WRIGHT, PHILEMON, colonizer, farmer, businessman, militia officer, jp, office holder, and politician; b. 3 Sept. 1760 in Woburn, Mass., son of Thomas Wright, a farmer, and Elizabeth Chandler; m. 1782 Abigail Wyman, and they had nine children; d. 3 June 1839 in Hull, Lower Canada.
Philemon Wright’s forebear arrived about 1620 in what would become Salem, Mass., and succeeding generations of the family spent their lives at Woburn, where they were engaged mainly in farming. In 1744. Thomas Wright took as his first wife Patiance Richardson, who died four years later leaving him with two children. Philemon was born of his second marriage and was the fifth in a family of seven children. He was only 15 when he joined the rebels in the American War of Independence, and he apparently participated in the battle of Bunker Hill. Like the rest of his family he learned to farm, and around 1796 he owned three pieces of land. He had a few debts, doubtless some savings, and, in addition to his possessions, a strong desire to succeed.
Wright’s contact with Jonathan Fassett of Bennington, Vt, might have resulted in a reversal of his plans to immigrate to Lower Canada, where the government was beginning to open lands beyond the seigneuries for settlement. On 12 Aug. 1796 Wright had bought half of Hull, Ripon, Grandison, and Harrington townships from Fassett for £600 sterling. He was unaware at the time that Fassett’s land grant had been revoked by the government, but when he was informed he did not lose heart. On 17 April 1797 he petitioned for the grant of Hull Township, undertaking to proceed with a survey and to find associates and settlers. He initially tried to recruit men in Lower Canada, but population pressure there was still too slight to tempt employees – let alone settlers – to move somewhere as distant as the Ottawa region. He finally found his eight associates at Woburn and the surrounding area, choosing them from among and beyond his family and relatives. According to the common practice, the associates, who had received 1,200 acres of land, each handed 1,000 over to Wright. The final deed of grant was not signed until 3 Jan. 1806 and actually referred to less than a quarter of Hull Township, which contained 82,429 acres altogether.
On 20 March 1800, after taking the oath of loyalty along with the rest of his party, Wright reached the spot where the town of Wrightstown (Hull) would be built; with him were 37 men, 5 women, and 21 children, as well as 14 horses and 8 oxen. In addition to the associates and the 18 members of his immediate family there were about 10 labourers. When Wright took the first steps to settle Hull Township, he had a particular vision of the future. Agriculture not only was a traditionally valued activity in the milieu from which he came, but also seemed to fit with his concept of his own role in the building of a new society which would rest upon agriculture and landed property. Moreover, at the time he started his settlement, wheat was one of the two bases of Lower Canada’s export trade, the other being furs. Lumbering still represented only a secondary element in the economy. Even after 1806, when the timber trade became the predominant commercial activity, Wright continued to preach the stabilizing virtues of agriculture in economic life. His view is understandable, since in a region as distant and isolated as Hull, farming proved indispensable for securing the inhabitants’ subsistence at reasonable prices and even for lumbering operations and for the industries he dreamed of establishing.
Wright saw his ownership of a large amount of land as the essential condition for encouraging the growth of agricultural production and of other sectors. He did not intend to leave actual development of the region to others. He therefore constantly tried to increase his own domain, even if parts had to remain undeveloped for a while. By 1835 his family in various ways controlled 57,879 acres of Hull Township, 14,013 of which belonged to Wright himself, and he owned 22,965 acres in neighbouring townships. In thus accumulating real estate for himself, Wright sought neither the role of speculator nor the trappings of the gentry or nobility. Hence his hunger for land did not keep him from being quite liberal with fellow New Englanders who accompanied him or came to join him. Nor did it lead him to frustrate the hopes for land of the immigrants who arrived later in substantial numbers from Scotland and particularly from Ireland. In 1806 only 1,021 acres in Hull belonged to the settlers, whereas 12,190 acres were owned by the Wrights. In 1842, three years after Philemon’s death, the family held 38,552 acres and the settlers 15,054.
The accusations of corruption levelled against Wright after his appointment as land agent in 1819 probably had some foundation but, contrary to the claims made, his actions did not stem from a desire to speculate. Wright’s need for reserves of timber was proving to be substantial, but he also had to make land grants. To farm his own land, operate his lumber camps, transport his wood to Quebec, and run his mills, he required a sizeable pool of cheap seasonal labour. Many immigrants would be satisfied with renting on the concessions or taking up lots in the villages founded by the Wrights. Most of them, however, could not make a living or be persuaded to stay in Hull unless they had access to ownership of land; with land, it was still possible for them to enjoy a supplementary income unconnected with farming. Wright had 120 men working for him in 1817, whereas the other 68 families in the township hired only 15 labourers. Three years later the Wrights employed 164 men and 11 women. In addition they gave work to seven masons, six carpenters, four blacksmiths, two joiners, two tanners, a baker, a saddler, and two clerks. In 1820 more than half the adult male population of the township was in the pay of the Wrights.
