Troskolaski and Cooper

James Taylor Dunn, Librarian (New York State Historical Association)

Published in New York History, Vol. XXX, No. 2 (April 1949), pp. 253-256.

Placed online with its kind permission of the New York State Historical Association.

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

Newspapers and magazines throughout the country have of late been featuring the arrival in New York of numerous Displaced Persons from Europe, individuals and families seeking a new life and an escape from the oppression of tyrants.

A recently discovered thirteen-page manuscript, written over a hundred years ago, is now in the Association`s library. It was written by just such a Displaced Person of another generation — a Pole who fled his country and the Russians in 1834 and whose name is remembered today only because when he stepped off the boat in New York, he had in his pocket as his one safeguard for the future a letter of introduction to James Fenimore Cooper. The manuscript was written at Hartwick Seminary. near Cooperstown, and is dated May 27, 1835.

Joseph Troskolaski, according to this manuscript, participated in the abortive Polish revolution of 1830, was captured by the Russians and spent ten months in Prison. With money secretly provided by his sister, he furnished the guards with sufficient wine and brandy to effect his escape when they were in it drunken stupor. Dressed as a woman and seeking refuge with an uncle in Austria, he eventually was taken by the Austrian authorities and imprisoned in Trieste where he was allowed a passport to England. On March 24, 1834, he and a companion landed at Liverpool and through this friend he made the acquaintance of James de Peyster Ogden, American merchant who at that time was United States Consul at Liverpool. Ogden advised Troskolaski to go to the United States and proceeded not only to make arrangements but also to pay all expenses and to furnish him with a letter of recommendation to Cooper in New York City.

This Polish refugee wasted no time when he reached New York. He presented Ogden’s letter immediately to Cooper. “While he was reading it,” the account says, “I could discover something humane in his face and very compassionate in his Continance.” This first interview was a short one. Cooper offered him a drink which he was unable to consume because of his “trouble of mind.” Troskolaski returned to the Cooper house again the next morning. Since the Pole could speak no English and no French, Cooper had to call in his daughter, undoubtedly Susan, as interpreter for the smattering of German Troskolaski knew. Between them the following con{254}versation took place: “She asked me what I intended to do. I begged her to tell Mr C. to advise me and Instructed [instruct] me what was best for me to do, she then asked me what I Could do. This question I Could not answer because I did not understande any of the business in this Country, I was no mechanic nor had I learnt any profesion neither this nor that except at Literary and Military Academy. She then asked me whether I would like to live in the Country. ... I told her it makes no difference to me whether I live in the Country or in a City; but what shall I do in the Country? She answered Oh we will find something to do, be not Concerned about that says she. I was very thancful to Her for these feelings and kindenes to mee: after this Conversation Mr Cooper gave me a letter to the Gentlemen of Cooperstown and Instructed me how I might get there. He paid the expenses of my pasage in the steambot and stage, when I came to Cooperstown and called upon the Gentlemen and showed him the letter the Gentlemen sent me from one to another (as the Jues sent Jesus from Hannas to Caiaphas etc) So I went from one Gentlemen to another. At last I called at Mr. Morehouse 1 and showing him this letter, he took and read it he said something to me which [I] did not understand, as [I] was unacquainted with the Language, at that time; I could only make him anderstand that I wanted rest because I was very fatigued. Conversetion with him detained me long before I could make him anderstand that I wanted rest and a Boarding House, when he at last anderstood what I ment he wrote to Mr H: the Tavern keeper, whom he requested to Board me.”

Troskolaski, having no money, was of course unable to pay the bill at this tavern. He went to another Cooperstown resident, John H. Prentiss, 2 and was told to await Mr. Cooper’s return New York. This solution was a poor one, for the Pole brought up the point that in the meantime he did have to eat, and that if he couldn’t get money with which to pay his board, he threatened to commit suicide. “If Mr P: had only left me for a few minutes I should have killed myself, but be dissuaded mee and watched mee he walked with me all that day.”

