Judge William Cooper (1754-1809);  A Sketch of his Character and Accomplishment

L.H. Butterfield *  (Princeton University)

Published in New York History, Vol. XXX, No. 4 (October, 1949), pp. 385-408.

Copyright © 1949, New York State Historical Association, and placed online with its kind permission.

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

{385}IN A Striking passage in his Guide in the Wilderness William Cooper wrote:

In 1785 I visited the rough and hilly country of Otsego, where there existed not an inhabitant, nor any trace of a road; 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. 1

The solitary horseman and the wilderness setting suggest the opening chapters of countless nineteenth-century romantic novels, including those of Cooper’s son, James Fenimore. The passage in the Guideintroduces a tale of adventure that is just as exciting as any ever told by a romancer but is sober truth. It is indeed one of the most {386} remarkable true stories among the many in the making of America. Compared with Boone’s opening up of Kentucky or Marcus Whitman’s settlement of the Oregon country, it is of course little known or celebrated. But the settlement of the upper Susquehanna Valley is comparable with the achievements of Boone and Whitman, for it was largely the work of one man, the product of the daring, energy, shrewdness, and steadfastness of a Quaker storekeeper who was a good judge of land and an even better judge of men.

“I began,” Cooper wrote in a passage that reveals the homespun quality of both his prose and his moral outlook, “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 chat 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 look 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. And I question whether that sensation is not now a recompense more grateful to me than all the other profits I have reaped. Your good sense and knowledge of the world will excuse this seeming boast; if it be vain (we all must have our vanities), let it at least serve to show that industry has its reward, and age its pleasures, and be an encouragement to others to persevere and prosper.” 2

Cooper was writing about 1806, just twenty years after he had acquired his Otsego lands. He had settled the “forty thousand souls” at the rate of 2,000 a year, and he had converted upwards of 750,000 acres from forest into farms, homesteads, and villages. 3 In magnitude there is probably nothing in our history to match this accomplishment. Other land promoters operated on a larger scale, but they failed and he succeeded. Land speculation swallowed up the fortunes of Robert Morris, William Duer, James Wilson, and Oliver {387} Phelps; even the great Holland Land Company syndicate required many decades to recover its investment in New York lands. But Cooper, who died in his prime (he was just 55), could look around him in his later years and see flourishing farms, turnpikes and bridges built, schools and churches rising, and newspapers spreading a rudimentary culture through a region that had been Indian hunting ground in his own youth. Moreover, he left such substantial bequests to each of his surviving children that one of them could devote himself to that most unusual American occupation for the time — the writing of fiction. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Leatherstocking novels of James Fenimore Cooper dramatize the unequal but heroic contest between the forces of the wilderness and those of civilization.

Why did William Cooper succeed where others failed? Surely this is a question that should be answered, and the materials to provide an answer are now available. The present essay is only a suggestive outline; the full narrative of this chapter in the making of America remains to be told from the rich and voluminous archives still in the possession of the family. 4

Beyond the usual genealogical data, not much is known about William Cooper before he first visited the Otsego country in the fall of 1785. For three generations, from the time when William Penn came out to the woods that had been named for him, Coopers were settled on both sides of the Delaware in and near Philadelphia. 5 Farmers and merchants, they multiplied, acquired land, and adhered to the religion of the Founder, so that their names are legion in the civil and religious records of that heartland of American Quakerism. After a visit to his birthplace in 1836, James Fenimore Cooper wrote his wife that he believed he “could have mustered all the men in Burlington as cousins.” 6 William Cooper was born 2 December 1754, the son of James and Hannah (Hibbs) Cooper, at Byberry, a dozen miles up the river from the city and now the most northerly ward of the city and county of Philadelphia. Portions of this ancient {388} settlement, somehow sheltered from the Roosevelt Boulevard to the west and the Pennsylvania Railroad to the east, appear today much as they must have appeared in the eighteenth century. The winding roads, hedgerows, and weathered stone houses are those of an English countryside rather than an American suburb. It is said — and here we depend on local tradition — that William Cooper’s father was poor and that the youth, after a period of apprenticeship, worked about Byberry as a wheelwright. 7 There is no record that he attended school, and his letters throughout life show a fine disregard for schoolmasters’ rules. He was never in doubt, however, about either what he wanted to say or what he wanted to do. An early Byberry annalist observes that “William Cooper was an eccentric character, and seldom deliberated upon the course to be pursued, but acted entirely from first impressions, which, he said, ‘were always the best.’” Certainly his marriage to Elizabeth, daughter of Richard Fenimore of Rancocas, New Jersey, exemplified a bluff self-reliance. It was a runaway marriage, performed before a civil magistrate in Burlington, 12 December 1774. When Elizabeth’s father, a substantial Quaker, raised the question how his daughter was to be supported, William, just turned nineteen, replied “that he was poor and she must shift for herself.”

Cooper’s ample ability to provide for a family was soon demonstrated. During most of the years of the Revolution he lived in a hamlet near Burlington called Cooperstown, doubtless after one of his uncles or cousins. About 1780 he appeared in Burlington as a partner in a produce store and soon afterwards rented a new and fairly imposing brick house on High Street, the birthplace of James Fenimore Cooper and now the home of the county historical society. 8 Burlington, a provincial capital, was one of the centers of the speculation in wild lands that swept America after the expulsion of the French from this continent in 1763. Governor William Franklin was deep in themes of land promotion; the Burlington Company had acquired great tracts on {389} the upper Susquehanna after the Fort Stanwix treaty; and Richard Smith, one of the Quaker burghers who held shares in the company, had seen the Otsego country with his own eyes in 1769 and had found it good to look upon. 9 Here were opportunities for an energetic young man, and they were enlarged by the social upheaval of the Revolutionary War. Wealthy Loyalists were obliged to liquidate their holdings and claims on whatever terms were offered or else suffer total loss. It was decidedly a buyers’ market, and William Cooper — young, physically rugged, confident in himself and readily winning the confidence of others — easily found the means to buy.

