Cooper as Passenger

Wayne Franklin * (Northeastern University)

Originally published in The American Neptune (Vol. 57, No. 4, Fall 1997) (pp. 351-357).

Copyright © 1997, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts and reproduced with its kind permission.

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

{351} Scholars interested in the seagoing experience of nineteenth century American writers tend to focus on the time those writers spent as common sailors rather than passengers, perhaps because sailor-authors such as Richard Henry Dana or Herman Melville themselves were somewhat uncomfortable in the latter role. On his crossing to London on the liner Southampton in 1849, Melville invested considerable effort proving to his fellow passengers that he really was not just their fellow: hence his “gymnastics” at the masthead, his scoffing at the “nausea noise” that oozed from the staterooms, his eagerness to demonstrate to the sailors that he was one of them, his desire to ride out on the bowsprit after philosophizing with Adler and Taylor (“splendid spectacle,” he noted), and so on. 1 Dana on the Pilgrim in the 1830s was always aware of his middle-class origins and labored to conceal them or vacate them by adopting a forecastle perspective. At last, oppressed by the fear that staying longer in California would convert his temporary role before the mast into a permanent fate, Dana used his “connections” in the world of commerce to arrange for a voyage home, thus arousing the suspicions of his fellow sailors that he wasn’t really, for all his hard labor, one of them. Such a sailor was at least partly a passenger, his presence on the vessel being a matter of choice rather than necessity. His voyage was a vacation rather than a mark of vocation.

James Fenimore Cooper preceded Dana and Melville in the forecastle, and in this particular problem as well: as Alan Taylor writes, “In 1806 it was very unusual for a well-educated son of wealth and privilege to assume the hardships, drudgery, dangers, and low status of a common sailor.” 2 In such cases we may suspect, with good reason, that the “assumption” of the common sailor’s lot was less than complete, for the articles of what Hugh Egan has called the “gentleman sailor” often contained handy escape clauses. 3

Cooper began his voyage on the merchant vessel Stirling in 1806-1807 in just such a protected manner. As the reminiscences of the cabin boy Ned Myers, edited by Cooper in 1843, remind us, the sixteen-year-old Cooper was accompanied to the vessel by two grown men, one of them a quarter-owner of the vessel and the consignee of its cargo, unnamed in Ned Myers but revealed by a descendant of the captain of the Stirling to have been the famous Quaker merchant Jacob Barker, who, Captain Johnston’s descendent stated, was the business associate of William Cooper. 4 Although neither Alan Taylor’s research nor my own has uncovered evidence of a direct tie between Judge Cooper and Jacob Barker in the voluminous William Cooper papers, apparently something in the Johnston family archives — presently unlocated — indicated the link. However that may be, the Johnstons’ identification of Barker as one of the two merchants that led young Cooper to the Stirling in 1806 is certain. James Cooper did not approach the Stirling on his own, cap in hand, begging for a chance to sail before the mast in her, but rather was brought on board by men with commercial interests in the voyage.

How did Jacob Barker become involved in helping to arrange for young Cooper’s berth? James had run away from Cooperstown sometime in the early summer of 1806, probably {352} heading first for New York, where his older brother William Jr. then resided. In mid July William wrote a letter to family friend Richard R. Smith of Philadelphia, informing him of James’ flight and alerting him that the young fugitive was on his way to Philadelphia. Smith was a sometime Cooperstown resident and business partner of Judge William Cooper, who owed his appointment as the first sheriff of Otsego County to the judge’s influence — and his eventual fame as the model for the authoritarian sheriff Richard Jones in The Pioneers to the Judge’s youngest son. In 1806, he was being called on to act on behalf of the family’s interests in order to resolve the crisis that James’ flight from Cooperstown had precipitated.

