William Henry Cowden, cattleman, was born on October 6, 1853, in Shelby County, Texas, the oldest son and second of twelve children born to William Hanby and Carrie (Liddon) Cowden. He grew up in Palo Pinto County, where his parents moved in 1855 to establish a ranch. He helped look after the domestic stock from the time he was a small boy and later assisted his father as a cowboy on the range and trail. His formal education was limited to attending a rural school during the winter months of his early youth. By 1875 he had started his own operation on Walnut Creek in Palo Pinto County with a herd of between seventy-five and 100 head. In 1879 he took 700 cattle belonging to him and his father to Paint Creek in Haskell County for a year.
In 1880 he married Mary Salvage, daughter of Benjamin Salvage, a newspaper printer from Rome, Georgia. After Salvage's death his widow married Alonzo Edwards, the rancher from whom the Cowdens purchased their JAL-branded herd in 1882. Will and Mary Cowden had eleven children, two of whom died in infancy. Cowden and his brothers, George Edgar and John Motherwell Cowden, ranged their cattle on the Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos in Kent County for a year and then trailed them through Midland to the White Sand Hills range in what is now Lea County, New Mexico. By 1885 they had established their JAL ranch, which they operated jointly for the next twenty-five years, with headquarters in New Mexico and business offices in Midland (see COWDEN RANCH).
In 1890 Will Cowden helped found the First National Bank of Midland and was installed as its president, a position he retained for thirty-six years. He remained involved in the JAL venture until 1892, when he sold his interest to his brothers and W. C. Cochran, a brother-in-law. The following year, in partnership with J. W. Gibson, he stocked a ranch with 2,000 steers in the Creek Nation of the Indian Territory. He also bought forty sections in Andrews County, which he fenced and stocked with 400 steers, and 60,000 acres of property in Crane County, which he operated with his sons. In 1904 he bought another ranch in Frio County.
Throughout his active years as a banker and independent rancher, Cowden maintained his family home in Midland, where he resided until his retirement from the bank in 1926. At that time he and his wife moved to San Antonio, where he resided until his death, on July 20, 1933.