Captain John Coote – a sailor or a soldier?

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19 December 2015

Cootes Paradise graphic

Almost everyone knows that Cootes Paradise, the wetland at the west end of Hamilton Harbour, is named after Captain John Coote but there seems to be some disagreement about who he was.  Today’s edition of the Hamilton Spectator, in a feature called The Namesakes Challenges, states that he was a naval officer.  McMaster University website on Cootes Paradise agrees but the Royal Botanical Gardens is conflicted with one page calling him a naval officer, one page calling him an army officer and a third compromising by calling him a military officer.

Dundas Museum & Archives has him as a soldier stationed at Fort George, which was not built till 1796 after Thomas Coote had died.  Another website claimed that he was stationed at Fort Henry.  The one in Ontario was not built till 1812.  The one in West Virgina was built in time but neither would have been convenient for a hunting trip to Dundas!  Other sources claim that he was naval officer on leave from his army duties.  Maybe some people don’t know the difference between a soldier and a sailor!

I have to side with Margaret Houghton, who, in her Hamilton Street Names:  An Illustrated History (James Lorimer & Co, Toronto, 2002) claims that he was an army officer, first in the 8th or King’s Regiment and later in the 34th Cumberland Regiment, stationed at Niagara, which would have been Fort Niagara in what is now New York State and that he arrived there in 1782.  There were few Royal Navy officers in our area prior to the war of 1812 while there were many British army officers.

Either way, it raises questions.  Fort Niagara had only been captured from the French in 1759 and the American Revolutionary war lasted from 1775 to 1783.  It’s hard to reconcile those turbulent times with the image of a bucolic Captain Coote, be he sailor or soldier, out duck hunting in the wetlands of Dundas.

2 thoughts on “Captain John Coote – a sailor or a soldier?

  1. I am a descendant of captain Thomas coote or John coote my grandmother’s maiden name was Mary coote and lived and married in Hamilton. I have always been under the assumption that Coote’s Paradise was named after thomas, who hunted the area.
    My mother has told me stories of the Coote family becoming a prominent business family in hamilton, eventually owning land enough for a golf course.

    1. Dear rrichardsonrfr@gmail,

      The story of Captain Thomas Coote, for whom Cootes Paradise Marsh (and originally Cootes Paradise, later renamed Dundas) was named, is indeed curious. Mr. Jack Lord, previously an educator at Royal botanical Gardens, undertook research into military archives in the 1980s on both sides of the border to sort things out. While there are still lots of holes in the story, here’s an outline:

      Thomas Coote was born in Ireland, likely born around 1760, and died in Ireland in 1795. He shows up in the British army lists in 1776, a Lieutenant in the 8th (King’s) Regiment of Foot, which is Army, not Navy. He was known to be a cousin of Sir Eyre Coote (1762-1823), Governor of Jamaica, 1805-1808.

      The documents indicate that initially Coote was likely stationed at Fort Niagara. He served during several campaigns during the American Revolutionary War. He is mentioned on 3 October 1778 (would have been about 18 years of age) in a letter from Lieutenant Colonel Mason Bolton to Governor Haldimand. Coote was put in charge of a group of soldiers ordered to travel to Fort Sackville to join 400 British army troops already present there. He was to assist Lieutenant-Governor Henry Hamilton in holding Fort Sackville against the American rebels, which was in the western part of the then colony of Virginia – now in Illinois. The English captured the fort on 17 December 1778 but lost it again in February 1779.

      No records have been found for the next year or so. In 1780 Coote was sent to the Mohawk Valley in New York as part of a raid on mills and an American settlement. Over the next two years he was promoted, becoming “Captain Lieutenant” of the 34th Regiment of Foot. By early 1783 the last of the 34th Regiment of Foot left Fort Niagara; they may have been transferred to the newly built Fort Ontario, near Oswego.

      Thomas Coote last shows up in the Army lists in 1787. By May 1788, around age 28, he had returned to England. It’s thought that there he sold his commission and returned to Ireland.

      His obituary was published in the Cork, Ireland, Evening Post, on 13 July 1795, and was very brief: “… died last week Thomas Coote Esq. late a Captain in the 34th Regt. of Foot.” If Mr. Lord’s estimate of the date of birth of 1760 is accurate, Coote would have only been about 35 years old at his death.

      No more documentary detail about this particular Thomas Coote has been found. It’s thought he never married, and no will has been found. However, I am not aware of anyone undertaking research in Ireland or the National Archives in England, which might reveal more (although having done a little of my own genealogical research in Ireland, it’s a long shot!)

      The question remains as to how his name became attached to the wetland on the floor of the Dundas Valley. The name for the marsh appears to first enter the written record in the diary of Elizabeth Simcoe, wife of Governor George Graves Simcoe. The Simcoes visited the Burlington Heights in 1796 (by this time Coote had been dead a year), and was told about Cootes Paradise by Richard Beasley, their host. Beasley was a trader, militia leader, magistrate, and land speculator who set up a trading establishment on the Burlington heights in 1790 (Dundurn Castle was built on top of Beasley’s house in the 1830s). Prior to this, Beasley and Coote were in Niagara. It’s thought that he likely knew Thomas Coote while there. No written records have been found to date demonstrating that Thomas Coote actually visited Cootes Paradise (such as a diary or a map drawn by him). Elizabeth Simcoe recorded in her diary that Coote had come to the area during his leave time from military duty to fish and hunt, and that this story had been told to her by Beasley. So, the story is in that sense second-hand.

      The story of the research that has gone into this account was recorded by Mr. Lord in two issues of RBG’s earlier magazine for members entitled Pappus (What we know about Captain Coote, by Lord, Jack. Pappus. Fall 1996. 15 (4): 56 – 60; and Thomas Coote’s mission to Fort Sackville, by Lord, Jack. Pappus. Fall 1997. 16 (3): 9 – 12). I can send you electronic copies of the pages if you like.

      Given all of this, I don’t think it’s likely that your grandmother Mary had a connection to this particular Thomas Coote, but if there are documents to that effect it would be fascinating! Thomas Coote was in the Niagara area from 1778 to 1788; the first settlers of any kind in the area were starting to arrive about the time he left for England. The name Thomas Coote is fairly common.

      I hope this has been of interest. Please feel free to contact me if it would be helpful.

      Dr. David A. Galbraith
      Head of Science
      Royal Botanical Gardens
      680 Plains Road West, Burlington, Ontario L7T 4H4
      905-527-1158 (1-800-694-4769), ext.#309

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