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Chapter One: the Historical Setting
Early Settlement
 
The evolution of Ottawa East can be understood by examining the historical roots of this "neighbourhood". And these roots go back as far as the beginning of Canada itself. The actions of a distant British government influenced everything from the settlement patterns and transportation routes and even the selection of the people who settled here.
 
The beginning of organized settlement was around 1791 with the establishment of Upper Canada and a survey of the land. On October 6, 1792, the Township of Nepean was granted (1). The area was named after Sir Evan Nepean (1751 – 1822), an Under-Secretary at the Home Office in London, and the administrator for Canadian affairs from 1782 to 1794 (2). He never actually visited Canada but that was typical of most English colonial officials at the time. Official policy in the 1790’s was to encourage settlement in both Upper and Lower (Quebec) Canada. This was particularly important given the loss of the American Colonies to the south and the massive influx of British Empire Loyalists fleeing from their rebellious neighbours. The idea was to create a permanent white population to prevent further American expansion and to consolidate the British hold. By granting free land in townships such as Nepean, the British government hoped to speed the process of settlement. The order of the day was to settle the land by granting the responsibility to groups of "leaders and associates" led by an individual who would be given a large personal tract of land for his efforts.
 

The first person to be granted land in this way was an Irish veteran of the Revolutionary War, one GeorgeNepean Township-1821 for  Earl of Dalhousie Governor-in-chief of British North America (Canada) from 1820 to 1828 Hamilton (3). He claimed a group of 143 settlers would arrive in 1794. It soon became apparent however the group would not settle in Nepean, as they feared isolation without a road from the St. Lawrence River. With the group idea not working, the government changed policy and allowed grants to individual settlers.

By 1800 there was an increased demand for land in Nepean from the An 1828 map showing the Clergy Reserve (Glebe) original Loyalist refugees who had been promised land for their children when they became of age. In 1812, in the midst of a war with the United States, "over 200 grants encompassing half of the land in the township were made to Loyalist heirs" (4). In addition, one-seventh of the land was reserved for the Crown and one-seventh for the church (for example, the clergy reserve that later became known as "The Glebe"). All of this did very little to encourage settlement of the area but it did fuel intense land speculation. And this in turn seriously hindered future settlement patterns and development of the land. A vast number of people, from government officials (including Colonel By) to Loyalists, held their free or cheaply acquired land for future profits did little else to improve the land. This problem persisted well into the Twentieth Century!

Few Loyalists or their heirs ever settled in Nepean; they preferred the rich farmlands along the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario. The land they held passed from one person to the next for as little as a pound (5). While the population of Nepean Township slowly increased in the first decades of the Nineteenth Century, the number of land speculators abounded with hopes for future profit.

Much of the land in the northeast part of the township was purchased by the Loyalist Fraser family, who Survey of 1828 Rideau Lots by 1821 owned 17,000 acres in 11 townships including 40 Nepean lots along the Rideau River (6). The map of Nepean below (7) shows the Fraser holdings as well as the key land speculators. The Clergy Reserve shown in the uppermost northeast part later became the Glebe.

Another major landholder in the northeast of Nepean was Lewis Williams, of Monmouthshire, England. A farmer, he landed in Quebec in 1817 and eventually located on the Rideau Front (Rideau River) that Williams property in Conc. C, Lots L and Kwas not owned by the Fraser family. As Elliott chronicles, "he was a hardworking man and peaceable but easily imposed on" (8). In one particular case, he purchased oxen from an American who didn’t actually own the beasts. Of importance to this story is that he became a major landowner and his descendants continued to farm Lot K, Conc. C long after the area was annexed by the City. His original family home still stands at 96 Southern Drive.

By the early 1820’s, the British government had become distrustful of Upper Canadians with American origin and set about to encourage the settlement of a loyal population. In 1815 the Colonial Office decided to disband units of the regular army in the colony and, coupled with unemployed Scottish weavers, to settle some of these people on the grantable land of the Crown Reserves in Nepean. But by 1824 only 4 families had been settled in the township including Lewis Williams mentioned above.

By the mid-1820’s then, the situation in Nepean was arguably not much different than the late 1780’s. "In 1822, Nepean’s population was only 191" (9), consisting of 35 families scattered about the township. There were 2 half-pay officers, 5 soldiers, 9 Americans, 7 Irish Protestant immigrants, 5 Scots, 5 Englishmen, a single Irish Catholic and one of unknown origin (10). The few permanent settlers in the northeast of Nepean gravitated more to the Hull Township, established by Philemon Wright in 1800, across the Ottawa River. The establishment of a military depot in 1818 at Richmond had begun to attract more British settlers to Nepean but in general settlement was sparse.

The system of granting free land had not worked. In fact the speculation that the system had fostered had hindered rather than encouraged settlement. The situation was perhaps best summed up by the Earl of Dalhousie, governor-in-chief, who wrote in 1820 that:

"From Richmond landing place to the village of Richmond, 22 miles, it is almost wholly waste & wild woods, the property of absentees or Crown & Clergy Reserves, but generally in large grants made by the Government of Upper Canada which then can neither recall, nor force into settlement. This Township of Nepean . . . therefore may be considered as useless waste, a serious difficulty in the way of prosperity of this part of the Country, and it is mortifying in a greater degree from its possessing the only harbour & approach – by which the great object of these settlements can be attained." (11)

This began to radically change in 1826!

