William Cowan, 1864-1865

by Patrick McGuire

William Cowan was mayor of Monmouth from 1864 to 1865. He was born in Chester County, Pennsylvania, on February 10, 1815, the second son of David and Margaret Keyl-Cowan, both natives of Pennsylvania.[1] Cowan’s forefathers came from England, and had settled in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania many years before the Revolutionary War.[2]  Both of Cowan’s grandfathers, William Cowan and Joseph Keyl, had fought in the Revolutionary War at the battles of Brandywine and Stony Point.[3] At the age of seventeen William became an apprentice to Hamilton Rooney, a blacksmith, where he learned the craft he performed until his death in 1898. After his apprenticeship he traveled the country looking for work, but returned to Pennsylvania. He worked under Hiram Baldwin in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and in Philadelphia at the gas company as well in many area locomotive shops.[4]

At age twenty, Cowan moved west to Palmyra, Missouri, then to Quincy, Illinois, for what was called “a little bit of a sojourn,”[5] then returned to Palmyra. Cowan enlisted in the Missouri Mounted Volunteers, based out of Pollard, Missouri, in 1837 for six months service and also to fight in the Seminole War.[6]He was assigned to company L under the command of Colonel Richard Gentry.[7] They traveled to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, then down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, then by sea to Tampa Bay.[8] The men had very little experience with sea travel. On their way to Tampa Bay they encountered a terrible storm in which many of the horses were either killed or maimed due to the fact they were unsecured on the ships.  Cowan’s company traveled as far as they could on horseback, but at the point where the terrain proved to be too tough, the men had to leave their horses and proceed by foot. The regiment divided into groups of six, and every sixth man was detailed to stay back and guard the horses.[9] Cowan was the sixth man in his line and stayed back while the others marched on to fight in the Battle of Okeechobee under the command of General, and future president, Zachary Taylor.[10] After the battle Cowan was put in charge of many of the sick and wounded as they returned home up the Mississippi River. For his participation in the Seminole War he received a pension of $8.00 from the federal government starting in 1893.[11] Cowan was one of the last survivors of the Seminole War when he died in 1898.

William Cowan arrived in Monmouth in 1839, only leaving Monmouth for one extended period of time, to marry Nancy C. S. Parrish, a native of Palmyra, Missouri, October 13, 1840. Cowan lived in a house on North B Street at West Archer Avenue where the Immaculate Conception school sits in 2005. William set up a blacksmith shop in a log cabin which was located on the south side of West Broadway just west of A Street. The cabin was the old Garrison Inn, a hotel that served many visitors of Monmouth. The building itself stood a story and a half in height, because as time progressed the timber sunk into the ground, and at the time of destruction in 1898 was only one story tall. When it was torn down it was the oldest building in Monmouth as well as the only one still made from logs.

Cowan’s political career began in 1855 when he was elected alderman. He served as alderman for four terms in 1855, 58, 62, and 63. Cowan ran for mayor in 1864 and defeated his opponent I. P. Pillsbury by a sound margin of 330 to 115.[12] Cowan was a Republican, but because of the effects of the Kansas-Nebraska Act he was listed in the Monmouth Atlas  as a member of the Union Party. At a city council meeting held on April 20, 1864 Cowan was picked as a delegate to attend the Union County Convention.[13] At the convention held on April 23 Cowan participated in voting for delegates to represent the county at the State Convention and the Judicial Convention held in Chicago. Cowan won his re-election in 1865 defeating James G. Madden by a total of 218 to 183.[14]

During his terms as mayor Cowan oversaw many improvements of the streets throughout Monmouth. One of the many improvements was that he raised the grade of the sidewalks in the town.[15] They focused on the sidewalks from Main Street to the Public Square. Cowan also saw the expansion of the sidewalks in Monmouth. During his time as mayor sidewalks were made from Lancaster to Depot Street[16] and also from the site of the school house at the time to the area south of the railroad.[17]  In December of 1864 the city council passed a motion proposed by a petition to build a sidewalk in the Northeast section of block fifteen and the Northwest section of block fourteen in the College Addition to be built in span of twenty days.[18] There was also a proposed construction of a foot-bridge of elevated walkway over the gully that intersected with Warren Street. Outside of the construction of sidewalks the city council during Cowan’s terms in office also contributed to the beautification of the city. On October 2, 1865, the city council passed a motion to build a fence around the 10th block and appropriated $400 for the purchase of trees to construct a park. Also, with the County Surveyor, Cowan committed himself to raising money to cover the cost of lithographing the platforms in the city limits.[19]

Other than the construction of sidewalks, Cowan oversaw the appointment of many officials. Cowan appointed George H. Fay city collector, but declined the appointment of E. L. Moore as vice collector.[20] On August 7, 1865, Cowan accepted the resignation of the Supervisor of Streets, Seth Smith, and accepted the appointment of William M. Webb to the position. He also appointed the city’s Board of Health during his time as mayor.  He also appointed E. B. Campbell a special policeman at the Chicago Burlington Railroad stop, and John Dauley special policeman for the northern part of the city. In the legislation that appointed these two men they were to be paid not by the city, but by the residents of the specific area of the city in which they worked in. He also appointed Benjamin Gibson police officer for the East Ward of the city. The city council also allowed police officers two dollars a day while on duty.[21] Some other things that occurred during Cowan’s time as mayor was that the wagon licensing laws were revised and all the horses in Monmouth were numbered and documented. Also, the city council permitted two men with the last name Campbell and Jones to weigh coal for J. L. Crawford, on the same terms as the City Weighmaster with half of the proceeds going to the city.[22] The city council also heard a motion that a skating park that was on the property of James Thompson be declared a public nuisance. The City Council voted down that motion and the skating park remained. [23]

