James Fenimore Cooper Society Website
This page is: http://www.oneonta.edu/external/cooper/articles/informal/hugh-historic.html

Making a Place Historic: The Coopers and Cooperstown

Hugh C. MacDougall
(James Fenimore Cooper Society)

[may be downloaded and reproduced for personal or instructional use, or by libraries]

Originally prepared for a meeting of Central New York Muncipal Historians; repeated to a variety of local groups.

Return to: Informal Talks | Articles & Papers | Susan Fenimore Cooper

My theme is one that is dear to me, the writings of three members of the Cooper family who have contributed so greatly to the fame of Cooperstown.

What makes a community historic? Sometimes it is because it was the scene of important historic events. Sometimes it is because of people who lived in it, who went on to become famous in the great outside world of the State, the nation, or even the globe -- so that they are commemorated with monuments, and the houses or other places associated with them attract visitors from outside the community. Occasionally, however, a writer or an artist may carry the community to the outside world, filtered and transfigured through his or her creative genius; and then visitors may come to see on the ground what they have already experienced in their imaginations.

Consider the town of Oxford, Mississippi, now in the news because of the centennial of the birth of William Faulkner. Thanks to Faulkner's fiction, the southern community of Oxford, and the surrounding countryside he renamed Yoknapatawpha County, are known throughout the world; their history, culture, and way of life interpreted through the author's vision. And the people who visit Oxford do so both to see where Faulkner lived, and to search for the environment he transformed into literature. Other examples might include Louisa May Alcott's Concord; Thoreau's Walden Pond; John Burroughs' Catskills; Walter Edmonds' Mohawk Valley; William Kennedy's Albany.

Cooperstown is such a community. Three generations of the Cooper family, beginning with the village's founder, William Cooper, transformed Cooperstown and the Lake Otsego on which it is located, into ideas, which entered into the imaginations of people throughout the world, and which remain alive today.

William Cooper, who founded Cooperstown in 1786, made it into a recognized symbol of successful settlement on the American frontier. James Fenimore Cooper, his son, gave to readers of his novels all over the world a vivid image of Cooperstown and Lake Otsego as symbols of the American experience and of the American wilderness. Less well known, but with quiet and persistent influence, Susan Fenimore Cooper, the novelist's eldest daughter, provided a graphic picture of a small town in the midst of a closely observed natural world. The writings of each are still in print, still read, and still convey images of Cooperstown to readers who have never set foot in New York State, readers who may even -- let us admit it -- care nothing about baseball.

It is of the differing perspectives of these three members of the Cooper family that I wish to talk tonight. For each of them, Cooperstown, its Lake, and its surrounding hills and woods. meant something very different; each conveyed to the outside world a different vision of Cooperstown.

William Cooper

William Cooper was not a polished writer; indeed, his grammar and spelling were deficient even by the rather loose standards of the 18th century frontier. His vision of Cooperstown, was spread in other and less orthodox ways. The first was by reputation; William Cooper was the man who had succeeded in settling the wilderness. The second was A Guide in the Wilderness1, a series of letters, posthumously published in 1810 in Dublin, Ireland, outlining his story, his theories of settlement, and his advice to new settlers. The third was the fictionalized account of his recollections and achievements contained in the best-selling 1823 novel, The Pioneers, written by his son James Fenimore Cooper.

Today, we know a great deal about William Cooper. His life, and the early history of Cooperstown, has been brilliantly told by Alan Taylor in William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic2, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1996. But it is in William Cooper's vision, as it was experienced by earlier generations, that I am principally interested.

William Cooper was born in 1754 in Pennsylvania, and by the end of the American Revolution was a small- scale merchant in the Quaker town of Burlington, New Jersey. He was ambitious to make his fortune and, in the dislocations which followed the Revolution, he saw his chance. In 1785 he stumbled on an opportunity to acquire a 40,000 acre tract of land adjacent to Lake Otsego. After only one quick visit to the area, he arranged to be the only bidder at an auction (held in Canajoharie in mid-January), and bought it for 2,700 English pounds of borrowed money, or about 17 cents an acre. Since his newly acquired title was clouded, to put it charitably, William Cooper hastened to sell off his lands in a hurry. But, thanks in part to his enormous energy and personal attention, the village he laid out at the foot of Lake Otsego -- that soon came to be called Cooper's Town -- grew and prospered. In 1790 William Cooper moved his family to a newly constructed frame house in the center of his new village; a decade later he replaced the house with a brick mansion -- Otsego Hall -- that was the pride of Western New York. Within five years of William Cooper's purchase, Cooperstown had become the county seat of the newly created Otsego County, and Cooper had been named as its first presiding County Judge.

