Up the Gatineau! Articles

The following article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 7.

Philemon Wright Memorial

by Patrick M.O. Evans

On Wednesday, June 18, 1980, at Winchester, Massachusetts, a bronze plaque, a gift from Canada, was unveiled, commemorating the departure of a party of pioneers, under the leadership of Philemon Wright, for a remote spot in the Canadian forested wilderness where the purpose was to establish a community, later to become the City of Hull in the Province of Quebec and part of what is now called the National Capital Region.

Philemon Wright was born on September 3, 1760, the second son of Thomas Wright by his second wife, Elizabeth Chandler, of Woburn, Mass. In addition to an older brother, Thomas, there were two step-sisters by their father's earlier marriage, and three other sisters, one older than the brothers and two younger.

Descendants, as was Philemon Wright, of Deacon John and Priscilla Wright. Behind the plaque, from left to right are: John McCaffery Wright, his daughter Sarah Thornton Wright, her cousin James Artemas Wright, with his father, Thomas Pearson Wright. The two outside men are brothers. The house in the background was built by the Lockes on the site of the house in which Philemon Wright was born in 1760.

The Wrights could trace their family to a progenitor, John Wright, who with his wife, Priscilla, left England in the spring of 1630 to face life in the New World across the mighty Atlantic. After the trials and tribulations usually associated with passage at sea under sail lasting several weeks the young couple landed at Salem, Mass. We find them next a few miles away, establishing themselves and starting a family, at Charlestown, Mass. where they were to remain for the next ten years.

In 1640 a decision was taken in Charlestown to establish a new community nearby. In consequence a site was selected and the property was surveyed. Following this a party of some forty men and their families were chosen to move to this new site. A series of documents, called Town Orders, were commenced, similar to the Minute Books of modern day Town Councils. The heads of the families moving to the new location each signed the first Town Order which saw the founding of the new village which was to be called, for the first two years, Charlestown Village. One of the signers of this initial Town Order was John Wright.

Two years later the village changed its name by act of incorporation to Woburn, after its namesake in England, long connected with the Russell family. (Woburn Abbey, the family seat, has, for generations, been associated with successive Dukes of Bedford.) The Hon. Richard Russell came to settle at Charlestown. Indeed, a John Russell is shown as one of the signers of Woburn's first Town Orders.

The Wright family continued to grow and prosper. Both John and his second son, Joseph, became, each in his turn, Deacon of the First Church at Woburn. From time to time, others of this family, in following generations, became deacons of their church. The family's main occupation and livelihood was farming. This is not to say that members did not enter other vocations but the land remained, for most, the great provider. Various members held a variety of civic offices and a few even represented their community in the deliberations of the General Court of Massachusetts from time to time.

As with other New England families in later generations it was inevitable that certain members of the Wright family, along with their spouses, moved away from town to establish themselves in newer communities, some nearby and others at some distance. The pattern of exodus from Woburn and movement to fresh fields took a western and northern direction.

One hundred and twenty years after Deacon John Wright was established as a "town father" of Woburn there was born on a farm at the outskirts of the town a great, great grandson who was to be named Philemon. Nothing is known of his childhood or schooling. The first record, since his birth, shows his service in the War of the Revolution. He is shown as serving four separate terms of varying but short duration, starting at the age of 15 and ending when he was 17 and a sergeant.

On May 16, 1782, at the age of 22 he married a distant cousin, Abigail Wyman, who was the same age as Philemon. Some years later both Philemon and his brother were deeded land by their father. Philemon's share was 45 acres of mixed farming property where he had been born.

Upon approaching his forties Philemon realized that, with a growing family, the farm, limited to 45 rather hilly and rocky acres, would not be able to support them; he therefore considered that a move to farther fields would be advantageous. In 1796, he went to Montreal, in the then Lower Canada, to explore the country, having a fixed idea that he wanted to reside in Canada. He spent some time looking over the countryside before returning to Woburn. The following year he returned to Canada and visited Quebec City. He viewed the country on both sides of the St. Lawrence River and continued his inspection up the Grand (Ottawa) River until he arrived at a place where two lesser rivers entered the main river; the one from the north being the Gatineau and that from the south the Rideau. He particularly examined the Grand River with respect to navigation and the general area with the view of a possible new settlement.

In the year 1798 Philemon returned a third time seeking further information about the area, especially near the two tributary rivers where he was determined to establish a settlement on the northern shore of the Grand River. Having made up his mind Philemon returned to Woburn with the idea of hiring some axemen but was unable to do so because of the distance (some eighty miles beyond, or west of, the nearest settlement) between Montreal and where he proposed to settle. The following year, 1799, he hired two "respectable" men in Massachusetts to accompany him once more to view the country. They remained in the area from October 1st to the 20th before returning to Woburn. This time he made public a report on what he had seen.

