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DeCOW (DeCew, DeCou), JOHN, businessman, office holder, and militia officer; b. 3 Feb. 1766 in New Jersey, probably in Sussex County, son of Jacob DeCow, a loyalist; m. 9 Aug. 1798 Catherine Docksteder, and they had five sons and six daughters; d. 25 March 1855 in DeCewsville, Upper Canada.

John DeCow came to the Niagara peninsula in 1787. After extensive exploration, including service with a survey crew in 1788, he acquired a mill-site on the Beaver Dams branch of Twelve Mile Creek in Thorold Township. There, in 1792, DeCow built one of the first sawmills in the Nassau District of Upper Canada. Later efforts to secure other sites near the Niagara River failed but, aided by Queenston merchant Robert Hamilton*, DeCow added a gristmill and probably a linseed-oil mill. Located on a principal road, DeCew Falls quickly became an important milling centre in the region. (DeCew Falls, like other places named after the subject, employs a popular variant later adopted by the family.) Between 1799 and 1835 DeCow also served frequently as an assessor, collector, and warden for Thorold. A founding member in 1800 of the Niagara Library, the province’s first circulating library, he also served as a director of the Niagara Agricultural Society in 1804.

During the War of 1812 DeCow, a commissioned militia officer since 1797, commanded a company of the 2nd Lincoln Militia. His stone house, located on a major stream which, with the adjacent escarpment, constituted a strategic defensive line, was occupied as a British headquarters and stores. It was in this house in June 1813 that Laura Secord [Ingersoll*] warned James FitzGibbon* of the planned American attack at Beaver Dams (Thorold). DeCow himself, while returning to his home in the British retreat from Fort George (Niagara-on-the-Lake), had been captured on 29 May 1813 and was eventually incarcerated in an infamous Philadelphia prison, the “Invincible.” He escaped on 20 April 1814 and, aided en route by Quakers, he vigilantly journeyed to Lower Canada despite being painfully retarded by a broken foot. That June he reached the Niagara front, where he rejoined his regiment for the duration of the war.

Although DeCow remained in the militia until 1823, he restored and expanded his milling and farming operations following the war. Plagued by an irregular supply of water for the mills, he responded favourably to the proposal of another mill-owner, William Hamilton Merritt*, to stabilize supply and improve transportation by means of a canal linking Twelve Mile Creek and the Chippewa (Welland) River. In 1818 the initial route was charted via DeCew Falls and six years later DeCow joined with others to form the Welland Canal Company. Subsequent route changes, with the resulting diversion of water-power from DeCow’s mills, completely alienated his support and in 1825 he withdrew his company stock. Only after repeated petitioning between 1830 and 1836 did he receive any compensation for losses at his mills. DeCow’s plans to establish a less vulnerable industry in the area, a window-glass manufactory, collapsed when the company’s bill of incorporation failed to obtain Legislative Council approval in 1829.

In the provincial election of 1832 Merritt’s candidacy in Haldimand attracted DeCow’s vindictive opposition. DeCow’s Methodism, hatred of the canal, and association with William Lyon Mackenzie*’s reform politics, then rampant throughout the peninsula, were scathingly attacked by Colonel John Clark as the “frontier interest,” but DeCow was only narrowly defeated. He continued to assail the canal company, and in 1834 supported the reform challenge by David Thorburn in another Niagara riding. Although DeCow led Thorold Township petitioners in condemning the provincial administration in 1836, he took no apparent part in the rebellion of 1837–38.

About 1834 a frustrated DeCow had relocated on former Indian land in the Haldimand County township of North Cayuga, where he soon erected a sawmill. He failed to secure ferry and bridge rights across the Grand River but, as one of the earliest promoters of glass production in Upper Canada, he again pushed to establish a glassworks. The report of a Pennsylvania glass-man confirmed the suitability of his property for a works and in 1835 the Cayuga Glass Manufacturing Company was incorporated. The disruptive effect of the rebellion reportedly led to the charter’s expiry. In 1845 the defeat of a new bill for incorporation finally forced DeCow to abandon any plans for actual production.

DeCow’s industrial pursuits were sustained by his milling, farming, and lime kiln operations, which stimulated the growth near by of a small hamlet, DeCewsville. Although DeCow had apparently retired by 1851, he remained keenly interested in politics. Mackenzie’s victory as an independent reformer in the Haldimand by-election of that year rekindled his anti-government hostility. Three of his sons, John, Robert, and William, openly supported Mackenzie’s damning investigation of government affairs. Writing of his father’s good health in 1853, William conveyed DeCow’s final sentiment to the ageing radical: “He has you fresh in his memory and often enquires where you are, wonders why he cant get to see you oftener, and rejoices at the downfall of Toryism.”

