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ODELL, WILLIAM FRANKLIN, office holder, notary, lawyer, surveyor, and politician; b. 19 Oct. 1774 in Burlington, N.J., only son of the Reverend Jonathan Odell*, loyalist poet and scholar, and Anne De Cou; m. 31 Dec. 1808 Elizabeth Newall (Newell), granddaughter of Dr Samuel Cooke, first Anglican rector of Fredericton, and they had four sons and four daughters who survived infancy; d. 25 Dec. 1844 in Fredericton.

William Franklin Odell was born into the circle of British North American office holders and named after his father’s patron, William Franklin, the last royal governor of New Jersey. In 1784, when William was ten, his father became provincial secretary of the new province of New Brunswick where, according to historian William Stewart MacNutt*, he “spent a quarter of a century in sustaining the larger part of the business of government and finished his life as a poor man.” No doubt it was the state of Jonathan’s purse that kept William from having a university education and, in turn, it was the family’s access to the small fruits of patronage that opened the way to a career in government service. On 16 March 1793, at age 18, he was appointed deputy clerk of the pleas of the Supreme Court, acting for the clerk, Colin Campbell; holders of this clerkship did not require legal training. He succeeded to the office on 19 July 1796 and became a pluralist, for the first time, on 2 Feb. 1802 when he received the additional appointment of clerk of the Legislative Council. He began reading law with Ward Chipman* in Saint John some time in the late 1790s and was named a notary public in 1802, admitted as an attorney in 1804, and called to the bar in 1806. His responsibilities in the Supreme Court were extended in November 1804: he became clerk of the crown with duties relating to the criminal jurisdiction of the court.

By 1807 Jonathan Odell was 70 years old and unable to keep up with his work, but he could not afford to retire because there was no provision for pensions in the colonial service. At the risk of jeopardizing his own career William, as a dutiful son, had increasingly to assume the daily burdens of the provincial secretary’s office, with little apparent prospect of long-term gain, for the Colonial Office looked upon the proposal that he succeed his father as “objectionable on general principles.” He was rescued from this invidious position through the intervention of Major-General Martin Hunter, the administrator of New Brunswick, who had both affection and genuine admiration for the Odell family. Hunter asked that William be appointed provincial secretary “as a personal favor” to himself, as well as in recognition of William’s qualifications and the faithful service of Jonathan. He took over the duties officially in 1812, received his commission as secretary, registrar, and clerk of the Council on 31 March 1815, and was sworn in as a member of the Council on 3 April 1815.

Odell was not sedentary and office bound. He enjoyed the outdoors, and from time to time as a young man acted as a deputy surveyor for the government; he surveyed the lands of the Miramichi Indians in 1808 [see John Julien*]. In 1818 he replaced Joseph Bouchette as principal surveyor for the British in the determination of the boundary with the United States under article 5 of the Treaty of Ghent (1814) . For more than three years he worked with and under the direction of his friends Ward Chipman Sr and Ward Chipman* Jr who, as joint agents on behalf of the government, were attempting to bolster the British claim to the upper Saint John valley by locating topographic features south of the Aroostook valley that could be plausibly represented as fulfilling the definition of the “North-west Angle of Nova Scotia” laid down in the Treaty of Paris (1783). In the summers of 1818, 1819, and 1820 Odell led survey parties comprised of around 25 men each year and employing more than a dozen canoes. In 1821 he prepared a report with a plan that showed a range of hills extending southwestward from the Saint John River at Mars Hill. The Americans protested that this map was inaccurate, and were particularly offended by the omission of the greater part of the chain of highlands near the St Lawrence on which they founded their claim. Odell, in turn, denied that there was a continuous chain of highlands, basing his assertion on the field-work in the area of Johann Ludwig Tiarks and others. The negotiations collapsed shortly afterwards, but over the next two decades there were several occasions on which Odell’s knowledge of the ground was of value to the provincial authorities in dealing with tensions on the frontier.

By inheritance and training a “King’s man,” Odell was on intimate terms with most of the colony’s administrators, the notable exceptions being George Stracey Smyth* and then Sir John Harvey*. With both men he was compromised by factional politics, in which intimate associates of his, first Ward Chipman Sr and later Thomas Baillie*, were at the centre of opposition to the administration. In 1819, during Smyth’s term, Chief Justice Jonathan Bliss* deprived Odell of his post as clerk of the pleas and appointed his own son, Henry Bliss*, to the office, a move that is unlikely to have taken place without the connivance of the lieutenant governor. Odell was on excellent terms with Sir Howard Douglas*, who dominated the political scene from 1824 to 1829, but after Douglas departed he was drawn into a struggle for power on the side of Thomas Baillie, the commissioner of crown lands, at the centre of a group that later became known as the “official party.” Their leading opponent was Charles Simonds*, whose supporters had a strong sense of being New Brunswickers and favoured the exercise of power by the assembly. The “officials,” less narrowly provincial in outlook, emphasized the authority of the royal prerogative and the principle of strong executive government. The alliance between Odell and Baillie was cemented at the personal level by the marriage of Baillie, a widower, to Odell’s daughter Elizabeth in 1832.

Next to the lieutenant governor the holders of the most powerful offices in the colony, Odell and Baillie aroused jealousy and hostility, particularly in 1832–33 when the old council was replaced by separate legislative and executive bodies and, as a result of their influence at the Colonial Office, they were appointed as the senior members of the new five-man executive. Robert Gowan* portrayed them in the New-Brunswick Courier as two rascally domestics, Wily Oh’Deil and Tommy, attempting to wrest control of “the Estate” from the well-meaning but innocent Scottish squire (the ineffectual lieutenant governor, Sir Archibald Campbell). To counter the influence of the Courier, Odell and Baillie promoted the Morning Chronicle, a newspaper that first appeared in 1836, “too late,” according to MacNutt, “to turn public opinion to the support of its sponsors.”