It is evident that the report Philemon made was convincing because he was able to hire some 25 men with little difficulty. In addition he must have won over his older brother, Thomas, to pull up stakes and join the expedition. Further he was able to persuade two of his brothers-in-law, Samuel Choate and John Allen, whose respective wives, Margery and Laving, were sisters of his own wife, Abigail (Wyman), to join the party, all with their families.

Philemon arranged to sell his farm to his neighbour, Josiah Locke. Perhaps the only qualm was the thought of leaving the gravesite of his young daughter, Nabby (Abigail), who had died of a childhood disease and lay buried on the farm. Preparations for departure occupied the families during the early winter months for the trek was due to commence in February, to take advantage of the frozen rivers where no roads existed. The journey, as was to be expected, was one of hardship due to travel across the winter snows and contending with the bitter cold. Indeed the snow was so deep that it required time out to modify the harnesses of the horse and oxen teams, to change them for travelling in tandem, rather than abreast. At night the women and children slept under cover in the sleighs while the men slept out in the open, with their feet to the roaring fire.

In time they reached Montreal where time was taken to complete the necessary paperwork and to swear allegiance to the King. A document exists, listing by name and age the heads of families, their wives and each of the children. Shortly the journey was resumed westward along the Grand River. Progress was slow as it was necessary that men should go ahead with axes to try the strength of the river ice over which the party would be travelling; the fear being that the loss of animals and a sleigh with all its valuable load of humans and settlers' effects would be disastrous in the extreme.

On the way they met an Indian with his squaw and a child being drawn in a bark sleigh. It is difficult to determine who was the most astonished at this surprise meeting. Fortunately the Indian proved friendly, so much so that he sent his wife and child into the nearby woods with instructions to camp and wait for him. Without further ado the Indian assumed leadership of the ice testing detail.

Eventually after six days of careful prodding they reached the site of their future home and after some trouble cutting the brush and bank were able to drive their sleighs up the twenty feet to firm ground. Here they spent their first night on the bank of the Gatineau River - it was March 7th. The following morning the Indian indicated he would have to return to his wife and child. Being loaded with presents and to the echo of three hurrahs he left them.

The first chore was to fell trees in order to provide themselves and their animals with building materials for rude shelters. While they were thus engaged the chiefs from two tribes of Indians, from the Lake of Two Mountains, came to visit, viewing with some astonishment the tools and other implements being used by the settlers. They were also intrigued at the manner of harnessing the horses and oxen. They seemed to view the cattle with great pleasure, calling their children and other members of the tribes to see the oxen and horses, having never seen a tame animal before. The men were intensely interested in the axes being used as they weighed from four to five pounds compared with those used by the Indians, which weighed half a pound. The Indians were allowed to experiment in felling trees with the settlers' axes and appeared pleased and excited with having cut down a tree so quickly.

The Indians stayed in the vicinity for about ten days, completely awed by the party of whites. Nevertheless, they were evidently concerned by the apparent rights of the settlers to cut trees and to establish their camp. This concern manifested itself one day by their asking, through an interpreter, under what authority the settlers were cutting down their wood and taking possession of their land. Philemon was able to pacify them on the score that authority had been granted by the Great Father across the water - the King, across the Atlantic. He reassured the Indians that their rights with respect to hunting and fishing would be respected and that all the settlers wished was to grow crops and raise farm animals. Apparently this assurance satisfied the Indians for they left in peace, not, however, without adopting Wright as a brother chief.

So came, in 1800, Philemon Wright, his brother, Thomas, who sadly was to die within twelve months, Samuel Choate, who apparently returned to the U.S., and John Allen, with their families, to settle in what is now referred to as the National Capital Region. Bertha (Wright) Carr-Harris, a descendant of Philemon's and who was, incidentally, brought up at 24 Sussex Drive, now more familiarly known as the residence of Canada's Prime Ministers, was to tell the story of the journey and the first years of settlement in her novel "The White Chief of the Ottawa" which was published in 1903. Historians and especially genealogists would be well advised to approach this work with some caution, remembering that it is a tale based on fact rather than a definitive history.

The eventual growth from Wright's Town to a partner city in the area known as the National Capital Region - the City of Hull - is well documented and indeed was to be the subject of an address by Philemon Wright himself to the Committee of the House of Assembly, at Quebec City, in 1823. Hull's beginnings have been the subject of numerous articles and speeches down through the years.

