Researching the Rideau Canal - Complete Learning Modules



Undergraduate, General Public

Subject Areas

History, Heritage Conservation, Geography, Architecture, Engineering, Social Politics, Canadian Studies, Military History


Whether you are studying the Rideau Canal's construction and early history, its use as a conduit for commercial endeavours, or its eventual transformation into a hub for tourism, your research will benefit from the inclusion of primary source materials. A trip to an archives or library will open the door to the past by giving you access to evidence and documents that will help make historical events feel more tangible and real. It may also result in a better-quality paper or product, as the inclusion of primary source material in your work demonstrates research initiative, and often results in content and insights distinct from those of your peers.

For this exhibit, our research has focused on the construction of the Bytown Locks of the Rideau Canal, and the canal's influence on the development of Bytown, the small British settlement that would eventually become the capital city of Canada. This task required consulting many primary and secondary sources documenting the early settlement period between 1817 and 1860. In preparing for this exhibit, our research and archives team learned many useful research techniques specific to the Rideau Canal. These self-initiated modules will guide you through some of these techniques using special hints and tips gained through our experiences.


Gain experience in:

  1. Understanding the difference between primary and secondary source material
  2. Discovering the benefits of using primary source material
  3. Locating and using primary source material
  4. Citing primary source material
  5. Locating primary resources that document the construction phase of the Rideau Canal
  6. Increase your awareness of the Rideau Canal as a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Index of Learning Modules

  1. Rideau Resources
  2. Rideau Archival Resources
  3. Rideau Canal Primary Sources
  4. Rideau Canal Research Methods
  5. Rideau Canal Historical Evidence



Learning Objectives

To learn:

  1. What secondary resources are
  2. Why they are useful
  3. What secondary resources are available for research on the Rideau Canal


You have likely used many secondary resources in the past – these are usually printed or published books and texts comprised of research done by other people. This type of resource generally includes the interpretations, opinions, and biases of the people who wrote it. It is based on original document research and discovery. Normally, secondary sources are found in libraries, but they may also be located in archives and museum collections as part of reference collections.

Useful secondary resources used in our research:

  1. Watson, K. W. (2007). The Rideau route: Exploring the pre-canal waterway. Elgin, Ont: K. W. Watson.
  2. Passfield, R. W. (1980). Engineering the defence of the Canadas: Lt. Col. John By and the Rideau Canal. Parks Canada: Manuscript Report Series, No. 425, Ottawa: Parks Canada, 479 p., illus.

Learning Module

Check the bibliography of resources used to research Heritage Passages.

Look at the titles of the publications.

  • Compile a list of potential search terms you could use to search databases, archival repositories, and library holdings for Rideau Canal–related material.
    • Look at the titles of the books – these will give you potential search terms you can use when looking for other resources.
    • Look at the dates when books were published – often there is a cluster of books produced on a topic around a given year to mark anniversaries, specific events, and birthdates. The 150th anniversary of the Rideau Canal was in 1982. Do you see more books published in that year?
    • Look at author names – the authors may repeat and additional books may be written by the same author.
    • A given repository may have some books, but not all of them. You may have to visit more than one repository, institution, or library to get all the sources that you want. Thorough research requires time and possibly the consultation of more than one repository, so give yourself time to find all the sources you need.
  • Notice where the material was produced. Take a sampling of some of those sources for deeper research by going directly to source websites (if any) to see if they have more material.

Check repositories consulted in the bibliographies and citations found on the exhibit archives and research section for Heritage Passages.

  • Select one of the listed libraries, such as the Archives of Ontario, Carleton University Library, or Library and Archives Canada, and try searching for one of the titles listed in the bibliography.

Not all secondary sources will be found in a given library. Finding specific sources may require deeper research in specialized collections and repositories, the use of inter-library loans at a university library, or outreach to a government agency for institutionally produced material that is now out of print. This is one of the challenges of deep research when secondary sources are no longer recent publications.