"In 1785," William Cooper wrote in his Guide in the Wilderness, "I visited the rough and hilly country of Otsego, where there existed not an inhabitant, nor any trace of a road.... I laid me down to sleep,...nothing but the melancholy Wilderness around me."3

A more extensive view of his first impressions is contained in his son's novel, The Pioneers, in which Judge Temple of Templeton (for whom Judge William Cooper of Cooperstown was a prototype) recalls:

"I...rode to the summit of the mountain, that I have since called Mount Vision; for the sight that there met my eyes seemed to me as the deceptions of a dream.... The lake lay, like a mirror of glass.... Not the vestige of man could I trace...from my elevated observatory. No clearing, no hut, none of the winding roads that are now to be seen, were there; nothing but mountains rising behind mountains, the valley, with its surface of branches.... Even the Susquehanna was then hid, by the height and density of the forest."4

For William Cooper the founding of Cooperstown was an act of creation, the great justifying achievement of his life. As he put it in A Guide in the Wilderness:

"I began with the disadvantage of a small capital, and the incumbrance of a large family, and yet I have already settled more acres than any man in America.... I am now descending into the vale of life, and I must acknowledge that I look back with self-complacency upon what I have done, and am proud of having been an instrument in reclaiming such large and fruitful tracts from the waste of the creation...."5
     "When I contemplate all this, and above all, when I see those good old settlers meet together, and hear them talk of past hardships, of which I bore my share, and compare the misery they then endured with the comforts they now enjoy, my emotions border upon weakness, which manhood can scarcely avow."6

William Cooper would have been pleased with the words of praise given by William Sampson in a preface to his posthumously-published pamphlet:

"Leave to Caesar the boast of having destroyed two millions of men; let yours be that of having cut down two millions of trees. He made men disappear from the fruitful soil where they were born; your labours have made a new and happier race appear where none before had been."7
William Cooper's vision of Cooperstown is clear: a prosperous human community that he had created out of a barren wilderness. Indeed, as Alan Taylor has pointed out, Cooper's vision ignored those humans who had lived and left their marks on the area, such as the Iroquois Indians and the scattered settlers who had come before the Revolution. Nor was Cooper interested in the natural environment, whether of scenery or wild life, except as they affected human development. In this, William Cooper was a man of his times. Wilderness and nature were enemies to be tamed, conquered, destroyed, and replaced. William Cooper's pride was in how he had tamed them.

William Cooper's achievement in building a viable community in Cooperstown, and in convincing land-hungry New Englanders to settle around it, made him famous in Philadelphia and New York City, and even reached as far as Europe. He had succeeded, where many other would-be developers had failed. With his vision of Cooperstown before them, others flocked to Cooper for advice, or invited him to repeat the miracle on their behalf. Politicians turned to him, despite his rough-hewn manners, and for a time William Cooper became the Federalist leader of all of what was then Western New York State.

In A Guide in the Wilderness, William Cooper outlined three basic principles for successful settlement projects: Land should be sold outright, rather than leased, so that settlers would be working for themselves and not for others. Developers should, as he did, live among their settlers, to aid and encourage them by deed and by example. And villages should be compact, so that merchants and craftsmen would stick to their trades, and be available when farmers from the surrounding countryside needed them.

Though William Cooper was unable to repeat his Cooperstown success elsewhere, in part because he sometimes failed to follow his own advice, and though his political star fell with the rise of the Jeffersonians, Cooperstown itself remained loyal to him. He repaid that loyalty by working to give the new village an academy, several churches, a library, and even a water supply.

