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Ottawa River Waterway

A Bit of History

Ottawa River - PontiacThe Ottawa River is one of the great historic and most attractive rivers of North America. First-Nation Peoples had been living along the river for 6,000 years when the first Europeans appeared. The Algonquin Nation, in particular, controlled trade on the river between what is now Montreal and the Great Lakes, imposing a levy on all goods exchanged. This is how copper, obsidian, flint and whalebone found their way throughout the continent.

Their middlemen position over the great “river of trade” continued when Europeans, such as Samuel de Champlain, appeared in the early 17th century eager for furs, particularly the beaver pelt. In exchange, First Nations’ people wanted utilitarian objects that made their life easier, such as axes, kettles, fishing hooks, needles and threads, and other goods.

Over time, the Algonquins’ position weakened and the French started to trade directly with fur hunting tribes. The mid-17th century saw the beginning of the intrepid voyageurs era. It also opened the door to the exploration of the continent, as voyageurs went further and further inland in search of fur pelts. The Ottawa River was the essential starting route for these expeditions. It was no small feat to navigate on this river that could go from placid to impetuous several times over its course.

Competition between the British and the French for the fur trade was growing stronger each year and ended with the British winning over the French colonies in North America in the Treaty of Paris in 1763, marking the end of the Seven Years War in Europe.

While the river continued to carry fur traders into the depths of the continent, early industrialization in Europe created a need for timber. This is how the logging industry–the bread and butter activity in the area–emerged in the early 19th century. The Ottawa River men became expert rafters, transporting logs from the lush forest along the river to cities as far as Montreal and Quebec. And when the British demand for square logs faltered in the 20th century, it was replaced by the high American demand for pulp and paper.