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COCKRAN, WILLIAM (the name is sometimes written Cochrane, an error arising from a family arrangement whereby his son, the Reverend Thomas Cochrane, used this spelling), Church of England clergyman and missionary; b. 1796 or 1797 in Chillingham, Northumberland, England; d. 1 Oct. 1865 in Portage la Prairie (Man.).

Little is known of the Reverend William Cockran before his arrival in the Red River Settlement with his wife Ann and an infant son on 4 Oct. 1825. Cockran, a Scot, was apparently raised a Presbyterian, becoming a member of the Church of England as a young man. Both Cockran and his wife were of relatively humble origin: according to J. W. Brooks of the Church Missionary Society, “he would not suit a congregation in England – his origin is low – his wife, though a discreet and pious woman, was a servant maid – his manners unpolished and indicate his origin . . . his dialect broad and vulgar even as a scotchman.” Cockran, Brooks reports, “was bred up to agriculture,” employed as “under bailiff in Scotland,” and later “set up a small school for children at Ordsall.” His knowledge of husbandry and his intense desire to serve as a missionary made him a suitable candidate for the Church Missionary Society. A medical report on this physically “very big and vigorous man” that found him unsuitable for tropical climates was probably responsible for his selection as the third CMS missionary to be sent to Rupert’s Land. Cockran was ordained deacon 19 Dec. 1824 and priest 29 May 1825, barely a week previous to his departure for the Red River Settlement.

Cockran arrived in the settlement at a critical juncture in the affairs of the Anglican mission and the development of Red River. The Reverend John West*, who had come in 1820 to establish the mission, and the Reverend David Thomas Jones*, who succeeded West in 1823, had determined the particular nature of the mission’s relationship with the Hudson’s Bay Company and with the Roman Catholic missionaries at Saint-Boniface (Man.). Much, however, remained to be accomplished. The principal challenge facing Jones and Cockran was the evangelization of the large numbers of mixed-bloods migrating from the trading posts of the interior to Red River especially after the amalgamation of the HBC and the North West Company in 1821. For business and philanthropic reasons the HBC encouraged supernumeraries in and about their posts to move to Red River where they would come under the influence of churches, schools, and civil government. Those mixed-bloods whose antecedents linked them to Lower Canada, the Métis, settled as buffalo hunters to the south and west of the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers and were ministered to by French Canadian Roman Catholic priests. Those mixed-bloods who derived from British progenitors, largely Orkneymen, and who were known as half-breeds or Country-born, settled to the north of the junction of the two rivers and came under the auspices of the Anglican mission. Their numbers were such that they soon overshadowed the few families of Presbyterian Kildonan Scots farmers, the original settlers brought by Selkirk [Douglas*]. As a majority of the Country-born families were not headed by a British-born parent they had little if any knowledge of the technical, economic, and social skills necessary for success as agriculturalists in a sedentary community. If the Anglican mission was to succeed, the cultural ways of the Country-born had to be adapted to circumstances in Red River. Quite quickly Cockran perceived that evangelization was not enough; “civilization” was equally important.

In 1827 Cockran therefore resolved to expand the farming operations of the mission at Upper Church (later St John’s). The reduction of expenses for supplies was the principal reason he cited to win the support of his co-worker, Jones, and the directors of the CMS. It soon became evident that Cockran had had other reasons. Besides providing additional means of alleviating the poverty of his parishioners, the farm became a practical demonstration of the skills settlers needed for success in Red River. During visits among his parishioners Cockran instructed young and old alike in the most rudimentary techniques associated with the handling and care of farm animals and the planting, harvesting, and storing of vegetable and grain crops. But a knowledge of technical skills was not enough. Men who had spent their lives as servants of the HBC, which gave responsibility for the necessities of life and the planning of daily tasks to the officer in charge, were ill equipped to manage their riverlot farms. Cockran found himself acting also as an administrator and financial adviser. Still other problems arose. The Country-born, familiar with the social usages of the trading post, had difficulty adjusting to the society of the settlement. Cockran was called upon to mediate disputes within families and between neighbours. Frequently it was Cockran who aroused his parishioners to take cooperative action in the interests of the whole parish. From the pulpit, in the Sunday and day schools, and during visits, Cockran preached the message of evangelical Anglicanism, but inseparable from his religious message were the precepts of social behaviour which he felt were necessary if the Country-born were to survive as a Christian and civilized community in Red River.

