Memoirs of Joseph J. Cowan (1834 - 1918)

Webster, S .D. Sept 1904

To my dear children,

I have often noticed how ignorant people generally are of the early lives of their parents, previous to the time when they - the children - were old enough to take notice of, and remember the various incidents and circumstances which would make impressions on the minds and characters of their parents. This I think is quite a loss to the children. I have often wondered what my father's boyhood was, what were his likes and dislikes, what company her kept, and what was his occupation. But I only know that he was the youngest son, was raised on a farm, and was his mother's pet. Neither do I know anything about his young manhood, only that he was a Commercial Traveller, what the Scots called a Packman. Often when thinking of these things, I have thought that it might give you pleasure if some time I would write you a short sketch of my life. My life, although I have had my cares and sorrows, has been a very happy one THANK GOD.

Of course you know that I was born on the 21st of June 1834 at Salford Manchester, in Lancashire, England. You also know of my father, and my mother who was a very good woman. Although not a member of any church that I know of until I came to this country, when she united with the Baptist Church, she yet attended strictly to the religious education of her children, taught them to pray, and insisted on their regular attendance at Sunday School. Sunday school was an all day job there. This she did so long as they were young, and until they took upon themselves the ordering of their own ways. It is a blessed thing to have a good mother, as I had, and as you had, and I wish and hope its influence will be for the good of you children and children's children.

At my earliest recollection - I think I was then about four years of age - times were very hard. Trade was very dull, and although in ordinary times we were in easy circumstances for working people, we had to go to the public soup kitchen and very glad I was to get the soup. I was then going to school and I could read. How long I had gone to school I do not know for I don't recollect first going. I suppose that I went about as soon as I could walk. I also went to the Episcopal Sunday school. That was the time I first got a liking for books. I think it came about in this way. They gave prizes or rewards to those children who at the afternoon session of school could repeat the text of the forenoon sermon at church and give the sense of the sermon. The reward was generally a little child's book. Having a pretty good memory and being desirous to obtain the reward, I almost always got it. From that time I began to collect books and got a taste for reading.

My brother John was a block printer. This was before machine printing was invented and all printing of cloth was done with wooden blocks upon which the pattern was engraved. I don't know how it came about, or why my parents allowed me, whether it was on account of hard times or what, but at seven years of age I went to work with John as his teerer. My work was to brush the colour on the sieve every time he put the block on it. As he had to put it on as often as he pressed it on the block it kept me very steady at it. I don't think that I worked very long at that time, as I had an accident, which laid my left eyebrow open and that, finished me for that time.

Shortly after the time last mentioned we moved from Manchester (we always called it Manchester although it was Salford, for Manchester was the principal city and there was only the river which is now the ship canal between) and went to a small village called Ainsworth. Then I think began the happiest days of my childhood for I was in the country. I always loved the country, even as a child. I loved to wander off in the fields alone, gather wild flowers, listen to the song of the birds, and seek their nests to become acquainted with their habits. While we were in Ainsworth I went to school not more than half of the time. One reason was that we were about four miles from school and another reason was that my mother was very much troubled with rheumatism in her hands and feet, and for a long time could not use her hands at all. I had to take care of the children and do the house work under her direction. While there I had my first religious experience. I was doing an errand for my mother, and on my way home - it was twilight - and while yet about a quarter of mile from home, I was on a ridge and facing home. Looking up at the sky when I seemed to see a large cross and on the cross the Saviour. I don't know how I knew that it was the Saviour - it might have been from pictures I had seen, but it was impressed on my mind that it was the Christ and that my sins had helped to crucify Him. When I got home I was crying and my mother asked me what was the matter. I told her as well as I could and she soothed me telling me to be a good boy, say my prayers and God would forgive me.

I think we remained in Ainsworth about two years when we moved to the city of Stockport. I went to school just about a week or two and then went to work in the office of the factory as errand boy. I got sixty-two cents a week. I think that we only remained in Stockport about six months when we moved to Gorton nearer Manchester. While there I went to school about six months, and that was the end of my schooling. I was then about eleven years of age so you see I did not get much schooling. Why I was allowed to leave school I do not know, I only know that I had my choice to go to school or go to work. That was the way with all of us. There could be no idleness but my father left it to us to decide. I have often thought it a pity that a question of so much moment should be left to me to decide. I was of studious habits, yet the idea of going to work and earning wages was very tempting.

