New York in the Revolution: Cooper’s Wyandotté

James H. Pickering * (Michigan State University)

Published in New York History, Vol. XLIX, No. 2 (April 1968), pp. 121-141.

Copyright © 1968, New York State Historical Association, and placed online with its kind permission.

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

HAVING achieved surprising success in 1821 with The Spy, an exciting tale of intrigue in the Neutral Ground of Westchester County, it was only natural that James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) should turn again to the American Revolution as the historical setting for his fiction. He did so four years later in Lionel Lincoln (1825), the first volume of a projected series of American tales to be known collectively as “Legends of the Thirteen Republics.” The setting was Boston, the year 1775; but despite Cooper’s vivid description of the Battle of Bunker Hill, later praised for its historical accuracy by no less an authority than George Bancroft, and the wealth of historical details which his careful researches uncovered, the novel’s absurd and heavily romanticized plot left Lionel Lincoln a failure.

Cooper returned to the American Revolution once more, however, some twenty years later, in Wyandotté, or The Hutted Knoll (1843), a novel celebrating the Revolutionary past of his own Otsego country. As an historical novel Wyandotté is one of Cooper’s more successful efforts, and though overshadowed — as indeed all of his fiction seems to be — by the ever-popular Leatherstocking Tales, Wyandotté is deserving of far more attention than it has hitherto received. While two recent studies have done much to illuminate the thematic problems of the novel, 1 no one has yet examined in detail the {122} historical materials which went into Wyandotté’s composition. The following essay attempts to do just that. By investigating the novel from the point of view of its background, its historical fabric, and its sources, I have attempted to suggest something of Cooper’s method as a writer of American historical fiction — a method which, I am prepared to maintain, is germane to almost all of Cooper’s better American historical novels.

Like his contemporary Sir Walter Scott, Fenimore Cooper consistently enjoyed his greatest success as an historical novelist when he chose to depict an age not far removed from his own and a locale with which he was generally, if not intimately, familiar. Wyandotté was no exception. Moreover, its subject was a natural one. By 1843, all five of the Leatherstocking tales were safely behind him, and, in casting about for new fields to conquer, the challenge offered to Cooper by the famous border wars of the New York frontier must have been almost irresistible. Material for romance filled the Mohawk region. The lingering memories of the Revolution suffused the very atmosphere of the place, and understandably so, for no area of colonial North America had suffered such horrors and wanton destruction as the scattered settlements of the Mohawk Valley, where the names Oriskany, Fort Stanwix, German Flats, Canajoharie, and Cherry Valley had become synonymous with a type of warfare as unique in the annals of American history as the legendary struggles between Cow-boy and Skinner in the Neutral Ground of Westchester.

The oral traditions of the border wars formed, of course, an integral part of the Otsego heritage of Cooper’s youth. Many of the early inhabitants of the village of Cooperstown were duly inscribed on the pension rolls of the Revolution, and, as Campbell, Stone, and Simms — the three best known antiquarians of the New York frontier — amply discovered, such veterans were filled with reminiscences and anecdotes which they delighted in telling and retelling. The Coopers of Cooperstown had quite literally grown up with the country; and in the course of time it was almost inevitable that such stories should make their way to Otsego Hall to stir the imaginations of William Cooper’s children. On numerous occasions such regular visitors as the venerable Colonel Hendrick Frey of nearby Canajoharie — later to become the Major Hartmann {123}{124} 1ᵃ of The Pioneers (1823) 2 — must have thrilled his listeners with tales of Joseph Brant and his dusky savages, the notorious Walter Butler and his green-shirted rangers, and the elegant Sir William Johnson of Johnson Hall. Concrete evidence of the border wars lay close at hand. The Continental Road, leading from the Mohawk to the head of Lake Otsego, and the remains of Clinton’s dam at the outlet of the Susquehanna, bore vivid evidence of the famous Clinton-Sullivan expedition against the Iroquois of 1779. 3 And at nearby Cherry Valley, which Cooper no doubt often visited as a boy, were to be seen the lingering traces of the terrible massacre of November, 1778. “It was ravaged and burnt by an incursion of the British and Indians from Canada,” Cooper wrote years later in his Notions of the Americans (1828), ” ... and many a dreary tale is told of the bloody incidents of that day.” 4

{125} By 1843, the year in which Cooper published Wyandotté, several well known histories of the border wars of Revolutionary New York had already made their appearance; and Cooper, therefore, wisely chose to remove his tale from the central events of the day to a remote valley in Otsego County where the imagination of the novelist could enjoy greater freedom. The novel itself, in fact, seems to have been intended, in part at least, as a deliberate rejoinder to such naive, provincial, and openly Whig interpretations of the border wars as William W. Campbell’s Annals of Tryon County (1831) and William Leete Stone’s Life of Joseph Brant (1838), Poetry and Prose of Wyoming (1841), and Border Wars of the American Revolution (1843), for as Cooper warned in his preface,

