OWEN, WILLIAM, naval officer and founder of a settlement on Passamaquoddy Outer Island (Campobello Island, N.B.); b. 1737 at Glam Severn (Powys), Wales, son of David Owen; d. 1778 at Madras, India.
William Owen entered the Royal Navy as a youth and by 1759 had been promoted lieutenant. During the Seven Years’ War he served in support of the East India Company, and in an action against the French off Pondicherry in 1760 he suffered a wound which resulted in the loss of his right arm.
At the close of the war Owen returned to England and was placed on half pay. Not content with his “pitiful pension,” in 1766 he wrote to Lord William Campbell, with whom he had served in India, asking for assistance in obtaining employment. Campbell, the newly appointed governor of Nova Scotia, offered Owen the position of volunteer secretary and naval aide. Owen accompanied Campbell to Halifax in November and spent the following summer surveying and mapping nearby Shubenacadie Lake. On 30 Sept. 1767 Campbell granted Owen Passamaquoddy Outer Island in Passamaquoddy Bay; three nephews of Owen’s were also included as grantees because the grant exceeded the amount normally awarded to an officer of Owen’s rank. Owen left for England shortly afterwards without having visited the island.
In 1768 Owen, persuaded by “the spirit of Rambling,” toured Kent and the Continent after having spent the spring ill in London. In early September he settled in Shrewsbury, where, during an election brawl, he lost the sight of one eye. It was not until August 1769, when Owen met with friends in Warrington, that arrangements were made for the settlement of the Nova Scotian island. In contrast with other parts of Nova Scotia, where settlers were given their own grants of land, Owen retained title to the land as “lord of the soil or principal proprietary.” As well, he was to receive from his tenants three-sixteenths of any profits realized. His 12 partners in the project expected a fair return for their investment through the production of crops, livestock, and lumber, and the exploitation of the rich fisheries. After months of planning, in early 1770 Owen embarked at Liverpool for his American estate with 38 indentured servants of all trades who were intended to form the nucleus of the new settlement. The vessel arrived at Passamaquoddy Outer Island on 4 June. Owen almost immediately renamed the island Campobello, partly in honour of Campbell and partly because he thought the Italian meaning “fair field” suited it.
Work on building temporary shelters and the establishment of a settlement began promptly. A town was laid out and called New Warrington (Wilson’s Beach) with its harbour named Port Owen. A small portion of the island had been occupied before Owen’s arrival by a few New England families, and they joined with the indentured servants in building. By June 1771 considerable progress had been made; several fields had been fenced off and sown, 15 buildings, including a chapel and a grist-mill, had been constructed, and a start had even been made at a deer park. In all, 73 persons had settled on the island, and timber, potash, and shingles had been shipped for export. Owen, who had been appointed a justice of the peace shortly after his arrival, evidently believed in firm discipline, for some of the first constructions at New Warrington were a pair of stocks and a whipping post. But there was in fact little trouble.
In 1771 Britain and Spain appeared close to war over possession of the Falkland Islands, and Owen left that June for England to return to active service. Soon after his departure 27 of the indentured servants persuaded Captain Plato Denny, one of Owen’s partners, to take them to England. The vessel in which they sailed, however, was lost at sea. Of the 11 original settlers left, seven eventually departed for the mainland, leaving the New England settlers practically alone. Owen never returned to Campobello, but he maintained his interest in its settlement, and in February 1772 he and his partners advertised for 10 or 12 “Industrious Farmers” to settle the island. Little more is known of Owen’s career after his return to England. He was killed at Madras in 1778 while on his way from India to England with dispatches.
Owen had two sons, Edward Campbell Rich and William Fitz-William*. In 1835 William Fitz-William, who became in that year the sole proprietor of Campobello, took up residence on the island. He is known for his surveys of the Great Lakes; Owen Sound, Ontario, is named in his honour.
William Owen was the author of: “The journal of Captain William Owen . . . ,” ed. W. F. Ganong, N.B. Hist. Soc., Coll., I (1894–97), no.2, 193–220; II (1899–1905), no.4, 8–27; “Narrative of American voyages and travels of Captain William Owen, R.N., and the settlement of the island of Campobello in the Bay of Fundy, 1766–1771,” ed. V. H. Paltsits, New York Public Library, Bull., 35 (1931), 71–98, 139–62, 263–300, 659–85, 705–58.
N.B., Hist. Resources Administration (Fredericton), The Owen House, unpublished report by Louise Banville; architect’s report by Ross Anderson; final departmental recommendations by David Webber, 1971. N.B. Museum (Saint John), W. F. Owen, estate papers, 1839–1907. PANB, RG 2, RS8, Attorney general, cases and opinions; RG 7, RS63. DNB. G.B., Adm., Commissioned sea officers, III. John Marshall, Royal navy biography . . . (4v. in 6 and 2v. supp., London, 1823–35), supp., II. B. E. Barber, A guide book to FDR’s “beloved island,” Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada ([Vicksburg, Miss., 1962]). Campobello Company, Campobello (Boston, Mass., [1882?]). Campobello Island, Board of Trade, Campobello Island, N.B., a vacation paradise ([Campobello Island, N.B., 1963]). W. A. R. Chapin, The story of Campobello (n.p., 1960). James Dugan, The great mutiny (New York, 1965), chaps.v–ix. M. [A.] Lewis, The navy of Britain: a historical portrait (London, 1948). [C. B.] G. Wells, Campobello: an historical sketch (Boston, Mass., 1893). L. K. Ingersoll, “A chair with naval lineage,” N.B. Museum, Museum Memo (Saint John), 3 (1971), no.2, 4–8. D. K. Parr, “The principal proprietary of Campobello,” Atlantic Advocate (Fredericton), 53 (1962–63), no. 1, 63.