Up the Gatineau! Selected Articles

The following article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 46.

"Gatineau": Paddling through the History of a River’s Name

by Rick Henderson

We like to think we intimately know the river that descends like steps from northern Quebec to the Ottawa River. We have canoed the river in summer, skied its frozen surface in winter, and once watched thousands of logs float by with the help of small tugboats. But do we really know this river? Do we even know its name?

Actually, there are many names for that river, but the one that we see on every modern map of the Gatineau has a history with dubious provenance. That name is linked to Trois-Rivières fur trader Nicolas Gatineau, according to an oft-cited historian-storyteller from more than a century ago, Benjamin Sulte. But can Sulte be trusted?

The Anishinàbeg of the Ottawa Valley, the people who inhabited the Ottawa and Gatineau valleys for centuries before Europeans arrived, have their own name—make that names—for the river. They include, among others, Tenàgàdino Zìbì, Tenàgàdin Zìbì or Tenakatin Zìbì (spelling variations), with Zìbì being the Anishinàbemowin word for “river.” That last name can be found on a modest sign by a Chelsea cottage built more than half a century ago by George Wilkes and Norman Dahl, who had asked First Nations elder William Commanda the Indigenous name of the river bordering their property. Could it be that the name “Gatineau” has an Indigenous origin?

The great French explorer Samuel de Champlain, who came this way five centuries ago, did not give a name to the river. In 1613, he merely described it as this “rivière qui vient du Nord.”1

But many others after Champlain have dared to give the river a name.

Outaouais historian Raymond Ouimet tells us that before Philemon Wright’s arrival in 1800, the only names attached to the river were recorded on two maps by the fur trader and schoolmaster Jean-Baptiste Perrault (1761–1844). They were Nàgàtinong and Àgatinung.2

Indian Encampment
Indian Encampment on Desert and Gatineau Rivers (near Maniwaki, Quebec), a watercolour by Alfred Worsley Holdstock, c. 1870. Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 2836423.

A handwritten report from Lieutenant David Jones to the Governor of Quebec, Sir Frederick Haldimand, dated 1783, calls it the Lettinoe River.3 Could a transcription error have occurred, turning a G into an L? In the florid script of the day, those two letters can be very similar.

The surveys – Theodore Davis and Joseph Bouchette

The initial survey work for the Ottawa Valley in Lower Canada was performed for Philemon Wright by Theodore Davis, Commissioned Land Surveyor, as ordered by Joseph Bouchette, Surveyor-General of Lower Canada.

His 1817 map4 illustrates the plan for the Kings Road on the north bank of the Grand, or Ottawa, River. The road was to stretch from Grenville through to Eardley Township.

1817 map
A selected portion of an area map created in 1817 by Theodore Davis, with the Gatineau River shown as “Gatteno.” See footnote 4. GVHS 2970.001/56.

Davis’s map is detailed. All of the names of the major landmarks are inscribed, and Davis’s notes are impeccably written. The place names we see on the map are Long-Sault, Chutes à Blondeau, Petite-Nation Seigneurie, and the Petite-Nation, Blanche, du Lièvre, and Rideau rivers, as well as Portage Chaudière and Portage Deschêne. All are correctly spelled by the hand of an obviously well-educated man. Curiously, though, Gatineau is spelled Gatteno.

If the river had been known as “Gatineau” at the time, Davis would have known that. His map shows a significant familiarity with the names of other rivers and places in the area, but on all of his maps, we see “Gatteno.” It’s the same name, or variant thereof, that is found in the reports and maps of Philemon Wright, as well as those of Colonel By and his engineers from 1801 to 1821: Gatteno, Gatino, Gateno, Gattino, and Gatina.

In his report to the Prince of Wales dated 1815,5 Joseph Bouchette gives a full description of Hull Township and Philemon Wright’s settlement. In it, he describes the Ottawa and Rideau rivers, but there is no mention of the Gatineau River. Can this be an oversight, or is it because the river actually had no name known to the Crown’s Surveyor-General?

1815 map
This 1815 map has no river shown or named where the Gatineau River should be. See footnote 5. GVHS 2970.002/56.

