What’s In A Name: Charles in the Cobourg Owston Line

· What's In A Name


Not to diminish our feature on the “End of the Line” of certain Owston and Ouston families, the Owston/Ouston One-Name Study begins a new series based on names found within the various extant and extinct lines.  This series will eventually cover the surname used as first and middle names, double barreled versions of the name, unusual first names, and some common first names that entered the family seemingly without precedent.

This particular post deals with the latter – the common first name of “Charles.”   While Charles is the fifth most popular male forename among Owstons and Oustons, it has been particularly popular among those in the Cobourg lineage; however, it entered the Cobourg Line without any prior ancestral usage.  The line was named for the Canadian city closest to the Owston homestead in Hamilton Township, Northumberland County, Ontario.


At least 12 members of the line have borne Charles as a first or middle name and it has been in use through five generations.  In fact, a non-Owston family member (an in-law) was named Charles Owston in honor of one of the more prominent members of the family.  Charles Owston Shephard was the son of John Newbold Shephard, the brother of Emma Lydia Morton Shephard Owston, the wife of Charles William Owston, Sr.

charles_owston_shephardCharles Owston Shephard’s grave in Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh.

Until this week, the source of the “Charles” forename was assumed, but never confirmed.   The discovery of christening record of the first in the lineage to bear the name has confirmed the theory.  Because Charles was the forename of my father and eldest brother, I became particularly interested in why this name ramified in this family.  Today’s post will tie into the next post in the “End of the Line” series which will deal with the Venango Segment of the Cobourg Line its final male: Charles William Owston, Jr. who died in 1938.


When I began my genealogical journey in 1978, I noticed a number of Charles Owstons found in the Pittsburgh area.  At the time, it appeared that five groups of Owston families had lived in and around Pennsylvania’s second largest city.  As ascertained by local records, Owstons began arriving in the late 1830s.  Of those five groups, I was able to sort out that two were connected as brothers, two others were connected as half-brothers (later confirmed as step-brothers), and the fifth line had no apparent connection to either two sets of brothers.

In time, the three remaining groups would be connected to William Owston (1778-1858), a former Royal Navy master who received a land grant in Canada and came to the continent of North America to live in 1820.   He had previously been to this side of the Atlantic, but for reasons of war.  William Owston served as master aboard a squadron’s flagship during the War of 1812 – the HMS Superb.

Of those in Pittsburgh, brothers Thomas Owston (1804-1874) and James Wilson Owston (1809-1858) would be identified as sons of William Owston.  Step-brothers Newton French Owston (1854-1928) and James Humphreys Owston (1860-1928), who was born as James Meyers, were sons of John Gillon Owston (1826-1901) – the youngest son of William and Frances Owston.  The final group could be traced only to John Conrad Owston (1851-1923).  John Conrad’s father was unknown and various theories were developed regarding his connection with the others.

In the early 1990s, a theory was devised that John Conrad Owston was the son of another Owston brother who was initially identified as C.J. Owston because of that identification found in militia records from Ontario.  A memoir of the family written by William Owston’s grandson William Sutherland revealed that the family’s fifth child’s first name was “Charles.”

By 1991, a photo surfaced that depicted John Conrad Owston’s son James Harry Owston (1883-1945) sitting on a grave marker.  Although faint, the inscription appeared to identify the name of person being memorialized as Pvt. C*** Owston.  A date on the stone indicates that the occupant of the grave died in 1858.  Since John Conrad Owston’s mother remarried by 1860, this date was consistent with what was known of the family.


Until a recent re-examination of the photo, I believed that it stated “Pvt. C.J. Owston”; however, it now appears that the first name is actually three to four letters in length and may be “Chas.”   To determine whether John Conrad Owston was a part of the Cobourg Line, autosomal DNA testing via 23andMe was conducted during 2010.  The results confirmed relationship to the other Owstons from Pittsburgh and Canada.


