Another look at an early blended family reveals fresh conclusions affecting planter families in Cobequid

The Cook Boys and Sidney HolmesAdvertisements circulated among Ulster newspapers soliciting “industrious farmers and useful mechanics” to emigrate to Nova Scotia.1 The prospective emigrants were to occupy lands confiscated from the Acadians in 1755 and the settlement plan had the backing of the British Colonial Office and the Nova Scotia government. By the fall of 1761, such a party sailed into Halifax harbor on the Hopewell. While the families were from Northern Ireland, they were Scottish and Protestant. That is the backdrop of this story; the close-up is of one family who left a puzzle so knotty it might never have been solved.

Among the newcomers was a family headed by William Cook and his wife, Sidney. Her life remains important to family historians even 250 years later because she was three-times married and the mother of six children, two with each husband. The heirs of her blended family still live in central Nova Scotia as well as farther afield. However there are two more children, sons of William Cook, mistakenly attributed to Sidney and therein lay the puzzle about who is related to whom. Sorting out the relationships requires an array of data; some from the 18th century and some from the 21st century.

We know that Sidney Cook was born Sidney Holmes in Donegal Ireland in 1730.2 Sometimes her name is written Sydney Homes but she is the same person. She married first in Britain to David Marshall with whom she had two daughters, Rachel (b. at.1746) and Elizabeth (b. abt. 1758). As far as we know, David Marshall never came to Canada. Her second marriage was to Irish-born William Cook with whom she had a daughter and a son, Rebecca (b. abt. 1762) and James (b. abt. 1764). They appear to have been born in Nova Scotia. Later on she will marry Matthew Staples and have two sons, John and William Staples.3 One mother, six children, three fathers. But what about the other two boys?

Back in the 1860s, Thomas Miller set out to compile a “Who’s Who” of early post-Acadian families that settled in Colchester County. His father was the clerk for the Township of Truro, founded in 1761. Though the original generation had passed away during that century, memories of them survived among their families and church, cemetery and township records. Miller put together genealogies of the first five generations and in 1873 he published The Historical and Genealogical Record of the First Settlers of Colchester County. In spite of some inaccuracies, it remains a family historian’s guide to mid-eighteenth century settlement and is known commonly as “The Miller Book.” It is fundamental to the story of Sidney and her three households. We could wish Thomas Miller had been able to give accurate dates to the events he described, but the storyline itself has never been disputed.

Like the other passengers onboard the Hopewell, the Cooks were making a move of a lifetime to better their economic circumstances. Tenant farmers in Ireland could never hope to own their own farms no matter how hard they worked. While the American prospects were appealing, the challenges must have been daunting as well. Their destination was the newly surveyed township of Londonderry. The land lots were at a place called Port-au-Pique close to Cobequid Bay’s Minas Basin. Onslow and Truro Townships lay to the east. There were, perhaps, forty other households to be settled but, because they arrived in Halifax on the 9th of October, only a few may have proceeded to Cobequid until at least the following springtime. Alas, William and his family were not to enjoy their promised land for long because sudden death scattered them in several directions. With no explanation, Miller simply wrote, “William Cook drowned at Port au Pique.” He offered no year, but further wrote, “His widow [William Cook’s] was married to Matthew Staples about the year 1766.”4 Whatever the precise date of William Cook’s death, his widow, Sidney would have been in her late 30s. Rachel Marshall would have been in her teens. Rebecca and James, her children with William Cook, would still have been under six years of age.

Without the social safety nets we have today, it is little wonder that a widow with six dependent children urgently needed support. Twice-widowed Sidney found that support in a bachelor who had obtained a thousand-acre grant in nearby Onslow Township. His name was Matthew Staples and it is said he came from England with the Cornwallis party to Chebucto—now Halifax—in 1749.5 Staples was a blacksmith, an important skill for early settlements. The marriage between Matthew Staples and Sidney Cook must have occurred as quickly as manners permitted after William’s death because the arithmetic suggests a son born to them soon after.

The dates to which we can link some of these events begin with the estate papers of William Cook.6 Among those papers may be found:

  •     Inventory of William Cook’s Effects, 16 November 1767
  •     Inventory of Goods & Chattels; Taken and Approved 16 November 1767
  •     Letter re: Guardianship, 24 November 1767
  •     Bond Action to Administrator of Estate, 29 April 1768

Another reading of early documents may be found in a compilation entitled, Deaths, Burials, & Probates of Nova Scotians, 1749-1799, from Primary Sources. It lists William Cook’s probate at Londonderry, 17 April 1768, no age or next of kin is included.7

The core of the mystery first appears in the Letter of Guardianship. It refers to only two of William Cook’s children, neither of whom is, thus far, accounted for and neither of whom is named by Thomas Miller. Just why only two of six under-age children require guardians is curious. Still, the letter reveals two unnamed boys; the age of the elder is mentioned, as were the names of those appointed guardians. It’s only from subsequent records that one is able to deduce the names of these boys and the age of one of them. Because the letter is so important it is reproduced here exactly as it was written. Penned by James Fulton, an influential man in the township, it was addressed to the Surrogate Judge of Wills and Probate for the Province.