In reply to the letter from young William Cooper in New York, Smith on 18 July wrote Isaac Cooper, another of the brothers, in Cooperstown, saying that he had that day received William’s news and asking what he should do if and when the wayward youth showed up on his doorstep. James must have arrived there almost immediately thereafter, certainly before any answer could arrive from Cooperstown, and spent the next three weeks in the city before heading overland back to New York. While James was in Philadelphia, a letter from Isaac dated 30 July, and containing “the Judge’s memorandum” regarding his plight, arrived for Smith. From a letter Smith sent somewhat later, in which he noted that one from Cooperstown had arrived in five days (“a very short time for the Mail to come if you date correctly”); 5 we can assume that Isaac’s 30 July missive arrived perhaps around 5 or 6 August (Smith says it came “in course” — that is, in the ordinary time), just a day or two before James was set to leave. We also may assume that James received his father’s “memorandum,” either as a document or through Smith’s rehearsal of its arguments. From Smith’s answer to Isaac, written on 8 August, the morning after James left for New York, it is clear that the Cooper family prior to that time knew of the boy’s intention of running off to sea, with an eye to a career in the Navy, which was not mentioned in Smith’s first letter and perhaps had not been divulged in William’s unlocated letter of mid-July to Smith.

In writing to Isaac on this second occasion, Smith filled in some details about James’ plans. The Judge’s memorandum must have contained an armory of arguments to be aimed at the heart and head of the runaway, but Smith, who himself already had sought to dissuade his “young Friend” from going to sea by applying all the arguments he could invent, evidently did not find the new weapons any more convincing. He urged James to consider what hardships lay ahead, and sought to delay him until “some Plan could be arranged with the Judge.” Well connected in Philadelphia’s business world, Smith also offered to find James a safer slot in “a Counting House” there, as he earlier had done for Isaac. When James persisted in his designs on a career at sea, Smith tendered further help: “I then offered to introduce him to some shipping Merchants of my acquaintance in whose Vessels he would have been less exposed to insult and ill treatment. But it would not do.”

Why would it not do? During the three weeks James was in Philadelphia, Smith had gleaned enough to suspect that James, taken with the romance of a momentary excitement, had even more dangerous plans buzzing in his brain: he hoped to find some means of joining Francisco Miranda’s effort to liberate his homeland, Venezuela, from the Spanish crown. Miranda had secured a ship in New York the previous February and sailed it, with an American crew, south for the purpose. As Alan Taylor has noted, American newspapers of the period, including the Otsego Herald in Cooperstown, contained glowing reports of the expedition, and the liberal revolutionary’s intent to spread New World revolution to South America clearly excited the ardor of many young Americans. 6 Although Taylor does not mention this further point, when Ned Myers himself decided to run away to the sea in the winter of 1805-1806, he first served port duty on board Miranda’s ship, the Leander, in New York prior to its departure but “became heartily tired of it” and left (Ned Myers, 19).

Regarding Ned’s future shipmate and “editor,” Smith wrote Isaac Cooper on 8 August that the stint with Miranda apparently was to be {353} a prelude to a naval career: “I suspect he wishes to join Miranda for the present, with some future Views to the Navy.” Indeed, Smith learned that James already “had written to Mr. Simmons of the War Office to procure him a warrant, and had desired him to direct [his answer] to my care.” From Smith’s wording here, it would seem that James had written William Simmons, the accountant of the War Department, from New York City as he was preparing to leave there for Philadelphia, a point which, if true, would suggest how well-formed James’ overall plan was shortly after he had run away, or perhaps even prior to leaving Cooperstown. Smith added that young Cooper subsequently learned that Simmons was away from Washington at the time, in New York State actually. The youth’s return to New York City from Philadelphia in August was motivated in part by his failure to secure a berth in a Philadelphia ship bound for the Caribbean and in part by the hope that he still could make contact with Simmons before, as was now his intent, finding a berth on a ship there. James would not tell Philadelphian Smith his intended New York City address, but did tell him that he would check for mail at the post office each day. Smith reported this last fact to Isaac Cooper in the hope that letters from Cooperstown would reach James before he made any rash commitments, but James’ reason must have been to allow word from Simmons, not Isaac or his father, to reach him. James Cooper did not receive his midshipman’s warrant until 1808, as it happened, but I presume his original plan was to attempt to secure one before committing himself to a merchant vessel in 1806. I also presume that he wanted one then in order to make his future seem more organized, as this would have been a good way to convince his family that the impulsive behavior that had caused his expulsion from Yale (and, to be sure, his running away this very summer) was a thing of the past, and that he was aimed toward a respectable, perhaps glorious career. Finally, if as seems to have been the case, Cooper thought he could obtain a warrant and then sail on a merchant vessel as a means of learning the skills any naval officer would need to know, he may have been counting on a warrant in hand to help protect him from possible impressment by the British from whatever American merchant vessel he might eventually sail on.

