Select McGowan Surname Genealogy

McGowan is the phonetic anglicization of the Irish Mac Gabhainn and the Scottish Mac Gobhainn, both meaning "son of the smith."  The smith in olden times was an important person­age, as being the maker of armor and weapons.  During English rule many McGowans in Scotland and Ireland changed their name to the English Smith.

While the Scots and Irish share the McGowan name, their McGowan history differs

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IrelandThe MacGabhainns were chronicled as a powerful family originating in the ancient kingdom of Breffny, now mostly county Cavan.  However, by the late 12th century the English had expelled them from this territory and pushed them west to TirChonaill in modern-day Donegal.  Here they were no longer chieftains and were under the McDonnell rule.

MacGabhainns did remain in Cavan, but later changed their name to Smith.  
Outside Cavan, in the adjoining counties of Leitrim, Donegal, Sligo and Monaghan, McGowan was the preferred English form, with the largest number being in Donegal. 

Donegal.  A family of McGowans held church lands in the parish of Inishmacsaint and most McGowan numbers in 1857 were in that parish.  There were also McGowans at Ballyshannon.  Because of their prominence a separate Donegal family based near Raphoe, the Mac Dhubhains, anglicized their name to McGowan.

Ulster.  O’Gowan was also an old Ulster family centered around Ballygowan in county Down.  But many of the McGowans in Ulster today were probably Scots Irish in origin.
  One such family, descended from James MacGowan, was initially in Tyrone and then moved to Ballinderry in Derry in 1773.

.  There was a MacGowan clan, often spelt MacCowan, on the river Nith in the Scottish borders in the 14th century.

“McCowan was a family name of distinction for hundreds of years in the Kirkconnel area.  Robert the Bruce had a company of McCowans in the upper Nith district.” 

Many of these McCowans had migrated from Dumfriesshire into Ayrshire by the 1500’s.

Other early McGowans were to be found in Perthshire.  According to tradition, they were descended from GowChrom, the local smith, who survived the Battle of North Inch between rival clans in 1396.  Gow here derived from the Gaelic gobhan, meaning smith. 

Gow and McGowan
emerged as surnames, with their bearers initially attached - for the purposes of armory or for making horse-shoes - to the Mackintosh and MacPherson clans.  In the 18th century Neil Gow and his son Nathaniel from Inver in Perthshire were pre-eminent among composers and players of fiddle music at that time.  The Gow name later extended into Stirlingshire. 

McGowans at St. Ninians in Stirlingshire have been traced back to 1682.  Henry McGowan was born in nearby Bannockburn in 1846.  He was the father of Sir Harry McGowan, the industrialist who first created the British chemical giant ICI and then served as its Chairman from 1930 to 1950.

.  The early McGowans in America appear to have been Scots or Scots Irish.  William McGowan, born in Maryland around 1708, settled in Tyrrell county, North Carolina; while John McGowan from Scotland who arrived in Augusta county, Virginia in the 1740’s was the forebear of the McGowans of Craighead county, Arkansas.

William McGowan
, Scots Irish from county Antrim, arrived with his family in Charleston, South Carolina in 1801.  They settled in the Laurens district.  This line produced two notable Samuel McGowans:

  • Samuel McGowan, born in 1819, a Confederate Brigadier General during the Civil War and later a local politician and judge
  • and Samuel McGowan, born in 1870, who was a Fleet Paymaster for the US Atlantic Fleet in the early 1900’s and subsequently held the rank of rear admiral.
Ned McGowan was born in 1813 into an Irish Catholic family in Philadelphia.  A fiery man, he was expelled from city politics after a brawl and left the city for San Francisco at the time of the California Gold Rush.  A whipped-up anti-Catholic furor then caused him to flee across the border into British Columbia in 1856.  There he was caught up in other skirmishes that became known as McGowan’s War.  The rest of his life was less eventful and he died in San Francisco in relative poverty in 1893.

New York
.  The largest number of McGowans in New York in the 1920 census were in New York.  Most were of Irish origin.

There was an early McGowan presence in 1756 when Irishman Daniel McGowan acquired a tavern in the northern part of Manhattan and gave the family name to what became known as McGowan’s Pass.

“McGowan’s Pass, part of the escarpment that crossed Manhattan at present-day Fifth Avenue and 102nd Street, consisted of two rock outcrops on the main road through Manhattan.”

The tavern itself became known as McGowan’s and was held by the family until the 1840’s.

The main McGowan influx came in the late 1800’s. 
John J. McGowan, for instance arrived in the 1870’s and settled in Brooklyn.  Many Irish joined the New York Police Department, as did three generations of McGowans beginning in the late 1800’s.  The third of these, William J. McGowan born in 1923, retired in 1972 and opened an Irish pub on Second Avenue and 50th Street.

.  McGowans, mainly from Ireland, arrived into the Maritime Provinces in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s.  The following came to Nova Scotia:
  • Robert McGowan, who had arrived on the Hopewell, was recorded in the Amherst census of Cumberland county in 1770.  Known as Robert the Elder because of his support for the local Presbyterian church, he became the town surveyor in 1793.
  • and Michael McGowan who arrived in 1781 settled first in Liverpool and then moved to Port Medway where he farmed.  His son settled in Westfield, Queens county in 1832.
Arrivals into New Brunswick came a little later.  McGowans were at Maces Bay in the early 1800’s.  William McGowan was born there in 1816.  Hugh McGowan, a laborer, was in St. John by 1833; Michael McGowan came to settle in the Memramcook valley in 1836.

  Three working class McGowan arrivals into Australia in the second half of the 19th century produced three notable Australians:
  • James McGowen was a boilermaker from Lancashire who came to Melbourne with his wife Eliza on the Western Bride in 1855.  Their son James, born on the way over, became a boilermaker like his father and then rose through the trade union ranks to become the first Labor Premier of New South Wales in 1910.
  • William and Jane McGowan had come to Melbourne from Scotland a few years later.  Their son Gentleman Jack McGowan was a champion Australian boxing champion.  During his long career in the ring he fought over 110 battles and was the first fighter to win three Australian titles at different weights.
  • while Thomas, McGowan, probably Scots Irish, and his wife Mary arrived in Adelaide in 1878.  Thomas, like his father, was a railwayman, and his son J.P. was also at first a railwayman.  J.P. subsequently decamped to America and became a famous Hollywood actor of the silent era.

Select McGowan Miscellany

If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for further stories and accounts:

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Gow Chrom
survived the Battle of North Inch in 1396 and is, according to tradition, the forebear of the McGowans in Scotland.
J.P. McGowan
, born in Australia, was a pioneering Hollywood actor during the silent era.
Sir Harry McGowan
was a prominent British industrialist who was Chairman of the chemical company ICI from 1930 to 1950.

Alistair McGowan
 is an English impressionist and comic actor popular on British TV.
Shane MacGowan
is the lead singer of the Celtic punk rock band The Pogues.

Select McGowans Today
  • 14,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lanarkshire)
  • 12,000 in America (most numerous in California) 
  • 11,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)

PS.  You might want to check out the surnames page on this website.  It covers surname genealogy in this and companion websites for more than 800 surnames.

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