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

Alexander Burns

by Jane E. MacNamara

“Humbly Sheweth that your Petitioner so early as the year 1787 contemplated a residence in this country, and visited it with that design, But being disappointed in his pursuits, he has since constantly remained in Nova Scotia and Canada without receiving from Government any favour whatsoever.

That his Zeal and Attachment to His King, his country, and its constitution has been invariable. For these reasons your Petitioner with great respect submits to your Excellency the propriety of his Claim to lands in this province…”

With this earnest petition to Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe, written from Niagara in January 1796, Alexander Burns began his life in Upper Canada.[1] The response to his request was delayed until that summer. Simcoe had gone to England on leave, and in his absence, on July 20, Peter Russell had been appointed administrator of Upper Canada or president of the Executive Council.[2] On August 5, 1796, the Executive Council recommended that Alexander Burns receive a grant of 1,200 acres.

The timing of this grant—and perhaps its size—were probably due to another change in Burns’ circumstances. Shortly after President Russell’s July appointment, he had selected Alexander Burns as his private secretary.

Alexander Burns was the brother of David Burns (of Park Lot 25). David had been a surgeon in the Queen’s Rangers and clerk of the Crown and Pleas since 1791. Dr. Burns would have been well-known to the government officials in Newark, most of whom would soon move to the new capital at York. David Burns was selected as principal of the Court of Probate in May 1796.

Alexander’s appointments as registrar of the Court of Probate, secretary to President Russell, and as paymaster of the Queen’s Rangers—all in 1796—must have been partially due to his brother’s influence.[3]

Alexander Burns appears on the first list of the inhabitants of the Town of York from July 1797.[4]On April 9, 1798, he petitioned the Executive Council, requesting a town lot and a park lot at York. His petition was read the same day and approved.[5] He was allocated Lot 5 on the north side of Newgate Street in the Town of York,[6] and Park Lot 31, which he patented on December 31, 1798. Burns appears on the list of York inhabitants again in 1799 and 1805,[7] and he may have spent parts of the intervening years in York.

In February 1801, his brother David petitioned on Burns’ behalf for Lot 1 on the south side of Market Street, “which the said Alexander was permitted to occupy, being forfeited”. The Lot was granted to Alexander, on condition that he comply with settlement regulations.[8]

Alexander’s frequent and extended absences from York were probably due to his duties as paymaster of the Queen’s Rangers. These duties would have taken him to postings in various parts of Upper Canada.

In the fall of 1801, Burns was stationed with some of the Queen’s Rangers at Amherstburg, near the American border. In October, he wrote to Major Green at Quebec requesting a new copy of “instructions to paymasters”. His copy had been stolen—along with $230—when a deserter named Lee broke the lock of a trunk in Paymaster Burns’ quarters. This well-written letter tells the story of the theft, and how the culprit fled across the border to the U.S. Although the border protected him from the charge of robbery, the very cooperative American military arranged to have him arrested as a debtor. The letter also reports problems with desertions from the Queen’s Rangers and questions the eligibility of paymasters to sit on Courts Martial.[9] (Burns was relieved to hear that he didn’t have to be part of Courts Martial.)

We know that Alexander travelled from York to Kingston in November 1802, enabling him to carry a letter from William Berczy at York, to Joseph Forsyth in Kingston.[10] The Queen’s Rangers had been disbanded in October 1802, and Alexander spent much of that autumn attempting to close off the books. After years of delaying and adjusting accounts because of a constant shortage of currency, this must have been a challenge. Surviving letters from November and December of 1804—two years later—show that Burns is still chasing £182 due to him as his final subsistence pay and captain’s allowance, which the military has withheld.[11]

Alexander Burns’ brother David died in February 1806. Alexander, stating his residence as York, applied to the Court of Probate to administer the estate. This was granted on August 16, 1806.[12]David’s estate included Park Lot 25, which Alexander sold in 1815 to John Denison for £200.[13]

What happened to Alexander Burns after 1815 remains a mystery. We have been unable to find a record of his death, or probate of his estate, however the Loyalist, printed at York, published a death notice on December 27, 1828: “[Died] Alexander Burns late of Canada at Moffat, Scotland on 27 Sept”. I have found no evidence to corroborate that this is the same Alexander Burns.

On May 7, 1830, his Park Lot 31 was granted in trust to York merchant Alexander Wood, by a William Burns of Philadelphia, physician. A year later in May 1831, Wood sold the property to Walter O’Hara. The agreement states that “Alex Burns died leaving said Wm. Burns his heir at law”.[14]

Philadelphia city directories show a William Burns, MD, at 106N 10th Street, in 1830, 31 and 33—but not earlier in 1828 or 29, or later in 1835/6. Whether William is Alexander’s son, brother, cousin, nephew—or some more distant relative—remains to be discovered.


[1] Upper Canada Land Petitions, 1796, bundle B2/3, vol. 27, Library and Archives Canada, film C-1619.

[2] Handbook of Upper Canadian Chronology, revised edition. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1985. p 33.

[3] For more about David Burns, see Park Lot 25.

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

[5] Upper Canada Land Petitions, 1798, Bundle B4/85, vol. 31 (Library and Archives Canada film C-1620)

[6] Archives of Ontario, Crown Lands Office records, RG 1, C-I-4, vol.1 (now known as RG 1-174-0-1), p 145, film MS 693-156.

[7] Mosser. pp 3, 9, 47.

[8] Upper Canada Land Petitions, 1801, Bundle B5/71, vol. 32 (Library and Archives Canada film C-1621)

[9] British Military Records from Library and Archives Canada RG-8, Series I (diffusion microfilm at Archives of Ontario uses old designation: C series, A-I-vol 743, p 31-3)

[10] This letter survives in the Alexander Woods papers (S113), Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin Room.

[11] British Military Records from Library and Archives Canada RG-8, Series I (diffusion microfilm at Archives of Ontario uses old designation: C series, A-I-vol 743, p 85-91)

[12] Court of Probate, August 16, 1806. Archives of Ontario, RG 22 6-I-A, film MS 638-41.

[13] Toronto Land Registry Office, Instrument #2614 (grant). The abstract index (vol. 138A) shows the grantor as Alexander I. Burns, who may possibly be a different person than the subject of this article.

[14] Toronto Land Registry Office, Instruments #7353 (grant) and #7984 (grant).