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Dr. William Cowan

by Ross Mitchell MD

Manitoba Pageant, Winter 1965, Volume 10, Number 2

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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What leads people to move from their home land? With some it is the hope of bettering their lot, with others it is love of adventure or a desire to start afresh in a new land. With Dr. William Cowan of Glasgow the incentive was to regain his health shattered by cholera.

Now almost unknown in the western world, cholera was rife over Europe and America during the first half of the nineteenth century. It was a terrible disease with death occurring sometimes within 24 hours from the onset of symptoms. Even so remote an area as the Red River was not exempt from "the bloody flux". Sheriff Alexander Ross, one of the historians of the Red River River Settlement, states that the epidemic began among the Indians of the White Horse Plain and soon spread to the whites. "From the 18th of June (1846) ", says Ross, "to the 2nd of August the deaths averaged seven a day or 321 in all; being one out of every sixteen of our population. Of these, one-sixth were Indians, two-thirds half-breeds and the remainder whites - many houses were closed altogether, not one in the family being left in them". In England the epidemic of 1848-49 was so severe, causing over 65,000 deaths, that the Royal College of Physicians of England ordered an investigation to be made. The results were published in a book Reports on the Epidemic Cholera by William Baly, M.D. and William W. Gull, M.D., members of the committee.

It was during this epidemic that Dr. William Cowan, a Glasgow graduate of 1843, was so smitten that after his prolonged recovery he was advised to go to British Columbia to regain his health. The discovery of gold on the Fraser river had brought this district to the public eye. The Hudson's Bay Company had no vacancies among their officers there but offered him passage if he would serve as medical officer to a party of pensioners being sent to the Red River Colony to keep the peace. He accepted the position. One of the passengers on the ship was the Rev. Doctor David Anderson, first bishop of Rupert's Land, after whom Anderson Avenue in North Winnipeg is named.

The pensioners, after their arrival, were not highly regarded by the Red River settlers, but one of them, James Mulligan, acquired a large tract of land near Armstrong's Point on the Assinboine. Its western boundary was named Mulligan Street later changed to Sherbrook Street.

For a time Dr. Cowan practised his profession at Fort Garry, then entered the service of the Hudson's Bay Company as surgeon and fur trader. In 1856 he was sent to take charge of Moose Factory on James Bay where he took his wife Harriet, daughter of James Sinclair.

Sinclair was a prosperous trader and a natural leader. In the hope of preserving the Columbia district on the west coast from being taken over by the United States he, in 1841, had led a party of Red River inhabitants from Fort Garry through the Sinclair pass and established them in what is now the state of Oregon. There he was killed by Indians while defending a fur-trading post.

In 1860, William Cowan was advanced to be a Chief Trader of the Hudson's Bay Company and entitled to share in its profits. In 1862, he visited England and on his return he was posted to Upper Fort Garry as second in command to Governor William Mactavish. The governor was gravely ill and much of the responsibility fell on Dr. Cowan. The future of the Red River Colony was seriously in doubt. The Hudson's Bay Company had sold Rupert's Land to Canada and relinquished to Great Britain their Charter but the Canadian Government had not yet taken over authority in that region. Dr. Cowan endeavoured to be conciliatory in a triangle of divided interests, the old settlers Scottish and English, the new Canadian party from Ontario and the French-Canadian Metis, the "New Nation".

