Cooper’s Inheritance: The Otsego Country and its Founders
Published as New York History, Vol. 35, No. 4 (October, 1954), pp. 374-411 (Special Issue — James Fenimore Cooper: A Re-Appraisal).
Papers from the 1951 James Fenimore Cooper Conference Cooperstown, New York.
Copyright © 1954, New York State Historical Association.
Placed online with the kind permission of the New York State Historical Association.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
“I see times be altering in these mountains from what they was thirty years ago, or, for that matter, ten years.”
— Natty Bumppo, in The Pioneers
OTSEGO COUNTY, which was largely settled through the efforts of that genius in land speculation William Cooper, and which was Fenimore Cooper’s home in boyhood and later life and the setting for some of his best-remembered books, lies, buskin-shaped, in east central New York State. The topography of the county is dryly described in an early gazetteer: “Its surface is a hilly upland, divided into several ridges separated by deep, broad valleys. The declivities are generally gradual; and the highest summits are 400 to 700 ft. above the valleys and 1,700 to 2,000 ft. above tide. The ridges have a general N.E. and S.W. direction.” The same account goes on to mention the principal streams, from Cherry Valley and Schenevus Creeks in the east, Otego and Oaks Creek in the central section, and Butternuts and Wharton Creeks further west, to the Unadilla River, which forms the boundary between Otsego and Chenango Counties. “Otsego Lake, in the N.E. part, is a fine sheet of water 8 mi. long and about 1 mi. broad.”
Thus the gazetteer on the “Glimmerglass” of the Leatherstocking tales and on the headwaters of the Susquehanna, “a river to which,” said the author of those tales, “the Atlantic herself has extended an arm in welcome.” Considering the amount of descriptive talent lavished on the region by travelers, poets, novelists, and the innumerable anniversary speakers who have preceded me, I am willing to let this matter-of-fact description stand. To grasp even slightly the charm that the Otsego country exercises on those who have known it requires ocular evidence; and to grasp that charm at all adequately requires some knowledge of its history.
The region had had history aplenty before William Cooper in the fall of 1790 brought his family, including a one-year-old son named James, from Burlington, N. J. to the little settlement then indifferently called Otsego, Foot of the Lake, or Cooperstown (Cooperstown, Coopers Town). The lake itself (marked only as a site of “canomakers”) and the streams forming the headwaters of the Susquehanna first appear on maps published in Amsterdam about 1650, suggesting that energetic Dutch traders had probably already made the Hudson- Mohawk-Susquehanna-Delaware circuit that fired the imagination of promoters of inland navigation for almost two centuries thereafter. The Dutch themselves, however, having their eyes on the fur trade, discouraged settlement on the frontier. The influence of the Albany traders remained ascendant long after the province became English, and it was not until well into the next century that the first prongs of settlement were pushed through the wilderness toward the Otsego country. This was Iroquois country of course; until the Revolution the Lower Castle of the Mohawks was at Fort Hunter, less than forty miles west of Albany. So long as French power in the north and west remained unbroken — and during this period it throve and expanded — the good will of the Six Nations, long the voluntary wards of the English, had to be preserved. The primary purpose of the great conference at Albany in 1754, as a war to the death with New France loomed, was to “strengthen and brighten the chain of friendship” with the Iroquois and to placate them for their losses.in lands being taken up in enormous quantities by crown officials and their understrappers during the 1730’s and 40’s.
The great patents of this period in the interior of the province had not, as a matter of fact, promoted settlement, but in general had had a contrary effect. The speculators who held them had ideas of baronial grandeur, insisting on leases rather than sales in fee simple and reserving the choicest sites for their own use, and they thus drove off the poor but independent settlers to colonies where more liberal land policies prevailed. An exception to this trend was the first settlement in present Otsego County, that at “Lindesay’s Bush” or Cherry Valley. The project was planned by Lieutenant Governor George Clarke, land speculator extraordinary; and it was carried out by an agent of Clarke’s, John Lindesay. The patent was taken out in 1738; by 1741 a number of families were established in the clearings and making improvements. These earliest settlers were Scotch-Irish, drawn largely from a larger colony of Scotch-Irish in Londonderry, N. H. One of their leaders was Samuel Dunlop, a Presbyterian clergyman, who in the 1740’s established a “classical school” attended by boys from Albany, Schenectady, and the scattering western settlements along the Mohawk. Thus the classics reached the most northerly source of the Susquehanna before mid-century.
That other instrument of white civilization — the gospel — had already reached and passed well down the Susquehanna. Probably the earliest Protestant mission to the Oneida and Tuscarora Indians at Oghwaga, near present Windsor (Broome County), dates from 1745, but the first of which we have much knowledge was that of Gideon Hawley, sent out in 1753 with equal blessings by Jonathan Edwards from his larger mission at Stockbridge, Mass., and by crown officials, who had heard that Jesuit missionaries had been active and successful among the Iroquois. We know about Hawley’s mission because he wrote a narrative that tells in edifying detail how he crossed the hills, on a trail “obstructed by fallen trees, old logs, miry places, pointed rocks, and entangling roots,” from Schoharie Creek to the Susquehanna. The party was guided by a “fellow named Pallas, a vagrant Indian, whose company we had reason to regret, but could not refuse.” Upon entering the Susquehanna, probably near the mouth of Schenevus Creek, the missionaries encountered a German named George Winedecker, who had come from the Mohawk via Otsego Lake, with goods and rum in a small batteau, on a trading voyage. They all went on together, and the effects of Windecker’s rum were soon apparent. Stopping that night in an Indian village, the missionaries were awakened by Indians howling over their dead, and found “the whole village agitated,” with the women secreting their husbands’ guns and hatchets. After starting off next morning, Pallas amused himself by shooting from the boat at ducks behind Hawley’s back. Being drunk, he missed Hawley by very little, which inspired in the latter “such feelings and affections, that we immediately landed on the west bank of the river; and passed the day in pensive and silent recollection, and such meditations as were natural to men in our situation.” It would be difficult to symbolize more effectively than Hawley’s narrative does the interplay of the white man’s two gifts to the Indians — firewater and the gospel.
The great military marches of the French War by-passed the Otsego country. The war came as near as German Flats, however, where the inhabitants were massacred and their buildings burned by a force sent out by Vaudreuil in November 1757. The terror-stricken settlers at Cherry Valley sent their valuables back to Schenectady and Albany, and the incident discouraged any possibility of settlement in the surrounding region for some years.
By 1761, after the French posts at Oswego and Niagara had fallen, one of the strangest of all adventures in wilderness colonizing was being attempted in Otsego County. This was the plan of the German pastor John Christopher Hartwick to establish a Lutheran City of God in the Otsego forest. Hartwick, who had preached from Virginia to Maine, though never long in one spot, was uncouth and crotchety, but he won the confidence of the Mohawks among whom he labored and in 1754 obtained a deed from them signed by King Hendrick himself for a large tract. Its outlines were roughly the township later named for him in Otsego County. The tract was patented in 1761, and soon afterward the Dominie attempted a settlement on or near the site of Cooperstown, but gave it up when he found that his property did not extend to the lake. Hartwick made no further attempts to found a theocratic community during his lifetime, but his will — a labyrinthine document in which, he had been plainly told, hardly a clause would hold in a court of law — elaborated his whole grand plan. The will named Jesus Christ as heir but appointed as executors a well-to-do Albany man of affairs and several capable Lutheran clergymen. Hartwick’s estate was to be devoted to erecting a “Gymnasium Evangelicam Ministeriale pro Propagatione Evangelico Christianae Religionis inter Gentiles” (i.e., a school for training missionaries to red and black heathen) and “a regular Town Close build ... to be called New Jerusalem.” In a series of codicils Hartwick set forth in detail the curriculum, nature of discipline, etc., in the school. Having, on the whole, been less successful in his dealings with whites than with his Indian friends, and having had to turn over much of his land to a shrewder operator than he (namely Judge William Cooper), Hartwick left funds inadequate for his great design. Nevertheless, the school was begun, at least nominally, very soon after his death, and in 1815 Hartwick Seminary opened its doors in the village so named a few miles south of Cooperstown. It was long the only institution of higher learning in the county, and Hartwick’s name has thereby been justly and well preserved.
Despite the Indians’ reluctance to part with more of their hunting grounds, despite nominal government support of the Indians’ position, and despite fear of the French, some other land was taken up in Otsego in the middle decades of the century. In 1755 David Schuyler, mayor of Albany and a member of the governor’s council, patented 43,000 acres north, west, and south of Canadarago (or Schuyler’s) Lake. George Clarke, who held numerous tracts in other parts of the colony, continued his interest in the Otsego region. Clarke himself returned to England in 1745, but his English heirs (who succeeded in retaining his holdings after litigation that lasted well into the 19ᵗʰ century) ultimately controlled large tracts lying to the north and east of Otsego Lake. On one of these, at the north end of the lake, a great grandson of Clarke’s who bore the same name built Hyde Hall between 1811 and 1833. This magnificent Greek Revival mansion, designed by Philip Hooker and surrounded by park and forest lands like the great country houses of England, was and remains something of an anomaly in the Otsego countryside; but it is a monument impressive and interesting in itself and a symbol of the first George Clarke’s dreams of baronial splendor.
