Delmarva Settlers

Biographical Profiles
The Footprint Of William Cotton On The Eastern Shore
By Katherine E. Bird

According to the traditions and beliefs of the Egyptians and Native Americans, as long as a person's name remains among the living in some form, it will never be extinct. And so it is with a man such as William Cotton, dead for over 350 years, yet at this time continuing to be researched, discussed, and written about in numerous university studies. While only in America for a brief time - probably no more than fifteen years - his influence and reputation as a minister, along with his connections to some of the more influential families of the early settlements of the lower Eastern Shore, make him a person worthy of note. An attempt will be made in this narrative to reconstruct a mural of this life through legal documents and court records, as well as some contributions by those who have thoroughly researched this place and period. Hopefully, a clearer image of William Cotton will emerge and contribute to the overall picture of the lives on the Eastern Shore of Virginia in the early colonial period.


Contents : Essays

Settlers & Sites Index

    < < William Cotton

About these essays

William Cotton's early life and the exact circumstances of his appearance in the New World are somewhat of a mystery. Various researchers have placed his birthdate from 1599 to 1610. Many list his father as Andrew Cotton, although there is little substantiation behind this name.[1] William Cotton's will named Joane Cotton as his mother, and his former home as Bunbury, Cheshire, England.[2] The Bunbury parish register lists a William Cotton as being baptized 18 March 1609/10, son of Jeffry (or Jeffray) Cotton. Other children of Jeffry and Joane were Peter (b. 1607), John (b. 1613), Elizabeth (b. 1615, died in infancy), Elizabeth (b. 1616/17), and Richard (b. 1622). Jeffry Cotton was recorded as "a poor man of the parish" at his burial on 28 December 1622 in Bunbury, and Joane a "poor woman of the parish" at her burial in Bunbury on 23 March 1642/43.[3]

With parents considered "poor," and having five siblings, it is difficult to know for certain how William Cotton received his education for the ministry. While he may have been tutored, it is also possible he had a sponsor who saw promise in him and sent him to further his education at one of the universities. There is a promising record from Cambridge University of a William Cotton, who matriculated "sizar" from St. John's College at Michaelmas (one of three terms) in 1627. This could be the same William Cotton, as he would have been eighteen, and many graduates were as young as sixteen. Also, the rank of "sizar" was the lowest, or third, of three ranks. A "sizar" performed many menial services at this time, probably not something done by the students of wealthier families.[4]

If the 1627 graduation date is used, William Cotton immigrated to America no earlier than 1627 and no later than 1632. He was not on the list of persons residing on the Eastern Shore in 1624/5, but by 1632 was the minister when the monthly court was formed. An exact year of immigration cannot be determined at this time, as he does not appear in any of the transcribed ships records or lists during this period.[5] However, it is quite possible that William Cotton landed in New England or James City and was called to become the second minister of the church formed within the palisades of a fort located in the vicinity of King's and Cherrystone Creeks.[6] The first minister, Francis Bolton (or Boulton), began his work sometime around 1624, and was still mentioned as cleric in 1630.[7] While the reason for replacement is unknown, a possible conclusion may be drawn that the young Reverend William Cotton was called to replace an older or ill Frances Bolton. There are some clues that Bolton may have wished to spend his later years in a more "civilized" region, such as James City or points south.[8] This was also a period of unrest in England which made it difficult to find proper Anglican rectors for churches in America. Many of the local ministers came from the ranks of the Puritan dissenters. With the Cotton name associated with some of the Puritan elements, and reports that William Cotton had the "character of 'of a stern Puritan' and the 'career... [that] smacks of New England...'," Cotton may have found the opportunity to take the place of an Anglican minister with an established work, in a somewhat remote area, most welcome.[9]

If Reverend William Cotton thought the road would be easy as an Anglican minister living off the "tithes" taxed to the inhabitants of the region, he was mistaken. It is obvious that there were many, who for whatever reasons, refused to pay their tithes. In the three years between 1634 and 1637, Reverend Cotton brought no less than six lawsuits against individuals for not paying tithes and several more for payment for services, such as funerals. It is interesting to note that the amounts Cotton sued for were rarely more than 100 lbs. of tobacco, while other lawsuits for debts at the time often exceeded ten times that amount. It seemed that either Cotton had to scrape for every penny, or that he was somewhat petty in suing for these small amounts. In addition, Rev. Cotton had to sue to appoint vestrymen and to have a parsonage built.[10] While it is possible that in theology, Cotton was not a whole-hearted Anglican, he did insist on the mechanics of the support of the denomination.[11]

