Before Joining USS Constitution
We don’t know where or when William Cooper was born. He was described as an “Indian” and as such was less likely to have his birth officially recorded, although as of 1806 he was living in New York.
Cooper was living in Brookhaven, New York in 1806 when he met and married Dorothea, 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. He then shipped off to sea on a merchant vessel as a seaman, Soon after, he was impressed by the British Navy—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, yet 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, aboard USS Constitution, currently at Washington D.C. He had managed to desert from the Defence before she sailed on her fatal voyage, and enlisted on board Constitution.
Cooper married Dorothea at Poospatuck, an Indian settlement or neighborhood a few miles from the Robert house where Dorothea lived and worked. They had two daughters, Charlotte and Frances (Fanny).
Aside from the description of Cooper as an Indian, we do not know what he looked like.
Life Aboard USS Constitution
Cooper entered Constitution in 1810 or 1811 as an ordinary seaman.
Battles and Engagements
While USS Constitution was in harbor in Washington D.C. and 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.
Cooper was killed in action during the battle with HMS Java on December 29, 1812.
Cooper’s widow Dorothea applied for a widow’s pension after his death to support her and her daughters, both under the age of 16. The pension application required a marriage certificate; however, the state of New York didn’t issue such documents at that time. Signed depositions served as proof of marriage instead. This proved a problem 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 ten years, which was later extended for additional years. She remarried twice but both husbands died before her.