No greater contrast could be imagined than that between Governor Clarke and the man who made the first white settlement at the southern end of Lake Otsego; George Croghan, an Irishman, Indian trader and agent, land speculator, Sir William Johnson’s friend, Joseph Brant’s father-in-law, and forest diplomat extraordinary, was a hard-headed man in more than one sense. He once explained that the thickness of his skull saved him from death by an Indian tomahawk, but he yielded to no man in the stubbornness of his faith in the American West. Though he knew the then far west (the Illinois country) as few white men did, Croghan was attracted to the upper Susquehanna by his connection with Johnson and the prospect of free land offered to those who had served in the recent war. His acquisitions began in 1765 with 18,000 acres in and adjoining the present township of Cherry Valley. Within five years or so he had acquired a quarter of a million acres in Otsego and Schoharie Counties. His efforts to hold this forest domain, which were dashed by the oncoming Revolution, have been set forth in all their intricate details by Professor Volwiler. Croghan plunged too early; William Cooper, who acquired title to a great part of these lands a scant fifteen years later, plunged at the right moment.
Except on the early maps, Croghan made little impression on this country. But by good luck an observant New Jersey Quaker named Richard Smith visited Croghan’s settlement at Foot of the Lake in May 1769 and kept a diary of his trip that has been admirably edited by Francis Halsey. Smith came as the representative of a group of Burlington and Philadelphia land speculators to explore and survey the Otego Patent, a tract of 69,000 acres in the southern part of Otsego County. He was therefore keenly interested in every thing that related to improvement and settlement in this area, and his journal is a vivid and fascinating record of a wilderness just opening up. He passed from the Mohawk at Canajoharie to Otsego Lake by way of Cherry Valley, now peopled by forty or fifty families. Smith noted that “There are Farms and new Settlements at a short Distance all the Way from the Mohawk River.” At Springfield he found ten German families, a blacksmith, and a tavern; and he was told that a dozen settlers were living on Miller’s Patent (Middlefield) east of the lake; these were Scotch-Irish from Cherry Valley. At the head of the lake Augustine Prevost, a British officer and Croghan’s son-in-law, had a log house, and there were other houses and a saw mill nearby. Proceeding down the lake in Croghan’s batteau, Smith came upon a bustling scene at the outlet. Carpenters were building two dwelling houses and half a dozen dependencies; Croghan disclosed his plans for road building; a shipment of hogs, poultry, crockery, and glass arrived from the Mohawk; and “a Body of Indians mostly from Ahquhaga” came in “to pay their Devoirs to the Col.” “Here are natives of different Nations almost continually,” Smith noted a little later; “they visit the Deputy Superintendent as Dogs to the Bone for what they can get” — a reflection of the condition to which the Indians had been brought by relentless white encroachment. Among them was the young Mohawk chief Joseph Brant, who served as guide to Smith’s surveying party. Years later Smith added a note in his journal, saying that Brant had “since figured as the Commander of a Bloody Banditti.” This was the standard verdict passed on the brilliant Mohawk leader by those who took the patriot side in the Revolution. Later writers, including descendants of some who suffered from his raids, have apologized for him and credited the atrocities of the partisan warfare in this region to Brant’s Tory colleagues. Neither of these extreme views rings true. When shall we have a definitive biography of Brant ¹ to place beside Peckham’s Pontiacand Wallace’s Teedyuscung?
The land operations of Croghan, of Smith and his partners, and of all the others who were active on the New York frontier at this time had been made possible by the Fort Stanwix Treaty of 1768. By the terms of that treaty the Six Nations deeded to the crown all lands in New York south of Fort Stanwix itself (present Rome, N. Y.) and east of the Unadilla River. A short, sharp scramble followed, and within a couple of years virtually every bit of ground up to this line of demarcation had been taken up. By 1770 all the land in Otsego County had been patented except the mountainous Crumhorn tract (in present Maryland township), which in 1816 was finally sold by the state for the benefit of a “literary” or educational fund.
Since it was a condition of the patents that some part of the tracts granted be settled within a given period, there was a gradual but steady infiltration of pioneers during the following years. Richard Smith reported in May 1769 that Colonel Staats Long Morris and his wife (the dowager Duchess of Gordon) had pushed their way from Catskill to the Schoharie and across to the Susquehanna at Joachim Van Valkenberg’s (a Dutch squatter who had cultivated a farm since 1765 at present Colliersville) and had proceeded on their way to view the Morris Patent on the lower Butternuts Creek. (No settlement on the Morris Patent seems to have been made, however, until Staats’ nephew Jacob Morris came on to the property in 1787.) By 1772 there were settlements of Scotch-Irish at the mouth of Ouleout Creek (now the village of Unadilla) and at the mouth of the Unadilla River (present Sidney); the latter was “Dominie” William Johnston’s enterprise, which, like the first migration to Cherry Valley, followed the New England pattern of colonizing, with a spiritual guide leading the way. Smith himself returned in 1773 and built “Smith Hall,” undoubtedly the earliest frame house west of Cherry Valley and standing until recently, north of present Laurens on the road to South Hartwick. A cluster of Quaker families settled in or near Laurens and appear to have weathered out the Revolution here. In the northwest, on a patent granted to a British officer named William Edmeston in the township now bearing his name, Edmeston’s agent, Sergeant Parsefor Carr, managed a small settlement that had taken root as early as 1770. Southeast of the Edmeston colony and strung along the Butternuts Valley, there were by 1774 families bearing the names of Lull, Johnson, Knapp, Garret, Thurston, etc., who probably came in directly from England. This series of settlements accordingly acquired the name of “the old English district.” Though Croghan had departed from the foot of Lake Otsego and Captain Prevost had returned to service in the West Indies, the settlement at the head of the lake (spoken of by the soldiers with Clinton’s force in 1779 as “Low’s Grove” or “Low’s Mills”) was flourishing in 1773, for John Hicks, who had come in with Smith’s surveying party, wrote from there (presumably), 3 October 1773, that this “will soon becom a fine Countrey. Thear is a grate maney welthy men is willing to become Settlers as soon as they know the selling price of the Land. the Settlers at the Butternuts hath made a good opening & as taken some of thir Fameies out this Summer.” The troops with Clinton were also to mention other clearings or farms straggling along the Susquehanna from present Milford to Otego.
The implication of William Cooper’s Guidethat the Otsego country was virgin wilderness when he first came here in 1785 is, therefore, misleading. There were some hundreds, at least, of settlers within the bounds of the present county before the storm of the Revolution broke furiously over it. Invert a saltcellar above a physical model of the county, shake it very lightly, and let the grains roll into the bottom lands along the courses of the streams feeding the Susquehanna, and you will have a fairly accurate picture of settlement in 1776.
These very streams were, however, the highways of the Iroquois who had left the Mohawk in the train of the Butlers, Johnsons, and other Loyalist leaders. Brant himself arrived in Oghwaga in November 1776 to establish a headquarters only two or three days’ travel (as Indians traveled) from the Mohawk. Moving among the scattered white settlements, Brant gave the pioneers plain notice that they must declare themselves. Those who did not declare for the King had their livestock led off, and soon afterwards began the long and deadly series of raids on the Susquehanna, Schoharie, and Mohawk outposts that lasted until the end of the war. Few settlers survived them and the American reprisals that promptly followed. The case of the Tunnicliffs, the most substantial farmers within the present bounds of the county, is probably typical of many families who only wanted to mind their own business and husband their improvements in the wilderness.
