logo Matthias Cowley



Taken from Matthew Cowley Man of Faith,


The First Matthias Cowley

The story of Matthias Cowley, paternal grandfather of Matthew Cowley, is wrapped inextricably with the suffering and persecutions of the Saints in Nauvoo and incidents relating to the martyrdom. He left a journal of his life complete enough to tell his story, one of romance, courage, and pathos. Hitherto unpublished, its telling helps to project the rich heritage of faith and noble lineage of Tumuaki Matthew. [Matthew Cowley missioned Hawaii]

Matthias was born December 2, 1829 in Kirkbradden on the Isle of Man. His father was James Cowley and his mother, Isabella Cain Cowley. He inherited his name from his maternal grandfather, Matthias Cain. Father James Cowley was a miller by trade. Both father and mother were humble, moral, honest, industrious people.

Their son was enrolled in a free school in Douglas at the time the parents became converts to the unpopular religious philosophy known as Mormonism. Religious bigotry in the community made it difficult for the Cowley family. The spirit of intolerance crept into the school-room of young Matthias. The alignment of his parents with the Latter-day Saints was the cause of much persecution and ridicule being heaped upon the young son by his schoolmates.

Undaunted, Matthias patiently accepted the humiliating taunts of fellow students. He quietly went on to win awards for scholarship and good behavior. No amount of ridicule or persecution could sway him from what he and his parents now knew to be divine truth. In his fourteenth year, he also became one of the "despised" Mormons, being baptized on July 17, 1843.

It was not long after Matthias joined the Church that another member, John Kelly, gave the family a considerable blessing. He offered to finance the Cowley’s journey from their Isle of Man home to the United States to join the Saints in Nauvoo. The offer was made to repay an account Mr. Kelly owed Grandfather Cain.

Needless to say the offer was thankfully accepted. It came as a direct answer to the prayers of James Cowley and his wife. Like most other converts to Mormonism in foreign lands their desire was to gather with the Saints in Zion. There they could unite with the Prophet Joseph Smith and his loyal followers.

Preparations were quickly made for the journey and a steamer taken from Liverpool. There the family stayed two or three nights with Matthias’ uncle, Charles Cowley, while waiting to embark on the ship City of Boston. on the sea, Matthias was ill for several days. However, the remainder of the family fared better.

The journey was not an unpleasant one. A friendly captain was solicitous of his passengers’ welfare and made every effort to provide for their comfort. New Orleans was reached in five weeks and three days of ocean travel. Here the Cowleys boarded the river steamer Congress for the journey north to St. Louis. A note of excitement was added to the river trip when the Congress undertook to race the entire distance with another river boat. The race alarmed the passengers who feared the boiler would explode, as frequently happened in such cases on the Mississippi River.

The Mormon family found the beautiful scenery on each side of the river, a rare treat for their sea-weary eyes. The Congress won its race, landing its passengers safely at St. Louis in ten days. Soon after his arrival James Cowley was offered the tempting wage of ten dollars a day if he would stay there to engage in his trade as a miller. He was skilled in the milling of oatmeal, and men of such ability were scarce in St. Louis.

"No!" was the father’s emphatic reply. "I left my home and native land to join myself with the Prophet of the Lord, Joseph Smith, and the Saints in Nauvoo. I am going on. Bless your souls, I would not stop here for all of St. Louis". His would-be employers scoffed, thinking him a fool, deluded by the Mormons.

The Cowley family’s next move was up the river 500 miles by steamer to their destination-Nauvoo..City of the Saints. They arrived there late at night and were to have some unusual experiences before meeting Joseph Smith.

Lodging was the first thing to be obtained by the weary travelers. They found refuge in a large house on the river front. It belonged to a Brother Thomas. Here the family huddled together for a most welcome first night of shelter in Nauvoo. They had reached their destination, and a prayer of thanksgiving was on their lips.

In the morning their host gave them some directions for visiting the city. In their early wanderings they chanced to meet a man named Blakesley who had been a former missionary to the Isle of Man. Unknown to the Cowleys this former missionary had now apostatized. He was now among the enemies of the Prophet and bitter in his feelings against the Church.