Cooper did not have a warrant when he departed with the Stirling around 1 September, but I think Alan Taylor’s analysis of what he did possess rather astute. The Cooper family undoubtedly reached out via the channels suggested by Smith in his 8 August letter, perhaps following part of the advice Smith somewhat hesitantly offered based on his sense of the young man’s apparent firmness: “I am not fond of giving advice, but were James my son and he was so resolutely bent on the Navy as he now appears to be, I would immediately apply for a Warrant.” Smith went on to narrate James’ attempts to get a warrant on his own, and then concluded with a point that I think motivated the Cooper family — surprisingly passive in dealing with James’ crisis up to this point — to intervene more actively in James’ plans so as to shield him somewhat from the hazards that lay before him: “he is certainly too young to be launched into the World without protection;” If the link between Judge Cooper and Jacob Barker indeed existed, then Smith’s earlier offer of easing James into a life at sea via commercial connections of his own may have provided them with the design that the Coopers themselves followed.

Barker, like Judge Cooper, was of Quaker background, though not from Pennsylvania — he had been born in Maine of Nantucket parents. His long mercantile career, many times awash in controversies about the sharpness and indeed honesty of his dealings, began when he was very young. He was only in his mid-twenties when Cooper shipped on the Stirling, but in his (not wholly reliable) Incidents in the Life of Jacob Barker, published in 1855, one finds the assertion that he was “probably the largest [ship owner] in the United States, with the exception of William Gray, of Salem, and was conducting a large commission business when Jefferson’s embargo was adopted [late in 1807].” His vast mercantile endeavors easily could have brought him into contact with William Cooper, although Barker was a Jeffersonian and as such hardly {354} could have been fully intimate with Cooper. Barker, in fact, vigorously supported the embargo, speaking in its behalf at workers’ and seamen’s gatherings in New York even as it destroyed his own business. He was, however, close enough to one of Cooper’s own associates, lawyer Miers Fisher of Philadelphia, for the link with Federalist Cooper to have been at least indirectly forged, perhaps merely for the purpose of seeing young James safely at sea. Fisher, a Philadelphia mayor who had become Cooper’s partner in land development, seems to have been especially concerned with the welfare of Judge Cooper’s children, writing the latter’s sons in 1809 on the occasion of the Judge’s death a letter of pained sympathy that eulogized their father’s accomplishments. 7 Given the closeness of his relationship to Judge Cooper, Fisher may well have been the person through whom three years earlier the judge had sought to exert himself on behalf of James. Indeed, it also is possible that it was Fisher who accompanied Barker to the Stirling later in the summer of 1806, with James Cooper tagging along as the boy’s fate, in the form of the papers soon to be given him by Captain Johnston for signing, came closer and closer. Fisher’s home, to be sure, was in Philadelphia, but he is known to have been in New York later in 1807 and to have visited Judge Cooper in Cooperstown in 1808. 8 Of course, at this point all of what I say on the topic ends in speculation, rendered less than pure speculation perhaps by a few bits of circumstantial and associational evidence.

