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COWLEY, ABRAHAM, Church of England clergyman and missionary; b. 8 April 1816 at Fairford (Gloucestershire), England, son of Robert and Mary Cowley; m. 26 Dec. 1840 Arabella Sainsbury of Marlborough, England, and they had three sons and a daughter; d. 11 Sept. 1887 at Selkirk, Man.

Abraham Cowley was admitted to Farmor’s Endowed School in Fairford in November 1821 and he remained there until October 1828 when he was recorded as being “past age.” Little is known of his life in these years and during the next decade, although the vicar of Fairford, Francis William Rice, later Lord Dynevor, maintained an interest in him. In 1839 he was admitted to the Church Missionary Society College in Islington (now part of London), England, where he was prepared for missionary work abroad. On 5 Jan. 1841, less than a fortnight after their marriage, Abraham and Arabella Cowley set out for Montreal on their way to the Red River Settlement in Rupert’s Land. This unusual route was taken in the belief that the Cowleys would be able to travel with Bishop George Jehoshaphat Mountain* of Montreal who was planning a visitation of Rupert’s Land. The couple arrived in Montreal on 28 February, and Cowley was ordained a deacon on 7 March. Bishop Mountain’s visit to the northwest was postponed, however, and the Cowleys, seeing no hope of reaching the Red River Settlement from Montreal, returned to England and took ship almost immediately for Hudson Bay. They arrived in Red River on 28 Sept. 1841, having made three crossings of the Atlantic in nine months.

Cowley had assumed that on his arrival he would be ordained to the priesthood by Mountain, and that he would at first assist William Cockran* at Red River and then succeed him when he retired. This plan was scotched by Adam Thom, the recorder of Rupert’s Land, who chose to challenge the competence of the bishop of Montreal in Rupert’s Land [see John Smithurst*] and affirmed that Cowley’s ordination as priest would be invalid in such circumstances. Cockran and Cowley agreed that until the matter was resolved Cowley should establish a mission among the Indians at some place away from Red River. Looking for “a suitable place for farming, abounding with wood and adjoining a good fishery,” Cowley chose a site on the Little Dauphin River (now Dauphin River) between lakes Manitoba and St Martin where there was a considerable band of Saulteaux Indians. This mission was known as Partridge Crop, but in 1851, on his initial visit, David Anderson, the first bishop of Rupert’s Land, changed the name to Fairford (Man.) as being more appropriate. On 7 July 1844, the controversy with Thom having blown over, Cowley had been ordained a priest at Red River by Bishop Mountain.

In his dealings with the Indians, Cowley does not seem to have been as understanding or considerate of their condition as some of his contemporaries. He railed at them for their failure to conform to a code of ethics which was foreign to them and therefore could have little meaning for them. On 28 Sept. 1846 he commented in his diary that now he felt he understood the Indians better and could talk more firmly to them. Yet his speaking of the love of God and at the same time threatening them with the pains and punishments of hell puzzled and distressed the Indians. He quoted one of them as saying of him: “we can understand when the blackcoat interprets the Word of God and when he speaks of life but when he turns it to the Indians and goes round afterwards bringing us all as it were into hell . . . we cannot understand it.” Cowley was more successful in helping his charges to come to terms with agricultural life. A good farmer himself, he may have introduced a new strain of wheat to the region, and he encouraged the Indians in the raising of livestock and helped them to build houses. As did most of his peers, he took it for granted that the nomadic life was no longer practical for them.

The Cowleys left Fairford in 1854 to assist Cockran at the Indian Settlement (now Dynevor, Man.); they remained there until Cowley’s death. He served for many years as secretary of the corresponding committee of the Church Missionary Society. In 1867 he received an honorary dd from St John’s College in Winnipeg and succeeded Cockran, who had died two years earlier, as archdeacon of Cumberland. Also in 1867 his eldest son, serving with the Hudson’s Bay Company in the Yukon, was drowned. The other children maintained the family association with the west.

F. A. Peake

CMS Arch., C, C.1/I, C.1/L, C.1/M, G1, C.1/P, and especially C.1/O, Journals of Abraham Cowley (mfm. at PAC). PAC, MG 19, E9. Church Missionary Soc., Register of missionaries (clerical, lay, & female), and native clergy, from 1804 to 1904 ([London?, 1905?]), 55. A. Ross, Red River Settlement, 290. T. C. B. Boon, “St Peter’s Dynevor, the original Indian settlement of western Canada,” HSSM Papers, 3rd ser., no.9 (1954): 16–32. W. L. Morton, “Agriculture in the Red River colony,” CHR, 30 (1949): 305–21.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

F. A. Peake, “COWLEY, ABRAHAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 1, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cowley_abraham_11E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cowley_abraham_11E.html
Author of Article: F. A. Peake
Title of Article: COWLEY, ABRAHAM
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1982
Year of revision: 1982
Access Date: October 1, 2014