Josiah Cotton

Josiah Cotton is my 5th great grandfather and was schoolmaster, Indian missionary, and public servant. He was born January 8, 1679/80, a son of the Reverend John Cotton (A.B. 1657), and a nephew of Cotton Mather. His mother’s maiden name was Jane Rossiter. When Josiah was nine a lady of the congregation found him in one of her trees, yanked him out “with her hand, and then threw him over the fence . . . the child fell flat upon the ground by her pulling him by the leg. . . .”1 In spite of a youth occupied by narrow escapes from drowning in a tub, in a well, and in the ocean, in addition to being run over by a cart and falling out of trees, he found time to learn to read without going to school. He studied Latin successively under the Reverend Mr. Wiswall of Duxbury, who went to England; under the Reverend Jonathan Russell of Barnstable, who sent him to Boston to the school of Joseph Dassett, who shortly died; and under Wiswall again, who sent him back to Boston to Peter Burr’s school. Thence Josiah was admitted to college in June, 1694, and assigned to John Leverett as tutor and William Brattle as patron. His statement “thro. Favour, not merit I happened to be placed second of the Class Mr Symes being the first,” is one of the few bits of direct evidence we have of the principles of the class order. It is also Cotton who informs us that in his time it was customary for “many of the scholars to draw off in the winter.” He spent the winter of his freshman year studying under Eliphalet Adams at Taunton, the next winter teaching school at Plymouth under his father’s direction in the parsonage and at the town charge; the third winter he continued in college, and the fourth he “dwelt and studed at home.” Of his life at college, he tells:

I learnt (among other arts) to smoke it, but might have improved my time much better, for so much time is consumed in sleeping and eating and other necessary diversions of life, that we have no need to continue those that are altogether needless. This is a practice I should not have run readily into at home, for my Father and Mother never inclined to it, but example abroad brought me into it. Howsoever our Class did some penance about this time for some of their faults being obliged to recite at five o’clock in the winter mornings that Mr Leverett might seasonably attend the General Court at Boston, being Representative for the town of Cambridge.2

From the college records it appears that Josiah was a quiet student, although he paid one fine of 5s 6d, and spent a good deal for commons and sizings in an erratic fashion. His diary enables us to make the only personal attribution of a Bachelor’s commencement thesis in his college generation. Under the moderation of President Mather, Cotton as respondent and Hubbard as opponent disputed on the thesis “Cometos [sic] sunt meteora,” indicating that the astronomy of Gassendi was then taught at Harvard. At his Master’s Commencement Cotton took a theological question “An Detur in non Renatis liberum arbitrium ad bonum Spirituale?” He denied that free will was of any use to the unconverted.

From Josiah Cotton’s diary it appears that after taking his first degree he did a surprising amount of traveling up and down New England. On one of these trips he visited Marblehead where on October 17, 1698, he was invited to settle and keep school. His salary was 15l a year from the town and a groat a week “according to their learning for each scholar.” He also picked up money “Writing Indentures for Jersey Boys and Girls,” for whom the going price was 12l.3 Altogether he made the handsome sum of 50l a year in silver, but he had some difficulty in the matter of board:

I kept at Capt Browne’s and Capt Brattle’s, where I was his Chaplain, and about three months boarded myself in the schoolhouse; but dwelt longest at the minister’s, Mr Cheever’s where were my first and last quarters. . . . When I came to the place I was raw and young, not 19 years old, and therefore it is not so much to be wondered at, if I gave way too much to that extravagance, Intemperance, Negligence in Religion, and Disorderliness, that is too rife in that place. . . . I studied divinity, read over the Greek and Latin Testament with some annotations, and first preached at Marblehead Nov 23, 1701. . . and was admitted to the church at Marblehead Sept. 6, 1703.4

