copied from Samuel C. Williams'
copied by Paul M. Fink
William Cocke was a remarkable man with a career quite as remarkable. He was born in 1748 in Amelia County, Virginia, the youngest son of Abraham Cocke, who was a descendant of Richard Cocke, the earliest of the name to settle in Virginia, about 1630. The Cocke family emigrated from Devonshire England, and from about the time of his arrival in Virginia, Richard Cocke was Lieutenant-Colonel Commander of Henrico County, and member of the House of Burgesses for the years 1632 - 1644. Stephen Cocke, the grandfather, inherited Malvern Hill, famed in the Civil War.
William Cocke married Sarah [Mary] MacLin, and about 1773, removed to the West, first settling on Renfro's Creek in Washington County, Virginia, and later lower down in North Carolina in the present county of Sullivan, as a subsequent protector of the State line demonstrated.
William Cocke in the Spring of 1774 was Captain of a company of irregular raised for the defense of the Holston settlers. A formal permission was issued to him (Aug. 1774) by Col. William Preston, he succeeding Capt. Anthony Bledsoe, resigned. The next month Capt. Cocke made a journey into North Carolina for the purpose of soliciting military aid for the frontiersmen who were then hard-pressed by the several hostile Indian tribes. His Company active in defending the border, as was also one under Daniel Boone.
In the Spring of 1775, Cocke was employed by Col. Richard Henderson to accompany the latter in his march through the wilderness into the Kentucky country, there to found the Transylvania government.
Cocke's first legislative experience in the House of Delegates of the Colony of Transylvania May 1775. Cocke in latter years brought a suit in equity against Henderson and his associates to have decreed a specific performance of a contract for a large boundary of land, promised as compensation for his services.
On his return to the Holston-Watauga Settlement, Cocke led his company in the battle of Eaton's Fort (1776). A charge that he was guilty of cowardice in the action was denied by Cocke; and it turned up to embarrass him several times in his after-career. He was by order (Dec 9, 1776) of the privy Council of Virginia suspended until a court of inquiry should pass on his conduct. Cocke found almost immediate vindication at the hands of his neighbors, who elected him, along with Anthony Bledsoe, a delegate to the Virginia legislature of 1777, against Arthur Campbell and William Edminton. The defeated candidates filed a contest in the House of Delegates in which they contended that Cocke and Bledsoe were ineligible. The report of the Committee was to the effect that Long Island of Holston was situated in Virginia, and in favor of the contestees. Thus, two North Carolinians (later Tennesseeans) furnished Washington County, Virginia her first representatives in the General Assembly of Virginia. Two years later (1779) it suited Cocke's purpose to shift and he contended that taxes could not be legally [collected] in the strip where he resided on the North side of Holston River in Carters Valley. Cocke resisted the sheriff who was undertaking to collect taxes on behalf of Virginia "as it was in Carolina and never was in Virginia". Cocke had already acknowledged allegiance to North Carolina and entered the public service of that State. He had, in August 1777, been elected Clerk, and then made an unsuccessful race against John Sevier for the Clerkship of the Washington County Court in 1778. In the same year, he had been elected to represent his district in the Assembly of Newbern. After taking his seat, he was deprived of it on the ground that he occupied the Office of Clerk.
As a Captain, Cocke was on the campaign to relieve the South Carolinians in the earlier part of 1780. At Thicketty Fort, he was deemed the fittest officer to send forward to demand of Col. Patrick Moore the surrender of the fort. Cocke was not on the Kings Mountain expedition.
On Feb. 26, 1782, Cocke was admitted to the bar at Jonesborough and in the same month to the bar of Sullivan County. In April of the same year, he was a member of the Franklin Assembly. As a member of the Council of State of Franklin and of the several Conventions, he was second only to Sevier in influence.
He was, in June 1784, elected Judge of the County of Dyer and [?] of Davidson County, but owing to his connection with the Franklin movement, did not qualify.
