Ned Cowen: Caney Fork Long Hunter
Permanent settlement of what is now Middle Tennessee did not occur until the late 18th century. Various explorers and adventurers had been visiting the Tennessee country for many years before permanent settlement took place. The Spaniard, Hernando De Soto, was probably the first European in Tennessee, having made his way from Florida to southeastern Tennessee by 1540, to be followed by Juan Pardo in 1566. By the late 17th century French explorers such as Marquette, Joliet, and La Salle, were pushing into the Mississippi Valley from Canada, and by the early 18th century, English adventurers and traders were crossing the Appalachian Mountains into Tennessee. However, it was not until the coming of the Long Hunters that Tennessee began to be explored in earnest, paving the way for permanent settlement.
The Long Hunters originated mainly in southwestern Virginia, although some came from the Carolinas. Long Hunters were men who went into the wilderness to hunt, trap, and trade for months, and sometimes, years at a time. These men were the archetypal frontiersmen, the independent trailblazer who would come to play such an important role in the American consciousness. They helped form the basis of the American ideal of self-determination and individuality. The great Daniel Boone was among this group of men.
As early as the 1740s hunters had ventured into the backwoods of Tennessee, and by 1761 Elisha Walden was leading groups of hunters into Tennessee from Virginia. The year 1769 saw the largest party of Long Hunters to enter Middle Tennessee. These men came through the Cumberland Gap and followed the Cumberland River to a rendezvous site in Wayne County, Kentucky called Price’s Meadow. From Price’s Meadow, some of the men explored as far south as the Caney Fork River and its tributaries in what would become Putnam, White, and De Kalb counties. Among this party were men who would become instrumental in settling Middle Tennessee and the Upper Cumberland, including Kaspar Mansker, Abraham Bledsoe, Uriah Stone, and Obadiah Terrill. Also among this party was the Long Hunter, Ned Cowen.
According to local oral tradition, Ned Cowen was the first settler in the Caney Fork Valley, in what would become Putnam County. Little is certain concerning Cowen’s early life, although it is known that he came from the Botetourt County, Virginia area. Unlike many other Long Hunters, Cowen never returned to his home state, but stayed in Tennessee to establish a permanent home.
Cowen apparently chose to squat on 2,000 acres on Little Indian Creek, a practice that was not uncommon among frontier settlers. Indeed, famed Long Hunter Elisha Walden had squatted on land on Smith River in Pittsylvania County, Virginia. No land grant entitling Cowen to the land on Little Indian Creek has ever been found, nor has any copy of military service. As the early date of settlement predates the 1805 signing of the Third Treaty of Tellico in which the Cherokee Indians ceded their claims to all lands in Middle Tennessee, it is assumed that Cowen squatted illegally on Cherokee land. Sometime after Cowen settled on Little Indian Creek, he married a woman whose last name was manners; her first name is unknown. Cowen and his wife had several children, although the exact number is unknown.
Much of Cowen’s life is shrouded in mystery, as is his death. Cowen was a larger than life figure. His reputation as a Long Hunter and Indian fighter would have ranged far and wide. Sometime prior to 1790, Indians apparently killed Cowen. He may have been killed because of his illegal settlement of Cherokee land, or because he was a feared and honored Indian adversary. Early Tennessee historians commented on his death, and the 1794 records of Davidson County, in which settlers are accounted for, has the terse statement by Cowen’s name, “killed by Indians”. In the small family cemetery that still exists on the Cowen farmstead site, there is a stone burial cairn of the type utilized in the 18th century. There is conjecture as to the possibility of this being Ned Cowen’s grave, although this cannot be ascertained for certain. The exact time, nature, and place of Cowen’s death is unknown, but his life contributed significantly to the settlement of Middle Tennessee, and the creation of the archetypal American hero, the rugged individualist who lives by his wits and abilities in the struggle against the natural order.
The era of the Long Hunters is one small chapter in American history. But the stories of men such as Ned Cowen, and what they represent to the American ideal, makes them an integral part of the overall story of the creation of an American identity, one that we still share today, and one that has been interpreted in countless poems, novels, and motion pictures throughout the years.
by Randal D. Williams
Director, Cultural Resources Management
Upper Cumberland Development District