Did you ever think that life was too difficult, too overwhelming, and that you should just give up? Here’s the story of one person who had many reasons to abandon hope but who, through luck and perseverance, ended up at the top of his game.
Call it fate or, better, call it good fortune, the tide of events that took a young Scotsman from fighting a losing battle in defense of a deposed English king to being the owner of a modest estate in New England, a new bride at his side.
John Cowan was 20 years old in 1651, one of thousands of Scottish soldiers who marched in support of King Charles II’s desperate attempt to seize the crown back from Oliver Cromwell. As he marched from Scotland to northern England, he must have known that difficulties awaited the Scottish forces. A year earlier, thousands of Scottish soldiers had been killed or imprisoned when they battled Cromwell’s forces in the Battle of Dunbar. Cowan’s crew had been hastily trained and sent out with little prospect of returning home.
Thanks to researchers in Britain, it is possible to imagine the face of young John Cowan. Using skeletal remains, the Face Lab of Liverpool John Moore University recreated the face of a Scottish soldier from the Battle of Dunbar. The young man is brown-eyed and wears the blue cap and brown jacket of rural Scotland, his skin taut, a legacy of a malnourished childhood.
A year after the death of the young man pictured above, John Cowan marched with his fellow Scotsmen to the city of Worcestor, where they mustered under the banner of King Charles II. Cromwell once again got the upper hand in battle and the King Charles fled the city, famously hiding in an oak tree.
The Scottish troops that survived, John Cowan included, met a miserable fate. Forced to march across the country to London, hundreds died along the way. But not John Cowan.
“Thousands of prisoners were “driven like cattle” to London. As one witness described the convoy, ‘all of them [were] stript, many of them cutt, some without stockings or shoes and scarce so much left upon them as to cover their nakedness, eating peas and handfuls of straw in their hands which they had pulled upon the fields as they passed.” *
John managed to survive the misery of starvation and disease in prison camps in London. And his good luck stayed with him. He avoided joining thousands of prisoners performing back-breaking manual labor in England and did not get thrown in with the 1500 men sent to the gold mines of Guinea or to Barbados and Virginia. Instead young John Cowan was one of 272 Scots who crossed the Atlantic in the hull of a ship sailing to Boston.
In New England, John Cowan’s good fortune prevailed. Most of his fellow prisoners were sent off to work in the Lynn iron works; Cowan ended up as an indentured servant to Richard Mann, a prosperous farmer in Scituate who owned a large farm overlooking the ocean.
One of the original land propietors in Scituate, Mann held 43 acres of hillside along the coast and 13 acres of marshland. By the time Cowan joined him in 1652, Mann had a wife and four young sons. The two men likely toiled in tandem for the next four years, working Mann’s seven oxen and yearlings in the fields and tending to the cows.
There is nothing on the historical record of John Cowan for the next four years until tragedy strikes the Manns. Richard was walking home, crossing a frozen pond when the ice cracked. Mann fell through a hole and could not get out. Neighbors worked for an hour to free him but they failed and he drowned.
Once again, providence stepped in on the side of John Cowan.
His death left widow Rebecca Mann alone to care for four sons, the youngest a newborn. She and John were the only adults to run the farm. A year later, in March 1656, Rebecca married John, who became the proprietor of the Mann estate at age 25.
Despite his apparent good fortune among English immigrants in Scituate, Cowan held on to his Scottish spirit all his life. Fourteen years after his marriage Cowan railed against the English. He was indicted for speaking “contemptible words against the royal dignity of England” when he said that he scorned to be in subjection to any English man. A jury found him innocent, another strike in his favor.
John lived for another 25 years after that court date, enjoying the company of his wife, children and grandchildren until the age of 66.
*Diane Rapaport, Scots for Sale: The Fate of the Scottish Prisoners in Seventeenth Century Massachusetts.
** John Cowan is the 8th great-grandfather of the author.