John Tunnicliff was a Derbyshire man who is said to have come to Otsego before the French and Indian War, though his first improvements probably date from about 1770, when he bought property in the Croghan Patent. The ruins of his house (though not the first one he built) can still be seen on the Oaksville- Burlington road southwest of Canadarago Lake. In the years before the Revolution he built a house and barn, planted an orchard and an English garden, raised cattle, sheep, and bees, supplied the settlers moving into the Butternuts Valley, and made cheese that was marketed at Albany and became famous for its quality. Tunnicliff’s memorial on his losses in the Revolution, written many pars later, states that early in the war he came over to the Mohawk and “Took the Oath Newtrality and signed a bond on promise of being protected.” He was on his farm when Brant’s destructive raid on Springfield took place in June 1778, and it was reported that Brant had used the farm as a base. A little earlier that year a fort had been built at Cherry Valley, and in July a garrison of Massachusetts troops (Ichabod Alden’s 6ᵗʰ Continental regiment) was posted there. General Stark at Albany promptly ordered retaliation against all who were aiding Brant, some of whom were believed to be residents of the “Old England” district. Captain William Hudson Ballard was accordingly sent out from the fort on August 10 with a strong scouting party toward the Butternuts. (On this scout, presumably, Sergeant James Butterfield of the 6ᵗʰ Massachusetts had his first glimpse of the country where he was to build a home and raise a family.) Ballard’s men took fifteen residents of the Butternuts into custody, also two of Brant’s men “Clothed and painted Like Indians” who had come up the Unadilla to collect cattle. Returning by way of Canadarago, Ballard also seized Tunnicliff and his son William, who had hidden their arms, and drove up to the fort a hundred cattle, besides horses and sheep. The examinations of the captives repeatedly sounded the same refrain: Brant and his men had forced them at gunpoint to provide supplies for their raiding parties. All the captives were sent on to Albany; the livestock was sold at auction and was presumably largely eaten by hungry soldiers. A fortnight later, having heard that the Albany committee for detecting conspiracies had released the captives and criticized the troops for unwarranted severity, Colonel Alden wrote Stark “that if they Send them Back, I will again take them Prisneors,” for Alden was satisfied that as long as they resided between the lines “they will have it in their Power greatly to injure this garrison.” Behind this squabble, which was eventually brought to the notice of the commander in chief himself, no doubt lay the rooted jealousy between the local New York authorities and the New England officers and troops. As for the Tunnicliffs, though they were permitted by the Albany Committee to go search for their stock, they found very few. Tunnicliff’s memorial of 1798 relates in piteous style his losses and insults at the hands of that “gang of soldiers which consisted of old privateers men,” and how he had returned to his farm seven years later to find “A Bed of Briers — without either fence or Building. ... When I was in my Strength & prosperity in the space of Twenty Years I Never Cleared so Much value as I lost By Captain Ballard.” In spite of their tribulations, the Tunnicliff family survived and flourished, and during the 19ᵗʰ century they were among the substantial citizens of Richfield Springs and neighboring villages.
The most notorious of the Tory and Indian assaults occurred late that fall at Cherry Valley and found Colonel Alden, despite repeated warnings, unprepared for it. That winter Congress authorized and the high command carefully planned a decisive blow against the border raiders, their base at Niagara, and the primary sources of their strength — the Indian villages and crops in western New York. Apart from the ambitious scope of the Sullivan-Clinton campaign of 1779, the most striking thing about it is the air of expectancy and excitement that the participants themselves felt concerning it. No other campaign of the Revolution produced so many officers’ and soldiers’ journals. Realizing that they were marching through a country that few white men had traversed, a country that was rich and fair beyond conception and that would be American land if the war were won, these men botanized and geologized as they pushed and pulled their stores and artillery through the forest, exclaiming in bad spelling over the beauty of Finger Lakes landscapes and the incredible fertility of the Indian orchards and grain fields. They even ethnologized, copying Indian picture-writing and sketching Indian villages. There were soldiers from five states on this expedition. Those who had kept journals read them to their families and friends after they were mustered out; others remembered and told what they had seen; and that is why the names of Sullivan-Clinton veterans stud the lists of early settlers in the county histories of central and western New York. The Indian expedition of 1779 was an important episode in America’s westering.
Brant and the Butlers were not finished off by the march against the Six Nations. They were merely driven to desperation. The raids up the Susquehanna and the Mohawk did not end until Waiter Butler was killed at West Canada Creek after the surrender at Yorktown, and his men were left, as Colonel Marinus Willett put it, “to the compassion of a starving wilderness.” Slowly the settlers now began to return to their desolated farms. In the fall of 1784, after attending the second Fort Stanwix treaty conference, Griffith Evans followed the route of Clinton’s brigades from the Mohawk to Lake Otsego and down the Susquehanna. He found the road to Springfield “the worst I ever travelled, or at least equal to any.” “This Springfield,” he went on in his ungrammatical way,
is a small beautiful fertile spot consisting of a few handsome farms, but the buildings are entirely demolished, done by the enemy, the savages in the late war. The planters are just beginning to rebuild and [it] must soon be a pretty little settlement, but I can’t, when I reflect on what ravage, destruction, and barbarities committed in the late war by those infernal savages and on the most distressed and defenceless families just beginning the settlement of the wilderness under almost every disadvantage. ‘Tis like bruising a youthful tender ozier, containing much of the vitals of a growing structure. I say can’t, when I think of this, reconcile our forgiving or treating with them without the greatest exertion of philosophy and New Testament principles.
At the head of the lake Evans found a Captain Staats, who had a grist and saw mill and had nearly finished a comfortable house. When the rain finally stopped, Evans became ecstatic over the beauty of the lake — “as transparent as crystal and as smooth as a sea of glass” — and its forest setting. Going down the lake, Evans noted that “the seat of the late Col. Croghan” was “now burnt and entirely destroyed,” and observed that “This youthful state of the Sasquehanna affords a very indifferent navigation.” At the mouth of Cherry Valley Creek (now the village of Milford), he reported that “one Carr” was in possession. A few miles below, the party was hospitably received by “a Mr. Vanolston” and stayed for the night. They made little progress the next day and “Came too at a Mr. Scremlin’s,” presumably one of the Scramlings of Oneonta. At the site of Johnston’s settlement near the Unadilla River, Evans found “one small improvement” made since the war, by a Mr. Fuller.
Such was the state of the Otsego country in 1784. In the previous year a distinguished visitor had come over the portage from Canajoharie to Cherry Valley, stopped at the Campbells’ newly-erected log house there, gone on to Lake Otsego, and taken, as he wrote a friend, a “contemplative view of the vast inland navigation of these United States ... and the goodness of that Providence which has dealt her favors to us with so profuse a hand.” Our victories have won for us, said General Washington, “a New Empire” in the West. The man who was to do more than any other in New York State to translate Washington’s vision of empire into reality was William Cooper, patriarch of the Otsego country and still known in these parts as “The Judge.” William Cooper first explored this country in 1785; he began promoting settlements here a year later; and in 1789 he established his home in the infant village of Cooperstown. Here he lived and labored twenty years before his death at the age of fifty-five. Within the bounds of Otsego County (not erected until 1791) there were 1,702 inhabitants in 1790. In 1800 the population was nearly 22,000, and by 1810, the year after his death, it was 39,000. If this statistical curve is projected a little farther, it suggests one essential cause of Cooper’s success. Population increased in the county through the next two decades, but at a diminishing rate: in 1820 it stood at 45,000; in 1830 at 51,000. The latter year was the high point until very recent times; from then on, though the population of the state increased by leaps and bounds, that of Otsego County leveled off at a little under 50,000. Cooper’s timing was perfect. His operations began re soon as the war was over and the Indians had left, and when the tide of settlers from New England, forced largely to go northward into the hills of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine or southwestward into the Wyoming country in the years preceding the Revolution, spilled over the now broken dam that had so long contained it, and flooded across the New York frontier. The size and strength of this expansive movement amazed observers then, and surprises us as we study it now. Talleyrand, who traveled up the Mohawk and visited Cooperstown in 1794, wondered if this mobility of the population was not merely “a sort of fad” which made no sense economically. Young John Lincklaen, agent of the Holland Land Company, though bemused like Talleyrand, gave a sound explanation in dealing with a specific case. Touring Vermont in 1791, he stopped at the house of Thomas Rice, whom he had met earlier prospecting on the New York frontier. Rice had settled in Vermont some years before, had a good farm under cultivation, and a house on it not yet completed. But he had bought 400 acres at a dollar an acre in New York State and was about to move there.
It is astonishing to see a man 50 years old [Lincklaen went on] who has spent the best part of his life in clearing his land & enhancing its value, leaving it all just as he begins to enjoy the fruits of his labor, in order to bury himself anew in the forest, & expose himself to all the difficulties of forming a new settlement! But it is usually the case with Americans, beginning quite poor they buy a few acres in a new country for almost nothing; when after 8 or 10 years of rugged toil they have augmented the worth of their lands, they find themselves with a numerous family, & their little territory, however valuable it may be, does not suffice to support them. Then they sell at a very high price, & so gain a sufficient sum to buy in the Genesee, where the lands are cheaper, three times the quantity enough to maintain & establish around them a dozen children.
