Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Chasing Cow Herders (Part 1 of 2)

The English name Cowart is a derivation of Cowherd, a tender of cattle (another variation of the name is Coward),  so I guess it shouldn't be too surprising that I have generations of farmers helping my family tree grow.

My mother's paternal grandmother's name was Ella Cowart. I don't think that my mother ever knew this, as it was quite a surprise to her sisters when I told them this. The name that they had always heard was "Shownee/Shoney" -- a name which, even today, I still cannot place the origin of. After ordering a copy of my grandfather Lee Barnes' Social Security application a couple of years ago, I was shocked to see that he had written "Coward" (a variation of Cowart) as his mother's maiden name. This led me on a quest to find out more about Ella Coward/Cowart, particularly there weren't many living relatives left to ask about this, and none of them knew the name Cowart. I already knew that my grandfather's parents' names were Cal and Ella, so I had already found the family, including my grandfather and his siblings, in the census records following his birth in 1909, but I needed to go further back, particularly since I was unable to locate a marriage certificate for them.

So, I began to scour the census records for any Ella Cowart/Cowards and discovered a 17-year old "Ella L.B. Cowart" living in Fair River, Lincoln County, MS with her parents Isaac and Matilda, and 8 younger siblings: Newit, Louisa, Flora, Alice, Mary, Benjamin, Dock and Mabelle. I still have no idea what the "L.B." initials stood for, but I'm thinking that it could possibly have been an abbreviation for a nickname such as "Little Bit" -- I have no real basis for this other than knowing that I come from a long line of nicknamers. Of course, I needed to do a little geographic research to see if she could be a match from that standpoint, and she was. 

At that time, I had no real solid confirmation that this was the right family, but continued to research them. I felt that I was going in the right direction because I was able to find a marriage certificate for Isaac Cowart and Matilda A. Brown, dated January 20, 1884. It wasn't the first time that I had come across the Brown family as I was concurrently researching them being a possibility of being a connection on my Smith side (my mother's mother's family), but that's a whole other post. It wasn't until connecting with a Barnes cousin who had also been researching the family, that I was able to confirm that Ella's mother's name was Matilda and that one of Ella's daughters, Lillian, was nicknamed "Lil Tildy" after her grandmother.

My next valuable resource was the 1892 Mississippi Enumeration of Educable Children for Lincoln County. There, I was able to find that Isaac had registered his children for school. The names listed were: Annie (age 19), Ella (12), "N" (Newit, 10), Mittie (still uncertain as to who this child is, 8), and Flora (16). I had never come across the oldest child, Annie, so this was a wonderful find. Also included under Isaac's entry was another Cowart named Mandy who registered her children, Ola (19), Mary (18), Ike (11), Virgil (6), and Thomas (5). Who was Mandy, and what was her connection to Isaac?
  • Could she have been another wife? This seemed unlikely as most of the records showed either one or both parents registering their children being denoted on one line, together, i.e., "John and Mary."
  • Could she have been an older child? Because Isaac was 46 years old at this time, this, too, seemed unlikely because Mandy's oldest child was 19.
  • Could she have been a sister or another relative? I thought this seemed to be the most likely hypothesis because they had children of nearly the same age.
So, I assumed that Mandy had to be a sister or other close relative, but was not immediately able to find her or her children in the census in that area. Mandy got put in the "work on later" pile of ancestors. Sorry, Mandy, maybe we'll see you again later.

Sometime during all of this research, I was fortunate enough to connect with a fellow Cowart descendant/researcher on Ancestry.com. Her grandmother was Mary Cowart, the sister of my great-grandmother, Ella. She apologized that she didn't know much about the Cowart family, but she did share some interesting stories about Isaac's character. Family folklore says that Isaac, rumored to have been part Indian himself, staged a sit-in of sorts in the middle of Lincoln County to protest the Indians being moved to Oklahoma. This is definitely a story that I'll have to look further into!

Stories like this, combined with the fact that I couldn't find any traces of Isaac prior to 1900 in the census led me to turn him into a mystical character in my mind -- I had no further information on him to go on, and no idea from whom or where he came, so I just figured that he would forever be one of those unsolvable mysteries.

Lucky for me, I am like an old dog with a favorite bone, I'm going to go back and dig it up and knock it around a bit more. So, after putting Isaac down for a while, I did something really simple -- I searched for him again in the census, this time, taking out much of the detail and starting from scratch. In doing so, I was finally able to find Isaac in 1880! The name was transcribed as "Conard," a name that I could scarcely decode from the way the letters were written. What helped is that, just below his name, was a more clear writing of his wife Patsy's full name, "Patsy Coward," and that of his daughter, Anna (or Annie, as shown in the MS Enumeration of Educable Children)! I knew that Patsy was often used as a nickname for "Martha" back then, so I felt pleased that I was able to locate Isaac, his first wife Martha, and their daughter Anna in the 1880 census!

Further searches provided me with the 1870 census record of Isaac as a 30-year old man, living alone as a farm worker. His race is listed as "M" or "mulatto." One important thing I noted was the fact that Isaac's name was directly below that of another Cowart - an "E. Cowart" - a white physician living with his wife Pricilla and daughter Louisa. Thanks to the work of his descendants, I was able to identify him as Dr. Eliszer Cowart, son of Newit Cowart and Hannah Byrne, grandson of Needham M. Cowart and Esther Phoebe Blount. I rejoiced at having made this find because, not only were nicknames often used in my family, but also first names were passed down over and again. This is significant because my 2nd great-grandfather Isaac named some of his children the same names as those of Newit and Hannah Cowart's children and grandchildren, even Newit himself - the names Newit, Louisa, Flora, Alice, Mary and Benjamin all appear in both families. So, I really felt like I was onto something here -- could the Newit and Hannah Cowart family indeed be Isaac's slaveowners?

I wouldn't know for certain until I checked the slave schedules, starting with 1860 and working back to 1850. I looked for Eliszer first, in the advent that he might have owned Isaac, but didn't find Eliszer listed. I did find his father Newit, though!

In 1860, Newit is shown as owning 6 slaves: a 70-year old female, a 30-year old male, a 35-year old female, a 14-year old male, a 12-year old female, and a 10-year old female. The 14-year old male was a close enough age-match for me to assume this to be Isaac, but who were the others?

To be continued...


  1. Great work Renee, I look foward to reading more.

  2. Thanks for stopping by and leaving some kindness, Terrence!

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