Introduction to Jack Tier (1848)

Susan Fenimore Cooper

Introductions to novels by her father, with significant biographic and literary information, were written by Susan Fenimore Cooper as prefaces to excerpts from 25 Cooper novels in Pages and Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper, with Notes by Susan Fenimore Cooper (New York: W.A. Townsend and Co., 1861). She also wrote introductions to 15 (not all the same) novels published between 1876-1884 as the Household Edition of the Works of J. Fenimore Cooper (New York and Cambridge: Houghton, Mifflin and Co. [Hurd and Mifflin]).

These introductions are collected for the first time on the Cooper Society website. Lengthy quotations have been reproduced in indented form, but retaining the quotation marks of the original, and their sources have been indicated in [square brackets].

Topics Covered:

I: From Pages and Pictures. An original sea tale, first published in Graham’s Magazine.

II: From Household Edition.  Only case in which Cooper wrote novels at the same time; origins of “Hell-Gate” in New York’s East River, and fatuity of renaming it “Hurl Gate”; Cooper’s dislike for steamboats; wreck of the Hussarin Hell-Gate; charms of the Molly Swash; origins of nautical term “Bristol fashion”; originality of Jack Tierand its eponymous “heroine”; Cooper’s deep knowledge of American naval ships [quotation].

I. Pages and Pictures, p. 370.

Contents: JACK TIER. — Originality of the plot — Spirit of the work — Extract, Mulford on the Reef.

[370] THIS is another tale of the sea — a very interesting book — full of original incident, the scene being laid in the Gulf of Mexico. The book was at first called Rose Budd, from the young girl of that name who plays an important part in the narrative, and was published in “Graham’s Magazine.” While writing it, the author was also occupied with a series of naval biographies, the lives of distinguished officers of the American marine, many of whom had been his own messmates and personal friends in early life. The character of Jack Tier is quite original, and very good. There are lovely heroines, of ancient times, figuring, in the guise of page or squire, in many a ballad and romance of the days of chivalry; but a plain, homely, hard-working creature, following a very indifferent sort of husband about the world, under the garb, and doing the work of a common sailor of our own times, is not exactly the personage one would look for as a heroine of romance. And yet, as we close this spirited and original tale, me feel a regard, and even a sort of affection for Jack, as we leave her, once more clad in womanly garments, by the side of her dying husband. The incidents connected with the sea, it is scarcely necessary to observe, are strikingly graphic and spirited.

Excerpt: “The Reef” [James Fenimore Cooper, Jack Tier [1848] (New York: W.A. Thompson and Co., 1860), Chapter 9, pp. 273-281]

II. ousehold Edition, pp. vii-xiv.

[vii] OF this romance, Mr. Bryant has said that “Jack Tier, published when Cooper was in his sixtieth year, is as full of spirit, energy, invention, life-like presentation of objects and events,

“The vision and faculty divine,”

as anything he had written.” [William Cullen Bryant, “Discourse on the Life and Genius of Cooper,” in Memorial of James Fenimore Cooper (New York: G.P. Putnam, 1852), p.65.]

This tale of the sea was written in 1847-48, and during the same year he was still occupied with the “Naval Biographies,” and also with “The Crater.” It was very seldom that he was actually engaged in writing two novels at the same time, but such was the case with “The Crater” and “Jack Tier.” The last, however, appeared as a monthly serial in “Graham’s Magazine,” and under the title of “Rose Budd.” When completed it was reprinted in a book form, and the name was changed to one much more appropriate.

The date is a recent one, the period of the Mexican War, — very recent indeed at the time it was written, when peace had only been proclaimed a few months earlier. The opening scenes occur at the wharves of New York and in Long Island Sound, where the Water-Witch had appeared nearly twenty years before. There is not the least similarity, however, between the plots or the incidents of the two books. It is indeed remarkable that after writing so large a number of tales of the sea, there should be still so much freshness and variety, in the latest of the series, both in the plot and in the details of the narrative.