Let us return once more to the farm at Woburn which Philemon Wright relinquished, by sale, to his former neighbour, Josiah Locke. Five generations of Lockes lived on the farm. In time the old Wright house, which had become dilapidated, was replaced by a larger and more modern structure. Other buildings, barn, icehouse, squash house, etc. were added from time to time. The produce raised was marketed in nearby Boston and Charlestown. Eventually, in the first half of the present century, the property was acquired by Curtis Hamilton, a banker. The farm, reduced to some twenty acres, is currently run as an organic vegetable farm and the the address is 78 Ridge Street, Winchester, Mass.; Winchester being "struck off" Woburn in the mid-nineteenth century. Part of the old farm was left as an undeveloped conservation area and the remainder is little changed from Wright's day.

Mrs. Bertha Hamilton, the wife of the present owner, became interested in the farm's history and fortunately discovered in the farmhouse the original deed of sale between Wright and Locke, put away for safekeeping by the Lockes. This deed proved beyond doubt that the property had once belonged to Philemon Wright, because his name is mentioned therein.

In 1976, Mrs. Hamilton wrote to the Historical Society of Ottawa seeking information on the Wrights. She was put in touch with Mr. Patrick M.O. Evans, author of a genealogical study on the Wright family and himself an amateur historian. Correspondence was entered into which resulted in two annual visits to the farm by Mr. Evans. On the first of these visits Mrs. Hamilton suggested that it might be appropriate that the Wrights' earlier ownership of the farm and their later settlement of Canada's National Capital area be recognized by the Canadian Government.

It was recommended that she might initially address a suitable letter to the Heritage Branch of the National Capital Commission. Mr. Evans agreed to give verbal support to the proposal. In time, and upon the advice of the N.C.C., a letter from Mrs. Hamilton was prepared and forwarded to the Chairman of the Commission. Her suggestion must have merited a positive reaction as protracted diplomatic and international exchanges were commenced which finally culminated in a suitable ceremony of recognition.

The ceremony was to consist of the unveiling of a bronze plaque, inscribed in both English and French, describing the departure from the farm and the journey to the new settlement on the Grand River which began its flow in Upper Canada and ended in Lower Canada; now more familiarly known as the Ottawa R fiver, with its start in Ontario and its entry into the St. Lawrence, in Quebec Province. The plaque, the largest free-standing one of its kind ever cast on the North American Continent, was shipped to Winchester for installation prior to the ceremony.

The small Canadian contingent consisted of Mr. Rolf Latte, Chief of the Heritage Branch of the N.C.C., Mr. Patrick Evans, genealogist and historian, Vice-President of the Historical Society of the Gatineau and Dr. Edwin Welch, archivist and member of the Historical Society of Ottawa. The party arrived in Winchester in time to oversee the installation of the plaque and to complete arrangements with the local representatives.

At 11.30 on the morning of Wednesday, June 18, 1980 the Canadian Consul at Boston, Mr. Timothy A. Williams, opened proceedings by welcoming the gathering and calling upon Mr. Lattd to explain the ceremony which was to follow. Mr. Latte handled the charge with his customary succinctness, concluding by requesting Mr. Evans to give a resume of the history of the family and to cover their odyssey from the farm to virgin forested land in neighbouring Canada. Dr. Welch completed the story of the development of the Hull-Ottawa area as a timber and lumbering centre for approximately a hundred years, pointing out that many of the "lumber barons" could be identified as New Englanders.

The addresses concluded, came the time for unveiling the memorial plaque. Mr. Latt6, on behalf of the N.C.C., representing the people of Canada, removed the shroud bearing a likeness of Philemon Wright (1760-1839) which until that moment had concealed the bronze. Mr. Latt6 was assisted by Mrs. Bertha Hamilton and Miss Sarah Thornton Wright, a direct descendant of Deacon John Wright. In a few well chosen words the gift was passed to the people of Winchester and Woburn.

Mrs. Hamilton was warmly thanked for her instigation of the project and her persistence in bringing it to a happy conclusion. Selectman Edward F. O'Connell, representing Winchester, in a wittily expressed message, graciously received the gift on behalf of the town and uttered final words of appreciation to the people of Canada.

All that remained was the presentation of copies of Mr. Evans' book "The Wrights" to the Chief Librarians of both the Winchester and Woburn public libraries, Leila-Jane Roberts and Christine DiNapoli, respectively.

The ceremony completed, the Canadian Consul read, over the public address system, the English version of the plaque's bilingual text to those present.

Delightful refreshments were served after the ceremony in the pleasant garden surrounding the old farmhouse.

Amongst those gathered were State Representative Sherman W. Saltmarsh Jr., and five descendants of Deacon John and Priscilla Wright, John McCaffery Wright, his daughter Sarah Thornton Wright, Thomas Pearson Wright, his younger son James Artemas Wright and Mrs. Doris Louise (Gorges) Pearson, who was accompanied by her husband Harry A. Pearson. The descendants had driven from Keene, N.H. to be present.

The above article appeared in 'Families', Vol. 19, No. 4, 1980 of The Ontario Genealogical Society.

Return to list of articles.