On November 3, 1869, he was in charge of Upper Fort Garry when the Metis came from St. Norbert. There at "The Barrier", now marked by a stone marker, they had turned back the members of the suite of the Hon. William McDougall who had been sent by the Canadian Government to be Governor of the new Province of Manitoba. His party had been at Pembina just across the border, awaiting ratification of the agreement by which Rupert's Land was to be turned over by Great Britain to Canada. Final ratification was delayed but nonetheless McDougall determined to take over prematurely at Fort Garry. Aware of the situation, the Metis sent a detachment to St. Norbert where they erected a barrier south of the Sale River. Captain Cameron, of McDougall's party and a son-in-law of Sir Charles Tupper, rode up and barked out the order "Remove that blasted fence!" The Metis stood to their guns and the disappointed Canadian party withdrew to Pembina. The Metis then quietly slipped into Fort Garry. Dr. Cowan ordered two of them, posted as guards at the main gate facing the Assiniboine, to be off. They replied that they had come to protect the Fort against a danger. To the query "What danger?" they returned an evasive answer. Dr. Cowan sent for their leader, Louis Riel, who promised to withdraw his men. Instead he doubled the guards, finally took possession of all the buildings within the walls and imprisoned Dr. Cowan for two months. Later he and his family were allowed to live at the Lower Fort. They made their escape by York boat to York Factory where they took passage in the Hudson's Bay ship to England.

On their return. Dr. Cowan settled on a farm south of St. Paul, Minnesota from 1870 to 1876 when he came back to Winnipeg. There his opinion was much sought by other doctors who appreciated his skill and learning.

Meanwhile Winnipeg was growing rapidly. On January 23, 1879, a meeting was held in the Court House on Main Street, Winnipeg to organize an historical society. Dr. Cowan was appointed Chairman and Mr. Alex Begg secretary. The Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba was thus launched. At the second meeting, the Chair-man was the Hon. Edmund Burke Wood, Chief Justice of Manitoba, and at a meeting on February 22, Chief Justice Wood was elected President and Dr. William Cowan 1st Vice-President.

A few years later, Dr. Cowan retired to St. Paul where he died in 1902 shortly before the 50th anniversary of his wedding. His wife and family returned to Winnipeg and during the 1930s the writer had the privilege of interviewing Mrs. Cowan and her two daughters, Miss Anna and Miss Harriet. Miss Anna spoke of the occupation of Fort Garry by Louis Riel and gave photographs of her father and of his friend, Dr. John Bunn. Mrs. Cowan had given a delightful interview on the eve of her 91st birthday to Mr. W. J. Healy who put it into that rare and interesting book Women of the Red River, a project of Mrs. Margaret McWilliams and the Women's Canadian Club of Winnipeg in 1923.

Miss Anna Cowan presented to the Manitoba Medical Library in 1928 Professor A. A. L. M. Velpeau's Medecin Operatoire in three volumes with Atlas, Paris, 1852, which had belonged to her father. They are now housed in the Rare Book Room of the Medical Library. Velpeau is also remembered by the Velpeau bandage used to bind the arm to the chest in fracture of the clavicle.

Dr. John Harrison O'Donnell who came from Ontario to Fort Garry and accompanied McDougall's party from Pembina, though not of it, was allowed to pass the Barrier and proceed to Winnipeg. There he became a leading doctor and in his later years wrote a book, Manitoba as I Saw It, 1869 to Date. In it he devoted a chapter to Dr. William Cowan and summed him up as "a man of refined tastes and one of Nature's noblemen."

Thus an epidemic of cholera was responsible for the coming to the Red River of a man who played a part in the emergence of the Colony into Manitoba, the first province created by the Confederation of Canada.


The Red River Settlement - Alexander Ross, London, Smith-Elden Co. 1856.

Reports on Epidemic Cholera - William Baly and William W. Gull, London, John Churchill, 1854.

Women of the Red River - W. J. Healy, Winnipeg. The Winnipeg Women's Canadian Club, 1923.

West of the Mountains: James Sinclair and the Hudson's Bay Company - D. Geneva Lent, Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1963.

Manitoba as I Saw It - 1869 to Date. John Harrison O'Donnell, M.D.

Toronto. The Musson Book Co. 1909.

Streets of Winnipeg - Mary Hislop, Winnipeg. T.W. Taylor Co., 1912.

Minutes of the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba from January 23, 1879 - Manuscripts in Manitoba Archives.

Page revised: 18 July 2009

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