The Molly Swash is skillfully piloted through Hell-Gate [viii] by her master, Stephen Spike. Like his contemporary Mr. Irving, the author of “Jack Tier” could never tolerate the innovation of Hurl Gateinstead of the strong but honest name our Dutch forefathers had given the strait. In “Helle-Gat” there was at least a meaning. Absurdity has been a very common element in American geography; but, among all the far-fetched and misapplied words scattered over our maps, is there one that in weak, utterly senseless fatuity surpasses that of Hurl Gate?When Skipper Adrian Block lost his ship, the Tiger, by accidental fire at the desolate island of Manhattan, in the year 1614, he sat [sic] bravely to work and built a yacht, to which he gave the name of the “Onrust,” the Restless, and soon after sailed on a voyage of discovery eastward, carrying his newly-built craft through a narrow and perilous strait, to which he gave the name of Helle-Gat, from the dangers of the navigation. The name is thus proved to have been first used in the very earliest years of European colonization, a fact which should give it a certain historical value. The Dutch word, “gat,” a narrow inlet or passage, was frequently used by them. The channel into the Texel they called the Gat, and the passage between the island of Goeree and the main-land was the Gat of Goeree. There were a number of gats on the coast of Holland, such as the Spaniards Gat, the Gat of Amerland, and others. On the coast of the New Netherlands, they had Barne Gat and Beere Gat and other convenient “gaten,” as Venderdonck declared. Helle-Gat, however, could scarcely have been considered a “convenient” passage. It preserved undisturbed the name given it by Block for two centuries. About the year 1814 a ferry was opened between Long Island and the Island of Manhattan very near Hell-Gate; the men employed in building the wharf and landing put up a coarsely painted guide-board to direct people to the ferry: “The road to Hurl Gate.” This is said to have been the origin of the change. The misnomer soon became general, and was at length so frequently used, even in print, that the indignation of old Manhattanese was [ix] aroused by the flagrant absurdity. It even appeared on some maps and in history and in scientific treatises. The innovation is, however, all but abandoned now, after having triumphed over common-sense for half a century; it has been effectually laughed down, it is believed, by two of the principal writers of New York and their allies, — the author of Diedrich Knickerbocker’s History, and the author of “The Spy.” The old Dutch name seems indeed likely to outlast the perilous reefs and rocks and eddies which suggested the idea of “Helle-Gat” to Skipper Block. The scientific engineer of modern times is at work, and the dreaded perils of the “Pot Rock” and the “Hog’s Back,” very serious realities at one time, are likely to become a mere nightmare of the past. The entire Sound between Long Island and the main-land was at first called Helle-Gat by the Dutch, after a branch of the river Scheldt in Holland.

As Captain Stephen Swash is about preparing to pilot his craft, the Molly Swash, through the dangerous strait, he is closely watched by a stranger on the wharf, a fact which greatly disturbs him.

“The fellow looks as if he might lug out a silver oar at any moment!” he exclaims to his mate. [Jack Tier,, Chapter 1, p. 24]

The silver oar alluded to, in this and one or two other passages, while the Molly is getting under way, is said to have been in former times a badge of the revenue service in England, where it may possibly still be in use. And it would seem, at one time, to have been used in America also.

In the perilous passage through Hell-Gate, the Molly Swash is closely watched, and a few hours later chased by a revenue steamer. The author had already avowed that he indulged “a true seaman’s dislike for a steamboat,” a fact which prevented his introducing a steam vessel into any one of his marine tales, with the single exception of “Jack Tier.” The nameless revenue steamer speeding swiftly through Long Island Sound, in pursuit of the Molly Swash, and so cleverly outwitted by the brigantine, is the only vessel [x] moved by scientific but unpoetical machinery, of which there is even a glimpse in these Tales of the Sea.

The passage through Hell-Gate is not made without accident. while the captain is anxiously watching the boat containing the individual whom he suspects of carrying the silver oar, the Molly just escapes the “Hog’s Back.”

