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Stock# 94364

British Naval Establishment in Canada in the Wake of the War of 1812

Letterbook of High-Ranking British Naval Officer in North America

A richly detailed manuscript letterbook compiled by Commodore Sir Edward William Campbell Rich Owen (1741-1849), a key figure of the British Navy who served in North America in the early 19th century. The present manuscript letterbook covers the spring of 1815, and offers a rare glimpse into the naval and military administration in Canada immediately following the War of 1812. The manuscript's 60 pages comprise retained copies of Owen's outgoing correspondence, including to Lt.-General Sir Gordon Drummond, commander of Upper Canada, as well as instructions to subordinates such as Sir Edward's brother, Capt. William F. Owen, as well as other official documents. Most of the letters were originally penned by Owen while he was aboard H.M.S. St. Lawrence in Kingston, Upper Canada. The letterbook, whose content is apparently unpublished, stands as an important primary source for British efforts to maintain forces on a war footing in the Lakes and border areas with the United States during the immediate aftermath of the War of 1812.

Canada after the War of 1812

Following the War of 1812, Britain was in the position of having to reassess and reorganize its military presence in Canada. This letterbook sheds much light on this period, as it covers detailed operational aspects, from the decommissioning of ships to the careful planning for balancing the peace while maintaining a British naval presence at strategic points on the border between Canada and the United States.

Commodore Owen played an important role in orchestrating the post-War of 1812 British naval presence in the Canadian border region. Yet even recent scholars such as Thomas Malcomson concede that Owen's organization of naval establishments in North America has not been properly assessed by historians:

At the end of 1814, Commodore Edward Owen was sent to North America to wage war against the Americans on the inland seas. Instead, he oversaw the shift
from a war footing to a peace establishment. He made a signal contribution in securing the tenuous new peace between Britain and the United States by rapidly
reducing forces, while also reorganizing the naval establishments and placing ships, bound for ordinary, in a state of readiness that would enable a quick return
to service if the delicate peace collapsed. These were enormous tasks in a vast and complex theatre during a time of continued border tensions, and yet have not
been treated in either biographies of Owen or studies of peacemaking and defence preparations in the wake of the War of 1812
 - Thomas Malcomson, "Commodore Sir Edward W. C. R. Owen: Shaping the British Naval Establishment on the Great Lakes in the Wake of the War of 1812." 

The correspondence and documents herein illuminate Owen's wide-ranging responsibilities and reflect on his own insightful strategic thinking. The focus throughout is the reorganization of naval forces and military establishments in Canada. Letters dated June 15, 1815, for instance, discuss plans to reduce the establishment at the Isle aux Noix and to commission a victualling vessel. (The island of Île aux Noix was a critical British defensive establishment on the Richelieu River south of Montreal that guarded the approach to Canada. The flagship of the British squadron on Lake Champlain, HMS Confiance, a 36-gun 5th rate frigate, was constructed at Île aux Noix, and remains to this day the largest warship ever to sail on Lake Champlain.) Later letters herein touch upon a range of operational subjects, including plans for the construction and deployment of new vessels, the management of ordnance stores, and a confidential communication to Lt. Genl. Gordon Drummond concerning boundary verifications around St. Regis.

The longest entry in the volume, penned on June 21, 1815, and referred to herein as Dispatch 29, offers a good overview of Owen's strategic approach to establishing a peace infrastructure, including the recommendation that the British construct brigs to patrol Lake Champlain. Particularly interesting is the idea put forth by Owen that such ships be constructed by contract, to avoid any unpleasant appearance or "misunderstanding" by the Americans. Owen details a proposed organizational structure for a British flotilla on Lake Champlain, fully displaying his grasp of military logistics. Other entries offer geographical insight into the region, underlining the strategic importance of waterways in the period's military planning.

Otherwise correspondence directly concerns the status of the forces and ships, and general capability of the British naval establishment at Lake Champlain. Other interesting documents concern planning in the Great Lakes region.