Learning Objective

To Learn:

  1. What primary sources are
  2. How to locate primary sources
  3. How to use primary sources
  4. About primary sources as evidence
  5. How primary sources can help reveal the history of the Rideau Canal
  6. How to discover the link between the past and present through uses of this landscape, the Rideau Canal, through archival documents


Primary sources are generally accounts or artefacts generated by witnesses to or participants in events of the past. They can document the thoughts and/or actions of an individual, organization, establishment, or group of people. Normally, primary source materials are unique and unpublished; they are usually preserved in an archives, library, or museum because the documents have long-term value and provide evidence of past events and/or those who created them.

Primary sources include, but are not limited to:

  • Photographs
  • Paintings and sketches
  • Letters and correspondence
  • Textiles such as needle points
  • Maps
  • Architectural drawings
  • Diaries
  • Videos
  • Oral histories and interviews
  • Newspapers
  • Published first-hand accounts

Artwork: View at the West End of Wellington Street, Upper Bytown, 1845, Thomas Burrowes.
View at the West End of Wellington Street, Upper Bytown, Looking East, 1845, Thomas Burrowes Fonds. Reference Code: C 1-0-0-0-10, Archives of Ontario, I0002128.

Learning Module

  1. Why is it important to care about the difference between primary and secondary sources, and how do you conduct primary research?
    • Primary sources give authority and legitimacy to statements you make about the past. If you state that “Bytown was a developing urban landscape in 1845,” you may be questioned as to how you know this is a fact. In contrast, the statement “Looking at Thomas Burrowes’s watercolour sketch, entitled View at the West End of Wellington Street, Upper Bytown, Looking East, 1845, one can see that Bytown was a developing urban landscape” is much stronger, as it includes a primary source reference. Supporting your statement with a primary source means that you are providing historical evidence to strengthen your claim. Remember, primary sources come in many different formats, and you can support your work with any of these types of archival documents.
  2. What else does this painting tell you about Bytown?
    • Does it give you information about the landscape?
    • Does it tell you about how people lived and where they lived?
    • Does it give you information about the plots of land and size of land grants?
    • Does it give you information about how the land was cleared for urban development?
      • Before the 1860s, paintings were one way to capture what people saw in their time, particularly since photographic technology was not yet available. Paintings provide historical evidence of the past or serve as an eyewitness account of what people saw and how they interpreted it. Images such the Burrowes painting, above, document the construction of the Rideau Canal and early Bytown. Such findings can provide answers to many questions about that time period, though they still require your interpretations.
  3. What institution houses Thomas Burrowes’s paintings and records? Can you locate other Thomas Burrowes items at this repository?
    • Look at the citation under the photograph – it will tell you the institution of origin.
      • The Archives of Ontario
    • Visit the website for the Archives of Ontario and search for this image:
      • Go to Start Your Research.
      • Go to Archives Descriptive Database.
      • Type in “Thomas Burrowes” in the Keyword Search, and click enter.
      • You have three choices here:
        1. File/Item/Title which will give you results of items with “Thomas Burrowes” in the file or title names only;
        2. Groups of Archival Records, which will give you all groups of records that have “Thomas Burrowes” somewhere as a keyword; or
        3. Record Creators, which will search all records created by “Thomas Burrowes.” Using Groups of Archival Records as the search category will likely retrieve the highest number of positive hits.
    • Click on the Thomas Burrowes fonds – you have almost found that painting! It is here in the online finding aid that you can also look at the other Thomas Burrowes records.
      • Note: Archival repositories call a collection of records created, used, or acquired by the same person, family, or organization a fonds. In this case it is the Thomas Burrowes fonds, so the researcher knows that everything in this collection of records was created, used, or acquired by Thomas Burrowes.
    • Where it says Finding Aid along the left hand side of the page, find the link View an Online List of These Records – this will link to the finding aid. Here you can find the listing of all the images in the Burrowes fonds. Find the image we are looking for from the list “View at the West End of Wellington Street, Upper Bytown, Looking East, 1845.”
  4. Who was Thomas Burrowes? Why was he in Bytown during the construction of the Bytown Locks?
    • The description for the Thomas Burrowes fonds includes biographical information. Most archival repositories will include this type of information in their finding aids, if it is available.
    • There is often more than one way to search via an archives website. Try searching “Thomas Burrowes” by using the General Search bar at the top of the homepage. Did you find the exhibit? You should find information about Burrowes and his connection to Bytown and the Bytown Locks in this exhibit.



