J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, May 05, 2014

The Man with Two Monuments

Yesterday Bob O’Hara described the transformation of Thomas Cowdin from his central Massachusetts town’s most notorious opponent of military action against the Crown to the same town’s American militia leader and legislative representative. Here’s the end of that story.

Thomas Cowdin, Esq., died in Fitchburg on 22 Apr 1792. He turned out to be as notable in death as he was in life because by an accident of history he is the only person in the town with two gravestones.

If you stand today at Fitchburg’s minuteman monument and look off to the southwest, you can just make out Thomas Cowdin’s great granite obelisk on the crest of the Laurel Hill Cemetery. But if you turn and look to the south, behind a row of trees and some rundown buildings, you may be able to spot Fitchburg’s original village burying ground, the tiny and almost forgotten South Street Cemetery. There you will find Thomas Cowdin’s actual grave, in company with the graves of several of the Fitchburg minutemen who were quicker to respond to the Lexington alarm than he was.

In 1884 one of Thomas Cowdin’s grandsons, John Cowdin of Boston, decided that the tiny colonial burying ground was not a suitably prominent place of rest for his prominent ancestor. He made arrangements for a granite obelisk to be erected at the top of Laurel Hill, overlooking the whole of downtown Fitchburg, and to have Thomas’s remains, along with the remains of his wife second Hannah, reinterred at the new location. The granite obelisk was put in place, but John Cowdin died before his grandparents’ graves could be moved.

The Laurel Hill obelisk thus stands as an accidental cenotaph. No casual visitor passing it today would ever know that Thomas Cowdin, Esq., the reluctant revolutionary, isn’t even there.

For more on Thomas Cowdin’s life and times, try these references, all of which are available online:
  • Fosdick, Charles. 1895. Captain Thomas Cowdin’s journal. Proceedings of the Fitchburg Historical Society, 1: 135-146. (Transcribing Cowdin's diary from 25 May to 2 June 1784 during one of his periods of service on “the Grate & General Coart.“)
  • Garfield, James F.D. 1908. Fitchburg soldiers of the Revolution. Proceedings of the Fitchburg Historical Society, 4: 172-232. (The standard reference on Fitchburg during the Revolution.)
  • Howard, Ada L. 1902. Captain Thomas Cowdin. Proceedings of the Fitchburg Historical Society, 3: 19-38. (A somewhat romanticized family portrait, by a descendant.)
  • Stearns, Ezra S. 1914. Capt. Thomas Cowdin in the Revolution. Proceedings of the Fitchburg Historical Society, 5: 270-277. (Transcribing the records of Cowdin’s arrest and trial in August 1775.)

Thanks for the story, Bob! Those references are a good reminder of how many smaller historical societies used to have publishing programs sharing local resources and lore. The volumes those societies created, often little known outside the area, have lots of Revolutionary stories to rediscover and expand on.

1 comment:

Bob said...

Many thanks for posting the Cowdin story, John. I hope people have enjoyed it. You're exactly right about local historical society publications. The Fitchburg Historical Society published eight volumes (I think) of Proceedings about 100 years ago, and they are full of material that isn't available anywhere else. People can just follow one of the links above for an example, And of course FHS is still a very active society today (I'm a member).

And I've just in the last few days discovered two more Thomas Cowdin items that are remarkable:

Here is his commission as captain, offered in an auction catalog, and here is what is claimed to be his powder horn from the French and Indian War.

If there are any artifact experts here who would care to comment on them I'd be glad to hear.

Many thanks.

Bob O'Hara