Founded in 1798, the town was eventually named for Charles Jenkinson, Baron Hawkesbury. Businessman Thomas Mears built the first gristmills and sawmills, and the Union, the Ottawa River's first steamer. Demand for timber during the Napoleonic Wars created a boom.
Timber and pulp and paper industries have been replaced primarily by textile, plastic, metal and food product manufacturers . Hawkesbury has also become the business and service centre of the county of Prescott-Russell. The Grenville Canal on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River opposite Hawkesbury is an important link in the river’s transportation system. Part of Hawkesbury was submerged by a Hydro-Québec dam built from 1950 to 1962.