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COOPER, WILLIAM, sea captain, shipbuilder, farmer, miller, land agent, and politician; b. probably 4 Nov. 1786 in England; d. 10 June 1867 at Sailors Hope, P.E.I.

Virtually nothing is known about William Cooper’s life before his arrival on Prince Edward Island about 1819. According to an account probably based on oral family tradition, he ran away to sea at age 11, was with the British navy at the battle of Trafalgar, and subsequently sailed the seven seas as a ship’s captain.

The earliest known reference to Cooper on the Island is 6 Nov. 1819, when his wife, Sarah Glover, gave birth to their second son at Fortune Bay in eastern Kings County. Cooper had settled on a farm appropriately named “Sailor’s Hope,” where he built a home and took up stock raising. He also erected a grist mill, and in 1826 built a 72-ton ship called the Hackmatack.

Cooper was soon involved in the most controversial social and political problem in 19th century Island history – the land question. Since 1767 practically all the land in the colony had been in the hands of a small number of absentee proprietors, and with few exceptions settlers had no alternative but to become their tenants. In Lot 56, where Cooper lived, the general frustration found violent expression in the summer of 1819 when Edward Abell, the agent of the proprietor, Lord James Townshend, was murdered by an irate tenant from whom he had been attempting to extract rent. On 26 Feb. 1820 Lord Townshend appointed Cooper as Abell’s successor.

Cooper was reputedly one of the more efficient of an apparently negligent and often corrupt class of land agents. Thomas Heath Haviland, who was to succeed him some nine years later in Lord Townshend’s employment, claimed that Cooper had granted leases to almost 60 tenants; his figure was noteworthy since most settlers were reluctant to take out leases, thereby acknowledging the proprietor’s claim to land and farms which, by dint of hard work and occupation, they thought should rightfully be their own. Moreover, Lord Townshend’s terms were comparatively harsh: the usual lease in the colony ran for 999 years but Cooper was instructed to lease land lying “contiguous to the Sea Shore” for a period not exceeding 84 years, and land more than five miles inland for not more than 200 years. Furthermore, each tenant was to pay half the costs of executing his own lease.

In 1829 Cooper was dismissed by Lord Townshend for somewhat obscure reasons. In later years his political enemies frequently alleged that Cooper had misappropriated funds, a charge which Haviland supported in 1860 before the land commission and which Cooper never seemed quite able to refute convincingly. It was perhaps not entirely coincidental that by 1830 he had apparently undergone a change of heart amounting almost to a religious conversion, and had become the lifelong, implacable foe of the absentee proprietors.

Cooper was first elected to the assembly in a bitterly disputed by-election in Kings County in 1831. He ran on the platform of “Our country’s freedom and farmers’ rights.” The voting was interrupted by a riot, and Cooper, fearing for his life, hid in a nearby barn. It was only after a lengthy investigations by a committee on privileges and elections – and then by a margin of a single vote – that he was allowed to take his seat.

Cooper’s radical and uncompromising position on the land question, enunciated on 27 March 1832 in his first major speech as an mha, set him apart from his fellow assemblymen: “The more I consider the Escheat question, the more plain it appears to me, that nothing less than a general Escheat will do justice to, or satisfy the inhabitants of this Island.” By the 1830s the escheat issue had had a long tradition in Island politics. Advocates of escheat (i.e. confiscation) wanted a special court established to investigate land titles, and to decide whether the conditions attached to the original land grants of 1767 had been fulfilled. By the terms of these grants, proprietors were to pay annual quitrents to the crown, and settle each lot with at least 100 non-British Protestants within ten years. In no township had these conditions been fulfilled exactly as laid down. Thus Cooper and his political associates maintained that practically all the land in the Island should be escheated and regranted in small tracts to bona fide settlers. This heady doctrine, promising redistribution of virtually all landed property in the colony, proved attractive to a populace comprised largely of small tenant farmers, who, upon the satisfaction of a modest property requirement, shared with freeholders the right to vote.

During the 1830s Cooper became the founder and leader of an informal Escheat party, and proceeded with considerable energy and skill to polarize Island politics on the single issue of land tenure. Perhaps in an attempt to steal Cooper’s fire, the more conservative members of the assembly were quick to express themselves in favour of a moderate escheat. But an 1832 assembly bill providing for a court of escheat, with vague jurisdiction, was vetoed by the British government, and Cooper was able to discredit his political opponents by claiming that, as a group comprised largely of land agents, lawyers, and others of the local élite, they were obviously opposed to reform. Cooper argued that they had conspired with the absentee proprietors to misrepresent the situation on the Island, and thus to frustrate the expressed wishes of the people. Cooper’s message was clear: if the tenant voters wanted freehold tenure, they must elect honest, courageous men from among themselves, men in whose self-interest it was to present the true state of affairs to the crown. Then, in response to such obvious oppression and injustice, redress would be forthcoming.

