From Scoundrel to Governor Matthew Rowan

I have always wondered and had a feeling that my Rowan family had some connection to Rowan, North Carolina. I was right! My 6th great uncle, Matthew Rowan, is the connection. He started as a bit of a scoundrel but ended up as Governor of North Carolina for a time.  

Julie Lane was studying stories for her roots in Maine. She found in archives and museums that Captain Matthew Rowan wasn’t always a good guy. The Irish ship, Martha & Eliza, sailed from Londonderry, Northern Ireland, on July 28, 1741, bound for Newcastle, Pennsylvania, on the Delaware River. According to the article at Working Waterfront Archives,

The ship was known as a snow (a square rigged vessel), a 90-foot, two-misted bark, commonly used to transport passengers and goods from Ireland to the colonies. The boat must have been severely overloaded with some 200 paying passengers. The captain was Matthew Rowen.  

After about four weeks, the ship was caught up in a hurricane and drifted around the north Atlantic for several weeks during which time the captain lost his bearings. Fever swept through those on board, as well as starvation, and many passengers died. At one point, a passing vessel, also in distress from the storm and low supplies, provided the ship with biscuits and water. On Oct. 28the crippled ship, her human cargo severely debilitated, finally drifted ashore among the islands around Grand Manan, fabled in ship’s lore as the site of more than 250 shipwrecks, according to Eric Allaby, an island historian.

After evacuating the passengers from the disabled ship and dispersing them in groups on three small islands, with no provisions, Captain Rowan and his crew reportedly sailed in the ship’s longboat to Fort Frederick at Pemaquid, where they “tarried.” As for the passengers, they were left to fend for themselves, creating rude shelters from parts of the derelict ship and eating shellfish and seaweed.  

Many of them died, but thanks to the discovery of their plight by Passamaquoddy Indians, a small group of passengers eventually arrived in Midcoast Maine, where a few of them remained and married local people.  

Passamaquoddy tribal members took letters from the abandoned survivors of the island shipwreck to St.George, Maine, paddling 100 miles on behalf of the stranded Irish emigrants. The letter they delivered finally brought about the rescue of the remaining stranded passengers, including Isabel Galloway and her infant. The child’s father had died, and Isabel soon married Warren farmer Archibald Gamble, with whom she had more children. The surviving infant, Isabel’s son Robert Galloway, grew to boyhood but was lost at sea at age 17. Lane said there may be Gamble descendants in the area today, as well as descendants of other survivors. Isabel is said to have given tribal members a warm welcome in Warren, unlike neighbors who considered them threatening savages.  Read more here  Read also Fisherman’s Voice

Despite his reputed smuggling activities, Rowan became a respectable member of society in North Carolina. He was never convicted or sought after for any crimes against humanity. It is recorded that he was a “Church Warden” in Bath in 1726. In 1727, after moving to the Cape Fear region, Matthew became a member of the Colonial Assembly, 1731 was on the executive council, and in 1735 was part of the team that surveyed the boundary line between North and South Carolina and was appointed surveyor-general of the colony. Four years later was named to the Governor’s Council as Acting Governor. Thirty different letters and minutes are mentioning Matthew from 1731 to 1754. You can peruse them at Documenting the American South, Colonial and State Records of North Carolina.  

Matthew had an illegitimate son with Jane Stubbs but married his brother John’s widow, Elizabeth. They did not have any children together, but she did have four daughters with John, whom Matthew provided for at least one in his will as well as his son, John.

Matthew Rowan was born in about 1703 to Reverand John Rowan and Margaret Stewart in County Antrim, Ireland. Sometime around 1726, he immigrated to America as a shipbuilder and merchant.  In the book,

History of North Carolina: From 1584 to 1783
By Samuel A’Court Ashe

It states that Matthew Rowan came from Ireland to North Carolina around 1724-26 to build a ship or two for people in Dublin. The building of ships was an established industry in the colony at the time.

Rowan County was named after Matthew in 1753. Initially, Rowan included the entire northwestern sector of North Carolina, with no clear western boundary, but its size was reduced as a number of counties were split off. 

Matthew died on his plantation, Rowan Plantation (known as Roan) in April of 1760. It is said he owned 26 slaves and over 9,000 acres at the time of his death.  

A complicated, weathly man he was. Shipbuilder, merchant, scoundrel, politician, and governor.