James Fenimore Cooper Society Website
This page is: http://www.oneonta.edu/external/cooper/articles/suny/1979suny-pickering.html

Cooper's Otsego Heritage: The Sources of The Pioneers

James H. Pickering
(Michigan State University)

Presented at the 2nd Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1979

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

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 1979 Conference at State University College of New York, Oneonta and Cooperstown. George A. Test, editor. (pp. 11-39)

Return to SUNY Seminars | Articles & Papers

In the autumn of 1785, thirty-one year old William Cooper made his way alone by horseback through the Mohawk Valley and the frontier settlements1 of Cherry Valley and Middlefield towards Lake Otsego,1 where just two years before Cooper and his Burlington, New Jersey partner, Andrew Craig, had purchased some forty to fifty thousand acres of the great wilderness tract patented by British Indian agent, George Croghan, in 1769. Although by the time of the Revolution there were already about a hundred settlers scattered throughout present-day Otsego County,2 in 1785 the country to the west of Middlefield was still largely a wilderness, known only to the Indian who had vanished and an occasional hunter, surveyor, or explorer. Cooper continued west to the ridge of Mount Vision. There, according to tradition, he climbed a sapling and obtained his first view of Lake Otsego, and, fittingly enough, a glimpse of a lone deer which had come down to its margin to drink.3 William Cooper then descended to the foot of Otsego near the outlet of the Susquehanna, where six years before Brigadier General James Clinton and his expedition against the Six Nations of Iroquois had encamped and built a dam in order to raise the level of the river for their batteaux. Traces of "Clinton's Dam" were still visible, and not far to the west, on the site to be occupied by Otsego Hall, stood the remains of George Croghan's crude log cabin, later used by some of the first settlers as a residence and by Judge Cooper as a smoke house.4 Save for the few log cabins serving as a reminder of Croghan's settlement, the forest bordering the lake was unbroken, and as William Cooper later recalled:

I was alone, three hundred miles from home, without bread, meat, or food of any kind; fire and fishing tackle were my only means of subsistence. I caught trout in the brook and roasted them on the ashes. My horse fed on the grass that grew by the edge of the waters. I laid me down to sleep in my watch coat, nothing but the melancholy Wilderness around me. In this way I explored the country, formed my plans of future settlement, and meditated upon the spot where a place of trade or a village should afterwards be established.5

Although William Cooper was already well known as a successful land agent throughout New York and Pennsylvania, the Otsego purchase represented his first independent venture in the buying, promoting and selling of land. By the winter of 1786-1787, actual settlement of the Otsego patent had begun. Attracted by his genial personality and the promise of easy terms, settlers continued to arrive, and by the following summer most of the choice land had been taken up. In 1788, "Manor House," the Cooper homestead, was erected and the site of the future village, known until 1791 simply as "Foot of the Lake," was surveyed and laid out,6 "bounded by the lake on the north the river on the east, and [by what is now] Pioneer Street on the west."7

In 1789, William Cooper moved permanently to the new settlement, and in the following year, 1790, with his friends Hendrick Frey and James Livingston, entered into a contract with the land office commissioners to lay a road from the south end of Lake Otsego to the Mohawk River, a project which they completed by December.8 In the same year, William Cooper brought his wife, Elizabeth Fenimore Cooper, and his family, including the thirteen-month-old James, from Burlington to their new home at the head of the Susquehanna.

William Cooper was a model landlord whose talent and energy not only guided the infant settlement through the rigors of its early years but soon attracted the notice of other landowners who sought out his services as agent for lands in New York and Pennsylvania.9 By the time of his death in 1809, his estate was valued at some three-quarters of a million dollars,10 a good part of it tied up in property scattered throughout Otsego, Broome, Onondaga, Oneida, Herkimer, St. Lawrence, and Tioga counties.11 The following year, 1810, his small promotional tract, A Guide in the Wilderness, appeared in Dublin. Intending it as a guidebook for future frontier landlords, William Cooper set forth from personal experience his theory of land development and an account of his method of success. It was with obvious pride that he noted:

I began with the disadvantage of a small capital, and the encumbrance of a large family, and yet I have already settled more acres than any man in America. There are forty thousand souls now holding, directly or indirectly, under me, and I trust that no one amongst so many can justly impute to me any act resembling oppression. I am now descending into the vale of life, and I must acknowledge that I have looked 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.12

Here indeed was a record of accomplishments to stir the imagination.

James Fenimore Cooper, William Cooper's youngest son, grew up with the town. The early years of settlement had been by no means easy ones, and while the Cooperstown of Cooper's youth was never the howling wilderness which some have imagined, he did have the unique opportunity of watching the small community as it struggled through its successive stages of growth. His father's role from the beginning had been crucial, and as the son noted more than three decades later in his Chronicles of Cooperstown (1838): "To the enterprise, energy and capacity of this gentleman, the county of Otsego is more indebted, than to those of any other person.13 This, then, was the father and the community which were to find their way in spirit, if not in literal fact, into the pages of The Pioneers, and to provide the germ for a whole series of American tales celebrating and recreating the advance of the New York frontier.

To William Cooper, who became the first Judge of Otsego County in 1791, the son also owed the seeds of much of the social and political philosophy whose expression in A Letter to His Countrymen (1834) and The American Democrat (1838) was later to injure irreparably the novelist's American reputation. Judge Cooper was, as historian Dixon Ryan Fox has so aptly characterized him, "the mirror of partisan perfection as a Federalist squire."14 A confirmed Hamiltonian and a close friend of such Federalist stalwarts as Washington, Hamilton, Adams, Jay, General Philip Schuyler and the Patroon, Stephen Van Rensselaer,15 William Cooper raised his son in an atmosphere in which the image of Thomas Jefferson seldom appeared unless, recalled the novelist, "it was clad in red breeches, and ... associated with the idea of infidelity and political heresy."16

As the acknowledged leader of the Otsego Federalists and the most powerful political figure west of Albany, Judge Cooper entered the rough-and- tumble pioneer politics of the Otsego region with a gusto which soon made him a target of the Anti-Federalists. Twice he represented the county in the House of Representatives (1795 and 1799) and for the better part of twenty years deliberately embroiled himself in the political wars for control of the state.17 So heated, in fact, was his partisanship that in the disputed election of 1792, which elected Anti-Federalist George Clinton by a scant 108 vote margin over his Federalist opponent John Jay, a charge of voting irregularities lodged against the Judge and his sheriff Richard R. Smith cost Jay his 400 vote majority in Otsego County and the election.18 In the aftermath of the election, Clinton's political friends in Albany had impeachment charges drawn up against the Judge:

It was deposed that he [Judge Cooper] encouraged illegal voting in favor of Mr. Jay; that he knowingly had caused men to vote who were not free- holders; that he threatened voters with suits who expressed a wish to vote for Mr. Clinton, and that he menaced a Mr. Canon, who came to the polls to challenge illegal voters, that if he challenged any one, he (the judge) would forthwith commit him to jail.19

An investigation of the charges ran well into the spring of 1793, but as nothing could be proved the charges were finally dropped.

The scandal, however, did little damage to William Cooper's reputation among his Otsego settlers, many of whom continued to owe him money on their original land purchases for more than a decade.20 On the contrary, his popularity at home seems to have increased, as is evidenced by the following report from the Otsego Herald of his triumphant return to Cooperstown from Congress in June, 1796:

On Saturday last, towards evening, information was received that the Hon. William Cooper was on his way to this place; immediately an escort left the village on horseback, to attend him to his home. -- When his carriage had passed the bridge, he was welcomed by a double row of citizens, who testified their joy on his arrival by three cheers -- Never was a character received with a more cordial welcome; all ranks of people united in manifesting their approbation of his conduct, thro' a long, an arduous and an important session.... During his entrance into Cooperstown, 16 cannon were fired, and every appearance of pleasure and satisfaction was exhibited.21

Two years later, in 1798, political tempers flared again when Judge Cooper had his local Republican opponent, a Yankee-born Federalist turncoat named Jedidiah Peck, arrested under the Alien and Sedition acts and carried off to New York to stand trial. The scheme backfired. Cooper had ill-advisedly underestimated the growing strength of Anti-Federalist sentiment in the state, and Peck became something of a martyr to the cause of Republicanism. Luckily for both William Cooper and his intended victim, the controversial acts were repealed before Peck could be brought to tria1.22 During the years that followed, the Judge's ardent partisanship showed no abatement, and it was perhaps something of poetic justice that his death in Albany in 1809 should come as the direct result of a blow from a political opponent.22a

In 1790, the year the Cooper family arrived from Burlington, the Cooperstown settlement had thirty-five inhabitants; but by the end of the following year, the size had tripled and the town included some twenty houses and stores.23 A decade later, 1803, the population of Cooperstown had grown to three hundred and forty-nine citizens, and the village could boast itself an established community of seventy-four houses,24 together with a combination court house- gaol (1791), two taverns (1791), several mills (1792), a short-lived brewery (1794), an academy (1795), a weekly newspaper -- Elihu Phinney's Otsego Herald (1795), a bookstore (1795), a library (1796), and a masonic lodge (1797).25 By 1797, William Cooper had replaced Manor House with the elegant Otsego Hall, supposedly patterned after the Van Rensselaer mansion at Albany26 and "for many years, the largest private residence in the newer parts of the state."27 Thanks largely to the efforts of William Cooper, the village blossomed, and such early visitors as John Lincklaen (1791)28 and Chancellor James Kent (1792)29 were visibly impressed by its progress.