With initial testing, the amounts shared was consistent with fourth cousins and agreed with descent from another brother and not to one of the known Pittsburgh Owston brothers of Thomas, James Wilson, and John Gillon Owston.   A complete analysis of this conclusion as well another solved mystery in the Cobourg Line via autosomal DNA can be found in my other blog, The Lineal Arboretum.  Further testing is still necessary to adequately rule out the Thomas and James Wilson Owston descent angles.

william_and_frances_owstonWilliam & Frances Wilson Owston; courtesy of the late Helen Owston Corkin

Barring any children who may have died in infancy, William and Frances Owston had five sons and three daughters. They were named as follows and are listed in order of their birth,  In addition,  I have theorized the source of their forenames:

  • Thomas — likely after William’s father, Thomas Owston (1733-1819).
  • William, Jr.— obviously after his own father.
  • James Wilson—after his mother’s brother James Wilson (1785-????).
  • Frances Janet — after her mother and grandmother Janet Fraser Wilson (1744-1825).
  • Charles — source to be determined.
  • Mary Ann Margaret — probably named for someone outside of the family; however, William had a sister Mary and a sister Anne.
  • Euphemia — after her mother’s sister:  Euphemia Wilson Gillon.
  • John Gillon Owston — after his uncle, John Gillon, or his first cousin, John Wilson Gillon (1794-1879).

With 12 examples, Charles was the most often used name in this family and its usage eclipsed the bestowment of the forenames of the line’s patriarchs: Frances (10) and William (7).  With Charles being the fifth child, one would think that the eldest child Thomas would have been a source for several examples of forenames in the clan; however, only one other family member’s name could be linked to Thomas and that was Frances Janet’s son – Thomas Owston Sutherland.

Thomas’ absence among the pantheon of family names was both conspicuous and mystifying; as Thomas Owston was the not only the oldest child, he was also the most successful of the eight siblings. Equally mystifying is the popularity of Charles – a name whose source was dubious, as neither William nor Frances had any ancestors, close relatives, or in-laws who bore this particular forename.

smithsGraves of Charles Edward Smith and Edward Charles Smith; Fountain Cemetery, Fostoria, Ohio.

Dying in 1858, Charles passed during the same year as his older brother James Wilson Owston and a year after their father, William Owston.  Although James is frequently used as a forename in the line, most bearing the name are not connected to James Wilson Owston save one.  For example, James Humphreys Owston (1860-1928) was unofficially adopted by John Gillon Owston and bore the name James since birth as James Meyers.  The name of James in this segment of Owstons cannot be connected to James Wilson Owston, and its usage can be attributed to other sources for most every example (including my own) in the line.  Likewise, the forename John, which is also used frequently, can also be attributed to other sources with the exception of two examples.

For years, the predominance of “Charles” as a forename in the Cobourg Line baffled me, but I came to a conclusion that the source of the name must have originated outside of the family.  I theorized that the name was influenced by a Royal Navy officer with whom William Owston served.  In 1994, I wrote about William’s tenure with the HMS Superb under the tutelage of Captain Charles Paget (1778-1839).

On Christmas Eve 1813, William Owston was appointed as master on the HMS Superb.   A ship that truly lived up to her name, the Superb was armed with seventy-four cannons.   She had three decks and a crew of over 700 men.   Captain Charles Paget was the senior officer of the Superb, and she was stationed along the French coast in the Bay of Biscay.   However, activities across the Atlantic took the Superb out of European waters for a year.

The war between Britain and the United States had continued since June of 1812 and some naval losses for the British caused the Admiralty to reconsider its position on the American front.   In March of 1814, Admiral Alexander Cochrane was chosen to take command of the North American station.   He chose Sir Henry Hotham as one of his lieutenants.   Hotham, who was recently promoted to Rear Admiral, became the commander of operations from the Massachusetts coast to the Delaware River. Hotham selected the Superb as his flagship.

Paget had been in command of the Superb since 16 September 1812; however, that would change in mid 1814.  In anchor off of Gull Light near New York, Captain Paget contracted an illness which necessitated that he be relieved of his duties on the Superb and was superseded by Alexander Gordon on August 8.  While they worked together closely as wardroom officers for less than nine months, Charles Paget and William Owston, who were born the same year, forged a professional relationship that had a lasting impact on both men.

