History of the Pontiac

Our Region, Our History

Nestled in the southwestern part of Quebec, Canada, the MRC Pontiac boasts a captivating history that spans centuries. Long before European contact, the land was inhabited by Indigenous peoples like the Algonquin and Anishinabe, establishing a deep connection with the environment. With the arrival of European explorers and settlers in the 17th century, the region became a hub for fur trade, with French traders and missionaries setting up posts and missions along the Ottawa River. Over time, the MRC Pontiac changed hands between the French and the British, each leaving their cultural and administrative imprints.

As the 19th and 20th centuries unfolded, the MRC Pontiac underwent significant transformations. The agriculture, lumber, and mining industries fueled remarkable growth, attracting more settlers and fostering the development of transportation routes, including railways and roads. These advances opened up access to previously remote areas, leading to economic opportunities and a surge in population. Today, the MRC Pontiac thrives as a vibrant and dynamic region, proudly embracing its heritage while striving for sustainable development and the preservation of its awe-inspiring natural landscapes. 

This chronology of the MRC Pontiac’s history delves into the captivating journey of a land that has been shaped by the hands of time and the dreams of its people.


~13,000 BCE

The last great “Ice Age” sees the entire Pontiac covered in thick glaciers several kilometers high. The glaciers start their retreat about 15,000 years ago, allowing animals and humans alike to enter the region for the first time. By 11,000 BCE the ice has melted, leaving a giant body of water now known as the “Champlain Sea.”  By 8,000 BC the water has receded and humans start venturing into the territory around 6,500 BC.

~3500 BCE

The first recorded human activity in the MRC Pontiac dates back approximately 5,000 years ago to the first Indigenous inhabitants of the area. Several artifacts, including arrowheads and tools, have been discovered on Morrison Island and Isle-aux-Allumettes dating back to between 3,000 and 4,000 BCE.


Étienne Brûlé becomes the first European to explore the Ottawa River. Five years later, Brûlé leads Samuel Champlain and his expedition deep into the Ottawa Valley seeking lumber and fur to ship back to Europe. The Pontiac had plenty of both, and small Forts begin appearing along the Ottawa river.


The Kichesipirini Algonquins that  inhabited Isle-aux-Allumettes are wiped out by Iroqouis.


A French militia captain writes “A Jesuit passing here another time forgot a box of matches which he carried to make a fire” – giving the island the name “L’Isle-aux-Allumettes”.


Jean Cadieux is attacked by Iroquois on L’Ile-du-Grand-Calumet, ultimately sacrificing himself to let his companions escape through the Seven Chutes Rapids. His body was found clinging to a poem he had written before he died known as “La Complainte Cadieux.”


The North West Company builds Fort Coulonge on the site of a very small French settlement from a century earlier. The Fort was acquired by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821 and was the head trading post along the Ottawa River until 1828. The current village of Fort Coulonge is several kilometers down river from the original Fort (which is located in Davidson).


Joseph Mondion is the first pioneer to settle in the Pontiac, clearning a piece of land at Des Chat Falls. He became a supplier for local fur traders until he sold the property in 1800 to what would eventually become the Hudson’s Bay Company.


A map of the Pontiac officially refers to the Rapides-des-Joachims as “Swisha” – a distortion of the French translation of “Joachims.” The name sticks and the area is still referred to as Swisha today.


The township of Huddersfield is formed, the first in the Pontiac. 


After the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812, Irish Protestants from County Tipperary started to settle the region. Although the largest collection of settlers choose land in and around Clarendon and Shawville, small pockets of Irish last names can be found through out the Pontiac.


Clarendon is founded in 1833, with Bristol and Litchfield a year later. 


George Bryson, a recent Scottish immigrant, acquired timber rights to the area. Trees were big business in the Pontiac in the 1830s, and George soon made a fortune in the log trade. 


The Old Depot is built in Otter Lake and is considered among the oldest buildings still in use in the Pontiac today. 


Even more Irish immigrants come to the Pontiac fleeing the Potato Famine. Newly formed townships swell in population while new ones are formed.


The first township of Grand-Calumet is formed only to disband 18 months later. It was reestablished as a municipality in 1855.


Île-aux-Allumettes forms a township with Andrew Whelan is its first mayor.


A post office is established in Sheenboro in a building that eventually becomes Fort William. The building is still in use today, serving as a popular summer beach destination for residents and visitors alike.


The township of Chichester is founded. 


The township of Sheen is founded. 


Lieutenant Donald Campbell settles along the Ottawa River within the township of Litchfield. It would be more than 50 years later that the town would officially be known as Campbell’s Bay.


The township of Bristol expands to include the hamlet of Norway Bay, establishing its current borders. 398 other municipalities across the province of Québec, including several in the Pontiac, are founded or reincorporated.