Despite the village's relative seclusion and the rigors which its settlers were forced to endure during the first winters, the Cooperstown of Cooper's youth was never a threatening wilderness, filled with cunning savages and wild animals. Yet such compelling myths about the land of Cooper linger on, and one finds, for example, as late as 1913, in Mary E. Phillips' James Fenimore Cooper, the fanciful assertion that

The Six Nations were yet a power in the Mohawk Valley, then the highway to the land of the setting sun beyond. And they are now remembered in the names of the principal lakes and streams of the country that once was theirs. The boy was face-to-face with the "grim warriors, braves, and chieftains that the man, Fenimore Cooper, translated into his pages, with a touch true to the red man's life," his instinct in trading, his friendly and hostile intent.30

On the contrary, by 1790, the Six Nations of Iroquois had surrendered their hunting grounds in central New York to the white man, and its remnants had either joined their brothers in the west or agreed to re-settlement on reservations within the state. Game continued to be abundant during the early years -- in 1799 Elihu Phinney, the treasurer of Otsego County, was still paying a ten dollar bounty on wolves and panthers31 -- but by the turn of the century such animals had become as great a rarity in the Otsego region as the Indian himself.32

If, however, young Cooper was never exposed directly to the kind of frontier experience he was later to celebrate, his Otsego heritage was only a single generation removed from the authentic. The memories and traditions of his father's generation were still very much alive and all about him was unmistakable evidence of a former way of life filled with excitement and danger. The tradition of the New York Indian was a lingering one. Many of Judge Cooper's settlers and close friends had participated in the savage border warfare of the Revolution and the memories of Joseph Brant and his Iroquois Indians and Sir John Johnson and his Tory rangers were still fresh and served to embellish tales which undoubtedly grew more vivid and more horrible with each retelling. According to tradition, the conical rock ("Council Rock") near the outlet of the Susquehanna had once been a popular Indian rendezvous,33 and the wild apple trees, the Indian relics and remains unearthed near the lake, and the old trails running north and south, bore evidence that Cooperstown had been the site of a much-frequented hunting and fishing village.34 During the early years of settlement, Susan Cooper recalled, Mill Island continued to be "a favorite resort of the Indians, who, at that time, came frequently in parties to the new settlement, remaining here for months together."35 Even later, a lone basket weaver would occasionally enter the village to ply his wares as a rather pathetic reminder of the Indian culture which had once flourished throughout the entire Susquehanna Valley.36

It was in the midst of such a heritage that James Cooper passed the first twelve years of his life, save for the winters of 1796-1797 and 1798-1799 when he attended school in Burlington. The summers of the Albany and Yale years, 1801- 1805, were also undoubtedly spent in the village, but between 1806 and 1813 his naval career and his marriage kept him almost continually occupied elsewhere. The years of 1811 and 1812 were passed with the De Lanceys at Mamaroneck, and it was not until July of 1813 that Cooper was finally able to persuade his new wife that they should make their permanent home in Cooperstown. They took up residence at Otsego Hall,36a and began almost immediately the building of "Fenimore," a stone house between the lake and the road to Springfield just north of the village. Although the house was completed by the fall of 1817, it was left unoccupied when the Coopers decided rather suddenly to return to Westchester and the Angevine farm in Scarsdale. Cooper did not take up residence in Cooperstown again until after the European interlude, 1826-1833, when he renovated and gothicized Otsego Hall to suit his cosmopolitan tastes and settled down to what he undoubtedly expected would be a life of quietude and comfort. Almost at once, however, the Otsego squire became involved with his Cooperstown neighbors in the silly dispute over the Three Mile Point picnic grove, and, as his novel Home as Found (1838) testifies, his homecoming was not without friction. The town had changed over the years, and Cooper was not at all persuaded that the changes were for the best.37 But he survived the quarrel and Otsego Hall remained his home until his death in September of 1851.

Cooper's connection with Cooperstown and the Otsego country, therefore, was a lengthy, if interrupted, one, stretching over more than a half a century. The passage of years and his prolonged absences from his father's village unquestionably strengthened and increased rather than decreased his fondness for the town. His frequent departures and returns, no doubt, were like a series of still photographs superimposed upon one another, each emphasizing anew the changes which the succeeding years brought to the familiar scenes of his youth. There can be but little question, in short, that it was Cooperstown, its history, and Cooper's association with the village by the lake which provided the novelist with the essential inspiration for his greatest fictional achievement, the saga of Leatherstocking. The discovery of Natty Bumppo was an accidental one; and in 1823 Cooper could have had but little idea that the surly old hunter and his degenerate Indian companion whom he intruded so leisurely into The Pioneers were to become the twin symbols which were to allow him to celebrate not only the historical past of his own state but the whole great American frontier experience. The old hunter comes to dominate the final chapters of The Pioneers. but it was not until his reappearance three years later as Hawk-eye, the young scout of The Last of the Mohicans (1826), that Cooper began to sense the epic and mythic possibilities of his hero. On October 17, 1826, looking ahead to The Prairie (1827), he wrote to Henry Colburn, his English publisher:

The Pioneers is out of Print, I believe, and the Mohicans must be nearly so -- These two books with the Prairie will form a complete series of tales, descriptive of American life, of themselves -- The Hero of one is the hero of all, in very different situations -- Thus the scout of the Mohicans, is the hunter of the Pioneers and the Trapper of the Prairie. They might be published uniformly, under some taking, general title, and I think would sell.38

The "taking, general title," of course, was "The Leatherstocking Tales," and by the time of their completion with The Pathfinder (1840) and The Deerslayer (1841), Cooper had come to see their significance in terms of his total career as an American author. By 1850, in fact, he could write with full assurance that "If anything from the pen of the writer...is at all to outlive himself, it is unquestionably, the series of 'The Leatherstocking Tales.'"39

Of the five Leatherstocking novels, The Pioneers (1823) by its very nature is set apart from the rest. It began as a labor of love, "written exclusively," Cooper confessed in the preface to the first edition, "to please myself."40 As a narrative recreating life in a central New York village during its first years of settlement, The Pioneers must be regarded as the author's attempt to come to grips with the memory of his father, Judge William Cooper, the pioneer who brought civilization to "The Sources of the Susquehanna."41 Cooper was justifiably proud of his father's achievement and of the village which bore his name. By 1831, for example, he could write to Mrs. Peter Augustus Jay in a moment of reflection: "There...have been already four generations of Coopers at Cooperstown, counting those who are gone! The other day the whole country was a wilderness."42 In a very real sense, what Cooper set out to accomplish in the "descriptive tale" which became The Pioneers was to retell in the form of a semi- fictional narrative the story of his father's impact upon that wilderness.

The Pioneers is fundamentally a novel of manners, describing and celebrating the seasonal activities of the frontier village of Templeton from Christmas of 1793 through October of 1794. Seven years have passed since Judge Marmaduke Temple first opened his 200,000 acres of wilderness land to settlement, and the tiny community on the shores of Lake Otsego is well past a state of mere subsistence. The local farmers now send their surplus produce to market at Albany and the village itself is "alive with business; the artisans increasing in wealth with the prosperity of the country, and each day witnessing some nearer approach to the manners and usages of an old settled town" (236)43 Templeton in 1793 consists of "some fifty buildings...of every description, chiefly built of wood," and includes two taverns, an Academy, a combination court- house-jail, an unfinished church, and the "Manor-house," the imposing dwelling of Judge Temple, which stands in the midst of the village "towering above all its neighbors."