His first known operations as a land promoter were in Pennsylvania: in the Wyoming Valley and as far west as Hanna’s Town, near Pittsburgh. 10 But he had long had his thoughts on a choicer site — the headwaters of the Susquehanna. He had undoubtedly heard his fellow-townsman Richard Smith describe this beautiful wilderness tract stretching west from the shore of Lake Otsego, a spot where General George Washington on a tour in 1783 had had a vision of “the vast inland navigation of these United States.” 11 Cooper’s acquisition of this tract forms a labyrinthine chapter of land and legal history. Some episodes in it are still disputed, and until they can be settled there is little point in repeating the tedious details. 12 George Croghan, “King of the Traders” and Indian scout and agent extraordinary, was the first white man who had sensed the possibilities of the site. He acquired a patent for it in 1769 and came to live at “Foot of the Lake” the same year. Bringing in artisans and using Indians as laborers, he erected several buildings, bridged the Susquehanna where it begins, built a batteau to transport goods brought across the long portage from the Mohawk to the head of the Lake, planted an apple orchard, and advertised in the eastern towns for settlers. “Ever since I gott here to my Hutt,” he wrote Sir William Johnson, “we have been as full of visitors as possible.” 13 This attested widespread interest in the wild lands just being opened up, but {390} Croghan’s plans were premature. He had not counted on a civil war which would deprive him of these and his other vast holdings and which would reduce his “improvements” to ruins as Whig and Tory partisans, Indian war parties, and Continental troops crossed and re-crossed his forest domain during the Revolution.

When William Cooper came in 1786 to settle the Otsego tract, of which he was now the principal or at least the active owner, only Croghan’s hut, a few apple trees, and some decaying log fences remained. More conspicuous were the remnants of the dam General James Clinton’s soldiers had constructed and then broken at the mouth of the Lake in order to float their supplies down the narrow upper reaches of the Susquehanna. None of the other numerous and hopeful pre-Revolutionary settlements south of the Mohawk had survived either. But now that peace had come and the Iroquois had been dispossessed, there were plenty of people eager to settle in the forest lands, including not a few of the troops who had traversed them with General Clinton. Cooper opened the sale of 40,000 acres of land in May 1786; in sixteen days all of it was taken up. 14 This was an auspicious start, but only the merest start. The buyers were mostly of “the poorest order of men,” who expected to pay the seller over a period of years out of earnings from their small parcels of land. If the seller was to make good on his own investment, he had to collaborate fully with the buyers to see that they made good. We know how Cooper did so because he has set forth his principles and methods in A Guide in the Wilderness.

A leading principle was the sale of all lands without the reservation of choice tracts, mill-sites, and the like, on the part of the promoter, “as nothing is more discouraging than any appearance in him of views distinct from the prosperity of the whole; and this would be evident if in the very outset he reserved any part in contemplation of a future advance, at the expense of the labor of the original settlers, to whose advantage these reserved tracts had not contributed.” In {391} further explanation of this equitable principle, Cooper pointed out that in a new settlement “the first difficulties are the greatest, and it is only by combination and cooperation that they can be surmounted. The more the settlers are in number, the more hands can be brought to affect [effect] those works which cannot be executed by a few; such are the making of roads and bridges, and other incidents to the cultivation of the Wilderness, which are impossible to individuals, but which numbers render practicable and easy.” 15

Second, but perhaps even more important, the lands should be sold outright. To the poor settler, who takes up generally 100 acres, the fee-simple of his property should be granted by deed, and the purchase money should be secured by a mortgage. The settler “then feels himself ... as a man upon record. His views extend themselves to his posterity, and he contemplates with pleasure their settlement on the estate he has created; a sentiment ever grateful to the heart of man, his spirit is enlivened, his industry is quickened, every new object he attains brings a new ray of hope and courage; he builds himself a barn and a better habitation, plants his fruit trees, and lays out his garden; ... he no longer feels the weight of debt, for having the fee he can sell at an improved value, nor is he bound to remain against his will.

“Not so if he had been bound by special contracts and conditions, subjecting him to the forfeiture of his land, and with it of his labor. Gloomy apprehensions then seize upon his mind, the bright view of independence is clouded, his habits of thought become sullen and cheerless, and he is unable to soar above the idea of perpetual poverty.

“Thus, by the adoption of a rational plan, it appears that the interest[s] of all parties are made to coincide. The settler sleeps in security, from the certainty of his possession, and the landlord is safe in the mortgage he holds, and the state profits by the success of each, in the increase of its wealth and population.” 16

{392} These are the views of an observer of human nature who was equally shrewd and benevolent and who never tired of pointing out that they provided the only basis for opening new settlements. 17 They were also the views of Thomas Jefferson, who had tried to curb land monopolies in Virginia, and they anticipated the democratic philosophy of the national homestead acts. They were decidedly not in accord with earlier practice in New York as colony and state. In the great baronial estates along the Hudson and westward from there, leasehold tenure and various quasi-feudal obligations kept the tenantry in a state of perpetual dependence on the landlord — a condition that came to a violent end in the Antirent Wars of the 1840’s. No lands settled by Judge Cooper were involved in the Antirent disturbances.