Matthias Cowley’s journal records that Blakesley showed them about Nauvoo and led them to others of his apostate associates. Says the son’s journal:

"Knowing Father had just arrived green from the old country, they thought they could lead him astray in the same path that they and other apostates Were following. They took him to the home of Wilson Law, a popular man in Nauvoo, but a devilish mean scamp against Joseph Smith and the gospel. They made serious accusations against the Prophet and introduced Father to two young women in the parlor who also lied against the Prophet.

"Father finally turned to them in disgust, saying, ‘I’ll see Joseph Smith for myself. I came here for that purpose.’ Then he walked out leaving them disappointed that they could not successfully poison his mind."

In a day or two James Cowley and his son had their fondest hope realized. They were privileged to meet Joseph Smith. Some time was spent in conversation with the Prophet.

"We found Joseph Smith the Prophet to be just what a man bearing that title ought to be," the son later wrote for the benefit of his posterity. "He was loved by every good man, woman, and child who knew him. We then felt very well satisfied after seeing this man of God, the Prophet Joseph Smith."

After this memorable interview James Cowley went about seeking employment of any kind. None was to be had in Nauvoo, and he was directed to Warsaw, a Mississippi River town about twenty-two miles away. Here the father and son found work at a brickyard. James Cowley hired a teamster to transfer the family’s belongings from Nauvoo. Having no money to pay his services, they were obliged to part with two valued possessions as security for the four dollar loan the teamster demanded. Used as security were the father’s fine cloth overcoat and the mother’s beautiful woolen shawl.

For six months both father and son worked hard at their jobs. By this time the people of Illinois were fully aroused against the Mormons. There were disturbances everywhere. The little town of Warsaw saw its share of persecution. As the excitement against the Latter-day Saints reached a higher pitch, the inhabitants of Warsaw were ordered by mobocrats to take up the fight against the Saints. Father Cowley was ordered to take up arms with others to fight against his own people. Two armed men came to his house and took him by force to an office. Here they thrust a musket at him. He defied them, saying:

"Gentlemen! I shall never fight against my brethren, the Saints of Almighty God, no, never!"

Young Matthias followed the men who had taken his father by force. He saw those who walked behind the father make motions as though they intended to cut his throat. Noticing him, the mobocrats ordered the young son home to his mother. They wanted nothing to do with him because of his age.

The defiant father was ordered to remove his family out of town within twenty hours. He was desperate. He had no possible conveyance. So the mob made up his mind for him. He must leave immediately, and the family could follow later. They escorted him several miles out of town at the point of a bayonet. As they gave him his last prodding onward, they warned him that if he ever returned they would shoot him down in cold blood. A night guard was placed near the home to make sure he did not violate the order.

In the darkness, the weary, distraught father trudged on toward Nauvoo to find help from the Prophet and other Mormons for his stranded family. There had been heavy rains, and the streams were high. He was obliged to swim several of these swollen waters that night. In one instance the current was so swift he was carried help-lessly downstream for nearly a mile before he could struggle to the opposite bank. He moved on against these odds, his heart heavy for his loved ones and his body weary and heavy with fatigue.

The next morning, just after daybreak, Father Cowley reached Nauvoo in a highly exhausted condition. After first getting some much-needed food and a little rest, he went on in search of the Prophet. To his beloved leader James Cowley told of his experiences and the plight of his family in Warsaw even then at the mercy of an enraged mob. As the tired father expressed the fear that tugged at his heart, Joseph Smith calmly raised his hands, and said reassuringly:

"Brother Cowley, they shall not harm a hair of their heads—Brother Cowley, God bless you!" What strength and courage passed with this blessing to the disturbed father!

Father Cowley joined with the Nauvoo Legion, the militia of the Saints. The guns were all in use so he secured a pitchfork and marched with the brethren. For a short time thereafter the lot of James Cowley was cast close to that of the Prophet and his associates. He was present with others of the Nauvoo Legion to hear Joseph Smith make his historic statement:

"I am going like a lamb to the slaughter. I have a conscience void of offense toward God and man. I shall die innocent, and it shall yet be said of me ‘he was murdered in cold blood.’"

James Cowley saw the Prophet climb to the roof of an unfinished house in Nauvoo to make this heart-rending statement before going on to Carthage Jail.

A few days later, on June 27, 1844, Joseph and Hyrum Smith died as martyrs, the victims of assassins’ bullets.

