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The Trouble with History - It Gets Curiouser & Curiouser ...

Updated: Dec 8, 2020

Philemon Wright and His Huawei by John James

IS IT JUST ME, or do you also get a little perplexed - or rather annoyed - when someone in your family is recounting an event that you were present for and the event sounds nothing like the one you remember? I mean, you go "Certainly, this person is distorting history, right?" ... "They are soooo altering the way the events actually unfolded, right?" ... I mean that's not at all the way you tell the story, RIGHT? ... And that's when the mashed potatoes fly ... right?

A rowdy dinner of British political radicals at John Horne Tooke's house in Wimbledon. - Samuel De Wilde, 1808.

So, that's exactly what creates a curious history, and it seems to happen a lot in our Capital's Curious History.

Let's explore a typical story like this that can easily occur in a typical family (did I write that? ... um, sorry TMI?).

Family Feud - a Capital food fight

SO, YOUR DAD IS BRAGGING to people at work about the amazing kids he has. There are three of you, and you are the second child; the "middle" child. You've done pretty well in life; got a great wife two great kids and a pretty good career going. Dad, though, is putting a different spin on it. He is going on and on about your younger brother - "Goooordon The Laaaaawyer" - how important he is, what a success he's made of himself; his great big house, and brand-new Mercedes, blah, blah, blah. Then your Dad says something weird: "Well, you know how first children are. Always over-achievers ... and Gordon is all of that!"

Wait, what?

In a hot minute you'd be screaming, "Dad, what the hell? Gordon's not a first-born. He's your youngest! Joey's the oldest and then there's me." And of course, you'd want to point out that Gooooordo's kids are little brats, his wife's a drunk, he's sleeping with the babysitter and Goooordo is drowning in debt.

To each his own, right? Maybe Gordon deserves some credit but you and your older brother can't just be erased, right? GORDON WASN'T FIRST!

Then, if someone tried to explain to you what your Dad meant; that maybe Gordon is the first son in your Dad's eyes because of his success, is that okay? Are you going to just swallow that? No, you won't. Should everyone just accept your Dad's reality? That's the question.

Let's look at another more concrete example that actually happened in history.

"Standing on the shoulders of giants"

Sir Isaac Newton

THIS EXPRESSION was attributed to Isaac Newton. Two different stories attempt to explain what he meant by it, and they very well illustrate how history can be written:

  1. The first story is that Newton was referring to no one in particular when he referred to standing on the shoulders of giants and he was simply using an expression that was then quite current in his day; an expression whose meaning is that scientific discovery is incremental, and all scientists rely on the work of the others who preceded them.

  2. The second, however, is apocryphal, and its meaning is that Newton was saying that he is a tall upright man, unlike his loathed rival Robert Hooke, who is short with a deformed spine.

The two stories show how history can be written either on facts or assumptions. In other words, some historians stand on the shoulders of giants ... and some just crane their necks in the crowd to get a better view.

In the Capital's Curious History, craning their necks is exactly what seems to happen with disturbing frequency.

In my first blog post (found here) I introduced some of the many curiosities that have shaped - or deformed, depending on your point of view - the Capital's history. In another, I outlined the curious history of how the Gatineau River got its name, (found here) and then, in what is perhaps the epitome of curiosities, was the sad tale of Christiana's House / La Maison Charron, in which not just the history of the house was erased but the history of the whole settlement was rewritten (found here).

Two Curious Histories have recently come to light and - curiously - like the others, they were written on the north shore of the Ottawa River. The first is about Aylmer, the second is about Deschênes.

Who's on first, what was second, I dunno has stolen history.

The Towne of Pomeiock by John White 1590

EVERYONE SHOULD KNOW BY NOW that human occupation of the Ottawa Valley actually goes back 8-9,000 years. We can't say it often enough, thanks to our (older) history books that declared America was "discovered" by Columbus and Canada was "discovered" by Cartier. (Just for giggles, take a minute to read this article that completely ignores the estimated 500K to 2 million people already living in the land "claimed" [1] by the French in 1534.)

Aylmer, like most other colonial-era towns in the Valley, evolved from a settlement of cleared farms, which grew quickly as a result of the burgeoning timber industry begun in 1806 by Philemon Wright and Sons.

The first farms that were cleared, starting in 1804, were all along the rough road that led from Wright's Town to the Chaudière Lake (now Lac-Deschênes), to the place called the Chaudière Lake Farm at Turnpike End, where Philemon Wright Jr. had cleared land for the supply farm, built a boat landing, a store and a hotel by 1818. (More of this history can be found here, see Upper Portage section) [2]

Then, in 1825, the Surveyor-General recommended that a government village be created at Turnpike End. Why a government village? Simply because it was one of the Crown's three main objectives of colonization, which were: 1. clearing the land, 2. occupying the land, and 3. creating a government village. Philemon Wright Sr. had been wary of inviting business rivals to the village he owned (Wright's Town) so, even after 30 years, he had still not created a government village.

The Symmes Inn by William H.Bartlett 1842, at Turnpike End

So, the Crown decided in 1830 that the government village would be established at Turnpike End on land that was owned by Philemon's nephew, Charles Symmes and that the village would be named after the Governor-General, Lord Aylmer. Aylmer became incorporated in 1847.