The first work I went at in Gorton was hooking in the making up room at Rylands Cotton Factory. Next I went to weighing cops in the cop room, next I had charge of the factory store room, weighing and counting out to the various room bosses all of the repairs and supplies needed in the factory. I had to book everything that I have out but I was not making money enough to satisfy me. Having a chance to go to work as Carrryeroff in making common or water bricks at a brick works, I took advantage of it. I was very proud at week-end when I took my wage home in gold instead of four or five shillings in silver as I had been doing. But that was too hard for me and I was wet through most of the time.. Shortly we moved back to Manchester and I went to work in the Corduroy room at Dewhursts Dye and Print Works (see additional note by John S. Bell at end ). I think that I tended a machine there about a year and became dissatisfied again. I don't remember just what was the cause of my dissatisfaction but think that it was on account of the profanity of the hands in that room. I remember that something went wrong with my work and I thought I would try to see if a good swear would relieve my feelings. I hardly knew my own voice and felt so horribly ashamed of myself that I very seldom used a profane word again. I then went to work in the blue dye house where I worked until I went to Scotland.

Going to Scotland was another foolish, childish whim and it came about this way. As I stated before, I had always been a great reader. Among other books I had was the "The Tales of the Border; The Scottish Chiefs, The Lady of the Lake" and other Scottish works. As a natural consequence I had an earnest longing to visit that country and see for myself its lovely scenery, its castles and other ruins. I could not think of any reason for going as that reason would have been preposterous to my parents. They could not afford the expense of sending me there to gratify my desire. None of my brothers or sisters, not even my mother had up to this time visited that country but my father's sister Agnes's husband (William Caesar) was a shoemaker and as my parents desired all of their children to learn a trade, I said that I would like to be a shoemaker. It was the most senseless thing I ever did for I knew nothing about the trade. The confinement would if I had ever given it a thought have been obnoxious to me and the class of people that I would be thrown among more so.

As the saying is, it worked out all right and I went to Scotland. I left home - the first of the family to do so - on the first of May 1847. My cousin Jessie Dunlop was going home to visit her mother, who was keeping house for my grandfather, accompanied me. We took the rail to Liverpool, and the steamer from there to Kirkcudbright which was the nearest seaport to grandfather's. Oh what a foolish boy I was, but I did not know it was a very pleasant voyage and we landed at Kirkcudbright, and I found it so unlike any town or city I had heretofore been in. There were no sidewalks, the streets, or cassa, went close up to the buildings which were mostly low and I think thatched. We put up at an Inn kept by Mrs. Jolly the mother of Jimmy Jolly who married my cousin Mary Caesar. This Inn was one of those quaint, low, rambling, ramshackle buildings you have doubtless often read about, and I don't doubt but John Paul Jones often frequented it. We here met my Uncle Robert Murdoch who was smuggling his son out of the country, he having got into trouble with a woman. We went from there to Borg where I visited Mrs. Smith, David Bell's sister, and also Mary Jolly. Her husband ran the mill close by, belonging to Smith. That was a fine country around Borg, and Smith's had a beautiful residence and fine country grounds.

We walked from there to Gatehouse on Fleet, and from there to my Grandfather's house. What a fine reception I got from my grandfather. I did not understand or appreciate at that time how much my coming meant to him, or how pleased he was see me, but I do now. I was the first of my father (Johnnies) children that he had seen and I understand the old man was then 97 years of age. He was quite active, and with the exception of a slight deafness he enjoyed all of his faculties. His complexion was fair, and he had red cheeks. I don't remember that his hair was grey, he was not bald, and I think that his hair was soft, thin and very light, something like Sennors. I said he was very pleased to see me, and enjoyed having me with him. He was anxious all of the time that I was out of his sight, for the house was not far from the sea shore and I was sure to be there whenever the tide was out. My but I tell you that I was having the time of my life. When we would be home he would draw a chair up close to his and pat it with his hand and say to me, come here, or he would take me out with him through the garden or orchard to show me the trees. To me they were very old looking, and he would say "your uncle Jimmie helped me plant that, or if I remember right, your father helped me plant that, and so we would go on. I had a very pleasant time there, and the house in which grandfather lived belonged to Sir David Maxwell. It was not far from the BIG HOUSE. Grandfather had been with Sir David many years, and Sir David was very much attached to him. So much so in fact that he would not allow any of his family to care for him in any way, only Aunt Peg his oldest daughter kept house for him.

