Do We Know Where John Cooke Is Buried?

Report of the Historical Research Section
by Henry B. Worth
Originally published in Old Dartmouth Historical Sketch #32, Old Dartmouth Historical Society, New Bedford, MA, 1911

NOTE: Respected researcher Henry B. Worth was the historian of the Old Dartmouth Historical Society (operator of the New Bedford Whaling Museum). He was also a real estate lawyer with a special interest in historical deeds and real estate transactions.

The work of the Historical Research Section is not only to preserve and perpetuate facts that might be forgotten and lost, but to restore events to their original setting and combination. One of the tendencies of tradition is the rearrangement of details into varying and erroneous combinations. This is not due to fraud or deceit but to the frailty of the recollection. It is observed in court trials where witnesses of undoubted veracity, flatly contradict each other in relation to recent events. Some details that are obscured or forgotten are supplied from different situations, and honest and intelligent people present seriously conflicting accounts of the same concurrence. Hence divergent traditions may be discovered concerning any historical fact. Giles Russell established an iron forge at Russell’s Mills in 1787. In a few years the story was current that this enterprise was conducted by a different person one hundred and thirty-five years earlier. It is astonishing how unwilling some are to reject the traditions that are full of mistakes. No amount of evidence to the contrary is sufficient to substitute fact for fiction. After accepting the story without scrutiny and investigation, they continue loyal to the error. Some exhibit irritability at the suggestion of a doubt as their integrity was questioned. The trouble is that their informant was mistaken.

Every tradition should be tested by comparison with contemporary records. If the two are not in conflict, the oral statement may be accepted. But if there is discord, the tradition must yield.

It is now proposed to call attention to a certain incident, the tradition on which it is based and some records of contemporary history that have not heretofore been given due weight.

In Oxford village in Fairhaven, a few yards east of Cherry Street, and extending from Lafayette Street to Pilgrim Avenue, is a lot which was conveyed in 1833 by Thomas Bennett to Benjamin D. Coombs. In the south portion was an enclosure in which were kept hens and swine. In the center was a hillock on which were spaces marked by rough stones after the manner of old burial places. This was purchased in 1895 by the Fairhaven Improvement Association and was renovated and graded. A boulder drawn from the river was located on the knoll and on a bronze tablet is the inscription, “Sacred to the memory of John Cook who was buried here in 1695.”

The authority for the statement depends upon a tradition and it is thus repeated, as he received it, by one of Fairhaven’s best informed citizens: John Cook was one of the first white settlers in Fairhaven. They had only one cemetery and that was at Oxford. There was once a slate slab lying flat on the knoll, having the names of forty or fifty persons who were buried there. This was completely obliterated over sixty years ago, so that no vestige of it remains; nor is there in existence a copy of the inscription nor any record who was buried there.

To this is added from another source, that John Cook owned all this territory and it passed from him to the Taber family of which the late George H. Taber was a descendant.

Oxford was part of the farm of Capt. Thomas Taber which he received from the proprietors of Dartmouth 1672 and 1683. At his death in 1732, it passed to his son Philip, who conveyed it ten years later to William Wood, glazier. In the deed of 1760 from Wood to Elnathan Eldridge, transferring the part of Oxford west of Cherry Street is a statement that the southeast corner was west of “ye Burial Place.’ So while this proves that the Oxford lot was used for burial purposes as early as 1760, it should also be kept in mind that Taber, although a son-in-law of Cook, derived his title directly from the Dartmouth proprietors and that this burial place was never owned by John Cook. It never contained marked stones at any grave.

It was a universal custom in Dartmouth before 1700 that on each homestead farm was a plot devoted to burial purposes. Many of these spots have been forgotten and are unknown while some are still in existence. John Cook’s homestead included the farm that is crossed by Coggeshall Street leading from Main Street to the bridge. According to the usual custom it would be expected that his last resting place was on his homestead, if there were not some deeply significant records relating to another locality.

In the south edge of Acushnet, half a mile south of the parting ways, the road to Fairhaven is crossed by a brook, that flows into the Acushnet River and at its junction forms a neck of land that is situated northwest of the Laura Keene farm. This may be designated for convenience Howard’s Point.

In Cook’s will, probated in April, 1696, he provides: “In the first place I give to my son-in-law, Arthur Hathaway, and his wife, Sarah, my daughter, all my land in the point at or near the burying place in Dartmouth, which I bought of John Russell.” This has been assumed by many to be at Oxford, but the Russell deed in 1668 describes ‘the point of land which I bought of Samuel Cuthbert adjoining to the house lot of John Howard, on the one side and the creek on the other.’ Russell’s deed from Cuthbert in 1661 conveyed a small point of land of 4 or 5 acres lying against the land of Cuthbert.

Beside the devise in his will, Cook had in 1686 given to Arthur Hathaway all that neck of land near the land of John Howard, bounded by the Acushnet River and on one side by Howard’s land.’ The farm containing the Brook was the Howard homestead and the farm south was owned by Cuthbert and 1661 conveyed to Arthur Hathaway. So it is clear that the burial point in which Cook had such an interest, which he had purchased nearly thirty years before his death, was the neck northwest of the Laura Keen farm. He was solicitous to have it stand in the name of his daughter and son-in-law who lived in the immediate vicinity. This Howard’s point passed from Arthur Hathaway to his son Thomas who also acquired the Howard farm in 1715 and then conveyed both to his son Antipas. The latter in 1747, then living in Newport, transferred the farm to James Weeden but retained the neck. In 1751 Weeden sold the farm to Hezekiah Winslow. The land next south was then owned by Jethro Hathaway and was later known as the Stephen Hathaway place.

The last record relating to the subject is a deed given in 1752 by Antipas Hathaway to his brother Jethro “a certain Point of land called ye old Burying Point in Acushnet Village, being ye most northwesterly part of ye Homestead of Thomas Hathaway deceased, bounded east on ye Creek, running up to Howard’s Brook by Homestead of Hezekiah Winslow and by land of Jethro Hathaway.” It remained for nearly a century part of the Stephen Hathaway farm.

The Homestead of John Cook was on the hill north of Oxford where the new brick school house has been built and extended north to the Woodside Cemetery and south to the Riverside Cemetery. Somewhere on this farm according to the usage of that day would be his grave. But a mile farther north was a neck on the river which was a burial place as early as 1686; was owned by Cook and held by his descendants until modern times. In the light of this record there is strong reason to suppose that Cook was laid in the point purchased by him and transmitted to his descendants. Opposed to this is the tradition that he was buried at Oxford on a lot which he never owned and in which he is not known to have had any interest, and where there was never an inscribed stone marking any grave.

Without some record there can be no certainty where John Cook’s grave is located, but judgment cannot be rendered in favor of the Oxford tradition. The foregoing represents the stage of present information. If further facts are discovered and authenticated, a conclusion can be reached that will settle the inquiry.

This paper is presented to preserve in useful form some interesting historical data, but especially to illustrate the method of testing tradition by comparison with contemporary records. There is no sound reason to condemn the method, because while it may result in discrediting popular reports and stories, it might frequently support and sustain the oral legend. Whichever consequence follows, truth should be the object sought without regard to the effect on accepted traditions.

ALSO SEE: Burial Places of Mayflower Passengers

ALSO SEE: John Cooke Sites in Fairhaven

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