Get large numbers of settlers in and foster their independence — these were Cooper’s leading principles. Another, though he had much to say of it, was less essential. In settling a “trading village” (such as Cooperstown), he believed that the lots should be small, so that the tradesmen and artisans would Stay at their posts. If they held large lots, then “the barber, instead of being in the way of shaving his customers, will be found weeding his onions; ... the watchmaker, who has neglected to repair the farmer’s watch, will think it an excuse that his orchard required his immediate care;” and so on. 18 Here Cooper himself was perhaps indulging in the theorizing that he deprecated in others, for, as the American village evolved, the barber was to hoe onions and the jeweler was to prune fruit trees. But he had been led into this discussion by the remarks of a theorist who held a too idyllic notion of life on the frontier. “You seem to be prepossessed,” Cooper told his correspondent, “with the idea of pleasure and advantage, in mixing rural labours with the exercise of professions, and of the mechanic arts. Such a picture of human life may gratify the imagination, but it is romantic.” 19 So much for ideal communities like that which Coleridge and Southey had planned to establish on the banks of the Susquehanna, in which the adults would labor for a {393} few hours each day and spend the rest of their time in philosophic contemplation and the training of their children. Cooper had had too much experience on the frontier to nurse illusions about such schemes.

After the desperate difficulties of the first few years, Cooper’s own wilderness community began and continued steadily to thrive. Two Dutch land prospectors, Lincklaen and Boon, visited the village in September 1791, and one of them reported: “We found [Mr. Cooper] both frank & sincere, a man of attainments & of a very sound judgment; the place where he lives is situated at the outlet of Lake Otsego, 4 years ago there was only forest, now he counts 30 families who live in wooden houses, among whom are all the mechanics necessary for commencing a settlement, he has already had a Court house built, a Gaol, &c.” 21 His unqualified success led others to solicit his judgment and employ his talents. The family papers show that he acted as agent for dozens of land-owners in the United States and Europe, and that he operated northward to the St. Lawrence and southward to central Pennsylvania.

His handling of his friend Benjamin Rush’s lands in Pennsylvania provides a typical case history. In 1784 Rush acquired a tract of forest land on the Loyal Sock Creek, which runs into the Susquehanna from the west some thirty-five miles above Sunbury. Five years later, after great difficulties in getting the tract surveyed, he commissioned William Cooper to market this land and another tract higher up the river. Early in the following spring (1790) Cooper wrote that some difficulties had been encountered, but that all of them “will be surmounted by spiritedly rushing upon them with a number of people.” 21 This seems to have been his usual method, and it was an effective one. That summer Cooper wrote to Rush as follows:


Coopertown. 7 Mo. 14 1790

Estmd friend

Beniamin Rush:

I am through favour Got Out of the woods, and with Pleasure inform thee that all thy Lands as also those of thy Friends are sold and Under fair way for Settelment. the Dificultys I had to incounter where many, but have firmely Establishd A Settelment   a Mill will be built next summer   Potash works is likewise Contracted for   Deal Gentley and have Patiance with the Settlers and no Doubt but you will find the Obligations for those Lands not a Nominall but of Actual Vallue to their Amount, but I Shall be Under the Nesesity of Visiting them Once A year to hold up to them Such incorragements as may Apear to me Seasonable as it is nesesary to Prune as well as to Plant Especially where So many ill weeds grow as infest the River below tioga   thy lands Near Sugar Creek is taken Up and held by People Claming Under Connecticat   One [?] of them shew a warrentee Deed from Col Wall of Hudson. I have wrote to him on the Subject   Expect his answer wich I shall Shew the with a Copy of Mine. the Man has Paid him ten Shilings pr. acre but apeares to be the most Christianly inclind of Any of those along the River, yet I fully believe the wioming afair Could be Settled Easy by Proper Management   the People in the Bend where of the Same Spirit but they have give Ear to my arguments and Come in to take tiller and Are All on Our Side incorrageing Every One to Doe as they have Done

I’m’ now Buisy in forwarding my Sugar to Albany Expect to be in Philadelphia About the 20ᵗʰ of Augst. Could Say much but am Pinchd for time. only Ad that the Up Lands at Loyall Sock was Eaquall to Recommendation; put the Vallue of the Bottom was not as thee has ben Led to believe Such Reserves as thou wishd. has ben Attended to but not [a] Spot apears to me for a town the flats are hansom but Each Lot Hath three Acres of Mountain to One of Bottom wich is annually Overflowed: but what their is of them is Very firtile indeed being Easy Cleard. inclining to Grass&c And Upon {395} the whole of greater Use in Puting forward the Settelment.

for Other information I refer thee to Samuel Pleasents to whom I have Wrot fully On the Occation

with wishes for thy welfare I remain thy real Friend

had but two minuts to write in

William Cooper 22

Beyond all doubt, the major ingredient in the success of the Otsego community was the landlord’s residence on the site. The poverty of the settlers, the distance to a mill, the lack of roads and bridges, crop failures, the coldness of the northern winters — these would soon have sunk the project had it not been for Cooper’s heroic exertions. In the spring of 1789, for example, a wheat famine reduced the settlers to living on milk, maple sugar and water, and the roots of wild leeks. “The quantity of leeks they eat,” Cooper wrote, “had such an effect upon their breath that they could be smelled at many paces distant, and when they came together it was like cattle that had been pastured in a garlic field. ... Judge of my feelings at this epoch, with two hundred families about me and not a morsel of bread.” 23 Cooper got fish for them from the Susquehanna and 1700 bushels of corn by a special act of the legislature (an early instance of government relief). Year after year he tirelessly collected from the scattered farms such products as pot and pearlash and maple sugar, and hauled them out under the most difficult circumstances in order to get cash enough to keep the community solvent.

