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Great Uncle John

I think I would have liked my great uncle John. I never knew him; he died 62 years ago yesterday at his home in his beloved adopted state of South Dakota. But everything I’ve ever heard of John W. Cottrell, my grandfather’s oldest brother, tells me I would have liked him.

And you just can’t look at that face without seeing in the adventuresome cowboy he became the kind man he always was said to be:

He was born most likely in Clay County, Texas, on 11 February 1877; he died 12 April 1951 in Mobridge, Walworth County, South Dakota.1 He was the second child and oldest son of Martin Gilbert and Martha Mattie (Johnson) Cottrell.2

He became a cattleman while still in Texas and rode the cattle trails between the Lone Star State and South Dakota before the turn of the century. He worked for the Matador Cattle Company, which ran cattle on 500,000 acres in South Dakota, and moved permanently to South Dakota by 1903.3 One of the families’ treasured images of John is this one, on the streets of Old Evarts, a cattle center in South Dakota, probably taken around 1905:

John’s life was both heroic and tragic. He married Amelia Beitelspacher on 8 July 1908 at Java, Walworth County, SD4, by 1910 they had one child,5 named Mattie after John’s mother, and by 1914, John was a widower with a small child.

It was then that he married Abigail Claymore, a Lakota Sioux,6 who became the mother of John’s only son, my mother’s cousin Phillip.7 Abby suffered from tuberculosis, and was hospitalized for a time,8 while John did his best to raise Mattie and Phillip. Her illness meant they were often without Abby’s presence.

And the problems of John’s life didn’t end when Abby’s health improved. I can’t imagine how devastated he and Abby were when they learned that their boy had been killed on a training mission during World War II.

But John persevered. He continued to ranch and play a role in the community, to be known and loved as a gentle and kind man there in South Dakota.

And the thing that endears John to me most is that, throughout his life, despite more than 20 years difference in age, he took time to love and care for and guide his baby brother, my grandfather Clay. He took my grandfather into his home for a while after their mother’s death. He kept in touch after Clay had gone back to Oklahoma and met my grandmother. He let him know that he was there for him.9

I think I really would have liked my great uncle John.


  1. South Dakota Dept. of Health, death certif. no. 259251, John W. Cottrell, Walworth County, filed 24 Apr 1951.
  2. See 1880 U.S. census, Clay County, TX, population schedule, Precinct 4, enumeration district (ED) 164, p. 492(B), dwelling 17, family 17, M.G. Cottrell household; digital image, ( : accessed 12 Oct 2011); citing National Archive microfilm publication T9, roll 1296; imaged from FHL microfilm 1255296.
  3. “Funeral Held Monday For John Cottrell,” Mobridge (South Dakota) Tribune, 17 Apr 1951.
  4. Interview with Opal Robertson Cottrell (Kents Store, VA), by Bobette Richardson, 1980s; copy of notes privately held by JG Russell. Opal Cottrell was the grandmother of Bobette Richardson and JG Russell.
  5. 1910 U.S. census, Walworth County, SD, population schedule, Mobridge Ward 3, enumeration district (ED) 436, p. 61(A) (stamped), sheet 23(A), dwelling 365, family 393, John W Cottrell household; digital image, ( : accessed 14 Oct 2011); citing National Archive microfilm publication T624, roll 1489; imaged from FHL microfilm 1375502.
  6. Walworth County, South Dakota, marriage certif. no. 4-44450, John Cottrell and Abigail Claymore, 9 Nov 1914; County Clerk’s Office, Mobridge.
  7. See Judy G. Russell, “Memorial Day thanks,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 28 May 2012 ( : accessed 12 Apr 2013).
  8. 1930 U.S. census, Custer County, SD, population schedule, State Sanitarium, p. 15(B) (stamped), sheet 1(B), enumeration district (ED) 4, line 35, Abigail M. Cottrell, patient; digital image, ( : accessed 12 Jun 2012; citing National Archive microfilm publication T626, roll 2221; imaged from FHL microfilm 2341955.
  9. Interview, Opal Robertson Cottrell, 1980s.
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