REPRESENTATIVE AND LEADING
MEN OF THE PACIFIC
CORNELIUS COLE was born at Lodi, Seneca County, New York, September 17th, 1822, the seventh of twelve children. His parental ancestors were natives of New Jersey, of English origin, mingled in marriage with the German family of Van Zant. His maternal ancestors were also English, named Townsend, joined in marriage with the family of Ganong. As the time of the arrival of any is at present unknown, all must have come to America at an early date. They were generally farmers and thrifty citizens, the later generations residing near Townsendville, New York, a small village named for his grandfather, its first settler. A few months later followed his maternal grandfather, who settled near by, and here these sturdy pioneers battled with adversity in the wilds of their forest home, conquering all opposition by the same indomitable perseverance and earnest effort that have characterized their descendants, and especially the subject of this sketch. Here was passed the latter’s earlier years, though surrounded by scenes very different from those with which his ancestors had been familiar: the howls of wolves had given place to the “church-going bell,” the gloomy savage and the wandering hunter had been changed as by a magician’s wand, into a circle of society, justly celebrated then, and pleasantly remembered for its purity, intelligence, and excellence. Not nursed in the lap of wealth, nor yet pinched by poverty, his summers were spent in assisting his father in the labors of the farm, and his winters in attendance upon the district school, where he was early distinguished for his proficiency in mathematics. Later winters were devoted to teaching school in the neighboring districts, and thus in part he earned the means to complete a classical education, upon which he had long been determined. A limited practice in the art of surveying also aided him somewhat in his efforts at self-reliance. For, to his credit be it said, his desire to help himself, and thus allow the resources of his father to extend to the education of his younger sisters, was the motive power of his actions, rather than the present inability of his father’s means to supply him. His first winter away at school was spend in the Academy, at Ovid, Seneca county, whence, though some seven miles from home, his drafts for board, though not the lightest, were always duly and promptly honored; not on some bank, but upon his mother’s well stocked cellar; as for the sake of economy, he “boarded himself,” as the phrase goes. Vividly does the writer remember the Monday mornings, when about to leave for school, the worthy matron would insist on absolutely loading the sleigh with stores of sold viands, regardless of her son’s smiling remonstrances, and the last article was generally a few mince pies, or a basket of apples. And well does he remember the glow of love and pride that flushed the broad brow of the mother, and beamed so kindly from her moist eye, as she smiled a good bye to her son in the distance. Who can estimate the effect of such a mother’s affection on a young man’s future? Upon the subject of this sketch it has borne its fruit. Early manifesting a fondness for learning, being of a thoughtful and studious disposition, he soon took place among the first for good conduct and ability.
After leaving Ovid, he entered the celebrated Genesee Wesleyan Seminary, at Lima, New York, where he vigorously pursued his course of study, taking active part in the literary societies, and obtaining at that early age a good reputation as a sound debater and logical reasoner, rather than as a celebrity in high-sounding periods and classical allusions. His efforts were directed rather to demonstrate the truth and value of a position, than to tickle the ear of the multitude. Having acceptably and thoroughly prepared himself for college, he entered the Wesleyan University of Middletown, Conn., whence, after three years of collegiate life, he graduated with honor. While here the writer was his room-mate, the last year of his college life, and many personal incidents occurred, now dimly shadowed by time. They peep out from the dark curtain of past memories, too faint in outline for even a willing pen to portray, but often the subject of pleasant musing. At the close of the first term, we found our funds running alarmingly short. An investigation showed that the senior member of the firm, and in consequence purse-bearer, had made very frequent investments in loans to impecunious students, which proved very generally permanent, and necessitated extreme economy for some time to come; this was accomplished by hiring an old woman to cook, and buying our food in bulk; even yet, a pang of regret comes at the recollection of a tub of butter purchased cheap, but only superficially good. Its depths were strong as Homer’s heroes. The answer, too, of our butcher, to remonstrance against tough beef, “that we didn’t buy much, and he wanted it too last,” did not appear half as witty then as it does now. After awhile the writer, as junior member, was compelled to carry the money, from the fact that an inability to say No seemed chronic with his senior, and the two students were consequently enabled to board again. At the levee of the graduating class at the house of President Olin, the Rev. Doctor asked: “Mr. Cole, what do you purpose to do?” The answer was: “I intend to study law, sir!” “Well, said the Doctor, a man may be a good lawyer and a good Christian, but it’s a pretty tight squeeze.”
After graduating, the law student was for some time in the office of Hon. William H. Seward, at Auburn, New York, where he was admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, May 1st, 1848. In 1849, he started overland to California, arriving there in July of that year, having suffered severe hardships upon “the plains.” After mining some months in El Dorado county, he removed to San Francisco, where he engaged in the practice of his profession about two years. He then removed to Sacramento, where he practiced over ten years.
While in Sacramento, he was one of the first and most prominent organizers and supporters of the Republican party, when Republicanism was sufficient cause for personal injury and unlimited abuse of its advocates; of which he received a full share, including personal threats, and persistent efforts to injure his business. Much of the subsequent success of Republicanism is doubtless due to his persistent, fearless, and honest support, in those hours of trial. He was defeated as a candidate for Clerk or Supreme Court of California, in 1856, during which year he edited and published the Sacramento Daily Times, the leading Republican paper in the State, in the Presidential contest then pending. He was District Attorney for the City and County of Sacramento in 1859, 1860, and 1861. He afterward resided a year in Santa Cruz, California, still engaged in his profession.
He was married January 6th, 1853, to Miss Olive Colegrove, of Trumanburgs, Tompkins County, New York, an estimable lady, with whom he has since lived in great domestic happiness, the union being blessed with numerous offspring.
In 1863, Mr. Cole was elected to Congress by ballot through the whole State, receiving 64,985 votes. He served in the thirty-eighth Congress, on the Committees on Post Offices, and Post Roads, and on the Pacific Rail Road. He introduced and carried through Congress the important bill establishing a Steam Mail Line to China and Japan, and several other prominent measures.
In December, 1866, Mr. Cole was elected to the United States Senate, to succeed Hon. James A. McDougall, receiving on the first ballot in Republican caucus sixty votes to thirty-one cast for Aaron A. Sargent, and on first ballot in joint legislature ninety-two votes against twenty-six for W. T. Coleman, the Democratic candidate. He entered the Senate March 4th, 1867, and served on Committees for Appropriations, Claims, Manufacturers, Post Offices and Post Roads, and Revision of Laws.
As will be inferred from the above, Mr. Cole’s peculiar characteristics are unswerving integrity of action and intention, tenacity of purpose a contempt for wealth and its influences, a strong sense of justice, and fidelity in friendships. Domestic and temperate in habit, and modest in ambition, his honors have been thrust upon him, rather than plucked down by a bold hand.
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Shuck, Oscar T., “Representative & Leading Men of the Pacific”, Bacon & Co., Printers & Publishers, San Francisco, 1870. Pages 523-527.
© 2008 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.