By and the Rideau Canal Lands

Still recovering from the loss of the American Colonies and the War of 1812 – 14, as well as the slow increase in settlement, the government began to make a policy changes in 1826.

Free land was now no longer available (except for Loyalists and retired soldiers). Settlers now had to purchase land from the Crown or individual owners such as the Loyalists who held about half of the township land. The Crown Reserves that remained unsettled were sold to the Canada Land Company, a group of speculators based in England. The Clergy Reserves, originally intended for the Church of England (Anglicans), were also authorized for sale. The effect of this policy change was a stimulation of settlement.

Also in 1826, a project was initiated that would significantly alter the geography of Nepean forever. This was the building of the Rideau Canal.

Wary of possible future attack by Americans on the vital shipping route from Montreal to York (Toronto), the British government decided to create an inland route that would bypass the section of the St. Lawrence River from Montreal to Kingston. This required that the Rideau River be made navigable from Kingston to Ottawa as shown by the map here. For more detail on all of the locks required to make the Montreal to Ottawa to Kingston sections navigable, go here.

 

This massive undertaking was made the responsibility of Lt.-Col. John By of the Royal Engineers. His genius and work continues to influence the face of Ottawa to this day!

The immediate effect of the canal project was to dramatically increase the population, particularly in thenortheast. In 1828, there were 2,758 people listed in the township (12) with a largely transient group of workers centered in ByVille (1826), later Bytown (13). Canal workers were mostly Irish immigrants with some Scots, Englishmen and a few French-Canadians. The majority were family men who were to become permanent residents of the area after completion of the canal. In addition, many Nepean farmers sought work on the canal, which resulted in a cash infusion to the rural part of the township.

From the very outset of canal construction, land speculation and ownership created problems. Lord Dalhousie, now the Governor General had purchase 415 acres of land from Hugh Fraser (see map of holdings) for a town site near the junction of the Ottawa and Rideau Rivers (Bytown). In late 1826, Col. By hired John MacTaggart to investigate possible routes for the waterway from Abram Dow’s Great Swamp to the Ottawa River (14). The best route was found to be from the northeast corner of present-day Dow’s Lake, down a natural gully (Preston St.), to the Ottawa River just west of the Chaudière Falls. This land was owned by Captain John Lebreton, purchased in 1820 (now Lebreton Flats). This ownership resulted in one of the more interesting stories of early Ottawa.

Lebreton had paid 499 for the land and offered it back to the government for 3000 (15). Upon hearing this, the Dalhousie became furious, accused the Captain of breach of trust by using inside information on the canal to speculate; and then ordered Col. By to alter the route of the canal to the course it follows today.

There is much more to this story but it is sufficient here to note that had Lebreton not purchased the land, then the canal would be flowing down the naturally gully of Preston Street today. The change in course forced Col. By to cut through the solid rock of ‘Nepean Mountain’ (the Notch between Bronson Av. and Bank St. Bridge). This resulted in time delays, a significant loss of life (from black powder excavation of the rock) and a massive cost overrun. Ultimately, these factors contributed to Col. By being recalled to England where he died in disgrace.

Land speculation not only influenced the canal route but it also had a negative effect on the work force. By saw a need for farmland near the canal to settle over 200 families of workers. However, much of the land was owned by the Canada Land Company and was too expensive for the average worker. By then ordered a survey of Ordnance Land (controlled by the military) and apportioned small lots along the canal for workers to rent for a shilling an acre (16). In doing so, it was hoped

"to establish . . . along the route a permanent improving chain of settlers whose interests might be identified with the Canal, The waters of which would offer a ready transport as well for their produce to Market, as for the supply of imported Articles necessary for their consumption" (17).

In essence, By’s foresight became the precursor for later settlement and use of the canal by residents of Ottawa East.

Rideau Canal east bank opposite Exhibition groundsOrganized renting of the Ordnance Land along the canal deteriorated however after Col. By was recalled to England. He had neglected to notify the Surveyor General of his apportionment of the land to workers. As a result, the land renting system fell into disarray and, by the early 1830’s, the area was overrun by squatters and adjacent legal landowners the hope of permanent settlers along the canal was lost.

With rental revenues being lost, disputes over property lines and unauthorized settlement by squatters, the board of Ordnance requested a perambulation report (inspection on foot) of the entire 126 miles of the canal. Apart from opening a rent ledger, very little else was Another vidw of east bank of Rideau Canal at Exhibitionaccomplished toward controlling settlement. As one Ordnance official put it, more effort was needed to create "a respectable and useful settler in place of the poor and wretched Squatters now infesting the (canal) lands" (18). This sad state of affairs continued well into the 1870’s even though the land was eventually turned over to the Dominion Government after Confederation.

The relevance of this land saga to our story is that from the early 1830’s to nearly the end of that century, settlement along the Ottawa East section of the canal land consisted of a hodgepodge of development. It was not until the 1860’s that this situation began to be attenuated when the registered plans of subdivision brought a semblance of legal order. In 1873, the Dominion Government reduced the canal reserve land to a 200-foot strip on either side of the waterway (later to become the Driveways); surveyed and sold the remaining land; and ejected all the squatters.

History Index

Footnotes: For complete references, see Sources

  1. Elliott, The City Beyond, p6.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid, p7.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid, p8.
  8. Ibid, p12.
  9. Ibid, p13.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid, p16.
  13. Ibid, p15.
  14. Legget, Rideau Waterway, p173
  15. Ibid, p215.
  16. Elliott, p22.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid, p26.