Governor William Owsley, was a mid 19th century Kentucky lawyer, judge, politician and

the sixteenth Governor of Kentucky from September 4th 1844 to September 6th, 1848.

Early Life:

Owsley was born March 24, 1782 in Virginia, to William and Catherine (Bolin) Owsley. His father was a Captain in the Virginia Militia during the Revolution and had received 4,000 acres of bounty land for his service.  When young Owlsey was only one, his family relocated to Lincoln County, Kentucky, to claim their bounty.  They settled near Crab Orchard, on Drakes Creek, where William senior became the high sheriff.   The children of William and Catherine (Bolin) Owsley were Samuel, Nudigate, Joel, Thomas, Jonathan, Ann, Margaret, Mary Pearl, Patience, and Chloe. Governor Owsley became the most distinguished of this large and soon to be influential family.

Some time prior to the move, William Owsley’s father and grand father purchased Treasury Warrants for land in Kentucky County, VA.   Thomas ( the grand father) purchased 2,640 acres on the Dick’s River and 600 acres on Drakes Creek. William (the governor's father) purchased 650 acres on Dick’s River.  And both, grand-father & father, Thomas and William respectively, purchased 1,000 acres together on Paint Lick Creek (although it is apparent all 1,000 acres purchased were not available upon arrival).

Young William completed his education at the local public schools, and became a teacher and surveyor and later became a deputy sheriff.   Soon William Jr.’s intellect and industriousness attracted the attention of Judge John Boyle, who offered him access to his law library.  Under Judge Boyle’s tutelage Owsley read law and passed the bar in 1808-9 and by late 1809 he set up his law practice in Garrard County.

It was while he was working as a tutor, he had first met Elizabeth Gill, who was then one of his students and member of a prominent Central Kentucky family. They married in July 18th, 1803, when she was 17 and he was 21. The couple soon had six children; Amanda Owsley Rodes, Elizabeth Owsley Talbot, Almira Owsley Goodhue, Amalia Owsley Anderson, Marie Owsley Talbot and Erasmus Owsley. 

Nascent Political Career:

Owsley's political career also began in 1809 when he became elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives, where he served one term.

In 1810 Governor Charles Scott appointed him to the Kentucky Court of Appeals and in 1812 he was appointed to the supreme bench as “a colleague of Judge Boyle” to only have to resign when a new law was passed reducing the number of Judges. 

Mean while Owsley was again elected to the State House in 1811, and only to have his second term cut short, as a vacancy occurred in the Court of Appeals where he was immediately re-appointed by Governor Isaac Shelby in 1813.

One of the court's most crucial decisions during Owsley's tenure was in the case of Commonwealth of Kentucky v. James Morrison, which held that the Bank of the United States did not have the right to establish branches in Kentucky. The Supreme Court of the United States later overturned this ruling.

A second important decision in which Owsley was a participant was the case of Blair, etc. v. Williams, which invalidated the Kentucky Replevin Act of 1820 as unconstitutional. This decision was extremely unpopular with the Commonwealth's citizens, but it was affirmed by Owsley's opinion in the case of Lapsley v. Brashcars and Barr.

Following these decisions, the General Assembly abolished the Court of Appeals and created a new one, beginning the Old Court-New Court controversy.   Owsley, John Boyle, and Benjamin Mills who were members of the old court, and they attempted to continue functioning in that role, but eventually gave way to the new court.  In 1828, Mills and Owsley resigned from the defunct old court and were nominated for the new court, but failed to gain confirmation by the state Senate.

Owsley returned to the state House in 1831, and served in the state Senate from 1832 to 1834. He also served as a presidential elector for Henry Clay in 1833. Governor James Turner Morehead appointed him Secretary of State for his shortened term from 1834 to 1836.

In 1843, he retired from the practice of law.

In 1843 Owsley County, Kentucky was formed from parts of Clay, Breathitt, and Estill Counties and named in honor of Willam Owsley, in recognition of his public service as a state legislator and judge.

Becomes Governor of Kentucky:

Owsley was elected Governor, as a fiscal conservative, on the Whig ticket in 1844, defeating democrat candidate, Col. William Orlando Butler, by 59,792 (52.1%) to Butler’s 55,089 (48.0%) votes.  Owsley policies were influenced by his friend & in-law, Cassius Marcellus Clay whose Whiggish newspaper “True American” espoused policies of pro-manufacturing and anti-slavery.

Cautious with public monies, Owsley, never-the-less managed to reduce state's deficit.  He judiciously expanded Kentucky’s educational system and re-provisioned the state militia for possible war, and had to rebuild the state penitentiary, which was damaged by fire just before his inauguration.