William Cooper's vision of Cooperstown was that of a human community created in a wilderness without a past, with little concern for the natural environment that it supplanted. He was aware of potential economic problems: he feared that the destruction of trees would lead to a shortage of fuel, and when he noted that the famous Otsego Bass were being decimated by indiscriminate netting, he had the State legislature enact for Lake Otsego the first closed fishing season in New York State. But conservation was a purely economic matter; as Judge Temple put it in The Pioneers:

"It is not as ornaments that I value the noble trees of this country; it is for their usefulness. We are stripping the forests, as if a single year would replace what we destroy."8
James Fenimore Cooper

For William Cooper's youngest son, Cooperstown had very different meanings. James Fenimore Cooper was born in Burlington, New Jersey, in 1789, and brought to Cooperstown as an infant the following year. Young James spent his childhood in Cooperstown before going on to a curtailed college education, and a brief but very significant career as a sailor and Naval officer. In 1811 he married Susan De Lancey of Westchester County, daughter of one of New York's oldest colonial families. He returned to Cooperstown with his wife and oldest children in 1813, and spent four years trying to farm on what is now the site of the New York State Historical Association. Then, his fortune inherited from his father evaporating in the depression that followed the War of 1812, he moved back down-state, changed his career from that of unsuccessful country gentleman to that of a popular novelist, and spent seven years living and traveling in Europe. In the early 1830s he returned again to Cooperstown, where he bought back, remodeled, and spent the rest of his life in his father's mansion in the center of the village.

James Fenimore Cooper was America's first internationally recognized novelist, and is a major figure in the history of American literature. Between 1820 and his death in Cooperstown in 1851, he published 32 novels and a dozen other books. He is best known today for tales about Indians and the American frontier -- especially the five so- called Leatherstocking Tales about the frontier scout, Natty Bumppo, otherwise known as Leatherstocking, Hawkeye, and Deerslayer. But Cooper also invented the sea novel, and was the first important historian of the American Navy.

Unlike his father, James Fenimore Cooper was fascinated by Cooperstown's natural setting, the beauty of Lake Otsego and its surrounding hills, and the teeming forests that William Cooper's limited vision was so rapidly destroying. His new vision had an historical component; he looked back, not to a wilderness that was the "waste of creation," but to a time when Native Americans and wild animals had roamed the forests; and America had been born in the French and Indian Wars and the American Revolution. To James Fenimore Cooper, Cooperstown had a past of its own, and was part of a larger national past.

Over his writing career, James Fenimore Cooper wrote three novels set in Cooperstown or on Lake Otsego. Two of them would become a permanent part of American, and of world, literature -- read by millions and translated into many languages.

As the favored younger child of Cooperstown's founder and leader, James Fenimore Cooper roamed the woods around Lake Otsego, and mingled freely with the deferential settlers in its streets. In 1823, after five years away from home, Cooper worked his childhood memories into a best-selling novel -- The Pioneers.

The Pioneers celebrates the human development that William Cooper had promoted; the transformation of wilderness into civilized society. Cooper opens with a description of Central New York in 1823, its fields cultivated, its villages thriving and filled with schools and churches, and demonstrating "how much can be done, in even a rugged country, and with a severe climate, under the dominion of mild laws, and where every man feels a direct interest in the prosperity of a commonwealth of which he knows himself to form a part."9

In The Pioneers, set in the 1793 and 1794, in a village called Templeton on Lake Otsego that closely resembles the historic Cooperstown of the period, Cooper lovingly recreated the frontier village of his youth. In the novel's title, he gave to the American language its special use of the word "pioneer" to describe the men and women who pushed that frontier westward. Cooper looks at men, buildings, and landscapes as an observer, painting verbal pictures from an almost photographic memory, and recording with care the nuances of customs and of speech.

The Pioneers has a romantic plot, of the sort expected by readers accustomed to the prolific tales of Sir Walter Scott and his followers. His readers knew from the start that Judge Temple's beautiful daughter would end up marrying the handsome young stranger; and were not surprised to find that first she has to be rescued from falling trees, a mountain lion, and a forest fire. There are the expected secret letters, mysteries of identity, and the unraveling of why one cabin is carefully locked in a community where doors are usually open to all.

