Matthew Rowan, acting governor of North Carolina from 1753 to 1754, came to America from Ireland as a young man. He was the son of the Reverend John Rowan and his wife Margaret of County Antrim, Ireland. The first mention of Rowan in North Carolina occurs in 1726 when he served as a church warden in Bath. A 1729 court document states that he came to the colony in 1724 to construct two vessels for a Dublin merchant, and that he had “runaway with one of them loaded with enumerated goods contrary to the Acts of Trade.”
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Despite his reputed smuggling activities, Rowan became a respectable member of society. In 1727, after moving to the Cape Fear region, Rowan became a member of the Colonial Assembly, and four years later was named to the Governor’s Council. He helped survey the boundary between the two Carolinas in 1735, and two years later was appointed surveyor-general for North Carolina.
Upon Governor Nathaniel Rice’s death on January 29, 1753, Rowan, as Council president, became acting governor. He held the post until October 31, 1754 when Governor Arthur Dobbs arrived in New Bern. Rowan’s tenure was marked by troubles in attempting to reorganize the state militia system during the outbreak of the French and Indian War.
After his brief stint as governor, Rowan retired to his plantation, now referred to as Roan, in Brunswick County although he continued to serve as member of the Council. Rowan married his brother John’s widow, Elizabeth, in 1742, although the marriage resulted in no children. Rowan did have an illegitimate son with Jane Stubbs of Bath. Rowan fully acknowledged the boy, whom he named John Rowan. Upon his death in 1760, Matthew Rowan left a substantial part of his fortune to his son who had become a mariner in Barbados. Robert Rowan, French and Indian War officer and colonial politician, was Matthew Rowan’s nephew.
Rowanreportedly is buried on his Brunswick County plantation. Rowan County was named in his honor in 1753.
Michael Hill, ed., The Governors of North Carolina (2007)
John L. Cheney, Jr., ed., North Carolina Government, 1585-1979 (1981)
E. Lawrence Lee, The Lower Cape Fear in Colonial Days (1965)
William L. Saunders, ed., Colonial Records of North Carolina, 10 vols. (1886-1890)
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, V, 258-259—sketch by H. Kenneth Stephens