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OWEN, DAVID, landowner, jp, judge, and politician; baptized 16 Sept. 1754 in the parish of Berriew, Wales, son of Owen Owen and Anne Davies; d. 10 Dec. 1829 on Campobello Island, N.B.

Born into an old Welsh family which would distinguish itself in the law and the Royal Navy, David Owen chose a career in the church. After attending the free grammar school in Warrington (Cheshire), England, where his uncle Edward Owen was headmaster and rector of the parish, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, on 23 Oct. 1772. He obtained his ba in 1777, achieving distinction as senior wrangler, was made a fellow of the college two years later, and was awarded his master’s degree in 1780. Ordained a deacon in the Church of England in 1778, he served as a chaplain in the Royal Navy the following year. He advanced to the priesthood in June 1787.

As a lad of 13, with his brothers Arthur Davies, who was later knighted, and William, a future kc, Owen had been named as a grantee of Passamaquoddy Outer Island (Campobello Island, N.B.), a property of more than 10,000 acres. His uncle Captain William Owen* was to have been accorded the island for exemplary service in the Royal Navy but, because there was an arbitrary limit of 3,000 acres on grants to officers of his rank, he had been obliged to have his three nephews included in the document bestowing title to the land. In 1770, with 38 colonists, Captain Owen arrived at the grant, which he immediately renamed Campobello, and began establishing a permanent settlement. He left a year later, however, returned to active service, and died in 1778 at Madras (India). The little colony was then supervised by resident agents until 1787, when David Owen came out to represent the family interests. In addition to the three brothers, the owners now included two cousins: the sons of Captain Owen, Edward Campbell Rich and William Fitz William*, both of whom would later become admirals in the Royal Navy.

David, who never married, soon had the affairs of the island under wise management. For 42 years he lived as nearly as possible the life of a country squire, on what was a semi-feudal estate, winning the respect and on occasion the affection of his tenants. He had difficulty initially with the settlers at Wilsons Beach, three families from New England who had located on the island some time before 1770. Owen argued that they were “tenants,” but in 1790 the courts ruled in favour of their claims of right by possession and thus created the only freehold property on the island not owned by the Welsh grantees. Appointed a justice of the peace and a judge, Owen attended the Court of General Sessions and the Inferior Court of Common Pleas at the shiretown of St Andrews, some miles distant on the mainland of Charlotte County. In 1795 he was elected a member of the House of Assembly. A scholarly man, he kept a journal and was the author of a number of manuscripts. Little of what he wrote ever appeared in print, but he did contribute articles, mostly dealing with British history and theology, to the Eastport Sentinel, published at Eastport, Maine, just across Passamaquoddy Bay from Campobello.

Towards the end of the War of 1812, in July 1814, the British captured Moose Island, on which Eastport is located, and held it for four years. The chief naval officer in charge until 1815, Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy of Trafalgar fame, had been a friend of Owen’s in pre-Campobello days, and the two met frequently at the Owen estate. Moose Island, like Campobello and adjacent islands, was the subject of a territorial dispute between Great Britain and the United States that was not settled until a boundary commission established by the Treaty of Ghent (1814) completed its work late in 1817. Campobello, having been granted in 1767 and occupied by British subjects since 1770, retained its status against American claims, as did the island of Grand Marian [see Moses Gerrish].

Owen was described to the historian William Francis Ganong* as “a very stout though not tall man, white-haired and clean shaven,” a memory of the proprietor’s later years. His portrait in the public library at Welshpool, on Campobello, shows a younger man clad in academic dress, a likeness of some four decades earlier. He had given up his place with the clergy in order to take over the affairs of the island. Judging from his petitions to government and other evidence, he apparently believed that the royal grant of Campobello bestowed unique and personal rights transcending ordinary title to land. Removed from the mainland, he saw no wrong in free trade with the United States, just a stone’s throw away, and was often found to encourage this kind of enterprise. The historian William Stewart MacNutt* pictured him as irascible and argumentative, quite in contrast to what might have been presumed from his background as an academic and man of the church.

Owen was not happy when St Andrews became the shiretown of Charlotte County shortly after the separation of New Brunswick from Nova Scotia and, weary of travelling there for official and commercial matters, he attempted in 1822 to create his own separate county. In a memorial to the king he asked that the parishes of Grand Manan, West Isles (Deer Island and several smaller islands), and Campobello be set apart from Charlotte County and that the shiretown for the new entity be at Welshpool. Though clearly expressed and logically argued, the petition was not acted upon, a rebuff that no doubt added to the disgruntlement of the ageing proprietor.

On 8 Sept. 1829 Owen prepared and signed his will, to which a codicil was added on 12 November. Within a month he was dead. In accordance with a last request, his body was taken across the Atlantic to the old home in Wales and there, in 1830, interred in the family vault.

L. K. Ingersoll

Grand Manan Museum (Grand Harbour, N.B.), Petition of David Owen, owner and proprietor of the town or parish of Campobello in the county of Charlotte, 20 July 1822 (typescript). National Library of Wales (Aberystwyth), Berriew parish, reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials, 16 Sept. 1754. NMM, RUSI/NM/137 a & b (List of chaplains in the Royal Navy, 1626–1916, by A. G. Kealy). N.B. Museum, F86, item 61; “New Brunswick scrapbook,” no.1:52 (W. F. Ganong, “Early settlers of Quoddy Bay & vicinity”). William Owen, “The journal of Captain William Owen, R.N., during his residence on Campobello in 1770–71 . . . ,” ed. W. F. Ganong, N. B. Hist. Soc., Coll., 1 (1894–97), no.2: 193–220. New-Brunswick Courier, 26 Dec. 1829. Alumni Cantabrigienses . . . , comp. John and J. A. Venn (2 pts. in 10v., Cambridge, Eng., 1922–54), pt.ii, 4: 610. John and J. B. Burke, A genealogical and heraldic dictionary of the landed gentry of Great Britain & Ireland (3v., London, 1849). Olive Mitchell Magowan, “The Owens of Glensevern [: part i],” Saint Croix Courier (St Stephen, N.B.), 5 Oct. 1977: 22. [C. B.]  G. Wells, “David Owen of Campobello, New Brunswick,” Acadiensis (Saint John, N.B.), 1 (1901): 21–27.

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Cite This Article

L. K. Ingersoll, “OWEN, DAVID,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 1, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/owen_david_6E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/owen_david_6E.html
Author of Article: L. K. Ingersoll
Title of Article: OWEN, DAVID
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1987
Year of revision: 1987
Access Date: November 1, 2014