Cooper and New York’s Dutch Heritage

Wayne Franklin (Northeastern University)

Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 1994 Conference of the American Literature Association in San Diego.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 5, November, 1994.

Copyright © 1994, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

As presented at the ALA Conference, this paper was illustrated with slides. Titles of these slides are here listed as an appendix, with bracketed letters in the text indicating where they appeared in the presentation. In publishing the paper here, we have with Wayne Franklin’s permission included three illustrations illustrating his main points.

— Hugh C. MacDougall

Although not generally considered a “Knickerbocker” writer, James Fenimore Cooper continually and vigorously engaged the Knickerbockers’ classic ground, the Hudson Valley. We are most familiar with his broad thematic use of the natural landscape of the area: as with the war-torn scenes of The Spy or the view of the valley from Pine Orchard as Natty Bumppo splendidly recalls it in The Pioneers. But Cooper also used the cultural landscape of the Valley, especially the characteristic Dutch architecture found there. Here I want to examine Cooper’s use of such details as compared with that of more obvious Knickerbockers such as Washington Irving and James Kirke Paulding. Throughout, I’m interested in the meaning that the apparently “old fashioned” Dutch world of all these writers had, especially within the context of an interregional struggle for cultural predominance in the new republic.

Last things first. When New Englanders moved west into the previously isolated Hudson Valley after the revolution, they found a cultural world which, beneath its more recent British veneer, differed notably from the one they had left behind. Few tangible objects more aptly expressed that difference than the old Dutch houses of New York. {A} Derived from a North European peasant and burgher architecture only indirectly related to Yankee architecture’s folk precedents in Britain, New Netherland’s buildings suggested how diverse America’s regional populations were. {B}

The contrast between Yankee and Yorker architecture may seem little more than stylistic, but in fact the traditions differed radically in spatial principle and in structure. {C} Yankees found their traditional hall-parlor houses (or the more recent Georgian and Federal reworkings of them) comfortable in part because through all the variations of form or treatment they expressed a spatial system rooted in the principle of squared or cubed volume. {D} Among the Dutch, especially the rural Dutch, space was compounded via elongation or addition. As a result, the two systems produced houses with very different proxemic values, so different that a person used to one system might well feel uncomfortable within the other without quite knowing why.

Certainly Yankees felt uncomfortable in New York. As a consequence, they established their own new towns there such as Troy or Hudson, on the Yankee side of the Hudson River, or the inland village of Rensselaerville or, in another sense, Cooperstown. Alternatively, they came in such numbers that they easily gained control of existing Dutch settlements. At the very least, they heaped verbal abuse on what remained of the old Dutch ways. Connecticut wit Timothy Dwight cheered the Anglicizing of the New York scene as he viewed its old Dutch towns in the decades after the war. Visiting Schenectady in 1798, he found its houses to be “chiefly ancient structures of brick in the Dutch style: the roofs sharp, the ends toward the street, and the architecture uncouth.” Happily, since his last trip there, “a number of [those] old houses have been pulled down, and a great number of new ones built in the English style.” Later still, he added, “Schenectady I found reluctantly improving” a comment in which the adverb “reluctantly” of course characterizes the Dutch inhabitants while the participle “improving” identifies (and praises) the Anglo ones. {E} In 1798, Dwight found Albany a match for its neighboring town: “The houses are almost all built in the Dutch manner, standing endwise upon the street, with high, sharp roofs, small windows, and low ceilings. The appearance of the houses is ordinary, dull, and disagreeable.” {F} As if this last comment were not negative enough, he gladly added, “Since I first visited this city in 1792, it has, fortunately I think, been ravaged by two fires.” He noted in 1804, “This city is improving fast. Many of the old Dutch houses have been destroyed by fires; others have been pulled down; and new ones, built in the English manner, occupy their places.” He carefully counted, in this incendiary rhetoric, the number of beneficial disasters; in 1811 he could record that “seven successive fires” had cleared away many of the “clumsy, Dutch buildings” he had seen there almost two decades earlier. By then, even the old Dutch families were building new English-style houses, and immigrants from other lands were similarly adopting English cultural forms. 1

Against this Yankee invasion, New Yorkers developed a new sense of the value of the state’s Dutch legacy. With the publication of Irving’s Knickerbocker history in 1809, Dutch images became a standard element often dismissive but often more complex as well in local color texts of the region. As New York State and the City grew dramatically following the opening of the Erie Canal, burying much of what remained from the Dutch past, the Irvingesque imagery acquired a new urgency. In the 1830s, amid the disap pearance of many old Dutch houses, a popular image of them as staunchly non-English, pre-modern, and anti-rational in character emerged. This image, like other recovered aspects of colon ial Dutch culture, may have helped assuage the anxieties of a populace hell-bent for modernism and the marketplace. But it also contributed to an interregional debate over the cultural values that were to matter for the future.

