A pioneer navigation of the Ottawa Valley’s Mississippi River was an expedition by a group of Scottish emigrants one hundred and forty years ago. In the traditions of some district families the Mississippi adventure of long ago seems to have been elevated to first place over the transatlantic sailing from Greenock as being the Mayflower voyage of the settlement of the township of Ramsay. That there were capable and daring river navigators among the settlers of Ramsay township in its first year is suggested by an October 1822 report of Colonel William Marshall, the North Lanark settlement superintendent, on a trip of exploration of the Mississippi River made then by him from the Clyde to the Ottawa. Listing the main falls and rapids encountered in Drummond, Beckwith and Ramsay townships and in the new surveys from there to the Ottawa River, he wrote, at a time when the building of the Rideau Canal was proposed and its route unsettled: “Notwithstanding these difficulties, a boat twenty-four feet long built by the settlers at Shepherds falls in Ramsay went from that place to Lachine in five days and returned in seven. The people in that quarter are in high spirits at the idea of the navigation passing that way to Montreal.”
Mississippi River Route
The first bold venture of Scottish settlers of Ramsay upon little-known local waterways was made in 1821 down the Clyde and Mississippi rivers from Lanark village to the falls at the site of Almonte. The boats, made of boards sawn at Lanark, proved fit to survive the rocks of the numerous rapids and the difficult portages of the excursion. The water borne explorers appear to have included Walter Black, James and Thomas Craig, John Downie, James Hart, Arthur Lang, John Lockhart, William Moir, John Neilson, William Paul, John Smith, John Steele, John Toshack and others. It seems that those undertaking boat building at Lanark probably also brought their families to Ramsay in the expedition by lake and river. As recalled by Arthur Lang’s eldest son, William Lang (1811-1902), their craft were “rough boats build by the men. A good many portages had to be made and it took some days to complete the trip. When coming down Mississippi Lake they stopped at an island, and while preparing a meal a big Indian hove into sight. Fear filled every heart. The late John Steele was equal to the occasion. He seized a huge loaf of bread and presented it to the Indian as an evidence of their friendly intentions. The peace offering was not accepted and the Indian passed by on his way to his camp on another part of the island, paying no attention to them. A night was spent on the north shore of the river above the falls at Carleton Place, beds being spread on the ground.” At the present location of the Almonte town hall shelters were made in wigwam style for use as a headquarters until all had completed the building of cabins on their lands.
Indians of the Mississippi
Five years earlier the native Indians had been in undisputed possession of the whole region of the unknown Mississippi. In the beginning of the surveys of the district, the first superintendent of locations in the Rideau Military Settlements had written in May, 1816, to the Lieutenant Governor’s secretary at York : “Having been informed by Indians and others that in the rear of the River Tay there was a much larger River which emptied into the Ottawa, I directed Mr. Groves about ten days since to follow the line between Townships No. 1 and 2 (Bathurst and Drummond) until he struck this river, which he did in front of the 11th concession. He reports it to be a fine river, and the land between this and it of an excellent quality.” The Indians of the Mississippi area are seen in a description of them by the Rev. William Bell, recorded within two months of his 1817 arrival at Perth : “In the afternoon two families of Indians in three canoes came down the river and pitched their tent upon the island in the middle of the village. They were the first I had seen since I came to the place. They had deer, muskrats and various kinds of fowls which they exposed for sale. The deer was small but they sold it at a dollar a quarter – the head with the horns at the same price. Their canoes were all of birch bark about eighteen feet long and three feet wide at the middle. They had in each canoe a capital fowling-piece and several spring traps for taking game and all the men were armed with the tomahawk. They had all black hair, brown complexions and active well-formed bodies. All of them even the children had silver ornaments in their ears.” (Five days later:) “While we were at breakfast the whole band of Indians with their baggage passed our house on their way to the Mississippi River ten miles distant. Each of the men carried a canoe on his head. The squaws were loaded with blankets, skins, kettles, tents etc., like as many asses.” Over the five year period before the pioneers of Ramsay had arrived settlers had located at points along the Mississippi from Morphys Falls and Mississippi Lake up to Dalhousie Lake. Sections still occupied by Indians included those at Mississippi Lake where as then noted by the Rev. William Bell, “some of the islands in the lake are still inhabited by Indians, whose hunting grounds are on the north side and who are far being pleased with the encroachments our settlers are making on their territories.”