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Popularity proves not to be everything for Cowan

The most popular North Dakota state executive officer of the 19th century became the first person in the state to face impeachment charges. Attorney General John Francis Cowan was the only state executive to be elected to three terms in the 19th ...

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The most popular North Dakota state executive officer of the 19th century became the first person in the state to face impeachment charges.

Attorney General John Francis Cowan was the only state executive to be elected to three terms in the 19th century, and, while serving as district court judge, he became the first North Dakotan to receive impeachment charges. He was cleared in a 1911 Senate hearing.

Cowan was born Dec. 29, 1858, in Moffat, Scotland. His parents, Alexander and Nicola (Montgomery) Cowan, along with his grandfather, John Cowan, immigrated to Canada in 1862 and settled in eastern Ontario. After completing high school in Goderich, Cowan attended Ottawa Normal School and graduated in 1877.

Cowan then studied medicine for two years at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario. In 1880, he was hired as a clerk by the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada. The company had just purchased the Chicago and Southern and the Chicago and State Line railroad lines and consolidated them under the name Chicago and Grand Trunk Railroad Co. Cowan was sent to Port Huron, Mich., the company headquarters.

A year later, he came to Dakota Territory and filed a land claim near Stump Lake in Nelson County. He soon abandoned it and filed a different claim near Grand Harbor in western Ramsey County, where he met another young homesteader named Peter McClory.


Cowan and McClory studied to become lawyers. Cowan was encouraged by John McGee, a prominent lawyer in Devils Lake. While preparing to take the bar exam, McGee invited Cowan to join his firm of McGee and Morgan.

In 1884, Cowan was elected Devils Lake justice of the peace. In 1885, he was admitted to practice law and opened a law office with McClory. The same year, he married Mary Flynn, who had moved with her brother from Minnesota and claimed land on Graham's Island.

In 1886, Cowan was elected county superintendent of Ramsey County schools. He was re-elected in 1888 and successfully ran in 1890 for Ramsey County state's attorney. He was re-elected in 1892.

Cowan was a staunch Republican and built a reputation as a lawyer with a quick mind who could be concise and articulate. He became the Republican candidate for attorney general in 1894 and defeated William Standish, the incumbent from Grand Forks.

North Dakota came into the union as a "dry state" in 1889. The attorney general dealt with a lot of matters involving prohibition. Even though the sale of alcoholic beverages was illegal, it was still prevalent in much of North Dakota. Places that sold illegal liquor were called "blind pigs." Cowan's attitude was that, "It is the easiest thing in the world to shut up a blind pig if you go at it right." Cowan was re-elected in 1896 and 1898.

Cowan did not seek re-election as attorney general in 1900 and returned to Devils Lake. He ran for district judge and was elected.

While serving as district judge, Cowan built a reputation as a "no nonsense" arbitrator. He didn't like frivolous cases, of which many involved "blind pigs." He believed it was the city's responsibility to regulate these matters, and, if they turned a blind eye and allowed these places to stay open, there was not much he could do about it.

Whenever he could, Cowan dismissed these cases. On Oct. 31, 1910, he heard a case involving two drug stores in Devils Lake that sold alcohol. He granted the stores a continuance of the trial until Nov. 10, but he stalled when this date arrived, hoping the complainants would leave. When two ladies refused to leave, he told them, "No cases were coming up that day." This inflamed their anger, and they sought the help of Fred P. Mann, owner of a large department store in Devils Lake. Mann and his wife were respected within the Republican Party and soon there was strong talk of impeaching Cowan. To add to the case, rumors and allegations of intoxication and incompetence began to circulate.


On March 3, 1911, the North Dakota House, for the first time in its history, filed articles of impeachment and forwarded them to the Senate. The Senate agreed to convene on March 28 to hear the matter involving the impeachment of Cowan.

Attorneys for the prosecution were George Bangs of Grand Forks andE. P. Sinkler of Minot. Cowan had five lawyers on his defense team. His lead counsel was Tracy Bangs, brother of one of the two prosecuting attorneys. Two of the charges were quickly thrown out. The issue of "incompetence" rested on the fact that Cowan had once fallen asleep during a trial in Rugby. In his defense, Cowan responded, "Gentlemen, if you knew the caliber of the lawyers who practiced before me at Rugby, you wouldn't blame me for going to sleep."

On May 4, after a month of hearings, the Senate found Cowan not guilty on all charges.

The trial affected Cowan physically and politically. He was defeated in 1912 by C.W. Buttz and returned to his law practice in Devils Lake. He soon began to experience health issues and died in Rochester, Minn., on Nov. 25, 1917, at the age of 58.

"Did You Know That" is a Sunday column that focuses on interesting people, places and events that had an impact on North Dakota, or even the country. It is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: cjeriksmoen@cableone.net

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