While working on last week’s column about Judge Jonathan Colborn, I decided to also research Francis B. Cogswell, since the judge said Cogswell had assisted him in burying the first person in Riverside Cemetery.
Curiously, although Cogswell was one of the county’s earliest settlers, there are relatively few references to him in the usual sources. However, Lisa Hayner was able to gather some additional biographical information from genealogical documents. (Thanks, Lisa!)
Francis Beard Cogswell was born in 1800 in Upper Canada, which today is a part of the province of Ontario. He was the first commissioned Colonel of the Hamilton County militia and he represented Hamilton County in the Indiana House of Representatives twice (1838-1840 and 1841-1842.)
Why someone from Canada would move to the wilderness that was 1825 Hamilton County is a mystery to me, but move he did, and he established one of Noblesville’s first businesses, a tannery.
I’ve actually found more information on the tannery than on Cogswell himself. It’s mentioned in Augustus Finch Shirts’ 1901 Hamilton County history, as well as in several articles Shirts wrote for the local newspapers of his day.
Located between Conner and Logan Streets, the tannery took in all the territory from Sixth Street to White River. (That’s the area just west of the Hamilton County Judicial Center.)
The procedure Cogswell followed for tanning involved soaking animal skins in a vat filled with lime to loosen the hair attached to them. Once the hair was removed, the hides were placed in other vats and layered with bark which had been pulverized by a horse-powered wooden wheel. Water was also added.
The process was, in Shirts’ words, “exceedingly crude and slow,” but it was important to the community. The leather made from the various skins supplied residents with necessary items, such as shoes and harnesses.
Shirts describes a number of interesting incidents that occurred at that tan yard, a couple of which involved Cogswell’s apprentice, James Shirts. (Although Shirts doesn’t say so, I believe James was his half-brother.)
When James was 13, he tanned a skin for another young lad. The boy kept putting off paying for his merchandise and finally, James told the deadbeat pay up or be prepared to defend himself.
The boy chose to fight, which was a big mistake. During the brawl, James sunk his teeth into one of the boy’s ears so securely he had to be pried off.
Afterward, James went before the judge, but he got off scot-free, because he was provoked and because the fight was considered to be the settling of a quarrel, rather than a debt. In those days grievances were often settled with fisticuffs.
On another occasion, a cat showed up at the tannery while James was grinding bark. James must have been really bored because he decided, just for fun, to toss the cat onto the back of the horse that was hitched to the bark mill’s wheel.
The result was, the bark mill was wrecked, and the horse was bruised and terrified. (I doubt it did the cat much good, either.)
Fearing the punishment he’d face, James immediately “made for the weeds” and disappeared.
Nothing was heard from him for months, then one day a man delivered a message from James to Cogswell’s wife. James expressed regret for his actions and said he’d come back if Mrs. Cogswell got her husband to promise not to punish him.
Mrs Cogswell had a soft spot for James, who’d lost his own mother, so she persuaded her husband to overlook the lapse in judgment.
James returned, finished his indenture, and according to Shirts, became one of the best tanners in Indiana.

Paula Dunn’s From Time to Thyme column appears each Wednesday in The Times. Contact her at younggardenerfriend@gmail.com