An ongoing research project of the Ontario Genealogical Society, Toronto Branch

Surgeon David Burns

by Jane E. MacNamara

Neither David Burns of Park Lot 25 nor his brother Alexander of Park Lot 31 left documentation that would reveal much about their personalities or personal lives. Most of what I have learned is from official records and the writings of some of their contemporaries in Upper Canada.

David Burns served with the 71st Regiment of the British Army during the American Revolutionary War. The 71st does not have an easy-to-follow continuous history. The regiment was first formed in 1758, and then disbanded in 1763 when it was no longer needed. When, in 1777, discontent in the American colonies required more British troops, a new 71st was raised in the Glasgow and Stirling area.[1]

It was to this new highland regiment—also known as Fraser’s Highlanders—that Surgeon David Burns belonged. Surgeon is a commissioned rank and therefore David Burns should appear in the lists of officers for the 71st in the published army lists. He does not—perhaps because he was in the regiment for only a short time, or perhaps news of his promotion to surgeon[2] came too late for him to be listed before the 71st Regiment was disbanded in 1783.

A David Burns “Surgeon’s Mate” was included in a list of prisoners of war held in Boston in a June 1776 report by Lt.-Col. Archibald Campbell.[3] Burns was aboard the George when it and another troop transport, the Annabella, sailed into Boston harbour, unaware that Boston was no longer held by the British. By the time the officers of the lightly armed George and the Annabella realized they were not sailing into a friendly port, the wind had died, the tide was too low for them to manoeuvre, and they were confronted by the heavily armed brig Defence and hemmed in by six privateers. Lt.-Col. Campbell decided to sacrifice no more of his officers and men, and they became prisoners.

The prisoners, numbering more than 400, could not be held safely in Boston. They were taken inland in groups of 100 to each principal county of Massachusetts, officers separated from soldiers. Officers were paroled, and soldiers were permitted to work as labourers or tradesmen rather that stay in jail.[4]

Further research in British military records may clarify details of David Burns’ experience as a prisoner of war, his apparent promotion to Surgeon, and any further Revolutionary War service.

Certainly Burns’ rank as surgeon and service in the 71st was acknowledged by Sir A. Campbell (almost certainly the former Lt.-Col. Archibald Campbell) when he recommended Burns to the newly appointed lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe. Simcoe needed officers for the new regiment of Queen’s Rangers that was being formed to help settle Upper Canada. Burns was appointed as surgeon to the Queen’s Rangers on September 21, 1791.[5]

Burns probably joined others from the Rangers to travel to Quebec in the early spring of 1792, and on to Upper Canada that summer. I haven’t discovered where he had spent the nine years (presumably on half-pay) between the disbandment of the 71st Regiment and his new commission in the Queen’s Rangers, but his brother Alexander seems to have spent most of those years in Nova Scotia.[6]

In addition to his commission as surgeon, David Burns soon acquired a civil service job. He was appointed as clerk of the Crown and of the Common Pleas on December 31, 1891. This put him in charge of the administration of the Court of the King’s Bench—the high court of the province. He held this appointment until his death.[7]

Burns’ court duties would have necessitated a home in Newark, but his military duties may have taken him to the various construction and road-building projects of the Queen’s Rangers. When York was designated as the new capital of Upper Canada, Burns, with many other government appointees, petitioned for land there. On September 7, 1793, Burns requested Park Lot 25 and a town lot in York. His petition was read in Council and granted the same day.[8] But he didn’t move right away. In fact in December of the same year, Burns requested Lot 198 in Newark where he wanted to build a dwelling house.[9] The Land Board obliged.

He consolidated his future in York in 1795, when he claimed the rest of the land to which he was entitled for his services in “the late War in America”—specifically Lots 15 and 16 in the second concession, and Lots 12, 13 and 14 in the third concession west of Yonge Street—a total of 1,000 acres.[10] This time the Land Board was not quite so obliging. A 1796 inventory of David Burns’ 2,200 acres of land grants shows that 1,000 acres were in Flamborough West, 600 in Murray Twp., and only 600 acres in York.[11]

Burns was finally told to move his office to York in 1796. This was to take place at the end of the next session of parliament.[12] The fifth session of the first Parliament of Upper Canada ended on June 3, 1796,[xiii] and David Burns appears on the first list of inhabitants of York compiled in July 1797.[14] The criteria for the way names are arranged on this list are not clearly defined, but Burns appears to be the sole person in a household, with his brother Alexander next on the list, also a sole resident.

We know a little about those early years in York from the diaries of Alexander Macdonnell[15]. On January 2, 1799, Macdonnell writes that he had both lunch and dinner at the garrison mess with colonels Shank and Smith, and “Messrs. D. Burns & Gray” (all Park Lot owners). During the next few days, the diary shows that Macdonnell and his brother socialized frequently with both David and Alexander Burns. David Burns was among those sponsoring a bonfire on January 4 to celebrate Admiral Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile. On the evening of January 6, Burns and Robert I.D. Gray dined with Macdonnell. Macdonnell notes that the dinner was indifferent, but they “drank nearly a bottle of port each besides two bottles of porter”.

Prior to the move from Newark, David Burns had been given another civil service appointment—official principal of the Court of Probate, which had jurisdiction over estate matters involving more than one district. His brother Alexander held the position of registrar in the same court.

