Skip to main content


Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Map of Wakefield Village. (Source - Wakefield Revisited)From the time of Philemon Wright’s settlement around the Chaudière Falls in 1800, the rapid and difficult course of the Gatineau River discouraged logging along its length and also served as a barrier to canoes and boats attempting to travel upriver.

In 1829, however, a young man with his wife and child ventured upstream by canoe into virgin country. The new township to which they were heading was ten miles wide and extended ten miles to the north of Hull Township. The land adjoining it to the west, which had been set out as the Township of Masham, was still unsurveyed. Land to the north of it was considered wilderness or “badlands.”First PioneersJoseph Irwin had left his young wife and newborn son in Northern Ireland when he came to Canada about 1825, at the age of nineteen, to find work at Bytown. Four years later, after being joined by his 21-year old wife, Mary Pritchard, and their son James, he and his family set out on their onerous adventure. It necessitated portaging around the rapids at the site where William Farmer had homesteaded (Farmer’s Rapids) as well as the five rapids at Cascades. The next difficult area of water was above the junction of the La Pêche and Gatineau Rivers. South of this junction, on the west bank of the Gatineau, he began construction of his first log house. That same year, 1829, their second child Anne was born.

It was not until 1830 that the Irwins were joined by other settlers. Within five years, most of the land in the southwest corner of the Township of Wakefield had been taken up by eleven families from Northern Ireland.Map of a part of Wakefield Township, surveyed by A. Swalwell, c.1834. (Source - Wakefield Revisited)New NeighboursThe Maxwell brothers, William and John, crossed Meech Creek as it flowed into the Gatineau, taking land bordering the west bank of the river. William Copeland and Hugh McGarry chose adjoining acreages. After they reached the wide sweep of the river where Joseph Irwin was established, Foster Moncrieff and George Hall climbed to the plateau above. John Landers followed to its source a little creek (Landers) that joined the Gatineau 400 metres north of La Pêche. Cain and Timothy Connors crossed the Gatineau above the rapids to the east bank, as did Thomas Stevenson, who moved to a valley further back. William Fairbairn began to build a log cabin on the west bank of the Gatineau above Joseph Irwin’s property. The Shouldices, Joseph and John, travelled about three kilometres north to the mouth of Indian Creek.LeapfroggingAs new immigrants arrived they leapfrogged over these original homesteaders. By 1834, James and Judith Pritchard, the parents of Mary Irwin, came with other members of their family and settled in a secluded spot, an “alcove” of the river five kilometres north. A group from Southern Ireland formed a separate community at what was to become Farrellton, eight kilometres further up-river. About this time, Messrs. Hamilton and Lowe, lumber merchants from the Hawkesbury area, claimed land south of where Farrellton is now situated, and opened up a bush road to the west in order to bring logs to the river.

Rudiments of a TrackA copy of a survey map by Anthony Swalwell some time after 1834 shows no road supplying the several cabins scattered along the west bank of the Gatineau north of Hull Township. It is possible that by then the rudiments of a track had been carved out to assist in transporting stock and supplies to these pioneers, but one might presume that the people who followed the Irwins also used the river to reach their destination.Forty years prior to this original settlement, the townships of Wakefield, and Masham adjoining it, had been laid out in response to increased demand for land from enterprising New Englanders. The fact that Hull, Wakefield, and Masham all appear as place names in northern England, leads one to believe that the person of authority in Quebec responsible for the naming of new townships was influenced by Yorkshire or Humberside roots. There is no evidence to indicate that these names had familial connections.

Philemon WrightPhilemon Wright visited the new Township of Hull three times in the late 1790s before settling in 1800 with his extended family in what became Wrightville. During the same period, three New Englanders made application for land in Wakefield and Masham Townships: Peter Savage in 1793, James Savage, 1795, and John Coffin, 1796. They were not as persevering, however, and the area remained unsettled for a further thirty years. The group that finally took advantage of the opportunity of land in this unclaimed township found a wide, fast-flowing river, bordered by ancient, pine-clad, rolling hills running to sloping valleys or small plateaux.

While each settler may have practiced a trade in his homeland, his priority here was to build a home and clear enough land to support family and what stock he could afford. There was comfort in the nearness of neighbours, albeit at a distance of a mile or two. There were willing hands to help in raising beams for their buildings, and sympathetic women to be on hand for the birth of a child. In time, the Irwin and Moncrieff families moved further north and west; most of those who remained clung to their original farms for several generations.

Junction of La Pêche and Gatineau Rivers, Wakefield. (Photo - GVHS / Wakefield Revisited)La Pêche RiverThe Rivière La Pêche, referred to in an 1838 document as “the little River,” had great influence on the settlement of Masham and Wakefield. From earliest times, Wakefield was locally referred to as Lapêche or “the Pesche,” a name under which the school in the Village was registered until the 1930s. Into the 1900s, the English population spoke of “going down to the Pêche,” while the French-speaking residents referred to Wakefield as “arrière la Pêche.”The river is officially named Rivière la Pêche, whereas the lake from which it arises is Lac La Pêche. This lake is twenty kilometres to the west in the Township of Masham. Rivière la Pêche follows a tortuous route to join the Gatineau River at Wakefield, about one hundred metres to the east of Masham Township.

At the height of summer, the river becomes too shallow and rock-strewn in some stretches to float a canoe. In the spring, the watercourse swells and the “petite rivière” becomes a rushing torrent. With such potential it became a site for small mills, as well as the route for the conveyance of logs to such sawmills.

Painting of Fairbairn’s Mill, c.1860. (Photo - GVHS / Wakefield Revisited)Birth of a Mill and the Development of Wakefield VillageWilliam Fairbairn, a Scot from Roxburghshire and a millwright by trade, came to Canada in 1820. With his mason’s skills he found ready employment in the construction of locks on the Rideau Canal. In 1838, Fairbairn asked permission to establish a mill on the “little river.”This site was on Range II of the adjoining Township of Masham. There was no grist mill within sixty kilometres of the farming community in the new township. The substantial waterfall on la Pêche was a perfect site. It was two kilometres south of the farm Fairbairn had established four years previously on Range III of the Township of Wakefield, on the west bank of the Gatineau River. What a boon the Fairbairn mill must have been to this rapidly developing area!The Arrival of the MacLaren Family
The year 1844 brought a different kind of settler. David MacLaren had established himself first in Torbolton Township, Ontario. As a land agent, he was probably aware of the potential that this new settlement at the junction of the Gatineau and la Pêche rivers offered. With his eldest sons, James and John, he came to the area interested in developing a business and opening up lumber-cutting enterprises further north.

MacLaren acquired some of the property that had belonged to Joseph Irwin, and built a sawmill on the point of land in the centre of the Village, the later site of Patterson’s store.

David MacLaren also purchased William Fairbairn’s grist mill. His eldest son, James, managed the operations. Within six years, “J. MacLaren & Co.” was advertising in The Packet and Weekly Commercial Gazette in Bytown (Feb. 1851) that he was “manufacturing Oatmeal and Flour of a superior quality… having spared no cost in putting the mill into the best working order by providing experienced workmen… Oatmeal on hand to exchange for oats…”

To learn more about the MacLaren family and how they influenced the growth of Wakefield village, read Wakefield Revisited, by Norma Geggie, available in local bookstores.