Fenimore Cooper as Country Gentleman: A New Glimpse of Cooper’s Westchester Years

James H. Pickering (University of Houston) *

Published in New York History, Vol. LXXII, No. 3 (July 1991), pp. 299-318.

Copyright © 1991, 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.]

Money, and the pursuit thereof is the root of much anxiety. It may also be a stimulus to literary creativity.

Of all the major American writers of the nineteenth century few have been more neglected or misunderstood by their own countrymen than James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851). Though fellow author Herman Melville confidently predicted, in memorializing Cooper the year following his death, that “a grateful posterity will take the best care of Fenimore Cooper,” he was clearly being optimistic. Gratitude and appreciation — in letters as in life — are predicated on knowledge and understanding. Yet even after the passage of well over a century, and the appearance of useful and often illuminating studies by Thomas R. Lounsbury (1882), Robert E. Spiller (1931), Henry W. Boynton (1931), Marcel Clavel (1938), James Grossman (1949), Warren S. Walker (1962), Daniel H. Peck (1977), Stephen Railton (1978), Wayne Franklin (1982), William P. Kelly (1983), Warren Motley (1987), and Robert Emmett Long (1990), as well as the masterful edition of the six-volume Letters and Journals by James Franklin Beard, Jr. (1960-1968), much of the puzzlement surrounding the man and his motives still persists and much of biographical importance remains obscure.

Particularly obscure are the four years between 1818 and 1822 that Cooper spent at Angevine farm in Scarsdale, amidst the rural abundance of Westchester County, some thirty miles from the city of New York — a period climaxed by Cooper’s decision of 1820 to [300] try his hand at the writing and publication of fiction. Traditionally, the chief source of information about the Angevine years has been the nostalgic recollections of the novelist’s oldest surviving daughter, Susan Augusta Fenimore Cooper (1813-1894), who late in life set down from memory the slender outline of facts upon which most of her father’s biographers and commentators have chosen almost exclusively to rely. 1

Though the untimely death of Professor Beard, who for more than forty years had been at work on what surely would have been the definitive biography of the author, means that a complete reconstruction of Cooper’s life will be postponed, legal records in the Westchester County Office Building and surrogate’s office in White Plains and the Otsego County records office in Cooperstown provide sufficient evidence to shed fresh and revealing light upon these years. 2 This evidence not only adds an entirely new dimension to Susan Cooper’s accounts but also makes somewhat more intelligible her father’s momentous decision to turn his back on a way of life to which by temperament and inclination he seemed best suited and embrace the unknown hazards of professional authorship.

On May 18, 1810, twenty-year-old lames Cooper of Otsego County and the United States Navy wrote home to Cooperstown and modestly confessed to his brother Richard that “Like all the rest of the sons of Adam, I have bowed to the influence of the charms of [a] fair damsel of eighteen.” 3 The “fair damsel,” the Coopers [301] learned, was Susan Augusta De Lancey (1792-1852), the second daughter of John Peter De Lancey (1753-1828) of Mamaroneck, the last prominent member of one of New York’s great colonial families. The story of the De Lanceys, beginning with Etienne (Stephen) De Lancey, who arrived quietly in New York in 1686, had been one of the great success stories of the eighteenth century. Endowed with native ability and ambition, which they enhanced by ties of blood with such colonial dynasties as the Van Cortlandts, Van Rensselaers, Bayards, De Peysters, Schuylers, and Heathcotes, the De Lanceys quickly rose above the relative obscurity of their Huguenot origins to a favored position in the politics, society, and commerce of provincial New York. 4 They prospered until the outbreak of the Revolution, when, like so many other influential and conservative New York families, they chose to cast their lot with the crown. The consequences of such loyalty proved disastrous; the tide of war turned against them and the victorious American Whigs not only stripped the De Lanceys of virtually all of their once-extensive American holdings but forced many of their most prominent members to flee into exile.

To John Peter De Lancey, however, fate was more kind. A career officer in the British army, he was eventually allowed to return from England and reclaim his American inheritance. In 1789, he settled in Mamaroneck with his wife, Elizabeth Floyd De Lancey, on lands inherited from his mother, and by the time that Cooper entered the family John Peter had established himself as a respectable member of the well-to-do country gentry that dotted rural Westchester.

