Esek Cowen

Associate Justice of the New York Supreme Court, 1835-1844

Esek Cowen was born in Rhode Island on February 24, 1787 but moved with his family to New York shortly afterward. He worked on his family's farm and had little opportunity to attend school. Self-educated, he became well versed in the classics, Latin and Greek and in English literature. At the age of 15, he became a teacher and shortly afterward started his legal studies in the Hudson Falls law office of Roger Skinner. Later, he studied in the law office of Zebulon Shepherd, and was admitted to the bar in 1810. Within a few years, Cowen had built a successful law practice in Saratoga, New York.

In 1815, Esek Cowen became a Justice of the Peace and a few years later published A Treatise on the Civil Jurisdiction of a Justice of the Peace, the first work of its kind in the State. The treatise was highly regarded and frequently cited in New York court decisions. By 1823, he had become Reporter of the Supreme Court of Judicature and of the New York Court of Errors, publishing nine volumes of the Reports between 1823 and 1828. He was also an author of Cowen and Hill's Notes on Phillips' Evidence (1839).

Governor Nathaniel Pitcher appointed Cowen a judge of the 4th Circuit in 1828, and seven years later Governor William Marcy appointed him to the New York Supreme Court of Judicature, a position that he held until his death on February 11, 1844. Perhaps his most famous opinion was written in the case of People v. Alexander McLeod, a prosecution that arose from events during the Canadian Rebellion of 1837.

Following his death, Esek Cowen's funeral was held in the hall of the State Capitol in Albany, New York, and was attended by the Governor, State officials, both houses of the Legislature, judges, and members of the bar.


Nathaniel Bartlett Sylvester. A History of Saratoga County, New York. 1878.

Clark Bell. "Historical Sketch of the Supreme Court of New York." 23 Medico-Legal J. 238 (1905-1906).