Western Chester County, PA is home to two of the most historic churches in that part of the state: Upper Octorara Presbyterian Church in Parkesburg, and St. John’s Episcopal Church in Compass, separated by only four miles. Each was the home congregation to members of the Cowan family:
These Pequea Creek Cowans lived in the Pequea Valley of Lancaster County, that was carved from Chester County in 1729. Their church, however, was just across the line into Chester County (one could quite literally throw a rock from the west edge of St. John’s Episcopal Cemetery and hit Lancaster County.)
Historians and family members alike have long assumed that all these Cowans were of the same family, namely that Hugh of Upper Octorara was a brother of John, David and William of St. John’s. In early 2009, DNA testing of a Hugh Cowan descendant proved that they were not related at all to the Pequea Cowans. They belong to Haplong Group I (the Cowan’s Gap Cowans) and the Pequea Valley Cowans belong to the R1b1b2 Group. This has had some significant implications for Cowan family research. For example, the tradition of immigration from Ulster to PA was totally tied to Hugh Cowan line, and not the Pequea Valley Cowans. These traditions now have no bearing on the Pequea Valley Cowans. Hence, the name chosen for Rev. John K. Fleming’s book (himself a Pequea Valley Cowan descendant,) “The Cowans from County Down,” is doubly unfortunate.
In all fairness to Rev. Fleming, his 1971 work was not the source of this error. A Parke family history (Source:Wallace, 1919) makes the same claim, and Fleming footnotes the undated work of Mrs. Evelyn King Sheets. By the time of the Parkes history, descendants of these immigrants (at least of the Cowan surname) had long left the area. Given the relative uncommonness of the name, one can easily understand how researchers would assume contemporary Cowans in a small geographical area would be related to one another.
Reasons to Suspect
And yet, long before the DNA results, there were reasons to strongly suspect that they were NOT related. My thoughts, as follows:
1. Religion. Too little was made of the religious differences between the Chester County Presbyterian Cowans and the Lancaster County Episcopalian Cowans. One naturally assumes that Scots or Scots-Irish immigrants were probably Presbyterian, in the same way that one would assume later Irish immigrants to be Catholic. And yet, the Pequea Valley Cowans were not—and even tried to establish the Anglican Church on the North Carolina frontier. One suspects that Rev. Fleming, himself a Presbyterian minister, did not exactly know what to do with these odd Anglican Cowans. He tried to explain it away by assuming they became such on their marriages, and quickly moved on to the Presbyterianism adopted by descendants in North Carolina. Episcopalian churches were not thick on the ground during these early years of settlement. The largest church was St. James Church in Lancaster. Then there was our St. John’s Pequea, Bangor Church in Caernarvon Township, and eventually St. Thomas Church in Morgantown in what became Berks County. My point is that to be a member of an Episcopal church there took some effort. And these early Cowans were far from just nominal church members. Church records show that, for several generations, they played a significant role in the life of St. John’s Episcopal Church. In short, this was not a casual religious choice, but their Anglicanism helped define them as a family, just as the Presbyterianism of Hugh’s family.
2. Family Dealings. The Pequea Valley Cowans were in each other’s business. The farms of John, David and William adjoined, and the farm of Henry was located somewhere to the south. John and Henry witnessed the signatures in a Fleming family partition, in which David and William had to sign as sons-in-law. John was a witness to David’s will, and Henry and William were both tied to John’s will. William’s daughter married John’s son, and when he died, she sold her dower rights to David’s son. There is no mention of Hugh Cowan in any documents associated with the Pequea Valley Cowans. Likewise, there is no mention of these Cowans in any document associated with Hugh Cowan.
3. Naming Patterns. The Cowan naming patterns are interesting to follows. The favorite sons’ names were John, William, Henry, David, George, James, Isaac—used time and time again. The daughters’ names are less identifiable. Certainly some of these names can also be found among descendants of Hugh Cowan. But what is significant is this: in all my research, I not found a single Pequea Valley Cowan named “Hugh” (descendants of Hugh Jenkins, husband of Mary Cowan, daughter of David, obviously excepted.)
4. Dispersion Pattern. Most of the descendants of John, William and Henry, and some of the descendants of David moved to the same neighborhood in Rowan County, NC, where they continued these close family associations, as evidenced by countless deeds, will and intermarriages. A smaller family grouping formed early in Mercer County, KY. None of the Hugh Cowan family followed migration patterns in any way similar to the Pequea Valley Cowans.
In short, there is simply nothing to tie Hugh Cowan to the Pequea Valley Cowan brothers.
As of 17 Febrary 2009, the primary author of this article could be reached at: