O Canada: The Owstons’ Connection to Canadian History

· Canada

ocanadaIn honor of Canada Day, we provide an excerpt from Canadian history related to the Owston/Ouston clan.

With Canada’s long association with Great Britain, it is no wonder that a number of Owstons and Oustons settled in this North American nation.  Currently, all Canadian Owstons can trace themselves to the Thornholme family with the first of that number, Richard Owston,  settling in Montreal for a brief period in the late 1820s before returning to Britain circa 1837.

Others from the Thornholme line would follow in 1881 to Toronto, in 1907 to Saskatchewan, and in 1920 to British Columbia.  Additional Ganton and Sherburn Owston family members would also emigrate. While descendents still remain from these Ganton and Sherburn Owston families, the surname has ceased to exist among their Canadian descendents.

In regard to those bearing the Ouston spelling, all Canadian Oustons descend from Robert Schipper Ouston who settled in Alberta in 1907.  This group comes from the Holderness Branch of the Sherburn family and still has a significant presence in the western provinces.

Today’s post recognizes the patriarch of the first Owston/Ouston family to settle in Canada.  William Owston, a Master in the Royal Navy, came with his family to Kingston to receive land grants in Upper Canada (now Ontario).  First settling on granted land in Asphodel Township in what is now Peterborough County, the family moved to Hamilton Township between Port Hope and Cobourg in the 1830s.  Although 29 descendents of William still live in Canada, none bear the Owston surname.  All of those with the Owston name from this patriarch descend from three of four of his sons who settled in Pittsburgh, PA between 1838 and 1849. The largest number are traced from his youngest son, John Gillon Owston, who was born in Canada in 1826.

william_owstonPrior to the British North America Act of 1867 which created the Dominion of Canada uniting Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, Canada was a British province that was created with Act of Union of 1840. The new provincial entity came to fruition on February 10, 1841.  This act joined together French speaking Lower Canada and English speaking Upper Canada into a single untied province and its constituent parts were subsequently identified as Canada East and Canada West.  The British Province of Canada lasted for 26 years until the Canadian Confederation was enacted on July 1, 1867.  With the creation of the Dominion of Canada, Canada East and Canada West were renamed as Quebec and Ontario.

In 1840, the uniting of Lower Canada and Upper Canada and the resulting choice of Kingston as the seat of government was hotly debated.  One month prior the enactment of the Act of Union of 1840, William Owston stood before a gathering in the Newcastle District of Upper Canada and voiced his opinion on the matter.

Throughout the transcript, which was published in the Kingston Chronicle and Gazette on 20 June 1840, Owston is referred to as “Captain Owston.”  As a point of clarification, Owston never held the commission rank of Captain in the Royal Navy.  He was one of the wardroom warrant officers with the rate of Master. While ranked below commissioned naval lieutenants, masters received higher pay and because of this they sometimes held greater status.  From 1815 until the time of his death in 1857, William Owston was on half-pay subject to being recalled to service if hostilities deemed necessary. This never happened and in essence he was a naval reservist for 42 years.  Since he also served in the merchant service, masters were the captains of their ships and thus the title, albeit a courtesy one, was totally appropriate for the old sea dog.

His speech is as follows:

“I have,” said Captain Owston, “served my country a long time.   In its service, I have crossed the broad seas and visited foreign shores.   I have followed Nelson on the waves.   I have passed the Skagger Rack [sic] and the Sound.   I could see the poop of Nelson’s ship during the bombardment of Copenhagen.1 I have been in the midst of the bustling activity and covered with smoke on the deck of a seventy-four2, whilst the British cannons were battering down the crown batteries Denmark’s capitol, the last hope of Denmark’s Crown.   I have been stationed on the American Coast and into the American Rivers.3 I have sailed on the Lakes (i.e., Great Lakes).   I have been a resident of this province for upwards of twenty years in this District.


And all the experience which I have acquired during a long period of service and derived from many opportunities of observation point out to me that there is but one place in British America fitted by nature, position and the requisite advantages for a Seat of Government and THAT PLACE IS KINGSTON.”   (Great Applause)   “I say Kingston.   I hold it,” said Captain Owston emphatically, “that our supremacy in British America will ultimately depend on our superiority on and command over the great Western Lakes.

And how are you to secure this command and superiority?   I point to the Naval Dock Yard at Kingston.   Kingston is the Eastern and strong key to the Lakes.   If Kingston is gone, all is gone.   Make Kingston strong, improve its natural advantages and you may bid your enemies defiance.   You may sweep the Lakes of your enemies.   And I will tell you how.   No Dock Yard, probably, in the world is as favourably situated as the Dock yard at Kingston.   It is surmounted with a strong and impregnable fort [Fort Henry].”


“In case of war, or trouble, a fleet of steam frigates and fire ships could be built and kept perfectly safe under the protection of Fort Henry.   You could send them forth to chase the enemy whenever a favourable opportunity occurred and return when the deed was done to a place of safety and security at Kingston.   Kingston, with its Forts and Battlements, is the only place known in which we could elude the cunning tricks of the Yankees.4 They are very cunning; I know them well.   You might build a fleet it is true, elsewhere, but in Kingston alone could you keep it from being burnt.   Kingston with its deep Bay, surrounded with high lands and Forts are capabilities of the highest value for a Seat of Government.

