Britannia is one of oldest communities in the Ottawa area, but just how old is it? That is a trickier question than one might expect.
Since Britannia never existed as a municipality or legal entity it has no recognized, formal beginning as a village, town or “other.” Further, there is no recorded date of just when the area became known as “Britannia”, or any of the usual sort of origin milestones. It’s a fairly common and complicated problem even with origin milestones.
As such we are left to sift through our history and somewhat arbitrarily declare this or that event as “the beginning.” Along the way there are some interesting tales, such as why the Algonquin avoided this spot, how we almost became a town, and why the name Britannia was chosen.
This area was part of the Algonquin territory and the Algonquin were obviously well aware of it. In fact it is still their territory and we live on unceded Algonquin land. However, our little patch of Algonquin land does not seem to have been of any particular importance to the local First Nations.
There was an Indian trail that began on Lac Deschenes just west of Britannia, passed south of us, and led to Black Rapids.
Part of the trail continues to be visible in Pinecrest Cemetery (at right) and there is a stone Cairn there (below) marking it. See Ottawa’s Britannia1 for a more information and some local folklore regarding the trail.
Of course the Algonquin would often portage around the Deschenes Rapids, but the preferred route seems to have been on the slightly higher, and hence drier, Quebec side rather than the low lying, marshy land that was Britannia. No great mystery to that really; even if you are not going to haul loads such as your canoe you would prefer solid dry ground rather than slogging through mud.
The French of Nouvelle France seem to have regarded Britannia much as the Algonquin did, ie a place to be avoided as a matter of convenience.
The first 50 or so yrs of British rule of Lower Canada passed in much the same way. Europeans portaging around the rapids largely used the Algonquin routes on the Quebec side, although Ottawa’s Britannia1 suggests there was some traffic on the Ontario side.
In British minds the Ottawa Valley was theirs to occupy and use because, you know, white people (although, as mentioned above, it wasn’t theirs). As such there was little chance Britannia would be bypassed forever.
At the turn of the 19th Century the English Crown was granting land to subjects, particularly to Loyalists and their descendants who had fled from the treasonous American colonies to the south.
The preferred land was the warm, rich farmlands of the St Lawrence Valley, but in time these became relatively filled and the Crown began surveying and granting concessions along the Ottawa River and elsewhere. Ottawa Front Concession 1, Lots 18 through 21 made up what would become Britannia, and about 1809 these went to people like Eunice and Mary Twohey, William Forsyth, and Tamer Wright.1
These individuals continued the tradition of ignoring Britannia. Not so remarkable given that they got the land by virtue of being Loyalists or descendants of Loyalists, but that in no way meant that they actually wanted to homestead.
As Ottawa’s Britannia1 notes, they probably never saw the land and would not have been impressed if they had. Since Britannia was low lying, seasonally flooded, and more sand than soil, it was a very poor prospect as farmland. At the time there seemed no other reason to want to settle here.
Following the War of 1812 the Crown granted land to soldiers in groups so that there would be strategic settlements consisting largely of former soldiers at key points around the colony. One such settlement was at Richmond, and to access it the settlers cut out the Richmond Road from Richmond’s Landing (LeBreton Flats opposite Victoria Island) to Richmond.
The “road” was apparently a miserable affair, little more than a cleared swath of more or less level land running more or less in a line from A to B,2 but it was a road, and it passed right by Britannia. This, as they say, changed everything.
One former soldier recognized that the growing logging industry up river presented an opportunity. The Deschenes rapids were a problem for the loggers since the large booms had to be broken up and fed through the rapids piecemeal, only to be reassembled downstream. This added time and cost to the business.
John LeBreton* reasoned that it would be more economical if the logs could be milled right at head of the rapids, as long as there was a way to transport the finished lumber to Bytown and elsewhere. A road solved this part of the problem for him.
The image below from the late 1800s gives you some sense of the scale of the lumber industry on the Ottawa River. LeBreton may have been a dreamer, but he clearly knew what he was doing.