We have been so much accustomed to hear everything extolled, of late years, that could be dragged into the remotest connection with that great event [the Revolution), and the principles which led to it, that there is danger of overlooking truth, in a pseudo patriotism. Nothing is really patriotic, however, that is not strictly true and just. ... That there were demagogues in 1776, is as certain as that there are demagogues in 1843, and will probably continue to be demagogues as long as means for misleading the common mind shall exist (I, v). 5

{126} Cooper may have had in mind Stone’s books particularly, for following his return from Europe in 1833 Cooper had come into open conflict with Stone, the editor of the powerful New York Commercial Advertiser and a former friend and resident of Cooperstown, in a series of libel suits growing out of the famous dispute over the Three Mile Point picnic grove and the novel Home as Found (1838). Interestingly enough, when Cooper and Stone tangled again in a federal courtroom in May of 1842, over Cooper’s version of the Battle of Lake Erie (from his naval history), one of Cooper’s counselors was none other than William W. Campbell of Otsego, the author of the Annals of Tryon County.

But, regardless of the particular historian or historians whom Cooper may have had in mind, the fundamental historical premise underlying Wyandotté is as clear as it had been some two decades earlier in The Spy: the erroneousness {127} of the assumption that the Revolution is to be interpreted solely as a struggle between high-minded patriots and unprincipled Tories. In this respect, Cooper’s historical sense was much sounder than most of his New York contemporaries. He knew that many of the gossipy stories told of the wily and rapacious Tories — stories that Campbell and Stone recorded with ah the gravity of historical fact — were basically little better than the myths and folktales of two generations of victorious and self-righteous Whigs. He knew that to draw such a rigid and unyielding distinction between the contending parties was to underestimate the complexity of human motives and to falsify what had just as often been an internecine tragedy, setting neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend, and, as in the ease of John and Hendrick Frey of Canajoharie, brother against brother.

Although the central action of Wyandotté begins in the fall of 1776, the novel itself opens some eleven years earlier, in the spring of 1765, as Captain Hugh Willoughby, an English veteran of the French wars, leads a small party of workers and artisans to “Willoughby’s Patent,” a 7,000 acre tract west of Lake Otsego in what was then the wilderness of Tryon County. The party, composed of Willoughby, eight axe-men, a carpenter, a mason, a millwright, and Willoughby’s comrade-in-arms, an invalid sergeant by the name of Joyce, is guided by the Tuscarora Indian, Wyandotté, or “Saucy Nick” as he is more commonly known, who had been sent out the year before by Willoughby to discover a suitable place for settlement. The party journeys up the Mohawk River from Albany to the head of Lake Canaideraga (Canadarago), which they mistake for Lake Otsego, and then travel, by way of Oaks Creek, down the Susquehanna to where it joins the Unadilla River. From there, they travel up the Unadilla to a small creek (undoubtedly Butternuts Creek) and ascend to the Hutted Knoll, a mound surrounded by a beaver pond. The pond is drained and settlement begun. By fall, the work has sufficiently advanced to allow Willoughby to return to Albany for his wife.

The return journey of the Willoughbys to their new home by way of Lake Otsego the following spring (1766), 6 provides {128} Cooper with an excellent opportunity to describe the scenes of his youth as they must have existed before George Croghan, deputy Indian agent to Sir William Johnson, took out his 100,000 acre patent on the area some three years later. It also conveniently allows Cooper to introduce some of the other major characters of the tale: Mrs. Willoughby, Michael O’Hearn — an Irish servant recently arrived in America — , and Joel Strides — a hired laborer from Connecticut. The other members of the Willoughby family are occupied elsewhere: young Robert Willoughby has just been commissioned in the Royal Americans and the two daughters, Beulah and Maud, are at school in Albany.

Ten years pass during which time “Willoughby’s Patent” takes on the appearance of a permanent settlement. The fields are divided “by low post-and- rail fences” and barns, outbuildings, and the log cabins of the settlers — now numbering more than a hundred — dot the flat and the edges of the forest. The Knoll itself has been converted into a kind of manor house, complete with lawns, walks, shrubbery, and orchards, and Captain Willoughby enjoys a position of affluence:

He visited Edmeston of Mount Edmeston, a neighbour less than fifty miles distant; was occasionally seen at Johnson Hall, with Sir William; or at the bachelor establishment of Sir John, on the Mohawk; and once or twice he so far overcame his indolence, as to consent to serve as a member for a new county, that was called Tryon, after a ruling governor (I, 53).

