Nathaniel Cogswell was born on 16 April 1778 in Rowley, Massachusetts, the son of Nathaniel Cogswell (1739–1822) and his second wife Lois Searle (1743–1825). His father, a medical practitioner, was an American patriot and a close friend of Benjamin Franklin. Cogswell was a descendant of Jonathan Cogswell who had arrived in Pemaquid, Maine, from Bristol, England, on the Angel Gabriel in 1635.
It is not certain exactly when Cogswell arrived at the Ile de France (later Mauritius), perhaps on a neutral American vessel, prior to the Peace of Amiens. After the signing of the peace he became involved in the very first trading expedition from the Ile de France to New South Wales. As a supercargo (officer in charge of the cargo and its sale), he accompanied Alexandre Josselin Lecorre and a crew of 12 men on the 90-ton Bordeaux-built Entreprise, owned by the merchant Pierre François Roussel, with the intention of sealing in the waters off the Indian Ocean islands of Amsterdam and St Paul, and then proceeding to Port Jackson in order to sell a cargo of wine and spirits. Contrary winds prevented their initial sealing venture, and then a fierce storm off Cape Leeuwin (Western Australia) severely damaged the sails and bulwarks of the Entreprise. She reached Port Jackson on 9 September 1802 and was mistakenly registered as the Surprise. Governor Phillip Gidley King, who was reluctant to encourage a trade in rum, then the de facto currency of the infant British colony, grudgingly gave permission to Lecorre to sell as much of his cargo as was necessary to pay for his repairs. This amounted to about to a third of the cargo of 180 gallons of spirits and half of his 400 gallons of wine. Lecorre then asked permission to go sealing in Bass Strait, although Britain had a very tenuous claim to these waters. Governor King, ever suspicious of French ambitions, flatly refused. Apparently facing financial disaster, Lecorre managed to secure the intercession of Nicolas Baudin, whose battered expedition was also visiting Port Jackson at the time. King finally relented on the condition that permission would not be given again and that the sealing would be confined to the Two Sisters, islands north of Flinders Island in the Furneaux Group which offered no permanent anchorage. Lecorre sailed south, on 4 October, to try his luck in these inhospitable waters. On 27 October 1802, after a week off the Sisters, the expedition was surprised by a storm and the Entreprise was wrecked, apparently 'while anchored in the foul bay on the east side of these islands'. Lecorre and five other members of the crew drowned. Cogswell, however, managed to summon the passing sealing schooner Endeavour to return to Port Jackson for assistance. En route, on 20 November, the Endeavour encountered Baudin on the Géographe and informed him of the fate of the Entreprise. In his journal, Baudin referred specifically to the 'American supercargo Mr Coxwell' and expressed his sadness at the death of Lecorre. However, when Governor King learned of the loss of the Entreprise, he expressed no remorse for the terrible danger he had imposed on Lecorre, and was even happy enough to write to Lord Bathurst suggesting that Lecorre's fate might stop 'more adventurers' coming from the Ile de France. In Sydney, Cogswell reached an agreement with Henry Kable and James Underwood to salvage the Entreprise and to bring her crew to safety. The Sydney Gazette reported that
From the position, and shattered state in which the hull . . . was found, it was conjectured the tempestuous weather . . . had so powerfully operated upon her as to render an attempt to restore her useless.
The attempt to refloat the Entreprise failed; nevertheless, she was stripped of all salvable cargo and usable gear (including sails, rigging, muskets and 4-pound guns) which was eventually auctioned by Simeon Lord in Sydney, on 15 March 1803. Cogswell returned to Sydney via Rio de Janeiro on 5 April 1807, as the master of the Philadelphia-registered brig Hannah and Sally, with a cargo of sugar, tea, cheese and Chinese wares, and departed with Henry Kable for Canton on the Rolla. Cogswell's later ventures appear to have centred on the Canary Islands wine trade. He died on 13 November 1832 in New York and was buried in the New York Marble Cemetery, Manhattan. His widow Mary was buried in the same vault on 20 February 1838. They had no children and Cogswell's large fortune was left to his younger brother Reverend Jonathan Cogswell.
Information from Donald J Cogswell, Sebring, Florida
C Bateson, Australian Shipwrecks Including Vessels Wrecked en route to or from Australia, and some Strandings, vol. 1: 1622–1850, AH & AW Reed, Frenchs Forest NSW, 1982, pp 33–4
JS Cumpston, First Visitors to Bass Strait, Roebuck, Canberra, 1973, pp 15-17
C Cornell, (trans), The Journal of post Captain Nicolas Baudin, Commander-in-Chief of the Corvettes Geographe and Naturaliste, Assigned by order of the Government to a voyage of Discovery, Libraries Board of South Australia, Adelaide, 1974, pp 427, 429
E Duyker, 'Josselin and Alexandre Le Corre: Early French Voyagers to Van Diemen's Land and New Holland', Explorations, no 13, December 1992, pp 9–13
New York Evening Post, 17 November 1832
Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 12 March 1803, p 3; 12 April 1807, p 1
N Wace, and B Lovett, Yankee Maritime Activities and the Early History of Australia, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University, Canberra, 1973, p 60
F Watson (ed), Historical Records of Australia, Series 1, vol iii, Library Committee of the Commonwealth Parliament, Sydney, 1915, pp 636, 638, 640, 642–3; vol iv, p 360