Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Cobbs of Morristown

Box 6, unprocessed and nearly 
intact to its original storage condition
Although their name may not be as familiar as the Fords’, the Cobbs of Morristown were a prominent local family and had an equally influential role in the development and history of Morris County. As contemporaries of the Fords (for whom the Ford Mansion is named), the Cobbs had a hand in regional economic and business matters.

This summer, I have had the pleasure of going through the Cobb Collection. I have spent most of my time taking notes on the documents’ contents and rehousing them in archive-friendly, acid-free folders. The collection is one of the park’s lesser-known holdings and contains personal, legal and business documents created by or related to the Cobb family dating back to the pre-Revolutionary period. The collection was originally given to the park by Andrew Lemuel Cobb Jr. (c. 1895-1967), a descendant of the Cobbs who continued to live locally until his death, and includes over forty boxes of approximately one hundred documents each. Although the park has had the collection for over forty years, its sheer size has made cataloging its full contents difficult.

My original goal was to create a finding aid for the collection, but doing so will have to be a collaborative effort; I have been able to go through only eleven of forty-plus boxes so far! Hopefully, the work that I have done will make the collection more accessible to other researchers and will also serve as a start for what I hope will someday be a complete catalog of the collection.

Most of the documents in the collection were originated by Lemuel Cobb (1762-1831) and his son, Andrew Bell Cobb (1804-1873). Both Cobbs worked as lawyers and surveyors and eventually served as justices of the peace for the Morris County Court of Common Pleas. The younger Cobb also acted as Parsippany’s postmaster and was elected to the New Jersey State Senate.

The nature of the Cobbs’ vocation means that many of the documents I have gone through are less than thrilling. There are many land deeds, mortgages, bonds, accounts, surveys, receipts and IOUs, or “notes.” Most of these are unexciting but some do include mentions of or correspondence with notable historical figures including Supreme Court Justice James Wilson and Governors William Livingston and Isaac Williamson. Aaron Ogden, the third governor of New Jersey did a lot of business with Lemuel Cobb and I also found a quit claim signed by Philip Schuyler, senator and father-in-law of founding father Alexander Hamilton.

One of the boxes includes letters to Andrew B. Cobb’s first wife, Elizabeth Farrand Kirkpatrick Cobb, which I found comparatively more entertaining than business documents. As a postal enthusiast, I enjoyed looking at all of the stamps and different postmarks that appear on the letters. Elizabeth Cobb’s correspondence also provides insight into contemporary daily life and social activities, which she and her relatives recount in their letters. Along with the letters, she also saved an invitation to a ball celebrating “Washington’s Birthnight” (very exciting, I’m sure) and there is also mention of an illegitimate child (gasp!) in one of the letters. Elizabeth Cobb’s letters also helped illustrate the contrast between early nineteenth-century life and life today, and not only through personal accounts of quotidian happenings. One of the letters to Elizabeth from Andrew was sent from the Dunning Hotel at the corner of Washington and Cortlandt Streets in New York; that site would eventually become the location of the World Trade Center.

One of three checks found in the Cobb Collection
In addition to the mundane, the Cobb collection also includes some novel material. There are several sets of military discharge papers, an arrest warrant and three checks written in 1831. I also found some hand-copied verses from the Book of Genesis, a number of court summonses, a scrapbook, and a partial diagram of the planets.

A bill of sale for the purchase of a mother and two children

The collection also occasionally veers into the humorous. Among the more light-hearted documents are three short letters from William Robb addressed to Mr. Cobb, Mrs. Cobb and then Mr. Cobb again in April, May and June of 1797 requesting “one qt of sidar [sic] spirits.” Poor Mr. Robb apparently waited a long time to get a drink. Another that I found entertaining was an affidavit of a deposition in a case that came before Lemuel Cobb as a justice of the peace, in which the complainant accused her neighbors of repeatedly sneaking through her fence to steal her chickens.

In addition to documenting land transactions, the Cobb Collection also documents the transaction of humans, an unfortunate aspect of nineteenth-century life in Morris County that should not be overlooked. As an affluent businessman with extensive land holdings, Lemuel Cobb bought and sold slaves, including children. Bills of sale document his purchase of nine slaves, including children as young as nine months and two years old. And although Cobb treated enslaved people as commodities, it is important to remember that they were not passive objects but real people subjected to horrific treatment by other humans who sometimes bravely resisted their circumstances. A 1798 bill of sale records Lemuel Cobb paying £22 for a three-year-old female child from Elisabeth Righter; some twenty-odd years later, an affidavit recounts how that very same girl, Hagar, ran away in 1821.

Although tedious at times, my time with the Cobb Collection has also been at turns amusing, enlightening and affecting. I can only imagine what other diamonds in the rough are waiting to be found in the rest of the forty boxes. 

This blog post by Phoebe Duke, Hamilton College.

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