An analysis of the name in America among the descendants of Major Thomas Owsley
by Ronny O. Bodine
(First published in the Owsley Family Historical Society Newsletter,
December 1997 and slightly modified for publication at this website.)
About 1677, young Thomas Owsley first brought the name to America. There was no question of its correct spelling. Thomas Owsley was quite literate and if asked how his name should be spelled made it clear it was OWSLEY and no other. An account of his life may be found elsewhere in this website. His abilities resulted in his rise in the local political arena and he rendered distinguished service until his death in 1700.
Being a man of some means, Thomas Owsley would have ensured the proper education of his children. The county records of Stafford, Prince William, Fairfax and Loudoun Counties, Virginia are consistent in reporting the correct spelling of the name, although one may find the occasional Ousley written by one who was not in the know.
In 1782, Thomas Owsley, the third bearer of the name, and grandson of the immigrant, relocated his family from Loudoun County to Lincoln County, in that area of Virginia that became Kentucky in 1792. References to the family in all varieties of records are numbered in the hundreds, if not thousands, and the overwhelming majority continued to record the name as Owsley. In fact, the branch of the family established in Lincoln County by Thomas Owsley III, which spread over the mid-west and west, has retained the Owsley spelling, with one lone exception.
Henry B. Owsley was born 1801 in Pulaski County, Kentucky as the son of Thomas Owsley IV (1752-1825) and his wife Dinah. From 1821 to 1831 he lived in Rockcastle County, Kentucky where his name appears on one of the few surviving records of that county, the tax lists, more times than not, as Owsley. In 1831 he moved to Edgar County, Illinois. In May 1832, as Henry Owsley, he enlisted, as a Private, in Captain Robert Griffin's Company, serving until Aug 1832 during the Black Hawk War of 1831-1832. Thereafter, his name underwent a conversion and he was known as Henry Ousley. Writing his last will and testament on 8 Sept 1843, he signed the document as Henry Ousley and died soon after, the will being offered for probate later that month on the 19th (Edgar County Wills, 1: 163-164). His children retained that name as evidenced by any number of court records and local histories of the time and it was passed down through the generations to the present day. Among the present members of the Owsley Family Historical Society is a great-granddaughter of Henry's, Hazel Gertrude Ousley Elvey, a living testimonial to the name bore by his descendants.
Let us now examine the name as it has evolved among the descendants of John Owsley (c1734-1764), the next younger brother of Thomas III, who has left surviving descendants. John Owsley died a violent death in Loudoun County in 1764, leaving three daughters and two sons. Both sons, John and Robert, ultimately settled in Tennessee, where their descendants have spread far and wide. The elder son, John (1757-1845) established his residency in Claiborne County in 1802 and there raised a family of seven sons and two daughters. Whereas the descendants of the eldest son, John (1783-1811) kept the name Owsley, those of the second son, Isaac (1785-1840/50) did not. Isaac left Claiborne County soon after 1833 and settled in Monroe County where he soon died, leaving five daughters and one son. The only son, Samuel D. Owsley (1823-1887) left a legacy where the name evolved to Housley in his lifetime and was continued by all of his ten children and descendants to the present day. Most of the people now living in Rhea and Campbell County, Tennessee who bear the name Housley are the direct descendants of Samuel D. Owsley.
The third son, Stephen Owsley (1787-1881) remained in Claiborne County and the family name remained unchanged among his descendants. The fourth son, Matthew Owsley (1789-1862) lived in that part of Claiborne County taken to form Union County in 1857. For some unknown reason, the name came to be recorded as Ousley in the court records and Matthew Owsley died as Matthew Ousley. The name change is clearly evident on the tombstones of his children and descendants whose graves are spread throughout many of the cemeteries of Union County.
Joseph Owsley (c1790-c1879) was the fifth son of John and Charity (Barton) Owsley. As Joseph Ousley he was listed in the 1810 census of Grainger County, Tennessee and as Joseph Housley on the 1823 tax list for Campbell County. The next five censuses alternate the spelling of the name as Ousley (1860 and 1870 in Union County) and Housley (1830-1850). His gravestone bears the name Joseph Housley, the name furnished to the TVA grave removal authorities by a descendant bearing the same name. Yet, not all of his children continued using Housley. William Ousley (1815-1890) used this form and passed it on to his descendants. Robert Housley's (1818-1886) descendants all retained the name Housley with the exception of one of his sons, George Washington Owsley (1860-1924) who learned of the "correct" spelling of the name and changed it, his own descendants retaining the "correct" spelling to the present, among whom are Floyd L. Owsley, the OFHS Membership Director. The three youngest sons of Joseph Housley: Pleasant (c1827-1876), Crawford (1836-1908) and James (1838-1919) all moved to Missouri where the name was transcribed as Ousley and passed on to their descendants.
The seventh and youngest son of John and Charity (Barton) Owsley was Robert Owsley (c1802-c1858). Two of his sons assumed the name Ousley: William Ousley (c1834-1864) and Elijah Benton Ousley (1836-1914) and passed the name on to the present day.
Robert Owsley (1759-c1839) was the younger brother of John Owsley, of Claiborne County, Tennessee. Robert settled in Sullivan and Jefferson Counties, Tennessee where his name was recorded as Housley. His descendants spread west and all have kept Housley as their family name.
Newdigate Owsley (c1738-1797), younger brother of Thomas Owsley III settled in Hancock County, Georgia. Those of his family who relocated to Arkansas kept the name as Owsley. Those who remained in Georgia, being the descendants of his son Robert Ousley (1763/73-1814), today still bear the name Ousley.
Weldon Owsley (c1750-after 1814), the youngest brother of Thomas Owsley III, appears to have died in Hancock County, Georgia as well. His two known sons assumed the name Ousley. Thomas Ousley (c1778- 1857) settled in Leake County, Mississippi. Points Ousley (c1792-1864) moved to Bibb County, Alabama. The descendants of both sons all bear the name Ousley.
Sarah Owsley (c1740-1808), a younger sister of Thomas Owsley III, lead a lifestyle that came in constant conflict with the churchwardens in Loudoun County, Virginia. Having borne several children out of wedlock, Sarah eventually settled in Clark County, Kentucky where she died in 1808, leaving a will under the name Sarah Ousley. Her elder son, John Ousley (c1764-1823/4) died in Clark County, passing the name Ousley on to his descendants. His brother, William Owsley (c1765-1821/30), eventually settled in Ste. Genevieve County, Missouri where Owsley was the preferred choice for the next generation, but Ousley was that borne by his grandchildren, the issue of his sons Micajah (c1785/90-c1849) and Willis Yeates (1801-1854).
In 18th and 19th century America, how names were written often depended on how court clerks perceived and interpreted the sound of a name. Names also changed with locality. Owsley in Tennessee may have become Ousley in Missouri and back to Owsley in California. By the turn of the century, 1900, the spellings were generally firm. Whatever the case, Owsley, Ousley, ot Housley, it was all the same family.