When Levi Beardsley, whose family history resembled that of the Rices, heard that his pioneer homestead in Otsego County had been sold, he remarked that apparently “there is less attachment among our countrymen to their birth place, or the family homestead, than [among] almost any civilized people on earth.” A hint as to the cause of this, as well as of the westward movement as a whole, will be found in a news item printed in the Otsego Herald for 17 March 1796: “A family, consisting of a man, his wife, and nineteen children, lately moved to the westward; his eldest child not 15 years old; the children consisted of 4 pair of female twins, 5 pair of male twins, and one single boy, whom they called captain — such fruitful vines are a great accession of strength to this country, and ought to be received with a hearty welcome.” William Cooper was not only in the right place at the right time: he was also the right man for a job that needed doing. His sense of timing was a part of his good business judgment. We know next to nothing about his apprenticeship for the enterprise he embarked on in the Otsego country in 1786, except that he had risen by his wits from unpromising beginnings. ² But the principles and methods he followed as a promoter of settlements have been set forth with agreeable fullness, candor, and humor in his Guide in the Wilderness. No summary can do this little book justice; it must be read in its entirety. The prose itself is muscular like the man. The Guidegives the impression — which is reinforced by Cooper’s correspondence — that in the actual proceas of settling the tracts he acquired and managed, the man was everywhere, doing everything. An old settler in Lowville recalled “the singular appearance of Judge Cooper in his two-wheeled carriage with several men on each side of it to keep it from upsetting, as he was leading ... a large company of pioneers through the dense forests to DeKalb in St. Lawrence County where he had erected a house said to be sixty feet square, for their accommodation, until they could build houses for themselves.” It was a typical scene in Cooper’s life. He was opposed to paternalism and the “hot-house” methods of land promotion practiced in the Genesee country, but he lived among the settlers and joined them in communal undertakings like road and bridge building; he erected storehouses for their produce and secured freight wagons for shipping it to Albany; he headed the subscription lists for school and church buildings. When a famine threatened to wipe out the Otsego settlement in the spring of 1789, he contrived a method of catching shoals of herring in the Susquehanna, and obtained from the legislature money to buy 1,700 bushels of corn, which was brought in by horseback and distributed to families according to their size. Though working on a small capital, he bought on credit or borrowed enough sap kettles and potash kettles so that.the settlers would have some cash products at once — a matter of importance to them, and of course to him as their creditor. All difficulties, this sanguine and resourceful man once wrote to a friend for whom he was acting as land agent — all difficulties “will be surmounted by spiritedly rushing upon them with a number of people.” The phrase is a key to his success in settling some three-quarters of a million acres of wild land.
Almost any letter Cooper wrote on business affairs shows the plain-dealing character of the man — the trait that eventually won him dozens of clients in Burlington, Philadelphia, New York, and even across the Atlantic. Here is part of one chosen at random, written to his “Much Estmd Friend Issac Melcher” from Burlington, “9 Mo. 16ᵗʰ 1789,” and illustrating some of his principles as a land agent:
toMorrow I Put of for the northward [Cooperstown] and should have had Pleasure in informing thee of a Likelyhood of Sucksessfull Sailes with thy Property. but as things Stand am fearfull of much being Done. — in the first Place, the Clause of the title reverting in three yeares on Certain faillures, will I am confident hinder many, as it is a Pease of Strictness I have never made Use of before. 2d the Price I am fearfull is to high — but more on that head when I See the Lands. 3d thy Determination of Parting with no Cash, will make the business go on Slow, for be Assurd that the ready money that I must Expend in Surveying, Pervitions, Acknoledging Recording &c. will Purchase me more Lands than my Commitions will Come too. So that I must give away my troble and influance in the buisiness wich no man is more welcome too than thy Selfe who’s Example I mean to follow that is to Steer Clear of Spending any ready Cash about the Sailes, for if the Proprietor will not spend any who is So Largely interousted — how Can it be Expected that I who have Such a Small Interoust therein Should Spend money. but to speake to the Point thee may Depend that Every Exertion Shall be made Use of by me to Accomidate thy intrust So as is Expected, So far as I Can do it with out Spending too much ready money:thee will heare from me by Every Opertunity and the[e] receives Letters from me, take it for granted they Are real information without flattery wich thee and Every Other man of buisiness will finally Prefer.
To business acumen, energy, self-confidence, and frank dealing, there was joined in Judge Cooper’s character a genuine philanthropy. Liking his fellow men, he was liked by them. He was equally at home entertaining legislators in Otsego Hall or marrying a young couple in a settler’s cabin. His prowess as a wrestler inspired admiration as well as respect, and was not often challenged. He felt deep sympathy for the poor, which is not remarkable considering his early poverty — or perhaps on the contrary it is. There are repeated and striking injunctions in Cooper’s Guide, in his letters, and in his will to “deal tenderly” with young settlements where conditions of life are hard and few of the inhabitants have the means of meeting their pecuniary obligations.
Thoroughly democratic in his manners, Judge Cooper also held fundamentally democratic views — in everything except his party politics. Knowing the frontier settlers as few others could have, he respected their industriousness and fortitude and even their independence of mind. Speaking in the Guideof the lack of certain manufacturing facilities in Otsego that would increase the farmers’ profits, Cooper observed that “these things are never to be forced. ... In a part of the world where the minds of men are so unshackled, and where they are not certainly dull-sighted to their interest, there is little fear that they will not find it out.” In all such matters his confidence in the American character, as shaped by the frontier, was complete. He was inconsistent only in holding to the Hamiltonian line that the rich and well-born should govern all the rest. As a result he soon ran foul of these “unshackled” minds and raised up champions of democracy like Jedidiah Peck of Burlington who by 1801 put an end to Cooper’s political career.
Judge Cooper nowhere appears more amiable than in his relations with his family. His wife, whom according to tradition he had to start by coercion from comfortable Burlington to the Otsego frontier, did not become reconciled to life in the settlement for years. “Mrs. C — has enjoined it upon me,” wrote Moss Kent from Cooperstown to the Judge attending Congress in Philadelphia, “to inform you that she lives very unhappy and is very impatient for your return. ... She is also desirous you should engage a House at Burlington before you return as it is her determination never to spend another winter in this country.” That very year (1796), with the design of making his family more comfortable, Judge Cooper drew up plans for Otsego Hall, colorfully described by Fenimore Cooper in The Pioneersand more prosaically in a memorandum printed in his grandson’s Legends and Traditions of a Northern County. Living was high here, at least during what Richard R. Smith nostalgically recalled as “de frolic season.” Indeed two members of the Society of Friends who visited Cooperstown in 1803 took it upon themselves (though Cooper had long since left the Quaker fold) to reprove him for his worldly style of living. “Surely,” one of them wrote, “thou hast set thy children such an example in following the grandeur of the world in thine house that if thy estate is not very large they will be likely to meet with more difficulty than those who have only their hands to support them. I much admired thy want of good Philosophy in laying out money to adorn thy House, which I thought looked more like the Lofty Spaniard, attached to popish Immagery, than the wise and prudent American.” The busts in the doorway pediments of the great hall could have prompted such a reproof, as could the organ and the billiard table. Despite these imported touches of elegance and fashionable diversions, the Cooper children — particularly the girls — pined sometimes for the gay life of Philadelphia and New York. Hannah, the oldest girl, who was her father’s and everybody else’s favorite and whom no less a personage than Talleyrand had described as an “Amiable philosophe. ... Au milieu des deserts, elle lit, pense, ecrit,” wrote a former school friend in 1799: “1 do not know when I shall emerge from these Northern forests — My sister sets a noble example — she is willing to remain at home through the Winter — provided I will.” What follows is as entertaining a combination of sisterly condescension and schoolgirl moralizing as one could find anywhere. “Upon mature consideration,” Hannah concludes, “perhaps a more perfect knowledge of society is not very necessary to her happiness — by being insensible to her own deficiencies — she will be less observant of the deficiencies of those around her — to be good and happy is what we live for — the world cannot make us either one or the other.” In life and in death Judge Cooper provided his children with everything within his means — and these were considerable — to make his children “good and happy.” They repaid him by unstinted affection during his lifetime and by warm devotion to his memory. Every reference to his father made by Fenimore Cooper that I have seen is grateful and admiring. In 1834, on his return to his old home after an absence of fifteen years, he wrote his wife from Canajoharie, a place he found greatly changed by the Erie Canal, but still “redolent” of his own youth. He took a walk around the village and sought out the house of old Hendrick Frey, where he had visited many times as a boy. “It recalled my noble-looking, warm-hearted father, with his deep laugh, sweet voice and fine rich eye, as he used to lighten the way with his anecdotes and fun.”
As good a way as any to suggest what life in the Otsego community was like when Fenimore Cooper was growing up here is to sketch some of the settlers who made this community what it was. To choose a few subjects representative enough to stand for the whole is not easy, but an attempt may be made.