There is abundant evidence apart from his own statements to show that Cooper was solicitous for his tenants’ needs, large-hearted in his dealings with them, and, in consequence, immensely popular in the community. He writes to Dr. Rush, for example, about the daughter of a Mr. Jones, “who hath been for 16 weeks Seiz’d with an Acute Pain at Exactly 7 Minutes after Six Every day in her Left Leg.” The physicians at Cooperstown and Ballston Spa have confessed themselves baffled by the ailment; and as Mr. Jones is a “Laborous {396} Useful Honest man — I have become interested in his feelings.” 24 Rush was glad to prescribe. However aristocratic in his politics, the Judge was thoroughly democratic in his manners. His son the novelist recalled his appearance in a few vivid words: “my noble-looking, warmhearted father, with his deep laugh, sweet voice and fine rich eye, as he used to lighten the way with his anecdote and fun.” 25 These jovial qualities, together with his great physical strength, made it easy for Cooper to mingle with the assorted types of a frontier region and yet retain their respect. The Reminiscencesof Levi Beardsley, son of a poor settler at Richfield Springs, furnish a delightful glimpse of the Judge as presiding official at one of the earliest weddings in those parts, held in the log house of Beardsley’s father:

The neighbours were invited, the old pine table was in the middle of the room, on which I recollect was placed a large wooden bowl filled with fried cakes, (nut cakes or dough nuts, as the country people call them.) There might have been something else to constitute the marriage feast, but I do not recollect any thing except a black junk bottle filled with rum; some maple sugar, and water. The judge was in his long riding boots, covered with mud up to his knees, his horse was fed, that he might be off when the ceremony was over; the parties presented themselves, and were soon made man and wife as his “Honor” officially announced. He then gave the bride a good hearty kiss, or rather smack, remarking that he always claimed that as his fee; took a drink of rum, drank health, prosperity and long life to those married, ate a cake or two, declined staying even for supper, said he must be on his way home, and should go to the foot of the lake that night, refused any other fee for his services, mounted his horse and was off; and thus was the first marriage celebrated. 26

The Judge was harmlessly proud of his strength and particularly of his prowess as a wrestler. Beardsley tells an anecdote that may have been generalized from several incidents of the kind that have been reported traditionally:

{397}  A wrestling match was got up, in front of Griffins; where a ring was formed and the parties matched for the contest. Judge Cooper said he was a wrestler himself; and believed he could throw any man in the county; and further, that he wanted to find a man on his patent, who could throw him; remarking, that he would give any one in the company, one hundred acres of land, who would throw him at arms length. Timothy Morse, who I have elsewhere mentioned as a strong man, stepped up and laying his hands on the judge’s shoulder, said “Cooper, I believe I can lay you on your back.” Cooper replied “If you can I will give you one hundred acres.” A ring was formed, and at it they went, and Morse soon brought him to the position indicated. The judge got up and ordered Richard Smith, his clerk, to make out the necessary papers for one hundred acres. 27

With landholding went political responsibilities. William Cooper agreed so whole-heartedly with his friend John Jay’s dictum that “those who own the country are the most fit persons to participate in the government of it” 28 that he probably never thought it necessary to say so. Destined by his economic interests and his social connections to be a Federalist, he gave little thought to political theory. He left that sort of thing to Alexander Hamilton, his good friend and, in Cooper’s opinion, indisputably the greatest American. 29 Cooper himself was more interested in practical political problems: securing legislative support for opening roads or placing a bounty on maple sugar; and, especially and unceasingly, getting Federalist candidates elected to state and national offices.

In February, 1791, Otsego was cut off from Montgomery County, and William Cooper was named presiding judge of common pleas. 31 In the first gubernatorial election held thereafter, Cooper found himself in a hot political battle. He had campaigned so vigorously for Jay against George Clinton that Otsego turned in a thumping Federalist plurality and Cooper won the plaudits of his friends. General Philip Schuyler wrote:

{398}  I believe lasting and prayer to be good but if you had only fasted and prayed I am certain we should not have had seven hundred votes from your county — 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? Whenever you do afford only a few copies to your friends. 31

To the extreme indignation of the Federalists, the Clintonian majority in the legislature threw out the Otsego votes on a technicality and declared Clinton elected by 108 votes. 32 The outcry from the Federalists was equal to their indignation. Cooper planned a descent of outraged citizenry on the legislature at New York. They were to proceed by sloop from Albany, gathering recruits in ale towns along the Hudson and entering New York “with Pompous Parade; for the whole of our prospect is to make the will of the People manifest. ... Remember ‘Little Strokes fell great Oakes — and by hacking in the Right Places the Corrupt Junto will be brought low.” 33

This stratagem failed, but others followed, and at length the Clintonians retaliated by beginning impeachment proceedings against Judge Cooper. For many weary months the legislature heard and deliberated over testimony on Cooper’s electioneering tactics in Otsego. It was deposed that he had coerced his own tenants to vote for Jay, that he had knowingly caused men to vote who were not freeholders, that he had threatened to send a Mr. Cannon to jail if he challenged allegedly illegal voters, and so on. The investigation dragged on until 1794, when, a Federalist majority having come in, it was dismissed. 34

Cooper now turned on his tormentors; specifically on certain of his colleagues on the bench who had supported the investigation or testified against him. On 8 March 1794 he informed the state council of appointment:

{399}  The Almost constant intoxication, extreme ignorance and total want of respectability of a Majority of the Judges and Assistant Justices with whom I have to associate in the Courts of Justice in the County of Otsego render it absolutely necessary that I should resign the office of first Judge of the County aforesaid. 35

This highly unjudicial communication served its purpose. The council being currently Federalist, Cooper’s resignation was declined; the “undignified carrectors” he complained of were supplanted; and the Judge continued to dispense justice, perhaps a little tinged with Federalist principles, in Otsego County until October, 1800.