The main action of the tale begins in the first weeks of the Revolution (May, 1775) with the microcosmic world of the Hutted Knoll about to be plunged “into the current of some of the minor incidents of the struggle itself (I, 53).” Robert Willoughby arrives at the settlement by the way of Johnson Hall with communications from Governor Tryon: “He thinks, now Sir William is dead, that with your estate, and new rank, and local influence, you might be very serviceable in sustaining the royal cause ... (I, 77).” Hugh Willoughby, now Sir Hugh by virtue of an inherited baronetcy, is immediately caught up in the dilemma of conflicting allegiances: to king or to adopted country. He is not alone; his quandary is shared by other important gentry of the province, for as Robert makes clear:

All the De Lanceys, with most of their strong connec{129}tions and influence, are with us — with the king, I mean — while all the Livingstons and Morrises are against as. The other families are divided — as with the Cortlandts, Schuylers, and Rensselaers. It is fortunate for the Patroon, that he is a boy (I, 96). 7

But like Mr. Wharton of Westchester in The Spy, Willoughby refuses to make a final decision for either party; instead, he wavers between the two. He freely acknowledges the issues involved in the conflict and yet allows his son to remain a British officer and his daughter Beulah to marry an American one. As a result, the stage for tragedy is set.

Apprised of the political situation by his son, Sir Hugh assembled his settlers and announces to them the commencement of formal hostilities at Lexington and Concord. A full two-thirds of his settlers are Americans of New England origin and they quickly fall under the influence of Willoughby’s overseer, Joel Strides, a Yankee of the worst sort who typifies for Cooper the shrewd and clever New Englander whose “narrow and indolent selfishness” and egalitarian political notions prevent him from being able “to draw the real distinctions that separate the gentleman from the low-minded and grovelling ... (I, 99).” Strides, by nature something of a demagogue, begins plotting to turn the situation to his own advantage. He shrewdly reasons that should Captain Willoughby side with the crown, the Willoughby patent may well fall under his control and management when confiscated by the new American government. “It is surprising how many, and sometimes your pure patriots,” Cooper sourly comments, “are produced by just such hopes as those of Joel’s (I, 145).” (Possibly Cooper was thinking here of just how quickly the names of his wife’s relatives, the De Lanceys, and their friends — all possessors of large estates — had been attached to the Act of Attainder passed by the New York legislature in October of 1779.)

With talk among the settlers of forming a committee of safety and rumors of Whig activity elsewhere in Tryon Coun{130}ty, Strides decides to act. With his companion and fellow conspirator, Daniel the Miller, he leaves the Knoll by way of Fort Stanwix in an effort to betray Robert Willoughby to the Americans. When this fails, Strides opens

communications with certain patriots of a moral calibre about equal to his own, but of greater influence; to throw out divers injurious hints, and secret insinuations concerning the captain; and to speculate on the propriety of leaving so important a person to work his will, at a time so critical (I, 155).

The time, however, is still not ripe for open opposition to the Willoughbys, and Strides returns to the Knoll to await a more auspicious moment.

The remainder of the year passes without incident and the Willoughby family returns to their estate in April of 1776, after wintering in the settlements, to find that the protracted hostilities between Britain and America have made independence a topic of serious discussion. The valley of the Hutted Knoll remains at peace during the summer of 1776, although Joel has ingeniously managed to delay the hanging of the heavy gates designed to give the manor house complete protection. In September, the crisis comes to a head when, through the “malignant machinations” of Joel, a party of patriots and Indians descends upon the Knoll and besieges its inhabitants. Still Hugh Willoughby vacillates in his political attachments. Although he admits that his sentiments now lie with the colonies, he is unreconciled to political independence. At the same time, he refuses to leave his patent to accept Oliver De Lancey’s offer of a command in one of the regiments of his recently formed Loyalist brigade. By now, however, it is clearly too late.

While the invading party includes some twenty-two Mohawk Indians, 8 four Oneidas, and one Onondaga, the remainder are white men who mask their quasi-legal activities beneath the protective covering of Indian warpaint. Like the Skinners of the Neutral Ground, these men are largely unprincipled and are motivated more by their desire for personal gain than by patriotism. The New England settlers desert the {131} Knoll in a body and the tiny garrison led by Captain Willoughby and Robert, Sergeant Joyce, and the Scotch mason, Jamie Allen, are no match for their cunning and unscrupulous foe. Before Beulah’s husband, Colonel Beekman, arrives to restore order “in the name of the Congress” and puts an end to Strides’ display of “public virtue,” Captain Willoughby, Mrs. Willoughby, and Beulah are all dead.

In Wyandotté, as earlier in the case of both The Spy and Lionel Lincoln, Cooper proceeded on fairly accurate historical grounds, for as he notes in the preface to the novel itself:

The history of the borders is filled with legends of the sufferings of isolated families, during the troubled scenes of colonial warfare. Those which we now offer to the reader, are distinctive in many of their leading facts, if not rigidly true in the details. The first alone is necessary to the legitimate objects of fiction (I, v).

