Our Own Pilgrim: John Cooke

by Christopher J. Richard
COPYRIGHT © 2002. All Rights Reserved. Originally published in the Navigator. Used with permisson.

When the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621, one of the boys at the feast was young John Cooke, a fourteen-year-old who would later be one of the first settlers in what is now Fairhaven. He would also become the only man still alive who attended that first Thanksgiving, the last surviving male passenger of the Mayflower voyage.

John Cooke was baptized in Leyden, Holland, in 1607. He was the oldest child of Francis and Hester (Mahieu) Cooke. His parents were among the English Separatists who moved to Leyden in pursuit of religious freedom.

In July 1620, at the age of thirteen, Cooke and his father sailed from Holland on the small ship Speedwell, bound for England and then America. His mother and younger siblings remained behind. After joining the Mayflower in England, the two ships set sail for the new world. The Speedwell, however, sprung a leak, forcing both ships to turn back. A number of Speedwell passengers were moved onto the already crowded Mayflower, which crossed the Atlantic on its own, reaching New England as winter set in.

By the time spring arrived, about half of the 102 people who came to Plymouth on the Mayflower had died of scurvy and/or pneumonia. The two Cookes escaped the horrible illnesses, though, and set to work building houses, planting and hunting, tasks required for the settlement’s survival.

John’s mother Hester and the other three Cooke children—Jane, Jacob and Hester—arrived at Plymouth in 1623 aboard the ship Anne. (A fifth child, Mary, would be born to Francis and Hester Cooke later.) Elizabeth Warren was also on the Anne, coming to join her husband Richard and bringing their five daughters, including Sarah, whom John Cooke married on March 28, 1634.

John and Sarah Cooke’s first daughter, Sarah, was born in 1635. Between that time and the year 1656, four more daughters were born—Elizabeth, Hester, Mary and Mercy.

Coming of age, John Cooke became a noteworthy member of the town of Plymouth, active in civic affairs. In 1642, he and his father invested in the colony’s first ship-building venture, purchasing 1/16 share each of a 40 to 50 ton bark to be built. The same year, representing the town at the General Court, Cooke was involved with the disposal of town lands and acted as deputy during a crisis with the Indians. In 1653 he was appointed to mediate a dispute between the English and the Dutch in Connecticut. Cooke also served as a Deacon of the church.

Thirty-two years after the Mayflower landed, a group of 36 colonists negotiated the purchase of a huge tract of land from Wampanoag leader Massasoit and his son Wamsutta. The territory encompassed the present-day communities of Dartmouth, Westport, New Bedford, Fairhaven, Acushnet and parts of Tiverton. John Cooke and John Winslow signed the deed on behalf of the purchasers. Cooke and his father each purchased one full share of the property, as did his mother-in-law Elizabeth Warren. Each share equaled more than 3,300 acres.

In 1659, Plymouth Court appointed four men, including John Cooke, to investigate meetings of the Quakers and to attempt to “reduce them from the error of their ways.” Cooke attended the religious gatherings and formed the unpopular conclusion that the Quakers were, in fact, being treated unfairly. This, most likely, caused Deacon Cooke’s excommunication from the church. Cooke, at the age of 52, with his oldest daughter already married and his youngest about three years old, was faced with a tough decision—stay in the increasingly oppressive atmosphere at Plymouth or leave kinsmen, friends and his aging parents behind and strike out for the “Acushena” wilderness.

It would seem that Cooke decided to send his son-in-law Arthur Hathaway along first. Hathaway came to the east side of the Acushnet River and in 1660, was one of the three men who first paid taxes in the new territory. In 1661, Hathaway bought a half share of the lands from Samuel Cuthbert and established his farm in what’s now Acushnet. In 1662 or very early 1663 Cooke himself settled here and with the agreement of the other proprietors, laid out the first public road running from the Great Indian Path west onto a neck of land on the Acushnet River that extended from the mainland at Howard’s Brook. It has been suggested that this road led to a community meeting house for worship and civic gatherings. Cooke’s will later referred to a burial place at that location.

In June of 1664, the territory was incorporated as the town of Dartmouth, which it remained until after the Revolutionary War.

John Cooke, who controlled three full shares of Dartmouth, was one of the town’s most influential citizens. Twelve times Cooke served as representative to the General Court. In 1670 he was elected Selectman and was in office when Dartmouth was attacked by the Indians during the King Philip War in 1675. Once the town was resettled after the war, Cooke served another five years.

Cooke established his homestead in North Fairhaven and built his house at the crest of a hill overlooking the Acushnet River. It stood just south of where Oxford School is today. Down the hill, about halfway between his house and the river, Cooke built a fortified garrison as protection from hostile attack.

Besides Cooke’s purchase of Howard’s Neck in Acushnet in 1666, he added to his vast land holdings by buying West Island about the same time. In 1668, he and his son-in-law Daniel Wilcox began operating a ferry in Tiverton and he bought land there as well. In 1672 the town gave him Ram (now Popes) Island in return for services. Cooke also owned land at “Freemans Meadow” in Rochester.

In May, 1672, Cooke deeded land to his former son-in-law Thomas Taber, who had been married to daughter Hester until her death shortly after the birth of their second child in 1671. Cooke also gave land to daughters Elizabeth and her husband Daniel Wilcox, Mary and her husband Philip Taber, Sarah and her husband Arthur Hathaway, and Mercy and her husband Stephen West, who would also inherit Cooke’s homestead after the death of Sarah Cooke.

In June, 1675, when word reached Dartmouth that Indians had attacked settlers’ homes in Swansea, nearby residents fled to Cooke’s garrison. Jacob Mitchell and his wife Susannah, who lived in what’s now Fairhaven center, sent their three children to the garrison. The following day, the two adult Mitchells and Susannah’s brother John Pope were killed by Indians as they themselves were fleeing. All thirty houses in Dartmouth, including Cooke’s, were destroyed. The town was abandoned for about three years following the attacks.

Cooke’s house was rebuilt after the war and was the house later occupied by his grandson Bartholomew West when the British burned it 103 years later during the Revolution. The house seems not to have been rebuilt again.

About 1680, John Cooke became connected with the Baptists, a number of which had settled in the vicinity. Cooke seems to have been associated with Obadiah Holmes, who preached in the Rehoboth area. Cooke became the first Baptist minister in Dartmouth and is credited with helping form the Baptist church in Tiverton, which is still active today. He was once fined for “unnecessary travel on the Sabbath,” because his was not the colony’s officially sanctioned religion.

John Cooke preached and oversaw the care of his farm and properties and no doubt attended to town business, officially or unofficially until his death on November 23, 1695, at the age of 88. By then he was the last man alive who had sailed on the Mayflower in 1620. (The only original Pilgrim to live longer was Mary (Allerton) Cushman who died in Plymouth in 1699.)

John Cooke’s wife Sarah survived him, as did four of his five daughters. At the time of his death he had 32 grandchildren and 27 great-grandchildren. Sarah presented an inventory of her husband’s estate in 1696, but there is no further record of her. She had to have been at least 76 years old herself then. It’s likely she lived with Mercy and Stephen West, because they were the ultimate recipients of John Cooke’s homestead by his will. A number of John and Sarah Cooke’s descendants—Hathaways, Wilcoxes, Tabers and Wests—would play important roles in the later days of Fairhaven and other towns in the region.

ALSO SEE: Do We Know Where John Cooke Is Buried?

ALSO SEE: John Cooke Sites in Fairhaven

ALSO SEE: John Cooke's Family