From 1795 to 1797 and again from 1799 to 1801 Cooper served in Congress. The great issues of those years, as now, were foreign relations and their domestic consequences. In the violent controversy over Jay’s Treaty with England — perhaps the most unpopular treaty ever ratified by the United States — , Cooper was bound by friendship and party ties to support ratification, but he had other reasons for approving the treaty. Democrats might denounce the treaty as a surrender of our liberties on the high seas and elsewhere, but those who foresaw the possibilities of Great Lakes commerce welcomed the prospect of British evacuation of the posts on the Lakes, held since the Revolution despite the provisions of the treaty of 1783. Cooper’s whole speech in Congress favoring ratification was duly printed in Phinney’s new Otsego Herald and Western Observer, but not without some delay. The postmaster at Cherry Valley was Antifederalist, and he contrived to detain the speech until after it could exert any influence on the election then in progress. 36

It was in his support of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 that Cooper came to grief politically. In Otsego County in the last years of the century was enacted a political drama that reflected perfectly, though in miniature, the national contest ending in Federalist collapse and Jeffersonian triumph. The protagonists were Cooper, the Federalist squire par excellence, and Jedidiah [sic, usually spelled Jedediah] Peck, who was so com{400}plete a Jeffersonian democrat as to be almost a caricature of the type. 37 Peck had come from Connecticut in 1790 and settled in Burlington Township, Otsego County. He had been a mariner before the Revolution and a soldier in it. In Otsego he worked as a surveyor and millwright, studied law, was appointed a judge, wrote political tracts, and conducted religious services on request. Beardsley thought him an awkward figure, with his “drawling, nasal, yankee twang” and his saddle-bags “filled with political papers and scraps” that he distributed to all who would listen. 38 But by 1798, when he was elected to the New York assembly, Peck was a political force to be reckoned with and an exceedingly sharp thorn in the flesh of the Federalists. He gave his antagonists their chance when, in the following year, he circulated a petition protesting the Alien and Sedition Acts, which had been designed to curb criticism of the government. In the opinion of Judge Cooper the mere circulation of the petition was seditious, and he summoned a United States marshal from New York to apprehend Peck. The Jeffersonian newspapers gave lurid accounts of Peck’s arrest and transportation in irons to New York. Throngs are said to have assembled in the towns along the way to protest this treatment of a Revolutionary veteran, and Jabez Hammond, an unusually objective early historian, observed of the episode:

A hundred missionaries in the cause of democracy, stationed between New-York and Cooperstown, could not have done so much for the republican cause as this journey of Judge Peck, as a prisoner, from Otsego to the capital of the state. It was nothing less than the public exhibition of a suffering martyr for the freedom of speech and the press, and the right of petitioning. 39

By thus overreaching themselves the Federalists brought on the popular reaction which, added to their own internal dissensions, defeated them in the national election of 1800. With their own candidate beaten, they had, thanks to a defect in the Constitution, one desperate expedient left: to elect Burr instead of Jefferson in the House of Representa{401}tives. The measure of William Cooper’s partisanship is shown by his exertions as a member of the House to put Burr in office. As early as 8 January 1801 Stephen Van Rensselaer wrote Cooper to say that Hamilton had come out for Jefferson as against Burr. 41 Cooper felt otherwise. Among many matters that are still doubtful regarding this famous contest, it seems fairly clear that Cooper had had some kind of understanding with Burr and contemplated the prospect of his presidency without distaste. This may be gathered from two letters Cooper wrote while the balloting was in progress; the purport of them is that Burr has been foolish not to speak out so that other members will adhere to him as faithfully as the writer intends to do. 41

The plan of the Burrite junto having failed, Cooper retired from public office for good. The school of politics in which he had been trained was a rough one, and he himself invented a name for it that deserves to be remembered. Addressing his successor in Congress, he asked:

why are you not at the post of duty, of Honour, of danger, of Every thing that is disquieting to a man whose views are honest, of Everything that is instructive to the man who wishes to learn the art of, Hook & Snivery — if there is such a word, or if their is not, I now make it. 42

Cooper himself excelled in a related political art that was locally known as “cowskinning.” The Hen. James Cochran of Oswego, whom Cooper had defeated in the congressional election of 1799, rode over after the election to administer such a skinning to Cooper. The rest of the story is summarized in the following affidavit:

Otsego County, ss.

Personally appeared Stephens Ingalls, one of the constables of the said town of Otsego, and being duly sworn, deposeth and saith, that he was present at the close of a bruising match between James Cochran, Esq. and William Cooper, Esq. on or about the sixteenth of October last, when the said James Cochran confessed to the said William Cooper these words: “I acknowl{402}edge you are too much of a buffer for me,” at which time it was understood, as this deponent conceives, that Cochran was confessedly beaten.

Sworn before me this sixth day of November, 1799.

Joshua Dewey, Justice of the Peace. 43

Stephen Ingals

Judge Cooper was to meet his death in consequence of a later scuffle, which took place outside Lewis’ Tavern in Albany after a political meeting late in 1809. The details are unrecorded, the Albany and Cooperstown newspapers providing only conventional notices of the death of an eminent citizen. But family tradition states that Cooper was struck down by a blow on the head, delivered from behind, and that he caught pneumonia and died soon afterward. He was buried in Christ Church yard, Cooperstown, 30 December 1809. 44

In some respects Cooper was fortunate in dying when he did. His work as a promoter of frontier settlements had been done, and very well done. The political party he continued to serve had outlasted its usefulness, and the social order it represented was doomed. The triumph of Judge Peck’s principles over Judge Cooper’s was signalized by the abolition of the property qualification for suffrage in the state constitutional convention of 1821. In the debate on this issue during the convention, Chancellor Kent had opposed this “dangerous innovation,” declaring that “To the beneficence and liberality of those who have property, we owe all the embellishments and the comforts and blessings of life.” 45 Judge Cooper would have applauded this speech by his friend the learned jurist, and Cooper’s son James Fenimore lived to see (as he believed) the engulfment of “the embellishments and the comforts and blessings of life” by a raw democracy.

