The British Origins of the Pequea Valley Cowans




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British Origins of the Pequea Valley Cowans

An article submitted in Memoriam of Laura Cowan Cooper

by Terry Cowan


Pequea Creek Cowans
The Chirnside Cowans


These thoughts are presented with our great friend, the late Laura Cowan Cooper, very much in mind. If I know anything at all, it is that Laura would want the conversation to continue on “all things Cowan,” whether in traditional research or DNA analysis. So, in that spirit, I am submitting this for consideration.

The Pequea Valley Cowans

Who are the “Pequea Valley” Cowans? These are the Cowans who came from Scotland to the Pequea Valley of Lancaster County, PA ca. 1719/1720. From Lancaster County, many migrated to Rowan County, NC (1750-1785) and to Mercer County, KY (1773-1789). Further migrations led to major concentrations of the family in central GA , western TN, southeastern MO, as well as various parts of AR and TX.

It has been a common belief among Cowan researchers that the Pequea Creek Cowans were closely related to Hugh Cowan of the Upper Octoraro in Chester County. Hugh's property was fairly close to the location of the Pequea Creek Cowans. Hugh was generally thought to have come to the area from County Down, in Ireland. Many of us assumed that the Pequea Creek Cowans also came to America from Ulster, in the first wave of Scots-Irish emigration. However, the connection between the two groups was doubted by some, based on considerations of distinctly different naming ways, and religious views. In recent years YDNA evidence has allowed us to conclude that the two groups of Cowans, despite their proximity to each other in Pennsylvania, are in fact, unrelated. [See: Severing the Chester County, PA Cowans from the Lancaster County, PA Cowans for a discussion of the evidence for and against a relationship between these two groups].

Dr. Cowan's Letter

About the same time as the connection to Hugh Cowan was severed an 1884 letter of Dr. William Lightner Cowan surfaced. He begins the letter, as follows:

"David Cowan, my great, great grandfather and his three sons, John, William and David came from Scotland about the year 1719 or 1720. They took up about 1000 acres of land on the N. W. corner of Salisbury Township on the old Peters Road.”

Who was Dr. William L. Cowan and why is his letter important, if not essential, to the question at hand?

William Lightner Cowan was born in 1811,
the son of William Cowan (1770-1816) and Mary Rutter.
The elder William Cowan was the son of Thomas Cowan (d. 1770) and Susannah Cowan (1844-1829.)
Thomas and Susannah were first cousins.
Thomas was the son of John Cowan, one of the immigrant brothers to Lancaster County, PA.
Susannah Cowan was the daughter of William Cowan, another of the immigrant brothers.
So, Dr. William L. Cowan was the great-grandson of brothers John and William Cowan.

Although his father died when he was 5, young William well knew his grandmother Susannah Cowan Cowan. His parents lived on a farm purchased in 1807, on the north side of old Peters Road in Salisbury Township, Lancaster County, PA, within sight of his great-grandfather John Cowan’s stone house, still standing as late as 1884. As a young man, he lived near sisters Margaret and Susan in Port Deposit, MD, about 35 miles south of his birthplace. He later lived several decades with his sister, Ann Lightner, in Reading, PA, about 30 miles north of his birthplace. In short, there was no one of his generation that could speak with any greater authority about the family antecedents. Being “doubly Cowan” and having never really left the neighborhood that they first settled in 1720, knowledge of the family saga would have been second nature to him. At this point, his letter is the best, most authoritative insight we have into the origins of the Pequea Cowans.

But there is more. Dr. Cowan wrote his letter to his niece, Miss Sarah Rebecca Carson (1827-1926.) Miss Carson, known within the family as “Aunt Sade,” lived the entirety of her 99 years in Port Deposit, MD. Although she never married, she helped raise a large number of her own nieces and nephews. From reading the letter, one naturally assumes that it was in response to a request from her for detailed information on the family. One can assume that she had a definite interest in the family story.

The Cheviot Hills

The genealogist in the next generation of the family was Sarah Rebecca’s niece, Miss Virginia Carson Vanneman (1859-1929). Miss Vanneman was (I believe) a librarian who also never married and spent her life in the Port Deposit area. Obviously, she was well acquainted with her aunt Sarah Rebecca Carson, and she probably knew her great-uncle, William L. Cowan. Miss Vanneman had a reputation in the family as being a very careful researcher. In 1915, she prepared her findings in chart-form for the family. On this chart, she stated that the Cowans were from the Cheviot Hills, in Scottland. This statement is unsubstantiated, but given the flow of family relationships I have just described, this tradition can only be seen in the generational oral tradition passed down in this branch of the family. In 1884, Dr. Cowan put it to paper, and in 1915, Miss Vanneman added a bit more specificity to it.

The Cheviot Hills are a range of low hills separating Northumbria from the Scottish borderlands. If correct, we Pequea Cowans need to focus our attention on this region of far southern Scotland. And this is where Laura’s expertise would really be helpful: in the Cowan DNA project, on 37 markers, I am 2 markers away from one participant that goes back to Selkirk, Scotland ca. 1741. Selkirk is just slightly northwest of the Cheviot Hills. I am also 2 markers away from another participant whose line goes back to Ryton, Northumbria ca. 1720. Ryton is just slight south of the Cheviot Hills. [And, I have already found Cowans of the right age and names (David, John, and David, Jr. in the 1680s and 1690s) in an area slightly north of the Cheviot Hills—but I do not want to put it forward just yet, as it is still too speculative.] The DNA results lend tentative credence to the tradition of our Cowans being from this far southern part of Scotland.

Chain of Custody

How the Dr. Cowan letter made its way into my hands is interesting, if only to illustrate how genealogical information travels. After Virginia Carson Vanneman, the next genealogist in that family was her niece, Eleanor Vanneman Benson. Eleanor was old enough to be well-acquainted with both her aunt, Virginia Carson Vanneman and her great-aunt, Sarah Rebecca Carson. In 1979, Eleanor borrowed the old Dr. Cowan letter from the daughter of her cousin, Martha Carson Ward. In a letter to Chester County, PA researcher Marion Stoner, Mrs. Benson spoke of the ornate handwriting of the letter and of her desire to copy it. For Mrs. Stoner’s benefit, she typed-up a copy of the letter and sent it to her [and yes, I am hot on the trail of the original!] Early last year, I wrote to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Compass, PA. My letter was forwarded to a couple in the parish who were very knowledgeable about local history, active in both the cemetery restoration and preservation of parish records. They were old friends with Mrs. Stoner, and had shared information with one another. And so, in their gracious response to my inquiry, I received a transcript of Dr. Cowan’s 1884 letter.

Dr. William L. Cowan’s 1884 letter, and Virginia Carson Vanneman’s 1915 chart offer the best clues we currently have as to the origins of the Pequea Valley Cowans.

Comments? Questions? Criticiques?

Terry J. Cowan


The idea that the Pequea Creek Cowans came originally from the Cheviot Hills area of Northumberland, is founded in statements by Virginia Carson Vanneman (1859-1929) that are most probably based on oral family tradition. Documentary evidence for this has not yet been found. However, support for this view can be found in YDNA evidence. Known descendants of the Cowans who settled in Pequea Creek about 1720, have taken the YDNA test through FTDNA. THeir YDNA signatures match closely with persons in Britain, who have no direct connection to the immigrants on Pequea Creek. The fact that their YDNA signatures are very similar suggests that they have a common ancestor dating to the late 17th century at the latest. Thus we have a British and American branch of the family. As it happens the British branch traces to ancestors living in the area surrounding the Cheviot Hills.

Image:Location of Cheviot Hills Cowans.jpg