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The town is located on the Petawawa River, a tributary of the Ottawa River. The river was named for "petite anse" (little bay) by French explorers in reference to its location at the confluence of two rivers. It is known as Pishkesh-kikensick ("crooked water") to local First Nations peoples, who consider it sacred ground and still use it for traditional purposes. Petawawa's history dates back thousands of years ago when Algonquin natives used this area as a meeting place and hunting ground; they called it "Pishkesh-Kikensick". In 1610 Samuel de Champlain noted that this was one place where he could not establish a permanent settlement because there were too many snakes here (the word 'petit' means snake). The first European settlers arrived in 1820 from Ireland; they established farms along both sides of what would become known as Petawawa Creek which flows into Lake Dore just north east from present day downtown Petawawa.