The details surrounding the origin, settlement, and development of the Willoughby patent, the topographical description of its setting, as well as the allusions to the political and military events, movements, and personalities in the world which lies beyond the secluded valley of the Hutted Knoll, all have the ring of strict geographical and historical authenticity about them. 9 Francis W. Halsey, the first modern historian of the New York frontier, has, in fact, praised Cooper’s representation as a “fairly accurate picture of those times, in so far as pertains to dates, locality, and events.” 10 As internal evidence shows, in describing the historical origin of “Willoughby’s Patent,” Cooper had before him as a model George Croghan’s original Otsego patent of 1769 (I, 10). And it is likely as well, that much of the historical color which Cooper was able to bring to his tale was a by-product of the researches for his Chronicles of Cooperstown, the commemorative history written five years earlier in 1838, for which he systematically consulted “authentic publick records, private documents, more especially those in possession of the Cooper family, and living witnesses, whose memories and representations might be confided in. 11

{132} But despite the general accuracy and authenticity of Wyandotté as a whole, Cooper’s claim early in the novel that he intended not to celebrate the charms of the New York frontier but rather “to exhibit them in a somewhat novel, and yet perfectly historical aspect (I, 10),” must be qualified. Cooper himself was willing to admit in his preface, for example, that he was open “to the charge of a slight anachronism, in representing the activity of the Indian a year earlier than any were actually employed in the struggle in 1775 (I, vi).” This, of course, was the case, for the Six Nations of Iroquois displayed little inclination to enter the Revolutionary dispute until 1777 when Joseph Brant led his warriors out of Niagara and down through the Mohawk Valley as part of the British force commanded by Barry St. Leger. But such an anachronism has its value. In refusing to clutter his novel with villainous Tories and their Indian allies, and by making it clear that the Indians who descend upon the Knoll owe their allegiance to the Americans, Cooper serves to remind his readers that both parties contending for supremacy on the New York frontier were willing, and even eager, to employ the Indian against their adversaries.

Another historical objection which may be raised against Cooper’s novel is that in so carefully laying his scene in the wilderness of what was later to become Otsego County, the novelist seems to have overlooked a number of existing settlements in the Unadilla Valley and to have created the impression that the Hutted Knoll is much more secluded from the outside world in 1775-1776 than history itself would strictly allow. By 1772, in fact, there were at least two settlements in the present Unadilla-Sidney area, the largest of which was the so-called “Johnston Settlement” founded by a Scotchman, the Reverend William Johnston. 12 And, at about the same time, a number of other settlers under Colonel Staats Long Morris had established themselves on Butternuts Creek — where Cooper apparently situates the Hutted Knoll — in an area known as the “Old English District.” 13

{133} But certainly it is pointless to quibble with Cooper here; the existence of historical lapses in Wyandotté intentional or not — is of relatively little importance. (In fact, one undoubtedly could, and perhaps should, argue in almost every instance that what the novel sacrifices in the way of historical accuracy it simultaneously gains in effectiveness as a work of literary art.) What the presence of such historical lapses chiefly tell us then is rather less about Cooper the historian than about Cooper the historical novelist, and taken together they serve to underscore the fairly consistent theory of Romantic fiction which underlies and explains Cooper’s conception of his role as an interpreter of the American past. As Cooper had learned as early as the preface to The Pilot (1824):

The privileges of the Historian and of the writer of Romances are very different, and it behooves them equally to respect each other’s rights. The latter is permitted to garnish a probable fiction, while he is sternly prohibited from dwelling on improbable truths; but it is the duty of the former to record facts as they have occurred, without a reference to consequences, resting his reputation on a firm foundation of realities, and vindicating his integrity by his authorities. 14

The key words above, of course, are “privileges” and “rights” and therein lay the principal attraction of the historical romance. Though he was fully capable of writing history — and good history at that as his History of the Navy amply attests — Cooper had discovered that there were ways of getting at the central truths of history without necessarily becoming a slave to historical facts. Truth he would have, but it would be the kind of truth that showed through the larger fictional or representational whole and at the same time left the imagination of the artist essentially free. The historical romance, as Cooper admirably demonstrates in Wyandotté and elsewhere, could indeed be an effective way of recreating the historical past and exploring its essential truths, as long as the artist (and his readers with him) remembered that he was, after all, writing {134} fiction and not history and that each was a discipline with “privileges,” “rights,” and rules all its own.

Though the historical materials which went into Wyandotté were doubtless for the most part a conglomeration of the bits and pieces which the novelist had picked up through his long years of association with the Otsego region, Cooper may well hint at one of the major sources for the novel when he remarks fairly early in Wyandotté that Captain Hugh Willoughby upon occasion “visited Edmeston of Mount Edmeston, a neighbour less than fifty miles distant (I, 53).” The allusion is clearly to Captain William Edmeston, a veteran of the French and Indian wars, who was rewarded for his services in the 48ᵗʰ Regiment with a grant of some 5,000 acres under the terms of a royal proclamation of 1763. Edmeston and his brother, Lieutenant Robert Edmeston, who received a similar grant, first tried to locate in the disputed region of the New Hampshire Grants (the present state of Vermont), but in 1770 wisely chose to establish their claims east of the Unadilla River and west of George Croghan’s Otsego patent, in what is now the town of Edmeston, Otsego County. The negotiations were carried out by one Persafor Carr, 15 a former sergeant in the Edmestons’ regiment, who subsequently became their agent for the Mount Edmeston tracts when the brothers returned to England.

