Cooper’s Otsego County: A Bicentennial Guide of Sites in Otsego County Associated with the Life and Fiction of James Fenimore Cooper, 1789-1851

Hugh C. MacDougall

Cooperstown, NY: New York State Historical Association, 1989

Copyright © 1989 by the New York State Historical Association. All rights reserved.

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 88-64177 ISBN: 0-917334-18-3

Editor: Wendell Tripp

Photographer: Milo Stewart [Photos not included here.]

Design: Liliana Zavaleta Design

Printed in the United States of America.

Placed online March 2012 with the authorization of the New York State Historical Association.

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

Corrections or information received since the original 1989 publication are occasionally included in [square brackets] — Hugh C. MacDougall


{9}This guidebook identifies and describes sites in New York’s Otsego County associated with the life of James Fenimore Cooper, and with the four Cooper novels set in the county. It has two major purposes. The first is to enable visitors to Cooperstown and Otsego County to visualize the landscape around them as it appeared to one of America’s foremost writers. The second is to encourage a renewed interest in Cooper’s work.

One of America’s greatest writers, Cooper published thirty-two novels, five books of travel, two books of political commentary, a history of the United States Navy, stories, articles, and reviews, and the first history of Cooperstown itself. His descriptive prose influenced the Hudson River School of American artists. The Leatherstocking Tales, and many of Cooper’s other novels, are not just relics to be relegated to college literature courses, or juvenile stories to be assigned to unwilling schoolchildren. As millions of Europeans can attest, James Fenimore Cooper, 200 years after his birth, is still both readable and thought provoking. He opens a window on a youthful America, a pathway back to our roots.

Nowhere is this truer than in Otsego County, where Cooper spent much of his life, both as a child and as a mature writer. He gave Otsego settings to four of his novels, including two of the most famous Leatherstocking Tales, and poured into them vivid recollections of people and of places he had known. His phenomenal visual memory enabled him to bring to life the village of Cooperstown and Otsego Lake, and the hills and forests that still surround them, in ways that we can still appreciate.{9}

{11}Because Cooper is renowned for his descriptions of scenery and of the wilderness, this guidebook makes extensive use of Cooper’s own language, as it describes in turn the sites associated with James Fenimore Cooper in Cooperstown, along the two sides of Otsego Lake, and in the nearby Butternut Valley.


James Fenimore Cooper was born in Burlington, New Jersey on September 15, 1789, and died in Cooperstown on September 14, 1851. He was brought to Cooperstown as a baby in 1790, four years after his father William Cooper had founded the little village on the New York frontier. He was educated at schools in Cooperstown and Albany, and entered Yale College in 1803 at the age of thirteen. Expelled from college in 1805, supposedly for a student prank [but in fact after a fight with fellow-student John P. Boyle—see Alan Taylor, William Cooper’s Town (1995), p. 340] he spent a year at sea as a merchant sailor, before being commissioned as a midshipman in the United States Navy at the beginning of 1808. His naval career was short, but included a tour at the lake port of Oswego on Lake Ontario.

In 1811, following the death of his father in 1809, Cooper married Susan Augusta DeLancey, daughter of a prominent family in New York’s Westchester County, and resigned from the Navy. In 1813 the young couple returned to Cooperstown, where for four years Cooper tried his hand at agriculture at Fenimore Farm, just north of the village. After the death of his mother in 1817, they moved to Scarsdale in Westchester County where, in 1820, Cooper wrote his first novel, Precaution, and launched a writing career that would make him the first internationally acclaimed American novelist and the first American to support himself by writing. Cooper’s second book, The Spy (1821), based on tales of the American Revolution around New York City, rapidly became a best seller. In the next three years, Cooper wrote three popular {12} novels: The Pioneers (1823), set in the frontier Cooperstown of his childhood; The Pilot (1824), a naval adventure about John Paul Jones; and The Last of the Mohicans (1826), a romance of the French and Indian wars in a New York setting. These works established Cooper’s reputation as a novelist who found inspiration in American history, who pioneered a new vision of the American frontier and of the American Indian, and who almost single-handedly created the novel of the sea and maritime adventure.

In 1826, their family grown to four daughters and a son, the Coopers went to Europe, where they lived for seven years in France and Italy, and travelled in England, Switzerland, and Germany. When they returned to America in 1833, Cooper was known throughout the western world. After two years in New York City, he settled in Cooperstown, where he bought back his late father’s Otsego Hall, and spent the rest of his life writing novels which combined adventure and romance with a critical analysis of the society in which he lived. He died in Cooperstown in 1851.

To his writings Cooper brought his experience as a seaman and naval officer, his fascination with the American Indian, and the memories and traditions of his childhood in the forests of central New York. His years in Europe gave him an historical and cultural perspective shared by few other Americans of his time. Not just a spinner of tales, Cooper was a perceptive and often controversial observer of the changing American society of the Jacksonian era. He lived a turbulent public life punctuated by legal battles with the Whig press of the period.