Wright played a role of prime importance in the economic development upon which the very survival of his township depended. In his first year he cleared enough land to harvest a good crop of potatoes and wheat. At that time he lost 1,000 bushels of potatoes because of improper storage but, in compensation, his wheat yielded 40 bushels an acre. In this early stage of settlement, Wright could count on profits from his production of hemp, a crop that the British government subsidized for a number of years and that he had great success in growing. In 1808 his mills burned down, but he spared no expense in rebuilding them. In 1813 the wheat crop alone produced 3,000 bushels. Seven years later, 35,785 bushels were harvested on his farms, which were renowned in Lower Canada; grown less and less on his land from 1810, wheat made up only 13 per cent of the crop, whereas potatoes constituted 74.3 per cent. In 1823 this record, unsurpassed in the colony, was again exceeded: the grain crops from the Wright farms reached 71,630 bushels, a figure that then represented 50 to 60 per cent of the grain harvested in the township. In the course of the 1830s, however, production dropped considerably on the Wrights’ land. Although soil depletion may have played a part in this set-back, other factors were at work. Not only were the sons less interested in agriculture than their father, but the inhabitants of the township and the Wrights cleared no new land for a score of years after 1831. This reverse must be linked as well with the rise in production costs due to the demand for labour to build the Rideau Canal and improve navigation on the Ottawa River between Hull and Montreal.
Wright had developed the agricultural base for lumbering after 1806 not only through producing oats, potatoes, and at certain times corn, but also through raising a great many cattle by the most advanced methods used in the United States and Great Britain. In 1814 the Wrights’ herds numbered 295 animals, 45 per cent cattle and the rest horses, sheep, pigs, or goats. Ten years later there were 1,189 animals – 35 per cent of the township’s total. Towards the end of the 1820s, however, the family withdrew rather quickly from this sector of activity, probably because they could not beat competition from outside or from the local inhabitants. In 1830 the number of animals in their herds had dropped by 50 per cent and constituted no more than 11.6 per cent of the total in the township.
Wright played such a central role in the economy of Hull Township that his participation in the import and retail trade, innkeeping, and light industry followed naturally. To this enterprising man, building grist, hemp, and carding mills or establishing a distillery, tannery, and shoemaker’s shop seemed quite normal offshoots of extensive involvement in agricultural production, as did the founding of an agriculture society. Equipping smithies, a sawmill, and a potashery and constructing a huge store as well as the Columbia Hotel also formed part of a strategy to develop his economic force.
However Wright might extol in bucolic vein the benefits of agriculture, the basis of his unrivalled power was more and more to be found in lumbering. In 1806, when the timber business expanded in Lower Canada and the Maritimes as a result of the continental blockade, Wright observed, “It was time for me to look out for an export market to cover my imports.” That was the year he had his first rafts of square timber floated down from Hull to the port of Quebec. To increase the efficiency of his ventures he founded the firm of Philemon Wright and Sons in 1814, with his sons Tiberius, Philemon, and Ruggles. During the 1820s he sent four or five rafts a year to Quebec, and in the next decade eight or nine. At the beginning he bought his wood primarily from settlers, but as marketable timber became scarcer on their lands he was forced to turn increasingly to his own camps for his supply. Obviously, everything related to the forest industry was of the greatest interest to the founder of Hull Township. Whether as an individual, a township leader, or a representative of the grand voyer (chief road commissioner) of the province, he assisted in developing the road systems in the township and even in the Ottawa region. To avoid waterfalls and rapids, which damaged his wood, Wright devised chutes later bought by the government. In 1819 he even built a steamship, the Union of the Ottawa, which was used for towing his rafts on the Ottawa River. Needless to say, this powerful man had frequent contacts, friendly or otherwise, with all the timber operators in the valley: the Hamiltons, Gilmours, Egans, Aumonds, Moores, McConnells, and many others. His influence and initiative were such that it is difficult to imagine even a secondary enterprise being established in the region at this period without his participation. He had founded a brickworks in 1814, and a cement factory shortly afterwards. Late in 1826 he became president of the new Hull Mining Company, which had been formed to work local iron ore deposits. Among its directors were John Mactaggart*, Alexander James Christie, Thomas McKay*, John Redpath*, and Robert Drummond*. Naturally, activity as feverish and extensive as Wright’s did not produce all the results anticipated, and a good many of his ventures were short-lived. There were indeed moments, as in 1829 and just before his death, when Wright seemingly was on the verge of bankruptcy. None the less his accomplishments, lasting in many respects, show that economic development requires vigorous and imaginative leadership as well as favourable circumstances.
