Portal:Indian Captivity Stories/Mary Walker Cowan

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The Captivity story of Mary Walker Cowan bears some similarity to the Ann Walker Cowan Story, but differs from it in significant details. This story is probably most widely known through the work of JK Fleming, 1971. This story is summarized as follows.

  • Indians attacked the homestead of Major John Cowan on the Clinch River in the Castles Woods area of VA c1779
  • Major Cowan was killed along with their young daughter
  • His wife Mary Walker, and son James were captured
  • They were separated and taken away by different groups of Indians who had combined for the raid
  • James was released/gained his freedom within a year or so of capture
  • Mary was carried north, where she escaped after a captivity of seven years, taking refuge at the "French Fort"
  • A rider is sent south to secure help from Mary's relatives in Blount County
  • He arrives on a Sunday with a Camp meeting going on, and asks to speak to "Major Russell, or Colonel Walker, or any man named Cowan?"
  • "100 mounted riders" went north to "the French Fort" to prevent her from being recaptured, bringing her home

A similar version of this story is provided in PD Cowan's "Shadow of the Chilhowie." PD was in communication with JB, and it is apparent that "Shadow of the Chillhowie" carried out a desire expressed by JB who stated in one of his letters "Had I the time I would love to weave these and may other thrilling facts into a romance or write them and leave them to my children." PD's version seems to have done just that. In addition, he adds additional, clearly fictionalized, details that seem to be designed to explain implausible components in JB's story. PD's work however, seems to differ from JB Cowan's presentation in no substantive way. Additional information is added by the treatment provided by Mrs. Dunavant, as related by Fleming 1971. It is Mrs. Dunavant who places the story in Castles Woods, and makes the connection between Samuel Cowan as described by JB Cowan, and the Samuel Cowan who marries Ann Walker.

Virtually all of these story elements remain unsupported, or in some cases, can be shown to be wrong. Considering the the basics of the story we might ask the following questions.

  • 1) Did Samuel Cowan and Ann Walker have a son John?---Yes. A Russell County land record states that John Cowan was the eldest son and heir at law to Samuel Cowan who died in 1776. Other records show that Ann Walker was the wife of the Samuel Cowan who died c1776 at the hands of Indians. So yes, Samuel and Ann did indeed have a son John.
  • 2) Was he known as "Major John Cowan"?---Probably not. We have no specific records for a "Major John Cowan" as living in the area during the early settlement period. The first records for a "John Cowan" are found begining about 1781-1783, when he is identified as owning the land previously owned by Samuel Cowan, and adjacent to Samuel's brother William Cowan. He is sometimes described as the heir-at-law of Samuel Cowan, but these records do not begin until at least five years after the death of Samuel. The implication is that John inherited his fathers property about 1781 to 1783; the delay in inheritance may have been because he was the sole heir (implied by heir at law designation) and did not come of age until 1783. This in turn suggests a DOB no earlier than the early 1760's. It does not seem plausible that this John Cowan, son of Samuel and Ann, could have been a Major in the revolutionary War. Even ignoring the inheritance issues, he would not seem to have been old enough c1779 to have served as a Major in the Revolution. His mother Ann could not have been born before c1735 (her parents marriage date per White 1902), and so could not have had a child until c1753 at the very earilest. On this basis John could not have been older than 30 at the close of the Revolution, and would not likely have attained the rank of major.
  • 3) Did he have a wife named "Mary Walker"?---We do not have a clear record identifying the wife of John son of Samuel Cowan and Ann Walker. The last record that we can firmly tie to this individual is a court notation referring to him as "of greene County" in 1788, and "of Knox County" in 1793. Both locations could be construed as including the area now known as Blount Count, which separated from Knox in 1795, while Knox separated from Green in 17XX. We have a marriage record for John Cowan and Agnis Martin in 1788 in Greene County. They are known to have been in Blount County until c1806. It is conceivable that the John Cowan who married Agnis is the same John Cowan who was the son of Samuel and Ann. We know from land records that this John Cowan was living next to his uncle William Cowan in Castles Woods until about 1786. At that time both disappear form the record. William is known to have settled in Blount County, and its plausible that his nephew moved to Blount County as well. Interestingly, this John Cowan who married Agnes Martin, was indeed known as "Major John Cowan." Though this John Cowan survived until long after c1779, was not married to a Mary Walker, one has to wonder whether his identity has been entangled with the story of the death of John Cowan in c1779, and the capture by indians of his wife, Mary Walker.
  • 4) Were Mary Walker and Major John Cowan Cousins?---This is highly doubtful. If Mary were indeed a Walker, and Major John's cousin, and Major John were the son of Samuel Cowan and Ann Walker, then we would assume that this meant that she was the daughter of one of Ann's brothers. Ann had two brothers: Samuel and John Walker IV.
    • Samuel was killed during the same raid in which Ann Walker Cowan and William Walker were carried into captivity. He is known to have died without heirs (his brother John is designated in court as "heir at law"), and presumably unmarried, which means he probably did not have a daughter Mary.
    • John Walker IV did in fact have a daughter Mary, but she is known to have married a George Snider, and was clearly alive into the 1820's. There seems to no evidence that she was ever carried into captivity, though she was the subject of an unsuccessful Indian attack in Blount County c1786-1790. It is conceivable that she was previously married to a John Cowan, but there is no evidence to support this.
  • 5) Were either of them killed or captured by Indians between 1778 and 1780 in the Castles Woods area of Virginia? Certainly the John Cowan son of Samuel and Ann was not killed by indians c. 1779; we have many records for this John Cowan well after that date. We have a substantial number of records identifying the death or capture by Indians of a good many specific pioneers of the Castle's Woods area. This includes John Cowan's mother and father, as well as various uncles, cousins and neighbors. We probably do not have a record of EVERY pioneer that was killed, but so far, the only "record" of the death of a John Cowan in this area is the early 20th century account by Mrs. Dunavant---and what she based that on is not known. If Mrs. Dunavant's accounting were correct you would think that there would be some trace of this event in primary source documents for the period. The fact that we can't find a trace of this event outside of what Mrs. Dunavant tells us, suggests that there are no such source documents. It's not likely that Mrs. Dunavant made this up, but it does seem likely that she confused names, places, times and events.

Similarities between this and the Ann Cowan captivity story include the following:

  • In both cases the wife is captured, while the husband is killed (in Ann's case, that was a separate event; in Mary's case, the killing of her husband occurred at the same time as her capture).
  • In both cases, the woman's maiden name was "Walker".
  • In both cases a young male is also captured (nephew William in Ann's case, and son James in Mary's case).
  • In both cases they are carried off together, but split up because the raiding party consisted of two separate groups.
  • In both cases the woman is carried north, where she remains a captive for several years before her release/escape.

Given these similarities it is not surprising that the two stories have come to be intertwined and confused. The most notable example of this is in Fleming, 1971 "The Cowans of County Down". In his accounting Fleming identifies "Major John" as the son of Samuel Cowan and Ann Walker. Mary Walker, John's wife, is identified as his cousin.

It is probably likely that, apart from the Walker and Cowan surnames, these same story elements could have been found in the stories of many captivity stories, recorded or not, on the Virginia frontier: a father killed, the mother and son taken captive, and separated, and their eventual release from captivity. To find these same elements within the same family, on two separate and distinct occasions, seems surprisingly coincidental.

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