Heritage Passages: Rideau Canal history

A new online exhibit

If you have Irish ancestors who were in the Bytown (Ottawa) area by the late 1820s, you should certainly check the McCabe List (which I wrote about in this entry).

And if you’re lucky enough to discover an ancestor on the McCabe List,1 you may want to learn more about the Rideau Canal and its construction.

Heritage Passages: Bytown and the Rideau Canal is an online interactive exhibit which presents the history of Bytown “from the arrival of Colonel John By in 1826 to the incorporation of the City of Ottawa in 1855.” The site makes use of extensive archival materials to explore the social, cultural, economic and political dimensions of the construction of the Bytown Locks, organizing its material under such headings as Military, Disease, Labour, and Community.

The section on Disease includes some fascinating material on malaria (which was known as ague, swamp fever, and lake fever). Malaria is now extremely rare in Canada and the United States, and most people now see it as an exclusively tropical disease. But during the construction of the Rideau Canal, malarial outbreaks were common, and the disease killed hundreds of men, women, and children. Even Colonel By himself contracted malaria! The malaria section includes “A Personal Account of Malaria” from John McTaggart’s
Three years in Canada (1829).

The section on Community explores some of the tensions between different groups (French, English, Scottish, and Irish), whose political, economic, and religious rivalries could sometimes erupt into violent clashes. See, for example, the subsections on Brawling Bytown, Lawlessness, and Conflict and Struggle — early Bytown was a very different place from the staid and peaceful Ottawa that it would become. Not surprisingly, “it was the impoverished working-class Irish who were generally held responsible for the disruption of the peace, though it is uncertain whether such accusations were based on fact or on negative cultural stereotypes.” It should be noted that the worst period of violence (1835 to 1845) came after the construction of the Rideau Canal, when unemployed Irish vied with French Canadians for jobs in the timber trade.

Heritage Passages: Bytown and the Rideau Canal is a great example of how the internet can be used to offer a deeply sourced and multilayered form of public history.  

  1. I say “lucky” because to discover an ancestor on the McCabe List is, in most cases, to find the Holy Grail of Irish genealogy, at least for that ancestor and his family: you will get the name of a county and a parish, and perhaps also the name of a town or townland within that parish.