Santa Cruz County History - People

Henry Cowell and His Family (1819--1955): Introduction
by Laurie MacDougall

Photo of Henry and Harriet Cowell
Photo of Henry and Harriet Cowell in front of the
carriage house at the Cowell Ranch.
Date unknown, probably late 1800s.


The S. H. Cowell Foundation is named after Samuel Henry Cowell, last surviving member of a colorful family, whose history is intimately linked to the explosive economic growth of the central California coast following the Gold Rush.The story of the Cowell family spans two generations, beginning in 1819 with the birth of Henry Cowell, the head of the family and creator of the family fortune, and ending with the death of his son, S. H. Cowell, in 1955. Between the mid-nineteenth century, when Henry arrived in central California, and the mid-twentieth century, when S. H. died, central California underwent a dramatic change from a sparsely settled frontier wilderness to one of the wealthiest, most densely settled areas in the most populous state in the Union. As a consequence, the family fortune - created originally through the manufacture of lime - was transformed by 1955 into a fortune in real estate.

Several themes run through the family saga. As a family, and as individuals, the Cowells contributed to charitable causes. This trait is first seen in Henry as early as 1867, when records show his company made a contribution of $16.50 to a school run by the Sisters of Charity. 1 This is by no means the only instance of Henry Cowell's generosity. An open letter published in 1879 from fifteen Santa Cruz teachers thanked Henry Cowell for "cashing our warrants upon the deficiency in the county treasury becoming known." 2 (It is also interesting to observe that this early philanthropy demonstrates a sympathy for educational institutions that bore fruit in the second generation when Henry's eldest son, Ernest, made a bequest to the University of California at Berkeley which ultimately built the Ernest V Cowell Student Health Center.)

Another important family trait was a deep personal reserve, probably as a result of Henry's New England heritage. The Cowells - individually and as a family - shunned the spotlight. They lived quietly, circumspectly. 3 Few photographs and almost no direct quotes exist. 4 As a consequence, most of what is known about the Cowells today comes from two sources - the descriptions of those who knew the Cowells, as recorded in the latter years of their lives, and newspaper accounts - both of which are subject to inaccuracy and bias. Despite these drawbacks, however, such sources make it possible to reconstruct a good deal about the personal saga of the Cowell family, and the origin and growth of the family wealth.

>>Continue with: The Gold Rush and the Early Years (1850-1865)

Text and photographs are from: Henry Cowell and His Family (1819--1955). published by the S.H. Cowell Foundation, 1989. Used with the permission of the Foundation.

View similarly tagged articles:

Cowell family, Cowell Ranch, Henry Cowell


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