Portal:Indian Captivity Stories/The Problem

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Many Cowan researchers cherish and make extensive use of the captivity stories that are associated with Ann Walker Cowan and Mary Walker Cowan. The following discussion assumes that the reader is familiar with these stories. Those not so familiar may wish to examine them as presented and discussed in the accompanying brief articles:

Mrs Scott Ann Walker Cowan
Thomas Carter
Andrew Finis Cowan
Connelley, 1899‎
JB Cowan Mary Walker Cowan
PD Cowan
See Main Index

Fleming, 1971 in his The Cowans From County Down combined these stories to create a lineage connecting the Cowans who lived in the foothills of Chillhowie Mountain in Blount County, with the Cowans who intermarried with the line of John Walker III of what is known as the Wigton Walker line. He did this by assuming that Major John Cowan, husband of Mary Walker, was the son of Ann Walker Cowan and Samuel Cowan. Thus, in Fleming's interpretation, Major John Walker lost both his wife, and his mother at least temporarily to Indian captivity. His conclusions were largely based on the letters of JB Cowan. A composite family tree, showing overall relationships, and contributions by different sources, is provided at Indian Captivity Stories/JB Cowan-Fleming Family Composite.

While the captivity of Ann Walker Cowan seems well supported by contemporary reports, the story of Mary Walker Cowan is known to us only through the letters of JB Cowan, a great grandson of Major John, as interpreted by Fleming. (There are at least two other sources that are commonly cited, Laura Cowan Blaine, and PD Cowan, both of whom are thought to be in communication either with each other, or with JB.) While JB Cowan's letters are often taken as primary sources of information concerning Major John Cowan=Mary Walker, it is important to recognize that his understanding was written down 125 years or so after the events occurred. What JB based those views on was oral family tradition---things he had heard in his childhood. In one of his letters JB tells us that while his father had at one time drawn a family tree, it, along with other family papers, had been lost in the civil war. As a result, JB goes on to say, he is relying on his memory for the facts and relationships that he is describing. While many of the particulars he provides may be factually true, his description can not be taken as possessing the same degree of reliability as the desscriptions of contemporaries (such as Mrs. Scott, and Margaret Handley). JB may have firmly believed what he wrote was factual, but the persons and events were things that he knew of only second hand. JB's great-grandfather is said to have died around 1779, and JB recorded his family history in 1895. We would like to think that what JB had to say was accurate, and there's no doubt that he believed what he wrote. But the fact remains, the story he related passed through three generations and 115 years before he committed it to paper. The story he wrote passed through mouths and ears to reach him. At each step in the chain of transmission there was potential for information loss. It would be surprizing if no errors entered into the story between the events, and the writing.

If there are errors in JB's understanding of his family history, or in the events he describes, then the family history of a great many people is also in error. We'd like to be able to confirm whether JB "got it right" or "got it wrong". We'd like to know exactly how much of JB's story reflects the actual events that occurred, and we'd like to confirm that the family relationships he describes accurately depict his lineage. In addition, most people concerned with this lineage rely on the presentation in Fleming, 1971 to interpret JB's letters. Fleming seems to have accurately interpreted what JB had to say about his family, as we can go back to JB's original letters to compare Fleming's version with JB's. Fleming, however, does extend JB's understanding of the family history. JB identifies his great great grandfather as Samuel Cowan, but himself provides little information about him. Fleming, however, makes the connection to a specific Samuel Cowan, identifying him as the husband of Ann Walker (?-?), and thereby connects him to a lineage known as the Wigton Walker line. Many people have accepted Fleming's extension of what JB had to say, and have incorporated his views into their own family history. As a result, in addition to trying to verify what JB tells us, we also need to consider whether Fleming's extension was on target.

How to we do this? The reason we can't just accept JB's history (let alone Fleming's interpretation, is because JB's letters, as authorative as they may seem, are essentially hearsay evidence. This is what JB believed, but JB did not witness the events themselves, and knew of them only as they had been passed down to him by his immediate family. His belief's can be no more accurate than what was passed on to him. Did he understand correctly what he was told? Did those telling him the stories themselves understand the stories that were told long before they themselves were born? The way that we approach this problem is to see if we can independently validate what JB and Fleming tell us. That is, we look for primary records, ones contemporary with the events, or at worst, records left by eyewitnesses to the events, and see if they conform to what we are told by JB and Fleming. To the extent that we can find records consistent with what JB has to say about the family, and what Fleming has to say, we can validate their story and interpretation of the history of this family.

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