In several very detailed maps produced in 1815 and 1818, Bouchette names every major river in the provinces of Canada, but as can be seen in this close-up of his 1815 Map of the Provinces of Upper & Lower Canada, there is no river shown or named where the Gatineau River should be. Wright’s Village, as he called it, was well-established by 1815.

1821 map
An 1821 map shows the modern (French) spelling of “Gatineau” for the first time. See footnote 7. GVHS 2970.003/56.

He will not put a name to the river until his report to the Crown in 1832. In it, Bouchette describes the Eardley Escarpment and tells us its Anishinàbemowin name: “The general characteristics of Hull are mountainous, a chain of hills, named by the Indians Perguatina runs through the middle from e[ast] to w[est].”6 We get some insight into the possible source of the river’s name. His description of the river lets us know that it was still largely unexplored. The “river rises,” his report says, “in some large lakes far in the interior of the country, between the rear of the T[township] of Hull and Hudson’s Bay: these lakes have been visited by the Indians only …. This river, though well worthy of research, is remarkably little known …. Our ignorance of it is partly explained by the common report of its course; because … no Indian traders have found it worth their while to make establishments on it.”

The oldest map where the name Gatineau first appears is this map of Nepean concessions dated 1821, produced in Lower Canada.7

The case for Nicolas Gatineau as the namesake of the river

And now we come to Nicolas Gatineau.

The first person to tie Gatineau’s family name to the river is Benjamin Sulte (1841–1923). He was a journalist, a civil servant, and a prolific writer and researcher who, although he mostly wrote history, was a talented storyteller. He writes the history of the river in an article simply entitled “Gatineau” in the inaugural publication of L’Echo de la Gatineau – Journal Littéraire, published in 1889.

Benjamin Sulte’s column
The front page of the 1889 L’Echo de la Gatineau, featuring historian Benjamin Sulte’s column. See footnote 9. GVHS 2970.004/56.

But was Sulte a reliable narrator? The online Dictionary of Canadian Biography states: “Sulte … acquired the reputation of being a historian with liberal ideas. He was also reproached for sliding at times into inappropriate generalizations and for occasionally drawing hasty conclusions …. An impetuous man, he did not shrink from polemics....”8

In Sulte’s L’Echo article, he makes assumptions he admits are unfounded by evidence.9 In my following translation of the original French text, Sulte notes:

I think it was a century ago that this river was so called by everyone in Canada, but I am inclined to believe it goes back further. I would even go as far back as 1700 or so. Here’s why: A hundred years ago, the Gatineau family was, or about, extinct; it is unlikely that we would have waited until its disappearance to commemorate the three or four fur traders they produced [emphasis added]. The custom had to be established during the men’s lifetime, and because they were trading in these places. Of the latter, though, I am not sure [emphasis added]. I come to this kind of conclusion with the following reasoning: We have only had one family of that name in Canada.

Sulte continues:

Since most of the information on the origin of the name of the Gatineau River is completely missing, let us assume that the above-mentioned fur traders are not foreign to it …. That Nicolas or Jean Gatineau frequented our river, is what I believe …. Good trading post, was the Gatineau, at that time! Good travellers and skilled traders, were the Gatineaus!

As in other articles he wrote, Sulte has fit the history to his point of view. There are no facts to support the conclusion, nothing to say that members of the family ever set foot in the Ottawa Valley.

Next, we see a history written in 1897 by Archbishop Alexis de Barbezieux, who relies heavily on Sulte’s articles about Nicolas Gatineau for the family history. Barbezieux, however, adds one element never mentioned by Sulte: a claim that Nicolas Gatineau drowned in the river, writing (in my translation): “Perhaps he drowned while travelling in the Gatineau, which took his name.”10

Sulte also insists on writing the family name as “Gatineau” and tells us: “Sometimes he signed Duplessis, sometimes Gatineau, or Gatineau dit Duplessis; more often than not Gatineau. I copied and published his signature.” But this is not wholly true.

In 1974, historian Raymond Douville of Trois-Rivières wrote a history of the genealogical links that former premier Maurice Duplessis had with the family of Nicolas Gastineau dit Duplessis.11 In it, we learn for the first time that the man that Sulte and Barbezieux were writing about was actually most often called Nicolas Gastineau sieur Duplessis.

