While processing the papers of Reverend Joseph B. Felt of Salem, Massachusetts, I came across an interesting document. It is a tattered handwritten sheet of paper, repaired with tape, entitled “Indian sermons preached from October 28, 1709 to September 28, 1710.” You can read a list of places and dates and a brief text. It is signed by Josiah Cotton.
I was curious about Mr. Cotton, so I delved into the internet and found that he was born on January 8, 1679/80, a son of the Reverend John Cotton (A.B. 1657), and a nephew of Cotton Mather. Josiah was admitted to Harvard College in June, 1694, and assigned to John Leverett as tutor and William Brattle as patron. After taking his first degree he traveled up and down New England. On one of these trips he visited Marblehead where, on October 17, 1698, he was invited to settle and keep school.
In July, 1704, Cotton took his leave of Marblehead, and after visiting Connecticut went to his brother Roland’s home (A.B. 1685) in Sandwich, Massachusetts to teach Latin grammar to his nephews John Cotton and John Denison (both A.B. 1710). During the fall he kept school at Sandwich, and during the winter preached at Yarmouth. He thought of settling in the ministry but found writing sermons very fatiguing and a strain on his health. Consequently he accepted an invitation to teach school at Plymouth, and began on November 2, 1705, in the house in which he had been born, the use of which he gave to the town until it built a schoolhouse. For two years he boarded with Thomas Little (A.B. 1695), and occasionally assisted the Reverend Ephraim Little (A.B. 1695) in preaching. Thus he became acquainted with the minister’s cousin, Hannah Sturtevant, to whom he was married on January 8, 1707/8. Josiah and Hannah Cotton had fourteen children; five died in infancy.
In 1709 he gave up the school and moved to a farm, which he had bought about two miles north of the town, but making a poor hand of farming, resumed teaching in November, 1711. In the spring of 1713 he succeeded Thomas Little as clerk of the Inferior Court and Register of Deeds and keeper of the Colony Records, but after a year was forced out of office by Little’s brother, and again returned to keeping school. In 1715 he was restored to office, and in succeeding years he became Justice of the Peace and Quorum, Register of Probate, Notary Public, and Register of Deeds, Special Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, and Justice of the Inferior Court. In 1721, 1723, and 1727 he was elected to the House of Representatives.
To Mr. Cotton, the important part of his life was not the holding of these offices, but his faithful labors in preaching to the Indians for half a century. Before he took up the Plymouth school he had begun to learn the Indian language so as to follow in his father’s footsteps as a missionary. He traveled constantly over Plymouth Colony, preaching on the average twenty Sundays a year. He compiled an Indian dictionary (Vocabulary of the Massachusetts (or Natick) Indian Language) and translated one of Mather’s sermons into that language.
Josiah Cotton died August 19, 1756, according to his gravestone. A few papers of his are held at Massachusetts Historical Society and the American Antiquarian Society, but what is exciting to me is that I think I am the first person in a long time to see this sheet. Now that I have processed the Felt papers (thanks to a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission), this document has come to light.