In 1837 the Colonial Office transferred control of the crown lands to the assembly, appointed a new lieutenant governor, Sir John Harvey, and put New Brunswick into the forefront of constitutional experiment by authorizing changes in the Executive Council to bring it into accord with the assembly. In return the assembly guaranteed to provide for the salaries of Odell and the other holders of patent offices. Odell and Baillie had constitutional scruples about Harvey’s calling of the legislature into session shortly after his arrival, and joined their fellow holders of imperial offices, the attorney general, Charles Jeffery Peters, and the solicitor general, George Frederick Street*, in failing to show the customary courtesy of attending the lieutenant governor in state on the day he opened the legislature. Nevertheless, the Colonial Office refused to accept Odell’s resignation from the Executive Council in 1837 when Baillie and Street were replaced by Simonds and Hugh Johnston, politicians who had the confidence of the assembly. His local knowledge was regarded as indispensable. For the next four years he had to work with a lieutenant governor and councillors whose liberal views were repugnant to him. In these years he was once again involved in crises arising from the Maine boundary question; its settlement by the Webster–Ashburton Treaty of 1842 brought relief from the added duties which had devolved upon his office, though otherwise it seems to have provided him with little satisfaction. His service on the Executive Council came to an end after the elections of 1842–43 when Lieutenant Governor William MacBean George Colebrooke* reorganized that body.

Odell’s decline into old age was troubled by family concerns. The turn of the wheel of political fortune frustrated the career of his eldest son, William Hunter*. In 1837 members of the bar objected to and prevented his becoming clerk of the crown. Odell did designate him officially as his deputy in the office of provincial secretary on 18 Aug. 1838, but this appointment made the situation the more embarrassing in 1840 when the young man created a scandal by rash public behaviour. Baillie’s bankruptcy in 1839 also affected Odell, for it took away the property of his daughter Elizabeth and that of her children. Odell died on Christmas Day, 1844.

The Odell name is synonymous with bureaucracy, learning, and gentility in early New Brunswick. William spent his working life producing and directing the flow of parchment and paper through which the government maintained its structure and exercised its authority. Between them Jonathan and William held the office of provincial secretary for 60 years. During the greater part of that period, they were the most intimate counsellors of the lieutenant governors and administrators, were consulted on almost all business, produced the individual instruments appointing members of the Council, county clerks, justices of the peace, sheriffs, militia officers, and other provincial officials, carried on correspondence with local authorities in the name of the lieutenant governor and council, kept the records of council, participated in the process of authorizing and issuing land grants, and carried out special tasks, such as the taking of the census [see Henry George Clopper], assigned from time to time by the legislature. Even the matriculation of students at the College of New Brunswick (later King’s College), Fredericton, required the issuing of a mandamus.

As a result of the economic prosperity which began at about the time he succeeded his father, William enjoyed an income from fees, most of it derived from crown lands grants and licences, that enabled him to live comfortably and to employ an adequate staff to carry out the business of the secretary’s office. He also held many minor posts, some for income, some out of a sense of civic responsibility, and others, perhaps, for administrative convenience: paymaster of militia (1813), member of the board of the College of New Brunswick and of the council of King’s College, secretary to the commissioners of quitrents (1832), fireward in Fredericton (1823), road commissioner, and clerk of the crown in Chancery (1839). His name keeps recurring in the records as a member of committees assigned to perform practical tasks in fields as far apart as building and banking.

Throughout his life William Franklin Odell enjoyed the support of a close-knit family that attempted to uphold genteel cosmopolitan Anglicanism in a colonial backwater. It seems fitting that New Brunswick continues to be reminded of this outdoorsman-courtier-bureaucrat through the existence of Odell Park and Game Refuge in the heart of Fredericton, once William’s farm, a 300-acre property in much of which the natural forest is preserved.

D. M. Young

N.B. Museum, N.B. Hist. Soc. papers, packet 5, no.1; Odell family papers, packets 18–19; packet 20, items 9, 31; packets 21–25. PAC, MG 23, D1, ser.1, 53; 54: esp. 649–55, 665–70; 60; MG 24, A3, Vaughan to Douglas, 6 Oct. 1827. PANB, RG 1, RS336, A2, Smyth to Bathurst, 17 April 1815. PRO, CO 188/17: ff.22–23, 38–39; 188/29: ff.297–98v; CO 189/11: 313; Goulburn to Odell, 26 Feb. 1818. Royal Gazette (Saint John, N.B.; Fredericton), 9 Jan. 1809, 11 Jan. 1813, 7 Jan. 1823, 22 March 1843, 1 Jan. 1845. Hill, Old Burying Ground. Lawrence, Judges of N.B. (Stockton and Raymond). MacNutt, New Brunswick. W. F. Ganong, “A monograph of the evolution of the boundaries of the province of New Brunswick,” RSC Trans., 2nd ser., 7 (1901), sect.ii: 139–449. W. D. Hamilton, “Indian lands in New Brunswick: the case of the Little South West Reserve,” Acadiensis (Fredericton), 13 (1983–84), no.2: 3–28.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

D. M. Young, “ODELL, WILLIAM FRANKLIN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 24, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/odell_william_franklin_7E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/odell_william_franklin_7E.html
Author of Article:   D. M. Young
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1988
Year of revision:   1988
Access Date:   February 24, 2024