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June 2, 2000

Mattawa’s roots buried in history

(Ontario archives photo #14507-18)
This early photograph of Mattawa looking south across the Mattawa River, shows Explorers Point and part of the Hudson’s Bay complex on the left foreground and the separate school and the original St-Anne’s Church on the right. 

None of the places in the Community Voices distribution area has a longer and more diverse history than Mattawa. Situated on an alluvial plain on both sides of the Mattawa River where the Mattawa joins of the Ottawa River, the view is a spectacular. The wide expanse of water, the Laurentian Mountains in Quebec in the distance, joined and accented by the railway bridge, is memorable.

This community of about 1000 households and 2500 people has a history going back hundreds of years to when the Algonquin people stopped here regularly to rest and repair their birchbark canoes after, or prior to, attempting the Mattawa River run while hunting or delivering furs.

Two groups of Algonquins under Antoine Kiwiwisens and Amable du Fond settled here more permanently in the early eighteen hundreds. Their hunting territory was to the northwest and southwest of the Mattawa River respectively. Their names remain on our maps today. Amable du Fond built the log house that remains as one of the town’s oldest buildings. It served as a chapel and infirmary at one time.

The 1901 Mattawa census shows 30 families (7.5 percent of the population) as native. The descendants of Chief Antoine recently formed a group called the Antoine Algonquin First Nation “to represent the interests of Algonquins and improve relations with non-Algonquins.” They recently provided a number of photographs for a new display at the Mattawa Museum to show some of their history.

Four hundred years ago the French, who had control of what was to become Canada, wanted a route to the west that was away from their British enemies on the Great Lakes. Most students learned how Etienne Brule, the first white man in the area, traversed the Mattawa in 1610 and lived with native people to the west for many years. Champlain followed, exploring and mapping the land. Other explorers, missionaries, and fur traders followed. The stories of the Courier de Bois and Voyageurs are some of the most exciting in Canadian history.

By 1763, when the British took control, there was no white settlement at Mattawa and points west throughout the Lake Nipissing and the French River District. The British formed the Northwest Company to compete with the Hudson’s Bay Company for furs and had early trading posts at Mattawa, the Sturgeon River, and other locations. In 1821 the Hudson’s Bay Company took over the ailing Northwest Company and in a few years the fur trade was only a shadow of its former self. The Hudson’s Bay Company’s “Mattawa House” was established an 1784 as a branch of the Temiscaming trading post to serve the fur traders. It served the area through the quiet period leading up to the lumber era when supplying goods to the lumber trade and settlers became big business.

Britain needed timber for its shipbuilding. The shores of the Ottawa and Mattawa Rivers were covered in huge white pine suitable for the squared timber they wanted. Settlement followed the lumbermen, and by 1850 Mattawa was catering to their needs and those of the few settlers. When Mattawan Township was surveyed in 1864 there were some settlers already squatting there waiting to claim a homestead.

After Confederation Canada wanted to open up the “New Ontario” and began to build colonization roads including one from Pembroke to Mattawa in 1874 and eventually on to Lake Nipissing. The 1871 census showed 400 people in the Nipissing District. By 1881 there were 2300 and by 1891 12,000. The coming of the railway in 1881, expanded roads, and free land were having an impact on settlement.

The lumber era was an exciting time in Mattawa with sawmills close at hand and logging throughout the area. A half-dozen hotels catered to the itinerant logger. Much of this history is reported in Leo Morel’s 1980 book Mattawa the Meeting of the Waters where he writes about all aspects of the town’s growth—the churches, the hospital, the schools, outstanding personalities etc. Copies of the book are still available at the Museum. Gerald Therrien’s fine new book Mattawa Our Timeless Town adds to the Morel story and has more contemporary material. It is available in various locations including the Museum (Profits from both books go to the Museum).

The Museum has undergone a recent refurbishing with new displays, updated displays, a new security system etc. It is well worth a visit and you can have a look at the books mentioned above while there. If you are from out-of-town take time to a walk out onto Explorers Point to see the view and see if you can find the three crosses shown on the cover of Therrien’s Book (See chapter six for the theories of why they are there).

A profile of various heritage activities in the Mattawa area will be provided next week to encourage a visit to experience the Mattawa area yourself. 

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