The Captain John Cowan (1748-1823) Kentucky Secretary Desk and Bookcase

American, 1796. A two piece-desk and upper bookcase, constructed entirely of walnut (both primary and secondary), the desk with ogee bracket feet, molded base, the case with fluted quarter columns, four graduated drawers, each fitted with a dustboard, the battened fall board supported by lopers, the desk interior with a prospect door featuring a carved concave fan outlined by pricking, the base of the fan pricked MJ 1796. Two columned drawers flank the central shell, with four valanced pigeonholes, above four drawers. A total of nine “secret drawers” are hidden behind the removable central document drawer. The upper case has two doors, with two square, and two rectangular sunken panels of matching crotch walnut, and a broken arch pediment with carved sunflower rosettes, topped by three well-carved flame finials; oah. 102.75 in., desk ht. 47.75, wd. 43.25, dp. 23.25 in., bookcase ht. 55.5, wd. 43.5, dp. 13.5 in.

Captain John Cowan was one of the first settlers of Kentucky, arriving with Bullitt in 1773. Settling near Danville, he rose to frontier prominence. In 1796, as a mark of his success, he commissioned this important Chippendale desk and bookcase that remained in his family for two hundred years. It is the only Kentucky-made case piece of its kind that has yet been identified, and one of a mere handful of extant works from the years immediately after Kentucky became the 15th state to join the Union in 1792. The desk belies the fact that at the time it was made, Kentucky was only a few years removed from Euro-American settlement, and stands as proof that even at this early date, sophisticated furniture was being made in the Commonwealth.


Captain John Cowan: Kentucky Pioneer

John Cowan (1748-1823) was born in Chester County, Pennsylvania, the son of Scotch emigrants. Little is known of his early life, but in 1773, he was with Thomas Bullitt at the Falls of the Ohio, where he helped survey property in what is now Louisville, Kentucky (Durrett 1884:23). The following year Cowan joined a party of 32 Virginians and Pennsylvanians lead by Captain James Harrod to survey the land promised by the British crown to soldiers who served in the French and Indian War. From Fort Redstone, in western Pennsylvania, Harrod’s men descended the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers to the mouth of the Kentucky River. Travelling upstream, they crossed the Salt River into what is today Mercer County, Kentucky. On June 16, 1774, the men established Harrod’s Town, the first settlement in Kentucky. On September 2, 1777, Cowan’s diary recorded the first census ever taken in Kentucky (Collins 1924:606).

When Cowan entered this vast tract of uncharted wilderness, Kentucky was considered part of Virginia and included three counties: Jefferson, Lincoln and Fayette. Harrod’s Town (today’s Harrodsburg) was initially part of Lincoln County. As migrants from the East streamed into Kentucky, parts of the county were carved away to create Mercer (1786) and Boyle (1842) counties. John Cowan and his descendants lived successively in each of these counties from 1777 forward. 

While there is no complete biography or family history, records suggest John Cowan was a man of considerable means and political stature. In 1780, he filed warrants for 600 acres of land near what is today Danville. In 1781, he was appointed by the Governor of Virginia to serve as Justice of the Peace for Lincoln County, in the first court in Kentucky (Collins 1924:475-476). That year he was also appointed a deputy surveyor for Lincoln County, where he made claims for thousands of acres in today’s Fayette, Jefferson, and Oldham counties. (Jillson 1926:11). He served as Captain in the Lincoln County Militia, and Colonel in the Mercer County Militia.

On September 11, 1781, Cowan married Mary Craig in Rockingham County, Virginia. Mary’s brother John, who emigrated from Augusta County, Virginia to Lincoln County as early as 1780, likely introduced the couple. Between 1782 and 1797, John and Mary Cowan had seven children.

By 1784, Cowan’s plantation was important enough to be included on Filson’s first map of Kentucky, lying just north of the current city of Danville. In a ribbon banner at the top of this map, Filson acknowledged Cowan’s help (along with that of Daniel Boone and four others) in constructing what was said to be the most accurate Kentucky map of its time (Durrett 1884:10). In 1785, Cowan was appointed by the Governor of Virginia to serve as the third Sheriff of Lincoln County (Collins 1924:476).

At the time the desk and bookcase was made, Cowan was a prosperous landholder. The 1795 Kentucky Tax Roll lists him in the Mercer County district with holdings that included 14 slaves, 18 horses and 60 head of cattle (The Kentucky Historical Society, Register, 1927:39). Only three other residents of the district recorded larger holdings.

