From the Inland Sea to the Pacific: The Many Vessels of James Fenimore Cooper

Signe O. Wegener (University of Georgia)

Presented at the 19ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2013.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2013 Cooper Conference and Seminar (No. 19), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Steven Harthorn, editor. (pp. 63-67).

Copyright © 2013, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

An impressive convoy of watercraft sails through James Fenimore Cooper’s works , whether or not their setting is actually a maritime venture. In The Leatherstocking-Tales, readers encounter, as befits the frontier environment, various canoes, Tom Hutter’s Ark on Lake Glimmerglass, and Jasper Western’s small cutter the Scud on Lake Ontario. However, the canoe appears to be the quintessential Cooper craft, showing up even today in popular literature unrelated to Cooper’s texts. To give an example: in Jo Dereske’s murder mystery Miss Zukas And The Stroke Of Death, 1 the protagonist paddles her canoe, “her strokes a piece of poetry and her canoe a work of art ... as timelessly as a vision from a James Fenimore Cooper novel” (186).

Yet far different than the above craft also operate on Cooper’s waterways and oceans. In his sea stories, the characters set sail on frigates, square-rigged merchantmen, whaler-ships, brigs, brigantines, corvettes, cutters, luggers, schooners, sloops, East Indiamen and transatlantic packets (ocean liners). They use smaller boats like whale-boats, pinnaces, launches, jolly-boats, and even the periagua. They operate in the Mediterranean, the Adriatic, the North Sea (a.k.a. “the German Sea”), the Atlantic, and the Pacific. They wage war and engage in trade. Yet no matter the locale or occasion, Cooper’s interest in and knowledge of sailing and ships provide his readers with a wealth of information about eighteenth and nineteenth-century vessels; in fact, they may be seen as important characters. 2 No wonder, perhaps, that Herman Melville saw Cooper as one of his boyhood’s inspirations and that Joseph Conrad praises his nautical writings! I would also add, that although C.S. Forester, the creator of the Hornblower series, never acknowledges any debt to Cooper, there is a Mr. Hornblower in Cooper — he’s an Episcopalian Minister in The Crater. And Forester’s The Captain from Connecticut (1941) is a naval adventure worthy of Cooper, complete with a frigate, a corvette, and an armed brig.

I will, however, admit to a certain visual and cognitive impairment as regards Cooper’s nautical tales, or rather, as regards the vessels he dispatches when I embarked on this assignment. — a definite drawback because Cooper, as Luis Iglesias comments in his 2006 ALA presentation, “The “keen-eyed critic of the ocean”: James Fenimore Cooper’s Invention of the Sea Novel,” Cooper requires a particularly attentive and experienced reader. To fully benefit from his tales, one needs to bring to the reading some, even considerable, nautical knowledge. A lack of familiarity with the nautical terms Cooper uses, as Robert D. Madison pointed out in his paper at the first Cooper Seminar in 1979, “Getting Underway with James Fenimore Cooper,” stands in the way to fully appreciate Cooper’s oeuvre. But so does a lack of familiarity with the types of vessels Cooper deploys. 3 I argue that the obstacles we face reading Cooper’s sea stories consist of both language and lack of specific knowledge of the vessels he discusses. Although I could muster a certain broad knowledge of “ships of the line,” and other vessels before and after the Napoleonic wars — I have set foot on the decks of the Cutty Sark, the USS Constitution, and the USS Constellation and admired the seventeenth-century Swedish royal flagship the Wasa — I still stumbled over obvious details. This is rather embarrassing for a person from a coastal town with a proud maritime heritage! How was a brig different from a brigantine, and from a schooner? What was a lugger? A sloop? Why was the Stirling, the stage for Cooper’s first maritime jaunt, merely a “ship”? The latter problem only reached its resolution a few weeks before the conference, when Hugh C. McDougall alerted me to the fact that a 1907 article by Edith A. Sawyer about Captain Johnston, the Stirling’s master,: the Stirling was a ship, where other vessels where specified; three schooners, brigs, frigates. A brief investigation into the eighteenth and nineteenth century usage of the word Ship” brought the following information: 4

(Nautical) a sailing vessel, square-rigged on all of three or more masts, having jibs, masts, staysails, and a spanker on the aftermost mast.