The popular image of the old Dutch house greatly simplified the Dutch past even as it sought to connect it with the American future. Perhaps as much had been lost in understanding as in artifacts; the considerable variety of New York’s Dutch architectural forms some deriving from alternate points of origin in the Netherlands, some resulting from differentiation within New Netherland was ignored as the New York press disseminated a flat stereotype. Probably because many of the Knickerbockers were of urban background and taste, the old Dutch house, wherever a given example was situated, was decidedly urban. In a series of articles on “Dutch Architecture” published in George Pope Morris’s New York Mirror in the early 1830s and illustrated by Alexander Jackson Davis, for instance, the Dutch house is always the tall, brick- fronted, gable-end structure that derived from the famous Canal or Gracht houses of cities such as Amsterdam ornamented with crow-step brickwork, freight doors on the upper floors, a boom for hoisting freight and furniture anchored on the very top of the front, casement windows that opened in and shutters that opened out, a small porch called a “stoop” that had space for a pair of benches, and curious iron work at various points of the facade (sometimes worked into numbers giving the date of construction). {G} While these houses were numerous in New York City and in such upriver towns as Albany and Schenectady, they were virtually unknown in the farming districts of the Hudson Valley proper, a fact the Knickerbocker writers rarely acknowledged. 2

The simplification can be traced in the earliest Knickerbocker treatments of Dutch architecture. In a passage from which the Mirror quoted extensively in the 1830s, Washington Irving had set the terms of the icon as long ago as 1809:

The houses of the higher class were generally constructed of wood, excepting the gable end, which was of small black and yellow Dutch bricks, and always faced the street. ... The house was always furnished with abundance of large doors and small windows on every floor, the date of its erection was curiously designated by iron figures on the front, and on the top of the roof was perched a fierce little weather-cock. ... ” 3

If Irving spoke here, rightly, of the urban landscape of New Amsterdam, he confused the issue when, in describing the sleepy rural village of Rip Van Winkle, he wrote that here “there were some of the houses of the original settlers standing within a few years; built of small yellow bricks brought from Holland, having latticed windows and gable fronts, surmounted with weathercocks.” 4 When John Quidor painted Rip’s homecoming in 1829, he obediently included a step-gable house in Rip’s village, not because that Hudson Valley native knew such houses to be common in the small villages there but rather because he was seeing what Irving instructed his readers to see in this story and in other works. Literary texts mediated the perception of the surviving Dutch landscape. Irving’s associate James Kirke Paulding, also a Valley native, likewise constructed the “Dutch” dwellings of his most famous novel, The Dutchman’s Fireside (1831) from the same generalized, inaccurate body of literary images. {H} Most interestingly, when Irving purchased an authentic long, low Dutch farmhouse near Tarrytown in the 1830s, he ignored its actual Netherlandish features, which had no place in the rhetoric of Morris or Irving himself, and rebuilt it as an upright urban fantasy, complete with step gables and with ironwork salvaged from torn- down dwellings in Albany. {I} It is hard not to take Sunnyside as a perverse sign of Timothy Dwight’s victory. In three-dimensions, as in his prose, Irving got many things wrong.

This is not to imply that what’s “right” here is simple or unchanging. It is much more complex, and more locally nuanced, than any purveyors of the Dutch house icon could have imagined. For instance, a dwelling such as the Myndert Mynderse house of Saugerties (1743) {J} may be taken to represent the rural tradition almost completely unremarked in Knickerbocker texts. Intriguingly, it was the cultural meanings of precisely this sort of rambling structure that Cooper, as I now hope to show, eventually came to discover and appreciate.

From early in his career, Cooper accepted the stereotypes of Irving, Paulding, and the other New York City writers. But he also modified them. Cooper’s several years in Westchester County and in the City itself, from 1817 to his departure for Europe in 1826, had given him considerable firsthand experience of the surviving Dutch buildings of the lower Valley; further more, as a youth he had spent a couple of years at school in Albany, and perhaps most importantly he made many voyages up and down the Hudson throughout his life, so that he was familiar as neither Irving nor Paulding really were with the full range of the Valley’s landscapes.

