John Q. Cox: Climbing the Social Ladder

The Cox family moved from Boston to Norwich and was working hard to become one of the city's leading families. An reckless love, apparently, was a threat.

The dinner tent at the Norwich Bicentennial Celebration.
When I wrote the song Crossing so many years ago, this was the story I remember being told by my grandfather: Thomas Morrison was the son of a wealthy merchant in Edinburgh. He married the French maid, a girl named Cox. The father disapproved, had the marriage annulled and sent the girl away.

Thomas ran off, intent on making his fortune. The girl returned with Thomas' son, but she was ill and died soon after. The grandfather raised the boy as his son. When the boy became a man, he learned the truth and went in search of his father in America. One day, the son told his story to a mill foreman. That man, named Hervey Gridley, said, “I've heard your story before, and I think I know your father. He's a wealthy man.” The father and son were reunited.

But it turns out that the story didn't happen in Edinburgh. It happened in Norwich, Connecticut; by coincidence, or by fate, the city to which I moved several years ago. And it wasn't Thomas Morrison's father who was the merchant. He was a poor laborer, like his three brothers, living with his widowed mother.

It was Frances Victory Cox who came from wealth and status – or at least from a family that was chasing it.

Her father, John Q. Cox, was first-generation American, born in Boston in 1809. His father had come to Boston from Liverpool and set up a cabinet making business sometime around 1800. The family moved to Norwich around 1820. Now, the family patriarch and his three sons, John Q., George, William and their families, were all living in Norwich, within blocks of each other.

In 1850, John Q. was a carriage maker. His eldest son, Charles, 19, was also listed as a carriage maker. His younger son, John T., was still in school. He had four daughters, Mary, Sarah, Frances, and Anna, all 16 or younger, and probably of little help in the heavy work of carriage making. The household also listed two other men, Lorenzo Hill and Theodore Fuller, also carriage makers. Meanwhile, John's brother George was a blacksmith, and his other brother William was a carriage trimmer.

Beginning the 1840s, John was a class leader, or sub-pastor, at the Main Street Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1858, he was involved with the planning for Norwich's bicentennial celebration, being named one of six assistant marshals of the parade's sixth division, which featured “representatives of all trades ancient and modern.”

He would seem to be a leading citizen. A successful merchant. But success can be a slippery thing.

In the city directories for Norwich, John Q. Cox was listed variously as a carpenter, a wagon maker and a carriage maker. In 1865, he moved his business to New London, and one year he turned to making cotton gins. That venture, apparently, did not work out, because the next year he was back to being a carriage maker.

In none of the directories are any of the Cox businesses advertised, nor do they appear in the merchant listings. John Q. Cox appears simply as a residential listing, with his trade as information. He apparently had neither the money, inclination or prestige for anything more prominent. And in 1858, not a member of the primary bicentennial planning committee, but one of six assistant marshals charged with rounding up city tradesmen to show off their wares.

In the official proceeding of the Norwich Jubileee, John Q. Cox is listed as Assistant Marshal for the division of the parade that represents the city trades.

What emerges is not so much a picture of a leading citizen, but of a tradesman working his tail off to become one. So when his daughter married a lowly laborer, the son of a Scottish immigrant, it's a step back down the social ladder. Thomas Morrison certainly didn't meet with John Cox's approval. A telling detail: Thomas Morrison and Frances Victory Cox were married on July 4, 1856, by the Rev. Thomas Morgan of Christ Church Episcopal. The Coxes were members of a different church, the Main Street Methodist Episcopal.

I wondered how the story that was passed down could have been wrong, how it could have been told that it was Thomas Morrison's father who was the wealthy merchant who disapproved of his son marrying a lowly French maid named Cox.

But now, I can see how easily that misinterpretation came about – how my grandfather, in telling the story, would say his father's grandfather was a wealthy merchant, and never specify which side of the family he was talking about. And as for the French maid, we all assumed that meant housekeeper, and that certainly meant the Morrisons were rich. Except, in the language of the time, of the man who originally told the story, my great-grandfather, George Montressor Morrison, French maid didn't mean what it does today. It meant French, as in from France, and maid, as in young girl.

Frances Victory Cox was young, only 16 at the time she married. And her mother, while she was born in Newport, identified her ancestry as French. She wasn't the Morrisons' housekeeper. She was just a young French girl.


© 2018 Mike Bailey and Ron Gletherow

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