Introduction to Miles Wallingford (1844)

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: The North River sloop and its history and operation; travel from Cooperstown to New York in the old days via Albany and the sloop; description of river trip from Albany to New York; Dutch-speaking, happy-go-lucky Negro slaves of the Hudson river towns; Cooper and slaves; old New York City; Cooper’s indignation at British impressment of American seamen; the Dawn and impressment in the close of Miles Wallingford.

Household Edition, pp. vii-xvi

[vii] OF course the hero of a novel, though sinking for the third time beneath the waters of the Hudson in a drowning condition, is compelled by a literary necessity to be brought to life again. The young man had been taught to swim with his eyes open when beneath the water, and, in an exhausted condition, he vaguely perceives a large object approaching which he supposes to be a shark, though sharks are rare in the harbor of New York, and are not known to have ever ascended above the Highlands. There it was, however, this strange object, passing beneath the bodies of Wallingford and Drewett, preparing, as the former supposed, for the fatal snap, when the young man felt himself lifted into the air from beneath, and soon heard a familiar voice: “Hole on, Massa Mile, here ‘e nigger close by!”

It was from the deck of a North Rivers sloop — his own boat, the Wallingford — that the youth had thrown himself into the river to save his rival’s life. A North River sloop! Ay, that was an important craft in the early years of this century. Large indeed was the fleet of sloops on the Hudson at that time. Never a reach of the noble stream, between its mouth and the wharves of Albany, where sloops large and small might not be seen by the dozen any summer day; now gliding along singly, perhaps skillfully threading some intricate channels among islands or shoals, now in companies of a score or more, speeding seaward with well filled sails, before wind and tide. Every small town or [xvii] village on the river side had its won little squadron, more or less in number according to the needs of trade. Every country-house of any importance on the banks had its own especial craft, sailing now to Albany, now to New York; nay, most of the larger farms bounded by the stream sent their produce to the city markets in sailing boats of their own. Although very similar in their rig, mainsail, and jib, varying only in the larger boats by an additional jib and top-sail, there was no little variety in the size and character of these sloops. There were your regular “packets,” neat and trim, sailing on certain days from Albany or New York, from Hudson, Poughkeepsie, or Sing-Sing; there was your well appointed sloop from the private wharf of this or that country-house, jaunty in aspect, yacht-like in character, though yachts were then unknown even by name; there was your heavily laden boat, showing piles of timber, or wood, or stacks of hay, or cribs of cattle on her decks, sober and business-like, and often deep in the water from the precious wheat filling her hold, soon to be transported to Europe; there was your regular trading vessel carrying the lighter produce of all kinds from the interior to the wharves of New York. Wheat was already a great staple of the country. The author’s home county of Otsego was then considered a great wheat region; long lines of wagons carried the precious grain slowly over the sixty miles of road to Albany; pot and pearl ashes came also in large quantities from these lake shores; thousands of pounds of maple sugar traveled over the same road; and no little honey was also sent down the river, the Otsego county honey having then a reputation for fragrance and purity. These, and other articles of produce from the few interior counties of the day were unloaded from the sloops at the wharves of New York, and exchanged for teas, coffees, sugars, — with dry goods and fancy articles, from substantial broadcloths to gay silks and gauzes, and ribbons and feathers, — all brought from beyond the sea. Yes, the fashions at that time embarked in the North River sloop when moving northward from New York [ix] to Albany. And, strange to say, no little of the tea drank [sic] in Canada at that date passed up the Hudson in those sloops, thence up the Mohawk in rude batteaux, through Oneida Lake, down the Oswego River to the inland port of Oswego, and thence through Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence to Quebec and Montreal. The skipper of your North River sloop had his full share of the commerce of the world at that day. Ay, and many were the travelers of distinction who occupied the cabins, or lounged on the decks of the river “packets;” not only was the regular intercourse between New York and Albany kept up in this way, during eight or nine months of the year, but foreigners from Europe, and travelers from the South, — Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia, — bound to “the Springs,” or, more rarely, to Niagara, usually moved up the Hudson in the “packet sloop.” At that time “the Springs” meant Ballston and Saratoga, no other mineral waters being so generally known and frequented by people of fashion.