As the “Persafor Carr Papers,” now in the possession of the New York State Historical Association, 16 reveal, once back in England William Edmeston proceeded to dispatch to Carr a number of settlers for his American estate, including, apparently, a number of Irish indentured servants. In 1773, William Edmeston himself finally returned to America to supervise and develop personally his promising holdings west of Lake Otsego. But with the outbreak of the Revolution, Edmeston, now a British major, quite naturally attracted the attention and suspicions of the patriotic element in Tryon County; and it was not long before he found himself placed on his best behavior as a parolee in either Kingston or Albany {135} (the accounts differ on this point). With Major Edmeston under the watchful eye of the Americans, the management of Mount Edmeston again fell to Carr, a known Loyalist who was strongly suspected by the patriot committees at German Flats and Cherry Valley of selling provisions to the notorious Joseph Brant. In September of 1778, disaster struck the Edmeston estate when, evidently by mistake, a party of British Indians fell upon the settlement, burned Carr’s house, and, as a final insult, carried both Carr and his wife off to Niagara and then into Canada.

By the end of the war William Edmeston had been returned to active duty at Gibraltar, and when Carr and his wife retraced their way to Mount Edmeston in 1783, he was once more retained by Edmeston to direct the rebuilding of the settlement. In 1788, Robert Edmeston returned to America, quarreled with Carr, and finally dismissed him. Popular sentiment, however, rallied behind Carr, who was well known throughout the Otsego region for his kindness and hospitality. John Tunnicliff, an influential farmer, tried to mediate the dispute; but, as Tunnicliff reported in a letter to William Cooper, his efforts proved fruitless, even though Carr’s friends {136} and neighbors signed an affidavit testifying to his “frugal & industrious” dealings on behalf of his landlord. Carr’s direct appeal for relief to William Edmeston, on the grounds of old age and a “State of absolute Penury,” was equally without success. Finally, however, a small piece of property was secured for him, and Carr remained in Otsego County until his death in 1804, when he was buried on John Tunnicliff’s farm near Schuyler Lake. 17

{137} The parallels between the Carr-Edmeston story and the tragedy of Captain Willoughby are, of course, at once apparent. In the first place, like the Edmeston brothers, Cooper’s Captain Willoughby receives his grant as a reward for his services on behalf of the crown in the French and Indian wars and subsequently comes to rely heavily on the help of his former sergeant. Just as William Edmeston dispatched a number of indentured servants to his overseer, Carr, and speaks in his letters of making “compacts” with some Scotch settlers and of returning to America with “a Good Carpenter and Mason,” so Captain Willoughby employs as a “servant of all work” one Michael O’Hearn, “an Irishman who had recently arrived in America,” as well as a number of “mechanics” including the Scotch mason Jamie Allen. (Allen, it should be noted, was an actual historical figure whom Cooper lifted bodily out of the Cooperstown of his youth.) 18 During the Revolution, both Edmeston and Willoughby suffer the distrust of the patriots of Tryon County, and both men live to see the estates upon which they have lavished so much attention attacked by hostile Indians. And, it should be added, both men came to have serious doubts about the fidelity of their respective overseers, Persafor Carr and Joel Strides.

One final parallel is also of considerable interest. According to a local tradition recorded in Duane Hurd’s History of Otsego County (1878), when the Carrs returned to Mount Edmeston following their release from captivity in Canada, they found that

Their home was in ruins, and the fields which they had labored so hard to redeem from the forest were covered with briers and underbrush. No human voice in the wilderness to welcome them, and no relic left as a remembrance of their once happy home. “Hark! what is that noise? ‘tis the snapping of brush under the tread of some animal which is coming in this direction.” The sound comes nearer, nearer, and at last through the thicket and before the astonished exiles walks the old family horse. He had been overlooked by the marauding savages, and during these long years had lingered around the old home living on wild herbage and buds. 19

Such a tradition, extravagant though it is, may well have suggested to Cooper the final “reconciliation” scene in Wyandotté. In much the same way, when Robert Willoughby and his wife return to the Hutted Knoll in 1795, they find not only Michael O’Hearn, the Irishman, and Saucy Nick, the Tuscarora, but as they stand at the graves of the elder Willoughbys they hear a noise and out of the underbrush steps the Reverend Mr. Woods, the chaplain, who has lived “a sort of hermit’s life” since the tragedy of 1776. All these parallels, plus the unmistakable reference within the novel itself, surely suggests that the story of “Edmeston of Mount Edmeston” stands in some sort of relation to Cooper’s Wyandotté.