David Roberts

[Indispensable for any study of John DeCow are Ernest Green’s excellent article “John DeCou, pioneer,” OH, 22 (1925): 92116, and The genealogy of the De Cou family, showing the descent of the members of this family in America from Leuren des Cou of the Sandtoft colony, a Hugenot settlement in Lincolnshire, England, founded about 1630, comp. S. E. and J. A. DeCou ([Philadelphia, 1926]; repr. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1978). A compilation of John DeCow’s reminiscences, prepared by his sons Edmund and Robert, was first published in the Haldimand Advocate (Cayuga, Ont.) of 1888. The relevant issues could not be located, if they exist, but Green quotes frequently from the reminiscences, presumably from the 1888 compilation. Differing versions and extracts also appear in Jubilee history of Thorold Township and town from the time of the red man to the present, [comp. M. H. S. Wetherell] (Thorold, Ont., 1897–98), and in [Edmond DeCew], “Reminiscences of Captain DeCew,” ed. E. Munro, Niagara Hist. Soc., [Pub.] (Niagara [Niagara-on-the-Lake], Ont.), no.36 (1924): 84–92. Because of John DeCow’s advanced age, and apparent errors in transcription or printing, the reminiscences are inaccurate on several details.  d.r.]

AO, MS 74, package 59, no.41; package 60, no.68; MS 516, John DeCew [Jr.] to Mackenzie, 14 May, 16 June 1851; Robert DeCew to Mackenzie, 18 June 1851; William DeCew to Mackenzie, 22 Nov. 1853; indenture, announcing Mackenzie’s election in Haldimand, 21 April 1851; petitions, electors of Haldimand to Mackenzie, 11 Aug. 1851; RG 1, A-I-6: 11430–32; A-II-2, 1: 91; C-I-1, petitions of John DeCow, 20 April 1819, 4 June 1834; John DeCew, 19 Sept. 1841; C-IV, Cayuga Township, concession 1 (north), lot 40; Thorold Township, concessions 1 and 2, lot 16; RG 22, ser.256, ser.260, John DeCew. PAC, MG 24, E1, 11; I8, 28: 87–92; RG 1, L3, 149: D1/74; 150: D2/16, 84; 152: D6/36, D7/1, 2; 153: D10/34c, d; 154: D11/16; 269: K5/29; RG 5, A1: 19664–67, 20915–16, 39353–54, 47923–24, 69768–70, 70089–91, 71736–40, 76261–63, 81460–63, 84729–31, 137460–63; RG 8, I (C ser.), 679: 140–41; 684: 179; 688C; 116; 688E: 229; 690: 124; 692: 44, 267; RG 9, I, B1, 1: 223, 225; 3; 11; 22: 322–28; B2, 30: 253. Can., Prov. of, Legislative Assembly, Journals, 1841, 1843–45 . “District of Nassau; letter book no.2,” AO Report, 1905: 335; “District of Nassau; register of the lots in the townships of that district; book no.3,” AO Report, 1905: 345. Doc. hist. of campaign upon Niagara frontier (Cruikshank), vols.1–6. “Grants of crown lands in U.C.,” AO Report, 1929: 78. U.C., House of Assembly, Journal, 1829–31, 1833–36. “Upper Canada land book B, 19th August, 1796, to 7th April, 1797,” AO Report, 1930: 50. British American Journal (St Catharines, [Ont.]), 17 June, 10 Aug., 4 Dec. 1834; 29 Jan. 1835. British Colonial Argus (St Catharines), 28 Sept., 6 Oct. 1833. Cobourg Star, 7 Nov. 1832. StCatharines Journal, 31 May 1834; 4 Aug., 8 Dec. 1836; 17 May 1840; 20 Jan., 17 March 1842; 20 Feb. 1845. J. N. Jackson, StCatharines, Ontario; its early years (Belleville, Ont., 1976). J. P. Merritt, Biography of the Hon. WHMerritt . . . (St Catharines, 1875). R. L. Gentilcore, “The beginnings of settlement in the Niagara peninsula (1782–1792),” Canadian Geographer ([Ottawa]), 7 (1963): 72–82. H. V. Nelles, “Loyalism and local power; the district of Niagara, 1792–1837,” OH, 58 (1966): 99–114. J. W. Watson, “The changing industrial pattern of the Niagara peninsula; a study in historical geography,” OH, 37 (1945): 49–58.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

David Roberts, “DeCOW, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 31, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/decow_john_8E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/decow_john_8E.html
Author of Article: David Roberts
Title of Article: DeCOW, JOHN
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1985
Year of revision: 1985
Access Date: October 31, 2014