From the whispers of its Algonquin origins to the hustle and bustle of a modern political powerhouse, Ottawa’s history is like a patchwork quilt woven with different threads. There’s trade, colonial intrigue, and the steady rhythm of progress throughout its history.
It’s a living, breathing chronicle, with each street corner echoing with the whispers of history as diverse and ever-flowing as the currents of the river itself.
So, strap into your seat as we take you on a ride in our time machine to discover just what made Ottawa into the beautiful city that it is today!
How did Ottawa get its name?
The city name Ottawa is derived from the Algonquin word ‘adawe,’ meaning ‘to trade.’ It was chosen in 1855 in reference to the Ottawa River, and its modern name in the Algonquin language is Odàwàg.
Previously, Ottawa was called Bytown when the British settled on the south bank of the Ottawa River due to being in the process of turning the Rideau River into a canal.
Thus, Lieut. Col. John By of the Royal Engineers and his workers laid a town site in the area in 1850 and named it Bytown.
Who were the earliest settlers in Ottawa?
The earliest settlers in the Ottawa region were the Algonquin people, who called the Ottawa River ‘Kichi Sibi’ or Kichissippi, which means ‘great or grand river.’
They maintained a trade route along the Ottawa River and hunted, camped, traded, and traveled in the area for a short time.
The first European to arrive in Ottawa was Étienne Brûlé in 1610, followed by Samuel de Champlain in 1613, and both were assisted by Algonquin guides. Records from 1613 revealed that the Algonquin people already controlled the Ottawa Valley at this point.
How was Ottawa founded?
Ottawa started as an unnamed campsite led by the Royal Engineers under Lieutenant-Colonel John By as a construction base for the Rideau Canal.
Known as the village of Bytown at the time, it was incorporated as a town in 1850 before becoming the city of Ottawa in 1855.
However, the first actual European settlement near Ottawa was founded by Philemon Wright on March 7, 1800. He was a New Englander from Woburn, Massachusetts, who arrived with his own family and four other families, plus twenty-five laborers.
They became an agricultural community called Wright’s Town, which is now modern-day Gatineau in Quebec.
Another settlement was formed at Richmond Landing, which is the current LeBreton Flats, while Richmond Road, Ottawa’s first thoroughfare, was being built in 1818.
In 1809, a store was built by Jehiel Collins, who’s credited as the first settler of what would become Bytown. The small town was developed into a site for timber and later the sawed lumber trade, paving the way for its growth into the city of Ottawa years later.
How did Ottawa become the capital city of Canada?
Queen Victoria designated the relatively small city of Ottawa as the capital city of the province of Canada in late 1857.
This was due to political fights between rival cities like Quebec and Toronto or Montreal and Kingston over who deserved to become the capital.
Ottawa was already a strong contender, thanks to its location and accessibility, but it still came as a surprise to many. The parliament buildings on Parliament Hill were shortly constructed after it became the capital.
And even as Canada transitioned from a province into a dominion ten years later, Ottawa was kept as the capital city.
What was the role of the Rideau Canal in Ottawa’s history?
After the War of 1812 between the USA and the United Kingdom, there was a need for a safe military supply route from Montreal to Kingston.
So, the construction of the Rideau Canal is the reason why the British settled on the south bank of the Ottawa River, which led to the establishment of Bytown.
Lieutenant-Colonel John By oversaw the construction of the canal and hired contractors such as Philemon Wright and Thomas McKay. He also had staff such as John Mactaggart and Thomas Burrowes.
The Governor-General George Ramsay, the Earl of Dalhousie, had a great interest in the canal’s construction, along with establishing a permanent settlement in the area.
Ottawa’s Expansion into a Major Canadian City
In 1893, Ottawa replaced its horsecar system with a vast public transportation network when Thomas Ahearn founded the Ottawa Electric Railway Company. The previous system began in 1870.
Ottawa was added to the transcontinental rail network on June 28, 1886, when the Pacific Express connected it with modern-day Gatineau and Lachute.
By the 1960s and 70s, a building boom had caused Ottawa to become one of the most high-tech cities in the country and was aptly nicknamed ‘Silicon Valley North (Why Ottawa is dubbed as one of Silicon Valley North).’
All the municipalities of the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton merged with Ottawa into one single city on January 1, 2001. This means that aside from Ottawa, there are also the former cities of Vanier, Nepean, Kanata, Orleans, etc.
Unfortunately, the city’s rapid growth also led to some strain on the public transport system and bridges. Thankfully, a light rail transit was introduced on October 15, 2001, which connected downtown Ottawa to the southern suburbs via Carleton University.