But the triumph of The Pioneers is Cooper's affectionate portrayal of the varied gallery of human types that made up the cosmopolitan population of Cooperstown as a frontier community, and his panorama of typical events during a single year in its life.

Leading the cast of The Pioneers is Judge Temple himself; like the real Judge William Cooper he is a frontier developer of Quaker origins, who prefers to rent a slave rather than own him, and at the same time promotes maple sugar as a substitute for slave-produced West Indian cane sugar. Like Judge Cooper, he has profited from the American Revolution without fighting in it. The official heroine of Cooper's tale is the Judge's beautiful, outspoken daughter Elizabeth, who is not afraid to buck convention in the name of justice. The official hero, of course, is the handsome young stranger who calls himself Oliver Edwards, and whose unaccountable resentment against Judge Temple and his family is buried in the past.

But it is in The Pioneers' kaleidoscope of lesser characters that every American reader could find echoes of his own community, and every European reader find an exotic but convincing portrayal of the American frontier.

Some are New Englanders, who in the 1790s were beginning their massive intrusion into New York's traditional Anglo-Dutch culture:

Others come from the cosmopolitan community that was 18th Century New York:

And there are the outsiders, whom most Americans would prefer to ignore, struggling on the fringes of a new and often bigoted society:

Much of The Pioneers' enormous popular appeal was undoubtedly due to its introduction of Natty Bumppo, the Leather-stocking, a loner who combines great courage and personal integrity, incredible woodland skills, a fierce love of the wilderness and its wild inhabitants, and a devotion to justice and the rescuing of maidens in peril. The focus of the five novels that would became the Leatherstocking Tales, Natty Bumppo and his Indian friend Chingachgook quickly assumed almost mythic proportions in the American mind, and set a pattern that dominated the American image of the frontier, became a critical part of the tradition of the American Western, and has survived right down to The Lone Ranger and Tonto.

But The Pioneers is also filled with snapshots of American frontier life, that are as vivid as its characters:

On the surface, Cooper's novel is a warm and affectionate, but realistic, portrait of the American scene, which greatly appealed to American readers delighted to be able, for the first time, to read stories about themselves, as well as to Europeans wanting to find out what America was like. Scholars -- and local history buffs -- have over the years traced many of the people, and much of the physical appearance, of the fictional Templeton back to prototypes in the real Cooperstown. But Cooper is not painting an idealized picture of a perfect past -- he is describing a community under stress, torn by social and cultural cross-currants, many of which have an historical component:

Cooper cannot and does not resolve these cross-currents; many involve conflicts which remain unresolved to this day. But his frank expression of them gives bite and substance to what might otherwise have been a bland and nostalgic presentation of the good old days. As much as the details of incident and people, they served to imprint The Pioneers on the imaginations of readers all over the world, and carried with them a vision of Cooperstown.

It is through Natty Bumppo that James Fenimore Cooper expresses most strongly the dark reverse side of William Cooper's vision. Again and again, throughout The Pioneers, Natty Bumppo protests the "wasty ways" of the settlers, as they destroy the forests, and slaughter the wild animals, birds, and fish. Natty expresses values that William Cooper would not have understood, but that in the 20th century seem more relevant than they did to most of Cooper's contemporaries: of appreciating and preserving the beauty of the wilderness; of admiring wild animals and killing them only for need; of trying to understand and respect the heritage of the Native Americans who were the first owners of America.

Thus did Cooper carry to the world, in a best-selling book translated into every major language, and never out of print, an image of the early Cooperstown and its people, seen by his readers as an image of the real America.

In The Pioneers, Cooper frequently describes the weather and the changing seasons, with beautiful images like those of the sunlight after an ice-storm, when every twig and pine needle is encased in sparkling crystal, or of the sudden onset of a late-spring blizzard. He depicts with affection Lake Otsego and its surrounding hills. But the natural world in The Pioneers exists primarily as the location and background for human activities.