Cooper’s earliest renderings of New York’s Dutch landscape occur in Notions of the Americans of 1828, in which we find the surviving Dutch specimens in the City described as “a few angular, sidelong edifices, that resemble broken fragments of prismatick ice.” At times, Cooper (or rather his “Travelling Bachelor”) sounds like an arsonistic Yankee, as when he condemns the City’s “stoops” as “clumsy, inconvenient entrances,” “disfiguring the architecture, cumbering the sidewalks, and endangering the human neck.” 5 The Water-Witch of 1830, Cooper’s first Dutch novel, echoes this same judgment, cutting its prose wholesale from the Knickerbocker bolt in describing the canal houses of lower Manhattan:

The houses were ultra Dutch, being low, angular, fastidiously neat, and all erected with their gables to the street. Each had its ugly and inconvenient entrance termed a stoop; its vane or weathercock, its dormer windows, and its graduated battlement walls. Near the apex of one of the latter, a little iron crane projected into the street. 6

Cooper remained true to this Knickerbocker stereotype even as late as 1851, the year he died, when he drew on the same body of imagery in The Towns of Manhattan. “The Dutch town,” he wrote in that fragment, “had most of the evidences of its origin: the houses were nearly all constructed with their gables to the street, and were built of klinkers, small, hard well burnt brick imported from Holland. Every dwelling had its stoep, a sort of porch, provided with benches, and uniformly of wood.” 7 While such stereotypes suited the urban scene fairly well, in the works that intervened between Notions and Manhattan, Cooper used the same icons as a means of characterizing rural houses as well as urban ones. In Miles Wallingford, one rural riverside cottage is “of stone, one story in height, with a high pointed roof, and ... a Dutch-looking gable that faced the river, and which contained the porch and outer door.” Even this cottage begins to exhibit, however, some of the authentic rural features that Cooper, unlike the Knickerbockers generally, saw and valued in the Hudson Valley. It is of stone rather than brick, as most rural Dutch houses also were. Although it has “a Dutch-looking gable,” the overall building is low (one-story), with a steep roof. Its gable date-irons (1698) are rightly seen as “iron braces,” not just as ornaments. Furthermore, its entry way leads directly into the parlor, without an intervening central hall. (By contrast, Irving and Paulding often made the mistake of inserting a decidedly Georgian central hall into houses that would not have had them; Dutch houses often had several unrelated entrances on the front wall, at times one door for each room, as in the case of the Mynderse house.) Perhaps most suggestively, Cooper’s “cottage” like the Mynderse house, again is seen as the result of an extended historical and social process: here, as in that actual structure, “the windows had the charm of irregularity.” 8

This last idea was particularly important for Cooper in all the Hudson Valley books of his last decade. In Afloat and Ashore proper, Cooper’s narrator describes his family’s home as follows:

The first of our family who owned the place had built a substantial one-story stone house, that bears the date of 1707 on one of its gables; and to which each of his successors had added a little, until the whole structure got to resemble a cluster of cottages thrown together without the least attention to order or regularity. 9

This overall disorderly effect is not condemned but rather praised by Cooper, for it bespeaks a communal identity in contrast with the deepening acquisitive individualism of his own day. Unlike the stereotypical step-gable house of the Knickerbocker tradition, these stone farmhouses in Cooper’s later novels are not so much quaint oddities as viable cultural alternatives to the present.

Consider the case of Satanstoe. Here the Dutch-built home of the narrator, Corny Littlepage, is a 1½-story stone building of prodigious size: L-shaped, it has one wing that extends 50 feet and another that runs out to 75, each of them being merely 26-feet deep, the whole presumably built piece-by-piece over time by various members of Corny’s family. Similarly, the home of Anneke, Lilacsbush, is a “long, irregular” stone building, with many “different angles, and walls, and chimneys, and roofs,” also presumably the result of the transgenerational generation of the house. Like the home at Satanstoe itself, Lilacsbush is 1½-stories high a distinctive structural characteristic of Hudson Valley Dutch houses, one that it takes some penetration of mind (and of walls!) to note, and one that would persist in New York architecture well into and beyond Cooper’s life, giving even to Greek Revival houses erected there a distinctive local structure and form. Cooper was, by the way, the only writer of his period who to my knowledge stresses this feature of the rural Dutch house. 10

The issue here is not, however, merely “authentic” details. Cooper as “editor” of Corny’s narrative adds a note at one point indicating that such modest, low, usually one-story, stone houses tended to be the favored homes of even the prosperous Dutch of New York’s countryside. 11 Unlike their Yankee neighbors, whose pretentiousness leads them to erect enormous unfinished wooden shells (another Knickerbocker stereotype), the rural New Yorkers cling jealously to the small farmhouses of their ancestors. Cooper explains this contrast not via ethnic difference but rather in terms of basic values. The egalitarian Yankees, always striving to establish personal superiority, use architecture as a means to distinction.

As a final note on Satanstoe, I also would draw attention to the way in which these ideas and values are expressed in the way Cooper builds his own narrative. In Satanstoe, and the other Littlepage novels, Cooper constructs a mixed architectural scene, and he incorporates in the very patterns of his art some of the features he finds appealing in these buildings. The three tales are vernacular, much as the houses are; that is, they are part of Cooper’s interesting experiment in his last two decades with the potential of first-person narratives. As “editor” of the Littlepage novels, he creates provincial voices such as Corny’s with their own irregularities, their own entanglement in “family,” their own lack of a claim to universals. Corny’s house, like that of the Wallingfords, is the rather nice image of the character’s habits of mind. And in the case of the Littlepage novels, which emerge by accretion over several generations, Cooper’s larger tale is itself the product of a communal rather than an individual imagination. Unlike his Knickerbocker contemporaries, he takes us, as it were, inside the tangible legacy of New York’s Dutch past.

