Cole, Robert (1628?-1662?)
Robert Cole (1628?-1662?)
Early Life. Robert Cole, an early settler in Maryland, was not a man of special achievement or renown, but his life was more typical of colonists than some of those who are better known. Cole was born in Heston, Middlesex, England—his mother, Joan, lived there in the early 1660s. His father, William Cole, died in 1633 or 1634, when Robert was young. He was apparently the only surviving child in the family. Heston lay in a fertile agricultural region, and the Cole family, long resident there, had shared in the local prosperity. Robert Cole could read and write, and, unlike many immigrants, he arrived in the colonies with enough money to buy land and to bring servants. Between 1649 and 1652 Cole married Rebecca Knott, a widow with two children.
Family. While it is impossible to know why Cole immigrated, it is likely that his Catholicism played a role. The 1650s was the interregnum—the time between reigns—when Charles I had already been executed and Charles II was still in exile. A Puritan Parliament and the Protector, Oliver Cromwell, tried to instill a more Protestant vision of England. It was not a particularly good time to be a Roman Catholic there. Maryland, on the other hand, was the proprietorship of the Roman Catholic Lords Baltimore and a haven for the likes of Cole. Cole arrived in Maryland in 1652 with his wife, four children (two of whom were stepchildren), and two servants. A son, Robert Jr., was born in 1652. Four more children lived to survive their parents; all were raised Roman Catholic.
Planter. Cole was a tobacco planter and originally purchased 300 acres on Saint Clement Bay and surveyed 350 acres more that he sold without developing. His Saint Clement’s land was within distance of a Jesuit mission and several neighboring families. Cole owned uncleared forest, and his first task was to carve a farm out of the woods. He needed a house where he and his wife, children, and servants could find shelter. He also built a tobacco-curing shed. This half-acre site provided some household vegetables and herbs. Here Cole’s wife kept chickens and other fowl. The earliest Chesapeake settlers also cleared land for an orchard and planted apple trees since apple cider was their major beverage. Cattle and swine ran loose in the forest. For his own dependents Cole needed about six acres of corn. For a cash crop he and two or three servants would have been able to handle six or seven acres of tobacco. By his third year in Maryland, Cole had cleared enough land and done well enough to buy another servant, a twelve-year-old boy. In 1657 he also brought over a kinswoman to help his wife, who that year had her fourth child born in Maryland. The women also had a twelve-cow dairy herd that supplied milk, butter, and cheese. In 1661 the kinsworn an-servant Mary Mills had served out her time and married. She was replaced with two female servants. At the height of his plantation in 1662 Cole had twenty-two acres under cultivation in corn and tobacco that he worked alongside three male servants and his stepson. He also acquired the rights to an additional eleven hundred acres. Cole’s position in the top half of his society carried with it some forms of public service. He held the minor offices of provincial court juror and manor court juror. He was also an ensign in the militia.
Life and Death. In 1662 Cole’s world changed. Sometime between March and April his wife, Rebecca, not yet forty years old, died. Cole himself was planning on leaving for England, taking care before he left to inventory his assets and make out a will, just in case. He died by September 1663, leaving behind seven children, five of his own and two by his wife’s previous marriage. The oldest of his own children was only ten at the time Cole died in his mid thirties. He had accumulated an estate that would allow his children a start in life better than that of the indentured servants whom he had hired, but his eldest son died at the age of forty-one, worth less than half of what his father had left him. His second son was bound out an apprentice and died at the age of thirtythree, leaving behind no record of landholdings. His youngest son did the best of all. Edward Cole, planter and merchant, lived to be around sixty years old and was given the title of Mr., which denoted respect and status. At his death in 1717 he owned 575 acres and had personal property, including seven slaves, worth more than three times what his father had owned. He had changed with the times, diversifying his occupations to include both farming and wholesaling—he was the representative of a London firm at the time of his death. He also had made the leap from indentured white labor, which was cheaper but also only good for a contracted number of years, to slave labor, which lasted for not only the lives of the slaves but also of any children a slave woman might have. Francis Knott, the stepson, did not receive the same opportunities as Robert Cole’s natural children. He inherited land rights but no land. He lived to be fifty-six, married, and had children. He died with a long-term lease for one hundred acres and a personal estate less than 30 percent that of his stepfather.
Lois Green Carr, Russell R. Menard, and Lorena S. Walsh, Robert Cole’s World: Agriculture and Society in Early Maryland (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).
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