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COCKING (Cochin, Cockan, Cockings), MATTHEW, HBC chief factor and explorer; b. 1743, apparently in York, England, probably the son of Richard Cochin, tailor, and Jane Carlton; d. 17 March 1799 in York.

Little is known of Matthew Cocking before 1765, when the Hudson’s Bay Company “entertained” him as a writer at an annual rate of pay of £20 for five years at York Fort (York Factory, Man.). There he transcribed post journals and correspondence in his elegant hand, kept accounts, and checked shipments of goods and furs inward and outward against indents and inventories. His intelligence and diligence were recognized in 1770, when he was made second at York with a salary of £50 per annum.

In 1772 Cocking volunteered to go inland when Andrew Graham*, acting chief at York, complained that the accounts of the trade situation given by the company’s servants who had been sent on trips inland were “incoherent and unintelligible.” On 27 June 1772, under the guidance of a reluctant “Indian Leader,” Cocking began an arduous journey in an Indian canoe which he did not know how to steer. The Indians were “sickly” and a canoe mate died. They travelled slowly by the usual route up the Hayes, Fox, and Minehage (Minago) rivers (Man.) and so to the Saskatchewan River. At the site of an old French post, where friends awaited them, they “threw away” their canoes and then proceeded overland from Peonan Creek (Sask.), across the South Saskatchewan, to the Eagle Hills (south of Battleford). Cocking wandered with the Indians, hunting out on the open plains southwest of modern Biggar and in the parklands until it was time again to build canoes for the journey down to the bay. He arrived back at York on 18 June 1773. In his detailed journal, log, and concluding “Thoughts on making a settlement inland,” Cocking gave, as Graham had expected, a “rational account” of the buffalo country and of the life and customs of its people, among them the “stranger Indians” of the plains, notably the Siksikas (Blackfeet). He described the prairies and parklands, their wildlife and vegetation, and the route that connected them with the bay. He discussed the posts, procedures, and trade standards of the Canadian pedlars who were intercepting the York trade. He made clear how urgent it was that the company push trading operations inland and identified the many problems to be overcome, among them the company’s lack of canoes and experienced men.

Cocking’s next trip inland in 1774–75 gave him bitter experience with one of these difficulties: total dependence on the Indians for “carriage.” He left on 4 July 1774 to help Samuel Hearne establish Cumberland House, the company’s first permanent western inland settlement, at Pine Island Lake (Cumberland Lake, Sask.). Cocking took a route via Lake Winnipeg (Man.) which he hoped would be feasible for large canoes. On the way he “came up with” Isaac Batt, an experienced inland traveller, and Charles Thomas Isham*, who had been abandoned by their Indian guides. Cocking stayed with them, not wishing to leave them to starve. His own Indians could not be persuaded to go on up the Saskatchewan where many of the natives were ill; eventually other Indians came to take him on, not to Basquia (The Pas, Man.), where Hearne awaited him, but to their own country up the Red Deer River, west of Lake Winnipegosis. He wintered at Witch Lake (perhaps Good Spirit Lake, Sask.). Undaunted, Cocking described this new territory in his journal and sought to attach to the company the stranger Indians he met. He set off down the Red Deer River on his return journey on 20 May 1775 and arrived at York on 27 June.

Although Cocking had in 1774 been appointed master of Severn House (Fort Severn, Ont.), Ferdinand Jacobs, chief at York, and the York council reported that he had been sent inland once more, despite his great reluctance and “an ugly rupture.” Travelling by way of the Nelson River (Man.), he took command of Cumberland House from Hearne on 6 Oct. 1775. From that post he led the opposition to the Canadian pedlars, sending out Robert Longmoor*, Malchom Ross, and William Walker, among others, to compete with them. Cocking was sent inland to Cumberland once more in 1776 on direct orders from the London committee.

