Cowans of County Down




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Source:Fleming, 1971:xiv-xv
Source:White, 1902
Source:Houston, et al. 1916


The British Origins of the Pequea Valley Cowans
Severing the Chester County, PA Cowans from the Lancaster County, PA Cowans


It is commonly believed that the various Cowans discussed in Source:Fleming, 1971 came to America from County Down, Ireland. We'd like to know what this belief is based on.

Short Answer

The idea that the Cowans of Pennsylvania came from County down is based in part on the belief that Flemings three main groups of Cowans (The Four Brothers Group, The Robert Cowan Group, and the Seven Brothers Group) were closely related, and some, at least came to America with the a group of immigrants known as the "Wigton Walkers", and documented in Source:White, 1902. [1] White tells us that the Wigton Walkers did indeed come to America from Newry, Ireland (County Down) in 1726 "on a ship commanded by Richard Walker". [2] Genealogists writing shortly after White published her analysis of the family [3] observed that members of the Seven Brothers Group married into the Wigton Walker line about 1770, and stated that their family was among those who came to America on a ship commanded by Richard Walker in 1726, and settled in Chester County, PA. The inferred argument is that if the Walkers came from County Down, then so must the Cowan's. After all, they came to America in the same ship, and settled in the same area. They undoubtedly came from the same place, Newry in County Down, Ireland.

Unfortunately, this appears to be an elaborate circular argument. The only known source of the idea that the Walkers came to America from County Down, in 1726 "on a vessel commanded by Richard Walker" is contained in White 1902. None of the early Cowan genealogists cite an independent source to show that the "Seven Brothers" also came over in 1726 from County Down, "on a ship commanded by Richard Walker". That the marriages in question occurred about 1770, or roughly 50 years after the initial immigration, does not seem to be an impediment to believing this story.

The logic seems to be:

a) The Walkers came from Newry on "a vessel commanded by Richard Walker" b) The Cowan's must have come over on the same ship c) Therefor the Cowans must have come from County Down

The fact that the Cowans came "on a vessel commanded by Richard Walker" is then cited as proof that the two families came over together. This is, in the last analysis, an elaborate circular argument.

While the originators of this idea undoubtedly felt this view of the family history was correct, the absence of confirming evidence suggests that this is simply a story designed to make sense of the available facts. It may have been an earnestly believed story, but it is nonetheless a story without documentable foundation. In a word, there's no particular reason to believe that the "Seven Brothers Group" came to America from County Down. While that's a reasonable possibility, its no more reasonable than saying they came from some other area of northern Ireland, or even directly from Scotland.


Long Answer

Source:Fleming, 1971 is the "family bible" for Cowan researchers in the United States. Fleming covered almost all of the early Cowans who appeared in the Pennsylvania beginning about 1720, and traced their movements south into Virginia, the Carolinas, Kentucky and on westward. It was his view that these Cowans originated in Scotland, moved to County Down, Ireland sometime in the 17th century, and then emigrated to America, settling in Pennsylvania. HE wrote:

There were definitely three branches of the Cowans who emigrated from County Down, Ireland, to Pennsylvania, the first around 1720, the last around 1726. In the first migration were Four Brothers: David, Hugh, John and William Cowan. A shortwhile later Robert Cowan emigrated. Then in 1726 Seven Brothers took there leave of the old country. They were Andrew, David, James, John, Mathew, Samuel and William Cowan...The three Cowan families appear to have been cousins.[4]
Recent data on the distribution of Cowan's in the British Isles shows a center of distribution in Scotland, with virtually no Cowan's in England or Wales. [5] While not precise, this probably reflects the distribution in the 17th century. Recently discovered family history information suggests that that the center of origin for at least some of the Pennsylvania Cowans discussed by Fleming, was the Cheviot Hills area on the border between Scotland and England. Further work is needed to substantiate this idea. See The British Origins of the Pequea Valley Cowans


Speaking to the emigration of some of these Cowans, Fleming tells us:

While no definite records are available on the matter of birth, it seems most probable that the four brothers, Hugh, David, John, and William Cowan, were all born in the north of Ireland, some possibly in the 1790's, and others in the early 1700's. Their emigration was from the port of Newry, County Down [to] Chester County, Pennsylvania.

While it may very well be true that these individuals were in fact born in Northern Ireland, and perhaps even County Down, Fleming offers little in the way of documentary evidence to support the above statement, at least at this point in the story he tells. It appears that while he collected a great deal of information about the Cowans in America, he collected relatively little information about them in Ireland. He provides little in the way of direct documentation of the families in Ireland, let alone in Scotland. Yet he makes the unequivocable statement that they emigrated from Newry in County Down. Why Newry? What evidence led him to so unquivolcably that this was the point of their embarkation to the new world?

