John Hartwell Cocke (1780-1866)

Joseph Carrington Cabell’s Chief Collaborator

john hartwell cocke

Though not a lineal descendent of William Cabell, bonds of friendship joined John Hartwell Cocke–the Virginia planter, reformer, general, and statesman–to the Cabell family. After he converted to Christianity under the gentle ministrations of his first wife, Ann, Cocke devoted himself to public service and to social reform. On several of these initiatives, he collaborated with Joseph Carrington Cabell and became his dearest friend. Eventually, there were even ties of blood between the Cabell and Cocke families. Cocke’s daughter Anne Blaws Cocke (1811-1862) married Nathaniel Francis Cabell, Joseph Carrington Cabell’s favorite nephew.

The friends labored together on two great enterprises that changed the course of Virginia history, the James River and Canada Company and the University of Virginia. Both men cared deeply for their native state and supported internal improvements to bolster economic development in the Virginia backcountry. In 1835, Cabell was elected President of the James River and Kanawha Company at the organization’s first meeting, and Cocke was named one of seven directors to assist the president. The two fought skeptics, self-interested politicians, and the railroad to build canals and other improvements on over 200 miles of the James River. When critics intensified their censure of the project following damages caused by an 1842 flood, the two felt alone against the world. “What in the name of God has got into the James River people!!” exclaimed Cabell to Cocke, in a letter dated 8 November. Cocke fumed as well, responding on 21 November that the flood had indeed “brought out the malignity & meanness of the other parts of the State–as well as that of the proprietors along the line.” The two successfully defended the Company and continued their partnership until Cabell’s resignation from the presidency in 1846.

john hartwell cocke2While the James River and Kanawha Company ultimately failed to spur development in western Virginia and perhaps even retarded the development of railroads in Virginia, the pair’s other project–the University of Virginia–flourished. Then Governor James P. Preston named both Cocke and Cabell to the first Board of Visitors of the University in 1819. The two survived original board members Thomas Jefferson and James Madison by many years and exercised a decisive influence on the University in its early years. Cocke served until 1852, Cabell until his death in 1856. The two guided Jefferson’s ambitious dream into a thriving reality with four hundred students per year by 1852.

Cocke worked intimately with Cabell on the Canal and the University, but he devoted most of his time to addressing what he perceived to be the two great evils of his day: slavery and alcohol. A loyal member of the American Colonization Society, Cocke proved his earnest intent to end slavery by actually freeing several of his bondsmen. He chose only skilled slaves whom he thought could make a living independently, paid their passage to Africa, and maintained a correspondence with them for years after their arrival. Cocke forwarded to Peyton Skipwith and his family Bibles, cloths, and farming supplies along with his letters. In addition to working slowly to eradicate slavery, Cocke was the preeminent temperance reformer in Virginia. Publicly and privately, he worked to halt the production and consumption of alcohol. He urged his friends not to drink and, where possible, used his influence to deny others access to alcohol. While a director of the James River and Kanawha Company, for example, he managed to criminalize drinking among workers for two years. Cocke was elected president of the Virginia Temperance Society in 1834, and as President of the United States Temperance Union in 1836.

Tired by war and by the long fight to improve the world around him, Cocke passed away at “Bremo,” his Fluvanna County estate, in 1866.

Additional Sources Consulted:
Langhorne Gibson, Cabell’s Canal (2000)
John Hartwell Cocke Papers (MSS 640)
Caryl Johnston, The Thoroughbred Colt (1999)
Josepeh C. Cabell Papers (MSS 38-111)

Cocke Family Papers at the University of Virginia: Online Guide.