A Brief History of Bytown

The origin of the name “Ottawa” is derived from the Algonquin word adawe, meaning “to trade”. In the early 19th century, the town grew primarily through the construction of the Rideau Canal project and the booming timber trade. By this time, the Alqonquin People had lost much control of the river and land to the government of Lower Canada, who refused to recognize them, and proceeded to survey and patent lands without consideration of Indigenous claims. 

Before it was incorporated as the City of Ottawa in 1855, the town was known as Bytown. Named after Colonel John By, who headed the construction of the Rideau Canal, Bytown was divided into two parts: Upper Town (West) and Lower Town (East), which were connected by Sapper’s Bridge (now Plaza Bridge)—runners of the Ottawa Marathon and Ottawa 5K cross the bridge over the Rideau Canal early in both races.

Lower Town consisted of French Canadians and Irish Catholic immigrants, who were labourers in the, very dangerous, construction of the Rideau Canal. Upper Town held the English and Scottish who were self-appointed governors of the town. As the canal project came to a close (1832), French Canadian and Irish Catholic struggled for new work to support themselves, and the challenges in Bytown arose quickly. The fear of job loss caused gangs to form and attack timber operations and political institutions. And so began Shiner’s War (1835 to 1845).

Shiner’s War involved violent fights between the French Canadian and Irish, ending in riots, injury and death. These early years before Ottawa became a city were hard, disease-ridden and threatening for its citizens. The Bytown Challenge is an acknowledgement of the hardships the early settlers went through to create the Nation’s Capital.

The Bytown Challenge logo and medal is symbolic of the Bytown labourer. The pike-pole, a ten to fourteen-foot long pole with two steel hooks was used to control wood in the Ottawa River, where logs flowed and were milled at Chaudière Falls.