As far as Fenimore Cooper was concerned, the choice of Susan De Lancey was perfect. The traditions of her once-proud family served to reinforce (and perhaps in some ways even to reclaim) the Otsego heritage of his pioneering father, Judge William Cooper (1754-1809), a man whom Dixon Ryan Fox so aptly described as “the mirror of partisan perfection as a Federalist squire,” and came to provide him with much of his beau-ideal of a landed gentry whose wealth, gentility, and natural talent allowed them to play an influential, often decisive, role in the affairs of their time. 5

[302] The wedding, on New Year’s Day, 1811, was a relatively simple affair. It was conducted by the Reverend Samuel Haskell of Rye before the immediate members of the De Lancey household and James’s brother William, who had dutifully gathered together in the parlor of Heathcote Hill, the family seat in Mamaroneck which John Peter De Lancey had erected in 1792 on the site of the pre-Revolutionary manor house of his maternal grandfather, Colonel Caleb Heathcote, Lord of the Manor of Scarsdale. The Heathcote Hill of Cooper’s day, with its neat fences and gates, its stately row of locusts, and its fruit trees and gardens, was a charming place, fully reflecting the prosperity of its owner. Perched on the brow of a low hill above the post road to Boston and facing a broad inlet of Long Island Sound and the neck of land that Cooper was later to call “Satanstoe,” it differed but little in its picturesque setting and rural seclusion from the manor house of Caleb Heathcote which had so impressed the adventurous Madam Knight as she made her memorable journey from Boston to New York in 1704.

Following a short wedding trip to Cooperstown, Cooper and his bride returned to Heathcote Hill where they spent the first months of their marriage, and then briefly set up housekeeping for themselves in nearby “Closet Hall,” a neat, but very small house, just beyond the bridge over the Sheldrake.” 6 By September 27, 1811, the date of the birth of their first child, Elizabeth, the Coopers were again living with the De Lanceys, and there they remained until after the arrival of a second daughter, Susan, in April of 1813 and the long-delayed acceptance of Cooper’s resignation from the Navy. That July the way was finally clear for Cooper to take his family home to Cooperstown. Apparently, such a move had been contemplated by Cooper for some time, for once back in Cooperstown he immediately began the building of “Fenimore,” a stone house on the western shore of Lake Otsego just north of the village. But Fenimore was never occupied, for in the autumn of 1817 the Coopers decided to return to Westchester.

Biographers have generally assumed that Cooper’s decision to [304] remove his family to Westchester was motivated primarily by his wife’s understandable desire to be closer to the De Lanceys and by the difficulty of obtaining the services of a competent nurse for the children in Cooperstown. 7 While both motives doubtless contributed to Cooper’s decision, it now seems fairly certain that the overriding consideration was a financial one.

Money had become a serious problem, and no one could have been more surprised at such a turn of events than Cooper himself. Although he had been without an independent income of his own, the years at Heathcote Hill had been happy and uncomplicated; money had apparently been the least of Cooper’s worries. He had known, of course, that there were a number of claims pending against his father’s estate, but in all probability it was not until Cooper returned to Cooperstown in the summer of 1813 that he discovered that the bulk of the estate itself was in jeopardy. 8 The discovery must have come as something of a shock, for the will that William Cooper filed with the Otsego surrogate in May of 1808, a year prior to his death, had been more than generous. To each of his five living sons (Richard, Isaac, William, Samuel, and James) and his only surviving daughter, Ann, the wife of Cooperstown pharmacist George Pomeroy, Judge Cooper left an outright cash legacy of $50,000 plus an elaborate schedule listing some twenty-three pieces of property. 9 Each of the property schedules affixed to the will, it should be noted, was valued by William Cooper at $9,300, and this amount was to be deducted from the $50,000 cash bequest along with other “advances” already made to several of the Cooper children. But, as the heirs soon learned, the greater part of William Cooper’s estate was tied up in bonded and mortgaged property scattered throughout Otsego, Tioga, Broome, Onondaga, Oneida, Herkimer, St. Lawrence, and Clinton Counties. To further complicate matters, immediate liquidation was prohibited, for Judge Cooper’s will specifically instructed its two executors, Richard and Isaac, to keep the bulk of the estate intact until January [305] 1, 1815 in order to satisfy any debts that might remain at the time of his death.

Such arrangements proved inadequate. Land prices fell in the wave of westward expansion that followed the War of 1812, with the result that William Cooper’s sizable holdings — once valued at some three quarters of a million dollars — simply could not be made to yield sums sufficient to satisfy the claims against the hopelessly entangled estate. 10 By January of 1815, the appointed date of settlement, it had become evident to all concerned that any final liquidation of Judge Cooper’s estate would have to be indefinitely delayed. Litigation and forced sales followed, with disastrous consequences for the Cooper heirs. Personal tragedy also began to intervene. One by one the Cooper brothers died — Richard in 1813, Isaac in 1818, and William and Samuel in 1819 — so that by 1819 Cooper found himself his father’s only direct male survivor, responsible not only for the remaining claims against William Cooper’s estate, but for the welfare of the wives and children of his four dead brothers as well. 11

As the youngest and least established of the Cooper children, the immediate fate of the entangled estate affected James Cooper the most. In order to provide for the needs of his growing family and to finance the costly stone house by the lake, Cooper resorted to selling off parcels of his Otsego holdings. He also allowed himself to draw freely against his father’s cash bequest, until by 1815, if Henry W. Boynton — Cooper’s first modern biographer — is correct, he had drawn more than $36,000 of the $40,700 cash bequest that his father had left him. 12 The two years that followed showed [306] only a further deterioration of Cooper’s financial affairs. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that by the summer of 1817 the possibility of returning to Westchester had become increasingly attractive.