Where we in modern parlance see the word “ship” as a generic term, separating between ships and boats (the latter are what you can put on board ships), Cooper and his contemporaries had a specific type of vessel in mind, or, to be exact, a specific type of rigging. Thus the title of my paper has undergone a certain sea-change, in keeping with Cooper’s own use of the term: for “ship” see “vessel.”

As we are embarking this morning on a conference devoted to “Cooper and the Sea,” I have decided to provide an introduction into the principal vessels in his life and works. First, let us look at the major distinguishing {64} factor when discussing vessels, the rigging. The primary types are the square-rigging and the fore-and-aft- rigging. Most larger craft were ship-rigged, its spars horizontal, parallel to the deck; smaller ones could differ noticeably in rigging and to a certain degree in hull design, but often used fore-and-aft-rigging, with the masts vertical to the deck (Coggins 33). Each system had its benefits. The square-rigged (or ship-rigged) vessel worked best sailing before the wind, its massive sail are enabling high speeds; the fore-and-aft rigged one had tremendous advantages sailing cross-wise, close to the wind. The boom, though, sweeping from one side to another, might present a danger. Smaller craft were predominantly fore-and-aft-rigged. It is worth noting that whatever the system of rigging used, the actual rigging varied widely. No standardization existed.

In his active maritime career, mercantile and naval, Cooper served as an ordinary seaman on board the square-rigger, the ship Stirling, then as a midshipman on the bomb ketch Vesuvius, the gun boat Oneida and the sloop Wasp. The Oneida, despite its classification, was the length of the Vesuvius, and similarly equipped, unlike the regular gun boats that were mere support platforms for a cannon. Later, as a civilian, Cooper was part owner of the whaling ship Union and when he and his family left the US for Europe, they did so on the Black X packet line’s ocean liner the Hudson, which arrived in England at Cowes, Isle of Wight. Apparently, he had wanted to sail on the Don Quixote, the Le Havre Line. This would have been more practical, as the Coopers’ goal was Paris. However, I can just see the name alone appeal to a novelist! To transport his family from Leghorn to Naples, Cooper chartered the Belle Genovese, a felucca, a popular Mediterranean vessel. Incidentally, the first ship mentioned in The Bravo is a felucca, not the stereotypical gondola.

The texts under discussion in the course of this conference/seminar offer a plethora of vessels, and Cooper often mines the experiences of his youth, augmented by details from confederates. In our context, first up is David Lampe and his paper on The Water Witch, “Double-Dutch Delights: Irving’s Knickerbocker History and Cooper’s Water-Witch.” The primary vessel here, the Water-Witch, is a brigantine. Originally, this vessel was a small ship with both oars and sails, but from about 1700 onwards the word had come to denote a two-masted vessel. On this two-masted craft, the foremost mast is ship-rigged, the mainmast fore-and-aft-rigged. Because its rigging combines two rigging systems, it is also referred to as a “hermaphrodite brig.” The text explains how people saw her: “To one she seemed a full-rigged and booming ship, another took her for a Bermudian scudd, while to me she had the look of twenty periaguas built onto a single craft” (Ch. 3): It slunk in and out of inlets and coves, impossible to stop. This type of vessel was originally a dugout canoe and by the eighteenth century the periaguas could be thirty feet or more in length and carry up to thirty passengers. They came with one or two masts, but could also be rowed. Ironically, the text has already introduced the periagua, in the form of a ferry: which “partook of a European and an American character. It possessed the length, narrowness, and clean bow of the canoe, from which its name was derived, with the flat bottom and lee-boards of a boat constructed for the shallow waters of the Low Countries” (Ch. 2). It is the first vessel mentioned in the novel. A nice selection of its Dutch counterparts are on display at the Zuiderzee Museum at Enkhuizen. Readers also encounter Captain Ludlow’s Coquette, an English sloop of war, and a French corvette. The sloop of war and the corvette are closely related types of vessels, and were renowned for speed and maneuverability, and thus ideal for coastal patrols of various kinds. Both she and the corvette carried 4-8 guns on a single deck and had a mainsail and jib.

