though - they were long gone). The clashes wiped out most of the remaining Algonquin, including the only significant settlement that had remained for so long at Allumette Island.

One of the winners of these conflicts, historically speaking, turned out to be the Odawa who, descending from the Georgian Bay area, continued to trade with the French on the river for most of this period. This is the reason that the French began to call it la rivière des Odawas (pronounced Awe-tah-wah), meaning river of the Traders. Wouldn't that be Outaouais, you may ask? According to 19th century linguist Jean-André Cuoq, absolutely not! "Let us therefore continue to write Ottawa, as it is pronounced, and not Outaouais, as it is not pronounced, and as it has never been pronounced", he explains. "The source of the error was the substitution of “ou” for the vowel sound written as “8" (as in “huit”) in early French orthography of the word 8ta8ois. The English “w” is much closer to the actual sound."[3]

So, the next time someone asks you how Ottawa got its name, just say it's because of the Beaver Wars. It's a great conversation starter.

The name Gatineau, on the other hand, is pretty close to the original name given to that river by the Algonquins, which was Tenàgàdino Zìbì, pronounced tay-na-gatineau. But hold the canoe! Doesn't history tell us that the river was named for a fur trader named Nicolas Gatineau? Well again ... not quite. (Didn't I mention this is all about the Capital's curious history?) Read on.

The culprit, in this case, was Benjamin Sulte, an Ottawa historian/storyteller, who, it turns out, was much more storyteller than historian. Like Champlain, Sulte decided that the river's name MUST have come from the name of a Frenchman, so he dug around, searching, and researching until he found a family with a name that sort of fit, and then ... just filled in the blanks. The rest is - ahem - history. (for more on that history, see my blog - click here - published by the Gatineau Valley Historical Society)

Today, we know that the fur trader identified by Sulte was actually a man named Nicolas Gastineau dit Duplessis - that's G-a-s-t-i-n-e-a-u, with an 's' - who lived & died in Trois-Rivières and quite likely never put a paddle in the Gatineau River.

So, putting that history aside, what can be seen is that the river's name actually evolved from Tenàgàdino. On maps appearing first in 1783, we see that the names written for the river are Nàgàtinong and Àgatinung, then in the early 1800s, we see Gatteno, Gateno, Gatino, and Gatina, and then finally on the maps produced in Lower Canada after 1815, Gatineau.

On the Wright side of the river -

the 1st permanent settlement of the Ottawa Valley ... after many centuries of human occupation.

Philemon Wright, Founder of Wright's Town

THERE were no permanent settlements in the National Capital area until 1800, when Philemon and Abigail Wright brought their children from Woburn, Massachusetts to settle at the junction of the Gatineau and Ottawa Rivers. They were accompanied by the families of a brother and two sisters and that of a close associate who would have the distinction of being the first person of colour to settle in the Valley.

With them were 33 axemen - most of whom returned to Massachusetts a year later - 14 horses, 8 oxen, plenty of supplies, and enough money to last through many months. Philemon was the acknowledged leader of the settlement and he footed all the bills.

In less than a year, Philemon’s village began to take shape at the Chaudière Falls, but like everyone, it seems, who passed through there before him, Philemon decided that the falls should be renamed, and so his town became Columbia Falls Village.

Philemon was a huge fan of Christopher Columbus, the founder of the Americas (that's right - isn't it?), and may have seen himself as a new Columbus. So, after five years' time, everything in the village was tagged with Columbus' name: there was a Columbia pond, two Columbia farms, a Columbia Hotel, it appears that he named his first timber raft Columbo ... and he even gave the name to his youngest son! (yup, the poor kid's name was Christopher Columbus Wright - Can you imagine the teasing he got? "Hey, Chris, why don't you go paddle upriver and discover something?")

Philemon's name for the town never stuck, though, and as the town grew, the name Columbia ... er ... falls. Most people took to calling it Wright’s Town.

The Capital area grows, town Bytown

Lt.-Col. John By, Founder of Bytown

BECAUSE Philemon’s settlement was the first to have sawmills, grist mills, foundries, a tavern, and a general store, darn near every settler who came to the Valley had to buy land or supplies from Philemon & Sons.

Many new settlements up and down the Ottawa Valley sprung up as settlers took advantage of the cheap land available and as the demand for timber increased. Aylmer and Richmond were among the first in 1818, and then, in 1826, the Crown initiated the most massive and audacious engineering project in the Commonwealth, the building of the Rideau Canal. (for more, see my 5-part The Capital Builders series that starts here)

When planning the Canal, Lord Dalhousie, Governor-General of British North America, and Lt.-Col. John By, the Royal Engineer in charge of the project, would have sleepovers at Philemon Wright's home. Philemon lovingly called that home The White House. Having fought in Washington's army, I'm sure he thought it only fitting that his home should be the northern one.

Together, the three decided that the first thing needed would be a bridge to link Philemon's town with the wilderness across the river. The second would be to layout streets for a town across the river that would house the hundreds of workers that would build the Canal. The third would be lots of supplies like bread, pork & whiskey for the hundreds of Irishmen who would build the Canal ... and tons and tons of hydraulic cement.

The Union Bridge was soon built, the town was laid out, the whiskey flowed, and P. Wright & Sons, who had virtually created Canada's Timber industry 20 years earlier, then created Canada's newest industry, the mass-production of hydraulic cement (for more about the origin of Canada's cement industry, click here).

Because the Canal was on the opposite side of the river, Wright’s Town would grow very slowly from that time forward and Col. By's town grew much more quickly. Curiously, (here it comes) the name Bytown was actually coined as a joke at an officers' dinner party in 1827, but before long it began to appear in official documents. As we know, Bytown would eventually become Ottawa and soon after that, it would be chosen by Queen Victoria to be the capital city of the Dominion of Canada - largely because (Oopsie!) someone thought it was a good idea to burn down the temporary parliament in Montreal - Montreal's loss but Ottawa's gain.

Meanwhile, as time passed in Wright's Town, where the timber industry drew more & more workers from Lower Canada, the history of the man who founded the first settlement began to fade. When the town became a city in 1875, the Township's name of Hull was adopted for the city and then, when the city was to become an amalgamated super-city in 2002, the Premier and the population decided that a French name would be more appropriate, and chose Gatineau ... providing one last, deliciously ironic - and quite amusing - chapter in the Capital's curious history.


[1] Algonquin History in the Ottawa River Watershed, James Morrison, Legal and Historical Research, for Peter Di Gangi, Sicani Research & Advisory Services, Revised 28 November 2005.

[2] Le Grand Voyage du Pays des Huron suivi du Dictionaire de la Langue Huronne, Gabriel Sagard, Édition critique par Jack Warwick, Université York, 1998, Les Presses de l'Université de Montréal, pg. 331.

[3] Jean-André Cuoq was a 19th century priest & linguist who wrote, among other books, two lexicons of the Algonquin & Iroquois languages: Lexique de la langue Iroquoise, avec Notes et Appendices. (Montréal: J Chapleau et fils, 1882) and Lexique de la langue Algonquine. (Montréal: J Chapleau et fils, 1886).

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Was wondering if you had any info on whatever became of Philemon's youngest son, Christopher Columbus Wright?


Was wondering if you had any info on whatever became of Philemon's youngest son, Christopher Columbus Wright?


Andrew Purkis
Andrew Purkis
Mar 29, 2020

Thanks for an interesting and amusing article. I really learnt l lot about the history of this area.


Mo Laidlaw
Mo Laidlaw
Mar 27, 2020

Very readable, I love this history!

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