Rank(s): Ordinary Seaman
Dates of Service: 8/4/1811 - 12/29/1812
Birth Date: 1784
Death Date: 12/29/1812
William Cooper was born in New York around 1784. His parents are unknown, but some accounts state that he was a chief of the Unkechaug Nation of Long Island in New York.
Cooper was living in Brookhaven, New York in 1806 when he met and married Dorothea Smith, a mixed-race woman who worked as a household servant for the Robert family.
After the wedding, Cooper worked on the Robert farm for two or three years. Cooper also worked for General John Smith, a local landowner. Despite being “distinguished for his activity and industry,” he soon found himself in debt to Smith. In an attempt to pay off his debt, Cooper went to sea on a merchant vessel as a seaman. Around March 14, 1810, he was impressed by the British Royal Navy and forced to serve aboard a British warship. Writing to Dorothea, Cooper asked her to send papers to the American Consul in Great Britain that would secure his release. But, before the papers were sent, Dorothea heard news that her husband had been put aboard the British ship HMS Defence and lost at sea in 1811.
In the spring of 1812, Dorothea received remarkable news that her husband was alive and aboard USS Constitution, currently at Washington, D.C. Cooper had managed to desert from Defence in February 1811, before the ship sailed on its fatal voyage, and enlisted aboard USS Essex and then on Constitution.
Cooper entered Constitution on August 4, 1811 as an ordinary seaman.
On December 20, 1812, Cooper and another seaman were “punished at the gangway” for smuggling bladders of rum on board the ship.
Battles and Engagements
While Constitution was in harbor in Washington, D.C. and then in Boston, Cooper had someone write letters for him to his wife (apparently, he was unable to write). In the letters, he told her that he escaped injury in the battle against HMS Guerriere and that Constitution would be shipping out soon.
However, Cooper was killed in action during the battle with HMS Java on December 29, 1812. He served as a sponger for no. 9 carronade and was probably killed in the same broadside that destroyed Constitution’s wheel and wounded Commodore William Bainbridge.
Cooper’s widow, Dorothea, applied for a widow’s pension to support her and her daughters, who were both under the age of 16. The pension application required a marriage certificate, but the state of New York did not issue such documents at that time. Signed depositions served as proof of marriage instead. This proved a problem for Dorothea, since most of the people who attended the Cooper wedding were likely illiterate, as claimed by Dorothea’s representative to the pension board.
Eventually, Dorothea produced some acceptable form of proof or deposition, and the government granted her a pension of $6 a month for 10 years, which was later extended for additional years. She remarried twice and survived all of her husbands.