Those North River packet sloops were well ordered, and sufficiently neat and comfortable. Many a voyage to and fro had the author made in them during his boyhood and early youth. And many were the amusing details of those old-time travels from the valley of Otsego to New York related in after years by the writer. The party usually left home, after an early dinner, in the old family coach, heavy but comfortable, and drawn by four horses from sheer necessity, owing to the rude condition of the roads. They slept at Cherry Valley. The next day they moved northward to the valley of the Mohawk, and slept at the house of Colonel Frey, not far from Canajoharie. The third day they proceeded to Schenectady, where they again halted among friends. Hospitality was a very common virtue in the new country in those days when people met much less frequently than they do now; a hearty welcome greeted the travelers wherever they alighted. On the fourth day they dined in Albany. Here there was usually a halt of a day or two. One of the better “packets” had to be looked [x] up. Frequently people would wait half a week for a fast sailer and a favorite captain. But the time was not wasted; there were always friends to be visited, and business to be attended to. The chosen “packet” having arrived from New York, there was another delay for necessary arrangements; the entire cabin was always engaged for a family party, with the addition, perhaps, of a friend or two; but stores were to be laid in for the voyage, not only by the skipper, but also by the passengers, who never failed to purchase private supplies of fruit and choice groceries, — often of hams, and game when in season, — and they also provided themselves with mattresses and bedding. A week from the day of leaving home was the usual time allowed for the journey and necessary arrangements in Albany. At length they embarked on the voyage. If the river was low they frequently remained in sight of Albany for twenty-four hours or more, running ground on the Overslaugh being almost a matter of course; not infrequently they would have the same ill luck two or three times in succession. The Overslaugh, or Overslagh, as the Dutch called the bar in the stream just below Albany, was then, as it is now, a great bugbear to travelers on the river in dry weather and on foggy mornings. Then, with an ebb tide and fair wind they would sail gaily for a while on their course southward, admiring the charming scenery on either bank. Then came the flood tide, with a head-wind, perhaps, to be followed by a calm. Many indeed were the little incidents in the river voyage. After tacking half a day, perhaps evening would find them only a dozen miles farther on their course; or, awakening in the morning, they would find themselves aground on some shoal or island; or a dead calm fell upon them, and they anchored awaiting a change of tide. On these occasions little exploring excursions were made on shore; the ladies gathered flowers, or picked strawberries, or blackberries, when in season, and fresh supplies of cream, eggs, butter, melons, or vegetables were procured. Frequently twenty or thirty sloops would lie at [xi] anchor together, in near neighborhood, and visits would be made from boat to boat; then, wind and tide serving again, all would take flight together. The regular “packets” moving up or down the stream usually spoke each other, the travelers from Albany receiving New York papers only a day or two old, perhaps, and almost sure at that time to contain stirring news of great battles, of kingdoms lost or won, in the Old World, only six weeks earlier. Letters, also, would be sent on board the upward-bound packet, directed to friends at home, dated, perhaps, “Packet sloop Stephen Van Cortlandt, North River, off Newburgh Bay, fourth day of the trip, August 3, 1803: We hope to reach New York now in forty-eight hours.” The approach to the Highlands was always a moment of much interest, often, indeed, of anxiety. If wind and tide were unfavorable the sloop would anchor awaiting a change. Accidents not infrequently happened in the narrow, winding channel of the Highlands, the winds being very variable, as their regular course was broken by the mountains, and sudden violent gusts were more or less dangerous to the craft in the river. Fragments of wrecks, on a small scale, were frequently seen on the shores, and stirring tales were told of the loss, or escape, of this or that sloop. And the broad bosom of the Tappan Sea, below the Highlands, had also its perils for the timid. That “packet” was in luck which succeeded in making the remainder of the voyage without delay; head winds, or a calm, or a flood tide often compelling the skipper to anchor again. But at length the passengers would be cheered by the sight of the country-houses of Bloomingdale on the eastern shore, — now the Central Park, — and the two or three modest spires of the town, rising above the low roofs, appeared in the distance. Then came the happy moment when the Albany Basin was reached, and the voyage was safely accomplished in rather less than a week. The usual passage between Albany and New York was then between two and four days; occasionally it was made under very favorable circumstances in [xii] twenty-four hours; but this was considered a brilliant nautical feat, somewhat to boast of. Occasionally, passengers passed even ten and twelve days on the river, — running aground, becalmed for days in succession, or struggling with head winds, as the case might be. Such were the recollections of the author’s boyhood in connection with various trips up and down the Hudson.

The movement of the large fleet of “North River sloops” at that period was, indeed, full of varied interest, from the first break in the ice, in March, to the closing of the stream in early winter. It added greatly to the pleasure of those living in the many country-houses on the river banks. Aged persons still deplore the change in this respect.

On board of almost any sloop in that numerous fleet, and under the roofs of most of the country homes and farm-houses on the river banks, there were sure to be black faces at that day. In some of the older homesteads there were a dozen of them, of all ages and sizes. They were a merry, happy-tempered, careless, ignorant, warm-hearted race. True, they were slaves, but they seemed scarcely aware of the fact, caring little for freedom, holding “free niggers,” indeed, very cheap. They were full of fancies, and superstitions, and pet prejudices. The negro born and bred at Rhinebeck or Poughkeepsie cherished a supreme contempt for all luckless blacks living on the opposite bank of the river. They were almost invariably warmly attached to the family in which they lived, full of conceit of their own individual importance, and that of the clan to which they belonged. They were, as a rule, treated with great kindness, often with indulgence amounting even to weakness, — old “Mammies,” and “Uncles,” and “Aunties” being promoted to high privileges as pets and favorites. They spoke a strange jargon, half Dutch, half English; indeed, there were many as late as 1810, in Albany and on the river banks, that could scarcely speak English at all. Even in New York many of them spoke a rude, slip-shod Dutch very freely at the same date. Their births were invariably recorded in the family Bible with those of the white members of the household; they were regularly married and christened, and received a simple form of religious instruction. Each son and daughter usually received a boy or girl as their own especial follower. Setting aside the abstract injustice of slavery, which is indisputable, the condition of those belonging to the Colony, and afterwards the State, of New York was assuredly a favorable one. They throve and increased, and were a characteristic element in the population of that period, jolly black faces bearing a very much larger proportion to the white race than they do to-day. Especially was this the case as regards the river towns and counties. The Clawbonny negroes were sketched from life, and a character somewhat similar to that of Nebuchadnezzar, the faithful slave and comrade of the master, afloat and ashore, might easily have been found on some river farm seventy-five years ago.