Though Owsley deplored the U.S.-Mexican War, which he viewed as a “conquest for Empire”, but proudly announced that the Commonwealth had raised 13,700 volunteers, more than five times the number requested. Coincidentally, in 1846 Owsley’s former gubernatorial challenger, Col. Butler was made a general in then future President Zachary Taylor’s The Army Of Occupation, in Texas.

“The United States had become involved in war with Mexico, a sister republic.” Owlsey stated in a speech,  “The calamity was great and deeply deplored, but the Rubicon was passed, and it was too late to look back and wrangle as to the manner in which it was brought about. Our country needs assistance, and most willingly assistance was afforded.”

Governor Owsley appointed Robert Jefferson Breckinridge, a supporter of gradual emancipation, as public school superintendent in 1847.  At that time, only one child out of ten in Kentucky went to school.  On behalf of Breckinridge, Owsley urged the General Assembly to increase funding for public education. "Nothing but money will do it," proclaimed Owsley, "and it is left to the appropriate department – the legislature – to determine on the expediency or inexpediency of raising it." 

Through reforming the state’s Public School System's financial administration, and creating a 2 cent real-estate tax, which resulted in the creation of new schools and re-financing those in thirty counties that previously not received state monies, Breckinridge, became known as the father of Kentucky Public School system.  By the end of the Owsley administration, the state education budget went from $6,000 to $144,000 and had over 20,500 students were enrolled, a five fold increase.

During his governorship, Owsley, a slave owner him self, became uneasy with slavery, and pardoned the irrepressible “petticoat” abolitionist, Delia Ann Webster, who had been convicted of helping more than 70 slaves escape to freedom, on the proviso that she leave the state.  Miss Webster, till then, ran a exclusive girls’ school, of which the income was used to finance her progressive farm in Trimble County, Ky, where she employed freed blacks and was a conductor on the Underground Railroad. 

Owsley made a few stumbles in his political career, one being, his also removal popular Secretary of State Benjamin Hardin from his post in 1846, replacing him with abolitionist George Blackburn Kinkead, future founder Kinkeadtown.

Benjamin Hardin, who believed his Secretary of State position would spring him to the US Senate seat, was frustrated in not being by consulted by Governor Owsley in patronage. Disagreements over appointments, lead to his removal, but the State Senate voted that no vacancy existed, and the Court of Appeals upheld this decision.

Vindicated, Hardin then resigned, charging the governor with nepotism, because of Kinkead’s extended, but tenuous, Shelby kinship with the former governor and Breckinridge.  In 1849 the Kentucky Constitution, was amended and the governor was stripped of his power to remove the Secretary of State from office.

Notable members of Governor Owsley’s administration were as follows; Lieutenant Governor - Archibald Dixon, Secretary of State - George Kinkead, Attorney General - Owen G. Gates (appointed), Auditor - H.Q. Bradley, Treasurer - Richard Wintersmith, Court of Appeals - Jacob Swigert, Librarian - George A. Robertson.

One of Governor Owsley last acts was to reinterre the body (thought to be) of Daniel Boone in Frankfort, but he was unable to secure the funding to purchase Daniel Boone’s portrait done from life by Chester Harding.


Following his term as governor, Owsley retired to his farm in Danville, Kentucky, where he lived with his wife, till she died in 1858.  After her death Owsley moved in with his daughter and her husband, Amanda & Clifton Rodes.  When Owsley died, in December 9,1862, he stated in his will to "Emancipate my servant woman Kitty and make provisions for her removal out of the state...not exceeding 300 dollars provided she desires to leave [to Canada]". [Owsley - Boyle County Wills - Book 1, p 260 (1862)]  Kitty eventually did visit Canada. 

The Governor was also rather progressive concerning his daughters, Amanda Rodes, Elizabeth Talbot and Almira Goodlow (Amelia Anderson Owsley had died shortly after remarrying her cousin Bryan Owsley) for each received $14,000.00 of which $6,000.00 was bank stock – these funds were to be “their own separate estates free from the control of their husbands with full power on the part of my said daughter to dispose of the same by will or otherwise as fully as if they were”. The descendants of his daughter Amelia received the same as the other daughters. The husbands received land and all received furniture and other items. All grandchildren received $100.00 except for Erasmus’ children who received $300.00

He is buried at historic Bellview Cemetery in Danville, surrounded by numerous descendants and relatives.

For Further Reading:








The Life of William Owsley

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