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Story of a Nation

The first European to see Ontario may have been Etienne Brulé, who was sent in 1610 by Samuel de Champlain, the great French explorer and cartographer, to live with the Huron Indians and learn about the land they lived in. In 1613, Champlain himself made a journey up the Ottawa River and into the Ottawa River valley. In 1632, Champlain published the first map of Canada showing the Great Lakes.

In the Rideau region, the first community was Kingston, established by Count Frontenac in 1673 as a fur trading post and fort (Ft. Cataraqui). Kingston's strategic location eventually turned it into a military garrison, and the more elaborate Fort Frontenac was established. This fort was captured by the British in 1758. In 1784, the British negotiated land rights with the Mississauga Indians who occupied lands in the region, for lands on which to settle United Empire Loyalists. Kings Town as it was then known, became the capital of the region.

In the summer of 1783, the Rideau Lakes area was surveyed by the British Government (Lieutenant Gershom French) to determine its potential for settlement. The reports were favourable and so it was that in 1784 the first land grants were given to the United Empire Loyalists in the county of Leeds (central Rideau region). Many of these land grants were in the form of certificates of ownership for lots of 100 and 200 acres. Although many Loyalists did settle in the area, the region was so remote and inaccessible at the time, that many others never took up residence on their land. The loyalists who did not occupy the lands given to them hindered settlement for a number of years, since the land ownership were still in their names.

An example is Smiths Falls, located on land originally granted in 1786 to Major Thomas Smyth, a Loyalist, and named after him. Major Smyth did nothing with the land, not even visiting it, and in 1810, mortgaged it to a man in Boston. However payment was apparently never made, and assuming he still owned the land, Smyth, in 1823, over 35 years after the land had been given to him, Smyth built a small dam and saw mill at the falls.

By the late 1700s, several small settlements had sprung up in the Rideau region. Many of these settled near rapids and falls on the Rideau where a water powered mill could be set up and used for the sawing of timber or the grinding of grain. Some of these early settlements became thriving communities, others faded into obscurity.

In 1784, the first mill was built at Kingston Mills. Built by the government, the "King's Mill" was to serve settlers in the area. The establishment of this mill led to the first settlement along the southern Cataraqui River.
Perth was originally laid out as a military settlement in 1816 to help protect the inland water route connecting Lake Ontario with the Ottawa River, and to act as an administrative centre for settlers in the region. Its name derived from the source of many of its early settlers, Perth, Scotland. Many of these were military officers on half pay pensions.

When Colonel By arrived in the region to start the construction of the Rideau Canal the first thing he needed was a headquarters and a place to station his men and the contractors' workers. In 1826, Colonel By laid out the plans for upper and lower Bytown, located north and south of the proposed route of the Rideau Canal. A thriving community took hold. It was incorporated as a town in 1850; changed its name to Ottawa in 1855 and was formally incorporated as the City of Ottawa; and in 1859 it was chosen by Queen Victoria as the site of Canada's national capital.