How much the novelist actually came to know of the history of Mount Edmeston and the relationship between Carr and the two Edmeston brothers is, of course, something which is impossible to ascertain completely — but, certainly, the very presence of such an allusion is an indication that Cooper was at least generally familiar with the origins, growth, and subsequent history of the Mount Edmeston settlement. Many of these facts must have been common property in early Cooperstown — “in the air” as the expression goes — and to one as deeply interested in the formative history of his own county as Fenimore Cooper such details as those given above could not have been totally unknown. But the case does not have to rest here. A number of specific channels of potential information can, in fact, be isolated — channels which, taken together, would make it indeed surprising had Cooper not been privy to such an interesting leaf from Otsego’s past.

To begin with, the locale itself was familiar ground. At least part of the Mount Edmeston tract eventually came to be included within the boundaries of the so-called “Cooper Patent,” 21 and the Cooperstown deed books further reveal that between May of 1817 and November of 1819, Fenimore Cooper himself sold off several pieces of inherited property in the town of Edmeston. 21 And, certainly, the unmistakable connection of Judge William Cooper with the final phases of {139} the Carr-Edmeston relationship, as noted above, brings at least part of the Mount Edmeston story directly within reach of the ears of the future novelist. 22 Furthermore, it is entirely possible that the Persafor Carr papers were among the “private {140} documents” consulted by Cooper for his Chronicles of Cooperstown in 1838. They were later discovered in the Cory House in Cooperstown, built in 1807 by Edmeston’s legal agent, Robert Campbell (1781-1848), who for many years also served as Cooper’s business and legal adviser. Interesting as well, is Susan Cooper’s recollection, recorded in her “Small Family Memories,” that during the period of her father’s temporary return to Cooperstown, 1813-1817, he was “quite intimate” with a Mr. Edmeston, an Englishman “of property” who kept “bachelor’s hall” with fellow countryman James Aitchison, 23 the man to whom Cooper later dedicated The Spy. This was Andrew Edmeston, a near relative of the two brothers, who became the recipient of a portion of the Mount Edmeston estate, and, presumably, the recipient of its history as well. At his death in 1826, he left considerable property “on both sides of the River Unadilla in the counties of Otsego and Chenango.” 24

Thus it would seem that Cooper was, beyond question, in a position to know a great deal about “Edmeston of Mount Edmeston.” But here again, regardless of the extent of Cooper’s knowledge, or lack of it, the many parallels between the lives and careers of William Edmeston and Cooper’s Hugh Willoughby are obviously suggestive. And, if they do nothing else, they do serve to give authenticity to Cooper’s novel and to remind us that Wyandotté, like The Spy before it, is deeply rooted in the historic past of Cooper’s native New York. Romances though both tales may be, they nonetheless exhibit a composite picture true to the spirit, if not the literal fact, of the life and times of Revolutionary New York, and as such are capable of providing through the medium of fiction a sense of the past which so often seemed to elude the would-be historian of Cooper’s own day.


I should like to express my thanks to Mr. Roy L. Butterfield of Hartwick, New York for reading an earlier draft of this essay and making suggestions for its improvement. To Mr. Butterfield, who down through the years has done so much to broaden our knowledge of the regional history of central New York, I owe a special debt of gratitude for the help that he has given me in my own efforts to explore Cooper’s relationship to his Otsego past.


1 See, Donald A. Ringe, James Fenimore Cooper (New Haven, 1962), pp. 101-105; and Kay Seymour House, Cooper’s Americans (Ohio State University Press, 1965), pp. 49-56.

1a [This article, as originally published, included both long footnotes and a large number of illustrations relating to Otsego County but with no direct relevance to the text. The footnotes are now at the end of the text, and the illustrations have not been reproduced. As a result the original pagination of the text portions, shown, as usual, in {curly braces}, may seem a little odd.]

