Who was Elizabeth Cooper?

Alan Taylor * (University of California at Davis)

Published in Heritage: The Magazine of the New York State Historical Association, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Autumn 1994), pp. 14-19.

Note: Heritage is a quarterly magazine, intended for a general audience, published since 1984 by the New York State Historical Association.

Copyright © 1994, New York State Historical Association, and placed online with its kind permission.

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[15] Judge William Cooper (1754-1803) is a relatively well-known figure in the history of upstate New York. Born in obscurity in Pennsylvania, he began to ascend as a storekeeper in Burlington, New Jersey during the early 1780s. In the later 1780s he became rich as a successful speculator and frontier developer in the lands around Lake Otsego, where he founded Cooperstown in 1786. He moved there with his family in late 1730. A prominent politician, he presided over the Otsego County Courts during the 1790s and he served two terms in Congress. But he is best known as the father of the novelist James Fenimore Cooper and as the inspiration for Judge Marmaduke Temple, a prominent character in the first of his son’s Leatherstocking novels, The Pioneers.

Far less is known about the Judge’s wife and the novelist’s mother, Elizabeth Fenimore Cooper (1752-1817). She remains an elusive, shadowy figure seen fleetingly and incompletely through brief and often cryptic observations in the letters of others. The voluminous Cooper papers contain no letters written by or directly to Elizabeth — apparently because she could not write, not even a signature. When obliged to co-sign a land deed or lease she made an “X” as her mark. When away from home, William had to obtain news of his family from friends and neighbors who could write. From Cooperstown in early 1790, Cooper urged his friend Henry Drinker: “Be sure to find out how my Family is as my Burlington Friends Neglects me on that head.” That she could not write does not mean that she could not read. Indeed, letters from family and friends refer to her delight in reading, especially novels. In the late 18ᵗʰ century it was common for families to teach their daughters to read but not to write. Her silence in the documents leaves the biographer with great latitude to reconstruct Elizabeth’s personality and story. James Beard, Jr., insists, “Mrs. Cooper was a patrician who detested the frontier. With her books, her music, her flowers, and her hospitality to all respectable company, she insisted on the primacy of civilized values.” Henry W. Boynton reached a harsher conclusion: Elizabeth Cooper was “an imperious personage, less friendly to all the world than her genial mate.” A fuller and fairer reading of the evidence suggests that Elizabeth was neither a patrician nor “an imperious personage,” but a plain Quaker woman who became, over the years, ever more withdrawn and sickly. She was often ill in body and spirit in reaction to what Boynton calls her husband’s geniality: his boisterous engagement with outsiders to the frequent neglect of his own household.

An impecunious wheelwright from Byberry, Pennsylvania, William Cooper began his ascent from poverty on November 3, 1774 by marrying Elizabeth Fenimore, the daughter of a well-to-do Quaker farmer who lived in Willingboro, just outside the market town of Burlington, New Jersey. Surviving documents indicate neither how nor when the couple met. Family tradition maintains that Richard Fenimore opposed his daughter’s marriage to so poor and young a husband, which would explain their civil ceremony (Quaker practice required parental approval for the couple to marry within the unity). Two weeks shy of his 20ᵗʰ birthday, Cooper married unusually young: he was more than a year short of the legal age when young men could first make binding contracts for themselves; he was two-and-a-half years younger than his bride. She came from a much wealthier family. In 1774 her father was the second richest taxpayer (of 68) in Willingboro Township. He owned 500 acres and 20 horses and cattle — an especially Large and prosperous farm for such an old (first settled by English folk in the 1670s), fertile, and populous county. It could not have reassured Elizabeth’s father to hear his new son-in-law declare “that he was poor and she must shift for herself.” Richard Fenimore may have soaked his anger in alcohol. In August of 1775 (nine months after the marriage), the overseers of the Burlington Monthly Meeting charged Fenimore “with taking strong drink to excess, with prophane Swearing and other reproachful Conduct for which they have unsuccessfully treated with him.” Finding Fenimore “in a situation unfit to be spoke with,” the overseers were “discouraged by his disorderly conduct from paying him another visit.” But it is also possible that Richard Fenimore’s personal crisis had long been simmering, prior to the marriage, and perhaps accounting for Elizabeth’s anxious haste to leave his household.

