Rank(s): Ordinary Seaman
Dates of Service: 8/4/1811 - 12/29/1812
Birth Date: 1784
Death Date: 12/29/1812
William Cooper was a chief of the Unkechaug Nation of Long Island in New York. He was born around 1784.
In 1806, Cooper married Dorothea Smith, who went by Dolly, in a service at Poospatuck, the Unkechaug reservation near Mastic, New York. At the time, both were working for the Robert family, one of several white landowners nearby.
At some point Cooper went to work for another landowner, General John Smith. There Cooper fell deep in debt to Smith as a result of the lay system in which employers deducted the cost of food and goods from the income they paid to laborers. Fleeing the 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 the British warship, HMS Defence, which was lost in a shipwreck off the coast of Denmark in 1811.
In the spring of 1812, Dorothea received remarkable news that her husband was alive and aboard USS Constitution. 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, who could read or write, had someone write letters for him to his wife, Dolly. 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.
Following the news of Cooper’s death, his former employer, John Smith, successfully petitioned the local court in New York to seize monies that were due Cooper. Having served during the battles with both HMS Guerriere and HMS Java, Cooper was due a portion of the prize money from each victory, in addition to back wages due prior to his death. That money would have gone to Cooper’s widow, Dolly, but as a result of Smith’s filing, he received all of Cooper’s prize and wages instead, deducted what he claimed to be owed and passed the remainder on Dolly.
In 1819, Dolly applied for a widow’s pension to support her and her daughters, who were both under the age of 16. After several rejections and appeals because she did not have a valid marriage certificate, Dolly received her pension of $6 per month, valid for a total of 10 years rated from the date of Cooper’s death. Dolly remarried twice to other Unkechaug men whom she outlived and became a respected matriarch of the Unkechaug community. As pension laws and benefits continued to change, Dolly continued to apply for and receive extensions and increases in her pension. She also received a bounty-land grant in Kansas, which she later sold to a speculator. She died sometime between 1865 and 1870.