Memorable Manitobans: William Cowan (1818-1902)
Physician, Hudson’s Bay Company employee.
A prominent figure in the Red River Settlement in the early days. A Scotsman by birth (in 1818), he came out to the Settlement in 1849 as Surgeon to a party of army pensioners, the Chelsea Pensioners. He was a graduate of Edinburgh University, and after his arrival here acted for some time as the Hudson’s Bay Company’s physician, and also practised in the Settlement. He afterwards gave up his medical practice and entered the service of the Company as a fur trader, and was for some time stationed at York Factory, and later at Moose Factory and Lower Fort Garry. Later on he was in charge at Fort Garry, where he occupied the position of Chief Trader during the troublous times of 1869 and 1870, and for several years previous.
His actions during the rebellion of 1869 and ‘70 were severely criticized at the time by many members of the so-called Loyalist Party, because he would not accept the services of some of the members of that party for the purpose of expelling the French half-breeds from Fort Garry and the vicinity, at the time that Governor McDougall took it upon himself to issue his celebrated proclamation of 1 December 1869. Subsequent events proved the soundness of his judgment in hesitating to bring one section of the community into conflict with the other, since Governor McDougall’s proclamation was certainly premature, for it was not until the following July that Manitoba was brought into Confederation. Dr. Cowan was himself a sufferer during the rebellion, and was imprisoned by Riel for two months in Fort Garry.
In 1870 he retired from the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company and settled in Minnesota, on his farm a few miles south of St. Paul. In 1876 he resumed his medical practice in Winnipeg and was a well known local physician to about 1885, when he returned to St. Paul where he resided until his death.
In 1852 he married Harriet Sinclair, the eldest daughter of James Sinclair, a prominent member of the Colony, with whom he had a son and two daughters, including Anne M. Cowan.
Those who knew Cowan spoke in the highest terms of him. He was a polished gentleman, and a professional of the “old school”; his demeanor and conduct were courtly and polite, and he lived a blameless and honorable life. As an educated man who had participated in some of the most stirring events of western history it is not surprising that Dr. Cowan was a supporter of the Manitoba Historical Society. He chaired the meeting called in 1879 to form the Society, and became its first vice-president, then served as its President from 1881 to 1882. When the Winnipeg General Hospital was incorporated in 1882 he was appointed an honorary consultant. In 1877, he was a member of the First Convocation of the University of Manitoba and, two years later, he was a founding member of the Manitoba Historical Society.
He died at St. Paul, Minnesota on 20 June 1902. His diary (on microfilm) is in the Archives of Manitoba.
Pioneers and Early Citizens of Manitoba, Winnipeg: Manitoba Library Association, 1971.
Dictionary of Manitoba Biography by John M. “Jack” Bumsted, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999.
Page revised: 7 March 2010