Up the Gatineau! Online Articles
The following article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 26.
Philemon Wright (1760-1839)
by Bruce S. Elliott
Philemon Wright was born in Woburn, near Boston, Massachusetts in 1760, of a family that had been amongst the town's founders 120 years before. He was raised a farmer in a reasonably prosperous family that was, however, beginning to feel the effects of overpopulation and land shortage in New England. As a young man, he served two years with the rebel forces in the first years of the Revolution.
Wright led a group of five families and 33 labourers to the then isolated and unsettled township of Hull in March 1800, following the opening of British North America to American settlement. The Hull venture was one of the most successful of the "leader and associate" group settlement schemes of the era. The associates signed over most of their large land grants to Wright, giving him ownership of almost the whole front of the township.
Wright was not attracted to the area by its timber except insofar as stands of trees were an indication of good soil. He was eventually drawn to the timber trade by the possibility of windfall profits, but his aim was to establish a prosperous agricultural community. Wright aimed at the elusive self-sufficiency that was a common dream of many settlers of the period. Beginning in 1804, he built a small village at what he called the Columbia Falls (now called the Chaudière) to provide the trades and services ancillary to a farming community. Finding that he needed an export to provide a cash income, he took the first timber raft around the north side of Montreal Island to Quebec in 1806. The action was premature, but several years later the Napoleonic blockade caused Britain to turn to North America for naval timber, and Wright found himself with a highly profitable, if very unstable, source of income. He expended much of his profits on improving his farms, and by 1824 his Gatineau Farm alone boasted 800 acres of cleared land. He imported cattle and farm labourers from England and was well known in his time for livestock breeding.
The family firm of P. Wright & Sons, officially organized in December 1814, through Wright's ownership of Hull village, controlled much of the local economy. Wright was appointed or elected to most local offices and dominated the political and social life of the area. In 1830 he was elected to the Legislature, virtually by acclamation. As land agent he promoted settlement, but as Surveyor General Bouchette pointed out, land grants of 21,145 acres "quite adequately" compensated him for "his assiduity and successful endeavours" in this regard.1
Wright was in essence a benevolent autocrat who ruled his little kingdom with a paternalistic hand, but he seems to have genuinely believed that his own interests coincided with those of the community and of the province as a whole. He felt that he was best qualified to decide matters because he was the man who had been mainly responsible for transforming Hull from a "howling wilderness" into a settlement which, in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, was well known and respected as a progressive agricultural community where "the people seem universally to enjoy a degree of ease and comfort seldom met within a dawning colony."2
There are numerous testimonies to his popularity. A contemporary, John Mactaggart, noted that "When he has been from home at any time, on his coming back guns are fired, bells rung, and flags waved."3 Less captivated outsiders sometimes questioned his dreams:
To hear him speak one would suppose the County of York was about to become a Kingdom, and the Village of Rivière du Chene one of the first cities in the universe!4
In light of his visionary ideas it is not surprising to learn that Wright was a bad businessman. His single-minded ambition was to expand his enterprises, regardless of economic conditions and the warnings of more cautious relatives. It was perhaps only the multiplicity of his interests and the distance of his creditors that kept him out of bankruptcy.
But while Wright was an idealist he was also a sharp dealer, a man who could leave Massachusetts owing back taxes and a personal debt, be accused of stealing the warrant of survey for the township from the portmanteau of a former partner (conveniently in jail for debt), blame complaints about his conduct as land agent on the machinations of a local clergyman, and rob his own grandchildren of a part of their inheritance by forging a land transfer to support his belief that he had really been a partner in all of his deceased son's transactions. As Governor Dalhousie is reputed to have commented:
Philemon is a strange character, of shrewd sense, deep cunning and Yankee manners-he is composed of qualities that at the same moment recommend and show him a person that must be constantly suspected of a desire to cheat.5
Wright was unmistakably American and was once contemporaneously portrayed by an actor as "Obadiah Quincy Bunker, from Boston." However, he had committed himself to a life in British territory, and during the War of 1812 he listened anxiously to stories of American troop movements, while trying to keep his sons and employees from being balloted into the militia. He saw nothing wrong with selling wheat to the United States at high wartime prices.
He was first and foremost an entrepreneur, if an inept one. He voted with neither legislative faction consistently, but acted as a defender of the timber industry, and his main preoccupation was with his business. He had cultural aspirations for Hull but his interest did not extend much beyond the prestige value of such institutions as churches and libraries. He was literate, but his handwriting was crabbed and his spelling atrocious.
Late in life, Wright returned to his agricultural ideal by retiring to a farm upriver in Onslow (in present-day Pontiac County) where, in a state of declining health, he confessed the wrong he had done to his grandchildren and, after a life of merely conventional piety, welcomed the ministrations of a clergyman of whom his sons strongly disapproved.
While Philemon Wright is remembered primarily as the founder of Hull, his contribution was ambiguous. Hull was the one shining success story of the "leader and associate" period of colonization, when the government experimented briefly with the notion that the most efficient way to promote settlement was to entrust a township to the care of a dominant individual. However, Wright's ownership of Hull village, and his refusal to allow businesses to set up in competition with his own enterprises, prohibited further growth for thirty years after the commencement of the Rideau Canal on the south shore of the Ottawa River. Wright's death in 1839 was followed by that of his son Tiberius two years later, and lawsuits followed between Tiberius' heirs and Philemon's other son, Ruggles. It was only after the establishment of sawmills on the south shore in the 1850s that the village of Hull began to grow, and then it became a community of cheap housing for mill workers, rather than a commercial centre of any importance. While it is probably true that the building of the Rideau Canal would have siphoned off Hull's prosperity to the south side of the Ottawa in any case, Wright's ownership of what was in truth a company town first promoted and then stifled local development, allowing Aylmer and even Old Chelsea to become more important centres by the 1840s.
This article was first presented as a conference paper in 1981. It was published in l'Outaouais: the Proceedings of the Forum on the Regional Identity of Western Quebec by the Institut d'histoire et de recherche sur l'Outaouais (Hull, 1982). The Société d'histoire de l'Outaouais has generously allowed the Gatineau Valley Historical Society to print this version of it.
|1.||Joseph Bouchette, General Report of an Official Tour Through the New Settlements of the Province of Lower Canada, (Quebec: Thomas Cary & Co., 1825), 45.|
|3.||John Mactaggart, Three Years in Canada, (London: Henry Colburn, 1829) Vol 1, 268-9.|
|4.||National Archives of Canada, Wright Papers, MG24 D8, Vol. 131, p. 68583.|
|5.||N. MacDonald, Canada 1763-1841: Immigration and Settlement, (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1939), 481.|