Douville explains (in my translation): “He indifferently signs Gatineau dit Duplessis, N. Gatineau, Du Plessis, or Nicolas Gastineau dit Duplessis. In the last years of his life, he always signed Gastineau, in well-printed letters [emphasis added].”

Douville also outlines Nicolas’s career in the military, after which he “… became a fur trader. On August 31, 1691, he signed an engagement with Claude Greysolon, Sieur de la Tourette, for the ‘pays des Outaouais’. He continued to be interested in the fur trade until 1698, when he decided to marry.” However, Douville provides no evidence to show that Nicolas ever travelled there.

Douville’s research shows us that Nicolas had a son, also named Nicolas, who died at age 34, in 1700. There are no records of Nicolas Junior travelling as a fur trader. So, turning his attention to the other two sons, Jean-Baptiste and Louis, Douville finds just one record for Jean-Baptiste, where he was hired as a guide-voyageur for “le voyage des Outaouais.” Douville writes: “It is likely that it is from them, rather than from their father, that the name Pointe-Gastineau or Pointe-à-Gastineau comes from, and the name that is later given to the river. They had established a trading post, or at least a staging post, on this point.”

However, this last assertion is not supported by facts. A 2005 historical profile report of the Outaouais region tells us: “The French entered the region to establish trading posts. These posts were located along the Ottawa River, the region’s main transportation route (at the mouths of the Petite-Nation, Coulonge, Lièvre and other rivers), but no evidence of a trading post on the Gatineau River or at its mouth was found in the sources.”12

The first name to be recorded for the land at the mouth of the Gatineau appears in the 1801 survey ordered for Philemon Wright. It is Long Point Range. The name describes a long peninsula at the southernmost point of the Gatineau River’s east shore, where it meets the Ottawa. In the 1830s, when more and more of that land was sold to French-Canadian settlers, the name became roughly translated to Pointe-à-Gatineau, which was subsequently shortened to Pointe-Gatineau.

Douville’s unsubstantiated claim of a trading post in that area must be seriously held in doubt for at least two reasons. First, in his account of his trip on the Grand (Ottawa) River in 1761, written about by historian Raymond Ouimet in his earlier-ferenced 2005 article, the British explorer Alexander Henry made no mention of a trading post at the mouth of the river. Second, if a trading post had been established at the mouth of the river, one could assume that either the Hudson’s Bay Company or the Northwest Company would have a record. The fur trade on the Ottawa was highly controlled, and both companies had numerous and excellent records during all of the years in question, but there are no records of a trading post ever having been at that location.

From the evidence, it is impossible to reconcile the discrepancies revealed in the histories that claim Nicolas Gastineau dit Duplessis gave his name to the river.

In the late 1990s, local historians Carol Martin and Patrick Evans jointly wrote an article for Up the Gatineau! about the river’s name and how it was associated with the fur trade and two individuals, Nicolas Gatineau, sieur Duplessis, and Cardinal Richelieu. Both authors quote Sulte and thus did not question the basis of the history.13

Voices of the Anishinàbeg community

Anishinàbemowin is a language that was historically unwritten, and only in recent years have we gained substantial access to research on Indigenous language and the etymology of Canada’s place names. Nothing in the written histories from Sulte, Barbezieux, Douville, or Evans and Martin tells us anything about Indigenous names given to the river.

I initiated an email exchange on April 26, 2018, with Stephen McGregor, Anishinàbe author, and Joan Tenasco, Anishinàbe elder. A note from Tenasco describes the river’s name as Tenàgàdino Zìbì or Tenàgàdin Zìbì, meaning “The Wedged River.” As McGregor explained, “It’s very likely that the Algonquin groups hunting and trapping around the present-day Maniwaki-Baskatong areas since precontact and using the Gatineau as their main transportation route to the summer gatherings along the Ottawa and Lake of Two Mountains would have named the river for its specific landmarks (the wedges).”

We know that two other places along the river are linked to those Anishinàbeg names: a road that follows the river’s edge at Maniwaki named Tenàgàdino Mikan [road], and a riverside district in Chelsea named Tenaga.