James Fenimore Cooper is best remembered for creating the epic figure of Natty Bumppo, the Leatherstocking. A central character in five of Cooper’s best loved novels, Natty Bumppo so effectively typified one peculiarly American character type so successfully that he has been the model for heroes of American popular fiction ever since, {13} down to the latest Western novel. A hunter and trapper living on the fringes of civilized society, the ungainly but philosophical Natty Bumppo displays a reverence for the wilderness, a skill as scout and marksman, a restlessness and enthusiasm for adventure, a cool courage in the face of death, and a profound belief in fair play for men and chivalry towards women, that for over a century and a half have made him “the American” for readers all over the world. These five novels, The Pioneers, The Last of the Mohicans, The Prairie, The Pathfinder, and The Deerslayer, portray Natty Bumppo from his first youthful adventures on the waters of Lake Otsego to his death as an old man on the prairies of the American west. “The Leatherstocking Tales,” as they are generally called, have been translated into virtually every major world language, and have never been out of print in America. Though their fame has overshadowed Cooper’s other major works, the survival of the Leatherstocking Tales is testimony to the enduring genius of their author.


Although James Fenimore Cooper lived in Europe, in New York City, and in Westchester County, as well as in Cooperstown, he especially loved the central region of New York State. In 1823, at the beginning of The Pioneers, he wrote:

Near the centre of the State of New-York lies an extensive district of country, whose surface is a succession of ... mountains and valleys. It is among these hills that the Delaware takes its rise; and flowing from the limpid lakes and thousand springs of this region, the numerous sources of the Susquehanna meander through the valleys, until, uniting their streams, they form one of the proudest rivers of the United States. The mountains are generally arable to {14} the tops, although instances are not wanting, where the sides are jutted with rocks, that aid greatly in giving to the country that romantic and picturesque character which it so eminently possesses. The vales are narrow, rich, and cultivated; with a stream uniformly winding through each.

Beautiful and thriving villages are found interspersed along the margins of the small lakes, or situated at the points of the streams which are favourable to manufacturing; and neat and comfortable farms, with every indication of wealth about them, are scattered profusely through the vales, and even to the mountain tops. Roads diverge in every direction, from the even and graceful bottoms of the valleys, to the most rugged and intricate passes of the hills. Academies, and minor edifices of learning, meet the eye of the stranger, at every few miles, as he winds his way through this uneven territory; and places for the worship of God, abound with that ... variety of exterior and canonical government which flows from unfettered liberty of conscience. [Chapter I]

Over 150 years later “Cooper Country” still retains both its natural beauty, and its human landscape of farm and village. Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit it every year.

Four of Cooper’s novels, including two of the Leatherstocking Tales, are set in Otsego County. The Pioneers (l823) takes place in the newly settled “Templeton” (Cooperstown) of 1793, and is an affectionate and warm account of the village, and its lake and surrounding hills as Cooper remembered them from his childhood. It introduced to the world Natty Bumppo, a frontiersman past his physical prime and out of place in the new community, and Chingachgook, a broken and dying Indian who has been Natty’s lifelong friend. In Home as Found (1838) the {15} descendants of the pioneers return to Templeton to confront the social and cultural leveling of the Jacksonian era. It has been well described as America’s first novel of manners, and deserves to be better known. The Deerslayer (1841) harks back to a wilderness Lake Otsego in 1745, long before its settlement, where the young Natty Bumppo faces manhood, love, and death in an adult fairy tale of adventure and morality set on and around “The Glimmerglass.” In Wyandotté (1843), the last of the Otsego novels, Cooper spins a tale of honor, betrayal, and conflicting loyalties in the Butternut Valley of western Otsego County during the American revolution. In addition, Cooper provided a factual account of the settlement and development of his home village in The Chronicles of Cooperstown (1838).*

* Texts of quotations from The Pioneers, The Deerslayer, and Wyandotté are from the definitive Cooper Edition published since 1980 by the State University Press of New York in Albany; those from Home as Found, not yet included in that series, are from the first edition of 1838. Because of the many different editions of Cooper available to readers, citations are given only to chapters rather than to specific pages, with the chapters of Home as Found numbered consecutively a in most available editions of that work.

In the novels set among the hills of Otsego County and on and around Lake Otsego itself, Cooper drew on his intimate knowledge of the area. The extent to which he portrayed real characters, including his own family, has long been a subject of discussion. Fictional buildings are copied, at least in part, from buildings and sites in Cooperstown; in particular Cooper used in exact detail the interior of Otsego Hall, the house where he grew up and where he returned to live in 1836. The real hills around Otsego Lake, and the points and bays along its shores, are lovingly described. In Wyandotté, his last Otsego County novel, he turned to the gentler terrain of the Butternut Valley to the west.

This Guidebook to places associated with Cooper in Otsego County draws as much upon his fiction as upon the known facts of his life. In describing the view of the lake and village from the summit of Mount Vi{16}sion, a view he deeply loved and often wrote about, Cooper once complained that Lake Otsego only lacked “ruined castles and recollections” to equal the romantic scenery of the Rhine. The Kingfisher Tower, a sixty-foot “medieval” tower erected in 1876 just off Point Judith, has since provided the first. James Fenimore Cooper himself, and the creative genius of his writings, provide the recollections, and it is the purpose of this Guidebook to share them with those who remember Cooper’s stories from their youth, or who may be tempted to discover them in the future.