Thomas Cobb of Halifax, Nova Scotia
By Loren Cobb
The descendents of Thomas Cobb, born about 1762 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, constitute a family that is apparently distinct from all other known Cobb families in North America. All efforts to trace the ancestry of Thomas Cobb using the traditional methods of genealogy have failed, but we can report exciting evidence from the Cobb DNA Project.
Results from the Cobb DNA Project
This ongoing project, directed by Robert Strickland and sponsored by an anonymous retired school teacher, uses DNA testing to compare a list of the alleles at 26 loci on the Y-chromosomes of volunteers who bear the Cobb surname. A contemporary descendent of Thomas Cobb was among these volunteers. His genetic pattern did not match any other Cobb volunteers from North America, but it did almost exactly match a Cobb from England, with a variance in only one locus. Based on this evidence, we can state two conclusions with reasonable confidence:
- The male line that leads to Thomas Cobb of Halifax, Nova Scotia, probably diverged from the Cobb surname line in Shoreditch, England, roughly 250 years ago, i.e. in the 18th century.
- The descendents of Thomas Cobb are not related to any other Cobb surname line in the pool of volunteers in the Cobb DNA study (101, at last count).
In addition, there are tantalizing hints that the Thomas Cobb family may also be linked to a more distant common ancestor (identity unknown), shared with five other people in the Cobb DNA database. However, this apparent link may ultimately prove illusory when everyone's DNA test has been upgraded to 37 markers.
Results from Genealogical and Historical Research
This remainder of this essay focuses on what is definitely known about Thomas Cobb and his family. A separate essay, Research on the Parents of Thomas Cobb of Halifax, reports all the hypotheses, deductions, wild guesses, dead-ends, and miscellaneous data associated with the genealogical search for his parents, as well as the most recent DNA evidence.
When Thomas Cobb was born in 1762, Halifax was a very small frontier outpost, utterly different from the peaceful and beautiful city it is today. It had been founded in 1749 by the British in order to build a naval shipyard and to support the "sea militia." This was an informal band of Yankee privateers and pirates who were supposed to protect the fisheries and prey on French shipping, which they did whenever they weren't smuggling contraband in and out of the northern colonies. The British severely restricted the flow of money into Nova Scotia, and so from its earliest days the town of Halifax used a liquid substitute for currency: rum. The citizens of Halifax distilled better than 90,000 gallons of rum annually, which they used for wages and barter whenever coins were scarce, and for relief from constant illnesses, bitter winter cold, lice and fleas, scurvy, poverty, and a spectacularly corrupt government. Alcoholism was nearly universal, poor houses were filled with indigents every winter, and the town supported one saloon for every 50 inhabitants (my estimate based on publican licenses).
In 1776, when Thomas Cobb was only 14 years old, war came to Halifax. When the call went out to draft 1000 men into a provincial militia to protect against an American invasion, we may safely assume that the many woodsmen, carpenters, and fishermen who sympathized with the rebels quietly disappeared into the woods, or returned to New England. Shortly thereafter, General William Howe and his army of 30,000 arrived from Boston, to regroup and reorganize for the invasion of New York. With Howe came an influx of thousands upon thousands of loyalist refugees, who displaced the rum-soaked population and quickly seized permanent control of the town.
Family legend tells us that young Thomas Cobb left his home at a tender age to join the Continental Army in Boston. The earliest written form of this legend is the application to the Daughters of the American Revolution made by his daughter, Elizabeth Cobb Avis. Here is the story in her own words, written at the age of 92:
"At the commencement of the war of the American Revolution my father at the age of seventeen joined the army, marched with it to West Point. They suffered much sometimes. Night would overtake them in a swamp so interminable that they would be obliged to spend it with their feet in the water. At first he served as Drummer Boy. He was in the command of General Knox. Was at Valley Forge when Layfayette visited the army and furnished them with blankets and shoes. He was trying to make himself shoes with the legs of his boots. He was mustered out at Yorktown. Went to Gardner Maine. Married Miss Lucy Smith from Nantucket. Settled in Camden. I am his tenth child, born in 1807."
There is a small inconsistency in some of these dates. On the application she gives his birth date as 1762, and says that he joined the army at 17 and survived the winter encampment at Valley Forge (1777-78). These three "facts" cannot all be true. However, Massachusetts military records do show that a Thomas Cobb enlisted as a private on 1 June 1778 in Captain Dunham's company of the 2nd Massachusetts Regiment under Colonel John Bailey, and that he was discharged on 27 February 1779.
After the war he met and married Lucy Smith of Nantucket. Their marriage intention was recorded in 1789 in the town of Wiscasset, Lincoln County, Maine. The intention refers to Lucy as "Mrs. Lucy Smith," but in that era the title Mrs. did not necessarily mean that a woman had been previously married. In fact, we have no information whatsoever on her parentage or possible previous marriage. Another Cobb family legend has it that Lucy was a Quaker and a pacifist, and converted Thomas to those beliefs. Our earliest written support for this idea is found in a genealogy of the Mudge family, written in 1868 by Alfred Mudge. Referring to the marriage of Thomas and Lucy's daughter Ardra to the Hon. Benjamin Mudge in 1848, Alfred Mudge had this to say about Thomas: "Thomas Cobb was a Revolutionary soldier, who afterwards became a Friend [Quaker], and refused to take a pension for his services." The DAR application of Emma May Cobb presents a slightly different story: "His parents were Quakers and he ran away from his home in Nova Scotia to join the army against their wishes." Finally, the 1924 obituary of Alfred Cobb Howlett (a grandson of Thomas) stated that "Cobb remained with the army until the war closed and was mustered out at Yorktown. Having joined the Society of Friends (Quakers), he was very reticent on the subject of battles but appeared perfectly acquainted with all the circumstances of Lexington and Bunker Hill battles. When pensions were offered he refused to make application for one as he considered it the 'wages of unrighteousness'." To this day some descendents of Thomas Cobb maintain these pacifist inclinations.