Whatever her other attractions, Elizabeth Fenimore’s potential inheritance would have been alluring to a penurious and ambitious young wheelwright — especially as she had no brothers to serve as a Fenimore male heir. Richard Fenimore had to anticipate passing on his property to a grandson born to one of his three daughters. It is suggestive that Elizabeth and William married suddenly and without parental approval within a week of her sister Rachel’s more orderly marriage within meeting to John Heaton. Had William Cooper [16] applied his considerable charm to persuade Elizabeth that they could and should win a race to provide a grandson? If so, William and Elizabeth did win, as they quickly conceived a son, born on August 12, 1775 — exactly nine months after their marriage — and named him Richard Fenimore Cooper. In any event, Richard Fenimore did favor his first grandson and namesake with the largest bequest of land given in his will drafted in April 1789.

At first the new couple, their son, and then their first daughter, Hannah (born in 1777 and sharing the name of both William’s and Elizabeth’s mothers), lived in Byberry where William continued to ply his trade and to hope for a reconciliation with Richard Fenimore. About 1778 the Coopers moved to Willingboro and began to draw upon the Fenimore estate. Apparently mollified, Richard Fenimore seems to have given William Cooper at least 169 acres at a crossroads three miles southwest of Burlington City. Rather than farm the land or set up there as a wheelwright, William Cooper established a store and probably a tavern and developed a small commercial hamlet of a dozen buildings that he dubbed “Cooperstown” — a little forerunner of his New York venture. Not satisfied with his ascent from wheelwright to country storekeeper and real estate developer, Cooper gambled that he could also succeed at the more competitive, but potentially more lucrative, mercantile business of Burlington City — the trading center for the county. By the spring of 1782 he had moved into the city and established a store.

Successful as a storekeeper, William Cooper reaped enhanced social status. He accumulated civic responsibilities and important friends — evidence that he had won the respect of the town fathers. According to his store ledger listing the credit accounts of six esquires, Burlington’s leading men frequented Cooper’s store. Beginning in 1783, Cooper served on three criminal trial juries and one grand jury — further marks of his acceptance as a solid citizen. In the summer of 1787 he played a leading role in a meeting of Burlington merchants convened to protest a new state excise tax. In 1786-87 he won a seat on the City Council and he was the Overseer of the Poor in 1787 and 1788. He had risen from poverty to community responsibility for those still in need. He also launched an ambitious and promising land speculation in central New York by acquiring 29,350 acres beside Lake Otsego in 1786. During the next ten years Cooper became rich by retailing homesteads to settlers who emigrated from New England seeking farms.

His family also grew over the course of the 1780s. In 1778 William and Elizabeth Cooper had moved to Burlington with two young children — three-year-old Richard Fenimore and one-year-old Hannah. During the next eleven years the Coopers celebrated the births of eight children but mourned the early death of three. Born on March 7, 1779, Ann Cooper soon died. Twins, Isaac and Abraham followed on May 6, 1781 but only the first survived infancy. On February 24, 1784 another daughter assumed the name Ann and, as the longest lived of the children, kept it for the next 86 years. Elizabeth gave birth to another set of twins on January 4, 1786 — a girl and a boy; one took her name and the other assumed her husband’s. The daughter soon died but William, Jr. survived childhood. Two more sons followed, Samuel in May of 1787 and James, the future novelist, on September 15, 1789 (he did not add the middle name Fenimore until 1827).

Elizabeth bore an increasing burden as the births and deaths mounted. That burden was compounded by her husband’s increasingly frequent and prolonged absences as he pursued his distant land speculations. In 1786 William departed for central New York to secure the Otsego Patent in the depth of winter just days after Elizabeth gave birth to her second set of twins — and about the time one of them died. When we get a little clearer picture of Elizabeth in the 1730s she is a profoundly unhappy woman. Her alienation and morbidity may have their roots in the burdens and traumas of the preceding decade. William Cooper’s life during the 1780s is a narrative of increasing success in the public sphere; Elizabeth Cooper’s story — virtually lost to us — was far more private and probably far less happy.

