Cowan - John Maxwell - Montgomery InGenWeb Project

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Cowan - John Maxwell


Source: H. W. Beckwith History (Chicago: HH Hill, 1880) p 160 note: a picture of him is included in the original source

John Maxwell COWAN, of Crawfordsville, was born in Indianapolis, Dec 6, 1821. HIs parents were John and Anna (MAXWELL) Cowan, both of Scotch-Irish lineage. His father was a Virginian by birth, and at an early age migrated with the family to the State of Tennessee., locating in the Sewanee Valley, where he resided for 20 years, and where a large number of descendants of the family still reside. He subsequently came to Ky, and thence to Charlestown in the then Territory of Indiana. When the Prophet's war broke out, he joined the forces commanded by Gen. William Henry Harrison, as a volunteer, and remained in service through the entire campaign, being engaged in th memorable battle of Tippecanoe. After this battle, he served for two years as a dragoon scout until the hostilities between the Wabash tribes and the whites were finally settled. Returning home to Charlestown he made preparations and removed to Indianapolis, of which city he was one of the earliest settlers. In the autumn of 1822 he finally removed to Montgomery Co, settling on a tract 2 1/2 mi. SW of Crawfordsville, on Offiel''s (sic) Creek, where he engaged in farming. The son was left fatherless when he was about 11 years old, and the family estate having been dissipated by the speculation of its administrator, the mother and boy were compelled to struggle with the severest adversity. He thus assumed the burdens of life while yet in childhood, and bore them unflinchingly and without complaint until the wheel of fortune returned a reward. He entered the preparatory school of Wabash College is 1836 with a determination to obtain a thorough education if nothing else should ever be secured, and after six years was graduated from the classical course with the degree of Bachelor of Arts. Soon following his graduation he received an appointment as Deputy Clerk of Clinton Co and removed to Frankfort. There, snatching fragments of time from the toils of his office, he began the study of law and in a few years was enabled to attend the law school connected with the University of Indiana at Bloomington, where he was placed under the instruction of Hon. David McDonald, afterward judge of the US District Court for Indiana. Graduating at the end of one year, he returned to Frankfort and engaged in the active duties of his chosen profession. In 1845 he was married to Harriet D. JANNEY, a descendant of a prominent Quaker family of Va, whose paternal ancestors were the Porters of Pa, and whose maternal ancestors were the Ruples and Judahs of Basle, Switzerland. After their marriage, Mr. Cowan formed a law partnership with Hon. James F. SUIT, at Frankfort. Mr. Suit was one of the most distinguished advocates of W. Indiana, and his talents being supplemented by the energy and studious habits of his partner, their business rapidly became lucrative. In 1858, Mr. Cowan was nominated for the judgeship in the 8th judicial circuit, composed of the counties of Boone, Clinton, Montgomery, Parke, Vermillion, Fountain and Warren. His competitor was an experienced and able jurist, at the time, on the bench of the circuit, and the political complexion of the counties composing the judicial field was decidedly hostile to his being retired; notwithstanding which, Mr. Cowan's personal popularity, and reputation as a lawyer, gave him the election by a large majority. The term for which he was elected was 6 years, which were rounded up with the severest and most exacting mental labor. At the expiration of the term, he stood so high in popular esteem that he was unanimously renominated by his party and again elected for a similar term without any real opposition from the opposite political party. Completing his labors upon the bench in 1870 he returned to the practice of law at Crawfordsville, where he had removed his family in 1864, forming a partnership with Hon. Thomas M. PATTERSON, late member of congress from Colorado. At the end of a prosperous connection of two years, he became associated with Hon. MD WHITE, and his second son, James E. Cowan, in a new legal firm, which continued for nearly three years, when he finally retired from practice and connected himself with the First National Bank of Crawfordsville, as assistant cashier which position he still holds. As is usual with descendants of Scotch ancestry, he, with his family, are adherents of the Presbyterian Church. Three sons and one daughter were born to him, all of whom are living and grown to maturity. In person Judge Cowan is tall, slenderly built, of nervous-sanguine temperament, erect carriage and figure, with an air of modest dignity. His disposition is genial, and he delights to meet his friends, for whom and his family he has strong affection. His long and toilsome life has produced a competence with which comfort and serenity are assured to his old age. His wife lives to enjoy with him and their children the fruits of mutual sacrifices and well earned honors.  - typed by kbz