The final decision was determined by events taking place in Westchester County itself. On March 1, 1816, for the nominal sum of ten dollars, John Peter De Lancey had deeded over to Susan Augusta Cooper and her husband one-fifth of the De Lancey lands “lying and being in the Towns of Mamaroneck, Scarsdale, and Harrison,” which took the form of a 159-acre farm in Scarsdale known as the Hickories. 13 The farm was the gift of Susan’s spinster aunt, Susannah De Lancey of Yorktown, who had deeded the property to her brother on December 15, 1795 on the condition that following her death it should go to her favorite niece, Susan Augusta. 14 The deed to the Hickories thus provided the Coopers with a concrete alternative to remaining in Cooperstown, and John Peter De Lancey at once stood ready to offer his son-in-law still another piece of land in Scarsdale as an added inducement. Located on the crest of the broad hill above the Hickories and blessed with an exceptionally fine view of Long Island Sound, it was an ideal spot on which to build a new family home. The Coopers agreed. A six month visit to Heathcote Hill was extended indefinitely, and, accordingly, on January 3, 1818, John Peter De Lancey formally handed over to Cooper a deed in trust to the 57-acre farm. 15 There, on the brow of the hill, Cooper at once began to erect the small cottage known as Angevine, named after the old Huguenot family who had long tenanted the land under Colonel Caleb Heathcote. 16 By early 1818, then, James Cooper had, at least for the time being, severed his connection with Cooperstown, and with more than 200 [307] acres of good Westchester Iand at his disposal seemed determined to settle down to the relatively tranquil life of a gentleman farmer. 17

Although the traditional picture that biographers have insisted on painting of Cooper’s years at Angevine is in many respects a misleading one, to his children and to the local farmers and gentry in whose society he moved with an easy familiarity, James Cooper, Esquire of Scarsdale no doubt seemed a model of rural stability. And Cooper on his part did nothing to disturb such an image, for unquestionably he greatly relished the kind of life that he found in Westchester. He joined the local Bible and agricultural societies, and served with the New York militia as paymaster, quartermaster, and, finally, as aide-de-camp to his friend Governor De Witt Clinton. “More than once,” Susan Cooper recalled, “we little girls had the pleasure of admiring him in full uniform, blue and buff, cocked hat and sword, mounted on Bull-head before proceeding to some review.” 18 He entered into politics, and as secretary to the county Republicans campaigned vigorously in 1820 for the re-election of Clinton over the “Farmer’s Boy,” Daniel D. Tompkins, the political darling of the Bucktails of Tammany Hall, who had been born in a house not far from Angevine.

Cooper devoted the remainder of his time to his growing family, to his landscape gardening — then something of a vogue — and to making “improvements” on the somewhat ostentatious house, built in a “French chateau style,” which his Westchester neighbors were to come to refer to as “Cooper’s folly.” Regular trips to market and the De Lancey home in Mamaroneck, some four miles distant, and equally easy Sunday rides by carriage to Christ’s Church in Rye or to Trinity Church in New Rochelle — John Peter De Lancey, a staunch Anglican, maintained pews at both — completed a quiet family routine. The highlight of these years, apart from the important discovery that he could write and sell a novel, was Cooper’s purchase in April of 1819 of a controlling interest in the whaler Union which sailed from Sag-Harbor across the Sound under the command of Captain Jonathan Osborne of Wainscott. 19

[308] But behind the pleasures of country life and the adventures of whaling lurked a darker reality which continued to pose a threat to both; for, as the documents preserved at White Plains and Cooperstown reveal all too clearly, Cooper’s seemingly blissful existence on the hill at Angevine was beset by the same kind of financial anxieties which had haunted his temporary return to Cooperstown. Money remained a serious problem, and Cooper was in[309]creasingly forced to manipulate his affairs in order to extricate himself from a growing personal debt. The expenses involved in building the cottage at Angevine had been considerable, but the immediate source of Cooper’s troubles seems to have been the necessity to outfit and equip the Union for its three voyages to Brazilian waters between 1819 and 1822. Cooper needed cash, and in order to raise it he audaciously proceeded to mortgage the 159-acre Hickories farm no less than three times. The first mortgage, dated June 25, 1818, was with Samuel Jones of Oyster Bay, Long Island, a relative of Mrs. Cooper’s, for $3,500. According to the terms of the mortgage, Cooper was to repay Jones the sum of $7,000 within one year, June 25, 1819. 21 But Cooper failed to meet the deadline; and, after Jones’s death in November of 1819, his executor, Gilbert N. Jones, entered a suit against Cooper in New York’s Supreme Court of Judicature where he won a judgment of $7,000 and an additional $14.41 for damages. Cooper attempted to make good on the debt, and by October of 1821 he had succeeded in repaying Jones all but $1,979.04. On October 23, 1821, Gilbert Jones then passed the mortgage on to Francis Bignon of New York, by his guardian David S. Jones, who in turn transferred it in May of 1824 to Cooper’s Scarsdale neighbor George Willis for $2,108.24, the amount still due on the original note. 21