Later today, we will listen to Barbara Rumbinas and. Zygmunt Mazur’s paper “Born on Land, Shaped by the Sea: Character Development and Its Social and Political Implications in James Fenimore Cooper’s Afloat and Ashore.” In Afloat and Ashore, the first water-craft the reader encounters is the sloop Wallingford of Clawbonny, which regularly brings food and people to and from the city to the Wallingford estate. The sloop was a very popular means of transportation on rivers and along the coast; the smaller ones could be handled by one man. Miles, running away from home to be a sailor, is hired on to a ship, and the text shows him looking for square-riggers in New York harbor, no other option is possible, although Miles has actually never seen a square-rigged vessel until he reaches New York (Ch. 3). Only an Indiaman will do. His first experience in the world of tall ships is worth quoting. Although he had “a large, full-rigged model at Clawbonny” and had studied it “so thoroughly, as to know every rope in it, and to have some pretty distinct notions of their uses,” he admits to some real-life problems when he saw the actual ships. He comments,

I found it a little difficult, at first, to trace my old acquaintances on the large scanle in which they now presented themselves, and amid the intricate mazes that were drawn against the skies. The braces, shrouds, stays and halyards, were all plain enough, and I could point to either, at a moment’s notice but, when it came to the rest of the running rigging, I found it necessary to look a little, before I could speak with certainty. (Ch. 3)

Cooper’s The Pilot, his “recovering of the legacy of John Paul Jones for his audience” (Franklin 407), is the topic for no less than three presentations: Emilia Le Seven’s, “Cooper’s “John Paul Jones”: Sketching a Controversial Great-man of the Sea,” Robert Daly’s “Navigating Character: Nautical Talk and Virtue Ethics in The Pilot,” and Dan Walden’s “Cooper’s Coastscapes: The Significance of Setting in The Pilot.” This novel, which presents a fictionalized version of one of John Paul Jones’s forays along the coast of Great Britain in the Ranger, mentions several types of vessels, primary among them the frigate, the schooner, the cruiser, and the brig. Susan Fenimore Cooper, in Pages & Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper (1861), states, “Two ships, a frigate, and a schooner, were chosen as the nautical machinery of the tale. The name of the larger vessel was purposely omitted, with the idea of vaguely connecting her cruise, in the reader’s mind, with that of some one of the few American men-of-war of the same date. To the schooner he gave the name of the Ariel, so well adapted to the peculiar character of an American craft of that size” (83). In the opening of the book, a trio of landsmen see a pair of vessels appear, commenting on the ship’s route which brings it dangerously close to the coast; the “low, black schooner, whose hull seemed utterly disproportioned to the raking masts it upheld” (11). It’s companion is “a gallant ship,” with “huge hull, lofty masts, and square yards” which “loomed in the evening’s haze, above the sea, like a distant mountain rasing from the deep. ... The frigate, for the ship belonged to this class of vessels, floated across the entrance of the little bay majestically in the tide” (13). The frigate was ship-rigged, the mainmast taller than the fore and aft masts. In the Royal Navy’s rating system, the frigate rated just below “the ships of the line.” The term frigate defined ships of at least 28 guns, on a single deck. The frigate (the term covered any of several types of warships) was a ship built for speed and easy handling, and used for patrols and escort missions. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the American frigates constructed were larger “superfrigates” of 44 guns, with a length of up to 204 feet. The frontispiece in my very old copy of the work shows a schooner, and, almost hidden by a cape, a frigate. In The Pilot, this frigate is never mentioned by name, although other vessels, like the schooner Ariel and the cutter (mainsail and two foresails) Alacrity, are. Although Cooper is remarkably coy, withholding Mr. Gray, the pilot’s true identity as well as the identity of the frigate. The schooner, as exemplified in the Ariel, on the other hand, was fore-and-aft-rigged and had two or more masts, the foremast being no taller than the rear mast(s). It was, like the frigate, built for speed, and popular in trades that required speed and windward ability, such as smuggling, slaving and privateering which makes the text’s schooner ideal for the task at hand.

