Bowen Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Bowen Surname Meaning

This Welsh surname derives from the anglicized form of ap Owen, meaning “son of Owen.” Owen or Owain was a popular Welsh first name. 

Bowen Surname Resources on The Internet

Bowen Surname Ancestry

  • from South Wales and Western England
  • to Ireland, America, Caribs (Barbados), and Canada

Wales. The Welsh name Owen became two surnames, Owen and Bowen (from ap Owen), when English-type surnames began to take hold in the 16th century. If anything the use of Owen as a surname was more common in north Wales, Bowen in south Wales.

Pembrokeshire.  The foremost Bowen family in Wales was that of Llwyngwair near Nevern in Pembrokeshire. Their Welsh lineage could be traced back to the 11th century.

The first to adopt Bowen as a family name may well have been Evan Bowen, the builder of Pentre Evan in the late 14th century. Many of these Bowens served as High Sheriffs of Pembrokeshire, such as James Bowen in 1622, after whom the Bowen knot was named. Subsequent Bowens included:

  • George Bowen, a friend of the Methodist John Wesley who helped in his passage-ways to Ireland in the late 1700’s.
  • and a later George Bowen who was High Sheriff in 1914 and was knighted for his public services.

Another Bowen family in the county had associations with Upton castle near Cosheston owned by the Malefants. Alice Malefant had a son named Morris ap Owen which became Bowen and these Bowens then became the masters of Upton castle – until 1758 when Morris Bowen, the last male of their line died.

The Rev. James Bowen, rector of Rhoscrowther in the 1770’s, had two wives and seventeen children. One of his sons, Captain Thomas Bowen of Pantyderi, married an heiress and their Lewis-Bowen family has been farming at Clynfyw since that time.

. The 1881 census showed the largest number of Bowens in Glamorgan, followed by Carmarthen and then Pembrokeshire.

Ireland.  In 1549 a Welshman named John Thomas ap Owen, later John Thomas Bowen, was constable of Ballyadams in what is now Laios. He was a particularly cruel and brutal man, called “John of the Pike” by the Irish because he always carried a pike when he ventured out.

A branch of his family migrated to Mayo in the next century. Two lines then left Ireland in the 19th century:

  • to England, via the Rev. Christopher Bowen of Holymount, went Charles Bowen (later Baron Bowen), an English judge, and Edward Bowen, a well-known Harrow schoolmaster.
  • and to New Zealand, via Christopher Bowen of Milford, went Charles Christopher Bowen who arrived with his parents in 1850 on one of the first ships to Canterbury, South Island. He had a long and prominent political career in New Zealand.

Bowens had been in Cork since 1660 when Henry Bowen, originally from Wales and an army officer with Cromwell, settled there. They built their country house there, Bowen’s Court, in the 1770’s. The writer Elizabeth Bowen was the last owner of this house.

The Irish surname O’Buadhachain, from the Gaelic name Buadhach meaning “victorious,” could get anglicized to Bohan or Bowen. As Irish names they cropped up mainly in Connacht.

England. Many of the Bowens in the English border counties had Welsh blood in them.

That would include the Bowen line in Herefordshire that began with the marriage of Thomas Bowen and Anne Bateman in Bromyard in 1749. The son of Evan Bowen of Haverfordwest was Peregrine Bowen, a tobacconist in Bristol. His son Charles, born there in 1786, became a Rear Admiral in the Royal Navy.

But for some notable Bowen families the Welsh connection has been difficult to trace.

Starting in 1715, Emanuel Bowen and his son Thomas were master map-makers in London, working for royalty in both England and France. However, both died in poverty, Thomas in the workhouse.

Then there was the Bowen naval family from Ilfacombe in Devon. The father was a merchant trader from Bristol to West Africa and the West Indies.

His four sons – James, George, Thomas, and Richard – all joined the Navy. The youngest, Richard, had perhaps the most illustrious career, seeing service with Horatio Nelson before being killed fighting alongside him at the Battle of Tenerife. James’s son John, also a naval officer, led the first settlement of Tasmania in 1803.

America. There were two early Bowens from Wales in America, Griffith and Richard Bowen:

  • Griffith arrived in Boston in 1639 but returned to England in 1670
  • while Richard from Kittle Hill in Glamorgan came a year later and settled in Reheboth, Massachusetts.

E.C. Bowen’s 1884 book Memorial of the Bowen Family sought to connect these Bowens with the Bowens of Llwyngwair.