In August 1777 Cocking at last received permission to take up his appointment at Severn. Severn, like York, was suffering from the pedlars’ competition, but there, besides dealing with the Indians, Cocking was concerned mainly with the routine provisioning and daily management of the post. Although ill-health was “growing on him,” he took command of York in 1781 when illness forced its chief, Humphrey Marten, to return to England. At York, Cocking’s last recorded official act was to try to check the spread of the devastating smallpox epidemic of 1781–82 by sending urgent warnings to Severn, Albany (Fort Albany, Ont.), and Moose Factory (Ont.) in August 1782. Marten returned to relieve Cocking just before the Comte de Lapérouse [Galaup] captured York. Cocking sailed for England on 24 August on the King George, which, with a cargo of furs, eluded the French force. His “long services and good Behaviour” had earned the “Approbation” of the company. The records he left are today an invaluable source of information about the early west.

Settled in the suburbs of York, where a sister and a half-brother lived, Cocking did not forget his transatlantic family ties; he secured permission from the company to send an annual remittance for “the use of his children and their parents in Hudson’s Bay.” When he died his major legatees were English relatives, but his will provided for goods worth £6 a year to be supplied to each of his three mixed-blood daughters, the eldest to receive the full amount, the others to share their portion with their mothers. The council at York requested that part of this legacy might be “laid out in Ginger Bread, Nuts &tc. as they have no other means of obtaining these little luxuries, with which the paternal fondness of a Father formally provided them.”

Irene M. Spry

[Matthew Cocking], “An adventurer from Hudson Bay: journal of Matthew Cocking, from York Factory to the Blackfeet country, 1772–73,” ed. and intro. L. J. Burpee, RSC Trans., 3rd ser., II (1908), sect.ii, 89–121.

HBC Arch. A.1/42–45; A.5/1–3; A.6/10–19; A.11/ 115–18; A.16/32–33, A.16/37; A.30/1–2; B.49/a/1–5, B.49/a/7; B.135/b/4–13; B.198/a/20–27; B.198/d/ 26–33; B.239/a/53–54, B.239/a/66, B.239/a/68–76, B.239/a/78–80; B.239/b/36–42, B.239/b/78–79; B.239/d/56–57, B.239/d/59–62, B.239/d/65–66, B.239/d/68, B.239/d/70, B.239/d/84–85, B.239/d/87, B.239/d/93, B.239/d/95–96, B.239/d/98–99, B.239/d/101–2; C.1/ 386; E.2/6, f.51; E.2/11, ff.41–73d. PAC, MG 18, D5. University of York, Borthwick Institute of Hist. Research (York, Eng.), general ms indexes of wills and administrations (Prob. Index plus date); PR. Y/ASP.19, 7 Sept. 1743, 17, 20 March 1799; Prerogative Court of York probate records, April 1799 (will of Matthew Cocking). Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace). HBRS, XIV (Rich and Johnson); XV (Rich and Johnson); XXVII (Williams). Henry, Travels and adventures (Bain). Journals of Hearne and Turnor (Tyrrell). Letters from Hudson Bay, 1703–40, ed. K. G. Davies and A. M. Johnson, intro. R. [G.] Glover (London, 1965). The registers of All SaintsChurch, Pavement, in the city of York, ed. T. M. Fisher (2v., Yorkshire Parish Register Soc., Pubs., C, CII, Leeds, 1935–36). The registers of StMichael le Belfrey, York, ed. Francis Collins (2v., Yorkshire Parish Register Soc., Pubs., I, XI, Leeds, 1899–1901). J. N. L. Baker, A history of geographical discovery and exploration (London, 1931). Morton, History of Canadian west. Rich, History of HBC. [Much kind help from HBC archivists is gratefully acknowledged.  i.m.s.]

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Irene M. Spry, “COCKING, MATTHEW,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed July 24, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cocking_matthew_4E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cocking_matthew_4E.html
Author of Article: Irene M. Spry
Title of Article: COCKING, MATTHEW
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1979
Year of revision: 1979
Access Date: July 24, 2014