2 Colonel Hendrick Frey (1734?-1827) and his brother, Major John Frey (1740-1833), were the grandsons of Heinrich Frey, a native of Zurich, who settled on the Mohawk in the late seventeenth century. Major John Frey became an active and dedicated patriot. He served as Tryon County’s first elected sheriff and on its important committees of correspondence and public safety, was wounded at Oriskany, and later was captured by Indians and carried off into Canada. His older brother, Hendrick, fell heir to the family estates at Canajoharie and married the sister of Nicholas Herkimer, the hero of Oriskany. He fought beside Sir William Johnson in the French wars and later became Sir William’s close friend and executor. When Tryon County was formed in 1772, Hendrick Frey was its first representative to the provincial legislature. With the outbreak of the Revolution, however, he tried to remain neutral, but as an intimate of the Johnsons, he soon fell under the suspicions of his Whig neighbors. Frey was arrested, brought before the Tryon County Committee of Public Safety (of which his brother was a member), and then jailed at Albany. In 1777, he was released in the custody of his friend General Philip Schuyler and allowed to return to Canajoharie. But rumors again began to swirl about his head. “People of all sorts” were seen about his grist mill on Canajoharie Creek and he was cited by the Tryon Committee as being “a most dangerous Person.” Shortly thereafter Hendrick Frey was rearrested and sent to a Hartford, Connecticut jail where he remained until 1783. Cooper long remembered “Old Frey with his little black peepers, pipe, hearty laugh, and broken English. ... ” [James Fenimore Cooper, The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, edited by James Franklin Beard (Cambridge, 1964), 1II, 41]. A third brother, Bernard, or Barnard (?-1812), apparently was an active Loyalist who went to Oswego with Guy Johnson in 1775 and later served with Butler’s corps of Tory rangers. This information on the Freys has been obtained from the following sources: S. L. Frey, “An Old Mohawk Valley House,” The Magazine of American History, VIII (May, 1882), 337-345; Ernest Greene, “Frey,” Ontario Historical Society Papers and Records, XXXIII (1939), 45-74; Nelson Greene, The Story of Old Fort Plain and the Middle Mohawk Valley (Fort Plain, New York, 1915), pp. 37-39, 159; Public Papers of George Clinton (Albany, 1900), II, 229, 285, 287, 330-331, 742-743. See also, James Fenimore Cooper, The Chronicles of Cooperstown (Cooperstown, 1838), pp. 26-28.

3 Chronicles of Cooperstown, pp. 11-13.

4 James Fenimore Cooper, Notions of the Americans: Picked Up by a Traveling Bachelor (Philadelphia, 1840), I, 2-3.

5 James Fenimore Cooper, Wyandotté, or The Hutted Knoll. A Tale (Philadelphia, 1843), I, v. All subsequent references are to this, the first, edition published in two volumes by Lea and Blanchard.

6 Mr. Roy L. Butterfield has informed me that the fictional route of Captain Willoughby described here in Chapter II (Volume I) is precisely the route taken by Cooper’s friend Jacob Morris in locating at the same spot in 1787. See note 22 below.

7 James Fenimore Cooper married Miss Susan Augusta De Lancey of Heathcote Hill, Westchester on January 1, 1811, and from that time on the history of the De Lancey family took on a special significance for him. As the quotation suggests, most of the De Lanceys were Loyalists, and many came to play an active and prominent role in the Revolutionary history of New York. In gathering materials for The Spy (1821), Cooper was directly indebted to the Revolutionary activities of certain members of the De Lancey family. For a discussion of this indebtedness, see the introduction to my forthcoming edition of The Spy to be published by the College and University Press (New Haven, Connecticut).

8 The presence of twenty-two Mohawk Indians among the ranks of the patriots would appear to be historically inaccurate. During the Revolution the great majority of the Mohawk tribe took up arms at the side of their old allies the British and suffered accordingly.

9 There are records of a number of knolls such as Cooper describes in the novel in the Unadilla-Susquehanna area. See, for example, Francis Whiting Halsey, The Old New York Frontier, Its Wars with Indians and Tories, Its Missionary Schools, Pioneers and Land Titles, 1614-1800 (New York, 1901), p. 26.

10 Ibid, p. 122.

11 Chronicles of Cooperstown, p. 3.

12 Halsey, The Old New York Frontier, pp. 26, 111, 131-134; Jay Gould, History of Delaware County, and the Border Wars of New York (Roxbury, New York, 1856), pp. 62-63; Francis Whiting Halsey, The Pioneers of Unadilla Village, 1784-1810 (Unadilla, New York, 1902), pp. 3-4.

13 Halsey, The Old New York Frontier, p. 127. Until 1769 and 1770, however, there were no land grants along either the Unadilla River or Butternuts Creek. Cooper also apparently overlooks the important Indian village of Oghwaga, further down the Susquehanna, where, according to Halsey (pp. 27-28), “at the time of the Revolution existed the largest Indian town in the valley, with an orchard, a church, a fort, and many other signs of civilization. It was long a central trading post for the Susquehanna and Delaware rivers, where Indians from the Far West and South met traders from Albany and Schenectady. ... “

14 James Fenimore Cooper, The Pilot; A Tale of the Sea (New York, 1824), I, v.

15 Carr’s first name is variously spelled as “Parsefor,” “Parcifer,” “Percifer, and “Persifer.”

16 These papers were edited by Edward P. Alexander as ‘The Persafor Carr Papers (1767-1789)” and published serially in The Otsego Farmer and The Otsego Republican, LIII (Cooperstown) between April 7, 1939 and May 19, 1939 as follows: (April 7, 1939), 3; (April 14, 1939), 8; (April 21, 1939), 2; (April 28, 1939), 2; (May 5, 1939), 2; (May 12, 1939), 2; (May 19, 1939), 2.

