John Rowlands was born to a young, unmarried couple in Denbigh, Wales, in 1841. His father died shortly after his birth and his mother abandoned him—leaving him to be brought up in a workhouse. At the age of 18, Rowlands emigrated to the United States.
Arriving in America, he was befriended by a wealthy merchant whose name he took on as his own. When the Civil War began, he enrolled in the Confederate Army’s 6th Arkansas Infantry Regiment and fought in the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. After being taken prisoner, he was recruited by the other side and joined the Union Army later that year. He joined the U.S. Navy in 1864.
Following the Civil War, the Welshman turned to journalism and became special correspondent for the New York Herald. One of his assignments sent him to Africa to search for an explorer who had been missing for years. After finding him, his reports on the expedition made him famous.
He continued his exploration of the region and helped pave the way for the opening of modern Africa. By 1890, he was back in Europe and became a member of parliament for Lambeth in south London, serving from 1895 to 1900. He was knighted in 1899 and died in 1904.