Her patrimony had been essential to Cooper’s early ascent in Burlington as a storekeeper and petty speculator, but she became a burden or afterthought during the 1790s as he sought to make himself into a gentleman. Usually preoccupied with his complicated, diverse, far-flung and extensive enterprises both speculative and political, William Cooper was often away from home and family. A worldly, ambitious, active man, he plunged into his social, business, and political affairs to the neglect of his family — to judge from their brief and only occasional appearance in his letters. In June of 1790 Cooper departed for the Beech Woods of northeastern Pennsylvania, leaving his wife behind in Burlington with seven children, including the nine-month-old infant James. In the Beech Woods on June 7, Cooper wrote a long letter to his partner Henry Drinker, adding as an afterthought, “Be kind Enuff to send word to my Family that thee hath heard from me that I am well & hope to see them in a few months, say August, as I am so Pinch’d for time that I cannot write.” Yet, he did have the time to write frequent, detailed, and solicitous letters to Drinker — a recent acquaintance but a wealthy and prominent merchant whom Cooper wanted to cultivate. Cooper’s references to Elizabeth in his letters to others were as infrequent as his correspondence home. James Hibbs corrected his nephew, William Cooper: “Thou gave account of self, children, brothers, sisters, &c. but nothing of [17] thy wife, who I should have been glad to hear from.”

The family’s removal from Burlington to Cooperstown in the fall of 1790 must have been traumatic for Elizabeth. At least in Burlington she had the emotional and physical support of relatives and friends, as well as the comforts of an old and thriving town well-supplied with stores, a library, and a Quakcr meeting. In 1790 Cooperstown was a distant and raw frontier hamlet surrounded by stumps, forests, wolves, and bears. If married to a chronically absent husband, far better be it in Burlington than in Cooperstown. A family tradition plausibly maintains that, just as the Coopers were about to embark in their wagons for the trip north, Elizabeth suddenly rebelled, planting herself in a wooden arm-chair, refusing to budge. Losing patience, the brawny William Cooper picked up the wife-laden chair and placed it and her in the waiting wagon. Significantly, the tradition identifies the arm-chair as a legacy from her recently deceased father; in vain, Elizabeth clung to her memories and kin in Burlington. In November of 1790 Cooper reported that their journey was long and arduous as four weeks of daily rain produced a “Horridness of the Roads.” Indeed, for the time being, the family had to leave in Albany much of their furniture — no doubt including the fabled arm-chair.

In combination with deaths of four of her children during the preceding decade, the removal to the frontier profoundly demoralized Elizabeth Cooper. During the 1790s, family correspondents almost invariably discussed Elizabeth in terms of her health, physical and mental. The letters usually describe a sickly, uneasy, withdrawn, and apparently depressed woman. “My wife is very unwell and hath been for some Months. scarcely expect she will recover her usual Health.” William Cooper wrote in 1792. Four years later Hendrick Frey reported to an absent Cooper that Elizabeth was on the mend. Frey expressed more sympathy for William than for Elizabeth: “She must have been Afflicted with the common Disorder attending Women who do not give over Breeding, Viz. Hysterics.” It was a pleasant surprise for a correspondent to report that Elizabeth was feeling well. In 1800 Frey heard from Richard Fenimore Cooper that “he Never saw his Mother so healthy as she has been this Winter, that she Reads Novels till 12 at Night. Even tempered & Every thing that could be wished to make the life of a family under the Auspices of an Empress happy and Agreeable.” Implicit in Frey’s marvelling tone is that too often the Cooper household was less than happy and agreeable because the “Empress” was so rarely healthy and even-tempered.

