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Delmarva Heritage Series

* Ebenezer Cook, Colonial Poet

Salisbury Times - May 15, 1958

The extreme northwest corner, of Dorchester County seemingly is pointing a finger at Tilghman's Island a few miles across the water in Talbot County. This land formation, known as Cook Point or Cook's Point, has been a famous location to the sailing population of the Chesapeake Bay region for many years. But it should also be known for its association with the family which 

produced one of the best early poets in America.

Cook's Point or "Maulden," as it was called in the early days, was given in a grant to Sir Andrew Cooke, 2nd, of London. The will of Andrew Cooke, in 1711, which is to be found among the land records of Dorchester County, states: "To my son Ebenezer Cooke and Anne Cooke, my daughter, all my Rights, Titles ... all my land called Cooke's Point lying and being at the mouth of Great Choptank River, Lying in Dorchester County, Maryland, to them share and share alike ..."

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Ebenezer Cook, "Gent.", first came to Maryland in the year 1700, or thereabout, on one of his father's ships with the purpose of purchasing a cargo of tobacco for the English markets. It was at this time, according to one authority, that he made a brief visit to the Eastern Shore.

With his arrival poetry make its first appearance on the Eastern Shore for this gentleman published in London in 1708 a short satirical poem, called "The Sot-Weed Factor: or Voyage to Maryland, A satyr". In provincial Maryland, a 'factor' was an agent of an English merchange, and 'sotweed' was the slang expression often used for tobacco, a most important crop.

The "Sot-Weed Factor" contains about 21 pages of a "sprightly poetic description of life and manners in colonial Maryland, and is purported to be a narrative of the experiences of Ebenezer Cook in Maryland. It is not flattering in its picture of colonial Maryland, but it is rather enjoyable reading for the author had a talent for wit and poetic feeling.

Some modern scholars of American literature feel that along with Mrs. Sarah Kemble Knight's unflattering presentation of life and travel in rural New England and Colonel William Byrd's similar picture of North Carolina, may be placed Cook's satire on Maryland. Little is known about the author himself, and what is known comes almost wholly from his published poems. It is easy to see that he was angered by the rawness of this country and the dishonest practices of some of the planters, traders and courts. However, James Truslow Adams, writing about provincial society in America said, "In literature, the works which have most retained their vitality for modern readers were almost all written in the South, although published in England. In Maryland ... The Sot-Weed Factor (was) a satiric poem of 'genuine power. The picture which he (Cook) gives of certain aspects of life in the colony may not be accurate and certainly is not flattering, but there was no poetry produced elsewhere in America at the time which has retained its interest as has this racy and vigorous satire ...'"

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BRIEFLY, THIS narrative poem tells about Cook's arrival in Maryland, his experiences with a boy who believes that Cook is a servant, but then apologizes and invites him to his father's house, where the planter receives him with crude but kind hospitality. There is a most amusing account of the food, drink, and animals that Cook encounters during his stay. Next he visits a court in session, and here-again has some laughable experiences. Finally he meets a Quaker with whom he exchanges his goods for a cargo of tobacco, but he makes the mistake of trusting this colonial and finds that the Quaker has gone away, leaving the unlucky Cook minus both his goods and the tobacco. Cook goes to court for justice and receives a verdict in his favor, but one can imagine his rage when the court calls for the payment to be made in "country pay."

"In pipe-staves, corn, or flesh of boar,
rare cargo for the English shore."

IN GREAT ANGER Cook hurries off to join the tobacco fleet sailing for England leaving his malediction upon the colony of Maryland and all its inhabitants.

For all of its sting, "The Sot-Weed Factor' often gives a rather true picture of life in the colonies. In most, if not all, of the colonies the women among the earlier settlers were expected to occupy a position of helpful subservience to their husbands, and were not unused to hard manual labor, even in the fields among the men. As the chambermaid complains in this poem,

" ... now at the hoe,
I daily work, and barefoot go,
In weeding corn, or feeding swine,
I spend my melancholy time."

Also many women, who came to America as indentured servants, after serving out their contracts, married well and rose to positions of high social status and esteem. As one of the card-playing ladies in "The Sot-Weed Factor" spitefully says to another:

" ... tho' now so brave
I knew you late a four-year slave;
What if for planter's wife you go,
Nature designed you for the hoe."

And to show that the planters of Maryland did fare well at the dinner table Cook wrote:

"Wild fowl and fish, delicious meats,
As good as Neptune's doxy eats,
Began our hospitable treat;
Fat venison followed in the rear,
And turkies wild luxurious cheear:
But what the feast did not commend,
Was hearty welcome from my friend.
Thus having made a noble feast
And eat as well as pamper'd priest:
Madera strong in flowing bowls
Fill'd with extream delight our souls;
Till wearied with a purple flood
Of generous wine (the giant's blood
As poets feign) and I made,
For some refreshing verdant shade;
I slumbered long ..."

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ALTHOUGH Ebenezer Cook may have gone back to England in anger, he nevertheless returned to Maryland and was reconciled to the colony. J. T. Pole, one of his most recent serious students, goes so far as to claim that upon his return to America Cook became "the leader of the first literary group to appear in the South."

Cook continued his writings and in 1730 published at Annapolis "Sot-Weed Redivivus," a serious-minded verse on over-production of tobacco; and in 1731 there appeared "The Maryland Muse," comprising a burlesque on Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia and a revision of "The Sot-Weed Factor" in which most of the sting of the earlier satire was left out. A "Second Part" was promised for later, but probably was never published.

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