And this leads me to a brief digression. Probably the most significant description of nature in The Pioneers, one that was to have an unexpected but profound effect, does not refer to Cooperstown at all, but rather to the Catskill Mountains. Recalling a trip into the Catskills, and a magnificent view overlooking the Hudson River, Natty Bumppo goes on to say:

"There's a falls in the hills, where the water of two little ponds that lie near each other breaks out of their bounds, and runs over the rocks into the valley.... There the water comes crooking and winding among the rocks, first so slow that a trout could swim in it, and than starting and running like a creater that wanted to make a far spring, till it gets to where the mountain divides, like the cleft foot of a deer, leaving a deep hollow for the brook to tumble into. The first pitch is nigh two hundred feet, and the water looks like flakes of driven snow, afore it touches the bottom; and there the stream gathers together again for a new start, and maybe flutters over fifty feet of flat-rock, before it falls for another hundred, when it jumps about from shelf to shelf, first turning this-away and then turning that-away, striving to get out of the hollow, till it finally comes to the plain.... There has that little stream of water been playing among them hills, since He made the world, and not a dozen white men have ever laid eyes on it.... To my judgement...it's the best piece of work that I've met with in the woods; and none know how often the hand of God is seen in the wilderness, but them that rove it for a man's life."10

This is not only a classic example of Cooper's nature-writing, but it proved an influential one. Drawn by this description of Kaaterskill Falls (which Cooper had himself visited in 1822), the young artist Thomas Cole came to the Catskills, painted the Falls and other scenes, and was launched into fame as America's first great landscape artist. And from Cole, of course, was born that school of landscape painting -- combining, like Cooper's description, images of the wilderness with intimations of God -- that came to be known as the Hudson River School, that would dominate American art for over half a century. And, as every Catskill Guidebook bore tribute, this passage of The Pioneers also incited the birth of tourism in the Catskills, including the famous Catskill Mountain House that for over a century -- until the State of New York bulldozed it into rubble -- drew thousands of visitors to see the sights Cooper had described and Cole had painted.

Some ten years after publishing The Pioneers, and after seven years in Europe, James Fenimore Cooper and his family returned to live in Cooperstown. He found a community that, like many other aspects of a rapidly changing America, sadly disappointed him. The Jacksonian cultural revolution was in full swing; accelerating economic growth was accompanied by opportunism and greed; rapid political democratization was marked by anti-intellectualism and a leveling of cultural values; many of the old settlers had been supplanted by hordes of temporary sojourners with little knowledge of or respect for the community in which they lived.

In Home as Found11 -- published in 1838, shortly after his return home -- Cooper openly satirized the new and vulgar cultural environment he had found both in New York City and on his return to Cooperstown. Like The Pioneers, it is filled with portraits of American character-types, and includes vivid pictures of mid-19th century village life. There is even an account of unruly young apprentices playing baseball on the protagonists' front lawn, and retreating under pressure to continue their game in the street, in blatant violation of the village ordinance (which Cooperstown had in fact enacted, as early as 1816), prohibiting ball playing in the principal streets.

Home as Found was not a success -- Americans in general, and Cooperstown residents in particular, resented Cooper's criticism. Local anger was increased when Cooper wrote into the novel his dispute with some of the villagers over ownership of a favorite picnic spot on Lake Otsego. Though occasionally reprinted in recent years, and frequently discussed by literary and historical scholars as a fascinating picture of American life in the 1830s, it remains less well known than it should be.

But the novel marks a transition in Cooper's vision of his home. While The Pioneers concentrates on the villagers and their doings, Home as Found repeatedly shifts between two scenes: the unruly, brawling life of the village, and the contrasting serenity of the Lake that borders it.

Three years later, in 1841, Cooper gave the world another novel -- The Deerslayer12-- that was to make Cooperstown's Lake Otsego world famous. By then, Cooper had already published four Leatherstocking Novels about Natty Bumppo, telling his story from young manhood as a British army scout to his death as a very old man on the barren prairies beyond the Mississippi. Cooper had settled down to live in Cooperstown, and the local controversies engendered by Home as Found were winding down. One day Cooper was staring out over Lake Otsego, when he turned and said to his eldest daughter Susan: "I must write one more book, dearie, about our little lake!"13

