Bytown and its first French Canadians

From the very beginning, Bytown welcomes many Francophones. The first wave is part of the thousands of workers drawn to the region to help build the Rideau Canal, a landmark defensive project launched by the British government in 1827. Attracted by the timber trade, other French Canadians soon arrive in what is merely a military outpost at the time. Thanks to the lumber industry, the regional economy experiences a second wind in the early 1840s. The history of French Canadians is intertwined with that of the city.

Wood cut in the region is not processed at Bytown, which has only one sawmill in 1841; by 1846, the town has two sawmills and a shingle mill. At the time, however, the timber rafts making their way from the Upper Ottawa Valley to the Port of Québec must be completely dismantled at the Ottawa River’s Chaudière Falls. The numerous work teams coming and going over the course of a season fuel significant trade, and a handful of small industries take root in those conditions. Yet Bytown remains little more than a supply and service centre for the timber industry. Merchants hold the upper hand, along with a few professionals, accountants, doctors and lawyers. French Canadians are among them.

In 1841, Bytown offers 38 stores, serving a population of barely 3,000 inhabitants. Four years later, the number of stores rises to 51. In 1849, 54 rooming houses accommodate a large transient population in the city. The lodgers frequent taverns, gambling houses and brothels owned and managed by a group of traders who hold the reins of Bytown.  Some are themselves involved in the timber industry, others speculate on town lands, and still others engage in politics. 

The population of Bytown lives almost exclusively in Lowertown, favourably situated at the intersection of the Canal, the Ottawa River, and roads leading to farms established around the city. An 1842 plan of Bytown shows that the neighbourhood is already taking the shape that will characterize it for nearly a century. Notre-Dame Cathedral resides on Sussex Drive, not far from shops and businesses that also operate on Rideau Street, while the more modest town stretches behind. Few houses of stone or brick grace the streets before the 1840s, except for buildings constructed by the Crown, which owns the lands. The legacy of the first generation of Lowertown residents is instead composed of a few rare small wooden houses, which, like the Rochon Residence, have stood the test of time.


Lithograph showing a view of Ottawa’s Lowertown, “Ottawa City, Canada West, Lower Town,” [ca. 1855]. Attributed to Edwin Whitefield (1816-1892), series Whitefield's Original Views of North American Cities No. 35.

Source : Library and Archives Canada, Temporary record for orphaned ICON records, MIKAN 2934242, C-014344.

Lithograph in black and white of a small town surrounded by trees, alongside a river. A church stands out from the landscape.