In July, 1704, Cotton took his leave of Marblehead, and after visiting Connecticut went to his brother Roland’s (A.B. 1685) at Sandwich to teach Latin grammar to his nephews John Cotton and John Denison (both A.B. 1710). During the fall he kept school at Sandwich, and during the winter preached at Yarmouth. He thought of settling in the ministry but found writing sermons very fatiguing and a strain on his health, for he “had then a lingering headache always attending him.” Consequently he accepted an invitation to teach school at Plymouth at 40l a year, and began on November 2, 1705, in the house in which he had been born, the use of which he gave to the town until it built a schoolhouse. For two years he boarded with Thomas Little (A.B. 1695), and occasionally assisted the Reverend Ephraim Little (A.B. 1695) in preaching. Thus he became acquainted with the minister’s cousin, Hannah Sturtevant, to whom he was married on January 8, 1707/8. He described his wife as “a person not ill natured, of honest principles, true to her friends, and one that has brought me well favored and I hope well disposed children.” In the next year he gave up the school and moved to a farm which he had bought about two miles north of the town, but making a poor hand of farming, resumed teaching in November, 1711. In the spring of 1713 he succeeded Thomas Little as clerk of the Inferior Court and Register of Deeds and keeper of the Colony Records, but after a year was forced out of office by Little’s brother, and again returned to keeping school. In 1715 he was restored to office, and in succeeding years he became justice of the peace and quorum, Register of Probate, Notary Public, and Register of Deeds, special justice of the Court of Common Pleas, and justice of the Inferior Court. In 1721, 1723, and 1727 he was elected to the House of Representatives.

The salaries and fees attached to these offices permitted the Cottons to return to their farm. For seventeen years Josiah had been the leading citizen of Plymouth when, in 1739, he suddenly dropped from the service of the town. No reason is apparent; he had once cast “sundrey reflecttions upon the Selectmen” in regard to their treatment of smallpox;5 he had some trouble with the minister over the revival meetings of Andrew Croswell (A.B. 1728); and he had aroused opposition by a proposal to distribute gratis copies of Hale’s book on witches “as a service acceptable to God and profitable to future generations”; but this would not explain a seclusion from which not even threats of prosecution if he did not continue to serve as assessor could move him. He continued to serve as a justice of the Inferior Court until 1747 when, he writes, his resignation was occasioned by his “growing forgetfulness and decays of mind.”

To Mr. Cotton, the important part of his life was not the holding of these offices, but his faithful labors in preaching to the Indians for half a century. Before he took up the Plymouth school he had begun to learn the Indian language so as to follow in his father’s footsteps as a missionary. He traveled constantly over Plymouth Colony, preaching on the average twenty Sundays a year. He compiled an Indian dictionary and translated one of Mather’s sermons into that language. For a part of the time he received a salary of 20l a year from the Commissioners for Propagating the Gospel in New England. Although he found the savages inclined to be frolicsome, and time and again he wrote that little, if anything, was being accomplished, he persisted in the work. In 1744, he writes, the Commissioners “gave me a dismission, because the Indians did not attend; a business I had been in about 39 years.”

Josiah and Hannah Cotton had fourteen children: Hannah, b. Apr. 3, 1709; m. Thompson Phillips, Sept. 30, 1725; d. Oct. 27, 1731. Mary, b. Aug. 14, 1710; m. John Cushing of Scituate, 1729. John, b. Apr. 5, 1712; A.B. 1730; m. Hannah Sturtevant Dec. 9, 1746; d. 1789. Bethiah, b. June 8, 1714; m. Abiell Pulsifer Mar. 1, 1732/3; d. Sept. 20, 1735. Theophilus, b. Mar. 31, 1716; m. Martha Saunders Oct. 27, 1742; d. Feb. 1782. Lucy, b. Feb. 19, 1717/8; m. Charles Dyer Mar. 25, 1736. Josiah, b. Nov. 18, 1724; entered Harvard with Class of 1740; lost at sea 1745. Margaret, b. Jan. 23, 1729/30; m. Thomas Sawyer of North Carolina. Rowland, b. Sept. 13, 1732. Five others died in infancy.6 With this experience, Cotton writes that a man’s children are “himself multiplied; and the greater the sum the better, provided they take good courses and are faithful in their generation. Happy is the man that has his quiver full of them.”

Josiah Cotton died August 19, 1756, according to his gravestone, and August 27, according to the Boston Weekly News-Letter of September 16, 1756.