No slave was ever owned by Mr. Cooper himself. Neither had his father, who came of a Quaker stock, ever owned one for any length of time; several were purchased to fill places in his household, but they always received their freedom immediately, and were paid wages. The author knew the race well, and was very partial to their kindly nature. He had known a number of good seamen with black faces, when himself a sailor.

One or two touches connected with young Wallingford’s early visits to New York read strangely to us to-day. He finds the Battery, “a circular strip of grass, with an earthen and wooden breastwork, running along the margin of the water, leaving a narrow promenade on the exterior;” here the beau-mondecollects, from the adjoining streets, the choice residences of the town, and here young ladies take an evening stroll to enjoy the sea-breeze. Then again, Wallingford goes to see a great curiosity, a rare spectacle, “The Lion!” supposed to be the only lion in America at the time, and kept in a cage out of town, as became so dangerous a creature, the precise ground where this King of [xiv] of Beasts held his court being near the present Franklin Square: here he was visited by ladies, and gentlemen, and children, “from the city.” To this lion the author, when a lad, had paid his devoirs.

In a nautical novel of that date impressment naturally has its place, as one of the flagrant political evils of the period. A wrong more outrageous one civilized nation has scarcely ever inflicted on another. This was a subject on which Mr. Cooper always spoke and wrote with force and feeling, having seen much of its evils. He had been repeatedly present when English press-gangs had seized their victims from American vessels, and it mattered little whether they were thorough-bred Yankees, Danes, or Norwegians scarcely speaking English, or even negroes. “It has been satisfactorily ascertained,” says the author of “Afloat and Ashore,” in his “History of the Navy,” “that the number of impressed Americans on board British ships of war was seldom less than the entire number of seamen in the American navy between the years 1802 and 1812. At the declaration of war in 1812 the number that was turned over to the prison ships for refusing to fight against their own country is said to have exceeded two thousand.” “That England may need the services of her seamen, in no manner entitles her to violate neutral privileges to obtain them. Such a doctrine would authorize a belligerent nation, in its extremity to rob the treasury of a neutral in order to pay its troops.” “The actual state of things places England still more in the wrong, as regards their pretension. It is a matter of notoriety that the legal authorities of that country export families of paupers to this hemisphere in order to be relieved of them. The government also encourages emigration. To set up the claim of allegiance against men thus driven away to be saddled on other nations becomes an outrage to common sense.” [James Fenimore Cooper, History of the Navy of the United States of America (Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, Second Edition, with Corrections, 1840), Vol. II, Chapter 2, pp. 46n, 47, 48n.] This last argument was used at a later date by Mr. Webster, when, as Secretary of State, the subject of impressment was discussed with the British government. Happily, the subject is one that is [xv] now practically settled. Another extract, of the date of 1828, is given: “If England wishes to discussany question connected with a right to impress men out of American ships, the sooner she does it the better; for, in a very few more years, it will not do even to talkabout.” The half century elapsed since that passage was written has indeed settled this point, it is to be hoped, forever.

The subject of impressment, and the gross injustice of England and France as belligerents towards American ships at that period, are very skillfully handled in connection with the nautical plot of Miles Wallingford. The last cruise of the Dawn is exceedingly interesting, and all closely connected with details which are historical in character: now seized by an English man-of-war, in spite of her clearly neutral character; recaptured by her own people; seized by the French; escaping by skillfully managed manoeuvres; a little later find herself suddenly, one summer morning, the centre of a wide circle formed by three French and two English men-of-war, all alike dangerous to the neutral, the Dawn becomes the eager spectator of a brilliantly fought battle between her foes. It has been said by Mr. Bryant that in the author’s later sea tales “The mastery with which he makes the grand processions of events pass before the mind’s eye is even greater than in his earlier.” [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] The battle, of which the Dawn is the spectator, between La Desirée, Le Cerf, and the Black Prince and the Speedy, followed by the desperate attempt of the seven impressed American seamen to regain their ship, might be cited as a proof of the correctness of the assertion. No nautical events are related by him with more power and life-like reality. But the fate of the Dawn is sealed. She is left alone in mid-ocean, to make her way among a crowd of hostile cruisers of the belligerent powers, with only four stout American hearts for a grew; Wallingford, Marble, and the negroes Neb and Diogenes. Attempting to make good her port of Hamburgh by going to the north of Scot[xvi]land, she founders in a gale off the coast of Ireland, solely, as it appears, from the lack of the seven seamen impressed by the English man-of-war.

“Afloat and Ashore” and “Miles Wallingford” were both written in 1844.