John Cooley Home Page | LINEAGES | Mailing List

John Cooley of Stokes County, North Carolina

DNA disproves long-held beliefs

Michael Cooley - August 2011

During the early 1930s, poet and amateur family lore enthusiast, Lura Coolley Hamil (1878-1933), came to the conclusion that a large number of Cooleys descended from a New York Dutch family, then and now known as Cool or Kool (originally pronounced Cole). She spent a frenetic but short six months researching and writing. She died, however, while trying to find a publisher, her work languishing on a shelf for twenty years before being resurrected by cousins under the title, A Story of Pioneering.1 While Hamil was trying to rush her book into print, a dean at the University of Michigan, Mortimer Elwyn Cooley (1855-1944), was continuing his own dogged Cooley research, finally publishing the well-researched and scholarly tome, The Cooley Genealogy: The Descendants of Ensign Benjamin Cooley, in 1941.2 Although Hamil's work has attained a sort of cult-classic status among many Cooley descendants, it falls far short of being scholarly.

Elizabeth Cooley, a former genealogist of the Cooley Family Association of America, stated in a 1977 letter to Dennis Young that Hamil's book "should be labeled with a huge 'skull and cross bones.'" Hamil, she wrote, "went about grabbing up anything she felt might go together, has mixed up many different Cooley families."3 To add to the confusion, and only a few years later, Cooley family historian Dale "Pat" Walker (1846-1993) incorrectly surmised that John Cooley of Stokes County, North Carolina was the same John Cooley "of Kent County, Maryland" that Hamil assigned as being one of her "Dutch" Cooleys. Walker also accepted her mistaken statement that John Cooley was married to Elizabeth Fermin. These errors have led to a wholly fictitious genealogy, one that has been next to impossible to put to rest. However, it quickly falls apart with even cursory scrutiny and, especially, after studying several well-placed genetic tests.

Hamil's assertion that John Cooley, of her Dutch lineage, was married to Elizabeth Fermin is immediately suspect by looking at her 1889 source, Biographical & Portrait Cyclopedia, Fayette County, Pennsylvania: "William Cooley...was of Irish extraction and at the time of the Revolutionary War was a resident of Maryland, and followed wagoning. He was married to Elizabeth Firmin."4

How did Hamil do that—change "William Cooley" to "John Cooley?" It has been suggested that she may have had other proof and was simply "correcting" the source. But this is the only evidence she cites and, therefore, the only evidence we can comment on. Furthermore, after decades of discussion on the subject, no Cooley researcher has stepped forward with corroborating data. On the other hand, a large degree of credence can be given to the 1889 biography: William's grandson, the subject of the biography, was still living at the time of publication and was the likely informant for the article; the 1810 census of Fayette county, Pennsylvania, where the family resided, enumerated the household of William Cooley as being comprised of one male and one female, both of age 45 or above, with two known sons living nearby, which is in complete conformity with the biographical sketch; several of William and Elizabeth's descendants were named Firman Cooley (various spellings); and the Jonathan Cooley family bible, William and Elizabeth's son, gives the dates of deaths for the couple and is also in conformity with the 1889 text. Finally, it should be noted that the DAR no longer accepts the Hamil book as evidence of lineage. As it turns out, Hamil's misreading of her source is just the tip of the iceberg respecting her deeply flawed work.

Dale Walker never revealed why he came to the conclusion that John Cooley of Stokes was Hamil's "Dutch John," who never married Elizabeth Firmin. Nevertheless, his family group chart of c1980 has been widely circulated, garnering an aura of authenticity that does not exist. Those who delve a little deeper eventually discover Hamil's book and conclude they have found verification of Dale's statements. But the fact of the matter is that they have merely uncovered the product of an error.

Genetic evidence of descent—as straight forward as it is—is difficult to explain, especially in a short essay. Suffice it to say that men having the same patrilineal descent share common markers on their Y chromosomes. For example, every tested descendant of Ensign Benjamin Cooley shares a majority of those Y-DNA characteristics pertinent to genetic genealogy. Their unique combination of markers are not found among other Cooleys. Additionally, at least ten Stokes County, North Carolina Cooley descendants have also tested, all having nearly identical results, providing a distinctive DNA fingerprint for the line. Likewise, two descendants of the Fayette County, Pennsylvania Cooleys (William Cooley who married Elizabeth Firmin and John Andrew Cooley, purported son of John Cooley and Annetje Decker) are exact matches to one another, strongly indicating common descent, but wholly dissimilar to either the Ensign Benjamin or the Stokes County lines. The unmistakable conclusion is that these three family groups (the Benjamin Cooleys, the Stokes County Cooleys, and the Fayette County Cooleys) are not related to one another. But more to the point, the eight New York Dutch Cools who have tested are not close to matching any known Cooley clan, including the Fayette County and Stokes County Cooleys, the only Cooley families to claim descent from the Dutch Cools.5

I will not go so far out on a limb to state that there were no New York Dutch Cooleys but when considering the facts, these points need to be kept in mind: Richard H Benson's definitive 2001 work, The Barent Jacobsen Cool Family, makes no mention of the name Cooley;6 the Holland Society of New York does not list Cooley as a name of New York Dutch origin;7 and none of the several Dutch Cool websites I've visited mention any Cooleys. But I can say this with complete confidence: John Cooley of Stokes County, North Carolina was not of Dutch ancestry. He was not born in Orange County, New York in 1740, as stated by Walker (that distinction belongs to another man, who seems to have disappeared from history), and he did not live in New York or Maryland—nor did his descendants live in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. But disassembling the mythical John Cooley lineage is only half the fun. In the next article, I will show that every scrap of available evidence tells us that John Cooley was of ancient Norse-Scots descent, that he probably immigrated from England to Virginia sometime before September 1755, and that he emigrated to North Carolina by 1771. With this evidence, we can begin building a man and a legacy that looks far more authentic than the Hamil/Walker John Cooley.

1Published by the Illinois Publishing Company. It's found indexed at the Library of Congress as: A story of pioneering. By Lura (Coolley) Hamil. (n.p., 1955). 166 p. illus. 23 cm. 58-33883. CS71.C7725. 1955

2Online database:, New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2002. Originally published by The Tuttle Publishing Co., Rutland, VT. Mortimer Elwyn Cooley, The Cooley Genealogy: The Descendants of Ensign Benjamin Cooley, an early settler of Springfield and Longmeadow, Massachusetts; and other members of the family in America, 1941.


4Gresham and Wiley, 1889: Biographical & Portrait Cyclopedia, Fayette County, Pennsylvania, page 421. The description of William Cooley of Fayette county matches the William Cooley, born 1753, who had been working in a foundry in Dublin, Ireland and boarded, as an indentured servant, the ship Rebecca, leaving London for Maryland in 1774, just a few months before the outbreak of war in 1775. (The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, by Henry Fitz-Gilbert Waters, volume 64, page 113) Were these Williams the same man? There is no proof but they match on several points making the notion worth pursuing.

5See for a clearer comparison.

6The Barent Jacobsen Cool Family by Richard H Benson. Published 2001 by Newbury Street Press in Boston. ISBN: 0880821264.