Cowlam was previously a medieval village that was deserted after the Black Death.
Cowlam consists today of six farms, the Church, the Rectory, three cottages, four houses, a bungalow and a bus shelter (although not on any known bus route). It is a peaceful location with most of the inhabitants descending from families that have lived in the village for many decades working on the surrounding land. Due to its location high on a hill it experiences extremes in weather, becoming snowed in nearly every winter even when the local town of Driffield is bare.
Historically, Cowlam was an ecclesiastical parish in the wapentake of Buckrose. From 1894 until 1935, Cowlam was located in Driffield Rural District. In 1935 Cowlam was absorbed into the neighbouring civil parish of Cottam.
In 1974 most of what had been the East Riding of Yorkshire was joined with the northern part of Lincolnshire to became a new English county named Humberside. The urban and rural districts of the former counties were abolished and Humberside was divided into non-metropolitan districts. The new organization did not meet with the pleasure of the local citizenry and Humberside was wound up in 1996. The area north of the River Humber was separated into two "unitary authorities"—Kingston-upon-Hull covering the former City of Hull and its closest environs, and the less urban section which, once again, named itself the East Riding of Yorkshire.