Cooper’s agitation contributed to a violent mood among the tenantry, many of whom refused to pay rents and on occasion banded together to threaten rent collectors and sheriffs physically. But Cooper himself was always careful to keep within the law, and appears not to have been the man to lead an actual armed uprising. He did maintain that “a degree of public excitement” was required to impress upon the British government the necessity of reform, and to this end he organized frequent public meetings at which he advised tenants to withhold the payment of rent, notably a large meeting at Hay River on 20 Dec. 1836, where several hundred tenants unanimously endorsed a 34-clause petition to the king requesting a court of escheat. As a result of his activity in the countryside, Cooper was committed to the custody of the assembly’s sergeant-at-arms during the 1837 and 1838 sessions.

Cooper justified his actions by a sort of homegrown ideology – based largely on the writings of Sir William Blackstone and John Locke – which maintained that the labour invested by settlers in clearing their land gave them titles naturally superior to the allegedly forfeited claims of the absentee proprietors. These ideas, already well developed by 1832, changed little in the following years. In an 1855 assembly speech, for example, he supported his call for escheat by citing Blackstone’s Commentaries, and by quoting Locke: “. . . the labour of a man’s body and the work of his hands, we may say are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something of his own, and thereby making it his property.”

Cooper’s credibility was diminished, however, by the fact that he continued to pay the rent on his own land to Lord Townshend, a fact which Thomas Irwin proclaimed in a full-page advertisement in the Royal Gazette in December 1834. Thus he remained secure in the possession of his farm at a time when his neighbours were risking eviction and keeping the countryside in turmoil by accepting his advice to withhold rents. This sort of inconsistency in Cooper’s behaviour, as well as his tendency on occasion to stretch the truth close to the breaking point in his public pronouncements, gives some credence to Lieutenant Governor Sir Charles Augustus FitzRoy*’s description of him as “an artful person although very illiterate, possessed of much low cunning and perfectly unscrupulous in making any assertion to serve his purpose.”

The apex of Cooper’s political career came with the decisive victory of the Escheat party in the election of 1838, when it won 18 of the 24 seats. This essentially agrarian-populist uprising represented a major upheaval in Island politics: never before had the assembly been dominated by such a democratic element, and never had so many of its members been themselves tenant farmers. When the house met in January 1839 Cooper was elected speaker by a vote of 16 to six.

With a clear popular mandate to pursue land reform, Cooper immediately proceeded to carry out a scheme he had long advocated – an official delegation from the Island legislature to the colonial secretary in London. The assembly chose Cooper himself to present the colony’s request for a court of escheat and several other land reform measures, and in the summer of 1839 he embarked for England. The trip was a disaster. Lord John Russell, the newly appointed colonial secretary, refused even to grant Cooper an audience, choosing instead to send directly to FitzRoy in Charlottetown his negative reply to the petitions and remonstrances of the Island assembly. Cooper remained a short time in London, consulting with the well-known radical parliamentarian Joseph Hume about presenting the Island’s case to the British House of Commons. But parliament was not in session, and early in October Cooper wrote to a correspondence committee of the Island assembly that he was returning home “by the first opportunity.” It was an admission of defeat.

Cooper’s prestige never fully recovered. In the legislative session of 1840 he was criticized by some of his own supporters; one of the more articulate of them, Alexander Rae, remarked that while he was in England a “lethargy” seemed to have “almost paralyzed his natural powers.” However, in the face of strong attacks by such members of the opposition as Edward Palmer* and Joseph Pope*, the Escheators rallied behind Cooper and over the next several years endorsed a good deal of radical land reform legislation. One bill passed in 1840 was “to authorize the Crown to purchase the Lands, and to regulate the settlement of the Inhabitants . . .”; another attempted to exempt tenants from having to pay quitrents and land assessments. However, those few bills which were acceptable to the Legislative Council faced veto by the colonial secretary in London. The years 1839–42 thus produced virtually no legislation which ameliorated the plight of the tenants. The Escheat party was defeated in the election of 1842, and rapidly disintegrated. Although Cooper was himself re-elected, he apparently began to lose interest in politics for he was absent from the house during the sessions of 1845 and 1846 and did not contest the 1846 election.

During these years his attention once again turned to the sea and shipbuilding, apparently in the Souris–Fortune Bay area: in 1844 he registered the Flora Beaton, in 1845 the Sea Walker, in 1846 the Malvina, in 1847 the Plenty, and in 1849 the 182-ton brigantine, Packet. In the Packet he and his family, which included at least three daughters and six grown sons, sailed from Fortune Bay on 5 Dec. 1849 bound for California, where gold had recently been discovered. With Cooper as captain, the Packet sailed around Cape Horn and arrived at San Francisco on 20 July 1850. There the ship and part of the cargo of lumber and agricultural implements were sold. After about six weeks Cooper decided to return to the Island; but the other members of his family, including his wife, chose to remain in California. In November 1851 Sarah Cooper and one son Oscar died of cholera in San Francisco. Three more sons were killed by Indians in 1852 and 1861 and another died from natural causes in 1853. Of the six Cooper sons who went to California only one, John W., outlived his father.