Learning Objective

To Learn:

  1. Why primary sources are valuable
  2. How to define a primary source
  3. How use determines a primary source
  4. How to distinguish between primary and secondary sources
  5. The importance and proper use of primary source materials
  6. The construction phase and early history of the Rideau Canal and surrounding landscape


Primary sources are not only accounts or artefacts generated by an eyewitness or participant in past events, but they can also be artefacts, documents, recordings, or other sources of information created in the period you are studying. Secondary sources are often documents that cite, comment on, or build upon a primary document. But how do you know if something is a primary or secondary source, since it can be difficult to tell them apart? To determine this you can ask questions about the object or material you are using:

  • Does the object or item give you evidence to the past, an event, or an activity?
  • Is it a direct source – that is, an eyewitness account, original document, from the office of origin, or a first-hand document, created at the time of the event or shortly thereafter?

Determining whether an object, document, record, or publication is a primary or secondary source can be complicated, as it sometimes depends on the way that one uses the resource in research.

Learning Module

Textual document: Van Cortlandt, G. Rise and progress of the City of Ottawa from the Foundation of the Rideau Canal to the present time.

This document is:

  • Van Cortlandt, Gertrude. (1858). Records of the rise and progress of the city of Ottawa from the foundation of the Rideau Canal to the present time. The Ottawa Citizen. Retrieved from
    • This is a published book – and if you were reading it as a piece of literature, as it was intended in its time, it is considered a secondary source. However, it is also an eyewitness account by Gertrude Van Cortlandt. She detailed the building of the Rideau Canal and the resulting effect on infrastructure, society, and progress in Ottawa/Bytown. This would be a useful primary source for anyone researching the social aspects of early Bytown, the construction effects and influence of the Rideau Canal, life in early Canada, the role of women in early Canada, and many other subjects. It would be this use of the material and interpretation that would make this a primary source.
    • Resources such as Van Cortlandt will tell you what people thought in the past and provide insight into past events.
  • It is always a good idea to compare one primary source to other primary sources from the same time period. Just like any eyewitness, the individual may be biased or express a particular point of view. Adding another perspective is always good practice for research, and leads to a better understanding of the past. Look at the following document. Is it a primary source?

Photograph of textual document: MacTaggart, John. (1829). Three years in Canada: an account of the actual state of the country in 1826-7-8, comprehending its resources, productions, improvements, and capabilities, and including sketches of the state of society, advice to emigrants, &c., London: H. Colburn.

This document is:

  • MacTaggart, John. (1829). Three years in Canada: An account of the actual state of the country in 1826-7-8, comprehending its resources, productions, improvements, and capabilities, and including sketches of the state of society, advice to emigrants, &c., London: H. Colburn. Retrieved from:
  • Does MacTaggart provide a first-hand account of life in Bytown during the construction of the Rideau Canal?
  • Who was he and how may this bias his viewpoint? Who was Van Cortlandt and how may this bias her perspective?
    • MacTaggart was a civil engineer from Scotland. He would likely have his own culturally conditioned perspective about other ethnicities, based on his background. His ideology would be based on his training as an engineer and those he encountered as an immigrant. He also provides an account that is male-gendered and from an earlier timeframe than Van Cortlandt.
    • Van Cortlandt was the wife of a prominent physician, and could be expected to view life from a position of relative wealth and privilege. You can expect her female-gendered perspective to differ from MacTaggart’s in the experiences it conveys, the topics it addresses, and the language it uses. Her account was also written later than that by MacTaggart, providing less information about the immigrant experience in early Bytown, while offering a greater sense of a more developed Ottawa.