Josiah Cotton in 1728 wrote a sketch of his life and of the Cotton family, and thereafter brought it up to date each year. This Ms., referred to as the Diary, was used by historians of the last century, and a copy of it was made by William G. Brooks, but both have been lost for twenty-five years. Parts of it have been published in Roads’s History of Marblehead and in the Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, as noticed above. Another Ms. by Cotton, described as a Diary of the years 1732-1756, has recently been lost from the papers of the late Arthur Lord. The M. H. S. has several personal letters from Josiah to Rowland Cotton, some legal documents, the notes for an Indian sermon, the Ms. of his printed ‘Vocabulary,’ and an interesting detailed account of services among the Indians in 1716-17. In the Curwin Mss. at the A. A. S. are numerous letters addressed to him, calendared under the senders.

A Vocabulary of the Massachusetts (or Natick) Indian Language. Cambridge, 1829. pp. 112, (1). Also printed in 3 Coll. Mass. Hist. Soc. II, 147-257 (1830).

Supplement to the second (1721) and later editions of Nathaniel Morton, New-England’s Memorial.

  1. Plymouth Church Records (Publications Colonial Soc. Mass.), I, 266.
  2. Publ. C.S.M. XXVI, 279-80. The following extracts are from a Ms. copy of the same diary, both now lost.
  3. Letters and Papers 1632-1776, Mass. Hist. Soc., 71 H 168.
  4. Parts of Cotton’s diary relating to his stay at Marblehead are printed in Samuel Roads, History and Traditions of Marblehead (Boston, 1880), pp. 37-40.
  5. Records of the Town of Plymouth (Plymouth, 1889-1903), II, 212.
  6. These are chiefly from William G. Brooks’s Ms. Genealogy of the Cotton Family, p. 74, M. H. S., corrected by town records. According to Cotton’s diary, however, he had but twelve children.

Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, 4:398-402.

The rear portion of Josiah Cotton’s house was built by William Crowe in 1664. In 1709 Josiah’s wife inherited the house and  in 1723, Josiah built the addition which forms the main part of the building. Josiah said in his diary:

“My wife was the only child of her Parents, who were people of good credit in the town. Her Mother (who was a Winslow) had been married about 20 years to one Mr. William Crowe , a gentleman of good education, who died without any issue, upon which she married a young man , and had my wife, her first and only child. My Mother-in-law was a woman of good Education, Knowledge,  Ability and Estate: Leaving her Daughter heir of a considerable farm at a Place called Plain Dealing in Plymouth.’

“I lived in the Town and kept School four years and then having a Mind to try something else, l removed sometime in the year 1709 to a Small Habitation I had bought with some land adjacent to my wife’s Inheritance two Miles North of ye Town, — a Place agreeable in some Respects to the Choice which a celebrated Poet of our Nation expressed his Desire of Making in ye following Lines.—

  • ‘If Heaven the gratefull Liberty would give,
  • ‘That I might chuse my Method how to live:
  • ‘Near some fair Town I’d have a private seat
  • ‘Built uniform, not little, nor too great.
  • ‘Better if on a rising ground it stood,
  • ‘Fields on this side, on that a Neighbouring wood.
  • ‘It should within no other things contain,
  • ‘But what were usefull, necessary, plain.
  • ‘Methinks ’tis Nauseous & I ‘d ne’er endure
  • ‘The needless Pomp of gaudy Furniture.
  • ‘A little Garden gratefull to the Eye
  • ‘And a cool Rivulett run murmuring by.
  • ‘A frugal Plenty should my table spread,
  • ‘With healthfull, not luxurious dishes fed.’

“This for the Place, now for the Business that I carved out for myself here. I had some Scholars in the winter time which I instructed in Writing and Arithmetic, &c., &c. But as to Farming I made a poor hand of it. Indeed I learnt to raise Tobacco and Hardened my hands for ye cutting of wood so as that for many years after, I cut most of ye wood brought long to my Door, &c. But finally having made the experiment I thought it would not do and so determined to return again to ye School at Town.’

“In the year 1723 I put in execution what I had intended in the year 1711 when I Removed to Town, viz., Building at & Removing back again to Plain Dealing.”