Up the Gatineau! Articles

The following article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 50.

Early Settlement of the Upper Gatineau Valley: The 1840s

By Martin Lamontagne

Twenty years ago, as we know, this valley was the wildest,
the most inaccessible, the loneliest in Lower Canada...

Stanislas Drapeau1

In 2002, Martin Lamontagne bought a property on Martindale Road in Low, a rural municipality halfway between Gatineau and Maniwaki. Over the years, as Martin restored his century-old home, he learned about the property’s original owners: an Irish family who had settled in Low in the mid-1850s. He was drawn into a quest to explore and document the history of the house and property in its early days.

Martin is currently working on “The Early Years of 356 Martindale Road, Low, Quebec,” which he hopes to publish in French and English. His book will look at the history of the Outaouais from before settlement started in the 1800s, acknowledging the millennia of Indigenous presence. It then will detail the arrival of the first settlers to the area, starting with Americans Philemon and Abigail Wright in Hull in 1800. The book will conclude with the story of his house and its inhabitants from its origin up to the mid-1920s. This article is an adapted and abbreviated version of the chapter on the 1840s.

All translations are by the author of this article.

By the beginning of the 1840s, the settlements of Hull and Wakefield were well underway.2 Farther up the valley, from about the Township of Low heading north, the land was sparsely populated. Timber merchants and forestry workers were almost the only non-Indigenous people who roamed this territory. There were essentially no roads, no infrastructure, no municipal organizations or religious institutions, and no specific development plan in the upper Gatineau Valley.3

The Gatineau Valley remained a vast, rich forest, but one where the logging and timber trades4 were beginning to expand rapidly, as a result of the exclusive cutting rights under the “Gatineau Privilege” that had been granted in 1832 to a few timber merchants. By giving them the exclusive right to cut wood, it effectively closed the land to any potential settlement.5 Indeed, as historian Chad Gaffield wrote:

The official government policy of the early 19th century that aimed to encourage settlement of the region for strategic purposes began to give way in the 1830s to a more equivocal view in which land occupation was seen to be a possible obstacle to expansion of the forest economy. After years of discussion and controversy, the government included in the Crown Timber Act of 1849 an attempt to resolve the competing pressures of settlers who sought land and forest operators who wanted control of uncleared areas.6

Early settlement
An excerpt from a circa 1880 map shows the many waterfalls and rapids once on the Gatineau River, prior to the construction of hydroelectric power plants in the 1920s. Source: Courtney C. J. Bond and John W. Hughson, Hurling Down the Pine, 3rd edition. Gatineau Valley Historical Society, 1987.

However, those timber merchants would end up playing a key role in opening up the area. The upper Gatineau Valley was at first only seasonally inhabited, as logging camps appeared in the territory between Wakefield and the Desert River (today’s Maniwaki), populated with lumberjacks, sawyers, hewers, carters and cooks.7

Around this time, there were about a hundred miles of shanty roads winding through the Valley to the Desert River. This gave access to the forests and allowed for the transport of workers and goods to the logging camps.8 However, the roads were mainly usable only in the winter; they were usually muddy and impassable the rest of the year. What didn’t travel by canoe in the summer was transported by sleighs in the winter. That said, travel on the Gatineau River was not easy either, because of the numerous rapids along its route. The difficulty in accessing the upper Gatineau Valley by land did not improve significantly until the 1860s, and so the Gatineau River remained the main transportation route, despite the fact that it required many portages.

As more intensive logging activities began, the shanties needed ongoing access to agricultural produce to feed the workers and the draught animals. This resulted in large farms at a few key spots along the Gatineau River, solving part of the challenges associated with transporting food. These farms offered another benefit—they provided summer shelter for the draught animals.

Partners George Hamilton and Charles Adamson Low operated two farms in the Township of Low (150 acres cleared),9 one in the Township of Aylwin (200 acres cleared) and another in the vicinity of the Township of Bouchette (200 acres cleared), for a total of about 550 acres.10 The Philemon Wright family operated at least three farms on the Gatineau, with a total of 540 acres under cultivation, including what was known at the time as the “Victoria Farm”11 at La Visitation (today’s Gracefield), at the junction of the Picanoc and Gatineau rivers. Thomas McGoey operated a farm in the Township of Aylwin, with 160 acres under crop.12 The establishment of these farms seems to have encouraged some of those who came to work in the lumber camps to settle in the area, instead of returning home once the winter logging season ended.