Although there were many lawsuits brought against those who would not do their part in sustaining the livelihood of the minister, during the same period, very few cases of a moral nature were brought before the court by the minister. While Rev. Cotton appeared in the transcripts several times as a witness to a business transaction or giving a deposition, the court records give the impression that he did not spend a great deal of time trying to discipline his congregation through the judicial system. Rev. Cotton had Thomas Allen fined for swearing in 1634, and on a somewhat humorous note to the reader, Cotton had Henry Charlton brought before the court for slander. Mr. Charlton was heard by witnesses calling Rev. Cotton a "black-coated rascal" and wished he could kick him over the "pallyzados" (palisades). In this case, Charlton was sentenced to spend three Sabbath days in stocks, publicly asking for Rev. Cotton's forgiveness.[12] One other clue as to the feelings of the people towards their minister was the absence of reference to him when crises occurred. Few felt kindly enough toward him to remember him in their wills or stand by him when he had to go to court to settle a matter. From the frequency of the cases and the tone of the language, it would seem William Cotton was perceived as a minister going through the motions of his job, who was not a very popular person.[13]

William Cotton's life took a substantial turn in 1637. At some point before July of that year, he married the daughter of one of the most prominent families of the region.[14] Ann Graves was the daughter of Captain Thomas Graves, one of the original settlers of the area and a noted colonial leader. William took his bride, along with five other individuals, and declared a total of seven immigrants for the purpose of obtaining the head rights to 350 acres of land, recorded 10 July 1637. Besides Cotton and his wife, a Richard Hill, Eleanor Hill, Edward Esson, and two negroes were listed.[15] The new home of Rev. William Cotton and his wife was located north of the King's and Cherrystone Creeks area in the region of Hungar's Creek, near to that of William Stone, another influential settler, who later became the governor. Stone had married Verlinda Graves, Ann's sister, making another connection in the family.[16]

William Cotton patented another 300 acres of land 20 February 1638. On this list, he claimed a Henry Pace, John Hayworth, Elizabeth Harris, and the negroes, Domingo and Saconyo (which could have been a variant spelling of Samson or Sambo). It was likely that these were the same two negroes mentioned in his first land patent, though unnamed at that time.[17] The land was located along the main creek of Hungars, near the land of Mr. William Andrews.

Reverend William Cotton named his new plantation, Bunbury, after his home in England. As more people moved to the area around Hungar's Creek, Reverend Cotton was asked to be a regular part of services there. He did agree to preach there once a month in 1639. He also performed the other tasks of funeral services and giving depositions when needed.[18] The plantation apparently did well enough to be a financial support to William and Ann, since after the land patents, there were no other suits filed for delinquent tithes or other demands for provision.[19] In his will, he requested that his debts be paid, but had the confidence that there would be enough left over to leave the plantation, servants and livestock to the family.[20]

Sadly, William Cotton did not live long after finally achieving what most colonists wished for - their own land, a family, and a somewhat comfortable living. Cotton wrote his will in August of 1640, being "weak in body" (ill and not expecting to recover). In addition to information mentioned earlier in this work, it appears that Cotton had two children who died in infancy, since he requested to be buried next to them. He also referred to his "yet unborn" son or daughter.[21] It is altogether possible that he died before his daughter, Verlinda, was born. At the very least, he died while she was an infant, since by 1642, Ann had remarried.[22]

While Ann's marriage to Reverend William Cotton seemed a satisfactory one, her subsequent marriage to Nathaniel Eaton did not turn out as well. He replaced Cotton as rector of Hungar's Parish, but his past dealings in Massachusetts should have sent up red flags for both his potential public service and private life. He apparently left New England under a cloud of debt, and accusations of ill treatment of family, students and co-workers. Eaton lost little time in laying claim to the Cotton plantation, by virtue of his marriage to Ann, and selling off 350 acres to John Holloway on 7 October 1642.[23] Eaton then reportedly deserted Ann and their two sons, Samuel and Nathaniel, and returned to England in 1647. He died in debt there in 1674.[24]

Apparently Ann Graves Cotton Eaton assumed Nathaniel Eaton had died, because by 1657 she had married Reverend Francis Doughy. He also had Puritan leanings, and succeeded John Rozier, who had taken Eaton's place in 1644. Interestingly, shortly before their marriage, Doughty issued a notice that he would not claim any of Ann's estate. Ann apparently had learned her lesson. The couple moved to Charles County, Maryland, where Ann Graves Cotton Eaton Doughty died 2 March 1682/83.[25]