But all things have an end, and so did my visit to grandfather's, and we went from there to Gate-house-on-Fleet and a made a visit to Uncle Robert Murdock, who afterwards took us in his Irish car to Castle Douglas. From which place we went by carrier's cart, on the top of barrels of whiskey, to Dumfries, and from there on foot to Amisfield the house of bondage.

May 25th, 1905

It is several months since I wrote anything in this. I have been to Illinois and lots of things have happened, but about them hereafter. I will say now however, that since I returned from Illinois I have been in correspondence with John Cowan of Langholm, Dumfrieshire, Scotland. I desired to find out who was the father of my great-grandfather Joseph Cowan. He answered by giving his genealogy so far as he knew it. He says that his great-great-grandfather Robert Cowan was born about 1702 or 1705 at a place between Locherby and Lochmaben, the exact is not known. Also that the said Robert had two sons: James - his grandfather - and Joseph. Now the said Joseph could not be my great-grandfather for he was born in 1710 but he may have been a brother. I am still corresponding with the said John and have sent him some money to help defray any expenses he may be put to in his investigations.

Well I stated that I arrived at Amisfieldtown, the place where my Uncle William Caesar, under whom I was going to learn to be a shoemaker lived. As to the reception that I received from he and his family, I cannot say much for I do not recollect it. But the impression I have - and I believe it to be true - is that they were disappointed. I was very small for my age, but healthy and sturdy. They had evidently expected a large, stout boy. Oh there was no sentiment about them, it was all business. They took apprentices for what money they could make out of them, for they were expected to serve five years, and all they received was their board, oatmeal porridge and night, and for dinner just what they could catch. Only six weeks time in harvest to earn money to buy their clothes. I never received any evidence of affection from them, but was always made to feel that I was OUTSIDE. With Uncle David Bell and his family it was much different, they always treated me kindly, and in many ways showed their regard and affection for me. Aunt Jean Bell was a very kind, motherly woman. I got along fairly well at Caesars, and we never had any trouble to amount to anything, that is, we never had any words. I can say that I worked faithfully, and tried to learn all I could about the trade, so far as they would give me an opportunity to do so.

I only tried to hire out for the harvest once, that if I remember right was the third year I was there. That time I went to Locherby Lamb Fair, which was held in August, and was the last hiring market before harvest. Well, there I was going around amongst the folks in the market with a straw in my mouth as the custom was with those who wanted to hire out. But not a bid did I get. I suppose that I was too little, and I suppose I looked pale and different to the natives. I don't think that I was very much disappointed. I had plenty of clothes, my parents saw to that, and I got sixpence in every letter I received from home. But everything has an end, and after having been there over four years I went home on a visit and did not go back again, although I fully intended to when I left. No doubt you will wonder that I stayed there so long, I have wondered myself sometimes why I did. But it was the best thing to do and the experience I got did me lasting good. I had lots of books to read and study in my spare time and on Sundays or the conditions would have been intolerable. I took one year to the reading and study of Rollins Ancient History together with the BOOK OF THE PROPHET ISIAH. That did me lasting good, and I would advise each of you to do the same, and you will never regret it.

While in Scotland I went to singing school one term - that was in the winter. There singing and dancing schools were always held in the winter, in those days, and I presume yet. The winter days are short and the young folks can get the evenings for instructions. Perhaps I did not derive much benefit from the singing school, but I know that I was very much benefited by the two winters I spent at the dancing school, for I was a very awkward, ungainly, shambling boy before I went and perhaps being in the company of girls caused me to carry myself more erect, and to walk as a man ought to walk.

Now there was nothing very remarkable happened to me while in Scotland. I fell in love as most boys do in their CALF days, but I was kept clean of vice for which I am very thankful. I went home on a visit, fully intending to go back, but after I was all ready determined to stay at home for a while, and so bade good-bye to Scotland.

