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COWAN, WILLIAM, physician, fur trader, and politician; b. 1818 in Scotland; d. 20 June 1902 in St Paul, Minn.

In 1843 William Cowan graduated in medicine from the University of Glasgow. He began to practise, but caught cholera during an epidemic and was so weakened that he decided to immigrate to what is now British Columbia for his health. He learned, however, that the War Office needed a medical officer for the pensioners of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea (London), being sent to the Red River settlement (Man.) in 1848 under the command of Major William Bletterman Caldwell*. He obtained the post and arrived at Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg) the following year.

Cowan soon became an important member of the Red River community. In 1852 he was appointed chief magistrate. That same year he married Harriette Sinclair, daughter of the prominent fur trader and merchant James Sinclair*. They would have two daughters and a son. In 1853 he became a member of the Council of Assiniboia and he eventually attended 34 meetings. Having entered the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company within two years of his arrival in the colony, he was sent to Moose Factory (Ont.) in 1856 and he was appointed chief trader four years later. In 1862 he was transferred back to Upper Fort Garry as second-in-command to William Mactavish*, governor of Assiniboia. After two years in the colony, the Cowans took their children to Britain in order to have them educated. They returned by way of York Factory the following year.

From 1852 to 1871 Cowan kept diaries which are now important sources for the history of the northwest. That for 1852 gives a full account of the flooding of the Red River. The diary for 1868 provides details of the work of the relief committee set up during the grasshopper infestation, while that of 1869 has references to Mactavish’s illness, the visit of Joseph Howe*, president of Canada’s Privy Council, and the efforts of the Council of Assiniboia to cope with the beginning of the Red River resistance to union with Canada.

On 2 Nov. 1869 the National Committee under Métis leader Louis Riel* occupied Upper Fort Garry. Evidence suggests that this occupation was not unwelcome to Cowan or Mactavish and may, indeed, have been advised by them. Both men were related by ties of marriage to the Red River community: Mactavish through his wife, Mary Sarah, daughter of merchant Andrew McDermot*, and Cowan through the Sinclairs. Both had reason to be angry with HBC shareholders in England for refusing the company’s officers a share in the £300,000 to be received for the transfer of the northwest to Canada. Like Mactavish, too, Cowan had already had a brush with the Canadian party and its leader, John Christian Schultz*. And both men had reasons to be concerned about a possible attempt by the Canadian party to seize Upper Fort Garry. An occupation by this group, while technically easy and predictable, and in fact urged by some, carried with it the certainty of an outbreak of violence and damage to HBC property when news of it reached the National Committee’s much larger force then under arms at St Norbert.

Obviously it was desirable for the HBC that the fort should be in the hands of the strongest power in the settlement, the National Committee. That the Métis had often been the company’s mainstay gave this argument added strength. There is little reason to disbelieve the Métis tradition that Mactavish urged the immediate occupation of the fort. There is even less reason to doubt Cowan’s diary where it is recorded that Cowan remonstrated with Riel about the presence of armed men at the gates. Riel replied that the men were there to protect the fort from danger. Cowan knew where that danger was, and Riel knew that he knew. Acquiescence by the HBC in the fort’s occupation did not rule out the possibility of a rash move on the part of Schultz or of William McDougall, lieutenant governor designate of the North-West Territories, nor did it mean cooperation or collaboration with the National Committee in all it attempted to do. It did, however, mean that Upper Fort Garry was in safe and friendly hands.

Cowan spent much of the winter under house arrest. At one point Riel threatened to have him and Mactavish shot if they did not order the withdrawal of ten Métis opposed to the National Committee who were under the leadership of Pierre Léveillé. For a few days in February Cowan was imprisoned for refusing to take an oath of allegiance to the provisional government.

In the spring of 1870 Riel took over Cowan’s house to use it for his own residence and the Cowans had to move, first to a smaller house in the fort, and then, at Mactavish’s insistence, to Lower Fort Garry. There exists a tradition that the Cowans “escaped” from the settlement. The facts appear less dramatic. A successor was named to take Cowan’s place, and he left the settlement on 31 May to attend the HBC’s annual council at Norway House. There, his year-long furlough was confirmed and the Cowans started for Britain on 4 August.

Cowan had been severely criticized by Schultz’s party for his refusal to accept the services of volunteers to expel the Métis from the fort, so after his retirement in 1871, the Schultz party being in the ascendant in Winnipeg, he settled on a farm a few miles south of St Paul, Minn. In 1874 he went to Ottawa to appear before a select committee of the House of Commons on the northwest. He returned to Winnipeg two years later to practise medicine. In 1879 he chaired the meeting which established the Historic and Scientific Society of Manitoba and became its first vice-president. When the Winnipeg General Hospital was incorporated in 1882 he was appointed an honorary consultant. After 1885 the Cowans returned to St Paul and they resided there until Dr Cowan’s death in 1902.

N. E. Allen Ronaghan

NA, MG 19, E8. Saskatchewan Arch. Board (Saskatoon), Effie Laurie Storer papers, P. G. Laurie diary, 2 Nov. 1869. Univ. of Glasgow Arch., Student records. Manitoba Morning Free Press, 25 June 1902. New Nation (Winnipeg), 13 Aug. 1870. Nor’Wester, 29 June, 24 July 1869. Alexander Begg, Alexander Begg’s Red River journal and other papers relative to the Red River resistance of 1869–1870, ed. W. L. Morton (Toronto, 1956). Can., House of Commons, Journals, 1874, app.6. The Canadian north-west, its early development and legislative records . . . , ed. E. H. Oliver (2v., Ottawa, 1914–15). Eden Colvile, London correspondence inward from Eden Colvile, 1849–1852, ed. E. E. Rich with A. M. Johnson, intro. W. L. Morton (London, 1956). W. J. Healy, Women of Red River: being a book written from the recollections of women surviving from the Red River era (Winnipeg, 1923). Ross Mitchell, “Early doctors of Red River and Manitoba,” Man., Hist. and Scientific Soc., Papers (Winnipeg), ser.3, no.4 ([1949]): 37–47. Pioneers of Man. (Morley et al.).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

N. E. Allen Ronaghan, “COWAN, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 9, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cowan_william_13E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cowan_william_13E.html
Author of Article:   N. E. Allen Ronaghan
Title of Article:   COWAN, WILLIAM
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1994
Year of revision:   1994
Access Date:   December 9, 2023