Ranna Cossit (1744-1815)
Reverend and rabble-rouser in Sydney's early settlement
Built in 1787, Cossit House is one of the oldest surviving houses in Sydney. It was built by Anglican minister, Reverend Ranna Cossit, a loyalist from New Hampshire who settled in Sydney in 1786. When Cossit agreed to the post, the Lieutenant-Governor of Cape Breton, J.W.F. DesBarres, promised he would have a house and temporary church ready for Cossit upon his arrival. Yet when Cossit landed, house construction hadn't even begun and the church building had been destroyed by a wind storm. Cossit therefore spent his first year building a two-story home on Charlotte Street and at his own expense, although he was eventually reimbursed. The house had six fireplaces and plenty of room for his wife and several children, who arrived a year later. Cossit then set his sights on rebuilding the church, this time a permanent structure made of stone. Like his home, Cossit had to cover the cost of construction, as money from the British government would only be sent once the church was complete. But Cossit was resourceful and in 1791, Saint George's Church was designated an official Anglican parish.
Soon thereafter, Cossit became involved in local politics. Sydney was the capital of the new colony of Cape Breton, established in 1785. The two groups of settlers were at odds from the beginning – the British, led by DesBarres, versus the smaller group of American loyalists including the former Mayor of New York City, David Matthews. The colony's Executive Council was the epicenter of the conflict as the two groups jockeyed for power and control over the colony and supplies coming in from Halifax. In 1787, DesBarres was removed from his position as lieutenant-governor due to complaints sent to the Colonial Office by Loyalists on Council, including Matthews. Cossit saw their actions as dishonest and sided with DesBarres' supporters. It was not long before Cossit was appointed to Executive Council and fully embroiled in the feud. When Matthews took administrative control of Council in 1795, Cossit rose up as his enemy. For the next five years, Matthews and Cossit went head-to-head as leaders of the two rival factions, each vying for political power.
The feud spilled into the town, its religious life, and education. Sydney's citizens used church attendance as a way to express their support for one faction or the other - Cossit's supporters went to the Anglican Church and Matthews', the Roman Catholic. Years earlier, Cossit had appointed the town's teacher. School was held at Cossit's house and tuition fees went to the parish. When Cossit entered politics, Matthews appointed a second teacher for the town - a Roman Catholic. Matthews' supporters thus sent their children to his teacher, which caused attendance at the parish school to drop and the tuition revenue along with it. No citizen of the town, young or old, could escape the political battlefield.
Despite Matthews' death in 1800, the conflict continued in Executive Council and amongst the citizens. It became so toxic that in 1805, an Anglican Bishop travelled from Halifax and persuaded Cossit to step down from his post. Not only was the Bishop displeased with Cossit's political aspirations, he was also concerned that the controversy was hindering the growth of the congregation at Saint George's Church. Cossit was posted to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, where he remained until his death in 1815.
Cossit's house on Charlotte Street stood the test of time and is now a heritage property and museum. Cossit House Museum is operated by the Old Sydney Society on behalf of the Nova Scotia Museum.