On February 19, 1820, Cooper took out a second mortgage on the Hickories with William Shotwell, Jr. of New York City for $1,199.20, and on May 1, 1822, a third with Robert McDermutt, a New York stationer and bookseller who supplied much of the paper for Cooper’s early novels, for an additional $2,000. 22 Cooper [310] either could not or had no desire to meet either of these new mortgages, for on May 1, 1823, he sold the eastern 80 acres of the Hickories to Willis for $3,000. 23 On November 20, 1823, Cooper disposed of the other half of the Hickories to one Joshua Brooks for $1,500 to finally extricate himself from the financial tangle encumbering the farm. 24 In seven short years, therefore, the Coopers had managed to realize more than $11,000 on a piece of property for which they had originally paid the sum of ten dollars.

The year 1819 — the year in which he plunged into whaling with the purchase of the Union and took out the first of the mortgages on the Hickories — seems to have marked a crisis in Cooper’s somewhat frantic efforts to balance his finances. Between January 20 and December 29, 1819, Cooper sold off more than 2,050 acres of his Otsego holdings for a sum in excess of $16,000. His best customer was Colonel Thomas Ward, a wealthy Newark, New Jersey lawyer, who alone purchased more than 1100 acres. At about the same time, Cooper also disposed of certain of his holdings at De Kalb, New York, the St. Lawrence County village which Judge Cooper had founded in May of 1803. 25

The mood of desperation which apparently characterized most [311] of these transactions is well illustrated by the “usurious contract,” as Cooper later described it, into which he entered with his onetime friend Robert Sedgwick, a prominent New York lawyer and the brother of American authoress Catharine Maria Sedgwick. On March 12, 1819, Cooper mortgaged to Sedgwick four Otsego lots in order to secure “an original bond or obligation” for $3,024.47 contracted in the summer and early fall of 1818, and which less than a year later had grown to the remarkable final sum of $5,021. 26 Such a solution must have been particularly embarrassing to Cooper, for three of the mortgaged lots were those just north of the village of Cooperstown which he had carefully selected and purchased in 1811-1812 for the building of Fenimore.

Cooper’s very willingness to contract the original debt, despite its heavy rate of interest, no doubt hints at the profitable return that he shortly expected to enjoy from the voyages of the Union. If so, then he was disappointed, for Cooper’s biographers have generally agreed that the profits from the Union were not large, a fact apparently confirmed by his willingness to sell his interest in the whaler after the completion of her third voyage. 27 Cooper did succeed in repaying Sedgwick a portion of the debt, but in 1823, when the situation became hopeless, he finally authorized Sedgwick to “close the business” by selling the lots “in a manner that the villagers might enter fairly into the purchase, or a man of taste could be brought to purchase” so that “it would bring more than the encumbrance.” Sedgwick, however, failed to follow Cooper’s instructions, and the sale of the lots did not yield sums sufficient to satisfy the obligation. In a series of lawsuits which Sedgwick brought against him in 1824-1825, Cooper successfully countered [312] with an accusation of bad faith and the suits were finally withdrawn. 28

Looking on from Heathcote Hill less than four miles away, the conservative De Lanceys understandably took a rather dim view of the financial manipulations taking place at Angevine, particularly as they affected the Hickories, a piece of land that had been in the Heathcote-De Lancey family since the early years of the eighteenth century. As a result, relations between Scarsdale and Mamaroneck became severely strained. A quarrel developed between Cooper and his brother-in-law, Thomas James De Lancey (1789-1822), and, though its exact nature remains obscure, it was no doubt compounded by the fact that in the heated gubernatorial election of 1820, Thomas James had been an ardent partisan of the defeated Bucktail candidate, Daniel P. Tompkins. Family differences at length reached serious proportions and were finally climaxed in 1822 by the temporary alienation of Cooper and his father-in-law and the complete rupture of communications between the two families.