Readers may have heard other meanings for the Indigenous name of the Gatineau River, such as “the river that stops [one’s journey]”14 or “la rivière aux cascades infinies.”15 The late Algonquin elder William Commanda (1913–2011) said the name meant “the river that rises in steps.”

Storytelling is an important element of Algonquin tradition. Place names, or toponymy, are part of Indigenous storytelling, connecting people to the land and to the cultural identity of where they live. Cultural traditions were passed on orally.

In this context, Indigenous speakers may have been speaking metaphorically when they described the river to their listeners. In other words, they may have shared the meaning of the river’s name in their own words. Therefore, many or all of the various meanings ascribed to the river’s Algonquin names may be correct.

So, what is the real name of the river we like to call our own? As I was once told by an elder, “Language is given to the Anishinàbeg by the Great Spirit. So, the name of the river is what it is called.”

Take your pick. It is a river with many names, given to it by many people.

  1. Samuel de Champlain, 1574–1635, Les Voyages du sieur de Champlain Xaintongeois, capitaine ordinaire pour le roy, en la marine, divisez en deux livres [...] – Quatriesme Voyage du Sr. De Champlain. Paris: chez Jean Berjon, 1613, p. 22. See http://numerique.banq.qc.ca/patrimoine/details/52327/2036233">http://numerique., p. 402.
  2. Raymond Ouimet, “Gatineau : débat sur le nom,” Histoire Québec, Volume 11, Number 1, June 2005, p. 32. See https://www.erudit.org/en/journals/hq/2005-v11-n1-hq1058960/11073ac.pdf.
  3. Library and Archives Canada has only a transcription of this report; the original is with the National Archives of the United Kingdom and has not been accessible for examination.
  4. Plan of the Kings Road on the north side of the Ottawa River in the province of Lower Canada, by Theodore Davis, 1817, Library and Archives Canada, Mikan 4127096.
  5. Joseph Bouchette, A Topographical Description of the Province of Lower Canada, with Remarks upon Upper Canada, and on the Relative Connexion of Both Provinces with the United States of America, London, England, 1815. See https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/164002#page/9/mode/1up.
  6. Joseph Bouchette, A Topographical Dictionary of the Province of Lower Canada, London, England: Longman, Rees, Orme, Green and Longman, 1832, p. 134. See https://archive.org/details/topographicaldic00bouc/page/n3.
  7. A History of Ottawa East, Chapter 1: The Historical Setting; Early Settlement. See http://history.ottawaeast.ca/HTML%20Documents/History/chpt1.html.
  8. See http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/sulte_benjamin_15E.html.
  9. See http://www.reseaupatrimoine.ca/documents/10-11%20asticou0001.pdf, p. 69.
  10. Rév. P. Alexis De Barbezieux, Capucin, Histoire de la Province Ecclésiastiques d’Ottawa et de la Colonisation dans la vallée de l’Ottawa, Ottawa : La Cie d’imprimerie d’Ottawa, 1897, p. 72. See http://numerique.banq.qc.ca/patrimoine/details/52327/2022924.
  11. Raymond Douville, “De Nicolas Gastineau sieur Du Plessis à Maurice Le Noblet Duplessis,” Les Cahiers des dix, number 39, 1974, pp. 85–117. See https://www.erudit.org/en/journals/cdd/1974-n39-cdd01428/1025318ar.pdf.
  12. Circare Consultants – Outaouais Region (4500049335). A Historical Profile of Mixed European-Indian Communities in the Outaouais Region, draft report for the Department of Justice Canada, 2005. See http://www.metisnation.org/media/141070/doj%20report%20-%20outaouais%20region.pdf.
  13. Patrick M. O. Evans and Carol Martin, “A Tale about a Name, Two Persons and the Fur Trade,” Up the Gatineau!, Volume 24, 1998. See also Carol Martin, “Three Centuries of the Fur Trade, Passing by the Gatineau Region,” Up the Gatineau!, Volume 24, 1998.
  14. See https://www.ottawariverkeeper.ca/major-ottawa-river-tributaries/.
  15. Louis-André Hubert, Une Rivière qui vient du Nord (Maniwaki, QC: L.-A. Hubert, 2001), p. 24.

Return to list of articles.