Learning Objectives

To Learn:

  1. How to use secondary sources to locate and find primary sources
  2. How to use your secondary sources more effectively
  3. How to be a better researcher
  4. More about archival repositories
  5. The proper use of primary source materials


There are many methods of research, and each individual will ultimately settle into his or her own techniques and practices. Examine the volume of secondary sources to be found about the Rideau Canal: these resources can be used as tools with which to locate primary source material. Sometimes reading the bibliography/endnotes/footnotes from the book first will give you the most valuable information with which to start your research. You may begin to see patterns in other individuals' research, such as the use of the same archival documents from the same repositories.

Learning Module

As many secondary sources have built upon primary sources in their works, you will be able to find the sources they consulted right there in the body of the text, footnotes, endnotes, or bibliographies. Sometimes you will need to hunt more deeply for these sources because the format for citations is not always consistent from one book to another. Older publications by private agencies often allowed the writer to use his or her own citation methods, to which you may not be accustomed. Here is an example where the citations were found, sorted by chapter, at the end of the publication.

Textual document: Passfield, R. W. Engineering the defence of the Canadas: Lt. Col. John By and the Rideau Canal.

From: Passfield, R. W. (1980). Engineering the defence of the Canadas: Lt. Col. John By and the Rideau Canal. Parks Canada: Manuscript Report Series, No. 425, Ottawa: Parks Canada, 479 p., illus.

  1. Look at this page from the endnotes in Passfield’s Engineering the Defence of the Canadas. What do you notice about these endnotes? What makes it difficult to locate the records he is referencing?
    • Many Rideau Canal sources will cite PAC (Public Archives of Canada) as a source for documents. They may also cite NAC (National Archives of Canada) and more recent publications may use LAC (Library and Archives Canada). These are all the same institution, but over the years the name of the repository has changed with different Acts of Parliament. You cannot rely on the age of the document to determine the use of the acronym. Newer publications may use the old PAC acronym for one of two reasons: (a) they were copying the reference from another source, or (b) the citation from the institution used the older reference.
      • Acronyms from Library and Archives Canada will also include NMC or MC or CMC. These stand for National Map Collection (NMC), Map Collection (MC), or Canadian Map Collection (CMC).
    • Library and Archives Canada has two main ways of categorizing the textual records in its repository: MG (manuscript group) for government-related and -created records; and RG (record group) for privately donated or created records. When you see MG or RG (followed by a number), that is an indicator of who created the records and an identifier.
    • WO44 stands for War Office. This too is an identifier at Library and Archives Canada. There are many War Offices, but only some of them had a role to play in the history of the Rideau Canal. Some of the War Office records used in Rideau Canal research are War Office 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 52, 54, and 55.
    • Doctoral and master's theses are also useful sources of information when you are researching. Not only can you use them as secondary sources themselves, but you can look at their bibliographies for clues to primary source material as well.
  2. Passfield mentions two theses in his endnotes. How would you locate these?
  3. What does the Passfield endnote citation PAC, MG13, WO44, Vol. 16, Reel B-217 mean? How can you locate this resource?
    • PAC means Public Archives of Canada, which is known today as Library and Archives Canada. That is where this resource can be found.
    • The MG13 is the identifying manuscript group of this resource.
    • WO44 stands for War Office 44 and is the creator of this resource.
    • When you see a Reel number, that is an indication that you will be using a microfilm. The Vol. is the volume number in a series of reels.
    • Library and Archives Canada finding aids are available for all the MGs. You can find these binders on the second floor in the Ottawa reference room. You can also search online finding aids by looking here:
    • Use this link and search for WO44.
      • What did you find out? WO44 stands for the Ordnance Department. This department oversaw the construction of the Rideau Canal. Lt. Col. John By was an Officer of the Royal Engineers. The Royal Engineers were commissioned by the Ordnance Department to undertake the engineering and to oversee the construction of the canal. This group of records has correspondence, drawings, estimates, and other evidence of this early period in the canal’s history.



