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Tri-Counties Genealogy & History by Joyce M. Tice
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Jim Cowan of Gillett Recalls the Frontier
Bradford County PA
Chemung County NY
Tioga County PA
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Once he saw Sitting Bull, Sioux Indian conqueror of General Custer and his men. Once he toiled in the Bad Lands of the Dakotas as the Northern Pacific Railroad crept westward.

Today James R. Cowan sits on his sunny porch at his home on the Fassett-Gillett highway and dreams of the old northwest as he awaits his 80th birthday in September.

Cowan was born at Cherry Flats, Tioga Co., but in his infancy his parents, Mr. and Mrs. John Cowan moved to a farm near Sylvania, Bradford Co. There he lived until he was 21.

The year was 1878 when Cowan reached his majority. It was a romantic age in the nation's life. The great west and northwest was being developed. Two years before, at the Little Big Horn, a Sioux Indian chief, Sitting Bull, has massacred General George A. Custer and his force of Americans.


"Jim" Cowan had an uncle in Illinois and Cowan visited there. He worked in a Wisconsin lumber camp one winter. He then moved to St. Paul for a few months.

The Northern Pacific was pushing its way through North Dakota and Cowan next appeared there, working on grading through the Bad Lands. Cowan was a husky young man then, weighing over 200 pounds. Later, he went to Miles City, Montana, and was in Wyoming, being a pioneer visitor to what is now Yellowstone National Park.

Cowan had married a Wisconsin girl at Jamestown, North Dakota and to them a daughter, Esther, was born. He recalls being on a train with her when some captive Sioux Indians were being taken to a reservation. The Indians admired the silky hair of the little girl and in their examination pulled at the curls, badly frightening the child.

James Cowan was visited by his father from Sylvania and they visited a reservation where Sitting Bull was prisoner. Cowan believes he is one of the few men alive in the east today who has seen the fierce Sioux who led his yelling horde in the slaughter of Custer's men.

Cowan has in his possession a strange knife fastened to a curved handle which he believes may have been carried by one of Custer's doomed men. He found it on the Little Big Horn battlefield in the Black Hills region.

Cowan once shot a buffalo and had a coat made of the skin. Recalling how the animals were so nearly exterminated, Cowan today says "I'm a little ashamed now of shooting that buffalo."

The Fassett-Gillett road resident was once assigned to try to exterminate a pack of wolves which had killed two humans.

"A settler had sent his son out on a chore. The wolves pounced on the boy. The father ran out with his gun, but was so excited he missed when he shot at the wolves and was himself dragged down.


"I took some arsenic and placed the poison in the body of a dead ox. I didn't kill them all, but I got a lot of those wolves," says Cowan.

After nearly 10 years in the northwest, Cowan returned to South Creek township, near Gillett, where he operated a farm about 40 years. His first wife dying years ago, he is remarried, his bride being the former Lizzie Fuller of Wells. In addition to the daughter, Esther, now living in Wisconsin, he has three sons: Russell in Indiana, Jud of Wisconsin and Elizer of California.

Bradford County PA
Chemung County NY
Tioga County PA

Published On Tri-Counties Site On 30 JAN 2005
By Joyce M. Tice
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