In addition to the farms, the logging companies usually established depots, or distribution centres, where supplies needed for the shanties, such as tools, food and agricultural products, were stored in bulk and distributed as needed. These depots were also gathering points for workers heading to the shanties for the winter. In addition, “stopping places” arose to house the carting teams of workers who ensured the supply of the shanties, as well as the forestry workers and the horses that transported them. All could be sheltered and fed during their stay. Originally, these stopping places consisted of a rustic dwelling, a stable and sometimes a general store. They were usually about 12 miles apart, the distance that a team of horses loaded with goods and supplies could travel in a day.

These farms, depots and stopping places were the first milestones in the establishment of small communities along the Gatineau River. After a few years, as the population grew, stores, chapels, schools and post offices emerged to eventually give birth to the small municipalities that can still be found along the Gatineau River. They generally reflect that 12-mile distance between early stopping places, including Hull, Chelsea, Wakefield, Low, Kazabazua and Gracefield.

There is no evidence of any specific plan for development; that is, no government or municipal entity led any structured or orderly development of the Valley.13 Nor were there any supports or incentives to encourage settlement. Indeed, none of the townships north of the Township of Wakefield were surveyed prior to 1845. This certainly hindered the arrival of settlers; it was risky to settle on land that had not been surveyed, since there would be no authorization or legal title.

Despite these deterrents, some still decided to settle and start clearing land. In an 1842 letter to the Bishop of Montreal, Father Désautels, a priest from Aylmer, provided insights into some settlements along the Ottawa and Gatineau rivers and the reality of the day-to-day life of those who lived in this wild, hostile and almost uninhabited territory.14 This mission priest provided frank assessments of the places he visited, including the following excerpts:

This mission… is inhabited by 14 Canadian families. I visited this mission twice and I always found them very willing to console the missionary for the fatigues he has to endure in order to get to them, by their punctuality in attending all of the religious events of the mission. Most of the people of this lake live by hunting and fishing which they do in the large surrounding lakes, which are full of fish; they are almost all poor.

Pointe à Deltier (also known as La Visitation)
This mission is located 10 leagues above Lac-Ste-Marie by canoe and only 5 leagues by the winter road. I opened this mission last summer; it includes 17 Canadian families. I cannot express all the joy these poor people showed me when they saw me arrive, for the first time among them; the signs they showed me were truly touching. They all benefited from the mission, and proved to me by their conduct that there is a lot of good to be done among them.

Father Désautels’ letter, as do others written by the clergy during this period, demonstrates the Catholic Church’s interest in the Indigenous communities, the settlers, and the seasonal workers in the logging camps. It should be pointed out that clergy of other Christian denominations, mainly Protestant, were also present in the region to support the newcomers.

A surveyor, John Allen Snow, corroborated the mission priest’s findings on settlement numbers a few years later, when he noted that some 20 families of “squatters” were settled on the shores of Lac-Ste-Marie.15 About half of these were Métis, or mixed unions—that is, Europeans married to Métis or Indigenous women—while the others were mainly French-Canadian families originally from the Montreal area. Most of those families were, or had been, involved in the fur trade.16 Snow writes that these squatters had cleared 272 acres of land, even though they still were mostly subsisting from hunting and fishing.17

Although the early missionary priests made no mention of the Township of Low, it too was occupied by squatters. This was also the case for other townships located farther north, even though the land was not surveyed and settlement was not encouraged by the government. After 1845, the situation started to change, first with the survey of the Township of Low in 1847–48, and then of Aylwin and Hincks townships in 1848. As many will know, the first family to settle in the Township of Low was that of Caleb Brooks in 1837, the same year that the first family arrived in Lac-Ste-Marie. The Brooks family was joined in the 1840s by other adventurous families looking for a place to settle, as described by another surveyor, John Newman.