One of Cowan’s responsibilities as mayor was to provide the city council with the financial report of the town. He did this on many occasions reporting things such as money collected, money spent on various projects, money paid to the treasurer, and the balance of the city of Monmouth. One interesting report Cowan gave was when he reported that the city had a balance of only seven dollars and sixty-five cents.[24] Another one of Cowan’s responsibilities was to make sure that the people he appointed to offices were doing their jobs. An example of this was on March, 5, 1865, when Cowan along with Alderman Fowler examined the report of William Neff, the supervisor of streets, as well as assessing damage done to the streets over time.[25]

Later in life Cowan lived in a building on North B Street, just south of Archer Avenue and north of the Parochial school.[26] Before Cowan lived in the house it was one the first school houses in Monmouth which was originally built on the present Y.M.C.A lot in 1848, but the building was moved in 1858 to where the current high school sits. It served as a school building in 1860 until the brick West Ward School was built.[27] He continued blacksmithing up until he became ill in 1898 which would lead to his death. He also served as city Marshall for one year.

William’s family life was highlighted by the birth of thirteen children. When he died he was survived by his wife Nancy, who died in 1908, as well as ten of his children. His children were M. B. Tally of St. Louis; S. E. Avery, Kewanee; Nannie H. Cowan, Monmouth; Mary E. Child , Chicago; Luella Beach, Lenox, Iowa; W.E. Cowan, Miami, Missouri; Effie J. Hedges, Kansas City, Missouri; J.G. Cowan also of Kansas City, Missouri; Joseph E. Cowan, Monmouth and E. M. Rining who lived in Southern Illinois.[28]

William Cowan died at 11 o’clock on June 20, 1898, at the age of 83. He died of a cold he contracted on township Election Day in April, and had been bedridden for 11 weeks until he died[29]. When he died he was held in high regard in the community, and a large add in the Monmouth Review entitled “A Pioneer Gone” was taken out. Towards the end of the article it read, “They respected him for his honor and upright ways, and valued him as a friend for his many qualities they could admire.”[30]


 Patrick McGuire wrote this biography in the fall of 2005 for the historiography class at Monmouth College directed by William Urban.

1. Portrait and Biographical Album of Warren County, Illinois (Chicago: Chapman Brother 1886), 583-84. 

[2] Biographical Sketches- Warren County Genealogical Collection.

[3] Monmouth Atlas, February 20,  1908.                          

[4] Portrait and Biographical Album of Warren County, Illinois, 583-4

[5] Portrait and Biographical Album of Warren County, Illinois, 583-4

[6] The men of Missouri were brought in to fight in the war particularly for the previous experience with fighting Indians, and their tracking skills.

[7] Hugh Moffit. “Truly a Veteran” Old Timer volume 6, Warren County Genealogical Collection

[8] Hugh Moffit. “Truly a Veteran”  Old Timer volume 6, Warren County Genealogical Collection

[9] Some men were unwilling to proceed without horses. Those men were dismissed from the volunteers.

[10] In the Battle itself 139 whites were killed with many other wounded.

[11] Hugh Moffit. “Truly a Veteran”  Old Timer volume 6, Warren County Genealogical Collection

[12] Monmouth Atlas April 8, 1864, Results; East Ward 172-54, West Ward: 158-61

[13] Monmouth Atlas. April 22, 1864

[14] Monmouth Atlas. April 7, 1865: Election Results by ward: East Ward: 116-79, West Ward: 102-104

[15] The sidewalks were changed and under the new standard would be 12 feet wide made with 2 inch wide planks that were anchored by oak platforms 5 feet apart. Before the sidewalks were only 4 feet wide.

[16] City Council Records- Monmouth City Hall

[17] City Council Records- Monmouth City Hall

[18] Monmouth Atlas- December 9, 1864

[19] Monmouth Atlas- August 19, 1864.

[20] Monmouth Atlas- December 9, 1864.

[21] Monmouth Atlas- July 15, 1864.

[22] City Council Record: August 7, 1865- Monmouth City Hall.

[23] City Council Records- December 4, 1865-Monmouth City Hall

[24] City Council Records- December 4, 1865-Monmouth City Hall.

[25] City Council Records- March 5, 1865-Monmouth City Hall.

[26] Hugh Moffit. “ Pioneer Gone” Old Timer volume 6, Warren County Genealogical Collection.

[27]  Ibid.

[28] Names and locations as of March 1908. Biographical Sketches- Warren County Genealogical Collection. The census of 1860 lists William as age forty-five, a blacksmith with property worth $800 and $200 of personal property, his wife Nancy was thirty-seven, Madona B was sixteen, born in Missouri, Sarah E fourteen, born in Illinois, Laura twelve, born in Missouri; the other children--Nannie nine, Mary seven, Louella five, Emma three, and William one--were all born in Illinois; in 1870 Nannie, then nineteen, was a student, as were Mary E, seventeen, and Louella E, fifteen; Emma E was thirteen, William eleven, Effie J was nine, Jessie was five, Joseph P was two; Cowan's property had increased in value to $1600.

[29] Monmouth Atlas, June 21, 1898.

[30] Monmouth Atlas, June 21, 1898.