One of them must certainly be an emigré. In reading the early annals of the county, one is surprised by the frequent reverberations in this remote place of the revolutionary upheavals in Europe. Fenimore Cooper in his Chroniclestells with zest of French noblemen bearing assumed names recognizing each other on the shores of Lake Otsego. The mysterious and learned foreigner named Haussman, probably a Polish Jew, who bought a plot of ground where the Otesaga Hotel now stands, roused all of Cooper’s incipient sense of romance. These wanderers in their remnants of finery and speaking broken English were young Cooper’s first contact with Europe. There were many of them, for James Le Ray de Chaumont (son of Franklin’s old patron at Passy) had come to America and invested heavily in New York lands. One of the tracts he bought was on the Butternuts Creek, originally part of the Butler Patent in present Morris township. From Chamouilley, Department of the Upper Marne, to New York City in 1789 came a father, Charles Franchot, and his four sons. In France they had conducted an iron-forging business, and most of their trade was with the royal government. They were bound for the French colony on the Scioto River in Ohio, but were persuaded during their stay in the city to go to Otsego, where two or three of their compatriots had settled. The youngest son, Stanislas Pascal Franchot, in later years wrote a narrative of the family’s trip to their forest home that epitomizes the unrecorded experiences of hundreds of early settlers. In April 1790 the Franchots came up the Hudson and proceeded out the Mohawk to Canajoharie by batteau. Here they hired wagons to transport themselves and goods to Major Staats’ place at the head of Lake Otsego, where they were disappointed in not finding boats to float them down the Lake.
Being the youngest [Franchot goes on], I came down to Cooperstown, made out to get Capt. Howard, Averill and others with all the boats, and brought our luggage and family to the outlet of the Lake on the banks of which a tavern was kept by a worthy Scotchman, Mr. Ellison, where we were well entertained and were introduced to Mr. Bowen from New York who was then on the opposite bank or side, clearing and burning brush where his house was afterward built. I found that I had committed a blunder, there was no road from Cooperstown to Butternuts. I ought to have turned off from Springfield to Schuyler’s Lake and so on to Tunnicliffe and Burlington. I immediately set out through Hartwick to Major Butterfield’s, thence was shown a path which went to Burlington but this path was so blind I got lost and bewildered, travelled almost all night and happened to sec just before daylight fires for which I steered, found a Mr. Palmer who had got up to punch his log heap and who met me with a hand spike in a threatening posture, but we were soon made friends. I was so much Frenchified he could not understand me. I must have been a great curiosity for he examined me very closely. My manchettes, my coat, my shoes, my double barrelled gun all appeared odd to him. He became very kind to me, took me into his house and comforted me the best way he could. After feeding me and showing me real good will he put me on the right road and I arrived safely at Butternuts, distant 17 miles. After [returning to Cooperstown and] apprising my brothers of my mistake we immediately set out and with the advice of Judge Cooper hired Major Butterfield, an excellent good man and some of his neighbors who cut out a road from this place to Johnson’s, a mile above Garratsville, and moved the family and all our baggage from Cooperstown with ox wagons exactly fitted for going through the woods.
The Franchots called their settlement Louisville (now the village of Morris); the father soon returned to France; and three of the brothers died before 1800. But Pascal, who was only sixteen when he made his cross-country trip through Otsego, formed a mercantile partnership with Volckert Van Rensselaer, became Le Ray de Chaumont’s land agent, built a cotton mill, became affluent, married well, held numerous local offices, lived until 1855, and left a numerous and distinguished line of descendants, some of whom are still living in the Butternuts Valley.
Another of our representative settlers must be a Revolutionary soldier. The Major Butterfield who brought the Franchot party in by oxcart will do well, for the history of James Butterfield and his immediate family admirably illustrates the dry generalizations about population trends after the Revolution. By 1776 five generations of American Butterfields had moved no farther from Boston Harbor, where the first of them had landed in or before 1638, than Westford, Massachusetts, where James was born, some twenty-five miles from Boston. But the men of the family had had intimate contact with the frontier: James’ maternal grandfather had received a bounty of £4 for killing an Indian in 1704 and had himself been taken captive and scalped the next year; one of James’ uncles served as an officer in Rogers’ Rangers during the French and Indian War; and in 1756, the year following James’ birth, his own father, a sergeant with the colonial forces, died while in the garrison at Lake George. James was twenty when he enlisted (1 January 1776) in the Continental army. His regiment (the 6ᵗʰ Massachusetts) was at Ticonderoga in 1776, in the Burgoyne campaign, and was ordered to the new outpost at Cherry Valley in July 1778. Here, during the frequent scouts into the no-man’s-land that Otsego County then was, James, now a sergeant, saw much of this country and thought it fair. He was with his regiment (which built the dam at the outlet of Lake Otsego to float batteaux down the Susquehanna) in the expedition through the Indian country, and was mustered out at the beginning of 1780. He promptly returned to the Mohawk, where he served as a lieutenant for a couple of years in the state levies, a picked militia force that patrolled the areas of danger in the Mohawk-Schoharie region. During the Tory-Indian raid on Currytown in July 1781, he was captured, but Colonel Willett was hard on the raiders’ heels, and James escaped. About this time he met and married a girl named Katherine Runyan (the original Dutch form of her name would have been Runjen). In June 1786, at the first sale of the lands William Cooper and Andrew Craig had acquired in Otsego, James Butterfield bought a plot of 218 acres on both sides of Otego Creek, mostly in present Hartwick township. He came on to the property soon afterwards and by 1792 had erected a home that long served also as a tavern and came to be known as “the White House.” Standing on an eminence above the road that wound through the Otego Valley, James’ home was an early landmark; the school district in which it stands is still called the White House District. The house was designed in the style of the ell-shaped New England homes James Butterfield had lived in, with decorative details that are surprising in view of its forest setting. The builder, Samuel Wilson of Fly Creek, has been identified, and the remains of the millsite where the timbers and boards were cut have been found. Wilson built well, taking exceeding pains to make the house weatherproof.
Here James took in guests — at first the pioneers on their way to new homes, later those traveling by stage from Richfield Springs to Oneonta. He became first major in the Otsego militia in 1793, actively supported Judge Peck against Judge Cooper, and raised a family of nine children. The Major died in 1818 and was buried in a little graveyard, now separated from the house lot but always deeded with it, under a stone crudely adorned with a winged skull and a verse admonishing anyone curious enough to read it that “As you are now so once was i.”
Except on early maps and in pioneer histories, Major Butterfield’s name was not preserved in the Otsego country, for none of his four sons remained here. Perhaps as early as 1804 Jacob Butterfield moved north to Wolcott (now in Wayne County) to an area then being opened up for settlement, and established a boot- and shoe-making business. In 1817 he wrote his brother John that he wanted “to hire a good Shoe maker and boot maker one of the first rate for they are as proud hear as in auburn.” In January 1809 two other brothers, James and Robert, had been outfitted in Hartwick for a move to the westward to explore and settle lands at Clarence (in present Erie County) that had been bought by the family. They evidently went by way of Wolcott and the new Ridge Road along Lake Ontario, taking some shoes from Jacob’s shop to sell to the westward. A letter to their “honerd Parrents” in April reports that they had sold the shoes for grain for their horses and had “swopt old buf and franky for a yoke of oxen.” They were disappointed at finding the lots “very skant for timber,” not more than enough to fence them. Nevertheless, James was completing a house. “The house I live in ante fit for any body to live in.” Almost casually the brothers announced that “Betsy had a Dauter Born the 27 of march”; this would mean Betsy had been pregnant for six months before she started west. The last brother, John, had been apprenticed when young to learn “the Art, trade, and mystery of a Tanner and Currier” in Schoharie County. He inherited the White House, but soon after his father’s death he sold all the property in Hartwick and moved two counties west to set up a tannery in Lapeer, Cortland County.
Thus another cycle of population movement was completed. Similar cycles, multiplied ten thousandfold, peopled the entire West by 1890.
