Cowles Mead

(1776–1844) Legislator

Cowles (pronounced Coals) Mead was a legislator, administrator, statesman, and orator who served in the Mississippi Territory and in Mississippi’s early statehood. Mead was born in Bedford County, Virginia, on 18 October 1776. Details are elusive, but Mead was privately educated, read law, and had political connections to Pres. Thomas Jefferson, an association that later helped Mead gain his administrative post in the territories.

After moving to Georgia, Mead launched a fierce 1804 campaign for a seat in the US Congress. The election was close, and ballots from three counties were delayed by a hurricane. Georgia’s governor certified the election without the missing counties, declaring Mead the winner by 169 votes. Mead took his congressional seat in 1805, but his opponent, Thomas Spalding, refused to concede. A November 1805 recount that included the delayed ballots gave Spalding the seat by a thirty-nine-vote margin. This political reversal was temporary, however, and on 20 January 1806 Jefferson appointed Mead secretary of the Mississippi Territory, which then included the present states of Mississippi and Alabama. The secretary’s powers were nearly absolute, and nearby foreign disputes with the Spanish on the Louisiana border and near Mobile helped to expand Mead’s emergency powers.

Mead’s powers as secretary were further increased because territorial governor Robert Williams was away in his native North Carolina on 10 January 1807 when Aaron Burr, a former US vice president, landed in the territory at Bruinsburg. Mead received reports that Burr had a force of two thousand men and feared that he planned to cause unrest. Mead used his powers as acting territorial governor to arrest Burr and imprison those suspected of aiding him.

Mead remained active in early Mississippi politics, though he was often unsuccessful. Mead found it difficult to return to his secretarial duties when Williams resumed his governorship. In May 1807 Mead drew a reprimand from Williams for trying to designate an acting territorial secretary. A series of clashes with Williams over records and appointments led to Mead’s ouster from his secretarial post, but Mead was soon elected as a Jefferson County representative to the territorial assembly, where he continued his political struggle against Williams.

In 1809 Mead was chosen as one of thirteen superintendents of the newly formed Bank of Mississippi, created by the assembly for the “agricultural and commercial interests” of the territory. In 1813 Mead was commissioned a colonel in the 1st Regiment of the Mississippi Territory but resigned his commission to run for the post of territorial delegate to the US Congress. Mead strongly opposed dividing the Mississippi Territory into two states and based his campaign largely on this issue. Mead’s defeat by William Lattimore of Adams County, a supporter of division, indicates public opinion within the Mississippi Territory. Mead was elected to the Territorial Assembly in 1817, and one of his proposals was to name the soon-to-be state Washington rather than Mississippi. The vote was close, but Mead lost 23–17, and the new state kept its territorial name. In 1823 Mead was elected Speaker of the Mississippi House, a post he had previously occupied in the territorial assembly. In 1825 Mead ran for governor but lost decisively, polling 1,499 votes to David Holmes’s 7,846.

Mead was a popular speaker and statesman, but he consistently failed to win statewide office or to fully persuade the legislature to accept his proposals. After his gubernatorial defeat, Mead continued to serve in the state legislature but remained primarily retired. Sometime during the late 1820s Mead he moved his family to Clinton, where Mount Salus Presbyterian Church was founded as a mission in 1826. That same year, Hampstead Academy (now Mississippi College) was founded as a Presbyterian-supported institution, and in 1833 Mead was appointed to the college’s board of trustees. In 1842 Mead was named president of the board, but he later resigned over doctrinal controversies within the Clinton congregation.

In 1807 Mead married Mary Lilly Green of Jefferson County. The couple had two surviving children, Cowles G. Mead (1818–40) and Mary Mead (1821–75). After Mary Green Mead’s death in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1828, the senior Cowles Mead remarried twice—in 1883 to Mary Mills, who died seventeen months later, and in 1835 to Mary Magruder, who survived him after his 12 September 1844 death. Meadville, the seat of Franklin County, is named in his honor.

Further Reading

  • Chad Chisholm, Images of America: Clinton (2007)
  • J. F. H. Claiborne, Mississippi, as a Province, Territory, and State (1880)
  • Gordon A. Cotton, Vicksburg Post (7 March 1999)
  • Richard A. McLemore, Journal of Mississippi History (April 1943)
  • Howard Mitcham, Journal of Mississippi History (October 1953)
  • George C. Osborn, Journal of Mississippi History (October 1941)
  • Dunbar Rowland, Encyclopedia of Mississippi History, vol. 2 (1916)
  • Dunbar Rowland, History of Mississippi: The Heart of the South (1925)
  • Robert C. Weems Jr., Journal of Mississippi History (July 1953)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Cowles Mead
  • Coverage 1776–1844
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date July 6, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 14, 2018