The citizenry of Templeton for the most part are as varied and "unfinished" as the buildings in which they live. There is Captain Hollister, the congenial owner of the "Bold Dragoon," who with his wife, the former Betty Flanagan, have been transferred without loss from the pages of The Spy (published two years earlier in 1821); Monsieur Le Quoi, a volatile French emigre-turned-shopkeeper ; Jotham Riddel, a New England opportunist "who changes his county every three years, his farm every six months, and his occupation every season" (349); and Billy Kirby, the "noisy, boisterous, reckless" and good-natured Vermont woodchopper who boasts to Judge Temple that he has "chopped over the best half of a thousand acres, with my own hands, counting Varmount and York states" (250). Although a majority of the villagers are simple, energetic folk of New England extraction who have been lured to the valley of the Susquehanna by the availability of cheap land and the hope for a better life, by 1793 Judge Temple's community also includes the rudimentary beginnings of a professional class as reflected by Mr. Grant, the minister who is still without a church to house his congregation, Dr. Elnathan Todd, a doctor of somewhat dubious credentials, and the two village lawyers, Chester Lippet and Dirck Van der School. The two really solid citizens of the town, however, are Hiram Doolittle, the portly magistrate, and his friend and architectural collaborator, Richard Jones, the sheriff.

At the head of Templeton, of course, stands its resident landlord and chief benefactor Judge Temple, a Pennsylvanian of Quaker origins, who has erected his small empire upon the confiscated lands of American Loyalists. The Judge, who presides over the county court of common pleas and general sessions, is a man of "extraordinary intellect, covert humour, and great benevolence." He is a widower who lives with his only child, Elizabeth, and his faithful retainers, Remarkable Pettibone and Ben Pump, in the rather sumptuous Manor-house, the showplace of the infant community. The remarkable character of the man is emphasized not only by the kind of community in which he chooses to make his home, but by the friendly and uncondescending manner with which he enters into its activities and social life. Although he clearly stands above the bulk of his settlers in taste, education, and breeding, he is willing, or perhaps forced, to seek their companionship around the glowing fireplace of the Bold Dragoon on Christmas Eve, and he does so without jeopardizing either his authority or his dignity. His governing principle is simply that "all are equal who know how to conduct themselves with propriety" (224). Throughout the novel, however, Squire Temple displays a growing concern both as judge and landlord with the problem of law and order. He is disturbed by the apparent anarchy in Jacobin France, and, while he admits that Natty Bumppo, the old hunter of the Otsego hills, has a natural right to earn his livelihood by hunting in the forest which borders the lake, Judge Temple is equally convinced that society in any form "cannot exist without wholesome restraints" (421).

Although the plot of The Pioneers ostensibly turns on the conventional motif of a lost heir and his claims -- a theme which inevitably works itself out to the satisfaction of all concerned by the final chapter -- the real conflict of the novel is between the opposing views on the subject of private property held by the Judge and the garrulous old hunter, Leatherstocking. The issue of the right to hunt versus the prerogatives of private property and the need for law and restraint within a morally imperfect world is raised as early as Chapter I, where Natty brings down a deer on Judge Temple's land. The issue comes to a head when Natty defies the Judge's new law by taking a deer out of season and is climaxed by Natty's defense of his cave against the "Templeton Light Infantry" who attempt to enforce the law. Natty Bumppo's credo is "doing what's right between man and man" (220-221), but it is clear that such claims of moral equity mean little in the face of the impersonal forces of law and order. The short-lived defiance which Natty offers to civilization is as heroic as it is foolish, for the dilemma in which he is caught is essentially unsolvable within the American frontier experience.

Although Cooper told Samuel Carter Hall in March of 1831 that "The Pioneers contains a pretty faithful description of Cooperstown in its infancy, and as I knew it when a child,"44 James Grossman is probably largely correct when he observes that

Templeton and its leading citizen, Judge Temple, are not to be taken literally for Cooperstown and Judge Cooper. The author is not writing autobiographically of the world he saw at the age of four but of the world he missed and of which he must have heard in childhood.45

The key word in Grossman's statement, of course, is the word "literally," for there would seem to be but little doubt that the world of Templeton as a whole is but a thinly disguised version of the world of Cooperstown which Cooper knew as a boy.

While Cooper made little effort to disguise such a resemblance in the novel itself -- something which, in fact, would have been virtually impossible to do -- he stubbornly resisted in his later years any suggestion that his "descriptive tale" should be regarded simply as autobiography. He was particularly emphatic on this point in the series of four letters which he sent to the editor of Brother Jonathan between January and April of 1842, during the so-called "Effingham controversy." In these letters he sought to refute categorically current attempts by a hostile press to identify him with Edward Effingham of Homeward Bound (1838) and Home as Found (1838) and his family history with that of Judge Temple's in The Pioneers. In his letter of March 26th, he addressed himself directly to the origins of The Pioneers and among other things vehemently denied that he had intended the novel to be taken as either a literal transcription of Cooperstown or as the personal history of his father.

     Although the country around Cooperstown is described in the scene of the Pioneers, the village is not. Some few objects that did exist in Cooperstown are described it is true; but more that never existed there, are to be found in the account of Templeton.... There is not a particle of distinctive resemblance between the personal history of Judge Temple and that of my father; so far as I know any thing of the latter.46

Much the same thing is said -- though in a much less heated way -- in the revised preface to the novel which Cooper wrote for the Putnam edition of 1850.

While Cooper was willing to admit in both cases that he had indulged in certain "personal touches" and "general resemblances," the categorical denials of Brother Jonathan do not wholly ring true when the novel is examined against the history of Cooperstown and the life of William Cooper. Writing almost twenty years after the fact, many of Cooper's comments seem clearly to be overstatements designed to answer the charges of his critics, and all of them must be measured against his statement of 1831, quoted above, and his even earlier admission of November 29, 1822, to his British publisher John Murray that

I had announced the work as a "descriptive tale" but perhaps have confined myself to describing the scenes of my own youth.... If there be any value in truth, the pictures are very faithful, and I can challenge a scrutiny in th[is?] particular --47

In the midst of such contradictions, one is almost inevitably reminded of the critical dictum of D.H. Lawrence: "Never trust the artist. Trust the tale."

What Cooper no doubt meant in 1842, however, is that the frontier village of Templeton as it is pictured in 1793-1794 is not to be measured historically against the village of Cooperstown of the same year. If so, Cooper is correct, for the picture of Templeton which is presented in The Pioneers represents a telescoping of the early history of Cooperstown as it developed over a period of years, from about 1790 to 1804. The topography of Cooperstown, Lake Otsego, and vicinity -- even down to the cave of Natty Bumppo -- is drawn without distortion. In fact, in 1827 when Charles Gosselin sent Cooper a copy of the map he proposed to include as an illustration in his forthcoming French edition of The Pioneers, Cooper responded by returning to Gosselin a rough sketch of his own together with the comment

I find the places well marked on the map, but the proportions are not quite as well observed as is necessary to give a true idea of the place, or, indeed to answer the descriptions in the book itself.... The name of the village is actually [Cooperstown] though called Templeton in the book.48

There can be little doubt as well that the village of Templeton, its design, its buildings, and many of its leading citizens have as their originals actual places and individuals that Cooper was familiar with in the Cooperstown of his youth.