Charles_PagetCharles Paget; from Wikipedia

When Owston desired application for a position on a larger ship in 1815, Paget, who was no longer his superior, responded with a glowing recommendation. “I have to entreat forgiveness for having so long neglected to reply to your letter of the 23rd of May requiring me to state the character and abilities of Mr. William Owston, who served with me on the Superb. I have now the pleasure to inform you, that I think his nautical skill and acquirements, as well as his sobriety, assiduity, and general knowledge such, as to render him always a valuable man in this capacity.   My particular knowledge of Mr. Owston’s ability was in the Bay of Biscay and coast of America.”

Although I theorized that the name entered the Cobourg Line because of Charles Paget’s influence, I could not prove it.  In addition, it was known that the three middle children of William and Frances Owston were born in England, but a birth location had not been discovered for Frances Janet, Charles, and Mary Ann Margaret.

From various records, it was determined that the three middle children were born between 1815 and 1821; however, without records of birth or christening, narrowing down the exact location or year of birth was impossible.  In a progressive manner of discovery, most of these details would eventually be determined.

The 1901 Canadian census identified Mary Ann Margaret Owston Smith’s birth in England as occurring on 8 October 1819.  While her birth date was a major research find, a specific location was absent.  Prior to this, I had assumed that she was born in 1821 as other census records intimated this; however, the discovery of William Owston’s land petition in Canada dated 20 June 1820 refuted the later date of birth as the family was living in Kingston, Upper Canada (Ontario) and not in England.

I had also assumed that, since William’s last assignment with the Royal Navy was in Plymouth, he and his family had settled in or around Plymouth prior to coming to North America.  Try as I might, I could not find a birth or christening record for any of the three children in the vicinity of Plymouth until 2011.  Using FindmyPast’s free search, I discovered a christening record for Frances Jane Owston in Maker, Cornwall.

maker_churchMaker parish church courtesy of Conrwall-online.co.uk.

I purchased a three month subscription and was pleasantly surprised to find at least one of the three Owston children.  Although she was listed as Frances “Jane” Owston, it was Frances Janet Owston as her parents were listed as William and Frances Owston.  It listed her christening date as 16 April 1816.

Like her sister, Frances’ birth year had been listed in Canadian and American documents with a large span of possibilities.  By comparing various sources, her birth was placed anywhere from 1815-1820.  The majority of records had her being born circa 1816-1817.  Since her birth month of November is listed in the 1900 US Census, this fixed her birth as occurring in November 1815.

Maker is located opposite Plymouth separated by Plymouth Sound.  Situated on the Rame Peninsula, the parish of Maker was originally part of Devon until 1844 when it was assigned to Cornwall.

Unfortunately, I could not find the other two Owston children in the database, and had given up on my search until this week.  Spurred on by some discussions on the Guild of One-Name Studies’ listserv concerning the British Newspaper Archive, I took advantage of BNA’s free search and three free downloads.

During my search, I found what appeared to be the last reference to William Owston in England.  It was an 1819 advertisement for passage to North America on the snow (a large two-masted vessel) the Lord Wellington.  Owston was listed as master and inquiries were to be made to him aboard the ship.  This intimated that he and his family were probably living on board ship.


This renewed my interest in finding Charles and Mary Ann and late Wednesday night I attempted the search again – but this time, I used the last name of Auston with variants.  Austin/Austen/Auston are often common misspellings in official records for the surnames of Owston and Ouston and it was a search that I had not attempted previously.

Mary Ann could not be found in any of the birth or christening records of Devon or Cornwall; however, when I searched for Charles, I found the most interesting entry for Maker, Cornwall: “Charles Paget Herbert Aston.”  He was born in 1817 and christened on 27 April 1817 with parents named William and Frances.  Outside of Frances “Jane” Owston’s reference in the parish records from the previous year, no other individuals with a similar surname could be found in the Maker parish records for the period.

With this find, I killed three birds with one proverbial genealogical stone.  I found a birth year reference for Charles Owston as 1817.  Previously, I had assumed that he was born in 1818.

Second, I found the source of the Charles forename in the Cobourg Line – it was, as I had supposed, influenced by Captain Charles Paget.

