Another installment from the Ottawa Citizen Old Time Stuff – Reminiscences of the Ottawa Early Days. Personages, Scenes and Incidents for Evening Citizen Readers – this time from August 11, 1923.
Who was the first on the site of Ottawa?
Among people who have not studied the subject there is a general impression that Nicolas Sparks was the first to occupy any part of the present site of metropolitan Ottawa. But such is not the case, as the evidence seems to show that several families ante-date Mr. Sparks. The Williams, Billings and Fairbairn families all apparently located between the Glebe and the Rideau River before Mr. Sparks starting farming on the Ottawa River front. According to Mr. Frank Williams, of Rideau Gardens, his grandfather, Lewis Williams, came to the site of Ottawa from Cardiff, Wales, in 1817, and actually “squatted” for a while in Upper Town on the site afterwards bought by Mr. Sparks.
Land Too Stony
Mr. Williams remembers his father, Lewis Williams, saying that his father (the original Williams) has cleared some land in Center Town but had not stayed long as the land was too stony. He prospected the country round. What is now Lower Town was too swampy and Sandy Hill was too sandy. He struck south and found good land in what is now Ottawa South and Ottawa East. When the original Williams landed in 1817 he found Philemon Wright (the first settler) living in a small log house on the bank of the river in what is now Hull. He stayed there overnight and crossed the river opposite Wright’s land and landed in what is now the Lyon street district.
Mr. Frank Williams’ father was ten years old when the pioneer Williams arrived. The family bible shows he was born in 1807. As in 1817 he was ten years of age he was able to give a good story of the landing of the family. The original Lewis Williams lived till 1841. His wife, Mary Williams, died in 1821.
Mr. Frank Williams says that according to the story told him by his father, when the Williams family picked on the land originally selected in Ottawa South in 1817, the original Billings was already located on both banks of the Rideau River, but that he was only shantying there – taking out lumber. It was about two years later that he settled on the place. The Fairbairns came shortly after Williams and settled between him and the Billings.
The Original Farm
As told in a previous article on Ottawa South, the original Williams, like other originals, squatted on the present holdings, but got a grant from the crown about two years later for 200 acres, which ran from Concession Street [Bronson] to the Rideau River and from a point just south of the Old Men’s Home on Bank Street [Abbotsford House] south to about the extension to the Rideau of Sunnyside Avenue. All but 40 acres of the original farm has been sold. Part of the Rideau gardens on the Rideau front was purchased some years ago from the Fairbairns. As already told, the Rideau Canal cut through the Williams farm.
The original William house, like all the originals, was log. But a few years later it burned down and the original Williams erected a neat frame house. The present comfortable home at 207 Riverdale avenue is the original frame house, enlarged and improved. The number of the house is 207 Riverdale, but the house is located about a quarter mile back from the street in the middle of Rideau Gardens [address now 96 Southern Drive – read about this heritage-designated property here].
Saved the Bible
As evidence of the solid piety of most of the early settlers, Mr. Williams tells that when the log house burned the first (and about the only) thing which his grandfather saved was the old Welsh bible, which is now in his possession.
The original Mrs. Williams was a Phillips, who belonged to a prominent Welsh family. Mr. Williams has two sons to carry on the family name. They are Lewis Masson Williams and Charles Tolmie Williams, both of whom are helping their father look after the Rideau Gardens – which is no small undertaking.
Long Way to Mill
As evidence of the hardships which the early settlers suffered, Mr. Williams tells of his father (the original Lewis Williams) took his first wheat (just a bagful) all the way to Perth, about 60 miles, to be ground into flour. He carried the sack on a horse’s back, along a blazed trail in the bush; there was absolutely no road of any sort. For the first two years after their arrival the first Williamses lived on Indian corn.
Mr. Frank Williams tells that his grandfather nearly did not come to Ottawa. When he got on his boat he was headed for the United States, where he had a brother. But on the sailing boat during the three month trip, he made friends with some immigrants who were going up the Ottawa, and they induced him to travel with them.
The story of the Billings and the Fairbairns, the other two old time families, will be told in another issue.