In the first place, like Cooperstown, the village of Templeton had originally "been formally laid out into...streets and blocks that resembled a city" (106) and designed by Judge Temple to "stretch along the little stream [the Susquehanna] that rushed down the valley" (158). This plan had been frustrated, however, at an early day by the erection of the "Bold Dragoon" across what was to have been the main street of the village. In precisely the same way, Judge William Cooper had planned "to lay out the village plot in a line extending north and south, instead of the direction actually taken."49 Cooper admitted that in this respect at least the two villages were identical, for he took occasion in the Brother Jonathan letter of 1842 to comment that "The jog in the street, at the tavern, is...literal, having been introduced as descriptive of the manner in which facts defeat calculations in laying out towns."50

At the same time, Cooper also acknowledged that the "Bold Dragoon" itself and the court house had their counterparts in Cooperstown. The "Bold Dragoon," presided over by Captain Hollister is a literal transcription of the "Red Lion" tavern, the first public house of "any note" in Cooperstown. It was established in 1791 by Joseph Griffin who for many years played a minor role in the affairs of the village.51 Like his fictional counterpart who commands the "Templeton Light Infantry," Captain Griffin was the commander of the volunteer company of horse organized in Cooperstown in 1794. "Many persons now living," Cooper commented in his Chronicles of Cooperstown (1838) "can recollect a celebrated sham fight between this cavalry and a party of men disguised as Indians.52 Such a mock engagement, of course, sounds suspiciously like the source for the epic battle between Natty Bumppo and the law abiding citizens of Templeton in the final chapters of The Pioneers. Across the street, "on the corner diagonally opposite to the 'Red Lion,' long stood a rival establishment known as the 'Blue Anchor'"53 In The Pioneers, Cooper calls this second public house the "Templeton Coffee House. "While the "Coffee House" of the novel does not enjoy the popularity accorded its rival, its dignified name suggests that like the historic "Blue Anchor" it was to be "in much request for many years among all the genteeler portion of travellers."54Until his death in 1829 at the age of eighty- one,55 the "Blue Anchor" was operated by a colorful Englishman named William Cook:

a man of singular humors, great heartiness of character, and perfect integrity. He had been the steward of an English East-Indiaman, and enjoyed an enviable reputation in the village for his skill in mixing punch and flip. On holy-days, a stranger would have been apt to mistake him for one of the magnates of the land, as he invariably appeared in a drab coat of the style of 1776, with buttons as large as dollars, striped stockings, buckles that covered half his foot, and a cocked hat large enough to extinguish him. The landlord of the "Blue Anchor" was a general favorite, his laugh and his pious oaths having become historical.56

Here, quite obviously, is the man who served Cooper as the prototype for Ben Pump, the majordomo of Judge Temple's household.57

The other historic building in Cooperstown which Cooper transferred without alteration to the pages of The Pioneers was the combination court house- gaol, built in 1791 when William Cooper became the first judge of Otsego County. Just as in the novel, "the whipping posts and stocks stood nearly opposite the gaol door,"58 and in Cooper's tale it is in these stocks that Natty Bumppo is forced to spend an humiliating hour for poaching Judge Temple's deer. The remaining public building of importance which Cooper describes in any significant detail in the novel, the Templeton Academy, also owes something to its Cooperstown counterpart. Erected in 1795, the Cooperstown Academy "was one of those tasteless buildings that afflict all new countries," Cooper recalled in 1838, "and contained two school rooms below, a passage and the stairs; while the upper story was in a single room."59 While Cooper insisted in 1842 that "I had the Academy of Cherry Valley in my mind in writing the description, and not that of Cooperstown to which that description might generally, but would not particularly apply,60 he was willing enough to admit in the 1850 preface that the Cooperstown Academy and its Templeton equivalent were "tolerably exact."61 Both buildings served their respective communities as places of worship during the first years of settlement,62 and it can hardly be regarded as mere coincidence that just as Judge Temple concludes "to bestow the necessary land, and to erect the required edifice at his own expense" (107), so the Otsego Herald informed its readers on May 8, 1795 that "The Honourable William Cooper, had with his usual magnanimity subscribed a noble sum, besides two shares in the Bank of Albany, as a Fund"63 towards the building of the Cooperstown Academy. When the Academy was finally raised in September of 1795, William Cooper fittingly enough became its treasurer.

Cooper also borrowed against the history of Cooperstown for a number of the lesser details of the village of Templeton. The bridge of hewn logs over the Susquehanna River to the east of Templeton was doubtless suggested by the bridge William Cooper built for his wife in the spring of 1787;64 the iron swivel which the citizens of Templeton turn upon the defenseless pigeons, Cooper acknowledges in the 1850 preface, was the famous "cricket" abandoned by the Clinton expedition of 1779 and later discovered by workmen excavating the cellar of William Cooper's first house;65 and Templeton's "Little blue-looking newspaper...issued weekly from the garret of a dwelling-house in the village" (106) had its prototype in Elihu Phinney's Otsego Herald; or Western Advertiser which for a number of years after its founding in April 1795 was printed on both blue and green as well as on white paper.66

The major edifice of the village of Templeton is the Manorhouse of Judge Temple, and the inevitable question of just how closely it mirrors the Manor House66a built by Judge William Cooper in 1788 and enlarged in 1791 is an interesting one. While both houses occupy the same geographical position, open onto the main streets of their respective villages, have grounds which embrace the remnants of an ancient Indian orchard, and have their entrances lined with rows of Lombardy poplars, the two buildings, externally at least, are totally dissimilar. Cooper s insistence of 1842, therefore, that "No part of this [the Manor-house of Judge Temple] answers to the house of my father,"67 is undoubtedly sincere. A close comparison of the physical appearance of the two dwellings more than confirms Cooper's contention "that these two houses have not a common history, a common shape, nor the same materials!"68 Internally, however, a comparison can be drawn, and Cooper himself acknowledged in 1842 and again in 1850 that "the Author indulged his recollections freely when he fairly entered the door. Here all is literal, even to the severed arm of Wolfe, and the urn which hold the ashes of Queen Dido."69

The question as to the resemblance of the two owners, on the other hand, is a different matter. Cooper emphatically denied any such relationship. "There is not a particle of distinctive resemblance between the personal history of Judge Temple," he wrote in the Brother Jonathan letter, "and that of my father; so far as I know anything of the latter."70 On the contrary, he insisted, the germ for the personal history of Marmaduke Temple was taken from a note in Robert Proud's History of Pennsylvania published in Philadelphia in 1797. In order to secure his point, Cooper then directed the curious reader to an extract on the Cooper family taken in Thomas F. Gordon's Gazetteer of the State of New Jersey (Trenton, 1834). Just what these two cited works have to do with the histories of either Judge Temple or Judge Cooper -- save in a relatively minor way -- is somewhat difficult to understand; and, indeed, one is almost tempted to charge the novelist with a deliberate attempt to obscure the issue at hand.

While it is certainly true that the estate which Cooper and Craig purchased at public auction in 1786 was never confiscated from an American Loyalist and was considerably smaller than the 200,000 acres acquired by Judge Temple, the number of similarities that exist between the two men are "distinctive" enough to merit comment. Both men are of Quaker and Pennsylvania origins and begin their New York settlements in the year 1786. The story which Judge Temple tells of his first glimpse of Lake Otsego is, as Cooper admitted in the 1850 preface,71 almost a verbatim transcription of the account given by William Cooper alluded to above:

Unimproved and wild as this district now seems in your eyes, what was it when I first entered the hills. I left my party, the morning of my arrival, near the farms of Cherry Valley, and, following a deer path, 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 leaves were fallen, and I mounted a tree, and sat for an hour looking on the silent wilderness. Not an opening was to be seen in the boundless forest, except where the lake lay, like a mirror of glass. The water was covered by myriads of the wild-fowl that migrate with the changes in the season; and, while in my situation on the branch of the beech, I saw a bear with her cubs, descend to the shore to drink (258).

The same thing is true of Judge Temple's recollection of the first harsh years of settlement, when, like his historical counterpart, he was forced to intervene personally on his settlers' behalf:

It was not a moment for inaction. I purchased cargoes of wheat from the granaries of Pennsylvania; they were landed at Albany, and brought up the Mohawk in boats; from thence it was transported on pack-horse into the wilderness, and distributed among my people. Seines were made, and the lakes and rivers were dragged for fish. Something like a miracle was wrought in our favor, for enormous shoals of herrings were discovered to have wandered five hundred miles, through the windings of the impetuous Susquehanna, and the lake was alive with their numbers (257).

To his description of this episode the novelist subsequently added the footnote: "All this was literally true."72 Other obvious similarities between the two men exist in the exalted positions they enjoy in their respective communities, as well as in their common concern over the conservation of the natural resources of the wilderness73 and the economic possibilities inherent in the infant local industry of maple sugar.74 Beyond such parallels, however, it would be unwise to go.