William and Ann's daughter, Verlinda, born shortly before or just after her father's death in 1640/41, married Thomas Burdett 1 September 1658. The Burdett name was another prominent one on the Eastern Shore. Thomas' father, William Burdett, owned a sizeable amount of land, was a respected businessman, and was part of the court. Thomas was his only biological child. Thomas and Verlinda had four children: Elizabeth, who married John Hamilton and later Richard Chandler; Frances, who possibly married a Col. Charles Ashton; Parthenia, who apparently was unmarried; and Sarah, who married Gerard Fowke, Jr.[26]

Thomas Burdett died sometime before 2 March 1667/8, and Verlinda married Richard Boughton sometime after 24 June 1668.27 They also had four children: Samuel, who did not appear to marry; Verlinda, who also appeared to remain unmarried; Katherine, who married a Benony Thomas; and Mary, of whom nothing further could be found. Verlinda and Richard Boughton moved to Charles County, Maryland, where Boughton held various jobs and offices in the government. Verlinda Cotton Burdett Boughton died in 1683. [28]

Reverend William Cotton could have potentially been just another name on a list of people born in poor circumstances who lived a relatively short life during a time when living was difficult. But somehow he obtained a good education, immigrated to America, took advantage of opportunities presented to him, and made an impression on the society of his day. He tenaciously fought to get what was owed to him, married well, obtained land near influential neighbors, and finally realized what many would call the "American dream" - his own plantation, a somewhat respected profession, a family, and relative financial freedom. The fact that he did not live long after achieving the dream would seem to be the only deep disappointment for William Cotton. His family intersected with some of the great names of that time and his daughter produced offspring that continued the family line to this day. Truly the footprint left by William Cotton on the Eastern Shore is a large and lasting one.


1 Cotton Genealogy Studies, Internet,;

Click here for information about this image

2 Northampton County Court Records, 1645-1654, Wills, Deeds, etc. (contains others), Vol. 3, No. 3, indexed, p. 55.

3 Parish Register, 1559-1653, Bunbury, Cheshire, England, as quoted by John Hopkins, Archivist, Cheshire County Record Office,, and by William R. Gann in "ChronicleWm.Cotton#2.doc" from

4 Venn, John, and Venn, J.A., Alumni Cantabrigienses- A Biographical List of all Known Students, Graduates and Holders of Office at the University of Cambridge, From the Earliest Times to 1900, Part I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922), pp. xxvii, 404.

5 "A Muster of the Inhabitance of the Easterne Shore Over the Baye" in "Musters of the Inhabitants of Virginia 1624/5" taken from Adventurers of Purse and Person Virginia 1607-1624/5 edited by Virginia M. Meyer and John F. Dorman, Order of First Families of Virginia, 1987, pp.68-71.

6 According to Kirk Mariner in Revival's Children: A Religious History of the Eastern Shore (Salisbury, Maryland: Peninsula Press, 1979), p. 610, this church was called "The Towne," and was the earliest known church building on the Eastern Shore. Court records indicated by 1634 it was already in need of some repairs and was built within a stockade.

7 Wise, Jennings Cropper, Ye Kingdome of Accowmacke or the Eastern Shore of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century (Richmond, Va.: The Bell Book and Stationery Co., 1911), pp. 254-255.

8 Francis Bolton was reportedly seen in James City in 1630 according to Ralph Whitelaw, Virginia's Eastern Shore - A History of Northampton and Accomack Counties (Camden, ME: Picton Press, 1989), p. 171. Also, William Cotton appealed to James City during his early ministry for orders to appoint vestrymen and to have a parsonage built, indicating a continuing connection to that region and perhaps Bolton. Francis Bolton appeared as a witness to a land transaction near Elizabeth City, 6 February 1632 according to Nell Marion Nugent, Cavaliers and Pioneers - Abstracts of Virginia Land Patents and Grants -1623-1666, Volume One (Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1979), p. 16.

9 Mariner, Revival's Children - A Religious History of the Eastern Shore, pp. 4-5.

10 Ames, Susie, ed., American Legal Records Vol. 7, County Court Records of Accomack-Northampton Virginia, 1632-1640 (Washington, D.C.: American Historical Association, 1954), pp. 10, 24, 26, 28, 45, 64, 98, 101, 121.

11 Wise, Jennings Cropper, Ye Kingdome of Accowmacke or the Eastern Shore of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century, p.256.