When Owen was sent out to replace Sir James Yeo in December 1814, the war on the lakes was in a stalemate. The British and the Americans had spent much of 1814 building bigger ships on Lake Ontario. Lake Champlain had been lost to the Americans in the Battle of Plattsburgh (September 11, 1814). The aftermath of the Battle of Lake Erie in the fall of 1813 left the Americans to dominante Lake Erie. However, much of the momentum enjoyed by the Americans on the upper lakes had been well countered by the British by 1814. In the fall of 1813 the Americans lost Somers and Ohio to a British raid at Fort Erie. Soon after, another cutting out expedition, on Lake Huron, saw the Americans lose Tigress and Scorpion, renamed, respectively, Confiance and Surprise. Consequently, by the end of the war the British still maintained a respectable naval presence on the upper lakes. Much light is thus shed by Owen's letterbook on the nature of the post-war winding down of this naval force to a so-called peacetime footing.

The government in London had second thoughts as far as building up its military presence in Canada. Since the exact boundary line remained unsettled, a definitive defense plan was not possible. In fact, colonial secretary Lord Bathurst ordered a complete suspension of all military defense construction on Oct. 10, 1815.  The focus then became the Niagara frontier, and Isle aux Noix, to counter the American forts at Rouse's and Windmill Points on the northern part of Lake Champlain.


The letterbook contains 60 pages of detailed outgoing letters, instructions, and other documents, all dated 1815, mostly written aboad H.M.S. St. Lawrence, Kingston, Upper Canada. The St. Lawrence was built at Kingston Royal Naval Dockyard, and launched on Sept. 10, 1814. As Lake Ontario was effectively landlocked, warships operating there had to be built on site, either in Kingston or, for those on the American side, at Sackets Harbor. In fact, the Americans were building two 118-gun ships at Sackets Harbor on Lake Ontario in 1815. Some of the communications are directed to Sir Edward's brother, Captain W. F. Owen, who was dispatched to the lakes in the spring of 1815 to survey the naval defenses of Canada, as well as to help his brother, now commander of the squadron, make appropriate recommendations. 

Here follows a summary of the letterbook's contents:

  • On board the HMS St. Lawrence, June 15, 1815, text of a form letter to be used in putting ships out of commission. 1 1/2 pages.
  • St. Lawrence, Kingston, June 15, 1815, 3 pages. "You will receive herewith orders for reducing the establishment at the Isle Aux Noix to a compliment of 135 men...It is my intention that you shall commission the victualling vessel lately built by the name of the Champlain...."
  • To Richard Peele, gunner of H.M. Ship St. Lawrence, June 16, 1815. 2 pages. "Whereas, I have thought fit that the ordnance stores belonging to the Ships and Vesels which are to be dismantled at this port shall be refitted and compleated; and that when in that state they shall be left in your charge, and lodged in a store House of the Deck Yard, which Commissioner Sir Robt. Hall will allot to you for that purpose..."
  • To Lt. Genl. Sir Gordon Drummond, St. Lawrence, Kingston, June 16, 1815. 2 pages. "Confidential. Sir, In my letter of the 22 May I had the Honor to acquaint your Excellency with my intention of desiring Captain Owen to Verify the boundary line upon the side of the St. Regis on his way to Kingstown. The weather was unfavorable for his doing so, and I ordered him by no means to lose time about it; he ascertained however that it was sufficiently correct, to leave no probability of our removing it, which I was in hopes (as the Coast beyond projects something to the North) might have been done to take in the Longue Sault..."
  • To Drummond, St. Lawrence, Kingston, June 16, 1815. 5 pages. "Sir, I have lost no time on my return to this place in proceeding with the arrangements for the Naval Plan Establishment upon the Lakes, as I informed you was my situation; and, I have the Honor to give your Excellency the following outline of the plan which at after the Constitution with the Commissioner I have begun to carry with execution. At Champlain, the twelve gun boats building being completed I have ordered one of each, of the three different Models of which they built, to be launched, armed, and trial made of them - comparatively with each other; the rest will be hauled up and housed or otherwise secured, as the commissioner when he visits the place shall direct. I have [?] the complement of that place to be 135, viz. 65 seamen with the establishment of officers for a Sloop of War with 121 men. 5 Boys, and 65 Royal Marines including three lieutenants, 3 sergeants, 3 corporals, and 1 drummer to which will be added nine artificers; the whole under the command of Captain Baumgardten. At Quebec and Montreal the Civil Establishment is already as much reduced as it ough to be, and at the latter place I have desired the Commissions Sir Robert Hall will order the Frances of the Two Brigs which were sent out from England to be immediately set up, and got ready to go round to Halifax. It is very doubtful whether the frame of the Frigate will be worth setting up but the Commissioner will decide on this, after Enquiry at Montreal. I have given these directions (after consulting with the Builder) because there seems little doubt that the price of conveying them up to Prescott (when they might otherwise have been put together) would be double that of Building them at Kingston.... The St. Lawrence, Psyche, and Princess Charlotte, are reported to be in good condition, and I shall lay them up immediately. The Regent is said likewise to be in good condition...
  • St. Lawrence, Kingston. 17th June 1815. 2 pages. "Sir Captain W. R. W. Owen of the Navy having been ordered by M. L. C. A. to this country, for the purpose of Surveying such parts of the Lake Frontier as may be necessary...To verify the Surveys which have been given by my order on Grand River and near Turkey Point ...."
  • Instructions for Captain W. R. W. Owen. 4 pages. "The object to which your earliest attention is to be directed are as follows, viz. 1st. to verify the observations made by Mr. John Harris, master of HMS P. Regent and Mr. Aldersly, a foreman of the shipwrights, in surveying that part of the Grand River alluded to in the instructions here enclosed which will explain to you the object of that survey and the probable proceeding of the persons I employed in it with this view you will proceed with Mr. Gawthrop and such Instruments as you deem requisite, in the Netley Schooner when she is ready to receive you to Fort George, where, applying for assistance from the commanding officer you are to get canoes, instruments and people you take with you conveyed to Fort Erie, off which place ... At Queenstown or Streets Creek, where a temporary establishment has been formed for building two schooners, you will probably hear of Messrs. Harris and Aldersly, with whom you will proceed to examin the places they have surveyed, and if you find it is well done you are to transmit the plan which they have made... 2nd. To survey and examine the Detroit River now especially with a view to ascertaining the existence to practicable channels, to the westward of Gros Isle and Turkey Island or between the western side of Turkey Island.... 3rd. To undertake the examination of the Station which may be occupied by our troops with a view of ascertaining how far it will be capable of affording shelter and position to armed vessels in the event of any furture war with the United States; in this, not only to the smaller vessels which may be employed in carrying stores &c. for the Garrison but also the larger ships of war which circumstances may hereafter make it necessary to construct upon this Lake... In looking to the advantage for a Naval Station on Lake Huron, you must bear in mind the necessity for considering what are the facilities for communication with it by Lake Simcoe, and the Rivers which are in it neighbourhood; understanding that it is of great importance to the colony, as well as to the preservation of our Influence with the western Indians that a safe communication shall be opened with Lake Huron without the necessity of passing by Lake Erie... Some surveys made of that part of Lake Huron by Lieut. Poyntz may be likewise useful to you as well as others which are in my possession... As it is my intention to visit if it is possible this year the parts of Lake Huron, which are here described, and it will be advisable to meet you there; I beg you will leave at Mackinac as the settlement the Garrison shall have moved to a description of the route which after communication wih Col. McDouall and the Information you receive, you determine to pursue.
