The written history of the Outaouais region dates back to 1613, when the French explorer Samuel de Champlainfirst visited the land of the Algonquins while searching for the fabled“northern sea.”On that voyage, he made it as far as the area now known as Allumette Island (L’Isle-aux-Allumettes). Champlain returned to the region in 1615, but it wasn’t until 1800, with the arrival of American loyalist Philemon Wright, that the development of the Outaouais region began in earnest.
Aboriginal culture in the Outaouais region
The region was first inhabited by several Aboriginal communities, some of which are still present on the territory today. They include two Algonquin communities, the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg reserve near Maniwaki and the community at Lac-Rapide, in La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve. The Aboriginal people’s rich history and close bond with nature allow them to preserve and perpetuate their culture.
One of the legendary Aboriginal leaders who shaped the history of the region is Chief Pontiac, born near Lake Nipissing in 1720 to an Odawa father and an Ojibway mother. Thanks to his skill as a communicator and strategist, he became chief of the Ottawas and supreme chief of the Great Lakes Algonquin Confederation. A loyal ally of the French and faithful friend of Montcalm, Pontiac led the Ottawas in battle and shone notably at the Battle of Monongahela in 1755. He was murdered in 1769 in Cahokia (East St. Louis) by a young Peoria warrior named Pihi (“black dog”) who disagreed with Pontiac’s message of peace. Today, a town and a county in the Outaouais region proudly bear Pontiac’s name.
Visiting explorers in the Outaouais
Because of its strategic location, the Outaouais was visited by many famous explorers, including Samuel de Champlain and Étienne Brûlé,who travelled extensively in the region in the course of their numerous trips.
It was Samuel de Champlain, French navigator and geographer, founder of Quebec City in 1608, who first wrote his name in the annals of the region that would become the Outaouais. Accompanied by four Frenchmen, Champlain sailed up the Ottawa River in 1613, past the junction of the Gatineau and Rideau Rivers and the Chaudière Falls,ending his journey at Allumette Island. In 1615, he repeated the journey, this time accompanied by Étienne Brûlé, one servant and a small group of Aboriginal people; they sailed up the Ottawa River as far as Mattawa.
Étienne Brûlé is believed to be the first European to have reached Huronia and Pennsylvania, and to have set eyes on the Great Lakes. A seasoned coureur des bois, fur trader and adventurer,fluent in the Huron language, he started working for the Kirke brothers in 1629 during their successful siege of Quebec City. This betrayal deeply distressed Champlain, who repudiated him.
The wood industry and the first settlers
The emergence of the logging industry is both a historic and an economic milestone in the region’s development. In 1800, Philemon Wright arrived from Woburn, Massachusetts, with his family and five other families. He founded the city of Wright’s Town and launched a successful timber industry. The Wrights built, among other things, sawmills, dams and hotels. Ezra Butler (E. B.) Eddy continued the expansion of the town during the second half of the century by establishing processing plants for forest products. In 1875, Wright’s Town was renamed Hull, and in 2002, with the merger of several adjoining municipalities, it became Gatineau.
The transformation of the region’s profile in the late 1800s is due largely to the remarkable contributions of people like E. B. Eddy and John Rudolphus Booth.
Eddy moved to Hull from Vermont in 1851 and established a small match factory. In 1857 he expanded his operation to the manufacture of wooden buckets, and in 1866 he built a sawmill. Four years later, his business was doing so well that he was able to buy Philemon Island and part of the Wright estate, laying the groundwork for a huge pulp and paper business.
Booth arrived from Quebec’s Eastern Townships in 1852 to work as a carpenter on the sawmills being constructed. In 1858 he rented a small sawmill on the south shore of the Chaudière Falls and started his own business.
Throughout the second half of the 19th century, Eddy and Booth dominated the forest industry in the Outaouais Valley. They are among the few to have successfully made the transition from lumbering to pulp and paper production.
Another notable figure is George Bryson, a Scottish farmer and wood merchant who served as mayor of the town of Mansfield, warden of the county of Pontiac, and legislative counsel. Bryson dominated the economic activity of the Pontiac region in the 19th century, and his influence extended into the 20th.George Bryson House, the home he built in Mansfield in 1854, was classified a historic monument in 1980. Today, it belongs to the town of Mansfield and housesthe municipal public library and a heritage centre showcasing the history of the Bryson family and the Pontiac region.