The Johnston narrative baldly asserts that “This Mr. Barker was a personal friend of Cooper’s father, and through his influence young Cooper was shipped as a ‘foremast hand on board.” 9 Ned Myers, who had simply come on board on his own, and in fact lied his way into his berth as apprentice to Johnston, serving as cabin boy, provides an interesting version (presumably with the approval of his editor, Cooper) of the event. Myers only briefly described Cooper’s coming on board, but it is significant, I think, that he recalled no detailed negotiations regarding James’ addition to the crew. The Stirling was laden with its cargo of flour, so close to sailing that it departed only two days after James appeared. As an indentured cabin boy of perhaps eleven, Myers cannot be expected to have seen everything or understood all he did see or to have recalled it nearly forty years later when he dictated his book to Cooper. He probably only slowly grasped what was happening, and may even have taken Cooper at first as a would-be passenger on the voyage. I suggest this last point because Ned rather curiously introduced his account of the episode by saying, “Passengers were not common in that day, while commerce was pushed to the utmost. Our sails were bending when the consignee, followed by another merchant, came down to the ship, accompanied by a youth, who, it was understood, wished also to be received in the vessel” (Ned Myers, 22). Myers did not directly state that Barker and the other “merchant” wished to book passage (and in fact his later census of the ship’s population makes it certain that they did not), though he may have taken them for potential passengers as they approached the ship that day. Did he at first think Cooper was to be an “uncommon” passenger, too? Perhaps, though the “also” in his statement (“[Cooper] wished also to be received in the vessel”) may more likely refer to Myers’ own recent signing on, not to any possible wish on the part of the merchants to be accommodated on board themselves. And it may even be that the force of “it was understood” is to signify that word of Cooper’s coming had been received prior to his arrival, perhaps through Barker or the other merchant, with whom Myers’ account more closely associates him. In that case, we may wonder whether the merchants had not already reached agreement with Johnston (who was half-owner of the vessel as well as its captain) to sign Cooper on. That conclusion is perhaps supported by Ned’s further comment that “[Cooper] was accepted by Captain Johnston, signed the articles, and the next day he joined us, in sailor’s rig. He never came to the cabin, but was immediately employed forward, in such service as he was able to perform. It was afterwards understood that he was destined for the navy.” In short, the whole process by which {355} Cooper was shipped on the Stirling smacks of an arrangement concluded on shore: Cooper came on board with Barker and the other merchant so that Johnston, who had been party to the arrangement, could see him and judge him for himself. On this Ned Myers and the Johnston narrative seem to be in clear agreement.

Cooper thus shipped not as a true forecastle hand but rather as a well connected young man with a landed identity that would give him special status on board, a not uncommon figure in Cooper’s sea fiction. If in no other way, the mere fact it was “understood” how he had come aboard and that he was bound for the navy would set him apart from the rest of the crew. And, as Alan Taylor suggests, the social apparatus that surrounded Cooper’s presence on the vessel carried additional significance. Taylor notes that although Ned Myers describes several encounters with British press gangs, he “never describes young James Cooper as in any danger of the impressment that imperiled all of his other shipmates, including the captain who was briefly detained.” If Cooper was seemingly immune from such serious threats, why? Taylor continues, “It seems likely that he had papers, provided by his father and his father’s friends, attesting that James Cooper was the son of an American gentleman and former United States Congressman: the sort of young man whose impressment would be more diplomatic trouble tha[n] it was worth to a British naval captain. 10 That Cooper sailed under some such protection is suggested by the fact that he often was closely involved in the actual impressments that afflicted the Stirling — but in a charmed sort of way, being, for instance, the person sent ashore with Captain Johnston’s traveling desk and papers when Johnston himself had been taken and was being detained there. If he indeed traveled under the protection of such documents, Cooper’s potentially dangerous outburst against a British naval officer who boarded the Stirling and sought to impress a Swede among its crew — an outburst which Captain Johnston cut short, presumably for Cooper’s own good — seems less rash and more exultant: Ned Myers tersely recalled, “Cooper had a little row with this boarding officer, but was silenced by the captain” (Ned Myers, 36). Would Cooper have given such freedom to his indignation if he had not held a trump card among his papers? 11 And, again, Captain Johnston’s intervention in the argument suggests that he bore a special charge to care for the young son of Judge Cooper.