John Cowan died in Mercer County on January 5, 1823. His wife died in 1837. Both are interred in Bellevue Cemetery in Danville.



The Cowan desk and bookcase was a treasured family heirloom. It is first mentioned in John Cowan’s 1823 estate inventory as a “desk and bookcase” with a value of $30 (Mercer County Will Book 7, pp. 210-211). The desk passed successively to the youngest Cowan son or collateral family member for the next six generations, until it left the family in 1996. It is specifically mentioned in the 1919 and 1953 wills of John Cowan’s grandson, George Cowan (Boyle County Will Book 3, pp. 503-504) and George’s son John Jay Rice Cowan (Boyle County Will Book 1, pp. 117-119).

About 1930, the third owner, Dr. John Jay Rice Cowan, of Danville, Kentucky wrote a two-page history and photographed the piece in the parlor of his home (included with other documents accompany this lot). This document relates a family tradition that the desk and bookcase was made by a “travelling cabinet maker” who fell ill and was nursed back to health over a period of “weeks and months” on the John Cowan plantation. During his convalescence “a fine walnut tree was hewn, seasoned, and in the course of time made into the secretary.” This manuscript and story became the basis for an editorial note published in the June 1955, issue of The Magazine Antiques, where the desk and bookcase is illustrated and described under the heading “Southern Furniture” (p. 505).

J. Winston Coleman later illustrated the desk in his coffee table book Kentucky, A Pictorial History, noting only that the desk was made in Kentucky in 1796 and “has secret drawers” (Coleman, 1971:170).

After Coleman’s publication, Frank L. Horton, Bradford L. Rauschenberg, and Mary McClinton from The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) of Winston-Salem, North Carolina surveyed the desk and bookcase on December 1973 in the home of George B. Leach Sr. in Louisville, Kentucky. Notes indicate that Horton “(FLH) attributes (the desk and bookcase) to the Valley of Virginia regardless of history… because of the use of walnut both as a primary and secondary wood.” 

The MESDA file erroneously reports that sometime after the team visit, the desk and bookcase was refinished following a “hurricane.”  This note undoubtedly refers to a tornado that devastated Louisville on April 3, 1974. Although the tornado destroyed the second floor of the Leach home, the piece was on the first floor and came through the twister relatively unscathed. Still, it was sent to Bittner’s (an old-line Louisville interior decorating and antiques firm) where it was cleaned of storm detritus, but not refinished (George B. Leach Jr. Personal Communication to the Consignor, August, 2017). Unfortunately the company has no record of work performed (Pat Elzy, Personal Communication, August 2017).


Who Made the Cowan Desk and Bookcase?

John Cowan arrived in Kentucky as early as 1773. With the exception of the years 1775-1776, he was a resident of the same geographic area until his death. Consequently, there is little reason to believe the piece was made anywhere but in Kentucky. Rather than the cabinetmaker, the pricked initials and date “MJ 1796” on the prospect door probably refer to the year the desk and bookcase was made, along with the names of the original owners J(ohn) and M(ary) Cowan.  Unfortunately, it will never be known if the family tradition – that it was made by a “travelling cabinetmaker” – is true or merely a legend, passed from family member to family member. It is abundantly clear, however, that the desk could easily have been made locally, by a resident cabinetmaker whose client list included Captain Cowan.

At the time the desk and bookcase was made, the Bluegrass was a rapidly growing and prosperous region, and Lexington was its cultural and economic hub. Regionally, Paris, Frankfort, Versailles, Shelbyville, and Harrodsburg also provided the wealth that supported a burgeoning community of craft persons. By 1800, Elliott (1987:42-62) describes Lexington as a center of cultivated taste, and home to numerous cabinetmakers, metal workers, looking glass makers, painters and artists. At this early date, virtually all of these Bluegrass artisans would have migrated from further East, where they had been apprenticed to, or trained by other craft persons. 

Whitley’s “Checklist of Kentucky Cabinet Makers from 1775-1859” is probably not comprehensive, but makes clear that several dozen joiners, house-builders and furniture makers were active in the Bluegrass before 1800. Several were located in Lincoln and Mercer Counties, but none are likely candidates for the cabinetmaker of the Cowan desk and bookcase.

While there are no other extant examples of similar cased pieces from this cabinetmaker, by 1796, sophisticated furniture such as the Cowan desk and bookcase was being made in Kentucky (Lacer and Howard 2013). 

