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Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, or Getting Under Way, Papers from the 1978 Conference at State University of New York College at Oneonta and Cooperstown, New York. Edited by George A. Test. (pp. 4-6)
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When William Cooper journeyed from Burlington, New Jersey to the shores of Otsego Lake, he crossed a region of New York State known as the Appalachian Uplands. The terrain is one marked by ridges of from 1,000 to 2,000 feet elevation divided at regular intervals by stream valleys. Generally higher in the south, the land tends to fall away as it approaches the Mohawk Valley. It was at the southern end of Otsego Lake, at a point where the Susquehanna River leaves the lake, that Cooper chose as the location of his village, Cooperstown.
Using Cooperstown as the focal point, Cooper Country could be considered as that area within a circle having a radius of from twenty to twenty-five miles. The area has two major lakes, Otsego, roughly six miles long by a mile wide1, and Canadarago, about half the length and approximately the same width as Otsego. The streams of the region generally flow from north to south. The major ones are the Susquehanna and Unadilla Rivers and the Butternut, Otego, Cherry Valley and Oaks Creeks. The stream valleys are separated by rather steep, heavily forested ridges that generally run in a north to south direction.
The region experiences precipitation of roughly forty inches per year and an annual snowfall of seventy-eight inches. Its temperature ranges from a high average of sixty-eight degrees in July to a low average of twenty-two degrees in January. This kind of climate produces the abundant mixed forests of the region and provides a generally hospitable environment for agriculture. If the farms of Cooper Country are less productive than those elsewhere in New York, it is due principally to the quality of the soil and the lack of large areas of flat land, not to the climate.
The inhabitants of Cooper Country at the time of the arrival of the Europeans were, in part, agriculturalists. The Iroquois supported life by farming and by the taking of diverse kinds of game which, incidentally, at least in regards to deer, is more plentiful in the area now than two or three centuries ago. The two nations of the Iroquois that occupied the region were the Mohawks, in the extreme eastern portion, and the Oneidas throughout the remainder of the area. The Indian presence lasted until the end of the Revolution. At that time, the Mohawks, allies of the English, moved to northern New York and Canada. The Oneidas, friends of the patriots, were given reservation land slightly to the west of the Cooper region. By the end of the 18th century, there were virtually no Indians remaining within the twenty-five mile radius of Cooperstown.
It is difficult to say exactly when the first European ventured into Cooper Country. The French explorer, Samuel de Champlain appeared in what is now Madison County in 1615, but there is little reason to believe that he may have been in neighboring Otsego County. French missionaries were in the region throughout the middle of the 17th century, but were there as ministers of God, not as permanent settlers. In fact, there was no serious settlement in the Cooper region until approximately the 1730s. It was then that the agricultural frontier made its appearance in the Mohawk Valley with the arrival of significant numbers of Palatine Germans. Although most of the Germans remained in the valley, some groups moved into the adjacent upland regions to the south.
In addition to the settlers who migrated to the region on their own, there were those who came at the encouragement of patentees who had acquired large grants in the area. One of the important pre-Revolutionary patentees was the man whose land occupied the center of Cooper Country, George Croghan. By 1770, Croghan had obtained sole ownership of 100,000 acres of land adjacent to Otsego Lake. Individuals may have settled the Croghan lands prior to the war, but it was not until after the Revolution that a community was organized within the patent area.
It was the region to the east and south of the Croghan patent that was spotted with small settlements prior to the Revolution. The earliest was Cherry Valley, settled in 1740. By 1775, it was the largest community with more than sixty families. Other settlements included Edmeston (1763), Middlefield (1755), Milford (1770), Morris (1770), and Springfield (1762). Most of these early communities of Cooper Country were destroyed by the frequent British raids during the Revolution.
The war itself brought a brief population explosion to the Cooper region. In 1779, General James Clinton assembled a force of some 1,200 Continental soldiers at the foot of Otsego Lake. From there they moved dawn the Susquehanna River towards their rendezvous with an army led by General Sullivan, the objective of the combined force being the Indian country of western New York. While on its way to join Sullivan, Clinton's army camped at several sites along the Susquehanna, furnishing the troops with an opportunity to observe the countryside. Many of the soldiers were from New England and it is quite possible that some returned to settle in the region after the war.
Whether or not the New England Yankees from Clinton's army returned to the banks of the upper Susquehanna was of little consequence to the growth of the region. Beginning in the 1780s, other New Englanders commenced an "invasion" of central and western New York. These newcomers made up the largest portion of post-Revolutionary settlers to Cooper Country. The majority of them were looking for cheap land which could be cleared and farmed.
At least one of the new arrivals was not from New England. William Cooper of New Jersey was among those who purchased judgments against the lands of George Croghan following the latter's death in 1782. Eventually, Cooper gained title to approximately 75,000 acres in the vicinity of Otsego Lake. Almost immediately he began to subdivide his holdings into small parcels and offer them for sale to the Yankee immigrants. In 1787, Cooper laid out the plan of Cooperstown. Three years later, Cooper brought his family including his infant son, James Fenimore, to Cooperstown.
William Cooper predicted much growth and a prosperous future for his village. Cooper himself did have a successful career. In 1791, when Otsego County was organized, he was appointed the county's first judge of the Court of Common Pleas. He was elected to Congress as a Federalist in 1794 and again in 1798. As a land speculator, Cooper not only had his Otsego holdings but had additional land as well. Apparently, many of the legal proceedings connected with his real estate ventures were handled by Alexander Hamilton. But as successful as Cooper was, the same cannot be said for Cooperstown.
When Cooper was killed2 in Albany in 1809, the village was holding its own in comparison with other central New York villages. But this soon changed and the community on the shore of Otsego Lake lost ground. By 1835 it had a population of just under 4,300, compared with the 10,000 people in Utica, its neighbor forty miles northwest. Cooper had, at one time, compared Cooperstown and Utica and felt that the former was better suited to rapid growth and development. However, by 1850, the year before the death of James Fenimore Cooper, Cooperstown actually had lost population and numbered only 3,900 inhabitants. That same year, Utica showed a population of 17,500. The impact of the Erie Canal played a major role in Utica's growth, a fact that Judge Cooper could not have foreseen when he made his prediction concerning the growth of the two villages.
Cooperstown did not become an important trade center as William Cooper had envisioned. However, during the lifetime of James Fenimore Cooper, it was located in a prominent agricultural district. Until the mid-1840s, Otsego County ranked among the top wool producing counties in New York. During the second half of the 19th century, wool production declined rapidly, but this decline was statewide and due to external factors. Hop growing was another agricultural activity of great importance in Cooper Country during the middle of the last century. The county ranked first in the state in hop production until the 1870s and money from hops provided a considerable economic stimulus to the area. It, too, declined sharply by the end of the century. Dairy farming has been the principal agricultural occupation in the Cooper region during the past 100 years. In economic importance to Cooper Country, it is predominate along with education and tourism.
The Cooper area continues to remain a thinly populated, rural region. The two largest population centers contain between 10,000 and 20,000 inhabitants. But even they are located on the periphery of the circle with the twenty-five mile radius from Cooperstown. The heart of Cooper Country continues to retain the scenic, natural charm that was familiar to James Fenimore Cooper.
1. Lake Otsego is approximately nine miles long.
2. It is now known that William Cooper died of purely natural causes, and not from violence as Cooper family tradition had suggested.
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