(August 10, 1821–February 16, 1905)
Charles F. Ritter
Jay Cooke made his reputation serving the Union during the Civil War. With two biographers celebrating that service, he continues to be known as “The Robert Morris of the Civil War” and “the financial wizard of the Union war effort.” Some say he did as much to win the war as did the Union Army. Yet this is the same Jay Cooke whose banking house collapsed, ushering in the devastating Panic of 1873. Indeed, Cooke was more than a banker; he was a promoter, an entrepreneur, and a developer. These images do not attach to his memory. The survival of Cooke’s high-toned reputation lies not only in the fact that he did rescue Union finances in the darkest hours of the war but in historians’ focus on that aspect of his life.
Born outside the Ohio frontier town of Sandusky on August 10, 1821, Cooke was the third of four children and the second of three sons born to Eleuthoros and Martha (Carswell) Cooke. He traced his roots to the Plymouth settlement where the first Cookes arrived in 1638. His forebears followed a typical migration pattern from Massachusetts to Connecticut, across New York state and into the Western Reserve, first to Indiana and then back to Ohio.
Cooke’s father was a prominent figure in Ohio political and legal circles. A lawyer by trade, Eleuthoros Cooke served in the Ohio House of Representatives in 1822, 1823, and 1825. Elected as an anti-Jacksonian to the 22d Congress in 1830, he ran unsuccessfully for reelection in 1832. After returning to his law practice, he was elected again to the Ohio House in 1840. In addition to practicing law and politics, Eleuthoros Cooke was also an entrepreneur. While in the Ohio legislature he successfully sought a charter for the construction of a canal from Sandusky to Cincinnati, and in 1826 the Ohio legislature granted him what is reputed to be the first railroad charter in the United States.
Jay Cooke was educated through home reading and at the village school until he was fourteen. He began his business career at the age of nine when he sold tin toys and picture books in a corner of his uncle’s Sandusky dry goods store.