Source: Crawfordsville weekly Journal 18 Oct 1901
The Indianapolis News gives the following interesting sketch of a former Crawfordsville citizen:
John M. Cowan, of Springfield, Mo. one of the pioneers of Indianapolis is spending a few days with S.M. Houston of Irvington. Mr. Cowan thinks he was the first white child born at Indianapolis. The date of his birth was December 6, 1821.  His father, John Cowan came to what is now the site of the city when there were only two or three families here. In 1822 he moved to what is now Crawfordsville. The son attended Wabash College where he was graduated in 1842. He is now the oldest surviving graduate of the school. His classmates were Charles Canby, James Wilson, at one time congressman and Thomas Lowry.  Mr. Cowan was graduated from the law school in Bloomington in 1845 and in 1858 was elected judge of the Eighth judicial circuit then composed of seven counties - Clinton, Boone, Parke, Vermillion, Fountain, Warren and Montgomery.  He was reelected in 1863 and served altogether 12 years on the bench.  In 1881 he went to Springfield to live on account of Mrs. Cowan's health.

Source: Indianapolis News, Marion County, Indiana 3 June 1920 p 1
Springfield, MO June 3 – John Maxwell Cowan, age ninety-eight, a former circuit court judge in Indiana and said to have been the third white child born in Indianapolis, died here today after a short illness.  He was the second oldest resident of Springfield. Mr. Cowan was the only child of John and Anna Maxwell Cowan, pioneers in Indiana and was born December 6, 1821, in Indianapolis, the family removing soon afterward to Crawfordsville, Ind. He attended the Crawfordsville schools and was graduated from Wabash College in 1842. For a number of years he has been the oldest living Wabash graduate. In 1845, he was graduated from the law department of Indiana University, and began the practice of law in Frankfort, later being elected judge of the Eighth Judicial Circuit in Indiana, and serving from 1858 to 1870. Eleven years later, he retired and came with his wife to Springfield, where he has since lived.  He married Harriet D. Janney at Stockwell, Ind in 1845.  Mrs. Cowan died fifteen years ago.  For several years Mr. Cowan conducted the Springfield Republican here, and was active in business.  He is survived by four children, five granddaughters and three great grandsons. One son, R.E. Cowan and a granddaughter, Miss Elizabeth Cowan live in Crawfordsville. The body will be taken to Crawfordsville for burial.

Source: Crawfordsville Weekly Journal, July 17, 1914
Born in 1821 He Saw First Railroad in County
Heard Lincoln - Douglas Debate
Is Ninety-Three

  How would you like to have a talk with a man who was born in the year '21, who lived here when Crawfordsville was not yet a village and Montgomery county had not even been organized, who could describe Abraham Lincoln to you first hand, and speak familiarly of men like the grandfather of Henry Lane Wilson?  Judge J.M. Cowan, now of Springfield, Missouri, but formerly a pioneer resident of Crawfordsville, can do it, and he is the only man living who can.  He is now almost 93 years old, and although he has not lived here for 33 years he spent the fore part of his long life in this vicinity.  The judge graduated from Wabash College with the class of '42, and has been the oldest living alumnus of the local institution for a period of twenty-two years.  He obtained his distinction as the oldest graduate at the death of Gen. Speed S. Fry of Kentucky, in '92
  Venerable and white-haired but with a keen eye, a sensitive ear and an unimpaired memory, the aged jurist sat on the porch of his son's home last night and related his reminiscences to a Journal reported in a clear straight-forward manner which demonstrated that physically he is much more vigorous than many men his junior by forty years.