“The boatswain again roared to go about. The order was given as the vessel began to pitch in a heavy swell. At the next instant, she rolled until the water came on deck, whirled with her stern down the tide, and her bows rose as if she were about to leap out of water. The Swash had hit the Pot Rock.” [Jack Tier, Chapter 1, p. 38]

“This was the famous rock on which the English man-of-war Hussar was wrecked. The Hussar, a frigate of six hundred tons, with a crew of two hundred men, sailed from Cork August 15, 1780, for New York. She was one of several consorts who were acting as convoy to a fleet of ninety-eight merchantmen. The large fleet was nearly two months crossing the ocean, arriving at Charleston October 10ᵗʰ. On the 15ᵗʰ of November the fleet with the Hussar as convoy arrived off Sandy Hook. On the 23d of November the Hussar sailed alone from New York for Gardiner’s Bay, with dispatches for Admiral Arbuthnot; while passing through Hell-Gate, about three o’clock in the afternoon, she struck on the Pot Rock, was seriously injured, sprang a leak, became unmanageable, and after whirling about in the channel, she went down at seven o’clock in the evening, near the small islands called the “Brothers,” in seven fathom water. The current was running nine knots an hour at the time. Some one hundred and seven of the crew were said to have perished. The wreck at that prominent point produced a great sensation at the time, and we have scarcely yet lost the echo of the exaggerated reports which then filled the country. Seventy American prisoners were said to have been chained on deck, and drowned. A treasure not far short of one million pounds was reported to have sunk with the ship. As regards the [xi] prisoners, it is not likely that there were any on board; they would probably have suffered a worse fate, and been sent to the prison ships at Wallabout Bay. And as regards the treasure, it is now said, on good authority, that there was none in the ship, twenty thousand pounds having been made over, two days before, to the commissary general of the British army. Divers, however, have repeatedly tried their luck in searching for the reported treasure, but without success. The wreck of the Hussar added greatly, of course, to the previous terrors of Hell-Gate.

The Molly Swash, however, escapes uninjured: “Happily the Pot Rock lies so low that it is not apt to fetch up anything of a light draft of water, and the brigantine’s fore-foot had just settled on its summit long enough to cause the vessel to whirl round and make her obeisance to the place, when a succeeding swell lifted her clear, and away she went down stream, rolling as if scudding in a gale, and, for a moment, under no command whatever.” [Jack Tier, Chapter 2, p. 40]

Once beyond Montauk, the Molly pursues her course southward undisturbed. We seem to have a personal acquaintance with the “wicked looking brigantine,” [Ch. 2, p. 43] “showing forward all the cloth of a full-rigged brig, even to royals and flying jib, while aft her mast was the tall, raking, naked pole of an American schooner.” [Ch. 1, p. 27] The Molly is declared to be “a lovely craft,” [Ch. 7, p. 206] “a great traveler,” [ibid] “a beautiful model,” and, “if she could not be made to talk, could be made to do almost everything else.” [Ch. 3, p. 79] So great indeed are her nautical charms and merits, that the young mate, while suspicious of his captain, “really loved the brig,” [Ch. 3, p. 79] and could not make up his mind to desert her.

Everything on board the Molly is declared to be “ship-shape and Bristol fashion.” This regular sailor phrase was frequently used by Mr. Cooper, and often quaintly applied by him, in familiar conversations, to matters ashore — perchance a barn-yard, or a poultry-house, or a hot-bed — the words carrying the idea of the perfection of order, and nice arrangement. The phrase dates, no doubt, from the time [xii] when Bristol was the great English port whence so many vessels, models in their day, sailed on expeditions of great importance, under famous captains. It will be remembered that the Cabots were in one sense Bristol men; their great expedition westward, in 1495, doubtless, sailed from that city, where several of their vessels belonged, and they pledged themselves to land at that port on their return. Many were the good vessels and the skillful navigators sailing, at that period, from the Severn to all parts of the world; they had even an irregular commerce with Iceland in the fifteenth century. In the nautical world, Bristol fashions would very naturally rank high, so far, at least, as England was concerned. Even at the present hour the phrase is still in common use, no other English port having, as yet, robbed the city on the Severn of this complimentary mention by Jack Tier.

