Our Iowa Heritage: Oliver Cock – The Burlington Pioneer Mason.

(C-0253) Postmarked December 22, 1853 in Burlington, Iowa, this postal cover comes from a letter sent by Oliver Cock (Cox) to R.J. Breckinridge in Lexington Kentucky. The cover also includes Breckinridge’s 1854 followup notes concerning financial transactions between the two men, surrounding school house issues. This makes sense since Cock was the County Clerk of Des Moines County (Burlington) and Breckinridge is known as the “father of the public school system in Kentucky.”

Oliver Cock (pronounced Cox) (1808-1861) came west to the Iowa territorial capital of Burlington from New York City in 1839, at the age of 31. Records from The Burlington Hawk-Eye (below) indicate that he served as the County Clerk for Des Moines County (Burlington) from at least 1842-1853. While we don’t know many details about his family, we do know he married Amy Furman, had 5 children, and lived the remainder of his days in Burlington.

In 1844, Oliver Cock was elected the First Grand Master of the Masons In Iowa.

Using both the accounts of Palimpsest writer, Harrison John Thornton, and Masonic Lodge historian T. J. Parvin, allow me to tell you the story of young Oliver Cock being elected as the first Grand Master of Iowa…

…and the winner is…

Apparently, Brother Cock was not in Iowa City when he was elected to this high post…

So, with the election of officers, sounds like they all had quite the celebration in Iowa City six days later (January 8, 1844) with Judge Joseph Williams giving the big speech, topped off by a big banquet party at Chauncey Swan’s fancy inn – The Swan Hotel

But, not to think that Oliver was just a Masonic party animal, in 1853, the year of our letter, he helped start a new church in Burlington. These records from Des Moines County tell us…

In October, 1853, The Division Street M.E. (Methodist Episcopal) Church was organized. The first official board of the church was composed of Oliver Cock, D. S. Ebersol, Levi Hagar, H. C. Hawkins, W. C. Hunt, Willian E. Brown, William Johnson, Thomas Robertson, Adam Fordney. First Board of Trustees: Oliver Cock, W. E. Brown, H. C. Hawkins, Martin Heisey. The congregation held its meetings in the South Hill Schoolhouse which had just been completed. In the spring of 1854 it commenced to erect a church building at the northeast corner of Division and Fifth streets. The church name of the organization was “Ebenezer Church.” Its first pastor was Rev. W. Flanders. This church continued in existence for many years and was for a time the leading M. E. Church in Burlington.

Finally, to show you the good character of the man, allow me to share this intriguing story of how Oliver Cock saved “us Hawkeyes” from being “hoodwinked” by some swindlers from Kentucky!

Speaking of Kentucky…this now brings us to our Kentucky letter connection…

Robert Jefferson (R.J.) Breckinridge (1800 – 1871) was a politician and Presbyterian minister. A restless youth, Breckinridge was suspended from Princeton University for fighting, and following his graduation from Union College in 1819, was prone to engage in a lifestyle of partying and revelry. But, he was admitted to the bar in 1824 and elected to the Kentucky General Assembly in 1825. A serious illness and the death of a child in 1829 prompted him to turn to religion, and he became an ordained minister in 1832. That year Breckinridge accepted the call to pastor the Second Presbyterian Church of Baltimore, Maryland.

After a brief stint as president of Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, Breckinridge returned to Kentucky, where he pastored the First Presbyterian church of Lexington, Kentucky, and was appointed superintendent of public education by Governor William Owsley (1847-1853). The changes he effected in this office brought a tenfold increase in public school attendance and led to him being called “the father of the public school system in Kentucky.” He left his post as superintendent after six years to become a professor at Danville Theological Seminary in Danville, Kentucky.

As the sectional conflict leading up to the Civil War escalated, Breckinridge was put in the unusual position of being a slaveholder who opposed slavery. The tragic scenario of brother against brother literally played out in Breckinridge’s family, with two of his sons joining each side during the war.

Authors Eleanor Boggs and Jacob Clore write this about Breckinridge’s unique position on slavery…

Breckinridge’s personal philosophy and religious views conflicted with the kind of slavery the southern states practiced. He believed that God created everyone free, however, that did not mean that God created everyone of every race and gender equally. He argued specifically for a gradual emancipation of slaves, so that the change would not come as too much of a disruption for both the owners and the slaves themselves.

Excerpt from Breckinridge’s Hints on Slavery (1861).

His dedication to the abolitionist cause took him all the way to Europe, where he explained his views on slavery and learned from others what their philosophies were. In 1836, he engaged in a debate with a Scottish man by the name of George Thompson. Throughout the debate, Breckinridge argued that abolitionists should not identify with any group or party when fighting against slavery. He did not want sectionalism and division to disrupt a noble cause. He also wanted abolitionists to fight against slavery with a Christian spirit and the spirit of the Gospel.


Oliver Cock of Burlington, Iowa and R.J. Breckinridge of Lexington, Kentucky – Two Good Men.

Following the Civil War, R.J. Breckinridge retired to his home in Danville, Kentucky, where he died on December 27, 1871.

Oliver Cock died on April 11, 1861, at the young age of fifty three, and is buried in Aspen Grove Cemetery in Burlington.

Godspeed, Oliver and R. J. – Godspeed!


Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Oliver Cock, Find-A-Grave

Birth of the Grand Lodge, Harrison John Thornton, The Palimpsest, Volume 25 Number 6 Article 3, June 1944, pp 173-178

Biographical Sketch – Oliver Cock – Grand Master 1844-1846, Annals of Iowa Masonry – 1844-1873, Volume 5, T.S. Parvin, Grand Secretary, pp 453-456

Oliver Cock – newspaper ad, The Burlington Hawk-Eye, December 3, 1842

Oliver Cock – newspaper ad, The Burlington Hawk-Eye, May 23, 1850

Division Street M.E. Church, History of Des Moines County, Volume 1, Augustine M. Antrobus

Robert Jefferson Breckinridge, Wikipedia

Robert Jefferson Breckinridge, Find-A-Grave

Robert J. Breckinridge: A Slaveholding Critic of Slavery, Eleanor Boggs and Jacob Clore, Virgina Center for Civil War Studies, Fall 2015

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