As a matter of fact, when measured against the vitality of the man that was William Cooper, Marmaduke Temple for all his good-humor and benevolence becomes rather flat and unimpressive. Nowhere in the pages of The Pioneers do we get a glimpse of the partisan Federalist squire to whom General Philip Schuyler wrote in May of 1792:

report says that you are very civil to the young and handsome of the sex [,] that you flattered the old and ugly -- and even embraced the toothless and decrepit, in order to obtain votes, -- when will you write a treatise on Electioneering?75

Most certainly Judge Temple is not the man who dined with George Washington, actively campaigned for John Jay and Aaron Burr, served two terms in Congress, and acted as agent for hundreds of thousands of acres of land throughout New York and Pennsylvania, or the man who had a standing offer of one hundred and fifty acres of land to anyone able to outwrestle him.76

Of the remaining characters of The Pioneers, only three, Major Hartmann, Monsieur Le Quoi, and Natty Bumppo can unquestionably be assigned historical prototypes,77 though a number of the other citizens of Templeton, notably the officious sheriff, Richard Jones,78 the "parenthetical" lawyer, Dirck Van der School,79 and the village doctor, Elnathan Todd,80 were apparently also suggested by living originals. Cooper playfully admitted that he had relied on something more than simply his imagination to fill up such portraits in The Pioneers, when his travelling bachelor, John Cadwallader (Notions of the Americans), commented after a supposed visit to Cooperstown in 1826 that the novel

is said to contain some pretty faithful sketches of certain habits, and even some individuals who were known among the earlier settlers of this very spot. I cannot pledge myself for the accuracy of this opinion, nor could any one be found who appeared to possess sufficient information on the subject to confirm it.81

The first of these men, Major Frederick Hartmann, who four times a year leaves "his low stone dwelling, on the banks of the Mohawk" and travels "...thirty miles, through the hills, to the door of the mansion-house in Templeton" (105) for a week of "riotous living" with Judge Temple, is a fairly faithful representation of Colonel Hendrick Frey (1734-1827) of Canajoharie at whose house the Coopers, father and son, often stopped on their way to and from Albany.82 He was the grandson of Henrich Frey who in 1688 migrated from his native Zurich to the wilderness of the Mohawk Valley,83 and the son of Henry Frey who in 1739 built the stone house on the Mohawk River where the Frey family continued to live for some eighty years. Hendrick Frey married the niece of General Nicholas Herkimer, the hero of Oriskany, and prior to the Revolutionary War served the Province of New York as a colonel in the colonial militia, a justice of the peace, a representative to the colonial legislature, and for some years, with his longtime friend Sir William Johnson, Frey administered the oath of office to colonial officials appointed in Tryon County. At the beginning of the war, he tried to remain neutral, but as a close friend of many prominent Loyalists he was arrested, ordered before the Committee of Safety on which his brother, John Frey, sat, and after an examination was found to be "disaffected." As a result he was imprisoned at Albany and Hartford for the duration of the war. After the Revolution, Frey returned to the Mohawk Valley and became an intimate of William Cooper. During the novelist's youth, the old colonel was a frequent visitor in Cooperstown where he partook of the famous "traditions and festivities" of Manor House and Otsego Hall.84 As a tribute, William Cooper affectionately named the last of his twelve children Henry Frey Cooper.

The second character with a verifiable historical original is Monsieur Le Quoi (actually spelled "Le Quoy"), once the civil governor of the French island of Martinique in the West Indies, but reduced by the French Revolution to little more than one of the countless French emigres who swarmed over the United States during the decade of the 1790's. With the exception of his place of death, a faithful synopsis of the Frenchman's history is given in The Pioneers. "He had been recommended to the favor of Judge Temple," Cooper informs the reader, "by the head of an eminent mercantile house in New York, with whom Marmaduke was in habits of intimacy, and accustomed to exchange good offices" (103). The benevolent Judge responded, brought Le Quoi home to Templeton, and set him up as a storekeeper in the village. The Frenchman proved a success in his new trade. "The gentleness and suavity of his manners rendered him extremely popular" (104), and before long he had been returned to a "prosperous condition." He is dismissed at the end of the novel with the comment that he subsequently returned to Martinique and finally to Paris, "where he afterwards issued yearly bulletins of his happiness, and his gratitude to his friends in America" (494). In reality, Le Quoy was recommended to William Cooper by John Murray, a New York shipowner,85 and during his stay of something over a year in Cooperstown he "excited a good deal of interest as he was a man altogether superior to his occupation, which was little more than that of a country grocer."86 After quitting Cooperstown, Le Quoy did some consular work in Charleston, South Carolina, before returning to Martinique in 1796. Unlike his fictional counterpart, however, Le Quoy never saw France again, but: died less than a year later in Martinique of yellow fever.

Finally, there is the Leatherstocking, Natty Bumppo. Only once during his long career did Cooper address himself directly to the question of his sources, and, as one might anticipate, his answer was vague and noncommittal. The occasion was the 1850 preface to the Leatherstocking series where Cooper commented:

The author has often been asked if he had any original in his mind, for the character of Leather-Stocking. In a physical sense, different individuals known to the writer in early life, certainly presented themselves as models, through his recollections: but in a moral sense this man of the forest is purely a creation.87

The "original" Leatherstocking, -- it is generally agreed, took his origin from an old hunter of the Otsego hills named David Shipman (c. 1729-1813), a veteran of the Revolution who lived alone in a small cabin near the village of Cooperstown during the first years of settlement.88 He enjoyed a local reputation as an expert hunter and fisherman, and during Cooper's youth he would periodically appear at Otsego Hall to offer to Judge Cooper and his family the fruits of his labors. His "rude equipments, dogs, and rifle, had much attraction for the lads of the house," the novelist's daughter recalled;89 and Cooper himself specifically referred to Shipman in his Chronicles of Cooperstown as "the 'Leather Stocking' of the region" who "could at almost any time, furnish the table with a saddle of venison."90 Other colorful local personalities of the Cooperstown of Cooper's own day -- men such as the celebrated fisherman "Admiral" Hearsey, "who was unhappy unless in a boat, or before a lime kiln,"91 and his successor "Commodore" Boden, in his day commonly acknowledged the best fisherman on the lake and later bodily incorporated by Cooper into the novel Home as Found92 -- may well have contributed their share to the "first" Leatherstocking; but it was unquestionably David Shipman himself who served as the initial inspiration for the old hunter of The Pioneers.93 "In naming him Natty I dubbed him Bumppo," Cooper wrote in January, 1847,

thinking I had invented an uncouth appelation that no one certainly could covet and that no one would claim. Six months did not go by, before I learned there was a man of that very name living within five miles of me!94

As for Natty's Indian companion, Mohegan John, it is possible that he had as his original an old Indian named "Captain John" who with his son Sam Brushell, "the Panther," haunted the Otsego region for many years. According to Hurd's History of Otsego County:

Indian John was an "old scalper" and friend of the British during the Revolution. His time during the residence here was almost incessantly occupied in hunting and fishing, and the sharp click of his rifle could be heard almost daily, echoing through the mountain forests in this immediate vicinity.95

John died by drowning in Lake Canadarago, west of Cooperstown, but his son remained in the Otsego region until 1846 when he returned to his native Connecticut. "'The Panther' was a trusty Indian," Hurd records,

and his neighbors did not hesitate to let their children accompany him to his cabin, where they would be treated to a dish of capital chowder, and safely returned to their homes, the happy possessors of nice bows and arrows.96

Whether or not the history of "Captain John" and "the Panther" contributed to the old Indian of The Pioneers is, of course, purely a matter of conjecture, but certainly their very presence in the woods of Otsego County testifies to the "general" if not the "particular" validity of introducing such a character into Cooper's tale.