Her illnesses and discontent peaked during — or in immediate anticipation of — her husband’s absences. In the summer of 1792 Cooper had to cancel a planned trip to New York City because, he explained with some disappointment, “The situation of my wife is Such that I cannot Leave her at Present.” It seems that sickness not only expressed her distress but was Elizabeth’s one means to keep her peripatetic husband at home.

She had a particularly severe illness and depression in the late winter and early spring of 1796, when William was away attending Congress in Philadelphia. Elizabeth was especially lonely because her husband had taken along their son Isaac and daughter Ann (also known as “Nancy”). Hearing in March that his wife again had fallen ill, Cooper wrote to Elihu Phinney, the editor of the village newspaper, seeking his “honest” assessment. On April 7, the editor breezily replied, “Mrs. Cooper is recruited very fast. An hour ago I met her walking very spruce along with Mrs. Woodworth, your sister; you need not give yourself any concern on account of her health, in my ‘honest’ opinion.” However, that same day Moss Kent, a lodger in the Manor House, described a profoundly discontented Elizabeth Cooper in his letter to William Cooper:

Mrs. Cooper is gradually gaining strength. She has rode out in the Carriage for several Mornings past & means to continue riding when the weather will permit. Mrs. C[ooper] has enjoined it upon me to inform you that she lives very unhappy & is very impatient for your return & wishes you to bring Isaac and Nancy with you. She is also desirous that you should engage a House at Burlington before your return as it is her determination never to spend another winter in this Country. I could have wished that [your eldest son] Richard had wrote you on this business, but Mrs. Cooper enjoined it on me, & my duty & politeness to her induced me to be obedient to her request.

[18] This letter was especially difficult for Kent to write and for Cooper to receive, because the two men were at bitter odds over the impending April election. By engaging Kent, rather than her son Richard, to write, Elizabeth maximized her husband’s embarrassment. When William continued to linger in Philadelphia, she obliged Kent to write a sequel on April 21:

Mrs. Cooper still continues weakly & and very low-spirited. She is very anxious that you should return soon & not wait till Congress adjourns. She blames me much for having written some time since that I thought she was getting hearty again, as she expects it will prevent your returning so soon as you otherwise would. I do not think Mrs. C[ooper] so well as a fortnight ago. She is very thin, has but little appetite to eat & thinks she has a fever every afternoon.

Eight days later, Kent added that Elizabeth remained “very low-spirited & very impatient to have you return.” Declining to cut short his attendance on Congress, Cooper did not return home until mid-June. His triumphant greeting in the village streets and taverns was probably not matched when he repaired, at last, to the Manor House.

That summer Elizabeth conveyed her profound unhappiness to her husband so persuasively that he agreed to bring her south to winter in Burlington with the children when he returned to Congress in November. She probably returned to Otsego with her husband and children for the summer and fall of 1797, but she returned to Burlington for the winter of 1797-1798, even though her husband was not then a member of Congress. Indeed, she remained in Burlington through the summer of 1798, apparently resolved never again to return to Cooperstown. Making the best of the situation, in March of 1798 Cooper entrusted the Manor House, outbuildings, gardens, and livestock to innkeeper Samuel Huntington to use as extra lodging, stables, and supplies for guests. Cooper and “such of the family of the said William as may Reside in the Mansion house” retained the right to board there. In September of 1798 William bought Elizabeth a house in Burlington (but put the title in the name of daughter Hannah). A month later, Elizabeth suddenly changed her mind and agreed to return to Otsego. William wrote from Burlington to Richard Fenimore Cooper at Cooperstown: “Your mother hath alleved her mind [and] is comeing home. Have the Bed Down stairs by the 21ˢᵗ. We shall be home by that day. Have good fires. If you could have the Room white-washed, so much the better.” Decades later, James Fenimore Cooper explained his mother’s change of mind: “So great was the grief of my brother and myself at giving up our lake and haunts (in Otsego) that she abandoned her own wishes to ours, and consented to return.” Another factor may have been the fifth death of a Cooper child; born in Cooperstown in late 1792, Henry Frey Cooper died as a child in Burlington at an unknown date during one of his mother’s sojourns there, probably in 1798.