On the following day Frederick A. Lee 3 came and took Troskolaski to his store where he began to teach him English. “I rejoiced and gave thanks to God for his mercy open me for giving me this one Friend who ... took the trouble to teach me ABC.” This was only temporary. Lee and Prentiss got together and arranged for the refugee to attend Hartwick Seminary, south of Cooperstown. The seminary, however, did not please Troskolaski and he kept worrying not only about his unhappy past but also about the cheerless prospects for his future. Sam{255}uel Cooper kept his uncle informed about Troskolaski. In a letter written from Cooperstown on November 3, 1834, he reported, “Troskolaski continues his school and I think he improves in his studys. He still continues to fret keeping up his “O dear, dear, I do not know what I mak no money no cant do nothing. Damn.” 4 He soon left Hartwick and returned to Cooperstown where he headed immediately for Otsego Hall, the Cooper residence. “I began to beg him [Cooper] and ask him what I should do in this Country; since I found the heart of people so very Cold to me and without humanity.” Cooper did not have the answer, but he did say that the most important thing was first of all to learn the English language. 5 Again the villagers came to his aid. The men furnished him with clothes and the women with “kind efforts.” Troskolaski was thankful for all these acts of friendliness, but he was still not satisfied. He seriously considered returning to Poland to fight Russia. 6

“Will you Sir,” he had written Cooper, “please find me place I want Cloak Store Mr. Richerdson not like school any more and I don’t know what I shall do here, Mr Lee will not take me in his stores he thinks I had better make tailor or Hatter. Polish men not tailor or Hatter.” 7 Cooper sent him to E. D. Richardson who took Troskolaski for five months, helped him in his English and undoubtedly had the refugee assist in the Cooperstown mercantile firm he owned.

Learning the English language was at first very difficult. But when he was able both to talk and read it, his circle of acquaintances began to widen and he received invitations into society. Troskolaski speaks especially of John M. Bowers 8 and his wife’s mother, charming Mrs. Martha Stewart Wilson. 9 “Mrs. Wilson grand Mother to family of Mr B. was my best friend That Lady did more for me than any one else, nay if my Father and Mother were to rise from the Cold graves they Could not do me more good than Mrs W. how Can I pay her for her Kindness to me?”

That is the end of the autobiographical sketch. But there is still more to the story. In a letter from Albany dated May 1, 1836, now at the Yale University Library, Troskolaski tells Cooper that he left Cooperstown on the 8ᵗʰ of April and got a job, at one dollar a day, in an Albany “Engineer party.” He complains of the work, however, asks advice and appeals to Cooper for help in finding some other situation. In June, 1837, Troskolaski wrote from Boonviile complaining he had received no answer to his last letter. The refugee had been in business there for about a year, but he was making plans to move either West or South. Cooper responded to this letter with a note of intro{256}duction to a friend in Buffalo. Troskolaski travelled on to Buffalo where he could find no work. He left for Upper Canada, from there moved on to Detroit and then west to Chicago where he worked on the Canal for two months. When the winter of 1838 set in, he turned south.The last letter Troskolaski wrote Cooper is dated March 19, 1842, and postmarked in Natchez, Mississippi. Here he had been County Surveyor and City Engineer for the previous two years, but was again thinking of moving. 10

“I sinserly hope you will use your endeavour to assist me this once,” he wrote. “l have received many favours from you for which I will ever feel greatfull.”

In an Adams County, Mississippi Record Book there are two maps drawn by Troskolaski and signed by him as City Surveyor. One of them was recorded on January 10, 1843. 11 No further mention of Joseph Troskolasky, Polish refugee, can be found.


1 Eben B. Morehouse, lawyer and judge, built the handsome stone dwelling “Woodside” in Cooperstown.

2 John H. Prentiss, for 41 years editor of the Freeman’s Journal, settled in Cooperstown in 1808. Mr. H. the tavern keeper was Col. Francis Henry.

3 Frederick A. Lee, Cooperstown merchant, owned a prosperous general store.

4 Correspondence of James Fenimore Cooper, New Haven, Yale University, 1922, v. 1, p. 345-6.

5 Troskolaski to Cooper, Oct. 18, 1834 (Yale University Library). [Note: this footnote not located in the text as published; we have guessed where it belonged]

6 Troskolaski to Cooper, Nov. 14, 1834 (Yale University Library).

7 Troskolaski to Cooper, Nov. 26, 1834 (Yale University Library) in Correspondence of James Fenimore Cooper, New Haven, Yale University, 1922, v. 1, p. 346.

8 John Myer Bowers, farmer, moved to Cooperstown from New York and built the house “Lakelands” in 1804.

9 Martha Stewart Wilson, mother-in-law of J.M. Bowers, was a close friend of the George Washingtons. Born in New Jersey in 1757, she spent the years 1808-1852 in Cooperstown where she died.

10 All these letters are in The Library at Yale University.

11 Information supplied by Mrs. R. Brent Forman, Adams County Assessor, Natchez.