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Alfred J. CottonAlfred Johnson Cotton
1800 - 1875

Hoosier Connection: Alfred J. Cotton was an early Indiana pioneer. He was an ordained minister, served as a circuit court and probate judge, briefly edited the Newcastle Banner in Henry County, taught school, was a farmer and a general public figure in Dearborn and surrounding counties for the first half of the 19th century. He later recorded his experiences, poems, and other writings in two books.

Works Discussed: Cotton's Keepsake; Cotton's sketch-book

Alfred Johnson Cotton was born in Pownal, Maine, on April 20, 1800, to William and Margaret Cotton. Cotton writes in his autobiographical book, Cotton's sketch-book, "Tradition says that I am a lineal descendant of Rev. John Cotton, of Plymouth Colony notoriety" (14).

What little biographical information is known about the Reverend Judge (he used the titles in conjunction) Alfred J. Cotton is collected from his personal writings and from county histories. His early life and how he happened upon Indiana are best recounted in his own words:

My parents were only in comfortable circumstances, so that my opportunities for acquiring an education were limited to the facilities of the common schools for only two or three months in the winter season, and even that only up to the eighteenth year of my age, at which time it will be seen, I emigrated West, soon married, and located myself in the forest (30).

I frankly stated that I felt deeply impressed that God had called me to preach the Gospel, and this might be God's method to send me to a strange people (36).

Early in the fall of 1818…having bade my dear good parents and friends a fond and tearful adieu, I…was soon under way for my new home and destiny in the wilds of the then Far West, —more to preach the gospel of Christ than to gain either wealth or fame (40-41).

I cannot tell you how happy I was, nor how cordially I was received and made welcome to my new home in the fertile regions of the West; you must guess at that (44).

Startled by the "wildness" of his new home in Indiana, Cotton described wildlife and forests as "ghastly" and "horrendous." From his writing, he did not appear to be afraid of the wilderness, but only considered it an obstacle to be tackled. What he did provide was an interesting view of the un-cultivated Ohio River valley:

And so providentially and circumstantially I was married a few months before I was 19 years of age, and shortly after located myself in a little snug log cabin out in the open woods, where snakes and wolves and bears and panthers, in common parlance, were somewhat as thick as fleas and mosquitos, and went to work with a mind and will to clear me up a farm to sustain me and mine, while I went about doing good (44-45).

All was one vast unbroken wilderness around me, save here and there a little cabin and a small opening, the labor of the new-comers the previous year. These were scattered about on what was then called Green Brier, as before observed; so called by hunters, because of the prevalence of a brier of that color that abounded in the forest (50).

When Cotton first came to “The West,” he was what he called a "licensed exhorter." At age 21, he became a preacher. At age 25, he became an ordained minister. At age 29, he was elected to elder's orders (Keepsake 304).

In 1828 Cotton ran for what he described as "legislature," but apparently was not elected. A short while later, he moved to Henry County to take the editor's seat at the fledgling Newcastle Banner, which is no longer in publication. He later resigned the position at what he called pressure from the other editors (304).

After his resignation, he moved back to Dearborn County where he ran for circuit court judge and won by what he called "a fair margin." He served between 6 and 7 years in that position, at which time he was appointed "sole judge of the probate" for Dearborn County by then-governor James Whitcomb. He served five years in this position (315-316).

Although he wrote about the environment he encountered in “The West,” Cotton never sang the praises of nature. Later in his life, Cotton observed the changes to the environment that had taken place since he had first arrived, and praised what he saw there instead:

O, what changes have occurred since that fearful night! The howling wilderness has become as the garden of God. Fine farms, and orchards, and mansions, and school-houses, and seminaries, and colleges, and churches, and turnpikes, and canals, and railroads, and telegraphs surround me on every side (Sketch-book 58).

Cotton’s writings indicate that he was well-respected by the members of his community and was a friend of the farm workers who populated the rural region he lived in. He was a regular speaker at the Agricultural Fair of Dearborn County, and wrote and read many poems on the glories of farming and industrialization and how God loved people who worked the earth and changed it from "savage wilderness" to "useful land.” In the poem An Ode to Industry, which Cotton writes was sung at the first Agricultural Fair, Cotton reflects on the necessity of hard work on the land:

The cultivation of the earth, through toil, and sweat and sighs,
Is heaven's choicest, richest boon, all blessings in disguise.
The thorns and thistles, that we dread, which choke the growing grain,
Give exercise to willing hands, and health and peace maintain (134).

Cotton’s writings concerning the environment show that he viewed nature as an obstacle for man to climb over, as something man must conquer and control in order to survive. He praised man’s construction and alteration of the environment he first encountered when he came to the West from New England.



Cotton, Alfred J. Cotton’s Keepsake: Poems on Various Subjects, by Rev. Judge A. J. Cotton, Philom. To Which is Appended a Short Autobiographical Sketch of the Life of the Author, and a Condensed History of the Early Settlement, Incidents, and Improvements of the Country, from the Early Settlers Themselves, and from Observation and Experience in It, for the Space of Forty Years Last Past. Cincinnati: Applegate & Co., 1858.

Cotton, Alfred J. Cotton’s Sketch-Book; Autobiographical Sketches of the Life, Labors, and Extensive Home Travels of … in Short, Convenient Chapters. Portland, Me.: B. Thurston, 1874.


Cotton, Alfred J. Cotton’s Sketch-Book; Autobiographical Sketches of the Life, Labors, and Extensive Home Travels of … in Short, Convenient Chapters. Portland, Me.: B. Thurston, 1874.