According to James Franklin Beard, Jr, the final separation came as the result of an effort by the Coopers to have another trustee appointed for the Angevine property following the death in 1820 of Edward Floyd De Lancey, who had shared the trusteeship with his brother Thomas ever since their father had turned the farm over to the Coopers in 1818. Although there is no record in White Plains that Cooper “in anywise encumbered or alienated [Angevine] ... or subjected [it] to any change whatever on account of his debts,” a condition apparently specified in the original deed, the De Lanceys refused their request. 29 Accordingly, in the fall of 1822, the Coopers vacated the farm and took a house at 554 Broadway in New York City — a move which Cooper’s biographers, relying on the statements of Susan Cooper, have always credited to Cooper’s desire to be closer to his publishers and a better education for his children. 31 The late fall and early winter of 1822 marked the low point in the relations between the Coopers and the De Lanceys. Finally, in late [314] December, Thomas James De Lancey suddenly died, and Cooper, at the insistence of his wife, approached her father about a reconciliation. Their polite and formally stiff exchange of letters made it absolutely clear that there was to be neither explanation nor discussion of the issues involved. “Indeed,” wrote Cooper in his initial letter of December 23, 1822, “I doubt if they would be understood, so involved and intricate is the subject. Concessions,” he added, “I take to be utterly out of the question, from either party.” 31

Both parties accepted the terms, and an understanding, however tenuous, was reached between the two families. But as the year 1823 began, the Coopers were still in legal possession of the Angevine property. Accordingly, in early February, in a further effort to restore harmony by eliminating one of the chief causes of their difficulties, the Coopers entered a petition in the New York Court of Chancery to reconvey Angevine to the De Lanceys. The petition was granted on February 15, 1823, and six days later, in a tripartite indenture among Thomas James De Lancey, Jr. (the surviving son of Thomas James De Lancey) by his mother and guardian, Mary Jane Ellison De Lancey, James and Susan Augusta Cooper, and John Peter De Lancey, the Coopers deeded Angevine back to John Peter De Lancey for the sum of one dollar. In order to make their position — and their innocence — clear, however, the Coopers took pains to specify in the deed of conveyance itself that since “misapprehension concerning the intent” of the original deed had arisen among the parties involved,

the said James Cooper and Susan Augusta his wife, have voluntarily and of their own accord consented to make this conveyance with the intention of proving to all who may be concerned that they wish not to profit by any error although both voluntarily declare that they did not believe that any such error hath been made. 32

Although the Coopers had demonstrated their good faith, the evidence indicates that the misunderstanding over Angevine convinced John Peter De Lancey that his sailor-turned-novelist son-in-law was never again to be directly entrusted with De Lancey [315] property. Cooper’s financial troubles, as has been indicated, followed him from Scarsdale to New York, and during the next four years, try as he might, even the income from his first novels failed to leave him solvent. Foreclosures, forced sales, and suits entered against him by his creditors — including a suit by the Navy Department for $190 — continued to plague him. The Navy Department claimed that Cooper still owed them $190 out of the recruiting funds entrusted him in 1809-1810, and in the fall of 1822 Cooper was forced to travel to Washington at his own expense to settle the claim. In view of his financial position, his complaint to Secretary of the Navy Smith Thompson that “I am compell’d to leave home, at an expense of near a $100 to settle a balance of $190 or submit to a loss which my circumstances will not afford,” is undoubtedly sincere. 33 In the fall of 1823, the Sheriff of New York actually seized and inventoried Cooper’s household goods, although the goods themselves were never sold. 34 All Of this, Of course, did little to convince the elder De Lancey of his son-in-law’s fiscal responsibility.

But John Peter De Lancey was forgiving, and on January 11, 1826, two years before his death, he turned the Angevine farm over to his son William Heathcote De Lancey (1797-1865), the future Bishop of Western New York, in trust for Susan Augusta Cooper, “in consideration of the love and affection which the said John Peter De Lancey beareth for the said Susan Augusta.” The terms of this deed are revealing. Angevine was to be rented, and after taking care of the farm’s upkeep and needed improvements, William H. De Lancey was directed to

pay over upon request the residue of said rents, issues, and profits to the said Susan Augusta, for her own separate use and benefit, and notwithstanding coverture and without being in any manner subject to the debt, control, disposal, or engagements of her said husband. 35

Should Susan die before her husband, then the annual payments were to go, on demand, to James Cooper until the property was [316] sold or conveyed to another party. If, on the other hand, Susan outlived her husband, the premises were to go directly to Susan and her heirs. James Cooper, it is clear, was never again to have direct control of Angevine, although Susan was to be allowed to occupy the farm at any time provided there were no tenants.