The story of The Deerslayer is set in the 1740s. Cooperstown, with all its progress, and all its cultural cross- currents, is banished into oblivion by setting the tale long before its settlement. The Deerslayer is the story of the coming of age of Natty Bumppo, but what it really celebrates is Lake Otsego, renamed The Glimmerglass, its surrounding hills and forests, and the Native- Americans who once peopled it. The story itself is an exciting one, filled with enough action and violence to supply several books. But it was the setting in which the plot unfolds that made The Deerslayer memorable. Cooper describes thus Natty Bumppo's first sight of the Lake:

"On a level with the point lay a broad sheet of water, so placid and limpid, that it resembled a bed of the pure mountain atmosphere, compressed into a setting of hills and woods.... Its margin was irregular, being indented by bays, and broken by many projecting, low, points.... But the most striking peculiarities of this scene, were its solemn solitude, and sweet repose. On all sides, wherever the eye turned, nothing met it, but the mirror-like setting of the lake, the placid void of heaven, and the dense setting of wood. So rich and fleecy were the outlines of the forest, that scarce an opening could be seen.... The trees overhung the lake, itself, shooting out towards the light, and there were miles along the eastern shore, where a boat might have pulled beneath the branches of dark, Rembrandt-looking hemlocks, 'quivering aspens,' and melancholy pines. In a word, the hand of man had never yet defaced, or deformed any part of this native scene, which lay bathed in the sun-light, a glorious picture of affluent forest grandeur, softened by the balminess of June, and relieved by the beautiful variety afforded by the presence of so broad an expanse of water."14

As the novel continues, Cooper describes Lake Otsego in specific detail, and with great accuracy. In our own age accustomed to photographs, movies, and videos of the natural world, verbal descriptions of scenery have lost some of their impact. But Cooper, with an almost photographic memory, and a great skill with words, could describe lakes and forests as vividly as anyone else in Literature. In the words of the French novelist Honoré de Balzac:

"Never did typographed language approach so closely to painting. This is the school that literary landscape-painters ought to study; all the secrets of the art are there."15

Just as important to the image it carried to Americans and the world, The Deerslayer also asserts Cooper's belief in the humanity and cultural integrity of the American Indian.

Early in the novel Natty Bumppo, as the young Deerslayer, meets with a much more typical frontiersman, Hurry Harry, and they discuss questions of race, culture, and morality. Hurry Harry's views are those of his time:

"Here's three colours on 'arth; white, black and red. White is the highest colour, and therefore the best man; black comes next, and is put to live in the neighborhood of the white man, as tolerable and fit to he made use of; and red comes last, which shows that those that made 'em never expected an Indian to be accounted as more than half human."16

When Natty expresses moral doubts about killing human beings, Hurry Harry quickly asserts the all too common American belief, later put into words by Civil War General Philip Sheridan, that "the only good Indian is a dead Indian":

"Who's talking of mortals, or of human beings at all.... I dare say any would have his feelin's when it got to be life, or death, ag'in another human mortal, but there would be no such scruples in regard to an Injin.... You may account yourself as a red skin's brother, but I hold 'em all to be animals, with nothing human about 'em but cunning...."17

Cooper sums up Hurry Harry's morality as follows:

"Hurry was one of those theorists who believed in the inferiority of all of the human race, who were not white. His notions on the subject were not vary clear, nor were his definitions at all well settled, but his opinions were none the less dogmatical, or fierce. His conscience accused him of sundry lawless acts against the Indians, and he had found it an exceedingly easy mode of quieting it, by putting the whole family of red men, incontinently, without the category of human rights. Nothing angered him sooner, than to deny his proposition...."18

Natty Bumppo, the Deerslayer, expresses an equally unsophisticated, but very different view:

"God made us all, white, black and red, and no doubt, had his own wise intentions in colouring us differently. Still he made us, in the main, much the same in feelin's; though I'll not deny that he gave each race its gifts. A white man's gifts are christianized, while a red skin's are more for the wilderness. Thus it would be a great offence for a white man to scalp the dead, whereas it's a signal virtue in an Indian.... Tradition, and use, and colour, and laws, make such a difference in races as to amount to gifts.... I hold to a white man's respecting white laws, so long as they do not cross the track of a law comin' from a higher authority, and for a red man to obey his own red-skin usages, under the same privilege....19 I look upon the red men to he quite as human as we are ourselves.... They have their gifts, and their religion, it's true, but that makes no difference in the end, when each will be judged according to his deeds, and not according to his skin."20