So what happened when?
In 19763 Taylor stated of LeBreton that “…in 1819 claimed his land, built his home and named it Britannia.” All pretty clear, except it’s not. What does “claimed his land” mean? That he got a land grant, or that he took possession of it, or took possession of land he had purchased? Did she mean to imply that all three happened in 1819, or merely the first, and the rest followed in time?
In 1983 in Ottawa’s Britannia1 Taylor said “Captain John LeBreton’s grant was off this road, which is an original grant registered in 1819.” and “As early as 1822, he referred to the place as Britannia.”
So now the naming is as late as 1822, or maybe it always was. A problem with Taylor is she does not source her claims, and she has been known to jumble her facts on more than a few occasions.
In the same book1 Kennedy says LeBreton purchased the claims in 1818, and that “… LeBreton had made the peninsula his home by 1820.”
On the whole Kennedy was a more meticulous historian than Taylor, so in the cases where they disagree and neither cites a reliable source I am inclined to accept Kennedy’s version, at least until new information turns up.
Our Accepted History
In 1818 LeBreton bought the Lots 18 and 20, the latter being what would in time be Britannia Village. By 1820 LeBeton had built a home there, and his Grist Mill may date from that early as well. Soon afterwards he built a sawmill, and at some point named the place “Britannia”, although it was also referred to as ‘Britannia Mills’ as there was really nothing there except the mills.1
The (not really) Village
The Mills may have existed as early as 1820, and most certainly did by 1826. Mill workers would have started settling nearby, and by 1828 LeBreton was selling lots near the mills.1
At some point around then there would have been sufficient homes that it would have started being referred to as “Britannia Village”, although even by 1835 the area was mostly scattered farms with the mills being the only small concentration of population. Britannia never did become a village despite the name.
The (almost) Town:
In 1845 a proposal was formulated to present to the Province to make Britannia a town and create a railway from Bytown to Britannia to service the lumber trade. It is not known what became of this plan, but the creation of the Ottawa to Prescott railway in 1854 killed the railway, and presumably also the motive for making Britannia an actual town. 1
There would be more milestones, such as the coming of the Electric Railway in 1900, amalgamation with the City of Ottawa in 1950, etc, but none of them could be argued as Britannia’s beginning.
So when did Britannia begin?
Likely Candidates include:
1818 when John LeBreton acquired the land;
1819 – 1820 when he built a home there;
1818 – 1822 somewhere when he named it “Britannia”, probably the latter.
1825 – 1835 or so, when it became known as “Britannia Village”
I’m going to opt for 1818 since it is a firm date that puts the area in the hands of Britannia’s “founder.” He also seems to have been the first one to regard Britannia as possibly valuable and perhaps even important, not simply a place to avoid and/or ignore.
1819 or 1820 could work too, particularly if you want to pretend that LeBreton called the site Britannia when he built his home here, although he may have already named it that in 1818, or not.
The later dates make more sense as the beginnings of Britannia as a community rather than a place or a mill, but since the exact dates aren’t known it all becomes rather arbitrary.
In the end someone should just pick a date, and I suspect that should fall to the Britannia Village Community Association. If they’re going to go with 1818 we’d better get on that pronto, because if that’s it, then our bicentennial is coming up fast.
* There is very little online information for John LeBreton, so I am going to link the Dictionary of Canadian Biography , but only reluctantly. Consider this error filled paragraph from their entry:
In March 1815 Le Breton had petitioned for land in Upper Canada. Four years later his grant was located in Nepean Township in the Ottawa River valley, where he settled and later erected mills. His holding, which he called Britannia and which was later known as Le Breton Flats, was near the Chaudière Falls property of Robert Randal, part of which Le Breton tried to buy or lease.
1Ottawa’s Britannia by Taylor, Eva and James Kennedy
2An Acre of Time by Phil Jenkins
3 The Ottawa Journal Ottawa, Canada, Friday, July 9, 1976