Township of LowNumber of acres cleared
No. 1     Pat [Patrick] Rourk [O’Rourke] 30
No. 2     [illegible] Carrole 10
No. 3     Michael Carrole 20
No. 4     Patrick Brennan 30
No. 5     Son-in-law 14
No. 6     Carrole Daly 15
No. 7     Julius Blasdell 25
Others on Stag Creek 2 miles up from the river.
At 1½ miles there is a mill erected on Stag Creek.
No. 8     Michael, Indian, on island in the Paugan Edy [Eddy] 10
No. 9     Bernard, Indian, on island in the Paugan Edy [Eddy] 10
No. 10   Brooks 30
No. 11   Walter Wilky [Wilkie] 15
No. 12 & 13 Hamilton & Low 2 farms 150
No. 14   Nox [Knox] 20
No. 15   Thos [Thomas] Fitzgerald 40
Township of DenholmNumber of acres cleared
No. 1     Haunts [Hance or Hans] Maxwell 40
No. 2     John Wilson 20
No. 3     Wm [William] Jinks 10
No. 4     Jos Wells [or Wills] 19
No. 5     Settlement of four, about half a mile from the river no details

The italicized names are alternatives that the author of this article proposes where the handwriting was difficult to decipher or to spell out abbreviations.
Hamilton and Low (#12 and #13 in Township of Low) were probably considered squatters by Newman given the fact that the territory north of Wakefield was not surveyed in 1846-47. However, it seems that the Gatineau Privilege gave them the right to establish farms to operate their logging camps. It should also be noted that the sons of late George Hamilton (who died in 1839) were the first ones to be granted letters patent in the Township of Low in December 1859 for 680 acres of land, in the area where Newman had identified the Hamilton & Low farms.
Source: John Newman, Carnet 18, Rivière Gatineau, January 1, 1846, pp. 45–50 and 71. BAnQ Québec, Ministère des Terres et Forêts Fonds (E21, S60, SS2, P18).

Newman found that by 1846–47, there were about 15 squatters in the Township of Low along the banks of the Gatineau River, with about 400 acres cleared, and another 10 in the Township of Denholm, with some 100 cleared acres. (See Figure 1 and Map 1.) It’s clear a small community was starting to take shape in Low, a decade after the arrival of Caleb Brooks.

Early settlement
Map 1: An excerpt from an 1846 map shows the location of squatters in Low and Denholm townships, in proximity to timber merchants Hamilton and Low. Both groups relied on each other; the squatters received needed cash, as sources of labour in the logging camps and suppliers of agricultural produce from their farms for the timber merchants. Source: Plan of part of the River Gatineau, John Newman, January 1, 1846. BAnQ Quebec, Ministère des Terres et Forêts Fonds (E21, S555, SS1, SSS18, P72). www.numerique.banq.qc.ca/patrimoine/details/52327/3474240. GVHS 03059.001/61.

In total, Newman noted that some 50 squatters cleared about 2,000 acres on the banks of the Gatineau River between the Paugan Falls and the Desert River.18 Since the survey excluded those at Lac-Ste-Marie and possibly those located farther inland, the actual number is probably higher.

By the late 1840s, about 60 families were living at La Visitation on unsurveyed lands. In 1849, they asked Monseigneur Guigues, the first Bishop of the new diocese of Bytown (renamed Ottawa in 1860) and an ardent advocate of settlement,19 to represent them in their quest to have the government survey their land. Guigues’ request for a prompt survey was approved and actioned. In the Township of Low, John Newman surveyed the first three ranges in 1847 and 1848 and the rest of the township in the years 1852 to 1854.

It is safe to conclude that by the end of the 1840s there were more than a hundred individuals or families with no property title settled on the banks of the Gatineau River between the townships of Low and Maniwaki. They were vulnerable to eviction, despite the fact that they had cleared part of the land and built homes. However, since there is no indication that this happened, it appears government authorities of the day were relatively tolerant of these illegal settlers. Furthermore, it appears that squatters who were established on public lands were allowed to normalize their status if they paid the usual price20 plus an annual annuity for the number of years they had occupied the public lands.21 As one researcher of the squatters observed, “The settlement of many areas of Lower Canada, including the Upper Gatineau, began long before the official opening of the lands.”22

Early settlement
Bishop Joseph-Bruno Guigues (1805–1874), the first bishop of Bytown (and later of the renamed Ottawa), as sketched (probably from a photo) by A. D. Beaulieu, circa 1920. Source: Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec, P600, S5, PDEN83. https://numerique. banq.qc.ca/patrimoine/details/52327/4601468. GVHS 03059.004/61.