Throughout the nineteenth century, and into the beginning of the twentieth, readers flocked to Cooperstown to see the places imprinted in their memory by The Pioneers and The Deerslayer. The village prospered as a summer resort and tourist center, and the local scene became studded with signs inscribed with familiar names from Cooper's novels: Pioneers and Glimmerglass; Mohican and Leatherstocking; Uncas and Hawkeye. When the newly founded Boy Scouts of America sought a place for their second encampment, in 1911, they picked Lake Otsego and devoted much of their time to Cooper's novels. Just a few years back, the State Tourist authorities christened this part of New York as The Central Leatherstocking Region.

Every few years, somebody makes a new film based on Cooper's tale of Lake George, The Last of the Mohicans, and there is a brief flurry of public interest in Cooper's writings. But all five Leatherstocking Tales, including The Pioneers and The Deerslayer, have remained continuously in print for almost two centuries, and can he found in paperback in any large bookstore in America.

In some countries, especially Germany and what was the Soviet Union, but also -- I have recently learned -- in China, thousands of non-scholarly readers continue to enjoy Cooper's novels of the American frontier. It is thus that, a few years ago, the Cooperstown high school received a letter from a Russian sea captain in the Black Sea; he wanted to know how well Cooperstown was preserving the beauty of Lake Otsego that Cooper's writings had imprinted on his consciousness.

For generations of readers around the world, the Templeton of The Pioneers, with its colorful settlers, and the Glimmerglass of The Deerslayer, with its humanistic vision of the American Indian, became indelible images of the American frontier and the American wilderness, viewed through the artistic and ethical perspectives of Cooper's imagination. They have become an integral part of how the world views America.

Susan Fenimore Cooper

Finally, I would like to turn to a still different vision of Cooperstown, that of Susan Fenimore Cooper, James Fenimore Cooper's eldest daughter. Though she spent most of her adult life in Cooperstown, where she died in 1894, Susan Fenimore Cooper had been educated in Europe during her father's seven-year sojourn there. She had traveled widely, spoke and read several languages, and was well versed in both science and literature. She never married, and was best known locally as a devout Episcopalian and a generous philanthropist -- though she contributed more in time and energy than in money. She established Cooperstown's first hospital; and an orphanage that survived until World War II. A stained glass memorial window in Cooperstown's Christ Episcopal Church shows her surrounded by the poor children she loved.

But Susan Fenimore Cooper was herself a gifted writer, author of a novel and many shorter pieces. She is best known, however, for Rural Hours21, published in 1850 and based on the journal she kept in Cooperstown in 1848 and 1849, minutely describing the animals, birds, and insects, the trees, crops, and flowers, in and around the village, day by day through the four seasons of a year, embellished with warm accounts of village life.

Susan Fenimore Cooper was an ardent and accurate observer. She knew intimately and loved all the plants and animals, however humble, that were to be found in and around Cooperstown. She sought them out in long daily walks and drives, regardless of weather. But she goes far beyond mere enthusiasm about the beauties of nature; she knows the life cycle of each plant and creature, and how it interacts with the lives of the people. Often she can trace its place in literature and history, with apt quotations, through English, European, and even ancient Creek and Roman literature. She knows its kin, as she has seen them, or scholars have described them, all over the world.

Each daily entry in Susan Fenimore Cooper's journal is a miniature gem of an essay, combining aesthetic appreciation, biological scholarship, literary and historical background, and down-to-earth practical knowledge -- whether about some part of the natural world around Cooperstown, or some aspect of the lives of its people. Each is written in quiet, elegant, and carefully crafted prose. And each is filled with an earnest, sometimes gently ironic plea, that others will come to love the natural world, and the ordinary humans who inhabit it, as much as she does. She sees all around her how economic forces are destroying much of what she loves, but feels she can do little but mourn her loss.

