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Chest of Drawers

Cowan, William __Attributed to
Place Made:
Laurens County South Carolina United States of America
Date Made:
birch –yellow pine
HOA 45-1/8″; WOA 38-11/16″; DOA 21-1/2″
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: Inlaid chest of drawers with four tiers of drawers, the top tier with two deep, side by side “bonnet” drawers over three graduated drawers, all with triple-line string inlay and diamond- or kite-shaped inlaid escutcheons; the case with an ornately scalloped skirt and French feet with unusual mortise and tenon foot construction.

CONDITION: The top has been reset; two top back boards replaced; drawers with new guides and runners; one new base block; some replaced brasses and posts; some inlay loss to top side and base.

GROUP: This chest of drawers is part of a significant group recorded by MESDA in Piedmont South Carolina and Georgia. Most are made of walnut, but some are made of birch. Many are plain, while others feature the same triple-line string inlay seen around the drawers, top and bottom of this example. The earliest examples seem to have French feet, while later examples tend to have turned feet, with or without decoratively shaped skirts,. However, all of the chests of drawers in this group have the same distinctive drawer fenestration with two large “bonnet” drawers with diamond- or kite-shaped inlaid escutcheons.

MESDA recorded eight examples that are closely related to this chest of drawers. Two have 20th-century collecting histories in Spartanburg County, South Carolina, while another two have a clear provenance with histories of descent in the Nabors and Todd families of neighboring Laurens County. Their associations with early Laurens County settlers, Jacob Nabors (1774-1825) and Dr. John Todd (1761-1835), allow us to identify the probable maker of this chest of drawers.

MAKER: William Cowan (c.1775-1841) was born in Ireland and migrated in 1797 through Charleston to Laurens County, South Carolina. Shortly after his arrival, he married Jane Ross (d. 1834), a daugher of Captain Francis Ross (d. 1802) and his wife Catherine (d. 1826), who were prominent members of the Scotch-Irish community in northern Laurens County. They lived near a crossroads settlement called Scuffletown, located on Warrior Creek, a branch of the Enoree River which divided Laurens and Spartanburg Counties. As Scotch-Irish Presbyterians they attended the Warrior Creek Meeting House, now known as the Ora Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church.

On 14 April 1807, Cowan filed a petition with the Laurens County Court to become a naturalized citizen of the United States, affirming that he had been a resident for ten years. During the naturalization process, Cowan testified to the good character of his fellow Scotch-Irishmen, including his brother-in-law David Glenn and Dr. John Todd, in whose family one of the surviving bonnet chests descended. Cowan went on to serve as a justice of the peace for Laurens County, paymaster of the local militia, and a surveyor who plotted tracts of land on both sides of the Enoree River. In 1802, he acted as a security for the estate of his father-in-law, Captain Francis Ross. He later served as an administrator for the estates of David Glenn (d. 1821) and his sister-in-law, Elizabeth (Ross) Glenn (d. 1838). In 1826, Cowan was named one of the executors for his mother-in-law, Catherine Ross.

The 1820 manufacturers census identifed both William Cowan and his brother-in-law Francis Ross (1791-1870) as cabinetmakers. William was apparently the progenitor of a Laurens County cabinet shop that began shortly after his arrival from Ireland in the late 1790s and continued with the participation of younger men under his tutelage, Francis Ross and Samuel Nabors (1809-1833). The 1810 census listed Cowan and Ross on the same page as Samuel Nabors’s father, Jacob. In 1825, Jacob Nabors’s estate paid Francis Ross $1.50 for his coffin and settled an outstanding debt to William Cowan for $4.27. When Samuel Nabors died, at age 24, his inventory included one lot of lumber, two work benches and sets of bench tools, a turner’s lathe, and partial interest in a cross-cut saw. Cowan’s inventory, taken eight years later, listed carpenter’s tools valued at $20.00 and a turner’s lathe at $1.00.

Also known as bureaus, chests of drawers seem to have been especially important to this cabinetmaking group. This fact is supported by an unusual reference in Samuel Nabor’s estate sale to “nobs for a bureau” valued at 12 1/2 cents. William Cowan’s brother-in-law, David Glenn, bequeathed in his will “one Bureau” to each of his unmarried daughters, Elizabeth and Jane, and Jacob Nabors’s probate inventory began with two bureaus, one valued highly at $18.00 and a lesser example at $7.00.

Previously in the collection of Pete and Betty Snow, Historic Hennigan Place, Matthews, North Carolina, with a history of having been purchased from a South Carolina estate.
Credit Line:
MESDA Purchase Fund