Prominent among the names of the pioneer settlers of Toronto, or “York Pioneers,” as they are now termed, is that which heads this sketch. His birth and life up to the age of eight were rather eventful. Some little time after the marriage of his parents, his father being commander of a merchant vessel, they started for the West Indies, and on their return trip to London were obliged to put into Belfast, the 27th of July, 1809, on which day Richard was born.
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In 1810 Richard accompanied his father and mother to Malta. Coming out of the Mediterranean sea, his father’s vessel, the Unnice, was captured and carried by a French privateer into Algiers, where they remained prisoners of war. Owing to the British consul being an old school mate of Captain Oates’, the tedium of their captivity was relieved by a visit at his residence until exchanged. When Richard was two years old, his father, being in the commissary department, was ordered to Oporto, and while there a Portuguese nobleman seeing the child took a fancy to him, and had him carried off to his country residence, where he had Richard concealed for some weeks. When found, he was well, and could prattle somewhat in Portuguese. In 1812-13 he traveled with his father and mother through Spain and France, and in 1814 returned to Falmouth, his mother’s native place, and his father was ordered to Quebec; and while Captain Oates was in Canada, he visited Toronto, then Little York, to see his cousin, Miss Russell (sister of President Russell) who induced him to return to England, in 1816, and bring out to this country his family, in 1817.
Here Capt. Oates became a well known man in consequence of building and sailing the packet “Richmond,” between this city and Niagara for many years.
In Dr. Scadding’s “Toronto of Old,” the name of Richard Oates appears as one of the students of the famous school of Dr. Strachan. After leaving this school he spent two years at Niagara, about one year at St. Catharines and about a year at Brockville, attending the school of Rossington Elms; after this came back to Toronto and served two years’ apprenticeship at the drug business; in 1828 went to England, and spent two years finishing his study for a druggist, after which he returned to Toronto and commenced business for himself. Not meeting the success anticipated in the drug business, he abandoned it and went into a foundry, with one Christopher Elliott. Another change found him interested in the mill stone business. After carrying on this industry for some time Mr. Oates built a grist mill at Bradford, in which enterprise he lost about $18,000. Returning to Toronto he again started in the mill stone business, and this branch of industry still receives his attention, having been moderately successful.
In 1869 Mr. Oates conceived the idea of organizing an association of the pioneers of this city, and to his indefatigable efforts more than any others, is due the existence of the now popular “York Pioneer Society.” The society has been a very successful one and is doing a good work in preserving relics and historical mementoes and associations of the “olden times.” The membership was confined to those who lived here previous to March 6, 1834, when the name was changed from York to Toronto, but subsequent action has changed their constitution so as to admit direct descendants of the pioneers, after they attain to the age of forty years, August 17, 1872, the society presented Mr. Oates with a handsome gold medal, “In token of his untiring and disinterested zeal in promoting the well being of this Society.” He is now chairman of the Standing Committee. At the Exhibition in 1879, the society made an excellent showing not the least attraction of which was a primitive log cabin which, owing to the energy and force of character of Mr. Oates, was erected on the grounds.
Mr. Oates is president of the United Canadian Association, a position which he has filled for the last five years, having succeeded the late Col. R. L. Denison.
In political views Mr. Oates associates with the Conservative party, and in religion is a Unitarian.
At the municipal election in January, 1880, he was elected to the city council as alderman for St. James’ Ward, a position which he is well qualified to fill.