In 1830, the Township of Hull had close to 1,000 inhabitants (York, which becomes Toronto had 1,677 inhabitants) Wright's Town, itself, was a very well-established village with mills, foundries, tanneries, bakeries, distilleries, and some said, the finest hotel west of Montreal - The Columbia Hotel. John Mactaggart [3] described the village as a resort town in his book Three Years in Canada. Other settlements by this time had been established as well, like Deschênes (1804), Chelsea (1819), and Wakefield (1830).

So here's where we get to the Curious History.

Despite the known history, a local historical society and local historians began calling Aylmer, not long ago, the "FIRST village of the Township" and the "FIRST Village of the Outaouais". Do you see where I'm going here?

No! Goooooordo's not the FIRST village! It doesn't matter that the government chose Gordo instead of others. It doesn't matter that Gordo was incorporated. It doesn't even matter that Gordo is prettier than everyone else (sigh ... Aylmer actually is).

The question is, does that history pass the smell test? Can we put it in the history books? Can we tell 8th graders that there were people living in villages here for the last 8,000 years; and then, say that hundreds of settlers arrived later to create many villages; and finally conclude that chapter with: "Aylmer was incorporated 47 years after that, and that is what makes Aylmer the FIRST village in the Outaouais"? In the immortal words of Kevin McCallister, "I don't think so."

For the second Curious History along the same vein, read on.

Is "Real", really real?

A Shanty on Lake Chaudière by William H. Bartlett c1842

IN A RECENT LE DROIT ARTICLE [4] about the noble pursuit of acquiring heritage protection for the Bellevue-Conroy-Olmstead Cemetery on the Aylmer Rd., there was a section entitled La « vraie » fondatrice du village de Deschênes (The "Real" Founder of Deschênes Village). In it, the following is written (as translated), "History has it that the founder of the village of Deschênes in the Aylmer sector, was Robert Conroy, a wealthy businessman known as one of the great lumber barons of the region. A new perspective has come to light to show that Deschênes' "Real" Founder, was rather Mary McConnell, Robert Conroy's widow."

If you can see what's coming, you're probably chuckling now. "Another Gordo story, right?" Yup, it is.

What history tells us about Deschênes, is that the name portage des chesnes (sic) (portage of [or, at] the oaks) is the first name attached to the area; first seen in the 1686 report written by French explorer Pierre de Troyes. No doubt, de Troyes was told its name by his Indigenous guide who did the translation; the Anishinabemowin name for oak is mishimij. Archaeologist TW Edwin Sowter identified the Deschênes area as a rich archaeological site, with human occupation likely to have spanned over centuries.

The first settlers of the colonial era to clear land in the Deschênes area were James McConnell and his brother William, in 1802. They created large farms, dug a canal to bypass the rapids, and likely built the first mill. Then, a new settler by the name of Ithamar Day arrived in 1821, who cleared some land and built a store. This man, who had been an apothecary in Montreal, became a petty fur trader [5] on the Upper Ottawa but after 5 years, his trading business failed and it was eventually taken over by the McConnell brothers.

For a while, people have been told that Ithamar Day was the "Founder" of Deschênes in order to link the area to the deep heritage of Canada's fur trade - ignoring that most settlers who opened a store at that time were petty fur traders [6] and that Ithamar's venture into the fur trade was a short-lived failure. Curious enough, that - don't you think? But that's not all.

In 1837, Mary McConnell, daughter of William McConnell, married Robert Conroy. Then, from her uncle James, Mary purchased the large tract of land on which sat the mills that she modernized and enlarged. As the mills thrived and the settlement grew, it became known as Deschênes Mills, which eventually became incorporated on July 8, 1920, as Deschênes Village - 33 years after Mary McConnell's death.

So, if Le Droit wishes to cement Mary McConnell's place in history as a powerful woman who built and managed a huge business in a time where women actually needed permission to run businesses, then there is plenty there to celebrate. But should her name be inscribed in history books as the "Real" Founder of Deschênes Village? Let's ask Kevin.

Some people may ask, "What does it matter, who's the first?" and they'd have a good point to argue but like I said at the very beginning of all this ...

... Maybe it's just me, who's a bit tired of the people in the crowd, craning their necks, trying so hard to get a better view.


[1] "New-France" was claimed for the King of France by Jacques Cartier in 1534 by means of the Doctrine of Discovery, which was the Papal Bull "Inter Caetera," issued by Pope Alexander VI on May 4, 1493. The Bull stated that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be "discovered," claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers, and it declared that "the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself." (click here for more info)

[2] Two history books on Aylmer were written by Diane Aldred, who did painstaking research that still stands rock-solid today. Aylmer Quebec: It's Heritage (1989); The Aylmer Road (1994);

[3] John Mactaggart was an engineer and author who was hired by Lieut.-Col. John By to be the first Clerk of the Works for the Rideau Canal project. (click here for more info)

[4] The article in Le Droit can be found by clicking here.

[5] Petty fur traders were unaffiliated fur traders, typically employing one or two pairs of voyageurs that acquire the furs upriver and bring them to their own small store or trading post that is also unaffiliated with either the Company of the Northwest or the Hudson Bay Company.

[6] Sir George Simpson, Scottish explorer and colonial governor of the Hudson's Bay Company himself, conceded that "every lumber contractor and labourer is a trader, '' (Courtney C.J. Bond, The Hudson's Bay Company in the Ottawa Valley, in The Beaver, Spring, 1966)

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