In 1829, leaving Jones to carry on missionary work at Upper Church and Middle Church (later St Paul’s), Cockran followed the flow of settlement northward down the Red River to establish Lower Church (later St Andrew’s) at Grand Rapids. Here, amidst a population of bewildered and destitute Country-born settlers, he repeated the programme he had initiated at Upper Church. In 1832 when the Indian school, founded by West, was transferred to his care, he established a school of industry, which trained the boys in weaving, carpentry, and husbandry, and instructed the girls in spinning and other domestic duties.

Cockran’s success at Lower Church led him to try a similar program with Peguis’ band of Saulteaux, residing at the northern extremity of the settlement. With the assistance of a Country-born catechist, Joseph Cook, Cockran commenced his work with this band in 1831. It was difficult. The Saulteaux were far less responsive to the missionary’s efforts than the Country-born settlers. But with patience and compassion Cockran instructed, pleaded, cajoled, and, on one occasion at least, threatened physical coercion to win the support of a hesitant few. The increasingly enthusiastic support of Peguis was instrumental in crowning his efforts with some measure of success. In 1836 he began the construction of a church in the Indian Settlement (later St Peter’s) to mark his labours among these people.

In the later 1830s Cockran’s zeal waned. Believing that civilization was as important as evangelization, he was keenly disappointed that neither his Country-born nor his Indian parishioners adopted British practices to the extent he felt was necessary for their temporal success and their spiritual salvation. It was evident to him that they chose to maintain many of the cultural elements of the trading post and the trapline. Their homes collectively might look like a British country village, but their life was much different. Hunting, trapping, and tripping, occupations which Cockran frowned upon, continued to attract many of the Country-born and the Indians for at least part of the year. And in other areas of their social life older ways persisted, a noteworthy example being their child-rearing practices to which Cockran never completely reconciled himself. Self-doubt now began to mark his journal entries and letters. He also struck out at what he believed were the shortcomings of his co-workers, Jones, and the directors of the CMS. But the full sting of his pen and tongue was reserved for the officers of the HBC and, to an extent, Governor George Simpson*.

Cockran’s work at Lower Church and the Indian Settlement was a success in that large numbers of Indians were attracted to Red River. Indeed the exodus from the interior reached such proportions that the company’s officers became alarmed. No doubt their alarm would have increased had they been aware that Cockran saw in this migration the means of evangelizing a far larger number of Indians in Rupert’s Land. Rather than having to journey into the interior and establish missions in areas unsuitable for settled agrarian communities, Cockran would encourage the Indians to move to the region of Red River and establish river-lot farms. The officers of the company and Simpson replied to Cockran’s challenge to their livelihood by placing numerous barriers in the way of the migrants. Cockran, already suffering doubts concerning the value of his work, replied with vehemence. His relations with Simpson remained fairly cordial, but most of the company’s officers do not emerge in a favourable light in Cockran’s reports. Quite possibly as a result of this experience Simpson gave some encouragement to the Wesleyan Methodists for missionary work in the interior. They proposed to Christianize but not civilize the Indians. Their appearance early in the 1840s further disturbed the distraught Cockran.