The brig — the landsmen compares the schooner to the brigs that sailed between London and Edinburgh — was a two-masted square-rigged vessel, fast and easy to maneuver. Brigs could be anywhere from 75 to 165 feet in length.

The means of transportation and trade in the novel Edward Harthorn discusses in “Hollowed and Hollowed Trust within James Fenimore Cooper’s The Crater,” include, among other craft, the East Indiaman the Rancocus , the launch the rest of the crew uses to escape the shipwreck, and the pinnace Mark Woolson and Bill Betts find ready to assemble in the Rancocus’s hold once they start cannibalizing the vessel. As Wayne Franklin observes in his 2007 James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years, seeing gunboats being built at Oswego would later provide Cooper with material for Mark and Betts’s building of the pinnace. It is this pinnace, a boat that could be both rowed and sailed and cross vast distances, that enables Betts to leave the reef and bring back people, among them Mark’s young wife, to set up a Pacific colony. The East Indiaman, here represented by the famous Friendship of Salem, was, again, a square-rigger, a “full-rigged ship.” The pinnace was small, and easy to maneuver.

In Allan Axelrad’s “Pirates, Slavers, and The Red Rover,” the two ships that Sainte-Beuve considered important characters in the novel are the Red Rover’s ship the Dolphin, and a frigate, hijacked from the Royal Navy. There is also the Royal Caroline transporting goods and people between Newburgh, Rhode Island and the Carolinas and destined as a prey for the Red Rover, and the Royal Navy cruiser the Dart, the cruiser on which the hero, Henry Wilder originally belongs, plus other crafts. A cruiser could be several types of vessels because it is the long-range mission, not the vessel’s actual configuration, that invites the appellation.

The people in Newport clearly give the Dolphin sinister traits: Gossip has it that the Red Rover’s ship is “a long, black ship, lying low in the water, like a snake in the grass, with a desperate wicked look, and altogether dishonest dimensions”; for a quick comparison, “something like yonder slaver” (28). What the gossips do not know is that “yonder slaver” is indeed the Dolphin waiting for the richly laden Royal Caroline to leave the harbor. The Dolphin operates in a clearly unusual manner. For example, when it slips by the disabled Royal Caroline it does so in the manner of the Flying Dutchman: nobody can be seen on board. When the Royal Caroline has lost its masts, the Dolphin slides by, but no crew is visible on her deck. Cooper’s use of irony is superb, especially when he has the townspeople comment {66} on the difference between the dreaded pirate Red Rover and “innocent and honest slavers” (30) — a definite attack on the New Englanders’ participation in the slave trade. All is allowed in the quest for profit.

To the various types of vessels enabling the actions in the works we will discuss in the course of this conference — frigates, brigs, brigantines, corvettes, periaguas, and schooners, I will add one more: the lugger. This craft figures prominently in Cooper’s The Wing-and-Wing. Although the vessel’s type, lugger, might sound rather clumsy, it is, Cooper explains, “a light fairy-like craft” (14), then adds it is “actually of about one hundred and eighty tons admeasurements, but her dark paint and low hull gave her an appearance of being much smaller than she really was, still, the spread of her canvas, as she came down before the wind, wing-and-wing (sails on opposite side of the vessel), as seamen term it, or with a sail fanning like the heavy pinions of a seafowl, on each side.” It is also a “suspicious vessel” because people on shore cannot see anybody on board, because “nothing was visible above [the waist] but the hat of some mariner taller than common” (15).

