The Cowans


Many researchers believe that the Cowan family originated in Scotland. They may have descended from the MacCowans, a sect of clan MacDougal near Oban on the east shore of the Firth of Lorn, or another branch of the MacCowans, a sect of the clan Colquhoun whose lands were on the shores of Loch Lamond.

James had been crowned James I of England and James VI of Scotland in 1603, and shortly thereafter he began confiscating large parts of the northern part of Ireland. By then the area had become largely depopulated as a result of pestilence, famine and rebellion. Around 1610, in an effort to defuse the unrest of the remaining Irish, he established the Ulster  Plantation, which included the nine counties of seventeenth century Northern Ireland. Private planters were already at work in the three counties of Antrin, Down and Monaghan. In the other six counties James established a somewhat complex plan of land allocation. In the planning stage Scots were not included, but the omission was corrected, and by 1611 he had allocated many Lowland Scottish gentry large portions of the available land.

Scotland, in the early 1600s, was a poor and unstable land. Up to that point only Robert the Bruce in the early 1300s had been able to establish order, and even he had done little to help the plight of the common man. There was no orderly local government or rule of law, other than the rules set down by local clan chiefs. There were no policemen to establish order, and most of its citizens—even lower-level nobility—were illiterate. A large percentage of its citizens were living in poverty, and were little more than indentured servants of the clan chiefs in the Highlands and the often absentee landowners in the Lowlands. It was no surprise then that large numbers of Scots were receptive to the enlistment efforts of the Ulster landowners.

On May 23, 1653 a list was drawn up of emigrants from Scotland to be settled in County Down. One of the names on the list was that of John Cowan, and this is the earliest-known recorded reference to a Cowan in the Ulster Plantation.

It was from this environment that many Scots settlers emigrated to America in the early 1700s, and there came to be known as  “Scotch-Irish.”

Between 1720 and 1726 many Cowan family members emigrated from County Down to Pennsylvania. Among the first to leave Ireland were four brothers, all born in the 1690s: David, Hugh, John and William Cowan, sons of Samuel Cowan. They left from the Port of Newry, County Down, and it is thought that they settled originally in the West Cain-Salisbury district near the border of Chester and Lancaster Counties.

John Cowan was our immigrant ancestor.  He married Elizabeth Parke soon after he arrived in the Colonies, and they had nine children. Their third child was John Cowan, Jr., and he was born in Salisbury Township, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in 1723.

By the middle 1700s Pennsylvania was becoming crowded, and many colonists were looking southward to the Carolinas where Lord Granville, holder of vast tracts of land, was tempting new settlers with cheap acreage. John Cowan, Sr. joined the migration and moved his family to an area in North Carolina that would be Rowan County in 1753 (Note: James N. Erwin moved his family there also about 1751). He located his family in the “Irish Settlement,” and built his home near the head of Second Creek.

John Cowan, Sr. soon became a landowner. North Carolina land records show that his first acquisition was September 28, 1750 when he bought 300 acres. There are many land transactions recorded to “John Cowan” in Rowan County in those early years, but many of the recordings are not clear as to whether it was in the name of John, Sr. or John, Jr. It is readily apparent, however, that both were large landowners on or near the Catawba River.

John Cowan, Jr. married three times, and would have children by each wife. His wives were (1) Mary Dunn, (2) Mary Graham, (3) Elizabeth Dicky. His first child, borne by Mary Dunn January 23, 1747 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, was Thomas Cowan.

In Rowan County, North Carolina, during the third quarter of the 1700s when Thomas Cowan was growing up near Witherow’s Creek, much of the region west of Salisbury (the county seat of Rowan County) was a vast wilderness. Wild animals roamed at will, and the Indians were hostile and made frequent raids on isolated frontier farms and settlements.

John Cowan, Jr. joined the Revolutionary Army as a private in 1776, but saw no action, and went home when his one-year enlistment was up.

On December 30, 1773, Thomas Cowan married Mary Barkley (Trivia: Mary’s brother, Henry Barkley, Jr., was an ancestor of Albin W. Barkley, Vice President of the United States 1949-1953).

In the early years of the Revolutionary War most battles were fought along the coast of the Carolinas and in the North. In 1780, however, Cornwallis moved his British forces into the South. Many men of the Piedmont area joined the fight for Independence, and among them was Thomas Cowan of Second Creek. He served as a captain and commanded, at different times, cavalry ad well as infantry in the North Carolina Militia. Thomas Cowan participated in the battles of King’s Mountain, Cowpens, Ramseur’s Mill, Lincolnton, Eutaw Springs and others. He was wounded September 8, 1781 during the Battle of Eutaw Springs.

After the war was won Thomas became a substantial planter, owned many slaves, and accumulated large tracts of land. He also took a leading role in public affairs. 

Thomas was also a Presbyterian Elder. His parents and grandparents had been affiliated with the Church of England, but after the family migration to Rowan County they found themselves among a predominantly Scottish citizenry that embraced the Presbyterian doctrine. Cathey’s Meeting House, later named Thyatira Church, survives, and is located about three miles from Thomas’ home. The date of his election and ordination to the eldership is not known, for early church records have been lost, but later records indicate that he had a close relationship with the pastor, the Rev. Samuel E. McCorkle. Thomas Cowan and Mary Barkley are both buried in the Thyatira Church Cemetery.

Thomas Cowan and Mary Barkley had fourteen children. Their first, Catherine Nancy Cowan, born October 4, 1774, married Joseph Erwin, Sr., and was my great-great-great grandmother.

Another bit of trivia: Mary, the second child of Thomas and Mary Cowan, was born February 5, 1776. She married William Buntin. William’s brother, Robert Buntin, was an ancestor of Lyndon Baines Johnson, President of the United States 1963-1969.

Thomas Cowan called his home in Rowan County Wood Grove. It had three stories, with a large basement and garret, and was built of sun-dried bricks. It survives today as a beautiful and valuable historical structure. It contains many of the original furnishings, including pewter dishes and utensils, as well as many relics of the descendants who lived there. It is a “must see” for all living descendants.