In the same decade Cockran faced a new problem in the free trade movement among the mixed-bloods, directed against the company’s monopoly [see Louis Riel]. Cockran himself had reservations concerning some of the policies and actions of the company, but considered it the principal supporting power behind many of the settlement’s institutions. These same institutions enshrined British practices that Cockran wished to inculcate in his parishioners. A victory for the free traders would create a less hospitable environment for the goals he sought. In his mind he saw the Country-born and Indian settlers forced to abandon their farms and return to the forests of the interior. In these circumstances Cockran began to take a less jaundiced view of the worth of his own work and the value of the company to his missionary labours. Perhaps in earlier years he had hoped for too much too soon. His support for the company grew when the increasing presence of the Métis in the free trade movement suggested the possibility of a French and Roman Catholic ascendancy in Red River.

The arrival of British troops in the settlement in 1846, which seemed to dispel the threat posed by the free traders, and the coming the previous year of the Reverend Robert James allowed Cockran to act on his plans to retire. Since 1840 he had been discussing this possibility with the directors of the CMS. Although he suffered from a hernia and nervous exhaustion Cockran would not abandon his work until an adequate replacement had been found. Sensing that he would not be happy in Britain, Cockran left Red River with his family in 1846 for Toronto. The next year, through the kind assistance of Simpson, they were back in Red River, Cockran apparently much improved in health. Accepting the chaplaincy of the company offered by Simpson, Cockran took up residence close to Upper Church where he worked with the Reverend John Macallum.

During the next few years Cockran saw a number of changes in Red River to which he adjusted with difficulty. In 1849 he welcomed the appointment of the Reverend David Anderson* as the first Church of England bishop of Rupert’s Land. In recognition of Cockran’s past services and the example he could offer to young missionaries, the bishop made him archdeacon in 1853. Cockran did not enjoy his clerical duties at St John’s where his abilities as a missionary, which had made him the most respected and influential person at Grand Rapids and the Indian Settlement, were not appreciated by the more sophisticated parishioners. His support for the unpopular recorder Adam Thom*, when pressure from the Métis persuaded Governor Simpson to request that Thom step down as recorder for the court of Assiniboia, and for the ineffective Governor William Bletterman Caldwell* isolated him from his congregation. Nor did all his parishioners sympathize with the uncompromising position he took in the scandal involving Captain Christopher Vaughan Foss and Chief Factor John Ballenden*’s wife. When a dispute with the Presbyterian Kildonan Scots emerged, concerning the disposition of their claims to privileges associated with the church and graveyard at St John’s, Cockran did not facilitate an accommodation. Other similar incidents indicated that the aging missionary was not in harmony with new circumstances.

No doubt Cockran leapt at the chance to succeed the Reverend John Smithurst at the Indian Settlement in 1851; there he was in his element. In the same year he went up the Assiniboine to choose a site for a CMS mission. He recommended a location known as Portage la Prairie. The next year a few of his former parishioners from St Andrew’s established river-lot farms at this place, and in succeeding years more settlers from St Andrew’s made the same journey. In 1855 they constructed St Mary’s Church. In 1857 Cockran left the Indian Settlement to work among the Saulteaux and Country-born at Portage la Prairie. By 1860 lands to the east had been taken up. Under Cockran’s guidance St Margaret’s was constructed at High Bluff and St Anne’s at Poplar Point. His son Thomas, ordained in the Church of England in 1852, assisted him in Portage la Prairie.

At St Mary’s Cockran found ample reason to appreciate his experience as a councillor, since 1835, on the Council of Assiniboia, the local governing body in Red River. As Portage la Prairie was beyond the boundaries of Assiniboia the settlers had to administer their own affairs. Difficulties arose as disputes between individuals rapidly took on the dimensions of family feuds. The kinship connections that had regulated social life at Grand Rapids and that could be traced back to the trading posts of the interior in the previous century complicated the administration of local government. Only an individual such as Cockran, respected by all and familiar with the intricate workings of the system, could be a stabilizing influence. On more than one occasion his influence calmed a potentially disruptive situation.