Shawville has its first annual Fair, which ran continuously until 2020 when COVID-19 restrictions forced it to skip a year. Although primarily an agricultural show, the Fair often attracts large numbers of visitors for its entertainment program. When Stompin’ Tom Connors played in 2005 nearly 40,000+ people (or about 25 times the population of Shawville) showed up to watch!


The township of Havelock is founded, named after a British general that had passed away the year before. The town would later rename itself Bryson.


The town of Waltham is founded.


German settlers, fleeing wars in Europe, first settle in Thorne Township. “Thorne Centre” (which eventually became known as Ladysmith), still celebrates its’ German heritage with an annual Oktoberfest. Several years later more Eastern-Europeans settle in the forests of the Pontiac, where the area north of Otter Lake was soon referred to as the “Polish Hills.”


The township of Cawood is formed in 1861, with its neighbour Alleyn incorporated 3 years later in 1864.  They will be independent townships until 1876.


Portage-du-Fort separates from Litchfield to become its own Municipality. Pontefract is also established, but merges with Mansfield 5 years later. 


The townships of Esher, Malakoff, and Aberdeen join Sheen.


Queen Victoria’s son Arthur visited the Pontiac on a hunting expedition in 1869 up the Picanoc.


The Bristol Mine opens, the first major mine in the region. Over the next century mining becomes an important industry within the Pontiac with other mines opening up on L’Ile-du-Grand-Calumet and in Otter Lake.  The last mine to remain operational, which was also Bristol Mine, closed in 1976. 


Chapeau separates from Île-aux-Allumettes and forms a new township.  Shawville also separates from Clarendon.


The townships of Leslie, Clapham, and Huddersfield merge into the Municipality of Otter Lake.


Construction begins on the PPJ (Pontiac Pacific Junction) Railway, connecting Aylmer to Pembroke.


The first edition of The Equity is published in Bryson, Quebec.  Eventually moving to Shawville in 1888, The Equity has been documenting daily life in the Pontiac for more than 140 years.


The Quyon Ferry is first operated by Augustus Davis, propelled by two paddle wheels powered by two bay horses attached to a turnstile and drive shaft.


Fort Coulonge separates from Mansfield to become its own municipality. John Bryson, son of George, becomes its first mayor.


Campbell’s Bay separates from Litchfield.


Much of Shawville burns to the ground in a fire. Other municipalities suffer from similar fires over the next decade, losing many of our early heritage buildings.


With its population growing, L’Isle-aux-Allumettes-Partie-Est separates from the rest of the municipality. It would rejoin with Chapeau and the rest of the island 78 years later.


The Ottawa Senators win the Stanley Cup on a goal by “Shawville Express” Frank Finnigan. Frank was born in Clarendon in 1901, and played for the original Ottawa Senators from 1923 until the team left the league. Finnigan also scored the last goal for the team on March 15th, 1934.


A hydro-electric plant and dam are built on the Noire river just north of Waltham, forming the artificial Robinson Lake.


The Pontiac Hospital in Shawville opens.


The Chenaux power station opens over the rapids near Portage-du-Fort. This not only provide a bridges from the Pontiac to Renfrew County but also provides hydroelectricity to residents in Ontario.


Elsie Gibbons becomes the first woman mayor in Québec when she wins by acclamation in Portage-du-Fort. When she started there was less than $30 left to pay its bills, but by the time she left politics in 1977 Portage had paved roads, renovated buildings and had installed a water system. Elsie also served as Warden for Pontiac County between 1959 and 1961.


The last passenger train on the PPJ (Pontiac Pacific Junction), although it would be several years before commercial trains would end. The railroad was dismantled in 1984, making way for the  Cycloparc PPJ.


Pontiac County (the precursor to the MRC Pontiac) builds its new headquarters in Litchfield on Highway 148, just on the edge of Campbell’s Bay.


The MRC Pontiac is formed under the Land Use Planning and Development Act. They replaced the former County Corporations whose origin dated back to the creation of the first municipal institutions in Quebec in 1855.


The Pontiac Archives are founded to help preserve our local heritage.


The Municipalities of Chapeau, L’Isle-aux-Allumettes and L’Isle-aux-Allumettes-Part-Est merge into one municipality, finalizing the borders of the region we have today.


The MRC Pontiac adopts new branding for the first time in 20 years, leading to the redevelopment of this website.

Drawing of the store at Fort William in Sheenboro

Learn More About our History

Located on Main Street in Shawville, the Pontiac Archives are staffed by dedicated volunteers who have overseen the continued growth of extensive collections of material and documentary information on the Pontiac and the surrounding region.

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