  • Instructions for Mr. John Harris, Master of the P. Regent and Mr. Aldersly, Foreman of the Shipwrights. 3 pages. "It is desirable with a View to obtaining a knowledge of the local advantages attending the situations to be hereafter mentioned for the purpose of Ship Building and given shelter to the vessels on Lake Erie that they shall be examined by persons competent to judge thereof..." 
  • "Dispatch 29." St. Lawrence, Kingston. 21 June 1815. 21 pages. "Sir, Since my return to this place, which was not till the evening of the 10th Inst: I have been occupied with the arrangements for a peace establishment, awaiting myself in everything of the assistance and advice of the Commissioner, I had already reduced 400 seamen and marines late Prisoners in the United States to be sent home from the Isle Aux Noix and I have further reduced the Establishment at that place to that of a fifth rate ship of War according to arrangements detailed in the Letter to Captn. Beauingarat of which I have the Honor to enclose a copy, and I hope that considering it may be frequently employed in small detachments their Lordships will approve my having placed the stores of every kind in the purser's charge, the doings of which enable us to reduce the Civil Establishment very low. My former letter No. 20 has described to you the kind of force which seemed to me the best adapted to the service, upon Lake Champlain: the 12 gun boats which there were building have been since completed: they are of different dimensions, and I have ordered one of each to be launched and equipped with a view to a comparative trial of their qualities: the report of which will probably be transmitted to me very shortly. I have classed three boats in subdivisions and enclose a copy of this arrangement. It has been made as well for the convenience of attending to and keeping them in order as with a view of adding to each a Brig as was suggested in the letter I alluded to. The enclosed A3 describes with Establishment and Organization I propose for such a flotilla upon Lake Champlain if their Lordships do me the honor to approve of my suggestion I take the liberty to recommend that the brigs in question may be strongly timbered with good quarters for their people, Bulwarks high, the beams laid near the water edge line with good space between the gun, which are to be long 24 prs. at the least and not exceed ten in number. The length should be sufficient to allow good ... entrance with a draft of 8 feet of water, or not on any account exceeding nine. Plans for such vessels are preparing by the builders at this place and his deputy at the Isle Aux Voix, which I will request may be sent home that the Commissioners of the Navy may be prepared to submit them with such remarks, as they think necessary should their Lordships think fit to give the Plan consideration. The building these Brigs by contract can be done at any future time on the appearance of misunderstanding with the United States, or whatever their Lordships may consider such precaution necessary, but their guns should be provided and kept ready and stores calculated for in the quantity at the Isle Aux Noix; and, I further take the Liberty of proposing that such plan as shall be finally approved of for these Brigs, shall be sent out to the Commissioners with such conditional Instructions as their Lordships may think proper. I had hopes that, [blank space] for Transport being eased with the discontinuance of War, no difficulty would [?] in bringing up the frames of the Vessels, now at Montreal at a moderate expence...I shall appoint officers and men from this Place, to Commission and take them home; and hope they will be ready to proceed about October. I have prepared 300 seamen and marines to be sent home from this Lake, under the command of Captain Fisher of the Psyche; and, I have ordered that ship as well as the Saint Lawrence, Prince Regent, Princess Charlotte and Charwell Brig to be dismanted and put into a state for ordinary...."
  • Schedule of Enclosures to Dispatch No. 29. 2 pages.
  • Flotilla Establishment proposed for Lake Champlain. 6 pages. Detail recommendations on brigs, gun boats, size of guns, and organizational structure of flotilla.
  • Statement of the Naval Force on Lake Ontario. 3 pages. Table outlining specifications of ships.
  • To John Wilson W. Croker, 1st Secretary to the Admiralty, HM Ship St. Lawrence, Kingston, Upper Canada June 31, 1815. 1 page. "Sir, Having in obedience to the orders of my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty made the best view and survey of our Frontier between this and Lake Chaplain which 'twas able, in the short time I could devote to it; I have the honor to enclose to you for their Lordships information such observations as arose therein respecting the improvements practicable in the means of transport between this and Montreal.
  • River St. Lawrence and Cataraque [Cataraqui Rivers]. Final 3 pages of volume: "The reasons of forwarding supplies for Upper Canada forms so important a feature in its defense, that every improvement in it which can be suggested claims immediate attention. With this view it is proposed to examine the several parts of the Navigation of the River, and consider how far the means dependant on it, may be capable of extension, by one or both of the two following means..."


This letterbook is a vital document for understanding the British naval perspective on the situation of post-War of 1812 North America. It provides valuable insights into the strategic thinking, planning, and decision-making processes of one of Britain's key naval figures. The document's high level of detail makes it an exceptional primary source for historians studying the military and naval history of the immediate post-War of 1812 period.


As mentioned above, Owen's central role in shaping the British naval establishment on the Great Lakes and in the Canadian border has not been fully described by historians, perhaps largely due to the paucity of primary documents recording his actions.  Original manuscript material relating to Edward W. C. R. Owen is very rare in the market. While the British Colonial Office must hold originals of Owen's dispatches, other institutional holdings are minimal, with only a single 1823 letter by Owen, held at Duke University.

Condition Description
Folio. Half antique-style polished calf and marbled boards. [60] pages of neat manuscript text on laid paper. Leaves very clean and quite crisp. Overall condition is excellent.
Malcomson,Thomas. "Commodore Sir Edward W. C. R. Owen: Shaping the British Naval Establishment on the Great Lakes in the Wake of the War of 1812," The Northern Mariner / Le marin du nord, XXIX, No. 1 (Spring 2019), pages 1-24. Bourne, Kenneth. Britain and the Balance of Power in North America, 1815-1908, passim.