In his time Judge Cooper had bestowed the good things of life on his family with a lavish hand. Otsego Hall, a {403} baronial residence built hard by a council place used by the Indians only a few years earlier, epitomized the mingled elegance and crudity of youthful America. The principal room was heated by a large tin-plate stove which stood in the center, and in the pediments over the doorways stood plaster-of-paris busts of Homer, Dido, Shakespeare, Franklin, Washington, and another who was variously supposed to be Julius Caesar or Doctor Faustus. 46 All this did not wholly reconcile the Judge’s high-bred wife to the northern wilderness, whither she had been bought almost by main force; 47 but surviving correspondence shows that happiness, health, and affection prevailed to an unusual degree among the large family circle at the Hall. The tenderness of William Cooper’s feelings toward his children is well illustrated by his relations with his eldest daughter, Hannah. 48 She was a girl of remarkable attractiveness both in person and character and the chosen companion of her father during his political sojourns in Philadelphia. In September 1800 she was thrown from her horse and instantly killed; a monument erected by admirers marks the place of the accident to this day on State Highway 8 [sic, should read 51], north of Gilbertsville. Cooper himself composed the lines for her gravestone in Christ Church yard, which begin:

Adieu! thou Gentle, Pious, Spotless, Fair,  Thou more than daughter of my fondest care.

Beneath the hackneyed words and form of this mortuary verse a father’s desolation can be clearly read. No name accompanied the inscription, and Cooper has been proved right in supposing that none was necessary.

The striking fact is that he attempted to compose a poem at all. But out of the strong comes forth sweetness. William Cooper’s character was made up of sharp and unexpected contrasts. From youthful poverty he rose within a few years, solely through his own efforts, to affluence, and at his death left one of the largest fortunes in America. Small wonder that he represented, as a recent writer has said, “a curious {404} mixture of silk hose and leather stockings.” 49 Unschooled, he was endowed with remarkable powers of expression and wrote an irreplaceable small classic of American descriptive literature. Most of those who know it are inclined to prefer the simple and vigorous prose of A Guide in the Wilderness to the highly literary prose of Fenimore Cooper’s romances. To his political adversaries Judge Cooper must have seemed and no doubt was a hard man. Yet he was irrepressibly good-humored and fond of fun, and his hospitality to all who made their way to his settlement became legendary. 51 Though a model aristocrat of the Hamiltonian school, Cooper differed sharply with his fellow landlords on land tenure, and by insisting on fee-simple conveyances furthered the Jeffersonian cause in his own time and contributed to the Jacksonian revolution of the 1830’s. So shrewd in his dealings that he could make money out of properties that had served only to bankrupt earlier promoters, he was at the same time guided by a humane and patriotic vision — the vision of a peaceful and smiling land inhabited by freeholders owing homage to none. To the end, as his great-grandson wrote a few years ago, Judge Cooper’s heart was with his settlers. His will contains this characteristic injunction:

As I have influenced many families to settle in new places on my land, where numerous difficulties do, and for many years to come, must prevent their paying with that punctuality that is reasonably expected from other settlements where all the conveniences of living are easily obtained, I therefore wish my heirs will deal tenderly with all such infant settlements. I wish, and advise, this mode of proceeding because, by experience, I have found it the most advantageous and satisfactory to myself. 51

The more we learn about William Cooper, the greater stature he acquires.


1 A Guide in the Wilderness or the History of the First Settlements in the Western Counties of New York ... , reprinted and edited by James Fenimore Cooper, Cooperstown, N.Y., 1936 (reprint first issued in 1897), p. 9 [reprinted in facsimile 1986]. The Guidewas originally published posthumously at Dublin in 1810, its instigator and the addressee of the letters of which it is composed being William Sampson, an Irish political exile who from 1806 practised law in New York City. There are accounts of Sampson in both the Dictionary of National Biographyand the Dictionary of American Biography. The Dublin edition is exceedingly rare: it is not listed in Sabin’s Dictionary, and the National Union Catalog in the Library of Congress locates only three copies in the United States (Harvard College Library, Oberlin College Library, and Western Reserve Historical Society). The editor of the reprint, who was the grandson of the novelist of the same name, relates that the copy that has come down in the Cooper family was purchased by his grandfather, son of William Cooper, from a fellow-passenger who was reading it on a voyage from Europe to the United States in 1834 (James Fenimore Cooper, Reminiscences of Mid-Victorian Cooperstown, Cooperstown, N.Y., 1936, p. 18 [reprinted Cooperstown: Smithy-Pioneer Gallery Publications, 1986]; hereafter cited as Reminiscences).

2 A Guide in the Wilderness, p. 8-9.

3 James Fenimore Cooper (grandson of the novelist), The Legends and Traditions of a Northern County, Cooperstown, N.Y., 1936 (originally published 1921, and hereafter cited as Legends end Traditions), p. 227.