Wherever people bought and sold land, lawyers soon followed, and to keep themselves busy they promptly went into politics. As early as 1796 lawyers so dominated the Otsego political scene, that Judge Peck — no lawyer he — wrote a letter signed “Plough Jogger” to the Otsego Heraldprotesting the notion that members of this “intriguing set” were the only individuals qualified to hold public office. He pointed out that among the 3,119 electors in the county only six were lawyers, yet three of these had been nominated for the legislature. Levi Beardsley is a good representative of the profession, and he is particularly useful for our purpose because he left in his Reminiscencesan invaluable record of his early life in this region. Levi’s grandfather, father, and uncles, originally from Connecticut, moved from Rensselaer County, N. Y., to Richfield township, Otsego County, in the spring of 1790. They drove their stock, carried their children and household goods in wagons, and hired the Herkimer farm near Canadarago Lake, where there were two small log huts, until they could build their own log houses. The great value of Beardsley’s book is that its author was gifted with something approaching total recall, which enabled him to describe the actual operations of pioneering in all their details. And happily he was willing to dwell on his boyhood rather than hastening on as the authors of such books usually do. In the early chapters of his Reminiscencesyou can learn precisely how fields were cleared and cabins constructed, what sort of furniture, food, and clothing were available, what the settlers’ sports and social gatherings were like. Some bloodcurdling examples of primitive dental and medical practice are given, and there are vivid glimpses as well of strolling quacks and empirics in religion. The first even quasi-regular religious services in Richfield were performed by the redoubtable Father Daniel Nash, who founded numerous Episcopal churches in the county, presided at the funeral of Hannah Cooper in 1800, and became the first rector of Christ Church in Cooperstown. Nash himself thoroughly deserves a sketch among the founders of this country. No one should be misled by the supposed portrait of him as “Mr. Grant” in The Pioneers. It is, as one of Nash’s own successors observed, much too “anemic and depressing” a portrait to serve for so rugged an apostle in the wilderness as Daniel Nash. One of Beardsley’s best anecdotes relates to an occasion when Nash was to preach in the new school house. As he was about to begin, all of the males in the congregation ran off into the woods to chase a bear. The bear was killed, brought back, and barbecued. Nash partook heartily of the feast, declaring the hunt only a venial offense against the Sabbath.
The school in which Nash preached had been erected by a building bee as soon as “six or seven families had settled within striking distance.” There were few books in the settlement at first besides the Bible, but Levi’s grandfather also had “a copy of Hudibras, which next to the bible, he regarded as superior to all other productions.” The family also had a two-volume set of Dryden’s poems and a volume of Young’s Night Thoughts. Within a surprisingly few years, a lending library was established near by, and Beardsley recalled borrowing and reading Bruce’s Travelsand works on ancient history. The latter were doubtless the compilations of Charles Rollin, whom Beardsley quotes a little later. Rollin’s immensely popular books had a lasting influence on American rhetoric. (“Madam,” said Daniel Webster to his landlady after revising old General William Henry Harrison’s inaugural address, “I have just killed seventeen Roman proconsuls as dead as smelts.”) It is highly probable that Rollin’s Ancient Historysupplied the classical names for the townships in the New York State Military Tract.
When he was eighteen (1803), Levi joined an independent military company that spent a good deal of time drilling and parading. He continued his training while studying law in the office of Jabez Hammond at Cherry Valley, and he was in command of the company when, in 1812, the President called for volunteers to serve on the Niagara frontier. Beardsley summoned and paraded his men, made a patriotic speech, and ordered all volunteers to step out and follow the drummer. “At this order every democrat (or republican as then called,) came forward, and every federalist refused.” No incident could more graphically illustrate sentiment in the northern states toward “Mr. Madison’s War.”
Beardsley must have had a sound legal training under Jabez D. Hammond, an intellectual and philanthropic lawyer and author of the admirable History of Political Parties in the State of New York. Hammond took Beardsley into partnership; later the younger man went into the legislature and was active in promoting railroads. His most solid accomplishment, however, is his Reminiscences, one of the most informative and charmingly written books of its kind.
The last in this series of representative men is Otsego’s first printer, Elihu Phinney, founder of the firm which was to make Cooperstown a publishing center for half a century. There came a time in Phinney’s career when, in the columns of his Otsego Herald, he ventured “to remind his Otsegonian friends, that he, in the winter of 1793, penetrated a wilderness, and ‘broke a track,’ through a deep snow, with six teams, in the ‘depth’ of winter, and was received with a cordiality, bordering on homage.” This first Elihu came from Canaan, Columbia County, N. Y., where he had published for about a year the Columbian Mercury, and Canaan Repository of Rural Knowledge. He had been invited to Otsego County by Judge Cooper, and his boast that he had been warmly welcomed was not an idle one. The first number of the significantly subtitled Otsego Herald; or, Western Advertiserwas issued on 3 April 1795; within three months 800 copies were being printed weekly for circulation in the counties from Schoharie to Ontario.
The hunger for news in the new settlements is hardly surprising. From the very beginning Phinney had no trouble finding news to fill or subscribers to support his Herald, but he had other troubles. In the fourth issue (24 April 1795) he was obliged to announce that the Herald would not appear the following week for want of paper: “The roads to Albany have been impassible with carriages for several weeks.” As a matter of fact he did get out the fifth number, but in half-size on rough stock and without advertisements. This number carried an article beginning with the apparently reassuring but actually ambiguous statement that “The State Road leading from Albany to Cooperstown, through Cherry Valley, is equal to any thing of the kind in the United States.” The condition of the roads — described by one reader as strewn with stumps, dead horses, and fragments of carriages — also made it difficult to distribute the paper. Early in 1796 Phinney advertised for a post-rider to deliver the Heraldto “The Populous Towns” of Springfield, Richfield, Burlington, and Unadilla. He obtained one, and in a communication thanking the printer for this service one of his subscribers revealed an important function of newspapers on the frontier. “I have a large family of boys and girls,” wrote this contributor, “whom I exercise for half an hour every morning, in the Herald; again at noon, and at night when I leave off work. ... I look upon a newspaper to be the best book to form a reader; and respectfully recommend the above method to all those who have large families, and have not the privilege of schools.”
Until at least 1801 Phinney remained a firm political adherent of his Federalist patron William Cooper, whose speeches in Congress he printed in extenso. This brought reprisals from “Old Peck and Co.” (as Phinney denominated the Clinton and Jefferson men), who were fast growing in numbers and strength during John Adams’ administration. One kind of reprisal they resorted to was peculiarly vexing to Phinney as a newspaper publisher. Joseph Strong, a lieutenant of Peck’s, held the office of postmaster in 1799, and it was Phinney’s belief that this “Pest to Society” and “Scourge to Cooperstown” suppressed letters directed to the newspaper office. Phinney was obliged to tell his correspondents to address him at the Cherry Valley post office until the “insufferable” Strong was removed.
Disgraced by the Alien and Sedition Acts and by their conduct in the Jefferson- Burr vote-off in 1801, the Federalists divided into splinter groups after Jefferson’s election, and nowhere were they more badly splintered than in New York State. It was difficult for an editor to know what line to take. Observing that the United States had not fallen into immediate and total ruin under a Democratic- Republican administration, Phinney moved gradually (not abruptly, as has usually been said) to the support of Jeffersonian policies. Calling himself a “federal republican,” he was something of a phenomenon for the times — a political moderate. He was thus bound to come to a break with Judge Cooper, and the break came over the Embargo Act. Phinney himself was not whole-heartedly for the Embargo. Though at the beginning of 1808 he declared it “of all measures the one peculiarly adapted to the crisis,” by September of that year, having observed the hardships it had worked on northern merchants and farmers, he advocated repeal, and he strongly urged the election of George Clinton of New York or either of the Adamses of Massachusetts over Madison the Virginian. But all of this was heresy in the eyes of undeviating Federalists like William Cooper and General Jacob Morris of Butternuts. On 22 August 1808 Cooper wrote to Charles and George Webster, publishers of the Albany Gazette, that he must have a good printer — “an Object both Political and Pecuniary.” He obtained John H. Prentiss who came from a short-lived New York City paper to establish with William Andrews, the Cooperstown Impartial Observer, which was a badly named paper if there ever was one. The first issue, dated 22 October 1808, announced that the editor would adhere uniformly “to the principles of the immortal WASHINGTON,” and proceeded to say of Jefferson that “his public acts have been stamped with all the marks of imbecility, and ... the Embargo, like a cap set on the head of an Ideot, serves to render him more conspicuous.” In the issues that followed, Prentiss and Andrews raked together from older Federalist papers all the old canards about the President — his supposed cowardice in the Revolution, his religious infidelity, his slanders on Washington, etc., etc.
Phinney promptly struck back, but he used a more delicate and more effective instrument. In the Heraldof the following week the new paper was labeled “The Imp.” “The family of Imps are numerous, and ancient,” said Phinney. “The Imp-Artial Observer may Imp-Each the owners of Imp-Roper design: But the Imp-Otence, cannot Imp-Overish, but may Imp-Oison, or it may Imp-Rove, by Imp-Ressing the idea of an Imp-Oster, which the good people of Otsego will Imp-Recate, as Imp-Ure and not suffer to escape with Imp-Unity.” Prentiss and Andrews were stung by Phinney’s satirical thrusts into announcing publication of a paper to be devoted wholly to abuse of Jefferson and his supporters. It was to be called “The Switch” and its motto was:
To seek, to find, the kennel’d pack,
And lacerate the RASCALS back,
Detect their crimes, expose their pranks,
And put to flight their ragged ranks.