I have no personal interest in Kingston; my interest lies in the Newcastle District but my experience forces upon me the irresistible conviction that if the public welfare — the property of the country at large — the authority of and our connection with the illustrious Empire of Britain are to be consulted – the ruling motives of our referral that Kingston and Kingston alone be the place for a Seat of Government to United Canada.


I cannot see or understand how men in their senses – or with their eyes open at all events – could think of making such a place as Montreal5 as a Seat of Government: a flat valley with no protection; nothing to recommend it.   The enemy have taken Montreal already – more than once, I believe, what was to prevent them!   Montreal is not a fit place to protect public records or the public interests.   I am opposed to Seat of Government going to Montreal because it would be exposing the interests and rights of the people to danger.   Let the Seat of Government be at Kingston where it has been placed by the Imperial Government after much deliberation, founded on the best and soundest advice of practical views.”

“Why all this clamour to remove it?   Montreal is a rich city – is that a reason the Government should be there?   I think not.   Montreal is far from being a central place but above all it a flat and unprotected place.   Let us hear reasons of Montreal for a Seat of Government.   Let Kingston, the only true spot in the wide province of Canada, pointed out by natural position, strength, and situation, as eligible for a Seat of Government, remain the Seat of Government of the United Province of Canada.   Montreal can only be the Seat of Government of divided Canada.   But Kingston must be the Seat of Government for United Canada.”

The article continues with the following:

The gentleman who furnished us with the above speech has written it out entirely from memory and consequently must have omitted many of the earliest observations made by Captain Owston.   He also stated that the naval veteran expressed himself in that honest, open, candid, frank and disinterested manner so characteristic of a British Sailor.

Lieutenant Rex, R.N. stated that he heartily approved of Captain Owston’s remarks on the advantages of Kingston.   Colonel Reid of Darlington, A. H. Meyers, Esquire of Trent, Sheldon Hawley, Esquire of the same place, G. S. Boulton, Esquire of Cobourg and Wm. Weller, Esquire of the same place went on the broad ground of keeping the Seat of Government within the bounds of the Upper Province according to faith, but made no allusions to a particular place.

George Boswell, Esq. M.P. member for the South Riding of Northumberland, a supporter of the present administration, declared to the meeting whatever might be the views of the government on the Seat of Government question, that he was determined to use every means in his power, by his vote in the house and otherwise, to retain the Seat of Government within the limits of what was formerly called Upper Canada.

Henry Ruttan, Esq., the worthy Sheriff of the District who presided at the meeting expressed a deep concern at the results which would inevitably follow the removal of the Seat of Government to Montreal.   And also that our authority over the Western Lakes was necessary for safety.   The country was growing westward.   Emigration was to the west and indeed everything pointed westward.   And looking on the west, it would seem as if we were surrounded in a measure by the States.   So that our superiority on the Lakes was to be necessary on that account.


1. While the mention of Nelson made this author originally think that this references was to the First Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, Owston’s ship at the time – the HMS Driver – was not involved in that particular battle.  Therefore, it appears that this was the Second Battle of Copenhagen in 1807.  During that time, Owston served as a civilian pilot for a period of 10 months on the HMS Vanguard, which had previously been Nelson’s flagship.  Nelson had been dead for nearly two years at the time of the Second Battle of Copenhagen, but his naval heroics were etched indelibly upon the hearts of British subjects everywhere.  In 1808, Captain Thomas Baker of the HMS Vanguard wrote of William Owston, “‘At all times, and in most difficult conditions he had showed a superiority of knowledge, a confidence in his own abilities and an attitude of conduct.” Back.

2. A seventy-four was a third rate ship of the line and carried 74 guns. In addition to serving on the HMS Vanguard, he served on another 74, the HMS Superb. Back.

3. During the War of 1812 aboard the HMS Superb, the flagship of Admiral Henry Hotham of the North American squadron. Back.

4. Owston’s disdain for Americans is probably due to his service in the War of 1812; however, it is interesting to note that seven of his eight children eventually settled in the United States with two of his sons (Thomas Owston and James Wilson Owston) becoming American citizens. Back.

5. Although Kingston served as the seat of government for the Province of Canada from 1841 to 1844, it would be replaced by Montreal from 1844 to 1849.  The capital would vacillate between Toronto (1849-1852 & 1856-1858) and Quebec (1852-1856 & 1858-1866).  In the final two years of the province, Ottawa was the capital. Back.


Fort Henry, Kingston, 1839 (2011). Canadian Military History Gateway.  Retrieved from http://www.cmhg.gc.ca/cmh/image-342-eng.asp?page_id=409

Lavery, B. (1995).  Nelson’s navy: The ships, men and organisation, 1793-1815. Annapolis, MD:  Naval Institute Press.

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

Pope, D. (1987). Life in Nelson’s navy. Annapolis, MD:  Naval Institute Press.

Preston, A. (1983). History of the Royal Navy. London, UK: Bison Books Corporation.

Province of Canada (2014). Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Province_of_Canada

Royal Navy service records of William Owston (n.d.).  Records of the Admiralty. Kew, Richmond, Surrey, UK: National Archives.

Seat of government (1840, June 20). Kingston Chronicle and Gazette, p. 2, col. 5.

The changing shape of Ontario: The evolution of the district and county system, 1788-1899 (2011).  Toronto, ON, Canada: Archives of Ontario.  Retrieved from http://www.archives.gov.on.ca/en/maps/textdocs/ontario-districts-maps.aspx#districts_1845


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