4 From these records, consisting of several thousand letters, legal documents, ledgers, maps, and miscellaneous family papers, Fenimore Cooper the novelist drew materials for his Chronicles of Cooperstown, first published in 1838, and his namesake, the late Mr. Cooper, prepared the informative essays on Judge Cooper that appear in his Legends and Traditionsand Reminiscences, as well as the admirable introduction to the reprint editions of A Guide in the Wilderness. The Cooper Family Papers are now in the custody of Mr. Paul Fenimore Cooper of Cooperstown and New York, who has generously given the present writer free access to them. Arrangement of the papers has been commenced, preparatory to compiling and publishing a calendar of the entire archive. [Note: Of these papers, those relating to William Cooper are now at Hartwick College, Oneonta, N.Y., and those relating to James Fenimore Cooper at the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, MA.]

5 See W. W. Cooper, ” Cooper Genealogy,” New York State Historical Association, Proceedings, XVI (1917), 193-211 Compiled in 1879, this is an unusually well-documented genealogical contribution.

6 Letter dated 5 July 1836 (Correspondence of James Fenimore-Cooper, edited by his grandson, James Fenimore Cooper, New Haven, 1922, I, 863).

7 Joseph C. Martindale, A History of the Townships of Byberry and Moreland, in Philadelphia, Pa., Philadelphia, 1867, p. 226-27. The quotations that follow are taken from the same account of Cooper’s early life.

8 Ibid, p. 227; James Fenimore Cooper to Mrs. Cooper, 5 July 1886, cited in note 6, above; George DeCou, Burlington: A Provincial Capital, Philadelphia, 1945, p. 115-16, with photograph of the Cooper house in Burlington, facing p. 112.

9 Smith’s highly informative journal of his trip to Otsego has been edited by Francis W. Halsey under the title of A Tour of Four Great Rivers, N.Y., 1906 [reprinted, Port Washington, NY: Ira J. Friedman, Inc., 1964].

10 Reminiscences, p. 49-44; William Cooper to Benjamin Rush, 12 Sept. 1784, in Library Company of Philadelphia, Rush MSS., vol. 26, fol. 39.

11 Washington to the Chevalier de Chastellux, 12 Oct. 1783 (Washington, Writings, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick, Washington, 1931-44, XXVII, 189-90).

12 See Fenimore Cooper’s Chronicles of Cooperstown, reprinted in The Preeman’s Journal Company, A History of Cooperstown, Cooperstown, N. Y., 1929, p. 6-9 [reprinted Cooperstown: New York State Historical Association, History of Cooperstown, 1976]; Albert T. Volwiler, “George Croghan and the Development of Central New York, 1769-1800,” New York State Historical Association, Quarterly Journal, IV (1925), 21-41; James Fenimore Cooper, ” William Cooper and Andrew Craig’s Purchase of Croghan’s Land, ibid, XII (1931), 390-96.

13 Letter dated 17 March 1770 (quoted in Volwiler, “George Croghan,” p 29). For Croghan at Otsego Lake, see also Volwiler’s monograph, George Croghan and the Westward Movement, 1741-1782, Cleveland, 1926, p. 252-54.

14 A Guide in the Wilderness, p. 9.

15 Ibid, p. 5.

16 Ibid., p. 7-8.

17 E.g., in a letter to Charles J. Evans, 3 Aug. 1790, printed in Legends and Traditions, p. 121-22; and to Gouverneur Morris, 18 Nov. 1804 on the handling of a property belonging to Jacques Necker, formerly French minister of finance. The contracts desired by Necker, says Cooper, will negate the whole undertaking: “These 18 years Past I have with good success been employed in settling new Lands, never deviating from one Plan, which has always secured the Consideration money and facilitated the Settlements — those that become adventurers under me expect the Usual mode to be adopted. Those forms might be acceded to by Settlers where there was a situation and soil Pecularly inviting, but Mr. Necker’s Lands run from 25 to 95 Miles back from the Saint Lawrence, and altho Valuable, Can only be settled by the advice and Tender Dealing of the Proprietor. Securing them in the fee and allowing them to Build, Clear and Improve according to their abilities, having no other obligation on their Part but the Payment of the Money or kind as stipulated. With this encouragement the man works with Spirit, knowing that he has the Right to Sell if he Cannot Pay himself, and seldom fails to Erect a good house and barn, to have a Proper portion of woodland, to Erect good fences, &c. all because it is his own save Paying for it. The Reverse is always Conspicuous where the tenant is shackled with many Stipulations and Obligations — if you would Honor us with a Visit in Otsego, you would see the difference between two Extensive Patents Settled on the two Plans — one is a nest of Beggars and Thieves — the other has every Mark of wealth about it” (Cooper Family Papers).

18 A Guide in the Wilderness, p. 18.

19 Ibid., p. 20-21.

20 John Lincklaen, Travels in the Years 1791 and 1792 in Pennsylvania, New York and Vermont, N.Y., and London, 1897, p. 72-78. The principal mission of these prospectors was to find and purchase a large tract on which they could produce maple sugar in great quantities. Cooper, together with other landholders and certain Philadelphians (Benjamin Rush, Henry Drinker, Tench Coxe), was intensely interested in promoting the manufacture of maple sugar. A number of documents in the Cooper Family Papers relate to this campaign, in which the promoters interested Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, and George Clinton. The present writer plans to tell the diverting story of the ‘maple sugar bubble’ of 1788-1793 in a separate article.

21 March 1790 (Libr. Co. Phila., Rush MSS., vol. 26, fol. 42).

22 Libr. Co. Phila., Rush MSS., vol. 32, fol. 100. A postscript in another hand is here omitted.

23 A Guide in the Wilderness, p. 10-11.

24 17 Aug. 1795 (Libr. Co. Phila., Rush MSS., vol. 24, fol. 46).