However it was yet another appointment for David Burns—as master-in-chancery—that contributed to a conflict between the elected House of Assembly and the appointed Legislative Council in 1803. As clerk of the Crown and Common Pleas, Burns received £100 per annum from Britain, and, like most government appointees, was expected to get the rest of his income from fees. These fees, and others collected by various courts, were thought by some members of the Assembly to be excessive. On the motion of Angus Macdonnell (of Park Lot 28), the Assembly appointed a committee to look in to the matter. Burns was called to appear for questioning at 2:00 pm on February 2, 1803. He immediately sent a copy of the fees he had received, and promised to attend.

But then things got complicated. As master-in-chancery, Burns was an officer of the Legislative Council, which resented the Assembly’s attack on fees charged by court officials—seeing it as an attack on the government. Burns was advised, perhaps instructed, that he should not appear before the committee. He sent word to the committee that he would not be there.

The committee reported his refusal to the Assembly, which reacted by charging Burns with contempt. The sergeant-at-arms (Thomas Ridout of Park Lot 27) delivered the warrant to his home the next morning, and Burns promised to surrender himself at noon. When he didn’t, the speaker of the House of Assembly sent the sergeant-at-arms to get him. Burns was, at the time, in the Legislative Chamber as master-in-chancery. After being asked to wait at the door, Sergeant-at-Arms Ridout was summoned in to the Chamber by the speaker of the Legislative Council. He explained his mission (and that he was just following orders), and after being chastised for “audaciousness” and “effrontery”, he returned to the Assembly—without Burns, of course.

As soon as Ridout had left, the Council decided that it should send a message to the Assembly complaining of the “insult offered to the Legislative Council by an officer of the Assembly, the Sergeant-at-Arms”. This resulted in Ridout’s suspension, and the temporary appointment of Charles Willcocks (of Park Lot 13). After much discussion, the Assembly decided that they did indeed have the right to summon David Burns, and sent Willcocks to arrest him. Burns finally did appear before the Assembly the next morning, and explained his contention that he had not meant any insult, but as a servant of the Crown, he would not answer to anyone but a representative of the Crown. This explanation was not acceptable, but Burns was allowed to leave, technically still in the custody of Willcocks.

The political wrangling continued for a few more days, but at the end of it all, Burns still had all three positions, and Thomas Ridout was reinstated as sergeant-at-arms.[16]

David Burns died three years later on February 6, 1806, and was buried on February 9 at the garrison burial ground.[17] Ironically, for the principal of the Court of Probate, David Burns died without a valid will. His brother, Alexander, was appointed administrator of the estate.[18]

In 1815, Alexander Burns sold Park Lot 25 to John Denison. An instrument registered on the Park Lot 25 title in 1830[19] suggests a familial connection with a William Burns, physician, of Philadelphia, but as I have found no indication of age for David, his brother Alexander, or this William, any guess on my part at the nature of this connection, could be misleading.


[1] Stacy, Kim. “A Summary of Scottish Regiments in North America: The America [sic] Rebellion” on the Scottish Military History Website: <www.scottishmilitaryresearch.org.uk>

[2] British Headquarters Papers, New York 1774-1783 (Library and Archives Canada, MG 23, B1, 1779/01, film M-367)

[3] Report by Lt.-Col. Archibald Campbell, 71st Regiment, to Sir William Howe, 19 June 1776, as printed in: MacLean, J.P. An historical account of the settlements of Scotch Highlanders in America prior to the peace of 1783. Glasgow: John Mackay, 1900.

[4] Walcott, Charles H. Sir Archibald Campbell of Inverneill; sometime prisoner of war in the jail at Concord, Massachusetts. Boston: Beacon Press, 1898. p 20-21 (Available at www.archive.org.)

[5] Cruikshank, E.A. (editor). The Correspondence of Lieut. Governor John Graves Simcoe, Vol. 1, 1789-1793. Toronto: Ontario Historical Society, 1923. p45 and 72.

[6] Upper Canada Land Petitions, 1796, Bundle B2/3, vol 27 (Library and Archives Canada, film C-1619)

[7] Armstrong, Frederick H. Handbook of Upper Canadian Chronology, revised edition. Toronto: Dundurn Press. 1985. p 117-8.

[8] Upper Canada Land Petitions, 1793, Bundle B1/89, vol 27 (Library and Archives Canada, film C-1619)

[9] Upper Canada Land Petitions, 1793, Bundle B misc/230, vol 67 (Library and Archives Canada, film C-1635)

[10] Upper Canada Land Petitions, 1795, Bundle B1/44, vol 27 (Library and Archives Canada, film C-1619)

[11] Archives of Ontario, RG 1/ C-I-3/ vol 13 (now known as RG 1-145-3-1), p 47.

[12] Circular letter from Simcoe’s secretary E.B. Littlehales, as reprinted in: Firth, Edith G. The Town of York 1793-1815. Toronto: Champlain Society, 1962. p 25.

[13] Armstrong. p 48.

[14] Mosser, Christine. York, Upper Canada: Minutes of town meetings and lists of inhabitants 1797-1823. Toronto: Metropolitan Toronto Library Board, 1984. p 3.

[15] Firth, Edith G. The Town of York, 1793-1815. Toronto: Champlain Society, 1962. p 226-8.

[16] This case and several others involving the privileges of the Legislative Council are discussed in: Riddell, William Renwick. “The legislatures of Upper Canada and contempt” in Papers and Records, Vol. XXII. Toronto: Ontario Historical Society, 1925. p 186-201.

[17] Diary of Elizabeth Russell as extracted in: Firth, p 261.

[18] Court of Probate, August 16, 1806. Archives of Ontario, RG 22 6-I-A, film MS 638-41. (This is the only primary source that I have found to verify that David and Alexander were brothers.)

[19] Toronto Land Registry Office, Instrument 7353.