In conclusion, I would like to emphasize how Cooper’s somewhat complicated masquerade as a common sailor on the Stirling has its counterpart in his various writings about the sea. It is clear that for the rest of his life Cooper enjoyed keeping up contact with individuals he had met during his brief career in the merchant marine and in the navy. It also is clear that his sustained interest in things nautical, which fed his imagination in the dozen sea novels and the historical narratives he penned across the three decades of his active career, became a permanent part of his intellectual and emotional character. If we probe how he imagined the sea, though, we are likely to find that his own rather mixed condition during his only transoceanic voyages in his youth in fact was reflected in his art. When he wrote of his crossing of the Atlantic in the packet ship Hudson in 1826, his first as a genuine passenger, he stressed how his nautical knowledge helped the crew (and the other passengers, including his wife, those “land-birds” who “were driven below, before evening” the first day on board) see what set him apart from the landsmen. The mate on the Hudson was able to detect Cooper’s maritime background by virtue of a single expression he used in boarding the vessel from the steam launch that took his family out to it from Manhattan: later that day, Cooper recalled, “The first mate, a straightforward Kennebunk-man, gave me a wink, (he had detected my sea education by a single expression, that of ‘send it an-end,’ while mounting the side of the ship,) and said, ‘a clear quarterdeck! a good time to take a walk, sir.’” Cooper kept up this masquerade through the 1826 crossing, and during his time in Europe and on the Mediterranean, nurtured what he called his “nautical instinct” whenever he could: even digressive comments in his accounts of the time in Europe frequently situate him as an accom{356}plished hand at sea, as when Cooper asserts in his French travel book that he had no difficulty ascending a “dark well of a staircase” when paying a visit one evening in Paris because he had “passed so much of [his] youth, on top-gallant-yards, and in becketting royals.” 12 Everywhere he turned, he was able to find echoes of the world he ran away to as a sixteen-year-old boy from the inland depths of Otsego.

Cooper tended to deploy his nautical knowledge in life as he deployed it in his art — as a means of suggesting that ha belonged to a world marked by arcane skill and physical challenge. Yet it is worth noting that many of his imaginations of the sea also bear the traces of the special status under whose aegis he himself had entered the sailor’s universe. Cooper found most fertile the fact that he was familiar with the sailor’s world without being wholly of it — in some sense, he enjoyed an artist’s ideal liminality. In the novel which drew most on his experience as a passenger, Homeward Bound (1838), Cooper thus created in the many-named Paul Blunt or Paul Powis a seeming landsman who yet betrays, as Cooper had in 1826, the sure marks of his nautical past by the care with which he acts and speaks while on board the Montauk. At the same time, however, Cooper gave Blunt an unmistakable doubleness that matched his own. If Blunt is no mere passenger, as Cooper was not in 1826, he is no mere sailor either. Captain Truck comments, “You have traveled this road before, Mr. Blunt, I perceive. I have suspected you of being a brother chip, from the moment I saw you first put your foot on the side-cleets in getting out of the boat. You did not come aboard parrot-toed, like a country-girl waltzing; but set the ball of your foot firmly on the wood, and swung the length of your arms, like a man who knows how to humor the muscles.” Later, Captain Truck comments to another passenger, “I perceive something about that gentleman which denotes a nautical instinct” — the same phrase Cooper applied to himself in his book of French travels, published only a year earlier than the novel. 13 For his own part, Cooper showed by his proper handling of nautical language in this book as in so many others that he, too, knew how to step about the ship. For instance, without calling attention to the practice, he referred to the crew as “the people” throughout Homeward Bound (e.g., pages 93, 161, 258, 274, etc.), as he had with similar lack of overt emphasis in France (page 5) or Italy. 14