When I went home from Scotland I went by rail from Dumfries to Annan and took the steamer from there to Liverpool, going close by Whitehaven where Paul Jones landed during the Revolutionary War; and around St. Bees Head a rugged corner of the coast where the waves dash and toss and turmoil nearly all the time I think. That is a very rough coast and appeared to be perpendicular and from ten to fifteen hundred feet high. I got to Liverpool about three o'clock in the morning. This I think was in June when there is very little night and though the sun was not risen yet it was good daylight and was quite chilly. I had remained on deck all through the passage, for the people in the cabin were most all seasick, and the sight of them and the smell of the whiskey they had drunk was like to make me sick. I therefore remained on deck. On my way from the dock to the railroad station through the almost deserted streets, but which were just beginning to wake up a little, in passing under a railroad bridge (the railroads there run over the top of the buildings), a man was just setting up his coffee stand. Now I had not smelled coffee since I had left home years before, and I was hungry so I got me coffee and buns. Never anything tasted so good to me. It makes me feel good today, as I never get coffee that smells as good, and tastes as good as that did.

I arrived at Manchester about eight a.m. and met my dear Mother once more. My but it was good to be home again. The family were well at this time but they had gone through a siege of scarlet fever only a short time before and my little sister Jean had died. That made three less in the family than when I left home for Will first went to the United States, America we called it, and then Richard went. Then John got married and Jean died. Yes that made four less at home. Well I decided that I had enough of Scotland, and thought that my parents needed what help I could give them, therefore I started out to hunt for work (at my trade). I got it, piecework, that is the way the journeymen worked, so much a pair. But I could only stand it a short time, for the men were a rough drinking lot and that was company I never could endure. It appeared to me to be a characteristic of that trade generally, so I quit it and got work in the Print and Dye Works where my father and brother John were employed. Business was very good at that time and I made a day and a half overtime every week and also did some work at my trade at home, morning and nights. My time was very fully employed, Sundays as well from 9 a.m. until sometimes 10 p.m. with Sunday school and Chapel work. That was the way I labored and spent my time until the summer 1853 when I made up my mind to go to America for I could see nothing good ahead of me there. My parents were getting old, there health was not good and I thought that if I came here I could earn more money and could get a piece of land for my father. So on the eighteenth day of August 1853 I left Liverpool on the ship Benjamin Adams, one of 750 passengers.

It took us about two weeks to get out of the English Channel. We had a terrible rough time of it and on the 10th of September we had a three-day storm during which the steerage passengers were under hatches, in darkness, without food or water. We lost our topgallant and royal masts, our jib, and all our sails (every yard), and all of our boats except a small one. We had a load of railroad iron and that shifted and stove in many of our water casks. We were put on short rations of food and water during the rest of the voyage. We were eight weeks and four days I think in making the passage over but life went on just the same. We had several births on the vessel and some deaths. I enjoyed myself so much. I found a plenty to do. There were lots of people who needed help that I could give and they got it and we both profited thereby. The many years subsequent to that time have shown to me time and again that it is well to be employed at something, even though you get no returns in money. You will certainly receive a recompense.

On landing at New York I fell among thieves (sharpers). How it was done I don't know but I think it was in exchanging English money for United States, but they got it. I had but little more than enough to take me to Buffalo. I took a steamer to Albany up the Hudson, then went by rail to Buffalo. I very soon found David Bell's Engine Works and received from he and his wife a very cordial welcome. They took me into their home and treated me as a son. David wanted me to remain with him and he would give me the best education the city would afford and he would teach me the business. But I considered my duty to my parents required me to go west and try to make a home for them. So after staying in Buffalo two weeks, David gave me transportation to Morris. Illinois, and said that after I had got out west and given farming a trial if I didn't like it to go back to hem and he would do as he said. He was just as kind as he could be and I will say now that I have been treated more kindly by the Bell family always, than by any other of my relatives. While I was at Buffalo I called on McNish's, she was Jean Bell, and the Campbells and Byers but I had known them in Scotland.