In turning to the various episodes which Cooper employs in The Pioneers to describe the daily and seasonal activities of the frontier village of Templeton, the historian is on much safer grounds. Virtually every one of the manners scenes can be documented not only as characteristic and typical of a New York settlement during the last decade of the eighteenth century, but as having been a part of the world of Cooperstown which Cooper knew as a boy. The Christmas eve service at the Academy, the boisterous good-fellowship which follows at the "Bold Dragoon," the turkey-shoot on Christmas morning, the making of maple sugar in March,97 the flight of the pigeons and their senseless slaughter in April,98 and the fishing by moonlight for the famous Otsego bass, while certainly not novel in themselves, formed an important part of the early history of William Cooper's settlement. Even such apparently fictionalized incidents as the killing of the ferocious panther in Chapter XXVIII,99 the arrest of the gang of counterfeiters in Chapter XXX,100 the escape from the village jail in Chapter XXXV,101 and the forest fire which sweeps the eastern shore of the lake in Chapters XXXVII and XXXVIII102 have their bases in fact, not fancy. It has been suggested as well, and with some merit, that the theme of the missing heir, which on the surface appears to be merely a stock device to generate the plot, actually found its origin in the unsuccessful attempt made by the heirs of George Croghan to reassert their equity in Judge Cooper's lands during the early years of the nineteenth century.103 Be that as it may, The Pioneers as a whole is undoubtedly the most successful and most authentic of all of Cooper's frontier novels. For all its artistic blemishes it is not surprising that the late Fred Lewis Pattee should label Cooper's "descriptive tale" an American Bracebridge Hall,"104 or that Francis Parkman should place it first among all of Cooper's novels as "a vivid reflection of scenes and characters which will soon have passed away."105 And even the unusually cautious North American Review was generally correct when it observed in 1838 that

The author is on strong ground, depicting persons and scenes that he had watched and known from infancy. None but a genuine backwoodsman, born and brought up, as the Yankees say, on the frontiers, could have sketched so happily the humors, occupations, and sports of an infant settlement. Shooting at turkeys on Christmas day, making maple sugar in "the camp," pigeon-hunting in spring, drawing the seine on the lake, the burning of the woods, -- all are peculiar and strongly marked, and are presented with graphic effect by one who has acted what he describes.106


1. Cooper told the editor of The Family Magazine in 1836 that his father was accompanied on his first visit to Lake Otsego "by a party of savages." James Fenimore Cooper, The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, ed. by James Franklin Beard (Cambridge, 1964), III, 216. Two years later his Chronicles of Cooperstown (1838), he had changed his mind:

     Mr. Cooper first visited Lake Otsego in the Autumn of 1785. He was accompanied by a party of surveyors, his object being to ascertain the precise boundaries of the land covered by his mortgage and judgment.

James Fenimore Cooper, The Chronicles of Cooperstown (Cooperstown, 1838), p. 8. According to William Cooper's own statement he was alone. William Cooper, A Guide in the Wilderness, or the History of the First Settlements in the Western Counties of New York (Cooperstown, 1936), p. 9. A Guide in the Wilderness was first published in Dublin in 1810, the year following William Cooper's death.

2. Lyman ii. Butterfield, "Cooper's Inheritance: The Otsego Country and Its Founders," James Fenimore Cooper: A Re-Appraisal (Cooperstown, 1954), p. 14.

3. Chronicles of Cooperstown, p. 8.

4. Ibid., pp. 11-12.

5. A Guide in the Wilderness, p. 9.

6. Chronicles of Cooperstown, pp. 19-32.

7. Louis C. Jones, Cooperstown, (Cooperstown, 1949), p. 17.

8. Calendar of N.Y. Colonial Manuscripts, Indorsed Land Papers...1643-1803 (Albany, 1864), pp. 814, 835.

9. Lyman H. Butterfield, "Judge William Cooper (1754-1809): A Sketch of His Character and Accomplishments," New York History, 30 (1949), 393.

10. Henry Walcott Boynton, James Fenimore Cooper (New York, 1931), p. 55.

11. Otsego County Surrogate's Office (Cooperstown), Registry of Wills, Liber E, 237.

12. A Guide in the Wilderness, pp. 8-9.

13. Chronicles of Cooperstown, p. 63.

14. Dixon Ryan Fox, "The Landed Gentry and Their Politics," Proceedings of the New York State Historical Association, 17 (1919), 206.

15. James Fenimore Cooper, Reminiscences of Mid-Victorian Cooperstown and Sketch of William Cooper, Publications of the Otsego Historical Society, I (1936), pp. 17-18. The author is the novelist's grandson.

16. Letters and Journals, I, 95.

17. See, Jedidiah Peck, The Political Wars of Otsego: or, Downfall of Jacobinism and Despotism: Being a Collection of Pieces, Lately Published in the Otsego Herald, By the Plough-Jogger (Cooperstown, 1796).

18. Jabez D. Hammond, The History of the Political Parties in the State of New York (Syracuse, 1852), I, 62-77, 82-83; James Arthur Frost, Life on the Upper Susquehanna, 1783-1860 (New York, 1951), pp. 42-45.

19. Hammond, I, 77, brackets mine. See also, The Otsego Herald, 1 (October 16, 1795), 3.

20. From the very beginning William Cooper followed a policy of selling his land outright to his settlers rather than granting the more conventional leases in the belief that direct ownership of the land produced a far more stable and reliable class of citizenry. Times were hard during the first years of settlement and Cooper chose not to press his settlers on their debts. Finally, however, the following tactfully worded notice appeared in the Otsego Herald, 3 (December 28, 1797), 3:

Mr. Cooper presents his compliments to such of the Inhabitants of this County, who have purchased Land of him, and are in arrears for payment, and informs them, that he is unexpectedly called upon for a large sum of money, which must be paid by the twentieth day of January next; he hopes therefore as this is the first time in eleven years that he hath called for money in his own right -- That those of the Old Patent will strive to assist him, those on the Hartwick Patent, are greatly in arrear, if they cannot pay, they may come and take perpetual Leases; those on the Otsego Patent, ought to pay; those on Morris's Patent, are expected to appear; those on the Hillington Patent, that expect any advantages from their contracts must perform on their part, the covenants that have hitherto been neglected; those on the Jews Patent, will do well to pay in part; those on the Wharton Creek Patent, will no doubt bring something forward, as well as those on Schuyler's Patent. -- The smallest sums will be received by Gentlemen,
                          Your Friend,
                          William Cooper.

21. The Otsego Herald, 2 (June 23, 1796), 3.

22. Throop Wilder, "Jedidiah Peck, Statesman, Soldier, Preacher," New York History 22 (1941), 290-300.

22a. [Since this paper was written, it has been demonstrated by Alan Taylor that the Cooper family tradition about William Cooper's death is incorrect; he died in Albany, but of purely natural causes -- H.C.MacD., May 2000]

23. Chronicles of Cooperstown, pp. 29, 31-32.

24. Ibid., p. 58.

25. All of these dates are those given by Cooper in his Chronicles of Cooperstown.

26. Ralph Birdsall, Story of Cooperstown (Cooperstown, 1917), pp. 96-97.

27. Chronicles of Cooperstown, p. 48.

28. See, John Lincklaen, Travels in the Years 1791 and 1792 in Pennsylvania, New York and Vermont (New York, 1897), pp. 72-74.

29. See, James Kent's journal of 1792, labeled "Memorandum of my Journey to Lake Otsego" and published by Edward P. Alexander as "Judge Kent's 'Jaunt' to Cooperstown, 1792," New York History, 22 (1941), 450-456. James Kent's brother, Moss Kent (1733-1794) a Cooperstown merchant, was a good friend of William Cooper's and one of James Cooper's boyhood idols.

30. Mary E. Phillips, James Fenimore Cooper (New York, 1913), pp. 12-13.

31. James Arthur Frost, Life on the Upper Susquehanna, 1783-1860 (New York, 1951), p. 24. See also, Susan Fenimore Cooper, Rural Hours (New York, 1850), pp. 379, 404; and A Guide in the Wilderness, pp. 28-31.

32. Accounts of encounters with panthers were occasionally published in the Cooperstown paper. See, for example, The Otsego Herald, 3 (August 10, 1797), 3.

33. Chronicles of Cooperstown, p. 4.

34. Adrian A. Pierson, "The Prehistoric Indian in Otsego and his Immediate Successor," Proceedings of the New York State Historical Association, 16 (1917), 103-119; Birdsall, Story of Cooperstown, pp. 12-13.

35. Cooper, Rural Hours, p. 174.

36. Ibid., p. 175.

36a. [James Fenimore Cooper and his family did not occupy Otsego Hall, which was still being lived in by his mother. From 1813-1817 the Cooper family lived in a frame farmhouse (on the site of the present Fenimore Art Museum) near the stone house, "Fenimore", that James was having built. "Fenimore" was, however, never quite completed, was sold to pay Cooper's creditors, and eventually burned. -- H.C. MacD., May 2000]

37. A brief description of the Cooperstown to which the novelist returned in 1833 will be found in J. Disturnell, A Gazetteer of the State of New York (Albany, 1842), p. 131.

38. Letters and Journals, I, 167.

39. The Deerslayer, p. vi. This remark is part of the preface to the Leatherstocking novels which Cooper prepared for George Putnam's edition of the works in 1850.

