Saturday, December 10, 2011

Happy 188th Birthday, John Cottam Junior (1823-1903)!

Anna Cottam Hatch Cramer's grandfather

A British pioneer who loved Queen Victoria and Brother Brigham!

Born to wealthy English parents who fell on hard times when he was a young boy, John was the third of five children.  He helped sell his father’s furniture by leading a blind horse and cart carrying the inventory around the countryside. His mother contrasted John with his older brother Thomas: “There is a vast difference between our Thomas and our John. Our Thomas says to me quietly, ‘Good morning, mother, how are you this morning?’ Our John, gruffly, ‘Hello. What’s news?’”

As a teenager, John joined the Church in Preston with his other family members, and at age eighteen he fell in love. He and the girl were engaged and the banns (proclamations of intended marriage read for three Sundays in a row at church) had been read twice; on the third cry his mother objected due to his youth, and the young lovers never saw each other again.  

John married Ann Smith two years later, and he and his wife and young son immigrated to America several years prior to his parents. In 1845, John was ordained a Seventy in Nauvoo by William Hyde.  The Cottams buried an infant daughter in Nauvoo, then a son in Missouri. Driven out but unable to afford the western journey, John and Ann worked in St. Louis: Ann made sails, and John worked in the mills and on the Mississippi River flat boats. They became ill from eating so much coarse corn meal.  John worked for some wheat flour biscuits and wept like a child in gratitude when he took them home and fed them in a paste to his malnourished family. As they crossed the plains, John once foolishly shot into a herd of buffalo. They ran after him and he jumped into the river, praying for protection. His wagon that crossed the plains survived over fifty years until 1906, each part replaced as it wore out.  

After the Cottams came to Utah, father and sons followed the woodcrafts trade. The furniture was of excellent quality. Chairs by John were in the Lion House, and he also crafted the banister in Salt Lake Tabernacle and turned wood for the Salt Lake Temple, Tabernacle, Assembly Hall, Beehive and Lion Houses, adorning them with balustrades, rosettes, and columns. John built a fine adobe home, which often flooded in City Creek high spring waters, so he finally built a cobble rock wall around his property. One memorable incident was a fire—his full barn went up in smoke, and a neighbor bucket brigade was working furiously to fight the fire when Brigham Young rode down in his carriage and shouted, “Brother John, dig a trench and divert the water from the creek!” That worked, and they appreciated Brigham’s marvelous judgment.

The family moved south to American Fork when Johnston’s Army came to Utah, and John returned to Salt Lake and placed kindling around his house ready to fire it if the Army took possession of the city.  He was appointed captain of a group of men stationed at Echo Canyon, and received a sword from one of the soldiers. 

John’s family life got complicated when he took plural wives, including Swedish cook Anna. His first wife divorced him, and he was persecuted for polygamy during the raids of the 1880s. John went to San Francisco on the “underground” (a network to hide polygamists).  There he once ate a fancy dinner with his maternal second cousin, actress Lotta Crabtree. He was very hungry and filled up on several servings of soup, not knowing more food would be served in later courses.  

John was away from Utah for two years, then returned and gave himself up to the authorities and was jailed for six months. The family came weekly to take him provisions in the penitentiary. For Christmas, his wives made a three-layer Christmas fruitcake with a candy angel and lovebirds on top, and delivered it to the prison. His wife Mary afterwards dreamed that all was not well and he opened the lid with disgust, and the next week when Anna went to visit John and asked how he enjoyed Christmas, he said he had had a skeleton of a turkey and some rotten apples—the guards had taken his box and given him scraps. Many years later John recognized a beggar on the street as the guard who had taken his Christmas box, and gave him some coins. John became very ill in jail and had surgery; he was brought home and nursed back to health. He lived upstairs of his shop for a time to avoid the polygamous situation; after Anna died, he had just one wife and could safely live at home without the threat of being jailed.

 John was a great sportsman and loved to shoot ducks west of the city and bring home a wagonload to give away.  John was also a big fan of prizefighters, the English military and Queen Victoria—he had a beautifully framed portrait of her and wept at the news of her death. For many years John performed baptisms in City Creek, Jordan River, and the Endowment House, and was referred to as “John the Baptist” around Salt Lake.  People would stop him on the street and say, “Brother Cottam, I want to shake your hand, you baptized me.” 

John was “fearless as a lion in defense of righteousness, but gentle as a lamb when a creature suffered.”  He cried when his faithful old horse Dan was accidentally shot in the leg, and when someone in the family accused him of thinking more of his dog Jip than they, he would say, “Well you can talk, and he can’t.” His daughter Lottie, named after the actress cousin, always felt cherished by her father.

In his later years, John dislocated his arm falling from a streetcar and could not put on his coat or fasten his shoes after that. John was a champion checkers player and enjoyed games with his friends. It was said that John loved righteousness and hated evil. Prior to his death he had jumped off the train on the way home from Saltair and was injured internally; in his last moments he saw his brother Thomas (who had died a few years previously) come for him.  

I would give him an outing to play laser tag or paintball--I think he'd enjoy those modern games!


  1. What was he doing jumping off trains and falling from streetcars?!
    I'd give him food storage.

  2. sounds like quite a guy! i'm always amazed by the stories of people recognizing old guards on the street/ a church etc - how did they recognize people when so much out of context?? i don't think i would!

  3. maybe there were just fewer faces in their lives... only so many people in town, and no TV or facebook. plus imagine in jail how much time you would spend getting to know/disliking that particular guard's face.

  4. thank you for this information on the cottams. my great grandmother was a cottam (john jr. was her grandfather). this has been interesting!