And so I started for Morris, Illinois. I went to Detroit and then by the Lake shore to Chicago and then by the Rock Island R. R. to Morris arriving there about three o'clock on Sunday morning, about the middle of November 1853. I now had to get out in the country, 7 miles north to my brother Dicks. After making night hideous for some of the people in Morris, I succeeded in getting them out of bed and got from them the necessary directions to take me to Dick. Dick was married then? John was the baby. Dick and Crowthers were living together on 40 acres in Nettle Creek. Now just imagine me in the wild west on a cold bright Sunday morning (although the stars were shining yet), dressed in black broadcloth, a silk hat, black kid gloves and a cane (the best clothes I have ever had, have had none as good since) walking along the mud roads on that early Sunday morning. I was hungry too.

Well after walking about four miles, I passed a house and the farm was fenced with a post and rail fence. On the other side of the fence was a cornfield. Everything was quiet. I looked closely around to see if anyone observed me and not seeing anyone I dodged between the rails into the cornfield. I jerked off three ears and scrambled back onto the road and undertook to stay my hunger. The corn was soft, that was all right, and it was black. Well I didn't know but that there was black corn. I took a bit, ugh, spat it out. Well thinks I, if this is what they eat here, I'm going back. But I kept on and after a while arrived at Dick's. The house was about twenty rods from the road. Mrs. Crowther saw me as I approached the house and she said "Dick, Dick the preacher's coming. "Dick came around the house and met me as I got to the front. He said "How do you do, sir.' He didn't know me so I had to make myself known. He took me into the house and introduced me. They got me breakfast and it wasn't corn. Dick had been dressing a little pig they were going to bake for dinner and they did not want the preacher to see them at it. But I made a hearty dinner of it just the same. I never wore the silk hat again and soon outgrew my black clothes. My black kids were replaced with buckskins and the cane, well I've got a few now but never use them for I don't like the style any more.

That winter my brother Will and I husked corn. There was some corn but it was very light stuff and I worked at my trade a short time with McCady at Lisbon. That year they had a killing frost August 18. I had not noticed before that it was the very date I had set sail from Liverpool.

Now I went to farming for the first time. I hired out to Joseph Bushnell for a year at $12 a month and began work on the first of March. I started in with the determination to do as much work as I could and as well as I could for I had no intention of being a hired man very long. Of course giving my mind to it as I did I succeeded. On March first 1855 I drew my wage of $142.75. I had drawn $1.25 for Uncle Will to pay his tax. The rest of the money I sent to my father. On that said first of March I began to work for John Bushnell at fifteen dollars a month.

You have never known and probably never will know the loneliness of a person who is a stranger in a strange land, how they are made to feel that they are outsiders. Even the churches take little if any interest in them. I was made to feel that I was regarded as a green Englishman and that I wasn't supposed to know much.

Bushnells was a station on the underground railroad and several Negroes were hid away in the daytime and carried away to the next station north in the night. I had nothing to do with that although I was an abolitionist. I had read Uncle Tom's Cabin years before in England, I think before it was published in the United States. But then England had abolished slavery in the Provinces years before and the English were generally anti-slavery. I don't believe that I would be an abolitionist now and I doubt if the freeing of the Negroes has been of general benefit to them as a national policy. I think that emancipation was bad for it has never been know that two peoples of alien race could dwell in the same country in harmony. One must rule and the other be subject. Our country ought to be kept as a white man's country. The Germans, British, Irish, Scandinavian, in fact nearly all of Europe are of the same race and although of different nations and language they assimilate, mix and make a distinct type that we may call the U. S. of American type of men. But to allow the free emigration of Negroes, Mongolians, Japanese, Hindus what kind of condition would prevail, what kind of a people would we become.

My Mother died the summer of 1854. If I had thought that I would now see her again in this life, I would not have left her. In July of 1855 my father, Matilda, Ben, Agnes and Mary came to Illinois. In the fall of that year I took John Bushnell's corn to husk and had the use of the house and building and father and Aunt Matilda kept house for me. Nina Rolla was born in that house, I also bought a team from J. B. $300 and Tom Allan and I bought a threshing machine $350. The next spring I rented Uncle Wills farm (he had married) and bought 160 acres on contract. I went to housekeeping with girls keeping house for me. So you see how I went into debt. It was all right too if I had only someone to advise me. I can see now that it was all right and it would have come out all right if I had kept the land, but crops (wheat) began to fail, hard times cane, and interest two and three per cent a month. I was loaded down with debt.