  When the judge came here this district was a primeval forest and bands of wild Indians roamed over it, hunting and fishing for their daily food.  The whites were not molested, when the town was founded, however, and the only fearful mention made of the redskins was by the children, who were frightened into good behavior by tales of their cruelty.  Later, the aborigines came to the little village in bands, but were never fractious.

  Ginseng (sang) digging was the principal method of getting ready money in the county at that time.  There were no railroads near for the shipping of the small amount of grain the inhabitants raised on their little farms and since the nearest town of exchange was a matter of from one to two hundred miles distant, very little beyond what was necessary for home consumption was grown.  Stock and grain brought practically nothing in money, and hence the men preferred the digging of the "sang" small in bulk and large in value.  A first class cow went in those days for $6, says the judge, and you had to drive herds hundred miles to get that much.  The only market of importance for hogs was Cincinnati, and a drove was conveyed there when the number of swine had become so large as to be convenient.
  Ready money was as scares as the proverbial hen's teeth.  "Men commonly cut down from tree, sawed, split and piled at the rate of twenty-five cents a cord," said the judge, and the highest price in the district ever paid for farm hand work was $100 per year.  And the work was of the decided pioneer variety too, without riding plows, threshers, binders, etc., and there were stumps to get out and ground to be cleared. It might also be well to mention in connection with the prices of things, that the judge said that whiskey came at 25 cents a gallon, because of the absence of a tax on stuff.

  Judge Cowan gave an interesting account of the methods employed in harvesting grain.  The great invention of the cradle had not yet taken the country by storm, and sickles or "reapers" were the instruments employed.
  As a boy the judge remembers going to the land office which was located here at that time.  The register's office was in one end of a two room log structure, and the receiving office in the other.  In the latter room Judge Cowan says he frequently saw a great steel chest in which the government money was kept.  The chest was about two feet deep, three and a half feet long, and two wide, and he has distinct recollection of seeing it piled full of silver, and left with the lid standing open.  The money was never molested, although the only means of protecting it consisted of two padlocks.  The contents of the chest was practically all Spanish and Mexican coins.  There was no U.S. currency in circulation here at all, and gold was never seen.  The denominations used were the Spanish milled dollar, the half dollar, twenty-five cent piece, twelve-and-a-half cent and six-and-a-fourth cent pieces, the bulk of the coins used being Spanish. When the steel chest became filled, the judge says, the money was put to kegs and taken through with teams, like so much went to Louisville, Ky., where the land funds were kept.  The chest spoken of was for a time neglected and was at one time used as an ash box by a firm of this city, but it is now the property of the Montgomery county Historical Society, and is kept in the Carnegie public library in this city.
  The Mill, at the time of which the judge talked, was a wooden structure, and stood on Market street at about the spot now occupied by the old Insley & Morse barn.  "The first case in which a man was sent to the penitentiary form this jail," he said, was that of a prisoner who had been found guilty of stealing a watch.  Friends of the man burned the lock off the jail and set him free, but as a result of the burning the whole jail was consumed.  The prisoner was later captured by Deputy Sheriff Samuel Maxwell, and what was thought to be the leader of his friends was also apprehended. An old fashioned punishment was administered to the latter by the villagers,  he was taken to the hollow near which the iron bridge east of town is, and soundly whipped with hickory switches, the man's name was Jack, and after that time the place of his punishment was called "Jack's Hollow" Judge Cowan was a boy at the time this incident occurred.

  The narrator says the first residences to be built in the city were constructed on Market street, and they were not elaborate affairs.  His remembrance of early Crawfordsville places, the court house on Main street in the present location of the Barnhill Hornaday & Pickett grocery, it was a two-story hewn log building then and the corner now occupied by the court house was commons.  William Binford had a store on the Crawford corner, and on the Elston Bank site.  A dwelling was on the post office corner, while Henry Crawford's first log store was where the Ramsey house's location.

