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On the Bardstown, Kentucky plantation where Stephen Collins Foster composed "My Old Kentucky Home", lived a young slave girl in whose soul were interesting melodies of her own. Strong in spirit and dramatic flair, Martha Vaughn faithfully served as the personal maid to Mrs. Rebecca Rowan, mistress of the Old Kentucky Home. Yet her vivid accounts of visions and dramatic recitations of her original stories and plays while she worked, forced plantation owners to send her away concerned that she would disrupt discipline among the other slaves. It's been said that of such mothers are seers and poets born. And so in this instance it proved to be.

Joseph Seamon Cotter was born February 2, 1861 in Nelson County, Kentucky. His father was a prominent citizen of Louisville who was married to Martha by common law. It is claimed that Martha named her son for Joseph, the dreamer of biblical stories in the hope of his becoming great in the service of his people like the Hebrew Joseph. She lived to see her hope fulfilled.

Joseph S. Cotter's formal education was very scant. He attended grammar school through the third grade, but then was forced to leave to help support his mother. He worked at a variety of jobs as a day laborer. He was a teamster, ragpicker, tobacco stemmer, prize fighter, whiskey distiller, and brick hand. Because he was small he was often harassed by the other workers. He was not big or strong enough to fight to gain his dignity, but he won his fellow workers' respe..
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