Wright’s economic power was so far-reaching that it must be seen as permeating the entire lives of the township’s inhabitants. For instance, when the government had to choose militia officers, it could not avoid turning to Wright, who was appointed captain in the Argenteuil battalion of militia in 1808. His sons Ruggles and Tiberius and his sons-in-law became officers in this unit around 1822. The same phenomenon occurred when the responsibilities of justice of the peace had to be entrusted to respectable persons in the township: in 1806 the governor appointed Wright. In 1821 it was the turn of Ruggles, and ten years later that of Tiberius and Wright’s son-in-law Thomas Brigham. It is not surprising that in 1817 Wright became commissioner for the summary trial of small causes, an office assumed in 1835 by his nephew Charles Symmes and Brigham.
An analysis of the accumulation of power and influence by one man and one family in a new community would be incomplete if it took no account of social dimensions. Wright was also interested in education. It was through him that the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning was asked in 1808 to establish a school at Hull, a task entrusted to Robert Chambers. Chambers began teaching in a house built by Wright, but the unstable state of this fledgling rural community made things difficult for the schoolmaster. The venture was suspended four times before a fee-paying school was set up for some ten families in 1819. Although another Royal school was opened after 1820, instruction was not provided on a more regular basis until the following decade.
Although a believer, Wright was scarcely a religious person, yet he did not divorce himself completely from the various religious currents that circulated in Hull Township over the years. Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists, Anglicans, and Catholics were all present. First were the Congregationalists, a group to which Wright originally belonged but which was slow in getting organized to spread its message. Then came the Methodist preachers, who provided religious services irregularly from 1809 to 1823 to a population with few of their denomination. It was not until 1823 that six or seven citizens of Hull thought of founding a Methodist society. Wright, who was uneasy about the loose organization of the churches, would have been disposed to accept a resident minister of any faith. Although on occasion he spoke at Sunday religious meetings, he gradually came to favour the body that in his view better represented the spirit of the social class with which he was now associated, the Church of England. It was for this reason that Wright played such an important role in financial and other ways in the construction of the Anglican church at Wrightstown, which was completed in 1832. He distanced himself thereby from the religious affiliations of the less well-to-do, in particular the Irish and the French Canadians, whether Methodist or Catholic.
Few areas escaped the attentions of the leader of Hull Township. When prominent figures in the community were thinking of founding a masonic lodge in 1813, they hastened to suggest to Wright that he serve as master. To crown his achievements, Wright wanted to play a political role befitting his position and his rank in society. Accordingly he secured his election to the House of Assembly of Lower Canada for Ottawa riding in 1830. Having attended in the house quite regularly for four years, he decided not to seek re-election. He was never called to sit on the Legislative Council.
For 40 years Philemon Wright wielded a power close to absolute and universal in a region he had shaped to match his ideas and interests. He achieved this result because he had involved himself in every aspect of development in Hull Township; nothing of any importance had escaped his vigilance. The only people able in some degree to share his power were the members of his family. Ruggles was to take over from him; Philemon had died in 1821, and Tiberius and Christopher Columbus went to their graves soon after their father, in 1841 and 1843 respectively. Ruggles never played a role comparable to his father’s, however. Two of Wright’s daughters, Abigail (1796–1877), who married Thomas Brigham, and Christiana (1803–71), who married Jacob L. Morrison, survived him. The sole opposition to his authority came from Charles Symmes, the nephew who founded Aylmer. Symmes used the rivalries between the two communities to lead the struggle against the influence and power wielded by Wright on the local level and in the political sphere.
Philemon Wright is the author of “An account of the first settlement of the township of Hull, on the Ottawa River, L.C. . . . ,” Canadian Magazine and Literary Repository (Montreal), 3 (July–December 1824): 234–46.
ANQ-O, M-122-9, 9 juin 1839; P-2. PAC, MG 24, D8, 6, 33, 112–13, 120, 124, 126, 129–30; RG 1, L3L, 1–2, 7, 88, 208; RG 31, C1, 1825, 1842, 1851, Hull Township. L.C., House of Assembly, Journals, 1823–24, app.R. P. M. O. Evans, The Wrights: a genealogical study of the first settlers in Canada’s National Capital Region (Ottawa, 1978). Lucien Brault, Hull, 1800–1950 (Ottawa, 1950). E.-E. Cinq-Mars, Hull, son origine, ses progrès, son avenir (Hull, Qué., 1908). C. H. Craigie, “The influence of the timber trade and Philemon Wright on the social and economic development of Hull Township, 1800–1850” (ma thesis, Carleton Univ., Ottawa, 1969). Ouellet, Hist. économique. Léo Rossignol, “Histoire documentaire de Hull, 17921900” (thèse de phd, univ. d’Ottawa, 1941). B. S. Elliott, ‘“The famous township of Hull’: image and aspirations of a pioneer Quebec community,” SH, 12 (1979): 339–67.
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Cite This Article
Fernand Ouellet and Benoît Thériault, “WRIGHT, PHILEMON,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 10, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/wright_philemon_7E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Fernand Ouellet and Benoît Thériault|
|Title of Article:||WRIGHT, PHILEMON|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1988|
|Year of revision:||1988|
|Access Date:||June 10, 2023|