Upon his return to the Island Cooper once again took up residence at Sailor’s Hope. By 1855 he was back in the assembly, still a fervent advocate of escheat. During his absence in California the Island had achieved responsible government, and in 1853 the legislature had enacted a bill to bring about land reform by enabling the Island government to purchase the estates of willing proprietors. This land could then be resold in small tracts to tenants. Although Cooper was nominally a Liberal supporter he embarrassed his political colleagues, including Premier George Coles*, by charging them with spending the people’s money to purchase land to which he maintained the proprietors had no rightful claim or title. In these criticisms he was supported by the veteran Escheator John Macintosh*. Cooper sat in the assembly until 1862. He died on 10 June 1867 at Sailors Hope.

Until recently William Cooper has not received adequate treatment by Island historians, perhaps because he has always been looked upon as slightly disreputable – an alienated anti-establishment figure who by his advocacy of radical schemes threatened the social order. Paradoxically, it is for this same reason that more recently he has begun to be viewed as somewhat of a hero.

It is difficult to determine whether or not Cooper thought that the confiscation of the proprietors’ land was literally possible. In retrospect, however, escheat must be regarded as a visionary doctrine which had almost no chance of realization. The proprietors had owned their estates for so long that the British government could hardly sanction such a major social and economic upheaval on the meagre grounds that some highly impracticable 60-year-old conditions had not been met. Possibly Cooper felt that the agitation around the issue of escheat would force the British government to take some effective action to redress the genuine grievances of the tenantry. In this too he failed, perhaps because he was unwilling to carry his agitation to the point of an armed uprising.

Nevertheless, Cooper’s real achievements are considerable. In both organization and doctrine the political movement he founded was the undoubted forerunner of the reform-minded Liberal party, which led the struggle for responsible government in the 1840s. In addition, because Cooper brought the issue of land reform so forcefully into the political arena it could never again be ignored. Thus he deserves much of the credit for the gradual improvement in the condition of the tenants which more practical reformers such as Coles managed to bring about in the following decades.

Cooper remains an enigmatic figure – a visionary, an adventurer, and a pre-Marxist advocate of an ideology to support and justify the cause of an oppressed class, yet a man with evident weaknesses and inconsistencies. An obituary in the Examiner under the heading “An old veteran departed” seems to strike a fair and judicious balance in assessing Cooper’s career: “. . . although he was deeply censured for the alleged extravagance of his views on the Escheat question, he was long admired by the majority of his fellow Colonists for the boldness with which he urged those views; and we believe all parties and classes gave him credit for sincerity.”

Harry Baglole

[William Cooper has been the subject of no substantial biography or biographical sketch, and no collection of his papers has come to light. Furthermore, attempts to obtain information from his descendants living in the United States have been unsuccessful. The main outline of Cooper’s life, therefore, has been pieced together from diverse sources. Perhaps the most important of these is J. H. McDonald, “The story of the Cooper family,” Maple Leaf (Oakland, Calif.), XXX (1936).

Additional information has been obtained from the following sources. PAPEI, T. H. Haviland rent books, Lot 56, ff.66–67; P.E.I., Shipping registers, 1815–50 (mfm.). PRO, CO 226/49–64; 227/8. P.E.I., Dept. of Health, Division of Vital Statistics, Records of St Paul’s Church (Charlottetown), book 3, p.186; Supreme Court, Estates Division, liber 7, f.340 (will of William Cooper, probate proved 29 June 1867) (mfm. at PAPEI). Abstract of the proceedings before the Land Commissioners’ Court, held during the summer of 1860, to inquire into the differences relative to the rights of landowners and tenants in Prince Edward Island, reporters J. D. Gordon and David Laird (Charlottetown, 1862), especially 5–8, 237–38. P.E.I., House of Assembly, Debates and proc., 1855–62; Journal, 1830–46, 1855–62. Colonial Herald (Charlottetown), 1837–44. Examiner (Charlottetown), 1855–62, 17 June 1867. Islander, 1855–62. Royal Gazette (Charlottetown), 1830s, 1840s. F. W. P. Bolger, “The demise of quit rents and escheats,” Canada’s smallest province (Bolger), 99–114. Clark, Three centuries and the Island. MacKinnon, Government of P.E.I., 105–19. Weale and Baglole, The Island and confederation.  h.b.]

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Harry Baglole, “COOPER, WILLIAM (d. 1867),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 29, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cooper_william_1867_9E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cooper_william_1867_9E.html
Author of Article:   Harry Baglole
Title of Article:   COOPER, WILLIAM (d. 1867)
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1976
Year of revision:   1976
Access Date:   November 29, 2023