Most Wrentham residents would assuredly agree that our most-famous resident was Helen Keller, whose fame was worldwide. Very few Wrentham residents, however, are aware that one of the richest men in California during and after the Gold Rush of 1849 was Wrentham-born Henry Cowell. To put it mildly, Henry Cowell led quite the interesting and successful life.
Born in Wrentham in 1819 as the fifth of 5 sons to a farming family that first settled in Wrentham in 1677, it is said that young Henry had limited prospects as the youngest of the Wrentham Cowells. Little is known of Henry’s early days in Wrentham and his personal story is of little note until he is in his 30s.
At some point in the late 1840’s, it seems that Henry and his older brother, John, embarked on an arduous cross-country journey to the West Coast – specifically the San Francisco Bay Area. Historical records confirm that Henry and John were in business as merchants in San Francisco no later than 1850. Interestingly, while John was listed as the owner of their business in 1850 Henry was clearly in charge no later than 1858, operating under the business under “Henry Cowell, storage and commission.” Other documents suggest that John had returned home to Wrentham and that Henry assumed full control of their drayage (i.e., transport of goods over a short distance in the shipping and logistics industries) and storage business, which included a warehouse and a wharf in San Francisco that had been built in 1853. (John died in New York in 1899 at age 89 and is buried with a prominent tombstone in the Wrentham Center Cemetery)(see www.findagrave.com).
Prior to expanding his business, Henry too traveled home in 1854 to marry Harriet Carpenter of Rehoboth. Thereafter, the Cowells trekked back to San Francisco and began a family: they had 6 children (3 sons and 3 daughters) during the ensuing 12 years. History suggests that Henry was somewhat skeptical about his children marrying and in the end only one of his children married but no children came from the union.
Over the years, Henry Cowell expanded his business interests and amassed a fortune. In addition to his merchant business, Henry expanded in limestone and timber. During the mid to late 1800s limestone was a critical component for builders who could use it in mortar and cement – thereby obviating the need to use as much lumber. The less lumber meant that the buildings were not as susceptible to fires that frequently plagued the wooden structures in San Francisco in the late 1800s. Henry also understood the value of land, and he bought tracts from Canada all the way down to Santa Cruz – south of San Francisco. At the time of his death Henry owned more almost 82,500 acres – and this excluded his multiple San Francisco mansions that sat on less than 1 acre.
In 1865, Henry uprooted his family from the urban lifestyle of San Francisco and relocated to the more bucolic Santa Cruz. Henry and the family would primarily reside in Santa Cruz until his death in 1903. At the age of 84, Henry was shot in the shoulder by a neighbor with whom he apparently had a long-running feud. It was thought that that Henry was recovering from his wounds but after his daughter Sarah died unexpectedly in 1903 in a riding accident, Henry deteriorated and he too passed soon thereafter.
Henry had a fortune valued at approximately $3,000,000 at the time of his death – which the internet tells us was the equivalent of approximately $110,000, 000 in 2022 dollars. Henry left his entire estate to Cowell Lime and Cement Company, and his 5 surviving children as shareholders inherited equally.
Henry’s story does not end at his death. Ultimately, Henry’s legacy is still felt today and in a serious way. You can find Henry Cowell Woods in Santa Cruz on acreage that his last-surviving son S.H. Cowell donated in his father’s name. Additionally, the University of California – Santa Cruz also sits on land donated by the Cowell family. Many other buildings in the Santa Cruz and Bay Area bear the Cowell name as a result to the family’s philanthropy.
Remarkably, even today the S.H. Cowell Foundation is active and thriving based out of its downtown San Francisco office (see www.shcowell.org). The Foundation’s website states that since 1956 the Foundation has granted more than $300,000,000 to 2,000+ organizations throughout primarily Northern California. S. H. Cowell died in 1955 and established the Foundation as part of his will.
A pretty good legacy for a poor famer’s son from little old Wrentham…
Much of this article was taken from “Henry Cowell and His Family” written by Laurie MacDougall and found in the Santa Cruz Library Archives.
Submitted by Edward Goddard