James Rogers Cocke, legislator and farmer, son of Frederick Bird Smith Cocke and Eliza Malvina (Rogers) Cocke, was born in Rutledge, Grainger County, Tennessee, on March 27, 1838. Cocke’s formal education consisted of briefly studying law at Cumberland University Law School in Lebanon, Tennessee, in 1852. In 1854 Frederick B. S. Cocke relocated the family to Texas. They originally settled in Lockhart in Caldwell County before eventually moving to Karnes County in 1860.
Though Cocke attended law school before leaving Tennessee, there is no record of him graduating from the university or practicing law in Tennessee or Texas before or after the Civil War. Instead, Cocke worked as a farmer and owned more than 100 acres of land in Gonzales County. He listed himself as a farmer in every United States census from the time he moved out of his father's home until his death. In addition to farming, Cocke also served at some point as the city tax assessor and collector for Nixon, Texas.
Shortly after the start of the Civil War, in May 1861 Cocke was commissioned as a second lieutenant with the Helena Guards, a company of mounted riflemen which was part of the Frontier Regiment of the Texas State Troops. In 1862 he volunteered, along with his brother William G. Cocke, for Confederate service and enlisted as a private in the Thirty-Sixth Texas Calvary Regiment under Col. Peter C. Woods. Stationed west of the Mississippi, the regiment spent most of its time in Louisiana and took part in several engagements including the battles of Mansfield and Pleasant Hill.
When the war was over Cocke married Grace Elizabeth Bartlett of Bexar County, Texas, on January 25, 1866. After moving out of his parents’ home, Cocke and his wife settled in Gonzales County near the town of Rancho, Texas (near what later became Nixon), to start their family. The couple had nine children who lived to adulthood: Albert, Emmett Barlett, Arthur, Elnor Grace, Charles, Maggie, Ida Rogers, Lawson Clifton, and James. Three of their sons went on to become well-respected lawyers.
Cocke had a substantial family connection to Texas state politics which must have influenced his experiences. His father, Frederick Bird Smith Cocke, Sr., served as a representative in the Ninth and Sixteenth legislatures as well as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1875. His brother, Frederick Bird Smith Cocke, Jr., went on to serve in the Twenty-Sixth legislature, and ultimately his nephew, William Alexander Cocke, served in the Thirtieth session. James Rogers Cocke was the only member of his family to not belong to the Democratic party during his time in the legislature, although the other Cockes may well have shared his reformist bent, serving in eras when reform was pursued within the Democratic party.
It appears that Cocke’s first documented participation in Texas politics came in July 1892 when Cocke attended a People’s party meeting in Leesville to nominate candidates from the upcoming state and local elections as well as select delegates to send to the party’s county convention in Gonzales, Texas. The newly-created third party nominated Cocke to run to represent Gonzales County in the Texas House of Representatives. He defeated the competition with seventy-five votes to J. W. Peebles’s sixty-one and W. J. Stoubing’s twenty-two. At the Gonzales County convention on July 31, Cocke secured the nomination making him the Populist party’s candidate for Texas House District 84. Cocke won his seat in the Twenty-Third Texas Legislature.
When that session was gaveled to order in January 1893, the speaker assigned Cocke to the committees on Agricultural Affairs, Public Buildings and Grounds, and Public Debt. Cocke introduced six bills during the Twenty-Third legislature—none of which the House passed. His legislative agenda clearly established his credentials as a reformer. One bill proposed to fine anyone found to be gambling with minors; another sought to give debtors two years to redeem their foreclosed properties; another proposed to fine election workers who were not following election rules; and yet another aimed to reform the brutal convict lease system by having state inmates work on county roads under county supervision. None of these made it out of their Democratic-controlled committees. An additional bill of his, intended to help protect churches and schools from vandalism, was never voted on.
Gonzales County reelected Cocke in 1894 to the Twenty-Fourth legislature after defeating Democrat candidate N. F. Miller by a margin of 143 to 123. The speaker appointed Cocke to the Towns and City Corporations; State Affairs; and Roads, Bridges and Ferries committees. The speaker also appointed the Gonzales County representative to two ad hoc investigative committees. One investigated a sensational bribery accusation leveled against the nationally-prominent Populist James Harvey ”Cyclone” Davis; the investigation led to an official censure of Davis. The other appointment came at the very end of the session, when a committee was chosen to investigate the sudden disappearance of Populist House member Thomas R. Watkins of Navarro County from Austin on April 23, 1895. The committee eventually concluded that Watkins’s friends and family had no knowledge of his whereabouts, though there was no evidence of foul play, and that he had most likely left the country.
In the Twenty-Fourth legislature, Cocke again joined with the other twenty-one Populists in the House in supporting causes such improving the state’s system of public education, election reform, reforming the corrupt fee-system used to compensate county officials, abolishing the convict lease system, regulating railroads, and other things that government could do to improve the lives of the farmers and working-class people.
Cocke introduced three bills during the session, none of which passed the House. Two were of strictly local importance, but a third would have given added protections to landowners facing foreclosure—an important issue during the worst depression the county had ever endured up to that time. Again, none of the Populist’s bills became law.
Like most of his Populist colleagues, Cocke compiled a relatively progressive record on legislation involving racial issues. He supported Populist bills that provided for the creation of separate school boards for Blacks and Whites and equal per capita funding for Black and White schools. He also voted to table a bill requiring segregated railroad waiting rooms and passenger cars. In a high-profile debate followed closely by Texas women, Cocke supported Populist efforts to raise the age of consent in statutory rape cases from twelve to the age of eighteen, an effort that eventually resulted in changing the age to fifteen.
In March 1895 the Populists in the legislature and other major party leaders held a conference in which they discussed plans to establish an official daily newspaper for the party. Although the newspaper never materialized, the fact that Cocke was elected chair of the conference suggests that he had established himself as a Populist leader of statewide stature. That stature notwithstanding, it appears that Cocke either did not run for reelection in 1896 or else he ran and lost. In any case, a Democrat won the seat in the fall general election, and Cocke retired to his farm in Gonzales County.
Like many Populists, Cocke’s political career effectively ended with the downfall of the People’s party in the years after 1896. He spent his last two decades living quietly on his Gonzales County farm. Following an illness of several weeks, Cocke died from acute dilation of the heart on January 26, 1919, at his home in Nixon. His obituary in the San Antonio Express noted that he was a pioneer citizen of the area and that he “stood high in the community.” He was buried in Rancho Cemetery in Nixon.