Cocke had a seat in the Carolina Assembly of 1788, by which body he was elected State's Attorney for Washington District.
Under the Territorial form of government, he was a member of the first Legislature 1794; he was by that body made Attorney of Washington District and a trustee of Blount College for the establishment of which he introduced the bill.
In the Constitutional Convention of 1796, he was a delegate from Hawkins County. By the first legislature, he was elected to represent Tennessee in the U.S. Senate, and served until July, 1797. He was elected a second time, serving 1799 - 1805.
In 1797, a new county was created and named Cocke in his honor.
In 1807, Cocke announced his candidacy for the governorship of Tennessee, but soon saw that he could make no headway against John Sevier, in whose favor he withdrew.
In 1809, he was appointed Judge of the First Circuit, a position he was not adapted to temperamentally. He was essentially an orator and advocate. He was impeached in 1812 and on trial found guilty of misconduct in office, though his offending appears to have been a refusal as Judge to grant a Writ of Certiorari on an unsworn petition.
Cocke found a measure of vindication in an election by the people of his county to the legislature of 1813.
Smarting from what he conceived to be and what today appears to have been an unjust impeachment, Cocke despite advanced age, volunteered to serve as a private in Col. John Williams' Regiment of Volunteers and went to Florida on a campaign against the Seminole Indians and the next year served as a private in the Creek War. A deep gratification must have come to him with the following note of commendation from his Commanding General, Andrew Jackson:
Jan 28th 1814
"Sir: the patriotism that you brought in to the field at your advanced age which prompted you on with me to face the enemy in the late excursion to the Tallahassee River, the example of order, your strict admonition throughout the lines, and lastly the bravery you displayed in the Battle of Enotochepco by recrossing the Creek, entering the pursuit and exposing your person and thereby saving the life of Lieut. Muss and killing the Indian, entitle you to this thanks of your General and the appreciation of your Country."
He was in 1814, perhaps through the instrumentality of General Jackson, appointed by President Madison [as] Agent to the Chickasaw Indians. He made his home at Columbus, Miss. Cocke served a term in the Mississippi legislature.
William Cocke died August 22, 1828, and his buried under a monument erected by the State of Miss. on which appears this inscription:
"Here lie the remains of William Cocke who died in Columbus, Mississippi on the 22nd of August 1828. The deceased passed an eventful and active life Was Captain in Command during the War of 1776. Was distinguished for his brave daring and intrepidity. Was one of the pioneers who first crossed the Alleghany Mountains with Daniel Boone into the wilderness of Kentucky. Took an active part in the formation of the Franklin Government, afterward the State of Tennessee Was the delegate from that free limit to the Congress of the United States. Was a member of the Convention which framed the first Constitution of Tennessee, and was one of the first Senators from that State to the Congress of the United States. For a period of twelve years and afterwards one of the Circuit Judges. He served in the Legislatures of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi and at the age of 65 was a volunteer in the War of 1812, and again distinguished himself for personal bravery and courage. He departed this life in the 81st year of his age, universally lamented."
[The wording here is not entirely accurate. See pictures of William Cocke's grave.]
When there is added Cocke's further legislative service in Transylvania, the Territory South of the Ohio, and Franklin, it may safely be stated that his record is unique among American Legislators.
The best testament of Cocke's powers is that of Caldwell in his "Bench and Bar of Tennessee".
"He is remembered as the great orator of his time, and by consent of his contemporaries, he had no equal as a popular speaker. A remarkable readiness and brilliancy of speech has been characteristic of his family in all succeeding generations."
His son, John Cocke, was a Major-General in command of the Tennessee troops in the Creek War, and distinguished himself as a gallant soldier. He served in Congress from the second district of Tennessee four successive terms from 1819.
William Michael Cocke, a grandson, was a member of Congress two terms, 1845 - 1849; and his son Sterling Cocke was Chancellor of Mississippi.
[Notes in brackets  were added by Carole Thomason, descendant of Gen. William Cocke.]
Back to The William Cocke Homepage