Word that “Otsego Hall,” the family’s new mansion in Cooperstown, was nearing completion probably eased her decision to return. She had never liked the Manor House and Cooper probably designed the grand new mansion with such extensive grounds in part to make Cooperstown more palatable to his wife. The decision to build came in the fall of 1796 in the wake of Elizabeth’s crisis that spring. The extensive gardens were especially meant to appease Elizabeth, who delighted in flowers. In June of 1799 the family moved into Otsego Hall. Thereafter, the mansion became her cherished refuge as she became increasingly reclusive. Clinging to the Quaker identity and piety that her husband had forsaken, Elizabeth disliked the raucous, worldly, and Yankee village beyond the Cooper grounds. Pleasantly surprised by a visiting Quaker preacher from Byberry, Pennsylvania, she made him welcome and helped arrange a religious meeting. The preacher later informed Cooper that Elizabeth had confessed “her Discouragement on account of the Dissipation of some poor Creatures in your place.”

In September of 1800, the tragic death of her beloved daughter Hannah deepened Elizabeth Cooper’s disengagement from the wider world beyond the picket fence surrounding the Cooper grounds. Making a coccoon of Otsego Hall, she rarely ventured out and usually disliked letting outsiders in. She lavished care on the house and gardens but was disinterested in entertaining her husband’s many visitors, abdicating the formal role of hostess to a daughter or a daughter-in-law. In February of 1809 Alexander Coventry visited Otsego Hall and reported:

The Judge received me kindly. His lady appears rather odd: is an active, stirring little woman, rather plain in her manners and a little contradictory withal, but a notable housekeeper. A very genteel and accomplished daughter-in-law, formerly Miss Clason, did the honors of the table, and by her sweet amiableness, filled the place beautifully and the mother-in-law, although seeming a little outre [sic] at first, improved much upon acquaintance.

A family tradition insists that the mansion once caught on fire, attracting the village’s volunteer fire company. Rather than permit them in, she locked the doors and repelled the firemen with boiling water, while her servants subdued the blaze. In December of 1813 her son Isaac and his family moved into a new house around the corner from Otsego Hall; in June of 1814 he recorded astonishment in his diary: “Mother actually came to see us. First time she ever saw the House.” Isaac was more surprised that she had come at all than that it had taken her six months to travel one block.

She was most at peace when withdrawn within Otsego Hall, surrounded by flowers and lost in a novel. Her granddaughter Susan Fenimore Cooper provides our most vivid and sympathetic description of Elizabeth Cooper:

Occasionally I was taken to the Hall to see my Grandmother. I have a dim recollection of her sitting near a little table, at the end of a long sofa seen in her picture, with a book on the table. She always wore sleves [sic] to the elbow, or a little below, with long gloves. She took great delight in flowers, and the south end of the long hall was like a greenhouse in her time. She was a great reader of romances. She was a marvellous housekeeper, and beautifully nice and neat in all her arrangements.

Susan Fenimore Cooper refers to George Freeman’s painting made in 1816 depicting Elizabeth Cooper within Otsego Hall. She sits in the foreground thoroughly encased by walls, floor, ceiling, and furniture — and by layers of clothing that leave only her kind but mournful face exposed to the viewer. Orange trees in boxes fill the back wall and a flowering plant nestles at her feet, as a protective sentry. She died a year later.

Elizabeth Fenimore Cooper, by George Freeman

Elizabeth Fenimore Cooper, seen in this 1816 watercolor by George Freeman, is an elusive, shadowy figure seen fleetingly and incompletely through brief and often cryptic observations in the letters of others. Evidence suggests that she lived a profoundly unhappy life. NYSHA Collections.

* Alan Taylor is Professor of History at the University of California at Davis. He is the author of Liberty Men and Greet Proprietors: The Revolutionary Settlement on the Maine Frontier, 1760-1820 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1990). This essay comes from his forthcoming book, William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Early American Frontier, to be published in 1995 by Aifred A. Knopf. It is a study of the early history of Cooperstown and of the Cooper family up to the publication of The Pioneersin 1823.