Sir William Pearce Howland was born at Paulings in New York State of the United States of America on May 29, 1811, the second son of Johnathan Howland and Lydia Pearce. He was educated at the Kinderhook Academy; and in 1830 he came to Upper Canada. He first settled at Cookstown, near York (Toronto), where he went into business with his brother. In 1840 he purchased the Lambton mills in York County; and shortly afterwards he established a wholesale grocery business in Toronto. Though he was sympathetic to the Reform movement, he refused to implicate himself with the Rebellion of 1837. In 1841 Howland became a naturalized Canadian.
In 1857 he was elected as a Reformer to represent West York in the Legislative Assembly of Canada; and he continued to represent the constituency, first in the Assembly, and then in the House of Commons until 1868. From 1862 to 1863 he was Minister of Finance in the S. Macdonald-Sicotte Government and in 1863/64 he was Receiver-General in the S. Macdonald-Dorion Government. In November 1864, he entered the Great Coalition with the portfolio of Postmaster-General. When George Brown retired from the cabinet in 1865, Howland, with William McDougall declined to follow him. In 1866 Howland's portfolio was changed to finance. In 1867 he was appointed Minister of Inland Revenue in the first cabinet of the Dominion of Canada. The following year, Howland retired from office to accept the Lieutenant-Governorship of Ontario, a position in which he remained until 1873. He then retired from public life. He continued in business until 1894, and he died at Toronto on January 1, 1907.