Their descendants spread:

  • Griffith’s descendants came to Woodstock, Connecticut in 1686. Bowens have remained there.
  • the line from Richard, beginning with Thomas Bowen, moved to Rhode Island where many including Thomas were physicians. The Isaac Bowen house in Coventry, Rhode Island still stands from those times. After the Revolutionary War, one line moved south to Bradford county, Pennsylvania, another line north to Vermont and then (following the Mormons) to Ohio and Utah.
  • another line from Richard led to the Rev. Samuel Bowen and to his two sons Elijah and Clifton. Elijah became a medical practitioner in Shiloh, New Jersey; while Clifton Bowen migrated south to North Carolina. His son Clifton fought in the Revolutionary War and was one of the early settlers in Georgia, moving there in the 1780’s.
  • and there was also a line in Albany, New York. William Bowen was a Loyalist who moved his family to Canada after the War. Later Bowens returned. From this line came the physicist and astronomer Ira Sprague Bowen.

Moses Bowen from Carmarthen in Wales, probably a Quaker, came to Gwynedd township in Chester, Pennsylvania in 1698. His line ran to Virginia in the 1730’s:

  • one branch settled at Maiden Spring Farm in Tazewell county, Virginia. Their numbers included Rees Bowen who was killed during the Revolutionary War, Colonel Henry Bowen, an officer in the War of 1812, and his son General Rees Bowen and grandson Captain Henry Bowen who both fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War.
  • while other branches migrated to South Carolina (Pendleton district) and to Tennessee. John and Margaret Bowen from Tennessee came to Bowen township in Madison county, Arkansas in the early 1800’s.

The state of Georgia today has the largest number of Bowens in America. One early arrival was Session Bowen, born in North Carolina in 1780, who married Elizabeth Biggs, came to Dooly county and raised eleven children there. Elisha and Penelope Bowen, also from North Carolina, came to Bulloch county in 1805 and made their home along Ten Mile Creek. 

Caribbean. Anthony Bowen, thought to have been from Glamorgan, was one of the early settlers in Barbados in 1628. The Bowen name began to appear regularly in St. Lucy parish records from the 1750’s. Israel Bowen started a bookshop in Bridgetown in 1834. From 1863 he published the Barbados Almanac and Diary, which continued after his death. Bowen connections between Barbados and South Carolina have recently been re-established. 

John Bowen from Ireland owned a sugar plantation in Jamaica in the early 1800’s and a home at Bowen’s Court in Kingston, as well as another in Philadelphia. He died in 1835, one year after the abolition of slavery on the island. His half-brother John inherited his name and his estate. He was one of the pioneer settlers in Texas.

Canada. According to family accounts, Israel Bowen was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1748. He and his wife Isabella came via America to Canada in 1796 and settled in Landsdowne, Ontario. Israel lived to be 100 years old. He died in Mooretown near Sarnia where his son had founded the Mooretown Carriage Works. The Bowen house in Landsdowne is still standing.

Bowen Surname Miscellany

The Foremost Bowen Family.  Major Arthur Bowen of St. Catherine in Canada wrote the following letter in 1859 explaining his Bowen family.

“The Bowens in South Wales are numerous, particularly in Pembrokeshire.  I am a direct descendant of the pioneers of Pentre Evan ap Owen.  My ancestor was the second High Sheriff of the county.  These high sheriffs were first appointed in the reign of Henry VII and since that time their names will be found in every reign filling that office.  Bowen of Llwyngwair of the house of Pentre Evan was the last.

There were many generals and admirals in the family in by-gone days and in modern times.  One of my first cousins was Admiral Charles Bowen, and another, Captain John Bowen. One of my brothers was in the Battle of Trafalgar.  Another was at the desperate Battle of Java, where he later died on the staff of Sir Rolla Gillespie.   Another brother was in the East Indian service, wounded in action and died.  I am a retired major of the British service in the West  Indies, East Indies and in Spain.”

The Bowen Knot.  The Bowen knot is not a true knot, but rather a heraldic knot , sometimes used in heraldic designs. It was named after James Bowen of Llwyngwair who died in 1629.  The knot consists of a rope in the form of a continuous loop laid out as an upright square shape with loops at each of the four corners. Since the rope is not actually knotted, it would in topological terms be considered an unknot.

An angular Bowen knot is such a knot with no rounded sides.  A lozenge-shaped Bowen knot is called a bendwise Bowen knot or a Bowen cross.

Bowen’s Court.  The Bowens had been in Cork since 1660 when Henry Bowen, originally from Wales and an army officer with Cromwell, settled there.  His descendant Henry Cole Bowen built his country house, Bowen’s Court, near Kilderrory in the county in the 1770’s.  It was a focus of attack during the Irish Rebellion of 1798.   However, Bowen’s Court remained with the Bowen family until 1959.

These Bowens were considerable landowners during the 19th century.  In the 1870’s they owned 1,680 acres in county Cork and over 5,000 acres in county Tipperary.

The last owner was the novelist Elizabeth Bowen.  She wrote a history of the house, entitled Bowen’s Court, in 1942 and it featured in her 1929 novel The Last September.  But she had a nervous breakdown in the 1950’s and abandoned Bowen’s Court, leaving unpaid wages and bills.  She sold the house in 1959 and two years later it was demolished.  The farmer who bought it was only interested in the land and the timber.