Public figures who shaped the Outaouais’ history
Besides its economic importance, the Outaouais was home to several prominent political figures. One of these was the journalist, civil servant, author, negotiator and politician William Lyon Mackenzie King.Born on December 17, 1874 in Berlin (now Kitchener), Ontario, he was elected Canada’s tenth prime minister in 1921. Over the course of his career, Mackenzie King guided Canada from semi-colonial status to complete autonomy. Upon his death on July 22, 1950, Mackenzie King bequeathed his country estate in Gatineau Park as “a public park in trust for the people of Canada.”Today, visitors are welcome to stroll the grounds of the Mackenzie King Estate and admire the magnificent gardens and restored ruins.
Another noteworthy historic figure is a manwhose name lives on throughout the region. At almost 60 years of age, Louis-Joseph Papineau embarked on a successful political career. As a member of the new united Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada, he made a major contribution to the democratization of the province of Quebec, advocating for the rights of French Canadians with England. His key role in the Rebellions of 1837 forced him into exile in the United States and Europe for several years.On his return, Papineau devoted his time to the development of the seigniory he had bought from his father in 1817. In 1846 he began construction of a very elegant manor in Montebello, which still stands today: it has been converted to a national historic site, Manoir Papineau National Historic Site of Canada, and is open to the public.
Also important in the history of the region is the explorer Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de La Vérendrye. In 1950, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of his death,the Quebec government converted a hunting and fishing reserve into a park named in his honour, the La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve. Awarded wilderness reserve status in 1979, this vast territory—over 13,615 km2—encompasses two First Nation communities, Grand-Lac-Victoria and Lac-Rapide, and is a favourite destination for outdoor enthusiasts. It hasover 4,000 lakes and rivers and two gigantic reservoirs, the Cabonga and the Dozois. Besides hunting and fishing, the reserve offers camping on rustic or fully serviced sites, and canoe-camping on over 2,000 km of waterways.
A vast territory sprawling over 33,000 km2, with 20,000 lakes and a dozen rivers, the Outaouais region is known for the size and diversity of its green spaces. Enjoy ecotourism at its best as you explore Gatineau Park, the Parc national de Plaisance, and the Papineau-Labelle and La Vérendrye wildlife reserves.
Geographically, the Outaouais is part of the Canadian Shield, whose origins date back 570 million years. The region’s geomorphology is dominated by a plain and a plateau. The narrow plain stretches between Montebello to the east, and Allumette Island to the west. The latter is thus wedged between the Ottawa River to the south and the Laurentian Plateau to the north. The altitude of these lowlands ranges from 40 to 130 metres above sea level. The plateau owes its configuration to the erosion that shaped the area’s hilly topography, with a maximum altitude of about 400 metres.
The region is crossed from east to west by the Ottawa River, and from north to south by the Dumoine, Noire, Coulonge, Gatineau, du Lièvre, La Blanche and Petite-Nation rivers. The Outaouais has thousands of young lakes formed by the slow filling in of valleys dug by the retreating Laurentide Ice Sheet. There are two types in the area: basins or pluvial lakes, and plateau lakes.
One of the fewQuebec regions, if not the only one, to implement a systematicheritage inventory, the Outaouais now has 2,423 designated built heritage sites throughout the territory. These architectural gems—churches, homes, farm buildings, roadside crosses, covered bridges and more—capture the region’s rich history for visitors to discover. An enjoyable way to visit these attractions is along one of the region’s many themed tourist routes.
From the mid-1850s until 1958, over 1,000 covered bridges were built in Quebec. Based on an American design, these wooden bridgeswere easy to build and used an architectural style typical of the period, but are no longer practical nowadays. With the construction of roadsand highways adapted to modern transportation, these historic structuresbecame obsolete, and many were abandoned or destroyed. In recent years, municipalities, individuals and private organizations have begun to recognize the heritage value of these gems, witnesses to a bygone era. Several covered bridge scan still be found in the Outaouais region (notably at Wakefield and Mansfield-et-Pontefract), on secondary or isolated rural roads, charming visitors with their unique and picturesque framework. Don’t forget to hold your breath and make a wish!