Cooper gets in some digs at landlubbers and their unfamiliarity with proper nomenclature. When the podesta, a member of Porto Ferrajo’s bureaucracy, asks, revealing his ignorance of proper terms, “but what sort of a lugger? There are felucca-luggers, and polacre-luggers, and bombarda-luggers, and all sorts of luggers,” he is put in his place: “Signor Podesta, this is not the language of the port. We call a felucca, a felucca; a bombarda, a bombarda, a polacre, a polacre; and a lugger, a lugger. This is therefore a lugger” (20) Cooper knew his vessels — and would like for his readers to do the same — he cannot imagine his readers not sharing the bug of the enthusiast. You now have some tools to recognize types of vessels. As Joseph Conrad once wrote, Cooper “loved the sea and looked on it with consummate understanding.” We, the readers, might scramble to catch up, but our efforts cannot but help our understanding of Cooper’s texts.

Works Cited

  • Coggins, Jack. Ships and Seamen of the American Revolution. Harrisburg, PA: Promontory Press, 1969.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. Afloat and Ashore (1844).
  • ------. The Bravo: A Tale. Phildelphia: Carey & Lea, 1831.
  • ------. The Crater Or, Vulcan’s Peak: A Tale of the Pacific. New York: Burgess, Stringer, & Co., 1847.
  • ------. Pages and Pictures, from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper, with notes by Susan Fenimore Cooper . 1861. Reprinted as James Fenimore Cooper: Pages & Pictures. Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books, 1980.
  • ------. The Pilot. A Tale of the Sea. New York: Charles Wiley, 1824.
  • ------. The Red Rover: A Tale. Philadelphia: Carey & Lea, 1827.
  • ------. The Water-Witch, or, The Skimmer of the Seas. Philadelphia: Carey & Lea, 1830.
  • ------. Wing-and-Wing or Le Feu Follet: A Tale. Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1842.
  • Davis, James, III. “The Red Rover and Looking at the Nautical Machine for Naturalist Tendencies.” James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers 25 (2008): 10-13.
  • {67} Dereske, Jo. Miss Zukas and the Stroke of Death. New York: Avon Books, 1995.
  • Franklin, Wayne. James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2007.
  • Forester, C.S. The Hornblower Series. 1937-1967.
  • ------. The Captain from Connecticut. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1941.
  • Grossman, James. James Fenimore Cooper: A Biographical and Critical Study. 1949. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1967.
  • Iglesias, Luis. “The ‘keen-eyed critic of the ocean’: James Fenimore Cooper’s Invention of the Sea Novel.” James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers 23 (2006): 1-7.
  • Long, Robert Emmet. James Fenimore Cooper. New York: Continuum, 1990.
  • Madison, Robert D. “Getting Underway with James Fenimore Cooper.” James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art 1 (1979).
  • Sawyer, Edith A. “A Year of Cooper’s Youth.” New England Magazine, New Series 37.4 (Dec. 1907): 489-504.


1 Dereske, Jo, Miss Zukas And The Stroke Of Death. New York: Avon Books, 1995

2 In his very favorable review of The Red Rover, in the (Paris) Globe, April 16, 1828, the French critic Charles Sainte-Beuve comments, “No one has understood the ocean better ... , its voices and its colours, its calms and its storms; no one has caught as vividly and as truly the feel of a ship. ... If I might be so bold, ... in this novel the ships are the two most important characters” (Quoted in Long 75). The same may be said about other Cooper tales, for example the ones being discussed during this conference.

3 Madison states, quite bluntly, “Cooper’s Sea Stories are out of date. That is, that species of technology which loaned its vocabulary to the writer of nautical works is nearly extinct.” This can be remedied, though, by glossaries: Madison mentions Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s Seamen’s Friend (1841 but in use until around 1900) and the far superior W. H. Smyth’s Sailor’s Word Book (1867 — published posthumously). The latter text is being reissued by Cambridge University Press, on 31ˢᵗ July 2013.

4 Sawyer, Edith A. “A Year in Cooper’s Youth” (1907).