Third, my great uncle’s middle name of Herbert could be traced back to the first Charles in the Cobourg Line.  The “Herbert” appellation, which is also of unknown origin, may have been the middle name of others in the family:  Charles H. Owston (1861-1883) and Charles H. Sutherland (1854-????).

chowston-graveJames Wilson Owston family’s monument in Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Cemetery.

There is no doubt that the influence of the name Charles in the Cobourg Owston Line can be ultimately traced to Charles Paget Herbert Owston in every instance – including my brother who was named for my father.  In turn, my father was named for his uncle: Charles Herbert Owston.

As for the inspiration for the Charles name in the line, Charles Paget had been a Member of Parliament from 1804-1826 and from 1831 until his retirement in 1837.  Following his activities on the Superb, he did not rejoin active sea service in the Royal Navy until he was assigned as commander on the Prince Regent yacht and then later to the Royal George.  As Paget had accompanied George IV on several nautical excursions, the future king dubbed Paget as a Knight Bachelor and nominated him for the Knight of the Grand Cross of the Hanoverian Guelphic Order (GCH) in 1819.

Paget succeeded his brother as Groom of His Majesty’s Bedchamber in 1822 and held that position until 1837; this appointment continued through remaining reign of George IV and the entire reign of his brother William IV.  This was probably an honorific appointment, as Paget continued with his duties in the Royal Navy.  As a senior captain, he advanced to the rank of Commodore in 1822 and to the flag office of Rear Admiral in 1823.

In 1828, he was appointed in Commander in Chief on the Coast of Ireland.  Within nine years, he advanced to Vice Admiral and as the Commander of the West Indian and North American station.  He chose the HMS Cornwallis as his flagship.

Tragically, Admiral Paget died of yellow fever aboard the steamer the HMS Tartarus on January 29, 1839 while he was en route to Bermuda for medical treatment.  He was buried with full honors at the Naval and Military Cemetery, Ireland Island, Bermuda.

Although I could not prove my theory until now, Charles Paget directly and indirectly influenced the name of “Charles” to be applied on a total of 13 men connected to the Cobourg Owston Line.  The mystery has been finally solved.


1840 US census.  Ancestry.com.

1850 US census.  Ancestry.com.

1851 census of Canada East, Canada West, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.  Ancestry.com

1860 US census.  Ancestry.com.

1861 Canadian census. Ancestry.com.

1870 US census. Ancestry.com.

1871 Canadian census. Ancestry.com.

1880 US census.  Ancestry.com.

1891 Canadian census.  Ancestry.com.

1900 US census.  Ancestry.com.

1901 Canadian census.  Ancestry.com.

Climo, P.L. Early Cobourg: Featuring settlement, local government, and a variety of other events and records. (1985). Cobourg, ON: by the author.

Lord Wellington advertisement (1819, June 3). Exeter Flying Post, p. 3.

Mary Anne Margaret Smith death record (1909).  Washington State Digital Archives.

Newton French Owston family bible.  In possession of the researcher.

Obituary—Vice-Adm. Sir C. Paget, G.C.H. (1839). The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. XI. p. 657-8.

Ouston, R. J. (2004). 2003 Directory of Ouston/Owston families. Highbridge, Somerset, UK: Roger J. Ouston.

Owston, J.M. (1994).  William Owston: A Superb mariner.  Charleston, WV:  James M. Owston.

Owston, W. (1813-1815). Masters’ log from the HMS Superb, December 1813-September 1815.  Records of the Admiralty. Kew: National Archives.  Copy in the possession of the author.

Owston, W. (1820).  Upper Canada Land Petition. RG 1 L3; Volume 393, Bundle O 12, Petition 55.  Ottawa:  Archives of Canada.

Parish records of Maker, Cornwall.  FindmyPast.com.

Paget, E.C. The memoir of the Honble. Sir Charles Paget, G.C.H. 1778-1839 with a short history of the Paget family. (1913). London:  Longmans, Green & Co.

Records and inscriptions of Allegheny Cemetery. (1978-2010). Pittsburgh, PA: Allegheny Cemetery.

Service records of William Owston, Master of the Royal Navy. Records of the Admiralty. Kew: National Archives.  Copy in the possession of the author.

Sutherland, W. (n.d.).  Memoirs of the Owston family.  Copy in the files of the researcher.

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