Drawn to Kentucky by opportunity, these craftspersons traveled by flatboat from Western Pennsylvania, down the Ohio River to Limestone (current day Maysville) and overland to the Central Bluegrass. Others came by the “Great Road” from western Maryland-Northern Virginia, south to the Cumberland Gap, or through Tennessee. By the turn of the 19th century, hundreds of artisans had made their way West.

Not surprisingly, the Cowan desk and bookcase reflects stylistic features typical of a cabinetmaker trained in one or more of these geographic regions. The fluted quarter columns, inverted shell carving on the prospect door and the broken arch pediment with “sunflower” rosettes are reminiscent of similar forms made in Southeastern Pennsylvania as early as the mid-18th century. The paneled doors of the upper case, while not characteristic of Pennsylvania, are suggestive of similarly dated pieces from Western Maryland, the Upper Valley of Virginia, and Eastern and Central Tennessee (Williams and Harsh 1988; Hurst and Prown 1997). Whoever made the desk and bookcase was probably trained in one or more of these geographic areas.


Line of Descent

Captain John Cowan (1748-1823)

Henry Jefferson Cowan (1795-1851) youngest son of John Cowan

Dr. George Cowan (1833-1919) youngest son of Henry Cowan

Dr. John Jay Rice Cowan (1872-1953) son of George Cowan, who produced no children

George B. Leach Sr. (1904-1980) youngest grand-nephew of Dr. George Cowan

George B. Leach Jr. (1944-   ) youngest son of George B. Leach Sr.

Sold to the Mother of the Present Owner around 1996



Collins, Lewis
Collins’ Historical Sketches of Kentucky. History of Kentucky: By the Late Lewis Collins. Revised, Enlarged, Four-Fold, and Brought Down to the Year 1874, by His Sone Richard Collins. John P. Morton Company. Louisville.

Durrett, Reuben T.
John Filson, the First Historian of Kentucky. An Account of His Life and Writings, Principally from Original Sources.  Printed for the Filson Club by John P. Morton.  Louisville.

Elliott, Mary Jane
1987   “A Background to Decorative Arts in Lexington: 1792-1820”,
The Kentucky Review: Vol. 17:No.1, Article 42-62)

Hurst, Ronald L. and Jonathan Prown
Southern Furniture 1680-1830. The Colonial Williamsburg Collections. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.  Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Jillson, Willard Rouse
1926   “Old Kentucky Entries and Deeds.” 
Filson Club Publications No. 34. Louisville.

Kentucky Historical Society
1927   “Department of State Archives – Mercer County Tax Lists 1795.” 
Register 25(73:39-54)

Lacer, Genevieve Bard and Libby Turner Howard
Collecting Kentucky 1790-1860.  Cherry Valley Publications LLC.

Whitley, Edna T.
1969   “A Checklist of Kentucky Cabinet Makers 1775-1859” (Privately Printed)

Williams, Derita Coleman and Nathan Harsh (edited by C. Tracey Parks)
The Art and Mystery of Tennessee Furniture and Its Makers Through 1850.

Tennessee Historical Society. Tennessee State Museum Foundation.



Cowan’s gratefully acknowledges the comments and suggestions of Mack Cox of Richmond, Kentucky. As a prominent collector and researcher of Kentucky furniture, paintings and decorative art, Mack has few peers. His keen editorial eye is much appreciated, and any sins of omission or commission are entirely Cowan’s responsibility.

Daniel Ackerman of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Art (MESDA) was gracious to supply the information that the institution collected about the Cowan desk and bookcase. 

Finally, Carolyn Crabtree of Danville, Kentucky provided invaluable genealogical information about John Cowan and his descendants. An avid genealogist and member of the Boyle County Historical Society, Carolyn tracked down the wills and estate inventories of John, George, Henry, and J. Rice Cowan, which helped build an unbroken chain of custody.  



Old, if not original finish. The interior of the fall board shows much use and wear from writing, including numerous ink stains, and includes two areas along the fore-edge showing extensive darkening where a writer’s arms rested.

Backing boards on the desk may have been replaced, or at least reattached with machine made screws.  The drawer pulls are replacements, and according to a 1930s document accompanying the desk were specially ordered and cast in Philadelphia. The proper left drawer on the interior of the desk is missing. Photographs from the 1930s, and a 1970s MESDA survey depict the desk as missing this drawer.

Estimate: $50,000 - $75,000
Price Realized Including Buyer's Premium


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