Reader Feedback – Clifton Bowen from Massachusetts to Georgia.  I have read numerous articles, following and tracing my direct Bowen line.  I am of the Clifton Bowen branch, son of the Rev. Samuel and descended from Richard.  Not much has been recorded about them.  Why?  Clifton migrated from Rehoboth, Swansea or another part of the Massachusetts colony to North Carolina and eventually came to Georgia in 1736. It’s almost as if Clifton was somehow ostracized.

Patrick Bowen (

Bowen or Bohan?  There were two Bowen girls on the famine relief ship Pemberton from Ireland that arrived in Australia in 1849.  Both were sixteen.  If they were related, they would have been cousins.  One was spelt Bohan, the other Bowen. Mary A. Bohan was a nursemaid from Rosscrea in Tipperary; while Mary Ann Bowen was a child’s maid from Queens (Offaly).  Both were Catholics and both could read and write.

Maiden Spring Farm in Virginia.  Maiden Spring Farm is located in Bowen’s Cove, a valley in a rugged part of Tazewell county in mountainous SW Virginia.

The north wing of the house is said by family tradition to have been an earlier log house built in the  1770’s to which the main section was added when it was built in 1838.  However, little about the woodwork or other details in the wing would seem to confirm this idea.

The first Rees Bowen who lived there was the son of John and Lilly McIlheny Bowen who had moved from Pennsylvania to the present-day Rockbridge county area.  John Bowen’s parents were Welsh Quaker immigrants.  This Rees Bowen was named after his paternal grandmother Rebecca Rees.  He is said to have settled at Maiden Spring with his wife and one slave woman on a grant of 880 acres obtained in the 1760’s.

Bowens of this line fought in the American Revolutionary War (when Rees Bowen was killed at the Battle of Kings’s Mountain), in the War of 1812, and in the Civil War.  During the Civil War Confederate Army troops camped on Maiden Spring Farm. 

Elisha and Penelope Bowen in Georgia.  According to family accounts, Elisha and Penelope Bowen were moving with several other families from North Carolina around the year 1805 to settle a newly opened-up area south of Candler county in Georgia.

Their journey, however, was interrupted when their first born and only child, Robert Bowen, died en-route from typhoid fever, it is believed, at Ten Mile Creek.  They buried their son there.  The journey for them then stopped.  The death of their young son, they believed, was a sign from the Lord that they should go no further. So there they made their home.  They acquired and cleared land for planting crops and food for their immediate needs and began farming crops for marketing.

During the next twenty one years, from 1805 until 1826 when Elisha Bowen died, he and his wife became parents of seven more children that lived to adulthood and all married and had children.

Bowens in Barbados and South Carolina.  There was an early connection between Barbados and South Carolina as many Barbadian planters were among the original settlers of Charleston, including John Drayton who established his new plantation at Drayton Hall 15 miles outside of the town in the 1730’s.

Bowen is a fairly common name in Barbados.  Only one male Bowen descended from the original Welsh stock remains in the island today.  But many African slaves on the island adopted the Bowen name after emancipation in 1834.  Some of them were transported from Barbados to the Drayton plantation in South Carolina.

Richmond Bowens, born in 1908 and a descendant of these slaves, grew up at Drayton Hall.   The Bowens family, he said, was the one black family to remain at Drayton Hall after emancipation. In his later years Richmond became a gatekeeper and oral historian at Drayton Hall.

In 1996, a year before he died, he traveled to Barbados and received a celebrity’s welcome.  He met the Prime Minister, the U.S. ambassador, and two brothers who lived near the Bowen’s ancestral home in Barbados.   Because the younger men resembled him, Richmond Bowens believed that they were related and that he was reunited with his family.

Bowen Names

  • Evan Bowen of Pentre Evan was the first of the Llwyn-gwair family in Pembrokeshire in the 16th century to adopt the Bowen surname. 
  • Elizabeth Bowen was a 20th century Anglo-Irish novelist and short story writer. 
  • Edward Taffy Bowen was the Welsh physicist who pioneered the use of radar during the Second World War.
  • Ira Sprague Bowen was one of the outstanding American physicists of the 20th century.

Bowen Numbers Today

  • 24,000 in the UK (most numerous in Glamorgan)
  • 27,000 in America (most numerous in Georgia)
  • 11,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Bowen and Like Surnames  

Hereditary surnames in Wales were a post-16th century development.   Prior to that time the prototype for the Welsh name was the patronymic, such as “Madog ap Jevan ap Jerwerth” (Madoc, son of Evan, son of Yorwerth).  The system worked well in what was still mainly an oral culture.

However, English rule decreed English-style surnames and the English patronymic “-s” for “son of” began first in the English border counties and then in Wales. Welsh “P” surnames came from the “ap” roots, such as Price from “ap Rhys.”

These are some of the present-day Welsh surnames that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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