Possibly alluding to one of the sources of their former dispute, and perhaps as a gentle reminder to Cooper himself, John Peter further directed his son to maintain a strict account book in which all receipts and expenditures on Angevine were to be faithfully recorded so that “evidence might remain upon the death of the said John Peter De Lancey, that he had not applied to his own use or benefit any of the rents, issues or profits or other proceeds of the said premises.” 36 Then, having carefully outlined all of the above terms and directives, John Peter interestingly enough concluded with a final clause stating that since the actual residence of William Heathcote De Lancey in Philadelphia rendered “his personal attention to the management of the said premises inconvenient,” that he himself was determined to retain “in his own hands the custody and management” of Angevine as long as his health should permit. John Peter De Lancey himself would keep the accounts, and, should he err, his heirs would be obliged to make good the deficiency. 37

One additional document in White Plains throws further light on the strained relations between the Coopers and the De Lanceys during this period: John Peter De Lancey’s will, dated January 28, 1823, drawn up just one month after Cooper’s letter offering to renew communications between the two families. After disposing of the usual household plate, linen, family pictures, farming equipment, and a small stipend of one hundred guineas to his eldest daughter, Anne Charlotte De Lancey, long a resident of England and already well provided f the will of his sister, John Peter directed that his son William H. De Lancey, and his two unmarried daughters, Elizabeth and Martha De Lancey, were to receive [317] equal shares of the residual estate and divide farms and lands totalling more than 1,200 acres in Mamaroneck, Scarsdale, and North Salem.

Susan Augusta De Lancey Cooper was not forgotten, but her share was placed under a strict trust to be administered by “my friend Peter Augustus Jay” (1776-1843), the son of Governor John Jay and also a good friend of Cooper’s. The trust included an outright grant of $2,500, one-fifth of the proceeds of the sale of the 360-acre Saxton farm in Scarsdale, and the rent or proceeds from an eventual sale of a 16O-acre farm in North Salem. The money was to be carefully invested by Jay in public or government stocks, and he was directed to pay Susan “in regular payments the whole net annual income or product of the said trust money for her sole and separate use independent of her husband.” The same stipulations later attached to the 1826 deed of trust on Angevine were to apply. If Cooper died first, Susan was to be given the assets of the trust to do with as she saw fit. But if her husband outlived her, the funds from the trust were to be directed toward the “support and education” of their children. James Fenimore Cooper himself was never to have any direct benefit from his father-in-law’s estate, for should the Cooper children die before their father but after their mother, the assets of the trust were to be returned to the De Lancey family and be divided among John Peter De Lancey’s other heirs. 38

It would thus seem abundantly clear that Cooper’s Westchester years were occupied by a good many more pressing concerns than those of, to use Robert E. Spiller’s term, the “somewhat modified patroon” and exemplary country gentleman that his biographers have traditionally pictured. 39 The enchanting facade of the gentleman farmer that Cooper presented to his children, his neighbors, and most of the scholars who have chronicled his life was, in reality, simply that — a facade. The real Cooper of the Angevine years was a man beset by continual financial problems imposed upon him both by fate and his own speculative ineptness, [318] problems accentuated by a family quarrel that eventually denied him any direct benefits which he might otherwise have expected from his father-in-law’s estate. That these family problems were compounded by Cooper’s hypersensitivity and lack of tact in interpersonal relationships (a side to his personality that was, in a measure, responsible for the prolonged war with his countrymen that dominated his later life) also seems clear. Placed in this light, Cooper’s seemingly casual decision of 1820 to become a professional author takes on the overtones of a far more serious personal commitment than is usually believed. At the time of his first novel, Precaution, Cooper was most decidedly not, as Spiller has pictured him, “firmly established in his own privileged place in a stable society.” 41 When the definitive life of the novelist is finally published, it will show that the foundations of the gothicized Otsego Hall on Lake Otsego to which Cooper returned from Europe as a successful novelist in 1833 were, in truth, no sturdier than the foundations of Abbotsford on Wye; that Cooper, “the American Scott,” like Sir Waiter Scott labored for most of his adult life under a serious financial burden that only the earnings of a prolific novelist were finally able to overcome.


1 See, particularly, Susan Cooper’s “Small Family Memories,” Correspondence of James Fenimore-Cooper, ed. James Fenimore Cooper (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1922), 1:35-48. There is also a good deal of biographical information scattered throughout her Pages and Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper (New York: W. A. Townsend, 1861).

2 Beard’s involvement with Cooper and work towards the biography dated back to his graduate school years at Princeton in the late 1940s. In taking up Cooper as the subject of his dissertation, Beard discovered that Cooper scholarship and an accurate reconstruction of Cooper’s life was severely limited by the lack of available and collected sources. Accordingly, in 1948, he entered into an agreement with Cooper’s two great-grandsons to obtain access to the family’s holdings of published letters, documents, and papers. The first fruit of Beard’s labors was the six volumes of Letters and Journals published between 1960 and 1968. As that effort was drawing to a close, Beard obtained approval of the Center for Editions of American Authors of the Modern Language Association to initiate the Cooper Edition, of which he became Editor-in-Chief. The first four volumes of this edition appeared in 1980 and 1981.