Learning Objectives

To Learn:

  1. How to use primary sources in many different disciplines of study while learning more about Canada’s early history
  2. How to be creative in your research
  3. How primary sources are more than the written word
  4. How primary sources are historical evidence
  5. How to discover the link between the past and present through uses of this landscape, the Rideau Canal, through archival documents


Most individuals are accustomed to asking a question and then picking up a book or performing a web search to find answers. Important information, however, can be gained by looking at other media as well. Primary source material can take on many different forms, such as maps, drawings, paintings, photographs, and architectural plans. All are included as evidence in the history of the Rideau Canal.

Learning Module

When studying the history of the Rideau Canal, one is likely to encounter plans, maps, and drawings. These tools were used by the Royal Engineers when they were surveying the land, submitting cost estimates, and proposing the engineered structures of the locks and dams that would eventually become the Rideau Canal. After the canal was completed, many plans, maps, and drawings continued to be made as land developers, governors, and citizens sought to document the changing residential, commercial, and geographical landscape of the area. These images are excellent historical evidence of the construction period of the Rideau Canal, and help supplement the many “written word” reports contained in printed accounts, correspondences, and official government documents.

Map: Plan showing the lot, in Bytown, applied for by Mr Augustus Keefer, 1850 .

R. I. Pilkington (ill.). 'Plan shewing the Lot, tinted yellow, applied for by Mr Augustus Keefer.' 1850. The National Archives of the UK. #MPH1/1150/1.

  • What do you notice about this map?
    • It is a hand-drawn and watercolour map by Lt. Col. John By, a Royal Engineer. Did you know that the Royal Engineers were trained in the neoclassical style of Beaux-Arts architecture? This map could be used as a primary source on the Beaux-Arts in an art history study, perhaps one having nothing specifically to do with the Rideau Canal.
    • Notice the handwriting – this map could be also used for a palaeographic study of nineteenth-century English handwriting.
  • This map pre-dates modern use of cartography technology: what do you notice about it?
    • Notice the scale of the map and the use of “Chains” in reference to scale. This is an early British survey measurement.
    • The map accurately includes major landmarks. The map is being used to convey information other than geographical information.
    • This map could be used for a study of early Canadian geography or the cartographic practices of the Royal Engineers.



Hints for Research

  1. Be prepared for your research. The first time you visit archives you will be required to register for a researcher’s pass. This may take a bit of time. You may also have to put your personal belongings in a locker, taking only paper, pencil, or computer along for research purposes.
  2. Think outside the box – start with the Rideau Canal, but expand your search terms to include items such as Bytown, Royal Engineers, Lt. Col. By, Ordnance Department, Ottawa River, and Defence of Canada, which may offer other important information.
  3. Copy microfilm and microfiche to a USB stick rather than printing to paper. The digital image will be easier to read on screen and can always be printed at a later date.
  4. Microfilm and microfiche are your friend. Many people dislike using them, but many materials from the construction phase of the Rideau are in this format. Because this type of research can be tiring, breaks are a must. Always plan to give yourself other avenues of research to pursue when you become fatigued.
  5. If you find publications from the 1800s on the Rideau, Bytown, or Lt. Col. By and it is on microfilm or microfiche, check Google Books or your library’s electronic resources and databases. It may be there as an electronic edition.
  6. Early on in your research, begin a list of “who’s who.” Place names, dates, and event occurrences are ideal search terms for primary resources in archives, libraries, and museums.
  7. Books that rely heavily on archival documents make a great starting point because you can use the bibliography to provide clues as to where you might begin your own archival research.
  8. Be prepared when requesting copies of images, such as the above Thomas Burrowes watercolour, at archival repositories. It may cost money and/or take several weeks to receive your image. Always ask for permission to reproduce in publications and websites, even if copyright does not appear to be an issue – there may be restrictions you do not know about, or archives may require an acknowledgement if reproductions of their holdings appear in your work.

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