17 The above details on the lives and activities of William and Robert Edmeston and Persafor Carr are taken from the following sources: Edward P. Alexander’s introduction to “The Persafor Carr Papers (1767-1789),” The Otsego Farmer and The Otsego Republican, LIII (April 7, 1939), 3; Duane Hamilton Hurd, History of Otsego County, New York, with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches (Philadelphia, 1878), pp. 143-144; William W. Campbell, Annals of Tryon County or, The Border Warfare of New York During the Revolution (New York, 1831), pp. 105-106; Calendar of N. Y. Colonial Manuscripts, Indorsed Land Papers ... 1643-1800 (Albany, 1864), pp. 377-378, 445, 451, 467, 489; Minutes of the Albany Committee of Correspondence 1775-1778 (Albany, 1923), I, 379, 381, 580-581, 646, 654-655, 662, 711; Public Papers of George Clinton, III, 504; V, 415, 417. For some of the details of the Carr-Edmeston story the author also owes a debt of gratitude to Mrs. Marion Brophy of the New York State Historical Association research staff.      John Tunnicliff, an Englishman who arrived in Otsego and bought property in the Croghan Patent prior to the Revolution, also had an interesting story to tell. A suspected Loyalist, Tunnicliff suffered a good deal of privation at the hands of American soldiers, and during the war saw his house and barn burned, his crops destroyed, and his stock run off. Tunnicliff himself was forced to leave his farm for some seven years. His petition of grievances of 1798, entitled “A Memorial of John Tunnicliff Sufferings,” will be found in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Legends and Traditions of a Northern County (New York, 1921), pp. 93-96.

18 James Allen (176?-1831) known locally in Cooperstown as “Scotch Jamie,” was employed by William Cooper to build a stone house in the village as a wedding gift for his daughter, Ann Cooper, who married Cooperstown pharmacist George Pomeroy in 1804. The beautiful house, with the initials of the two lovers — “G.A.P.C.-1804P” — on its side, still stands as a tribute to AlIen’s skill as a mason. Little is known apparently about the origins of Allen, and it may well be that he was one of the artisans sent to Otsego by William Edmeston.

19 Hurd, History of Otsego County, pp. 143-144.

20 Cooper, Legends and Traditions of a Northern County, p. 10.

21 See, for example, Otsego County, Registry of Deeds (Cooperstown), Liber Y, 233; Liber Z, 314; Liber AA, 254; Liber BE. 476.

22 While it is entirely possible that Cooper knew Persafor Carr before his death in 1804, an equally convenient source lay close at hand in Colonel Hendrick Frey, who, like William Edmeston, was jailed by the patriotic element of Tryon County as a suspected Loyalist sympathizer (see note 2 above). Because of the prominent role that the two men played in the pre-Revolutionary affairs of the Mohawk Valley, it seems virtually certain that Frey knew both Edmeston and the history of his settlement. Cooper’s Wyandotté also undoubtedly owes something to the history of the Morris family of Butternuts. In 1769, Staats Long Morris, an officer of the crown, took out a patent of some 30,000 acres along Butternuts Creek southwest of Lake Otsego. A year later, Morris and his wife, the Duchess of Gordon, visited his wilderness tract and then managed to persuade a number of families to settle in the area. In 1785, the Morris Patent was reassigned to his brother and uncle, Lewis and Richard Morris, to indemnify them for losses incurred during the Revolution. The estate then passed into the hands of Lewis Morris’ son, General Jacob Morris (1755-1844), a veteran of the Revolution, who in 1787 settled the site of the future village of Butternuts (now Morris) in what was then virtually a wilderness. Jacob Morris, for years one of the foremost citizens of Otsego County, became the social and political intimate of Judge William Cooper, and his friendship with the Cooper family remained unimpaired down to the time of his death in 1844. See, for example, Fenimore Cooper’s letter to General Morris of November, 1833, Letters and Journals, III, 12-13. Simeon DeWitt’s map of 1790, locating both the 1769 patent of Staats Long Morris and 1770 patents of the brothers Edmeston, is to be conveniently found appended to Halsey’s Old New York Frontier.

23 Susan Fenimore Cooper, “Small Family Memories,” Correspondence of James Fenimore-Cooper, edited by James Fenimore Cooper (New Haven, 1922), I, 17-18.

24 Andrew Edmeston’s will, Otsego County Surrogate’s Office (Cooperstown), Registry of Wills, Liber G, 51. Very little is known about the fate of the two Edmeston brothers, though it is presumed that both died in England. Hurd in his History of Otsego County states that after Colonel William Edmeston’s death his estate fell to his “heirs and minor children residing in England.” Andrew Edmeston apparently fell into one of these categories. His will lists his address as Berwick-upon-Tweed — Cooper in his Chronicles of Cooperstown (p. 75) says be died by drowning — and it lists among his heirs an uncle, William Edmeston, a nephew, Robert Edmeston, and a son born in 1824. Whether or not this William Edmeston is the Colonel Edmeston of Mount Edmeston is not clear, though the date of the will makes it highly unlikely.

* Professor Pickering is Graduate Chairman and Associate Chairman of the Department of English at Michigan State University.