That same night in Warsaw the villagers were much alarmed, fearing the Saints would come upon them in vengeance. James Cowley was still in Nauvoo. His worned wife and son, Matthias, heard the tumult in War-saw’s streets, with men cheering and throwing their hats in the air. The boy slipped away and ran into the midst of the crowd. He made his way through the noisy mob to where one of the men was making a speech. He heard the boastful speaker tell the crowd that the mob had succeeded in killing the Mormon "Joe" Smith and his brother, Hyrum.

Soon the speaker spied the startled boy among his listeners. With an oath he ordered Matthias to get out of his sight and to go home to his mother where he belonged. As the Mormon youth slipped away from the crowd, the mobbers set a group of schoolboys after him to pelt him all the way home with sticks, stones, and such rubbish as they could find along the way. Matthias finally escaped by running through a neighbor’s yard.

Mother Cowley was shocked at the news of the martyrdom. Her worries and grief were further aggravated by uncertainty over the welfare of her husband. If there had been fighting, he, too, could have been seriously hurt, perhaps even killed. To add to her worries, persecution of the mother and her son as unpopular Mormons continued. Soon after returning to her side with the shocking news, the youth was obliged to go to the river for a pail of water. Some of the mob spied him. According to his own story of the experience written many years later, the mobbers hired a drunken man to throw him in the river: His own account of the experience said:

"Hank, a tailor of Warsaw, was the man who prompted him to do this wicked deed. The drunken man followed me to the bank of the Mississippi. As I was stooping to dip up the pail of water, he caught me by the back of the neck. ‘Now you little Mormon,’ he said, ‘I am going to drown you.’ I was frightened but managed to ask him why he was going to drown me as I had never done him any harm.

"The man struggled with his feelings for a few minutes, then said, ‘No, I won’t drown you. They can drown you themselves if they want to. I’ve got my pay. You are a good boy. Go on home.’"

In the meantime word had reached the mother that the mob was intending to drown her son.

As she raced frantically toward the river, she met Matthias returning with his pail of water. He told her of his experience. As they walked hurriedly toward their home, the courageous youth comforted his mother. "They will not hurt us," he said reassuringly.

That same night mobbers three times attempted to burn the Cowley home with a torch. But it would not burn. It was about one o’clock in the morning when the mob desisted and went on to another Mormon home. Here they dragged a sick man from his bed and compelled him to stand guard for the night over one of their cannons.

Meanwhile the mobbers were moving their own families across the river to escape an expected Mormon attack of retaliation. But it never materialized.

After a few more days and nights of excitement and anxiety, welcome relief came. Father Cowley had sent a team and driver to remove his family and belongings to Nauvoo. Mother and son were not long packing and leaving Warsaw behind, grateful for their deliverance from the mob.

On the way to Nauvoo the driver took the road which led through Carthage. While the horses were being rested briefly, Matthias ran to the jail. He entered the place but a few steps until he could see the doorway into the room where only a few days before the Prophet and Patriarch Were killed. The impression of this brief visit to Carthage Jail never left him during the remainder of his life.

When the family reached Nauvoo, the father was away from the city. Upon his return he was overjoyed at the reunion with his wife and son.

Soon after arriving in Nauvoo, young Matthias obtained work in the office of the Times and Seasons and the Nauvoo Neighbor, then edited by John Taylor. On September 7, 1845, when just approaching his sixteenth birthday, Matthias Cowley was ordained a seventy in the Nauvoo Seventies Hall. About this time his mother and father were both sorely afflicted with the prevalent fever and ague.

The spirit of persecution and mobocracy continued to build up in the hearts of the anti-Mormon residents of Nauvoo and surrounding communities. They were determined to drive the Saints from the state. The Mormons were equally resolute upon finishing the temple they had started, for so the Lord had commanded them. Matthias helped to build the temple, working "with the sword in one hand and the trowel in the other." All the while he and his associates were aware that the mobocrats were becoming increasingly active and were destroying the property of the Saints who lived outside Nauvoo. Homes and grain stacks were being burned and the owners driven out before the mobs.

"Nevertheless," he wrote much later in life, "we finished the temple of the Lord by his help and protecting care, and received our endowments therein. This repaid us for all the persecutions and privations we had experienced."



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Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 1999