This was too much for Judge Cooper himself, who was sole owner of the Observerand its equipment. He ordered “The Switch” suppressed after one number (11 March 1809) had been issued. Shortly afterwards Prentiss bought out Cooper and changed the name of the paper to the Cooperstown Federalist. This was a step towards honesty, it avoided further “impish” taunts, and it partly offset the effect of Phinney’s successful move in 1807 to incorporate the village under the name of “Otsego.” Though the name officially reverted to Cooperstown in 1812, the Heraldretained Otsego in its imprint until Phinney died and his sons took over the paper in 1813.
The wagons that carried Phinney’s printing equipment to Cooperstown in February 1795 also brought a stock of books, advertised for sale in the first number of the Herald. These included Bibles, Watts’ Psalms, Winchester on Universal Restoration, Entick’s Dictionary, Carver’s Travels, the Life of Dr. Franklin, Steuben’s manual of military exercise, novels by Defoe, Fielding, and Smollett, and “Children’s Picture Books.” A good notion of what was read on the frontier can be gleaned from this and similar advertisements that followed. Phinney responded to further demands for reading matter by publishing books over his own imprint. Theological and edifying titles were prominent among them, but during the first year he was in Cooperstown he announced a reprint of Clarissa Harlowe, and he was soon publishing chapbooks, voyages and travels, trials, political speeches and tracts, laws and public documents. He seems to have had a special interest in music and issued a series of books for instruction in singing and collections of tunes sacred and profane. Phinney’s Calendar, or Western Almanac, the first issue of which was announced late in 1795, went on for generations and probably preserved the Phinney name better than anything else he or his descendants ever projected, for according to Fenimore Cooper it had attained a circulation of 200,000 by 1838.
After their father’s death Henry and Elihu Phinney, Jr., who had begun issuing books over their own imprint in 1807, enormously expanded the publishing and bookselling business, being less interested in the Herald, which they dropped in 1821. Their career and that of the third generation of this printing dynasty lasted throughout most of the 19ᵗʰ century, though the printing plant was moved to Buffalo in 1849. In the early days at Cooperstown young James Cooper had set type “for fun” in the Phinney printing office; later the firm published several of Cooper’s books (Chronicles of Cooperstown, The American Democrat, History of the Navy), and a grandson of the first Phinney married the novelist’s daughter Caroline. Here too Thurlow Weed served his printing apprenticeship, and so did young Erastus F. Beadle, who was to outdo even the Phinneys as a manufacturer and merchant of popular literature.
Thus the founding generation passed — those who had broken the tracks, made the clearings, established homes, farms, taverns, stores, schools, and churches, built roads and bridges, and set up the first mills, tanneries, distilleries, and printing offices. Those who had been young enough when they came, like Pascal Franchot and Levi Beardsley, lived to see the period of Otsego’s greatest prosperity before the war booms of our own day. That was during the decades preceding the Civil War, when the Otsego hills were cleared of timber to their very crests to make arable fields and pasture land for farmers whose goal was comfortable self-sufficiency rather than large profits. In that era too those elegant, simple, and incomparably beautiful Greek Revival homes were built in the villages scattered through the valleys. Reminiscent of a tranquil and prosperous past, these houses may be seen in any part of the county — often in decay — but they are best seen perhaps in the village of Unadilla, where filling stations and neon lights have marred their proper setting very little. The hand of industrial progress lay, and still lies, rather lightly on the Otsego country. The reason, of course, is that the best transportation route across the State runs north of it. William Cooper in 1807 predicted and urged the building of a trans-state canal that would bring to New York City “all the trade and productions of the vast country which surrounds the lakes Erie, Huron, Michigan, and Superior.” Its completion less than twenty years later meant that the region Cooper had settled could not successfully compete for profits with the urban centers that rapidly grew up along the path of the Erie Canal. The railroad later followed the same route and accentuated this condition. The Otsego area remained very largely agricultural, and so, as Dr. Frost has recently pointed out, “The same enterprising spirit that had carried the early settlers into the Valley drove many of their descendants to new regions” — to the cities to the north and west and, in substantial numbers, to those in the east. As farm economy took on its modern features and the farmer became a business man, it was no longer possible for him and his family to live self-sufficiently, remote from markets. The hill farms were abandoned; the State began reforesting them; and many parts of the county have now resumed the appearance they must have had when Fenimore Cooper was growing up here. We can understand his attachment to this country. It is beautiful country, though in a gentle rather than awesome way. And it is also, to use a poetical word that is exactly right, richly storied.
Few regions have been more fortunate than the Otsego country in the abundance and quality of printed works relating to their history. The founder of Cooperstown himself wrote the best of all accounts of the country he settled. William Cooper’s Guide in the Wilderness (Dublin, 1810) is now a very rare book, but it was reprinted at Rochester (1897) with a valuable introduction by James Fenimore Cooper (grandson of the novelist); and this re-issue has happily been kept in print by the Freeman’s Journal Company of Cooperstown since 1936.
The early histories of the region, written by the first generation to become conscious of its rich historical heritage, are among the classics of their kind. William W. Campbell’s Annals of Tryon County; or, the Border Warfare of New York during the Revolution (New York, 1831; re-issued with the original title and subtitle inverted, New York, 1849) is by a descendant of the Campbells who settled early at Cherry Valley and suffered heavily during the Revolution. Jeptha R. Simms’ History of Schoharie County, and Border Wars of New York ... , (Albany, 1845; enlarged and re-issued under the title The Frontiersmen of New York ... , Albany, 1882-83) contains much history and legendary lore, gathered from survivors and descendants, relating to Otsego as well as other frontier counties.
Levi Beardsley’s Reminiscences ... , (New York, 1852) has been appraised in the body of this paper. An abridged reprinting, containing all the chapters dealing with the author’s Otsego boyhood and youth, would provide a source book almost equal in value to William Cooper’s Guide and would of course present the ordinary settler’s point of view more adequately. ³
Fifty years ago Francis W. Halsey, a native of Unadilla, published The Old New York Frontier ... 1614-1800 (New York, 1901), a work of wide research and great readability though rather capriciously documented. It remains the most comprehensive and generally trustworthy history of the region for the period it covers. One habitually turns first to Halsey and is likely to find the information wanted.
A recent and very fully documented monograph is James Arthur Frost’s Life on the Upper Susquehanna1783-1860 (New York, 1951). It deals primarily with population and economic development, with some attention to politics. The treatment of individuals is subordinated to expounding large social trends, and the result is a factual and statistical book, a little dry but very useful.
Otsego County and its villages have had the usual complement of local histories, few of which are outstanding enough to deserve mention. Cooperstown itself, however, is exceptional, perhaps because it has been from its earliest days a journalistic and literary center. James Fenimore Cooper, as everyone knows, presented the early history of the settlement in fictional form in The Pioneers, or The Sources of the Susquehanna; a Descriptive Tale (New York, 1823), which for some readers remains his most rewarding novel. When Cooper came to write his non-fictional account of the village (The Chronicles of Cooperstown, 1838), he compiled a useful book of annals but one of the dullest of all local histories. For him, apparently, there was no romance or even local color in history unless he could fictionalize it outright. So he strung one fact after another in the Chroniclesas a child would string beads, and his book set an unfortunate example for those who have written most of the local history of the United States until very recently. Though it contains very little history (except natural history), the Rural Hoursof Susan Fenimore Cooper, daughter of the novelist, should be mentioned here. Published at New York in 1850, it is a charmingly written journal of the seasons. The novelist’s grandson and namesake continued the Cooper family’s contributions to local history into the fourth generation by publishing Legends and Traditions of a Northern County (Cooperstown, 1921), and Reminiscences of Mid-Victorian Cooperstown (Cooperstown, 1936), both of which are in part based on family archives and are therefore important sources. The long-standard history of the village and its vicinity is The Story of Cooperstown (New York, 1917, and frequently reprinted) by Ralph Birdsall, formerly rector of Christ Church. Birdsall fully sensed his unusual opportunity and produced a model of what village histories should be. To it has now been added Louis C. Jones Cooperstown (Cooperstown, 1949), the text of which, though brief, is up to date, and the illustrations admirably chosen and reproduced.
Two atlases of Otsego County have been published: one by F. W. Beers (New York, 1868), and the other by Otto Barthel (Philadelphia, 1903). So have several wall maps, but the most useful map for historical purposes (as well as the handsomest) is the Otsego map in David H. Burr’s Atlas of the State of New York (New York, 1829; re-issued Ithaca, 1839).
The two principal collections of manuscript sources for the early history of the Otsego country are in Cooperstown: (1) a large collection, so miscellaneous as not to admit of summary, at Fenimore House (New York State Historical Association), and (2) the Cooper Family Papers, largely the personal and business papers of Judge William Cooper, still in the possession of the family.