Let me read from one entry in Rural Hours, more or less at random, for August 7:

"Walked in the Great Meadow. The old trees which bordered this fine field in past years are fast falling before the axe. A few summers back, this was one of the most beautiful meadows in the valley; a broad grassy lawn of some twenty acres, shut out from the world by a belt of wood sweeping round it in a wide circle; it was favorite ground with some of us, one of those spots where the sweet quiet of the fields, and the deeper calm of the woods, are brought together.... There are few such forest colonnades left in our neighborhood, and this is now falling rapidly before the axeman....
     "The hoary trunks of the ashes are particularly fine in such situations. The white ash...when used for fuel, has the peculiarity of burning nearly as well in a green state as when dry, and the timber also scarcely requires any seasoning. The black ash...is abundant here...and is much used by the Indian basket-makers.... it is amusing to remember that the small bows and arrows made to-day by the roving Indians as playthings for our boys, are manufactured out of the same wood used for the arms of heroes in the ancient world; many a great warrior besides Achilles has received his death-wound from an ashen spear; ashen lances were shivered in the tournaments of chivalrous days.... Bows, also, were made, of the ash, as wall as of the yew, in ancient times....
     "It is singular that a sacred tree should be found in the mythology of several different nations of the East; India, Persia, Egypt, and Assyria.... The Scandinavian Sagas...are very particular in pointing out the ash as their sacred tree, Yggdrassil. Major Frye, in his translation of Oehlenschloeger, quotes the following passage from the Eclda....: 'This ash is the first, and greatest of all trees, which spreads its branches over the whole earth.... The gods often descend to this spot to sit in judgment on the actions of mankind, and of one another....'
     "Many versions of this allegory have been given by different Northern writers, and any one who pleases may try his ingenuity on it, as he sits in the shade of the ash-tree. They are all connected with the good and evil in man; with the good and evil above, and about him, -- faint gleams of great truths."22

For William Cooper, Cooperstown was the symbol of the new American dream of infinite human possibilities. For James Fenimore Cooper it was the achievement of that dream, but an achievement growing out of a troubled past, marred by internal conflicts, and won only by destroying an older, competing dream of a pristine, wilderness and its inhabitants. For Susan Fenimore Cooper, with a more tranquil vision, Cooperstown was a human and natural environment viewed through a microscope, but set firmly in the whole sweep of human history and geography.

Each of these three generations of the Cooper family passed on to the world its vision of the village that bears their name, and of the lake, the hills, and the forests that surround it. Through them -- William Cooper, James Fenimore Cooper, and Susan Fenimore Cooper -- Cooperstown became not just a country village, but also a series of images entered into the imaginations of thousands of people around the globe; images that continue to live today. I have tried to share with you some of these images, that are what, in my view, make Cooperstown an historic place.

Sources

1. William Cooper, A Guide in the Wilderness.... (Dublin: Gilbert and Hedges, 1810) [facsimile edition -- Cooperstown: Paul F. Cooper, Jr., 1986].

2. Alan Taylor, William Cooper's Town..., (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995).

3. William Cooper, op. cit., p, 1-3.

4. James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers: or the Sources of the Susquehanna: A Descriptive Tale (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980), pp. 235-236. [orig. published 1823].

5. William Cooper, op. cit., p. 13.

6. Ibid, p. 17.

7. Ibid, p. 3.

8. James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers, p. 229.

9. Ibid, p. 16.

10. Ibid, pp. 293-294.

11. James Fenimore Cooper, Home as Found (New York: Capricorn Books, 1961) [originally published 1838]

12. James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer: or. the First War Path (Albany: New York State University Press, 1981. [originally published 1841]

13. Susan Fenimore Cooper, Pages and Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper (New York: M.A. Townsend, 1861), p. 322.

14.. James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer, pp. 35-36.

15. Honoré de Balzac, Paris Review, July 25, 1840. Translation quoted in George Dekker & John P. McWilliams, Fenimore Cooper: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1913), p. 191.

16. The Deerslayer, p. 50.

17. Ibid, pp. 59-60.

18.. Ibid, p. 60.

19. Ibid, pp. 50-51.

20.. Ibid, p. 59.

21 Susan Fenimore Cooper, Rural Hours (New York: George P. Putnam, 1850) [abridged edition of 1887 reprinted by Syracuse University Press, 1968 and 1996].

22.. Ibid, pp. 235-338.

Hugh C. MacDougall
April 1998

Return to Top of Page