The answer to this question lies in another part of Dr. Flemings work---his discussion of the Seven Cowan Brothers.

Fleming devotes the last section of his book ("Part III") to the Seven Cowan Brothers. Quoting "Maxwell's History" (Source: Houston, et al. 1916

We know that the Cowans came from Newry, County Down, Ireland, and first settled in this country in Lancaster and Chester Counties, Pennsylvania, and some of them afterwards went to Augusta County, Virginia, and later still to Rockbridge County, Virginia. They came over with the Walkers and Houstons about 1726. We have not been able to learn the names of the emigrants; but there were seven Cowan brothers, viz: Samuel, James, John, Andrew, William, Matthew and David.

According to Mrs. White's "Walkers of Wigton," there were three Cowan brothers, married three Walker sisters, but which were the ancestors of the Cowan lines given below, has not yet been definitely determined.

The question here is "How did Houston et al. 'know' that the Cowans came from Newry?" They don't say directly, but from the last paragraph its seem likely that they were basing this on "Mrs White's 'Walkers of Wigton'", aka "Descendants of John Walker of Wigton Scotland", or Source:White, 1902. Fleming doesn't quote the full passage, but it further reads:

I. John Walker (emigrant) married Katherine Rutherford, January 1, 1702. Left Newry, Ireland, in 1726. Issue:
1. Eliza Walker, married Campbell.
2. John Walker II., married Ann Houston.
3. James Walker, married Mary Cufly.
4. Thomas, died young.
5. William, died young.
6. Jane Walker, married James Moore.
7. Samuel Walker, married Jane Patterson.
8. Alex Walker, married Jane Hammer.
9. Esther, died young.
10. Joseph Walker. Married first, Nancy McClung. Married second. Griz McCroskey.
11. Mary Walker, no account, but records state that she may have been the Mary Walker who married John Montgomery of the Revolution. After his death, married William Patterson. She lived to be 104 years old.
II. John Walker, born March. 1705. Married March, 1734, Ann Houston. They moved from Pennsylvania with his brother-in-law, Campbell, and settled in Augusta County, Virginia. The Walkers and Hays soon removed to Rockbridge County, on creek named for the Walkers. Issue of John and Ann (Houston) Walker:
1. Susanna Walker, married Pat Porter.
2. Mary Walker, married Andrew Cowan.
3. Jane Walker, married William Cowan.
4. Hetty Walker, married Robert Bell.
5. John Walker, married Miss Long.
6. Samuel, killed by Indians.
7. Mary Walker, married John Judy.
8. Ann Walker, married Samuel Cowan.
9. Martha Walker, married Alex Montgomery.

There are two keys in the above passage that tie this together. The first is the statement that the Walkers left "Newry, Ireland in 1726. and the second is the reference to the three cowan's who married daughters of John Walker and Ann Houston. Fleming carries on the connection in the following passage from an article by White in the "Virginia magazine, Vol 8, page 280" [6], which he quotes:

John Walker, son of John Walker and wife Jane McKnight, was born in Wigston (sic) on January 7, 1702, and married Katherine Rutherford in Scotland. He moved and settled in Newry, Ireland. He ad his family...left Strangford bBay in May, 1726, on a vessel comanded by Richard Walker, and settled in Maryland August 2nd. He settled his family in Chester County, Pennyslvania where he died in 1734.

Fleming continues on

It is pointed out that the Walkers came to America in the summer of 1726. It is also the general conclusion that the Seven Cowan Brothers crossed the Atlantic on this same voyage, and in the ship commanded by Richard Walker.

"It is the general conclusion" is about as close as he gets to identifying his source for this.


  1. Researched in the late 19th century by Emma Siggins White, and documented in her "Descendants of John Walker of Wigton Scotland" (Source:White, 1902).
  2. That statement is apparently based on a family document written in the early to mid 1800's by Joel Walker, a great grandson of the original emigrant John Walker II of the Wigton Walker line. The original document apparently has not survived, and is known to us only by what White, 1902 tells us about it.
  3. Originally in Virginia History Magazine before the turn of the century, and later as a standalone work, Source:White, 1902
  4. Source:Fleming, 1971:xv. Today, with the advantage of 40 years additional research, as well as insights gained from YDNA studies of these families, our understanding of these family relation is somewhat different than that presented by Fleming. Current evidence, for example, suggests that Hugh and Robert Cowan are in fact kin, but they are unrelated to David, John, and William Cowan. In addition, it seems unlikely that Flemings "Seven Brothers" were related to the other two Cowan groups he identifies.
  5. based on Ancestry mappings of surname distribution for 1841 for the surname cognate "McCowan". No similar data is available for Ireland.
  6. Essentially the same passage is given in the better known Source:White, 1902