Benjamin Allen Cotton was born in Pawtucket, R.I. in 1829. In his early years he used his initials to take published credit for his performances: " B.A. Cotton." Eventually he settled on the less formal, "Ben Cotton." Although he had already established himself as an important figure in the minstrel profession, at the the outset of the Civil War he traveled with Billy Birch to San Francisco. He immediately gained star status in theatres owned by California empressario Tom Maguire.