  Crawfordsville was much larger than Lafayette then, having been founded before that city as was Madison larger than Indianapolis.  Madison was receiving the benefit of the steamboat trade and Indianapolis was cut off from trade, before the first railroad in Indiana, which the judge remembers distinctly, wasn't until the year '44 and then extended toward Indianapolis, not into it, for only 26 miles.  The present state capital had about 15 inhabitants at that time.  Crawfordsville owed her prestige to the fact that the government land office was located here.  Madison and Indianapolis were the only towns of importance.   Judge Cowan tells of a trip he made in the large city to hear Henry Clay speak in '44 and of another his brother-in-law made to the same place to get a marriage license. Elopers didn't have such an easy time in the forties.
  The railroad ride lasted only the twenty-six miles, which constituted the length of the line and then the judge and his companion got out unloaded their horsed, and continued on their journey on horseback.  The train of these days consisted of a wood-burning engine, a tender, a small passenger car, a box car for horses, in case passengers wished to continue their journey at the end of the line, and a flat car in case these latter had a vehicle, these three cars were the only ones used and the run was made once a day.
  Some of the personages of importance in the Crawfordsville of those days were major Elston, the father of Col. Elston, Samuel and William Binford, Henry Crawford, Major Whitlock, Williamson Dunn, William Nicholson. Mr. Ristine, the grandfather of Henry Lane Wilson, and the father of James Wilson.

  "Patriotism ran high in those days," went on the judge, "and the biggest event of the year was the Fourth of July celebration, which at that time was not merely a title given a day of general enjoyment.  It was celebrated as a day for the renewal of patriotic sentiments.  There was the enjoyment, too, though in the form of great out-of-doors free dinners, at which barbecued meats were served, and brave toasts made.  I remember one of these dinners which was held on east Main street in front of the present residence of Judge West when I was a boy.  When the diners were through and the toasts were in order, a young lawyer named Powers, the son of Jonathan Powers, rose and gave the toast, "May the guts of kings be made into strings to brace the drums of Liberty." There was much applause."

  Judge Cowan originally voted the Whig ticket, and he tells of casting his first vote for Henry Clay in the year "44.  He rode on a train for the first time in his life when he went to Indianapolis to hear Clay speak in that year.  With the advent of the Republican party, Mr. Cowan became a staunch member of that party and he remembers well voting for Lincoln.   He also had the rare experience of hearing one of the famous Lincoln Douglas debates.  The particular one heard by him was that at Charleston in '58.  He counts it one of the greatest events in his long life, and says that it was so impressed on his mind that he has vivid recollection of it.  Lincoln was not uncouth as modern orators have said, but was almost as polished as his opponent.  He was tall, but nothing of the ungainly figure and the backwoods manner about him.  His chief means of convincing his hearers was not in his appearance but was in his powerful form of address.  He was the most powerful speaker I ever heard.

  Judge Cowan attended Wabash college when the college was yet young.  There were but four graduates in his class, and all have been dead for some years.  The other three were James Wilson, grandfather of Henry Lane Wilson, Chas. G. C. Canby, the brother of the General Canby killed by the Modee Indian's shortly after the Custer massacre, and James L. Lowry, who died early.  The judge later graduated from the law school at Bloomington in '45 with the second class to be graduated from the state institution.  Soon after he had received his diploma from Wabash, he went to Frankfort, where he resided twenty-two years, and in 1858 he was made judge of the Eighth district, which included seven counties and had the greatest legal talent of the state in it.  He was re-elected to the circuit in 1870, serving twelve years in all.  At present he is in good health, his sight is good, he has never worn glasses in his life, his hearing acute, and his memory excellent, and he bids fair to reach the hundred mark, which is not far off for him now.  - thanks so much to Kim H
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