A German emigrant by way of New York, he is described as â€œa stranger to everything connected with woodcraft and farm labor.â€ A tailor by trade, he first settles in Ingham County in May of 1836. His family is stressed by pioneer life and returns to New York in 1837.
In November of the same year Jacob tries the Michigan wilderness again, alone. He hews a tree nearly crushing him-self, unsuccessfully plants his crops â€œpromiscuouslyâ€ on top of one another and constructs his first home by leaving a felled tree on its stump and covering the trunk with brush and sod. Not knowing the boundaries of his land he pays a Mr. Scott of Dewitt $50 to lay out the lines, loses the paperwork and pays him another $50 to repeat the process.
â€œNot being a skilled boatmanâ€, he can only save a portion of his winter rations after piloting his homemade watercraft into a boulder in December of 1837. He is saved from freezing by running up and down the river bank and attracting the attention of a nearby native familyâ€™s dog, who alerts its owners. After warming Cooley they feed him muskrat and hedgehog. The next day he pays the â€œIndianâ€ $2 to transport him back to his homestead. That family soon moves their camp near his.
Coming from her parents’ home in Oneida County New York, Jacobâ€™s wife, Lucy Barnes, and their two sons join him in 1838. Unbeknownst to Lucy, the teamster paid to transport them from Detroit to Jackson was a fugitive and flees into the wood when the pursuing sheriff approaches.
Lucy drives the team to Jackson herself. Not being the rightful owner, the team is confiscated by authorities, and they travel from there on foot. Along the way, they become lost. Lucy leaves the boys on a stump while she finds help. Surprisingly, all survive.
At different times, the family is so ill they lose track of days, and, unable to light their own fire, they must travel up to 10 miles whenever it goes out. In 1839 Cooley is followed by a pack of wolves. His dog had previously been killed by wolves. At another point, he is chased by a bear.
There are more mishaps for the family involving various illnesses including malaria, â€œwild beasts, dangerous reptiles and persecuting insectsâ€.
Late in 1839 Cooley leaves his family in the wilderness, to work in Jackson for 14 months, without any other Europeans nearby, with only an ax as protection against the bears and wolves.
The next few seasons bring near-starvation, punishing weather (both summer and winter), predators taking livestock and poor-yielding crops where the cost of transport to an uncertain market eliminated any profit.
Jacob Cooley passed away on June 9, 1865, at the age of 58, proceeding Lucy by five years. He left five children, three boys and two girls, giving each a farm of their own.
Remarkably in Samuel Durantâ€™s 1880 description of Cooleyâ€™s harrowing life, he is surprised the man dies so young. â€œNo doubt the hardships of a pioneer life had much to do with his comparatively early demiseâ€.
Durant also mentions some â€œinsolent…Indians,â€ who, by Durantâ€™s own account, saved the Cooley family on multiple occasions through their care of the pestilent family and farm, in childbirth, and by their charity of food, clothing and shelter to the starving family.
David Votta – When not working as the Local History Librarian/Archivist for the Capital Area District Library, David serves on more committees, boards and commissions than he would like to think about.