25 Correspondence of James Fenimore-Cooper, I, 340.

26 Levi Beardsley, Reminiscences; Personal and Other Incidents; Early Settlement of Otsego County ... , N.Y., 1852, p. 51. For a similar anecdote, see Legends and Traditions, p. 8-9.

27 Beardsley, Reminiscences, p. 59-54.

28 Jay to William Wilberforce, 25 Oct. 1810 (quoted in Dixon Ryan Fox, The Decline of Aristocracy in the Politics of New York, N.Y., 1919, p.9).

29 In a letter to John B. Church, 9 Aug. 1804, Cooper pledged generous support to a fund being raised to defray the debts of Hamilton, “the greatest and best of men America had to boast of, or Lament for” (Cooper Family Papers).

30 Cooper announced this event to his friend Rush in the following characteristic language: “In Reward for my industry in this Late wilderness Part of the state the Legislature has at my request Set of a County for the most Part Setteled by my Selfe Containing about 8 or ten thousand inhabitants. the Prison and Court house to be Built at Cooperstown this Sumer, by this thow wilt Perceive Dear Docktor that fortune Continues to Smile on my Labours and why not Seeing that I have not Only Delt fairly but Also Honestly Exerted my Selfe and that without Ceasing to facillitate those Whome I have Planted in Every way that apeard to me advantagous and have for my Pay the Answer of a good Consiance together with the sanction of the Publick” (12 March 1791; Libr. Co. Phila., Rush MSS., vol. 26, fol. 44).

31 7 May 1792 (Cooper Family Papers). On 2 May, Cooper had written to Stephen Van Rensselaer as follows: “My settlement gave 585 sollid licks for Jay & would have given 800 had it not been for a child that was lost in the woods that took all the inhabitants of Burlington town on the west end of my Settlement to search for it & of course could not vote. ... I am preparing to illuminate as well the town as the lake on which we shall raise Bonfires on Platforms, cannonading, musick, Horns & Conche Shells; turn out all the wine in my cellar &c. on Jays Election. Huza for our side at last — but if Clinton succeeds, I must hang up my fiddle” (Cooper Family Papers).

32 On the disputed election of 1792 see Matthew L. Davis, Memoirs of Aaron Burr, N.Y., 1836, I, 331-55; Jabez D. Hammond, The History of Political Parties in the State of New-York, Cooperstown, 1846, I, ch. III.

33 Cooper to Stephen Van Rensselaer, 7 Oct. 1792 (Cooper Family Papers).

34 Hammond, History of Political Parties, I, 76ff.; Fox, Decline of Aristocracy, p. 140-141.

35 Cooper Family Papers.

36 So Benjamin Gilbert informed Cooper in a letter dated 10 May 1796 (Cooper Family Papers).

37 See Sherman Williams, “Jedidiah Peck, the Father of the Public School System of the State of New York,” New York State Historical Association, Proceedings, XVIII (1920), 219-40; Throop Wilder, “Jedidiah Peck: Statesman, Soldier, Preacher,” New York History, XXII (1941), 290-300.

38 Beardsley, Reminiscences, p. 72.

39 History of Political Parties, I, 192.

40 Letter in Cooper Family Papers.

41 Cooper to Thomas Morris, 10 Feb. and 13 Feb. 1801 (Davis, Memoirs of Burr, II, 112-13).

42 To Benjamin Walker, 6 Jan. 1802 (Legends and Traditions, p. 154-5).

43 A Guide in the Wilderness, p. vii. On this incident see also Beardsley’s Reminiscences, p. 89-90, and a letter from John Frederick Ernst to his son, 2O Oct. 1799, quoted in Ralph Birdsall, The Story of Cooperstown, N.Y., 1925 [latest reprint, 1948], p. 99-100.

44 His death had occurred on 22 December. See Albany Balance, 26 Dec. 1809; Reminiscences, p. 56.

45 Hammond, History of Political Parties, II, 30.

46 Fenimore Cooper’s description of Otsego Hall, printed in his grandson’s Legends and Traditions, p. 201; also The Pioneers (1823), ch. V, which contains a description of the interior of the Hall, said by Cooper to be strictly faithful in its details.

47 On her see especially Fenimore Cooper’s Chronicles of Cooperstown (edition cited in note 12, above), p. 11; and Legends and Traditions, p. 132 189, 228.

48 There is much information on Hannah and her tragic death in Legends and Traditions, p. 55-65, 149-58, 203-04, in part drawn from her commonplace book, preserved in the Cooper Family Papers. A charming letter from her to a Philadelphia friend, Catherine (Wistar) Bache, 29 Sept. 1799, playfully complains of her exile in “these Northern forests” (Princeton University Library, Bache Family Papers).

49 James Melvin Lee, in his article on William Cooper in the Dictionary of American Biography.

50 “I have often heard my father say that hospitality is not a virtue in a new country, the favor being conferred by the guest” — Elizabeth Temple, in The Pioneers, ch. XII.

51 Reminiscences, p. 56.

* L[yman] H. Butterfield graduated from Harvard, did graduate work and taught English there for some years before going to Franklin and Marshall College, where he taught English and American literature. Since 1946 he has served as assistant editor of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson at Princeton University. The first of fifty projected volumes of this definitive edition of Jefferson is scheduled for publication early in 1950. For the occasion of the presentation of this paper, see note p. 473 [which notes that this paper was first given on June 25, 1949, at a Butterfield family reunion at the old Butterfield “White House” in Hartwick, New York, celebrating the opening of its Library. The family included many historians, including Lyman’s father, Roy P. Butterfield, and his brother Roger Butterfield, and Roger’s wife Ethelind Munroe Butterfield. — Editor of online version]