Appendix - Titles of Slides Used in Original Presentation

  • A. James Eights, View of State Street, Albany. c. 1850 — John Heaten, Van Bergen Overmantel, c. 1733
  • B. Dutch gables, Edam — 18ᵗʰ century farmhouse, Openluchts Museum, Arnhem — Leendert Bronck house, Coxsackie, 1738 — 17ᵗʰ century farmhouse, Arnhem — 18ᵗʰ century Dutch barn, Mt. Gulian — Barn, Arnhem
  • C. John Whipple house, Ipswich, 1640-70 — Burley House, Ipswich, c. 1660 — Vernon house, Newport, 1758
  • D. Schoonmaker house, Saugerties, 1727 — Bronck houses, Coxsackie, 1663, 1738 — Perrine house, Staten Island, 1680-1750 — Osterhoudt house, Lake Katrin, 1691-1740 — De Witt house, Marbletown, late 18ᵗʰ century — Abraham Hasbrouck house, New Paltz, 1692- 1712 — Farmhouse, Arnhem, 1796
  • E. Abraham Yates house, Schenectady, c. 1700 — Fonda house, Schenectady, 1752
  • F. James Eights, View (c. 1850) of Dominie Schaets house, Albany, c. 1680 — Widow Sturtevant house, Albany, c. 1730 — Quackenbush house, Albany, 1730
  • G. Several Amsterdam Gracht houses, 17ᵗʰ-19ᵗʰ centuries
  • H. Hooded fireplace, Van Alen house, Kinderhook, 1737
  • I. Sunnyside, before and after Irving
  • J. Myndert Mynderse house, Saugerties, 1743, several views


1 Timothy Dwight, Travels in New England and New York, ed. Barbara M. Soloman (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969), 2:340; 4:90; 2:345-46; 3:296.

2 See New York Mirror, 8:1 (7/10/1830); 8:26 (1/1/1831); 8:37 (3/19/1831); 9:26 (12/31/1831); and 10:31 (2/2/1833).

3 Washington Irving, A History of New York, ed. Michael L. Black and Nancy B. Black (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984), 103.

4 Washington Irving, The Sketch-Book of Geoffery Crayon, Gent., ed. Haskell Springer (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978), 20.

5 James Fenimore Cooper, Notions of the Americans: Picked up by a Travelling Bachelor, text established and historical introduction by Gary Williams (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), 122, 123.

6 [James Fenimore Cooper], The Water-Witch; or the Skimmer of the Seas. A Tale. (London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1830), I:47.

7 James Franklin Beard, “The First History of Greater New York,” New York Historical Society Quarterly, 37 (April, 1953), 141.

8 [James Fenimore Cooper], Afloat and Ashore; or the Adventures of Miles Wallingford (Philadelphia: Published by the Author, 1844), III:24-25.

9 Ibid., I:8.

10 James Fenimore cooper, Satanstoe: or the Littlepage Manuscripts. A Tale of the Colony, historical introduction by Kay Seymour House, text established, with explanatory notes, by Kay Seymour House and Constance Ayers Denne (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 55.

11 Ibid, 148-49n.

Illustrations of Houses Demonstrating Points Made in This Paper

(from Helen Wilkinson Reynolds, Dutch Houses in the Hudson Valley before 1776. New York: Holland Society, 1929, reprinted New York: Dover Publications, 1965)

Domine Schaets house (1657), Albany.

House of Domine Schaets (1657), Albany, showing traditional Dutch urban architecture — 2 1/2 story, steep roof-line, gable to street, notched gable, decorative brickwork. From an 1805 painting (house demolished 1832).

House called Watervliet (1669).

Built by Jeremias Van Rensselaer (1669) on the Troy road north of Albany. Residence of the directors and patroons of Rensselaerswyck from 1669-1765. From an 1839 sketch by Francis Pruyn (house demolished 1839).

Andries DeWitt house (1753).

House of Andries DeWitt in Marbletown (near Kingston [Dutch Esopus], Ulster County). The central portion dates from 1753; the two ends were added before 1800. Though much later than the other two houses shown, it demonstrates the low-slung, extended form of Dutch rural buildings, as compared to the tall, gabled townhouses generally associated with “Dutch architecture”. It was this contrast between urban and rural that Cooper recognized and described, in contrast to his contemporary “Knickerbocker” writers like James Kirke Paulding and Washington Irving.