3 James Fenimore Cooper, The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, ed. James Franklin Beard, Jr. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), 1:17.

4 See D. A. Story, The De Lanceys: A Romance of a Great Family (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1931).

5 Dixon Ryan Fox, “The Landed Gentry and Their Politics,” Proceedings of the New York State Historical Association, 17 (1919), 206.

6 Susan Cooper, “Small Family Memories,” 29.

7 Such an assumption doubtless had its origin in certain comments made by Susan Cooper herself. See “Small Family Memories,” 20.

8 See Cooper’s letter of May 18, 1810, Beard, Letters and Journals, 1:18.

9 Otsego County Surrogate’s Office (Cooperstown). Registry of Wills. Liber B. p. 237. To James, the youngest, was given the 23 pieces of land listed under schedule number six. After deducting their value (S9,300). James was left with a cash legacy of $40,700.

10 Henry Walcott Boynton, James Fenimore Cooper (New York: Appleton-Century, 1931), 55.

11 The task of trying to consolidate the Cooper holdings proved impossible and on May 12, 1823, two and a half column notices began to appear in The Freeman’s Journal (Vol. 15, No. 33, p. 15), one of the two Cooperstown weeklies, advertising a sheriffs sale of property that once belonged to Isaac, Samuel, William, and Richard Cooper. Journalist William Leete Stone, visiting Cooperstown in 1829, after an absence of fifteen years, sadly noted in his journal changes in the circumstances of the heirs of William Cooper: He said that all were living “and in affluent circumstances” when he last visited the village. “Now four of the sons were dead. and their families left all but destitute!” William Leete Stone, “From New York to Niagara, Journal of a Tour ... in the Year 1829,” Buffalo Historical Society Publications, 14 (1910), 214.

12 Boynton cites an unspecified family document, but is in error in supposing that the cash legacy still totalled $50,000. See note 9, above. Boynton, Cooper, 71.

13 Westchester County Registry of Deeds (White Plains), Liber S, p. 160. The Hickories is designated as parcel of land number five on the 1774 map of the Manor of Scarsdale filed in White Plains and reproduced in J. Thomas Scharf, History of Westchester County, New York (Philadelphia: L. E. Preston & Co., 1886), 1:141.

14 Westchester County Registry of Deeds, Liber S, p. 195. Susannah De Lancey died on May 26, 1815, and shortly afterwards Cooper himself helped to inventory her goods.

15 Cooper, “Small Family Memories:’ 35. This deed apparently was never filed at White Plains, but its details are hinted at in a subsequent deed of 1823 (Westchester County Registry of Deeds, Liber W. p. 305). The Angevine property corresponds to the eastern portion of parcel number eight on the manor map cited above.

16 It was this location, though not this house, that subsequently served as the site for the Wharton House, “The Locusts,” in Cooper’s novel of Revolutionary Westchester, The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground (1821).

17 Cooper’s mother died in 1817, thus severing one more link to Cooperstown and making a move to Westchester just that much easier. Cooper had his mother’s maiden name, Fenimore, added to his own by act of the New York State Legislature on March 17, 1826 to fulfill a pledge that he would perpetuate her name.

18 Cooper, “Small Family Memories,” 37.

19 Cooper, who had abiding love for the sea, had first become interested in the possibilities of whaling while visiting his wife’s relatives, the Nicolls, at Shelter Island, New York. Eliza Floyd Nicoll, Mrs. Cooper’s cousin, had married Charles Thomas Dering (1790-1859), a Sag Harbor shipping merchant, and it was Dering who became Cooper’s partner in the purchase of the Union, which took place on April 15, 1819. Cooper held the controlling interest in the vessel and was responsible for fitting her out for her voyages. See Anna Mulford, A Sketch of Mr. John Sage Smith, of Sag-Harbor, N.Y. (Sag-Harbor: J. H. Hunt, 1897), 28-36.

20 Westchester County Record and Mortgage Book, Liber S, p. 268. Samuel Jones (1734-1819) was a prominent New York lawyer and political figure. He was the first cousin of Thomas Jones, the New York judge and Loyalist historian who had married Mrs. Cooper’s aunt, Anne De Lancey.

