Waterloo Region, which until 1973 was known as Waterloo County, includes three areas:

  • The southern and river lands of North Dumfries Township and Cambridge
  • The western lands centered on the town of New Hamburg
  • The Mennonite farm lands of Wellesley and Woolwich 

Each region reflects the traditions of its early settlers. The west area and the Mennonite lands were settled by people of Pennsylvania German background. The southern and river-based areas still reflect the Scottish Celtic traditions of their settlers. 

The mapping and sale of lands in this area began in the late 1700s, shortly after the American War of Independence. Joseph Brant, a key Aboriginal leader in the war, aided the British and unified the Iroquois alliance against the Americans. Iroquois from Six Nations fought alongside the Canadians and the fear they instilled in the Americans was a key factor in preserving Canada from the conflict.

In 1784, in recognition of their war efforts, the Six Nations were granted a large tract of land. It ran the full length of the Grand River and extended for six miles on each side. By 1798, three blocks had been sold, and in 1816 they became Waterloo, Woolwich and Dumfries Townships.

 Towns and villages
The towns and villages of the region grew up to serve the surrounding farm areas. The main industries in Ontario for most of the 19th century were agriculture, milling and manufacturing.

Town merchants provided the goods essential to running a successful farm. Hotels were available for arriving settlers and travellers. Industry, including smithing, cabinetmaking and pottery, produced items for a growing population.


Many towns were established where water power was available to drive mills for lumber, grist and flour. Services such as storing and shipping of produce were also available.

Local towns competed for the location of roads, highways and, more importantly, railroads. Railroads connected a community to the larger world, increased development and allowed businesses to flourish. Railways were largely developed from 1850 to 1870, and grew up until the turn of the 20th century.

Towns also vied for important government services, such as post offices, court houses, registry offices and the county seat. Berlin (now Kitchener) won over other local contenders, setting it on a path to become the lead community in Waterloo County.


Until the 1870s, most local industries were limited to crafts shops and smaller operations. But the end of the 19th century brought more investment and larger industries were born. This was true elsewhere in the province as the age of invention and discovery unfolded. The demand for manufactured goods increased and society shifted toward a consumer base.

 Learn more

For more about the history of Waterloo Region communities, visit these websites:

To experience a living history of our area, visit Region of Waterloo Museums.

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