The coarse old sea-dog, Stephen Spike, skipper of the Molly Swash, is drawn with a powerful hand. He is doing traitor’s work, — carrying powder to the enemy. The port for which he is secretly steering is a desolate island in the Florida Bay, among the Dry Tortugas, where the powder is to be delivered to a Mexican agent. It is among this remote group of islets and rocks and the troubled waters surrounding them, that the striking incidents closing the narrative take place. Shipwreck, the horrors of famine, and still greater horrors of thirst, hurricane, treachery, greed of gold, brutal selfishness, human love and affection, are the elements blended in those chapters, which are among the most deeply interesting of any written by the same pen. When Mulford throws himself from the wreck into the sea, at midnight, in a daring search for the drifting boat in which he still hopes to save Rose and her aunt, we follow every movement with painful anxiety; he reaches a coral rock, throws himself down exhausted and sleeps; the rays of the rising sun awaken him; he sees the boat grounded on the reef at no great distance; to secure this last hope of safety for the woman he loves, he is about to throw himself again [xiii] into the sea — when the dark, erect, fins of twenty fierce sharks are seen gliding to and fro, in voracious eagerness, beside the rock on which he stands.

“Jack Tier” is very original in character. There are lovely heroines of ancient times figuring in the guise of squire or page to gallant knights, to be found in many a ballad or romance of the age of chivalry; but a plain, homely, hard-working creature, following a worthless husband about the world, under the garb and doing the work of a common sailor of our own day, is not exactly the sort of personage one would look for as a heroine of romance.

Mr. Cooper’s warm and unfailing interest in the navy, and his intimate knowledge of the different vessels, appear in many passages of these Tales of the Sea. While occupied with the work of fiction, he also wrote many brief articles connecting with the details of the service, articles published in the papers or magazines of the day. We quote a passage of “Jack Tier” showing his personal knowledge of different vessels: —

“The two most beautiful objects with which we are acquainted are, a graceful and high-bred woman, entering or leaving a drawing-room, more particularly the last, and a man-of-war leaving her anchorage, in a moderate breeze, and when not hurried for time. A great deal is said concerning the defective construction of the light cruisers of the navy of late years, and complaints are made that they will not sail as American cruisers ought to sail, and were wont to sail on old times. That there has been some ground for these complaints we believe; though the evil has been greatly exaggerated, and some explanation may be given, we think, even in cases where the strictures are not altogether without justification. The trim of a light, sharp vessel is easily deranged; and officers, in their desire to command as much as possible, often get their vessels of this class too deep. They are generally, for the sort of cruiser, over-sparred, over-manned, and over-provisioned, consequently, too deep. We recollect a case in which use of [xiv] these delicate craft, a half-rigged brig, was much abused for ‘having lost her sailing.’ She did, indeed, lose her fore-yard, and after that she sailed like a witch, until she got a new one!

“If the facts were inquired into, in the spirit which ought to govern such inquiries, it would be found that even most of the much abused ‘ten sloops’ proved to be better vessels than common. The St. Louis, the Vincennes, the Concord, the Fairfield, the Boston, and the Falmouth are instances of what we mean. In behalf of the Warren, and the Lexington, we believe no discreet man was ever heard to utter one syllable, except as wholesome crafts. But the Poughkeepsie was a very different sort of vessel from the ‘ten sloops.’ She was in every way a good ship, and as Jack expressed it, ‘a good goer.’ The most severe nautical critic could scarcely have found a fault in her, as she passed out between the islets, on the evening of the day mentioned, in the sort of undress we have described. The whole scene indeed was impressive, and of singular maritime characteristics. The little islets scattered about — low, sandy, and untenanted — were the only land in sight; all else was the boundless waste of waters. The solitary light rose like an aquatic monument, as if purposely to give its character to the view. Captain Mull had caused its lamps to be trimmed and lighted, for the very reason that had induced Spike to do the same thing, and the dim star they presented was just struggling into existence, as it might be, as the brilliance left by the sun gradually diminished, and finally disappeared. As for the ship, the hull appeared dark, glossy, and graceful, as is usual with a vessel of war. Her sails were in soft contrast to the color of the hull, and they offered the variety and divergence from straight lines which are thought necessary to perfect beauty. Those that were set presented the symmetry in their trim, the flatness in their hoist, and the breadth that distinguish a man-of-war; while those that were loose floated in the air in every wave, and cloud-like swell, that we often see in light canvas released from the yards in a fresh breeze.” [Jack Tier, Chapter 13, pp. 431-433]