21 Ibid., Liber 805, pp. 31, 35.

22 Ibid., Liber U, p. 78; Liber X, p. 148. On May 11, 1822, Cooper borrowed an additional $700 from McDermutt, assigning him as collateral the rights to the third edition of The Spy, then being published by Wiley and Halstead. The note was due in 30 days, June 11ᵗʰ, but on June 13ᵗʰ, McDermutt allowed him further credit and Cooper thus authorized him “to retain the amount of the said note out of the proceeds of a cargo of oil and [spirits?] already assigned him in security for the payment of two thousand dollars, as if the said seven hundred dollars form’d part of the consideration of said assignment and subject to the same conditions provided that note remains unpaid at the time of the arrival in port of the said ship the Union. ... ” (From a document in possession of the New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown.) it is probable that the $2,000 referred to was the money Cooper had borrowed on the Hickories. In April of 1826 Cooper speaks of being in debt to McDermutt for $1,300. See Letters and Journals, I:133-134; 3:264n; 5:220.

23 Westchester County Registry of Deeds, Liber W, p. 364. William Shotwell, Jr. apparently turned over his mortgage of February 1820 to Joshua Brooks, for there is a deed in White Plains dated May 13, 1823 (Liber W, p. 366) between Joshua Brooks and George Willis in which Brooks released his claim to the eastern 80 acres of the Hickories to Willis for the consideration of one dollar. Brooks was evidently thoroughly frustrated in his efforts to collect on the Shotwell mortgage, for the deed notes that he had already “recovered two several judgments in the Supreme Court of Judicature of New York State against James Cooper.” McDermutt transferred his interest in the Hickories to Willis on the same day for the similar sum of one dollar (Liber W, p. 367).

24 Ibid., Liber Z, p. 275. According to still another deed on the western portion of the Hickories dated March 24, 1825 (Liber Z, p. 272), Cooper was unable to pay Brooks the amount awarded him by the Court of Judicature, and. consequently, on June 19. 1821. the Sheriff of Westchester County, John Townsend, seized the property. December 24, 1823, Brooks, already with a vested interest in the Farm, bought the rights to the entangled property at public auction for $250. This deed of 1825 between Sheriff Townsend and Brooks finally cleared the title to his half of the farm.

25 Otsego County Registry of Deeds (Cooperstown), Liber AA, p. 254; Liber Z, pp. 373, 279, 314, 532, 493; Liber BB, p. 476; Liber V. p. 297; Beard, Letters and Journals, 1:24. Among the St. Lawrence County properties was the frontier store opened in 1803 with goods the elder Cooper transported from Albany. See Franklin B. Hough, A History of St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties, New York (Albany: Little & Co., L853). 288-292.

26 Otsego Registry of Mortgages, Liber G, p. 474. The “bond or obligation” referred to in the mortgage consisted of two loans which Cooper had obtained from Sedgwick on August 1, 1818 and October 1, 1818, for $1,984.32 and $1,060.50 respectively. Both notes fell due on May 1, 1819, but on March 12, 1819, Cooper, apparently realizing that he could not meet them, entered into this new arrangement with Sedgwick, some seven weeks before the deadline. Cooper himself was unable to account for the disparity between the total of the two loans and the sum specified in the mortgage agreement. “I had other dealings with S — ,” he suggested to his lawyer, Peter Augustus Jay, in 1825, “and may have paid him that balance, over the interest. ... ” Beard, Letters and Journals, 1:121.

27 See, Robert E. Spiller, Fenimore Cooper, Critic of His Times (New York: Minton, Balch & Company, 1931), 71; Beard, Letters and Journals, 1:59n; and Mulford, Sketch of Smith, 32.

28 Beard, Letters and Journals, 1:121-125n.

29 Beard, Letters and Journals, 1:81n. The quoted statement is from the deed of reconveyance of February 21, 1823, in Westchester County Registry of Deeds, Liber W, p. 305.

30 Cooper, “Small Family Memories,” 1:48.

31 Beard, Letters and Journals, 1:87.

32 Westchester County Registry of Deeds, Liber W, p. 305.

33 Beard, Letters and Journals, 1:77.

34 Ibid., 1:84

35 Westchester County Registry of Deeds, Liber 32, p. 79.

36 Ibid.

37 William Heathcote De Lancey acted as trustee until June 23, 1850, when he petitioned the New York Supreme Court to be allowed to resign the trusteeship in favor of Cooper’s son, Paul Fenimore Cooper. During the period of his trusteeship, De Lancey received and paid into the trust a total of $2,794.90. The Angevine property remained in the Cooper family until February 6, 1854, when it was sold to James Humes of New York for $1,000. Westchester County Registry of Deeds, Liber 260, pp. 284, 375.

38 Westchester County surrogate’s Office, Registry of Wills, Liber L, p. 206. An inventory of John Peter De Lancey’s goods, mortgages, cash on hand, and shares of stock, will be found in Surrogate’s file No. 19-1828.

39 Spiller, Fenimore Cooper, 64.

40 Robert E. Spiller, James Fenimore Cooper, Representative Selections, Introduction, Bibliography, and Notes (New York: American Book Company, 1936), xxv.

* James Pickering is Professor of English and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Houston.