A History of Ottawa*

"Ottawa" is adapted from the Algonquin word, Odawa, meaning "traders." Odawa was the name of an Algonquin Indian tribe who settled and traded furs in the area. Ottawa was a perfect site for such commercial activities, being located at the juncture of three rivers - the Rideau, the gatineau Ottawa and the Gatineau. The first European to explore the region was Samuel de Champlain, in 1613. He was followed by traders who met with the Algonquin fur traders coming from as far away as monitoba and Ohio. Ottawa was a natural commercial centre. Around 1800, encouraged by the promise of free land Philomen Wright (one of Christopher Wilson's ancestors), along with his extended family and friends from Woburn, Massachusetts, led the establishment of the first permanent settlement in the area around the mouth of the Gatineau river in what is now the City of Gatineau, Quebec. Most early development in the region occurred in the many picturesque valleys on the Quebec side of the National Capital Region. In just a few short years the Wright family switched from farming to lumbering to help supply the insatiable demand from the growing British naval fleets.

However, after the war of 1812, British military engineers, led by Lt.-Col. John By, began building the 202 kilometre-long (125.5 miles), 47 lock, Rideau Canal. The Canal was completed in 1832 at a cost of less than $4 million and created a link to the St. Lawrence River that was safe from any future American invasion. The Rideau Canal, one of Canada's nine heritage canals, also helped pave the way for further settlement, trade and expansion of the lumber industry.

When the canal was started, there were few settlers on the present day site of Ottawa, although Wrightsville, across the river in Quebec, was a thriving frontier town with an active logging trade. When the canal was completed, the settlement at its north end was named Bytown, in the Colonel's honour. Bytown was divided into two sections - Upper Town, where the Parliament Buildings are now situated, and Lower Town, across from the canal. After 1850, when the Chaudiere Falls were harnessed as a source of mechanical power, the region became a major lumber producer and lumber barons created the largest concentration of milling operations anywhere in the world.

By 1855, the region's population had risen to 10,000 and the city was incorporated under its present name, Ottawa, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the first descent of the Odawa Indians down the river. In 1857, Queen Victoria created a controversy by choosing Ottawa as the new capital of the recently merged British Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada. Opposition to the choice was loud and strong, especially from Kingston and Toronto, both of which considered Ottawa as no more than a backwoods town, known mainly for its drinking and fighting.

In 1867, Ottawa became the capital of the Dominion of Canada, and it remains the seat of government and the center of Canada's parliamentary system. Canada is a constitutional monarchy based on the British system, with an elected prime minister, over 300 elected members of Parliament, and 114 members appointed to the Senate by the Governor General on the advice of the prime minister. The Governor General is appointed to the position by the prime minister and serves as the Queen's representative in Canada.

The imposing Parliament Buildings, completed in 1866, were modelled on Britain's Houses of Parliament. However, after a devastating fire in 1916 in which only the Parliamentary Library was saved, Ottawa's Parliament Buildings had to be almost completely rebuilt. The Peace Tower, in the Centre Block, was designed to be the tallest structure in Ottawa, and even today building height restrictions ensure it will not be dwarfed.

Today's capital owes much of its beauty to the French planner, Jacques Gerber, who was commissioned after World War II by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King to lay out a new plan for the city. His design is largely responsible for the Greenbelt, which includes a large and functioning farm inside the city, and the beautiful, expansive Gatineau Park. These two protected park areas, which are often referred to as the "emerald necklace", surround the city with 532 square kilometres (205 square miles) of open space, and make Ottawa one of the "greenest" capitals of the world.


Take a quick tour of Ottawa 

McKenzie King Estate

Mackenzie King Estate

Gatineau Park

Gatineau's Black Lake

Colonel By

Lieut. Colonel By

National Gallery

The National Gallery

Rideau Canal

Skating on the Rideau Canal

Byward market

TheByward market

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