The timber merchants valued these squatters, both for their labour and for the supply of agricultural products for the logging camps. Together with the lumber merchants who established large farms along the Gatineau River, they paved the way for the settlement of the upper Gatineau Valley, by being essentially the first to clear and make arable the land north of the Township of Wakefield.23

Thus began the settlement of the upper Gatineau Valley. It would continue at a sustained pace in the decades to follow. Factors that contributed to the acceleration of settlement included the ongoing land surveying, the gaining momentum of the logging industry, the government’s desire to settle new areas, and the significant immigration from the United Kingdom, in particular Ireland. There, the already difficult economic situation was aggravated between 1845 and 1850 by a disease in potatoes—its main agricultural crop and primary source of food—resulting in the “Great Famine.”24 This led to a significant number of Irish immigrants arriving to settle in the Gatineau Valley. The Irish were closely followed by the arrival of both French Canadians and other European nationals, creating a diversity of cultures in the Gatineau Valley and surrounding area.

Although settlement in the upper Gatineau Valley in the first half of the 19th century was slower than that along the Ottawa River and in the lower Gatineau Valley, it progressed, despite the adverse conditions. The momentum intensified in the 1850s, and settlement gradually continued northward in the decades that followed.

With notes from Louise Schwartz

The author invites anyone interested in learning more about his writing project to contact him at martinlam111@gmail.com.


Barbezieux, Alexis de, père o.f.m. Capucin. Histoire de la province ecclésiastique d’Ottawa et de la colonisation dans la vallée de l’Ottawa, Ottawa, 1897, Vol. 1.

Bond, Courtney C. J. and Hughson, John W. Hurling Down the Pine, 3rd edition. Gatineau Valley Historical Society, 1987.

Circare Consultants. A Historical Profile of Mixed European-Indian Communities in the Outaouais Region. Draft Report for the Department of Justice Canada, 2005.

Drapeau, Stanislas. Études sur les développements de la colonisation du Bas-Canada depuis 10 ans (1851–1861). Quebec, 1863.

Gaffield, Chad. History of the Outaouais. Institut québécois de recherche sur la culture, 1997.

Kealey, Don. Low Municipality – Reflections of the Past. Self-published, 2015.

Newman, John. Carnet 18, Rivière Gatineau, January 1, 1846. BAnQ Québec, Ministère des Terres et Forêts Fonds (E21, S60, SS2, P18). Carnet L147, Canton de Low, September 13, 1848, BAnQ Québec, Ministère des Terres et Forêts Fonds (E21, S60, SS3, PL147), and Carnet L22, Canton de Low, October 3, 1852, BAnQ Québec, Ministère des Terres et Forêts Fonds (E21, S60, SS3, PL22).

Sabourin, Mathieu. Les squatters de la rivière Gatineau entre 1812 et 1870. Master’s thesis. Université Laval, Quebec, 2010.

Snow, John Allen. Carnet G25, Cantons Aylwin et Hincks, May 8, 1848. BAnQ Québec, Ministère des Terres et Forêts Fonds (E21, S60, SS3, PG25).

Taché, Louis, and others. Le Nord de l’Outaouais : manuel répertoire d’histoire et de géographie régionales. Le Droit, Ottawa, 1938.