Again, if this pattern shows Cooper’s abiding interest in keeping his nautical past alive, others reveal how much he valued having his other foot on the solid ground of a landsman’s respectability. His sailor/passenger Paul Blunt is of course genteel, revealed to be — as layer after layer of his more recent identity is peeled off — none other than the long-lost son of John Effingham, and hence an heir of Cooper’s own inland home. Cooper created diehard sailors such as Long Tom in The Pilot (1824), who like Melville’s Bulkington could not stand to have the solid earth under their fluid feet. When he set his autobiographical muse adrift, however, Cooper was likely to reveal in a character such as Blunt-Effingham the liminality that made his own nautical experience a source of inspiration rather than, as it had proved for Ned Myers, a fate, and a pretty grim one at that. American writers of the nineteenth century kept what Melville called “the open independence of [their] sea” by going there in the first place with their landsman’s freedom largely intact. They were anxious to prove they were not passengers precisely because they knew they were not just sailors, either.


1 “Journal of a Voyage from New York to London 1849,” The Writings of Herman Melville: Journals, Howard C. Horsford and Lynn Horth, eds. (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and Newberry Library, 1989), 5, 6, 8.

2 Alan Taylor, “James Fenimore Cooper Goes to Sea: Two Unpublished Letters by a Family Friend,” Studies in the American Renaissance (1993), 43.

3 Hugh Egan, “Gentlemen-Sailors: The First Person Narratives of Dana, Cooper, and Melville.” Ph. D diss., University of Iowa, 1983.

4 J. Fenimore Cooper, ed., Ned Myers: or. A Life Before the Mast (Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1843), 22-23; Edith A Sawyer, “A Year of Cooper’s Youth,” New England Magazine 37 (1907), 498-504. It should he noted that, while Sawyer’s name is listed under the title of this article, most of her text was from the pen of Alexander Johnston, Captain John Johnston’s nephew. Alexander Johnston in turn based much of what he wrote on information derived from his uncle’s papers, which included a March 1843 letter from Cooper. James Franklin Beard, ed., The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper (Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1960-68), 4:374-76 for the corrected text of Cooper’s letter; also for Beard’s comments on the original publication of the “Sawyer” piece, including the version of the letter Beard reprints, under Alexander Johnston’s name in the Mt. Desert Herald, 20 September 1883. Alexander Johnston wrote the essay sometime between 1854 and 1883. Taylor’s article (SAR 1993, 49) mistakenly asserts that Sawyer wrote the essay herself on the basis of Captain Johnston’s papers.

5 Richard R. Smith to Isaac Cooper, Philadelphia, 26 August 1806, William Cooper Papers, Paul Fenimore Cooper archives, Hartwick College, correspondence, Box 22. Smith’s two letters to Isaac Cooper of 18 July and 8 August are also quoted from this source; they are printed in Taylor, SAR 1993, 51-52.

6 Taylor, SAR 1993,47-48.

7 Incidents in the Life of Jacob Barker, of New Orleans, Louisiana (Washington: 1855), 31. On Barker’s tie with Miers Fisher, with whom he vacationed at Ballston Spa in the summer of 1807, see 22-23. For Fisher’s letter to Judge Cooper’s sons, Taylor, William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic (New York: Knopf, 1995), 3-4.

8 Note 7; Taylor, William Cooper’s Town, 3, 317.

9 Sawyer, 499.

10 Taylor, SAR 1993, 49.

11 In his History of the Navy of the United States of America (Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1839), Cooper bitterly condemned British impressment practices as an “intolerable outrage” on American national honor and individual Americans’ liberty (2.128).

12 Thomas Philbrick and Constance Ayers, eds., Gleanings in Europe: France, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983), 7, 27, 221.

13 Homeward Bound: or, The Chase. A Tale of the Sea (New York: W. A. Townsend, 1860), 206, 255.

14 John Conron and Constance Ayers Denne, eds., Gleanings in Europe: Italy, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981), 63, 88.

* A specialist in the literature and culture of antebellum America, Wayne Franklin is currently at work on the first biography of James Fenimore Cooper to be based on full access to the family papers.