In 1856 I began farming for myself, corn and oats. It was a wet spring and the land was low wet land. My oat crop was good. I got two thirds but the price was so low that they did not pay expenses. The corn was not a very good price either. That fall I rented a farm from S .P. Bushnell and put in 25 acres of winter wheat. I paid a dollar twenty-five cents a bushel for the seed. I was married on the 20th of November of that year and we moved onto the Bushnell farm. Thinking there was more land than I could well work myself, I let T. Allan have some of it. He was married three weeks before we were, and they occupied a part of the house. That was a bad mistake.

That fall the Republicans nominated their first ticket and Fremont and Dayton were the nominees for President and Vice President. The next year winter wheat turned out to be cheap. I had not much coming in. Interest was 24%. Our first child, Isabella was born on the 3rd of August of that same year.

In 1858 I put in 25 acres of spring wheat and several acres of oats, 15 acres of corn. I sent to New York for 100 lbs. of Guianan and used it on the corn. Corn was a good crop, wheat and oats blighted. Interest went up to 36%. In October (I think it was of this year) I took a trip to Ottawato to hear the Lincoln-Douglas debate. I doubt if any thought as they heard Lincoln that they were listening to one of the greatest men the world ever produced. I know I didn't.

November 22, 1912

The longer I put off doing anything the more I hate to do it. I have only brought my life up to 1858 and that is 54 years back. Whether I will succeed in bringing it to date I know not.

In January 1859 I broke my right foot at the instep and about March first I was taken sick with scarlet fever. My father was now living with us and Agnes and Matilda were at the house making comforts for his bed from some curtains that had been folded and put away after they had had the scarlet fever in England. We did not know anything about disinfecting in those days so you will imagine that when I was over the fever I was in very poor condition to begin a season's work. Too, my foot was still lame. But stern necessity was the driver not. I had lost my crops two years running and was now paying three percent a month on my debts. My failures hereto had been in wheat and oat crops. I determined to put in a big acreage of corn but I also put in 15 acres of spring wheat. We did not have any corn planters or double cultivators in those days so that planting by hand and cultivating 53 acres of corn was a big undertaking, but I did it. I was determined to get out of debt or founder. I didn't wait for daylight in the morning, but got up by the morning star and dawn found me in the field and often 9 and 10 o'clock at night. Well that year was my first experience with chinch bugs. They hurt the wheat bad and took three acres of the corn but I raised a good crop of corn. That spring we had a killing frost on the fifth of June.

Jean was born on the 13 th of August that year and my father died on the 30th of September following. That fall I rented a farm from Sam Packwood between Odell and Cavuga in Livingston County and we moved there that winter. This farm was all new ground breaking. None of it had been ploughed and some of it had gone back two or three years. But I got along fine and planted 75 acres of corn. After corn planting I got hurt. A horse fell on me and crushed my chest so that I was unable to do any corn cultivating. I hired a man for a month and the land being new I raised a fair crop of corn. But the wild cat banks now began to go down and values began to go down. Early in the fall I sold 300 bushels of corn at 25c a bushel, the 299 at 20c and it came down that winter to 10c a bushel. The nation was all torn up and it appeared as if everything was going to ruin.

(This is the end of the record as we found it.)


Quite unknown to the original authors The Manager of Dewhursts Dye and Print Works was to be John Bell, son of William Bell and Mary Walker. William, a schoolmaster, died at Galston in 1885. John Bell died in Withington, Manchester on 2nd February 1957. Apparently he walked from Galston to Manchester to seek his fortune, becoming a well-known businessman as General Manager of The Dewhurst Empire. He was accorded an obituary in The Manchester Guardian.

Document History

This was re-typed by Vivienne Heather Bell of 8 Banksia Crescent, Craigmore, South Australia, on 19th September, 1998 using material supplied by Robert E. Cowan of 1240 Sioux, Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Additional note by John S. Bell in 1998 :

This copy was placed on the internet, late 1999 by Simon Temple, (
The original Rich Text version (37K) of this document, is available.