40. James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers, or the Sources of the Susquehanna; A Descriptive Tale (New York, 1823), I, viii.

41. Stephen Railton in his Fenimore Cooper: A Study of His Life and Imagination (Princeton, 1978) argues rather convincingly that Cooper's life and works are essentially defined by the novelist's complex and ambivalent attitude toward his father, Judge William Cooper. Until 1833, Railton's argument goes, the psychic involvement was one of resistance: an attempt to assert and achieve a sense of identity and independence that took the form of a struggle by the son against the political, social, and moral values of a domineering father. The basic pattern, he contends, is best seen in The Pioneers, in which "Marmaduke Temple, created in the image of William Cooper, and Natty Bumppo, created in his antithesis, represent the poles of Cooper's imagination."

42. Letters and Journals, II, 109.

43. The bracketed page numbers refer to the "Darley Edition" of The Pioneers, published as part of the 32 volume edition of Cooper's Novels by W.A. Townsend and Company, New York, 1859-1861. "Darley" refers, of course, to Felix Darley, the well-known illustrator.

44. Letters and Journals, II, 59.

45. James Grossman, James Fenimore Cooper (New York, 1950), p. 29.

46. Letters and Journals, IV, 254. Cooper said much the same thing in his holograph, unpublished draft letter to William M. Swain, editor of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, written in late September or early October of 1840. See, Letters and Journals, IV, 73-74. Cooper had been particularly angered by the suggestion made by Charles A. Murray in his Travels in North America During the Years 1834, 1835 & 1836 (London, 1839), II, 353, that

many of the characters...are family portraits. Its heroine was drawn from a very near relative, the memory of whose beauty and graces, both mental and personal, is still fresh in the neighbourhood. She died early in consequence of a fall from a spirited horse.

The reference is to the novelist's sister, Hannah Cooper, who was killed on the evening of September 10, 1800 while riding with her brother Richard.

47. Letters and Journals, I, 85.

48. Ibid., VI, 294-5.

49. Chronicles of Cooperstown, p. 20.

50. Letters and Journals, IV, 260.

51. Chronicles of Cooperstown, pp. 30, 75-76. See also, Cooper, Reminiscences of Mid-Victorian Cooperstown, p. 26; and Levi Beardsley, Reminiscences (New York, 1852), p. 53.

52. Chronicles of Cooperstown, p. 69. According to Cooper, the first artillery company was organized in 1798.

53. Ibid., p. 76. See also, Cooper, Reminiscences of Mid-Victorian Cooperstown, p. 27.

54. Chronicles of Cooperstown, p. 76.

55. Beardsley, Reminiscences, p. 456.

56. Chronicles of Cooperstown, pp. 76-77.

57. See the description of Ben Pump given in The Pioneers, pp. 63-64. In his March 26, 1842 letter to Brother Jonathan, Cooper noted emphatically that "there never were in my father's household such persons as Remarkable Pettibone, or Ben Pump; or, in the village of Cooperstown such a clergyman as Mr. Grant, or any one to correspond to his daughter" and that "no person answering to Betty Flannigan ever lived here; no Leather-stocking, no Indian John, no Dr. Todd, no Hiram Doolittle." Letters and Journals, IV, 257, 260.

58. Chronicles of Cooperstown, p. 44.

59. Ibid., p. 41.

60. Letters and Journals, V, 260. According to the Otsego Herald, 2 (June 9, 1796), 3, the Cherry Valley Academy was to open on July 4, 1796.

61. The Pioneers, p. xiii.

62. Chronicles of Cooperstown, p. 42.

63. The Otsego Herald, 1 (May 8, 1795), 3.

64. Chronicles of Cooperstown, p. 20.

65. The Pioneers, p. xii. See also, The Pioneers, pp. 268-269; and Chronicles of Cooperstown, pp. 12-13.

66. A complete file of The Otsego Herald is owned by the New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown.

66a. [It is Otsego Hall, the brick mansion William Cooper built in 1798, that is described internally (but not externally) in The Pioneers.-- H.C. MacD., May 2000]

67. Letters and Journals, IV, 258.

68. Idem.

69. The Pioneers, p. xiv. See also, Letters and Journals, IV, 258-9.

70. Letters and Journals, IV, 254.

71. The Pioneers, p. xii.

72. Ibid., p. 257 n. See also, A Guide in the Wilderness, pp. 10-11.

73. A Guide in the Wilderness, pp. 27-28.

74. William Cooper's efforts on behalf of the maple sugar industry in Otsego County are sketched in Roy L. Butterfield, "The Great Days of Maple Sugar," New York History, 39 (1958), 151-164.

75. Quoted in, Butterfield, "Judge William Cooper," 398, brackets mine.

76. James Fenimore Cooper, "Introduction," A Guide in the Wilderness, p. v. See also, Beardsley, Reminiscences, pp. 53-54.

77. Susan Fenimore Cooper writes in her "Small Family Memories," Correspondence of James Fenimore Cooper, ed. by James Fenimore Cooper (New Haven, 1922), I, 48, that "Monsieur Le Quoi, Major Hartman [sic.], Ben Pump were actual colonists on Lake Otsego."

78. Richard Jones, the "indefatigable" and pragmatic sheriff, was probably suggested by Richard R. Smith who opened the first store in Cooperstown during the winter of 1789-1790. When Otsego County was formed in 1791, Smith became its first sheriff, and it was Smith who involved Judge William Cooper in the famous vote-fraud controversy of 1792. While both Smith and Jones are given credit for painting the signs which ornament the taverns of their respective villages, there is little attempt made in The Pioneers to equate the two. See, Chronicles of Cooperstown, pp. 26, 30, 76.

79. Much the same thing is true of Dirck Van der School, the "parenthetical" village lawyer. Cooper mentioned in a letter to Samuel F.B. Morse in 1833 that "We had at Cooperstown, some thirty or forty years ago, a political writer who put his parentheses into one another, like spare pill boxes. (Letters and Journals, II, 378). This may well be a reference to Jedidiah Peck, for many years William Cooper's political nemesis. Peck wrote articles for the Otsego Herald under the descriptive pseudonym of the "Plough-Jogger," subsequently published in pamphlet form as The Political Wars of Otsego: or Downfall of Jacobinism and Despotism (Cooperstown, 1796). The resemblance, if it exists at all, is confined solely to their speaking and writing habits, for Van der School of The Pioneers is devoid of political overtones.

80. Dr. Todd, Susan Cooper wrote, had as his original "a half-fledged medical genius, from New England, with long lank figure, strongly marked face, full of small professional vanities and pretensions, and with an intensely nasal twang in his speech" whom her father knew as a midshipman at Oswego. See Susan Fenimore Cooper, "Introduction," The Pathfinder (New York, 1898-1899), p. xxx. Cooper himself describes the man in his Lives of Distinguished Naval Officers (Auburn, New York, 1846), I, 126-127 n. Attempts have also been made from time to time to equate the Reverend Mr. Grant with either John Chester, the first minister in Cooperstown, or his famous successor, "Father" Nash. It will be recalled, however, that Mr. Grant's character is totally undeveloped and there is no evidence to substantiate such claims.

81. James Fenimore Cooper, Notions of the Americans: Picked Up by a Travelling Bachelor (Philadelphia, 1840), I, 254.

82. See Cooper's letter of April 26, 1812, Letters and Journals, I, 26.

83. Information on the Frey family will be found in S.L. Frey, "An Old Mohawk Valley House," The Magazine of American History, 8 (1882), 337-345; and Ernest Green, "Frey," Ontario Historical Society Papers and Records, 33 (1939), 45-74.

84. Chronicles of Cooperstown, p. 26.

85. See, Chronicles of Cooperstown, pp. 35-37; and Clare Benedict, ed., Voices out of the Past. Five Generations (1785-1923) Being Scattered Chapters from the History of the Cooper, Pomeroy, Woolson and Benedict Families (London, 1929), p. 7.

86. Chronicles of Cooperstown, p. 35.

87. The Deerslayer (New York, 1861), p. vii.

88. Birdsall, Story of Cooperstown, pp. 163-173. Shipman's brief obituary appeared in the Otsego Herald, 18 (March 6, 1813), 3, as follows: "On the 27th Mr. David Shipman, aged 84 years."

89. Susan Fenimore Cooper Pages and Pictures From the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper (New York, 1861), pp. 51-52. See also, "Small Family Memories," 48.

