Monday, March 11, 2013

The Great Cotton Explosion of 1684: So Many Kids, So Few Names


When John “Bertie” Cotten (c. 1650 to 1728) married Martha Godwin in Virginia around 1684, they set off a population explosion in North Carolina that left its mark throughout the 1700s. Later in life, Bertie moved to what is now Bertie County in North Carolina (on the Albemarle Sound west of Nags Head), but several of his grown children had already made the move to the Tar Heel State by then.

I’m not one for nosing around dusty old courthouse files for hints to my ancestry, but my wife, Vicki, and my sister, Jolie, do enjoy that sort of thing, as did my mother and grandfather, and I’m intrigued by the results as long as someone else does the work.

The Cotton Baby Boom (often spelled “Cotten”) started with Bertie’s fourteen children (that we know of), eight of whom were males. By the first Federal census of 1790, there were 34 Cotton families in the state, consisting of 97 males and 76 females. It can be shown that most of these families were descendant from Bertie.

The 1810 Federal census showed that many of those families had already begun migrating to the south and west.

And that turns out to be a good thing for me, because there were practically no white families living in North Carolina before the Cottons came along, so if you can trace a relative back to Carolina in the 1700s — and we can — then there is an extremely high probability that you are related to Bertie and, of course, all of his well-researched ancestors.

We don’t know how we are related to Bertie exactly, only that we most likely are. We’re still working on that and may never know for certain. Two of Bertie’s sons (James and Thomas) left no record but the other six have been well documented. Though we have a few unidentified generations back to Bertie, the line back to Cheshire, England is well established from there.

My family’s link to North Carolina is William (no surprise there) Cotton, Sr. (c. 1770 - c. 1848) and his wife Elizabeth who came to Kentucky in 1813, undoubtedly through the Cumberland Gap and across 300 miles of unbroken wilderness to Christian County in western Kentucky, near where I grew up in Dawson Springs. He was probably given some land there.

I hope Bertie, may he rest in well-deserved peace, will forgive my familiarity in using his nickname, but its tough to keep track of a dozen generations of men mostly named William or John or James right down to my grandfather, William, and my Dad and I, both James.

It reminds me of Larry, Darryl and Darryl, the backwoods brothers on the Bob Newhart Show whose parents were so dull they could only come up with two names for three kids. 

John’s father was named John and John’s first son was named John. And that son eventually had a son named John. John (Bertie) also had a son named James and one named William. No Darryl’s found, so far.

As I read these stories, I keep imagining conversations that might have taken place. When Martha Godwin wanted to call the entire family to dinner at Thanksgiving, did she stick her head out the back door and yell, “John!”

When John had house guests, did he introduce them by saying, “Hi, I’m John. This is my grandfather, John, and my son, John. Oh, and that’s his little boy, John, crawling next to the fireplace. My brother William and my other brother, William, will be along d’rectly.”

Why did you set out west, I want to ask William Sr. and Elizabeth, with three children in a covered wagon and how did you know to stop when you got to Christian County? 

Ah, the conversations in my head.

William Sr.: “Honey, I’m bored. Let’s head west over the mountains and through Indian Territory. I’ve been given title to some land in Christian County, Kentucky and we can be there in a couple of years.”

Elizabeth: “What’s it like?”

William Sr.: “We’ll know when we get there.”

Elizabeth: “Whatever." 

Elizabeth: “Frances! Put your belonging in the covered wagon, and load up the little ‘uns. Wheels up in twenty." 

My ancestors were serious pioneers. But why stop in Christian County, Kentucky? I’ve driven through that county a hundred times and it’s a nice area with beautiful farms but nothing ever screamed at me, “This is it! This what you’ve waited for your entire life!”

Elizabeth: “William, why are we stopping here?”

William Sr.: “Because in 135 years, Bob Creekmur will open a gas station and barbecue joint over in the next county.”

Elizabeth: “Well, that’d be nice, I suppose. What’s gas?”

There is another Cotton family that left North Carolina for Kentucky and then Indiana about the same time. His name was, shockingly, William Cotton, Sr. and his wife was, wait for it. . . Elizabeth (Atherton) Cotton. They ended up in Shelby, Indiana. I don’t know if or how we are related, yet.

Now, I totally get why they stopped in Indiana after Kentucky.

Elizabeth of Indiana: “I’m bored with Indiana. Wanna move further west?”

William Sr. of Indiana: “West again? Are you serious? It ain’t exactly getting better when we move west now, is it? The only thing west of here is corn, as far as I can tell. Nope, I'm staying right here.

My sister joked this weekend that if my maternal grandfather was still alive we could tell him about how the Cottons are actually descendant from wealthy English families and important colonial leaders. Maybe that would've changed his attitude toward his future son-in-law.

We’re pretty sure what his response would have been when Mom came home in 1950 and said, “I’m gonna marry one of those Cotton brothers from over in Caldwell County.”

Without looking up from his paper, and with much sarcasm because he spoke with sarcasm or not at all, he would’ve said, 

William Cotton’s boy? Oh, yeah. That’s every father’s dream.”


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Dirk Cotton is a retired executive of a Fortune 500 technology company. Since retiring in 2005, he has researched and published papers on retirement finance, spoken at retirement industry conferences and events, and regularly posted on retirement finance issues at his blog, The Retirement Cafe. He is currently a Thought Leader at APViewpoint, Advisor Perspectives' online community of  investment advisors and financial planners. He provides retirement planning advice as a fee-only financial planner.

Mr. Cotton holds an undergraduate degree in computer science from the University of Kentucky, an MBA from Marymount University, and a certificate in financial planning from Boston University.

He and his family currently reside in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He loves to spend time with his family, fly fish, shoot sporting clays, attend college baseball games, sail, follow the Wildcats, and write.

Dirk holds a bachelor's degree in computer science from the University of Kentucky, an MBA from Marymount University, and a certificate in financial planning from Boston University.  He attended high school in Elizabethtown, Kentucky.

email: JDCPlanning@gmail.com