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



{69} Cooperstown lies at the southern end of Lake Otsego, which was gouged out by glaciers during the last great Ice Age. Like many glacial lakes, Lake Otsego is deep and steep-banked, so that its waters reflect the changing sky and clouds, the surrounding hills, and the overhanging trees that still line much of its shoreline. Fed by streams from the north, and by many springs, it is the source of the Susquehanna River, which flows south to reach the Atlantic Ocean at the head of Chesapeake Bay.


{70} Lake Otsego was an important part of James Fenimore Cooper’s life. As a child he sailed its waters and explored its banks until he knew every inch of its shores and every nuance of its constantly changing appearance. In 1798 Judge Cooper had approved his wife’s proposal to return with her children to live in New Jersey, but, as the novelist wrote a friend in 1844, “so great was the grief of my brother and myself at the idea of giving up our lake and haunts ... that she abandoned her own wishes to ours. ...”

From Otsego Hall, as a child and an adult, Cooper could look up the lake to Mount Wellington (“The Sleeping Lion”) at its northern end. The panoramic view of the lake and village, seen from the summit of Mount Vision on the eastern shore, held for him an almost mystical importance. As a young man he spent four years at Fenimore Farm, on the western shore of the the lake, and after he returned from Europe to live at Otsego Hall in 1836 he spent many hours at Chalet Farm, overlooking it from the east.

In The Chronicles of Cooperstown, Cooper described the lake in words which still seem apt today:

Lake Otsego is a sheet of limpid water, extending ... about nine miles, and varying in width from about three-quarters of a mile to a mile and a half. It has many bays and points, and as the first are graceful and sweeping, and the last low and wooded, they contribute largely to its beauty. The water is cool and deep, and the fish are consequently firm and sweet. The two ends of the lake ... deepen their water gradually, but there are places, on its eastern side in particular, where a large ship might float with her yards in the forest. [At] the greatest ascertained depth ... bottom has been got with a line of one hundred and {71} fifty feet. ...

The shores of the Otsego are generally high, though greatly varied. On the eastern side, extends a range of steep mountains, that varies in height from four to six hundred feet, and which is principally in forest. ... The road along this side of the lake is particularly pleasant. ... The western shore of the lake is also high, though more cultivated. As the whole country possesses much wood, the farms, viewed across the water, on this side of the lake, resemble English park scenery. [Chapter VII]

One evening while driving home along the east side of Lake Otsego, his daughter Susan later related, Cooper paused to admire the lake through an opening in the trees:

His spirited grey eye rested a moment on the water, with that expression of abstracted, poetical thought, ever familiar to those who lived with him; then, turning to [me] he exclaimed: “I must write one more book, dearie, about our little lake!” Again his eye rested on the water and the banks, with the far-seeing look of one evoking imaginary figures to fill the beautiful scene. A moment of silence followed — ... a few minutes passed — again he cracked his whip ... and drove homeward. A few days later the first pages of the Deerslayer were written.


Lake Otsego, which Cooper called “The Glimmerglass,” figures prominently in three of Cooper’s novels: The Pioneers, Home as Found, and The Deerslayer. The last, which many consider Cooper’s finest novel, is as much about the Lake itself as about its human characters.

Over the years, Lake Otsego grew in {72} symbolic importance to Cooper, in proportion to his increasing disillusionment with the society in which he lived. In The Pioneers, written in 1823, the lake seems only part of the background scenery; even episodes set on the lake pay little attention to the water as such. In Home as Found, published fifteen years later after Cooper had returned to Cooperstown from Europe, the lake is described with affection and nostalgia, and often serves as a serene counterpoint to the crass Jacksonian society described on land.

Finally, in The Deerslayer, the last of the Leatherstocking Tales, published in 1841, Lake Otsego moves to center stage; its changing moods and symbolic importance as a “Glimmerglass” reflecting the moral character of the human protagonists, make it the focal point of an adventure taking place entirely on its surface and immediate shores. By setting his story in 1745, before the establishment of any permanent white settlement, Cooper has dispensed entirely with the brawling inhabitants of “Templeton.”

In his original Preface to The Deerslayer, Cooper specified that:

The scenery ... is as true to nature, as an intimate {73} knowledge of the present appearance of the region ... enabled the writer to render it. The lake, mountains, valley and forests, are all believed to be sufficiently exact, while the river, rock and shoal are faithful transcripts from nature. Even the points exist, a little altered by civilization, but so nearly answering to the descriptions, as to be easily recognized by all who are familiar with the scenery of the particular region in question.