In the following paragraphs I have listed other materials used in the preparation of this paper and particularly the sources of quotations. I am heavily indebted throughout the paper to my father, Roy L. Butterfield of Hartwick, N. Y., whose unrivaled knowledge of the early history of this region he has most generously shared with me.
The opening description of Otsego County is from J. H. French, Gazetteer of the State of New York (Syracuse, 1860), p. 551. For the early Dutch maps showing the Susquehanna headwaters, see I. N. P. Stokes, The Iconography of Manhattan Island (New York, 1915-28), I, plates 7, 7A, and p. 143ff. For George Clarke, John Lindesay, and the founding of Cherry Valley, see Edith M. Fox, Land Speculation in the Mohawk Country (Ithaca, 1949); also Campbell’s Tryon County. Later members of the Clarke family are dealt with in Birdsall’s Story of Cooperstown. On Hyde Hall see Edward W. Root, Philip Hooker ... (New York, 1929), p. 195-8, with accompanying plates.
Missionary activities among the Indians of this region are treated in Halsey’s Old New York Frontier, p. 52ff. Gideon Hawley’s narrative of his trip to Oghwaga is in E. B. O’Callaghan’s Documentary History of the State of New-York (Albany, 1849-51), III, 1031-46.
On John Christopher Hartwick see Memorial Volume of the Semi-Centennial Anniversary of Hartwick Seminary ... (Albany, 1866); Karl J. R. Arndt, “John Christopher Hartwick,” New York History, XVIII (1937), 293-303; and Henry H. Heins, Throughout All The Years: The Bicentennial Story of Hartwick in America 1746-1946 (Oneonta, 1946).
On George Croghan see Albert T. Volwiler, George Croghan and the Westward Movement 1741-1782 (Cleveland, 1926). Richard Smith’s highly informative diary of his trip to the Otsego country in 1769 was edited by Francis W. Halsey under the title A Tour of Four Great Rivers (New York, 1906).
The Fort Stanwix Indian deed of 1768 which opened the Otsego country to settlers is printed in O’Callaghan’s Documentary History, I, 587-91, with a map showing the line of demarcation.
The Edmeston-Carr correspondence is among the MSS at Fenimore House (N.Y.S.H.A.); it is of great value for the light it throws on pre-Revolutionary settlement in the western part of the present county. John Hicks’ letter from Lake Otsego, S October 1773 (probably to Richard Smith), is printed in J. F. Cooper’s Legends and Traditions of a Northern County, p. 9-10.
Tunnicliff and his troubles: W.T. Bailey, Richfield Springs and Vicinity (New York and Chicago, 1874), p. 12-14; J. F. Cooper, Reminiscences of Mid-Victorian Cooperstown, p. 50-2; Tunnicliff’s memorial (1798) in J. F. Cooper, Legends and Traditions of a Northern County, p. 80-5; Public Papers of George Clinton (Albany, 1899-L914), IIl-V (see index under Tunnicliff); V. H. Paltsits, ed., Minutes of the Commissioners for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies in the State of New York ... (Albany, 1909-10) (see index under Tunnicliff). The strongly rooted local tradition that John Tunnicliff, a colorful and important figure in the early history of the region, came to the Otsego country as early as 1755 or 1756 is certainly fanciful. In the Franklin Papers (American Philosophical Society) are letters between John Whitehurst and Benjamin Franklin, and between Tunnicliff and Franklin, which show that Tunnicliff was still in Derbyshire in 1763 and that he was still looking out for a piece of property in America as late as December 1776. It is possible that he made a trip to Philadelphia in the interval, but the earliest date for his arrival in Otsego seems to be between 1767 and 1769.
The partisan warfare during the Revolution is treated in Campbell’s Tryon Countyand Howard Swiggett’s War Out of Niagara: Walter Butler and the Tory Rangers (New York, 1933). Many of the officers’ journals in the expedition against the Six Nations were published in Journals of the Military Expedition of Major General John Sullivan ... in 1779 (Auburn, 1887), a publication of the State of New York; see also another State publication, The Sullivan-Clinton Campaign in 1779: Chronology and Selected Documents (Albany, 1929).
Griffith Evans’ journal of a trip down the Susquehanna in 1784 is printed in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, LXV (1941), 202-33. Washington’s letter to Chastellux describing his visit to Lake Otsego is dated 12 October 1785 (the visit took place during the summer) and is in his Writings, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington, 1931-44), XXVII, 189-90; see also p. 71, note, and p. 73. Campbell’s Tryon County (1831), p. 185-9, gives details on Washington in Cherry Valley.
On William Cooper see an article by the present writer, “Judge William Cooper (1754-1809),” New York History, XXX (1919), 385-408, which has bibliographical notes. The comment of Talleyrand on the migratory habits of Americans is in Hans Huth and Wilma J. Pugh, Talleyrand in America ... , American Historical Association, Annual Report for 1941, II (Washington, 1942), p. 90; Lincklaen’s observations on the same subject are in his Travels in the Years 1791 and 1792 in Pennsylvania, New York and Vermont, ed. Helen L. Fairchild (New York and London, 1897), p. 83-4. The reminiscence of William Cooper on his way to DeKalb is from Clare Benedict, Five Generations ... (London, 1929-30), I, 2. Cooper’s letter to Melcher is an autograph in the possession of the present writer. Moss Kent’s letter to William Cooper, dated 7 April 1796, is printed in J. F. Cooper’s Legends and Traditions of a Northern County, p. 132; and the Quaker letter to Cooper is in the same author’s Reminiscences of Mid-Victorian Cooperstown, p. 54-5. Hannah Cooper’s letter on “these Northern forests” was directed to Mrs. William Bache, 29 September 1799, and is in the Princeton University Library. Fenimore Cooper’s tribute to his father is in a letter dated 12 June  and will be found in Correspondence of James Fenimore-Cooper, ed. J. F. Cooper (New Haven, 1922), I, 340.
On the Franchots see John Warner Bishop, Stanislas Pascal Franchot (1774-1855) (Privately printed, 1935). Pascal’s own narrative, written in 1854, is at p. 18-22.
The account of James Butterfield is based on family papers and in other records in the possession of Mr. Roy L. Butterfield of Hartwick, who has restored Major James’ “White House” as near as possible to its original condition and now lives there himself.
The sketch of Beardsley is derived from his Reminiscences. On Father Nash see Birdsall’s Story of Cooperstown, p. 162ff.; and on Jabez D. Hammond see the sketch in Dict. Amer. Biog. (Hammond deserves a biography.)
Most of the data on Elihu Phinney have been drawn from the uniquely complete files of his Otsego Heraldand his rival John H. Prentiss’ Impartial Observer (later the Cooperstown Federalist) in the library of the New York State Historical Association at Cooperstown. In the same library a Cooperstown imprint list is being compiled and has proved helpful. (Thanks are due to Mr. James T. Dunn, librarian, for his liberal aid to me in this and related matters.) Other information on Phinney and his successors will be found in Milton W. Hamilton, The Country Printer, New York State, 1785-1830 (New York, 19S6); Clarence S. Brigham, History and Bibliography of American Newspapers (Worcester, 1947); S. T. Livermore, A Condensed History of Cooperstown ... (Albany, 1862); J. F. Cooper, Legends and Traditions of a Northern County (several letters from Phinney to William Cooper); Madeleine B. Stern, “Books in the Wilderness,” New York History, XXXI (1950), 260-82. William Cooper’s letter to the Websters requesting a printer is in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
On population trends, 1825-60, see Frost, Life on the Upper Susquehanna, chap. 8; my quotation is from p. 90.
1. [Dr. Butterfield’s wish came to pass with the publication of Isabel Thompson Kelsay, Joseph Brant, 1743-1807: Man of Two Worlds (Syracuse University Press, 1984). — Hugh C. McDougall]
2 [The story of William Cooper’s origins has now been told in detail in a Pulitzer prize-winning biography by Alan Taylor, William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995). — Hugh C. McDougall]
3. [This suggestion also bore fruit in the form of Louis C. Jones, ed., Growing Up in the Cooper Country: Boyhood Recollections of the New York Frontier (Syracuse University Press, 1965), which combines Levi Beardsley’s childhood memories with those of Henry Clarke Wright (1797-1870). — Hugh C. MacDougall]
* Lyman Butterfield has served as director of the Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, Virginia, since 1951. He was previously associate editor of The Papers of Thomas Jeffersonat Princeton. He spends his summers at Hartwick, near Cooperstown, New York, at the house built by Major James Butterfield in the 1790’s mentioned in his article. As the present book was about to go to press, it was announced that Mr. Butterfield will assume new duties in Boston at the end of 1954 as editor in chief of The Adams Papers, to be published for the Massachusetts Historical Society by Harvard University Press.