12 Ames, Susie, ed., American Legal Records Vol. 7, County Court Records of Accomack-Northampton Virginia, 1632-1640, pp. 15, 28, 58, 62, 145.

13 Ames, Susie M., Studies of the Virginia Eastern Shore in the Seventeenth Century (Richmond, VA.: The Dietz Press, Publishers, 1946), pp. 224-225.

14 Wulfeck, Dorothy Ford, Marriages of Some Virginia Residents, 1607-1800, Vol. 1 (Baltimore, MD.: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1986), p. 160.

15 Nugent, Nell Marion, Cavaliers and Pioneers - Abstracts of Virginia Land Patents and Grants -1623-1666, Volume One (Baltimore, MD.: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1979), p. 59. While the negroes are unnamed in this entry, it appears that Cotton used them the following year in another land patent (p. 101); Hiden, P.W., "Three Rectors of Hungar's Parish and Their Wife", William & Mary Quarterly, Jan. 1939, Vol. 19, No. 1, p. 34-35. Hiden referred to Wise's "Early History of the Eastern Shore" to comment that the two negroes brought in by William Cotton came from the West Indies and are the first slaves mentioned in the old records. Richard Hill appears two other times in land patent lists, and could have been an indentured servant. He appeared in the court records several times giving depositions and as a witness to financial dealings. He was listed as a juror in the court of 1648 (Ames, Court Records 1645-1651, p. 306). Edward Esson appeared again as Edward Eason on a later transport list along with Richard Hill.

16 Greer, George Cabell, Early Virginia Immigrants - 1623-1666 (Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1988), p. 80, 107, 160; Perry, James R., The Formation of a Society on Virginia's Eastern Shore, 1615-1655 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), p. 71.

17 Nugent, Cavaliers and Pioneers - Abstracts of Virginia Land Patents and Grants -1623-1666, Volume One, p. 101. Cotton left Domingo to his yet unborn child in his will. Later court records mention a Domingo as a servant to William Hawley (1645), and as transferred from Hawley to John Stringer (1647). Finally, a "Domingo Mathews - Negro" is mentioned (1650). It is probable these refer to the same person, as there were relatively few black servants in the area and very unlikely two would possess the same name.

18 Ibid., p. 183.

19 Ames, Susie, ed., American Legal Records Vol. 7, County Court Records of Accomack-Northampton Virginia, 1632-1640, p. 128, 145, 158, 159.

20 Northampton County Court Records, 1645-1654, p. 55.

21 Ibid., p. 55.

22 Nugent, Nell Marion, Cavaliers and Pioneers - Abstracts of Virginia Land Patents and Grants -1623-1666, Volume One, p. 135.

23 Nugent, , Nell Marion, Cavaliers and Pioneers - Abstracts of Virginia Land Patents and Grants -1623-1666, Volume One, p. 135. Fortunately, the land was retrieved when Verlinda Cotton Burdett claimed the land as heir to her father (Whitelaw, Virginia's Eastern Shore, p. 356).

24 Hiden, P.W., "Three Rectors of Hungar's Parish and Their Wife", p. 37.

25 Mariner, Revival's Children - A Religious History of the Eastern Shore, p. 5; William R. Gann, "ChronicleWm.Cotton#2.doc."

26 Doliante, Sharon, Maryland and Virginia Colonials: Genealogies of Some Colonial Families, Vol. I (Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1991), p. 325. Gerald Fowke, Jr., was the half-brother of Richard Chandler, who married Elizabeth Burdett. Chandler's parents were Job and Anne (Thoroughgood) Chandler and Gerald was the son of Gerald and Anne (Thoroughgood)- Chandler Fowke.

27 Meyer, Virginia, and Dorman, John Frederick, editors, Adventurers of Purse and Person, Virginia, 1607-1624/5 (Richmond, VA: Dietz Press, Inc., 1987), p. 332. Date of Thomas Burdett's death determined when administration of his estate was granted to his wife. Date of marriage to Richard Boughton determined by a deed of gift to Verlinda's children given before her "intended marriage" to Boughton.

28 Ibid., p. 333. There is a Benony (or Benoni) Thomas mentioned as a son of Mary Stone Thomas (related to Verlinda Graves Stone), but it is unknown if they are the same person. Also, the records show Richard Boughton marrying a person named Honor by March 1694. Boughton died before 29 June 1706 (when son Samuel was granted administration of his estate).

About This Project  * Citation Guidelines  * Copyright & Fair Use * ©
This project is in support of the Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture
Click here for information about this image