90. Chronicles of Cooperstown, p. 26. Elihu Phinney, the son of the editor of the Otsego Herald, told S.M. Shaw in 1886 that "My father told me that he had repeatedly seen 'Old Shipman' land at evening, having the bottom of his canoe literally covered with salmon trout, weighing from two to ten pounds each. " S.M. Shaw, A Centennial Offering. Being a Brief History of Cooperstown (Cooperstown, 1886), p. 185.

91. Chronicles of Cooperstown, p. 49.

92. Ibid., p. 50. See also, Correspondence, II, 437.

93. It would be incomplete here not to take some notice of a rival claimant for the title of the "original" Natty Bumppo, Nathaniel Shipman of Hoosic Falls, New York. His story was first told by Levi Chandler Ball in the fourth supplement to his "Annals of Hoosic," a serialized history of Hoosic Falls which appeared in some fifty-one installments throughout 1874 in the Rensselaer County Standard. (A microfilm copy of this extremely rare work is included in the Burton Historical Collection of the Detroit Free Public Library.) According to Ball, Nathaniel Shipman was a veteran of the French and Indian wars who settled on the banks of the Walloomsac River in the northeast part of the town of Hoosic. He became a noted hunter and trapper and was a friend of the few Mohican Indians who remained in the area. Shipman disappeared during the Revolution and for many years it was believed that he was dead. In the meanwhile, his daughter Patience married John Ryan, an owner of part of the original Hoosic patent and from 1803 to 1806 a member of the State Assembly in Albany. While in Albany in 1803, Ryan met Judge William Cooper who told him about an aged white man who lived with a Mohican Indian in a hut near Lake Otsego. When Ryan returned home with the news, his wife persuaded him to go to Cooperstown where he discovered that the hunter was none other than his father-in-law, Nathaniel Shipman. Shipman returned to Hoosic with Ryan where he died in 1809 and was buried. Ball's account, based largely upon the testimony of older residents, has been widely circulated. See, for example, Nathaniel Bartlett Sylvester, History of Rensselaer Co., New York (Philadelphia, 1880), pp. 381-382; George Baker Anderson, Landmarks of Rensselaer County, New York (Syracuse, 1897), pp. 421-422; Grace Greylock Niles, The Hoosac Valley, Its Legend and Its History (New York, 1912), p. 25, et passim. The Shipman story has also served as the basis for at least two articles. See Henry H. Hurlbut, "The Prototype of 'Leather- Stocking,'" Magazine of American History, 18 (1887), 530-533; and James A. Beckett, "The Real 'Natty' an Elder Brother," Proceedings of the New York State Historical Association, 16 (1917),187-192. Although many aspects of Ball's story are unconvincing, it has nonetheless persisted. The late Roy L. Butterfield, the Historian of Otsego County, has informed the author in a letter of May 22, 1963, however, that "no documentary evidence of any kind can be found that Nathaniel Shipman was ever here."

94. Letters and Journals, V, 183-4.

95. Duane Hamilton Hurd, History of Otsego County, New York (Philadelphia, 1887), p. 303.

96. Ibid., p. 304.

97. See Butterfield, "The Great Days of Maple Sugar," 157-160; Benjamin Rush, Letters of Benjamin Rush, ed. by L.H. Butterfield (Princeton, 1951), I, 591, 598 n.; Susan Fenimore Cooper, Rural Hours (New York, 1950), pp. 23-30; Beardsley, Reminiscences, pp. 60-62. According to the novelist's grandson in his "Introduction" to William Cooper's A Guide in the Wilderness, p. ii, William Cooper and Arthur Noble sent a sample of Otsego sugar together with a letter on the subject to George Washington.

98. When the Freeman's Journal, the Cooperstown paper which succeeded the Otsego Herald, published extracts from The Pioneers in February and March of 1823, one of those chosen was the slaughter of the pigeons from Chapter XXII. It was introduced with the explanation that "The chapter now selected, is descriptive of pigeon-shooting, upon the mountain-side east of this Village, and is painted to the life, as we can vouch, having ourselves witnessed similar sport upon the same favored spot." The Freeman's Journal, XV (March 3, 1823), 4. Of interest in this connection as well is the following brief notice which appeared in the Otsego Herald on March 31, 1796; "Flocks of Pigeons, immensely large, have passed and repassed this place, every morning of the present week. Several elderly people have declared that they have seen more in one morning, then in their whole lives before." The Otsego Herald, II (March 31, 1796), 3. See also, Beardsley, Reminiscences, p. 57.

99. While panthers disappeared from the shores of Lake Otsego not long after the beginning of settlement and thereafter were something of a rarity, the stories of human encounters with such beasts were a part of local folklore. The story of Peter Bunt, for example, who lived on the Susquehanna some twenty-six miles below Cooperstown, and how he saved his nine-year old daughter from a dun panther in 1788, found its way into the appendix of Josiah Priest's A True Narrative of the Capture of David Ogden (Lansingburgh, N.Y., 1840), pp. 20-27. The story is also told of how two years earlier, in 1786, Bunt, armed with only an axe, overcame a pack of hungry wolves.

100. The germ for this episode can undoubtedly be traced to the following incident from Cooperstown history as recorded by Cooper in his Chronicles of Cooperstown, p. 49:

The year 1794, was memorable in the history of Cooperstown, for what is still called the "Indian Alarm." This alarm was false, having proceeded from the combined circumstances that a report prevailed of a considerable body of Indians having been seen lurking in the woods, at no great distance, and that a party who had brought in some counterfeiters discharged their pistols at midnight. Scouts had been previously sent to ascertain the fact about the Indians, and this discharge of pistols was supposed to proceed from those scouts, in the wish to alarm the village.

The Otsego Herald reported counterfeiting in the Otsego vicinity on May 24, 1798, September 19, 1799, and February 13, 1808.

101. The Otsego Herald reported on July 26, 1798:

William L. Phillips, who escaped out of the Gaol in this place [Cooperstown], on Thursday evening last, was safely re-lodged in his old birth on Monday evening last, after having suffered excessively by hunger and fatigue during his absence -- His companion, Root, is hourly expected.

The Otsego Herald, IV (July 26, 1798), 3, brackets mine.

102. Susan Cooper in her Rural Hours, p. 18, alludes to a fire which may well have served as the model for the fire of The Pioneers -- both were put out only by an opportune rain storm:

About the same time that the first Lake party took place there was a terrific fire in the forest; my Aunt said there was a circle of flames entirely surrounding the Lake, and apparently closing in about the village to the southward, as the woods came very near the little town at that time. There was a serious alarm for a day or two. At night she said the spectacle was very fine. But everybody was anxious. Happily a heavy rain quenched the flames before they reached the little village.

See also, Rural Hours, p. 273.

103. See Andrew Nelson, "James Cooper and George Croghan," Philological Quarterly, 20 (1941), 69-73. Nelson, clearly basing his article on charges made by Albert T. Volwiler in his George Croghan and the Westward Movement, pp. 330-332, that Cooper and Craig were guilty of cheating Croghan's heirs and creditors out of their share in Croghan's Otsego lands, suggests that the "lost heir" theme of The Pioneers had its origin in the attempts made by Croghan's heirs, the Prevosts, to reassert their equity in William Cooper's Otsego patent during the early years of the nineteenth century. The suggestion is an intriguing one and offers as its most conclusive piece of internal evidence the strange observation of Marmaduke Temple: "You name your father!...was he, indeed, lost in the packet (484)?" The reference, Nelson maintains, may well be to the wreck of the Liverpool packet Albion which went down in the "September Gale" of 1822, carrying with it Croghan's grandson, Augustin Prevost of Cooperstown. As might be expected, there is nothing in the account given by Cooper in his Chronicles of Cooperstown of either the history of William Cooper's Otsego title (pp. 13-18) or of the attempts by the Prevosts to revive their claim in 1814 (pp. 68-69) to suggest that his father had come by his lands unfairly. See also, Cooper's statements about the novel in his letter to Brother Jonathan, March 26, 1842, Letters and Journals, IV, 255-6.

104. Fred Lewis Pattee, "James Fenimore Cooper," American Mercury, 4 (1925), 293.

105. Francis Parkman, "The Works of James Fenimore Cooper," North American Review, 74 (1852), 157.

106. Francis Bowen, "Cooper's Novels," North American Review, 46 (1838), 6-7.

Return to Top of Page