  1. Stanislas Drapeau, Études sur les développements de la colonisation du Bas-Canada depuis 10 ans (1851–1861), Québec, 1863, p. 322.
  2. According to the 1842 Canada Census, that year the population of the Township of Hull was 2,742, including Chelsea, whose population was about 100 Irish families. The population of the Township of Wakefield was 248, or 37 families.
  3. Louis Taché and others, Le Nord de l’Outaouais : manuel répertoire d’histoire et de géographie régionales, Ottawa: Le Droit, 1938, p. 220.
  4. Logging is the activity of cutting down trees, trimming them, and cutting them into logs to make them ready to be sold on the market. Timber usually means wood suitable for building houses, ships, etc., that is still in the form of logs, meaning they have not yet been milled.
  5. Circare Consultants, A Historical Profile of Mixed European-Indian Communities in the Outaouais Region, Draft Report for the Department of Justice Canada, 2005, p. 59.
  6. Chad Gaffield, History of the Outaouais, Institut québécois de recherche sur la culture, 1997, pp. 159–160.
  7. In those days, the sawyer was usually the one who cut the felled trees into logs, a hewer squared the logs, and a carter drove the carts.
  8. Archie M. Pennie, “The Gatineau Highway,” Up the Gatineau!, Gatineau Valley Historical Society, 1999, Volume 25, p. 1.
  9. Under the Gatineau Privilege, Hamilton and Low obtained timber rights in the Township of Low; they established a logging camp and began logging near Paugan Falls. Source: Don Kealey, Low Municipality – Reflections of the Past, 2015, p. 44.
  10. John Newman, Carnet 18, Rivière Gatineau, January 1, 1846. BAnQ Québec, Ministère des Terres et Forêts Fonds (E21, S60, SS2, P18).
  11. It was named “Victoria Farm” in 1839 in honour of the monarch who had acceded to the throne two years earlier
  12. John Newman, Carnet 18, Rivière Gatineau, January 1, 1846. BAnQ Quebec, Ministère des Terres et Forêts Fonds (E21, S60, SS2, P18).
  13. Louis Taché and others, Le Nord de l’Outaouais : manuel répertoire d’histoire et de géographie régionales, Ottawa: Le Droit, 1938, p. 220.
  14. Joseph Désautels, Mission d’Aylmer. Lettre de M. Désautels, à Mgr. de Montréal, datée le 3 mai 1842. Rapport de l’Association de la propagation de la foi, December 1842, No. 4, 1843, pp. 55–63.
  15. Surveyor Snow identified about 10 others who lived on the banks of the Gatineau River, including members of the Wright, Hamilton and McGoey families.
  16. Martine Calvé, Les squatters du lac Sainte-Marie dans les années 1840, L’Outaouais généalogique, vol. XXXIV, no 1, printemps – été 2012, pp. 23–30; Michel Bouchard, Sébastien Malette, and Guillaume Marcotte, Les Bois-Brûlés de l’Outaouais : une étude ethnoculturelle des Métis de la Gatineau, Presses de l’Université Laval, 2019, p. 129–133.
  17. John Allen Snow, Carnet G25, Cantons Aylwin et Hincks, May 8, 1848, p. 76. BAnQ Québec, Ministère des Terres et Forêts Fonds (E21, S60, SS3, PG25).
  18. Newman provided a list of squatters who settled along the Gatineau River as far as Maniwaki. He also noted there was a small chapel near the Victoria Farm at La Visitation (Gracefield) in 1847.
  19. Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Joseph-Bruno Guigues, Vol. X, University of Toronto/Université Laval. Note that his name sometimes appeared as Joseph-Eugène-Bruno Guigues.
  20. In the early 1860s, the price was 60 cents per acre. In addition, squatters had to pay an annual annuity of $2.50 per 100 acres for occupying the land without any title. Thus, if a squatter wanted to purchase 100 acres of land that they had been squatting on for five years, they had to pay a total of $72.50.
  21. Rapport du comité spécial nommé pour prendre en considération la colonisation des terres incultes du Bas-Canada, 1862, p. 31.
  22. Mathieu Sabourin, Les squatters de la rivière Gatineau entre 1812 et 1870, master’s thesis, Université Laval, Quebec, 2010, pp. 119–120.
  23. Rapport général du commissaire de l’agriculture et des travaux publics de la province de Québec pour les 12 mois expirés le 31 décembre 1869, Montreal, 1870, p. 16.
  24. Canada welcomed over 90,000 Irish immigrants in 1847 alone. Source: Louise Charpentier and others, Nouvelle histoire du Québec et du Canada, Les Éditions du Boréal Express, 1985, pp. 146 and 182.