In 1865, with his health failing, Cockran again retired to Toronto. Medical treatment seemed to restore him to full vigour. Returning to the west the same year, he left St Mary’s in the capable hands of his son-in-law, the Reverend Henry George, to work among the settlers at Westbourne (Man.). A sudden chill caused his return to his daughter’s house in Portage la Prairie where he died. He was buried in the churchyard at St Andrew’s, the scene of his early labours and noteworthy accomplishments.

Traditionally Cockran’s career has been evaluated in terms of his contribution to Anglican missionary enterprise in Rupert’s Land. Perhaps a more meaningful basis for examining his career is the experience of the Country-born community in the generation following his death. The presence of Canadians in Red River and Portage la Prairie heralded the coming of a new order. As this new order was established, the original inhabitants, Indian and mixed-blood, paid a heavy price in human suffering. The Métis in particular were virtually destroyed as a people. Apparently the Country-born did not experience the same disruption and suffering. Part of the explanation is to be found in their culture and especially those features of it which enabled them to adapt to change. More than any other person the Reverend William Cockran was responsible for encouraging much that allowed them to enter a new age with a minimum of pain.

J. E. Foster

[The most extensive source materials available on the Reverend William Cockran are the documents at the CMS Arch. (London), Northwest Missions, incoming and outgoing correspondence, containing his letters and journals; the PAC holds microfilm of this material. For information before 1825 see the CMS Arch., G/AC3. There are infrequent references to Cockran in HBC Arch. D.5/1–26.

      Canadian North-West (Oliver), I, contains brief references to Cockran’s legislative career. The section written by Donald Gunn*, covering the years to 1835, in Donald Gunn and C. R. Tuttle, History of Manitoba . . . (Ottawa, 1880), attempts to be fair in its examination of the work of the Anglican clergy but the author’s Presbyterian bias is evident. HBRS, XIX (Rich and Johnson) covers the turbulent decade of the 1840s and the aftermath; Boon, Anglican Church, contains a short, factual account of Cockran’s career. A. C. Garrioch, First furrows; a history of the early settlement of the Red River country, including that of Portage La Prairie (3rd ed., Winnipeg, 1923), 84–128, is particularly useful for Cockran’s career at Portage La Prairie. R. B. Hill, Manitoba; history of its early settlement, development and resources (Toronto, 1890), has factual errors (note the incorrect spelling of Cockran’s name), but complements Garrioch’s work. Colin Inkster, “William Cockran,” Leaders of the Canadian church, ed. W. B. Heeney (2 ser., Toronto, 1918–20), 2nd ser., 41–61, is a sympathetic but anecdotal treatment by a descendant of one of Cockran’s parishioners. As with Gunn and Tuttle, the Presbyterian interest in Red River is emphasized by Alexander Ross* in Red River Settlement (1856); although Ross did not know certain pertinent facts, his criticism of Anglican missionary labours reflects an intelligent contemporary analysis. Apparently based upon CMS documents, the contemporary account by Sarah Tucker, The rainbow in the north: a short account of the first establishment of Christianity in Rupert’s Land by the Church Missionary Society (London, 1851; repr. New York, 1852; London, 1853, 1856), 19–146, emphasizes Cockran’s work at the Indian village.  j.e.f.]

      A brief sketch of the life and labours of Archdeacon Cockran (London, n.d.). J. E. Foster, “The Anglican clergy in the Red River Settlement, 1820–1826” (unpublished ma thesis, University of Alberta, Edmonton, 1966); “The Country-born in the Red River Settlement, 1820–1850” (unpublished phd thesis, University of Alberta, Edmonton, 1973). A. N. Thompson, “The wife of the missionary,” Canadian Church Hist. Soc., Journal (Toronto), XV (1973), 35–44.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

J. E. Foster, “COCKRAN, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 1, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cockran_william_9E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cockran_william_9E.html
Author of Article: J. E. Foster
Title of Article: COCKRAN, WILLIAM
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1976
Year of revision: 1976
Access Date: October 1, 2014