Lucy was evidently a Nantucket Quaker. During the 17th century, Nantucket island served as a haven for Quakers who fled persecution by the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Unfortunately, we have been no more able to trace the Nantucket ancestry of Lucy Smith than we have that of her husband, Thomas Cobb. The names "Lucy" and "Smith" were very common in Nantucket, but to date no match has been found.
The US Census of 1790 found Thomas and Lucy Cobb in Camden, Knox County, Maine, with two girls. Ten years later, the 1880 Census again found this family in Camden, now with two boys and two girls under 10 years of age. By 1810 the family had grown to two boys and two girls under 10, one boy and one girl 10-16, and one boy 16-26. In 1820 the Census recorded the family of Thomas Cobb as living in Lynn, Essex County, Massachusetts. The 1830 Census located them in the town of China, Kennebec County, Maine. Thomas died in 1841 in Lynn, Massachusetts, and Lucy died seven years later, also in Lynn. The Town of Lynn has a record of her death on 23 April 1848, stating that she is the widow of Thomas Cobb.
Yet another family legend holds that Thomas Cobb was buried in the "Cobb Cemetery" in Lynn, but all attempts to locate a cemetery of this name have failed. There is an "Old Quaker Burial Ground" in Lynn, but a search of its records does not confirm the burial of either Thomas or Lucy. Quakers of that era considered tombstones to be ostentatious, so it is unlikely that a tombstone will ever be found.
Thomas and Lucy had ten children, according to their daughter Elizabeth Cobb Avis. Of these ten, the following six have been identified:
1. Ardra Cobb, born about 1790, died in 1880.
2. Mary (or Mercy) Cobb, born about 1792 in Brookline, MA.
3. Enos Cobb, born about 1794.
4. Henry Cobb, born 23 June 1798 in Camden, ME, died in 1872.
5. Thomas C. Cobb, born about 1800 in Camden, ME.
6. Elizabeth Cobb, born 7 August 1809 in Camden, ME, died in 1901.
Concerning Ardra Cobb we know only that she married the Hon. Benjamin Mudge in 1848, at the age of about 58.
Mary Cobb married James Howlett in Lynn, in 1824, and they joined the California gold rush in 1848. Their son Alfred Cobb Howlett moved to Oregon, where he became a celebrated circuit rider for the Baptist Church. He and his wife, Sarah Elizabeth Cooke, had 13 children. This is the origin of the extensive Oregon/Howlett branch of the family.
Enos Cobb became an attorney who represented veterans of the Revolutionary War in their attempts to claim pensions and bounty land. He married Eliza Weld in 1816, but there are no records of children.
Henry Cobb married Augusta Adams in 1822. Augusta was the daughter of Mary Ives and John Adams of Beverly, MA (no apparent relation to the presidents). In the mid-1830s Augusta met Brigham Young, a founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints (also known as the Mormons), and was so impressed that eventually she left Henry and took her three youngest children to join him in Nauvoo, Illinois. She married Brigham Young in 1843, thus becoming the fifth of his 20+ wives. This is the origin of the Utah branch of the Halifax Cobbs.
Augusta Cobb's eldest son Albert Adams Cobb, who stayed behind with his father Henry, never forgave his mother -- though later generations have mended relations. Albert Adams Cobb married Mary Russell Candler, who came from a sea-faring family. She was the daughter of Captain John Candler, Jr., and Susan Wheelwright. John Candler had been a Master's Mate on the USS Constitution in the War of 1812, and later became a successful clipper-ship captain. To this day the Yankee sea-faring names of Candler, Ives, and Wheelwright echo throughout the descendents of Albert Adams Cobb. The famous Chicago architect, Henry Ives Cobb, was a son of Albert Adams Cobb and Mary Russell Candler. Stanley Cobb, grandson of Albert and son of John Candler Cobb, was a founder of the field of neuropathology and Chairman of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. The Cobbs who descend from Albert Adams Cobb remain concentrated in the Northeast, though in recent generations several families have moved west to the Rocky Mountain area.
Thomas C. Cobb married Elizabeth Jones of Warren, ME, in 1817. They had two daughters, Lucy and Eliza. Nothing further is known about his descendents.
Elizabeth Cobb married Thomas Avis, Jr. of Boston in 1837, and they immediately moved to St. Louis, Missouri. Their son, William Hamilton Avis, wrote the first pure food law for the State of Missouri, a model that was later used throughout the nation. This is the origin of the Missouri/Avis branch of the family.
Important Note for Descendents of Thomas Cobb
Due to a computer disaster last winter, I have lost most of your email addresses and correspondence. Please send me an email, so that we can regain contact.
Loren Cobb ([email protected])
First version: October, 2001.
This revision: August, 2005.
Go to Research Notes on parents of Thomas Cobb
The Descendants of Thomas Cobb
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