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



{75} A number of places along the western shore of Lake Otsego are settings for dramatic events in Cooper’s novels, The Deerslayer and The Pioneers. One of them, Three Mile Point, was also the site of an important controversy in Cooper’s life, which he incorporated into his novel Home as Found. From 1813 to 1817, Cooper lived at Fenimore Farm, where the New York Historical Association is now located.

A state highway, Route 80, now runs north from Cooperstown along this shore to U.S. Route 20. The highway, which dates from the middle of the last century, hugs the shore and is often squeezed between the hillside and lakeside cottages. Several of the sites important to Cooper’s life and fiction, including Fenimore Farm, Three Mile Point, and Mohican Canyon, are accessible by car from Route 80. Other lakeside sites mentioned by Cooper are now on private property. The commercial boat tours that run from the lakefront in Cooperstown during the summer provide good views of the lake shore and are a convenient way to see places not easily accessible from the land.

Near the northern end of the lake, on Route 80, New York State has placed an historical marker identifying “Sunken Island,” the underwater shoal or ridge that supports “Muskrat Castle” in The Deerslayer, though in the novel Cooper has moved the shoal a mile or so south of its real location.

This discussion of sites along {76} the western shore of the lake associated with the life and fiction of James Fenimore Cooper starts at the Village of Cooperstown and proceeds north.


Hannah’s Hill rises 500 feet above the lake at the western edge of Cooperstown, skirted to the south by New York State Route 28/80 to Fly Creek, and to the north by the western extension of Lake Street. The western end of Main Street, long known locally as Irish Hill, winds up its slope. Hannah’s Hill was named for Hannah Cooper, James Fenimore Cooper’s beloved older sister. Though the text of The Pioneers is not explicit, some have identified as Hannah’s Hill the “hill, that was said to overhang the village, in a manner peculiar to itself,” where Billy Kirby has his sugar-bush in that novel. [Chapters XX, XXI]


Just within the village of Cooperstown, on the grounds of the Cooperstown Country Club, a low promontory runs due south enclosing Blackbird Bay. The head of the shallow bay was filled in in 1912 to make land for tennis courts. The remains of the point are lined with a row of half-drowned trees.

In The Pioneers, the point which forms Blackbird Bay is the fictional site of an annual bass fishing expedition, where the villagers assemble with great nets to bring in “a haul of one thousand Otsego bass, without counting pike, pickerel, perch, bull-pouts, salmon-trouts, and suckers,” and where Natty Bumppo rescues the nautical Ben Pump from drowning. [Chapters XXIII, XXIV]

Blackbird Bay figures more prominently in The Deerslayer, where as “Muskrat Cove” it is the site of the first encampment of the hostile Huron Indians, {77} where Tom Hutter and Hurry Harry are captured early in the novel. Cooper describes it as:

a shallow bay, formed by a long low point, that had gotten the name of “’Rat’s Cove” from the circumstance of its being a favorite haunt of the muskrat. ...

This point, instead of thrusting itself forward like all the others, ran in a line with the main shore of the lake, which here swept within it, in a deep and retired bay. ...

The placid water swept round in a graceful curve, the rushes bent gently towards its surface, and the trees over-hung it as usual, but all lay in the soothing and sublime solitude of a wilderness. The scene was such as a poet, or an artist would have delighted in. ... [Chapter III]

Some maps published around 1900 locate “Muskrat Cove” at Glimmerglen Cove, almost a mile north of Blackbird Bay. This contradicts Cooper’s description, since only at Blackbird Bay is there a point facing south, and does not accord with his his reiterated statement in The Deerslayer that Muskrat Cove is less than a mile from the foot of the lake. [Chapters III, VI]


From July 1813 to the autumn of 1817, James Fenimore Cooper lived at Fenimore Farm, north of Blackbird Bay and just outside the village limits, on the present site of the New York State Historical Association. Overcoming his young bride’s objections to leaving her native Westchester County, where he had lived since his marriage in 1811, the twenty-four-year-old Cooper bought a frame farmhouse where the Association’s Fenimore House [Fenimore Art Museum] now stands. There he began life as a gentleman farmer convenient to Otsego Hall, where his widowed mother still lived. To the south of the farmhouse, on a knoll in what is {78} now the Cooperstown Country Club golf course, he started work on a large new stone house. Cooper became an active member of the Cooperstown community. He was elected to the Vestry of Christ Episcopal Church in 1814, where he served on a committee to clear and fence the churchyard, and was active in the Otsego Bible Society. In 1817 he became a founding member and the first corresponding secretary of the Otsego County Agricultural Society, which sponsored in that year the first county fair held in New York State.

His daughter Susan remembered:

I used very often to trot along between my Father and Mother about the grounds; and I remember distinctly going with them to the new stone house, then building. In that house they expected to pass their lives. But in fact it was never inhabited. Your grandfather one day chose an even stone, to be placed in the wall, and carved on it his own name and that of your grandmother, with the date—1816. The position of that house was charming, on a rising knoll, commanding a lovely view of the Lake and village. The grounds reached to the brook, southward, and the principal entrance was to have been at the point where the road crosses the brook. ... The garden at Fenimore was then placed in the meadow just beyond the road leading to the barn at the farm-house. ... The farm-house was painted red.

Despite Cooper’s devotion to agricultural improvement, he was never a very successful farmer. By 1816, his father’s estate was depleted by legal claims against it, and by the time his mother died in 1817 Cooper was in financial difficulties. He left Cooperstown and returned to Westchester County, to a farm in Scarsdale given him by his father-in-law. The stone house he had begun on Fenimore Farm was never completely finished or occupied. It burned down in 1823, in a fire that Cooper believed was deliberately set. Three years later, its stones were used to {79} construct the twin houses that still stand at 51-53 Pioneer Street in the village. Fenimore Farm itself was sold to pay debts in 1824. In 1829 Judge Samuel Nelson purchased the old farmhouse of Fenimore Farm and enlarged it; an outbuilding he used as a law office is now the lawyer’s office in the Village Crossroads of the Farmer’s Museum.

Fenimore House

In 1932 Edward Severin Clark, who had acquired Fenimore Farm in the 1890s, demolished Cooper’s old frame farmhouse to make room for a stone mansion he called Fenimore House. The ballroom of Fenimore House was built over the farmhouse foundations. In 1945, Fenimore House became the headquarters of the New York State Historical Association, a private non- profit society that administers Fenimore House and The Farmers’ Museum across the road. As a museum, Fenimore House [today the Fenimore Art Museum] retains the atmosphere of a gracious mansion, and its lawn, running down to the shore, preserves Cooper’s magnificent {80} view of Lake Otsego.

Today, Fenimore House is best known for its world famous collection of American folk art, but it also has important holdings of nineteenth century paintings and furniture, [and Native American Art]. The Cooper Room, overlooking the lake, contains portraits of the Cooper family, nineteenth century paintings based on scenes from his novels, and personal memorabilia.

Adjacent to Fenimore House is the Association’s Library, with over 70,000 volumes on New York State history and culture. In addition to maintaining exhibits and research facilities, which are open to the public, the Association publishes the scholarly quarterly, New York History, and the popular history magazine, Heritage. Its educational activities, through the “Yorker Program,” reach schoolchildren all over the state.

The Farmers’ Museum

Across the road from Fenimore House is The Farmers’ Museum, housed in a gigantic stone barn built by Edward S. Clark in 1918 on some of the land that formed Cooper’s Fenimore Farm. In the barn, and in the {81} assemblage of early buildings gathered from around New York State to form the “Village Crossroads,” the museum preserves and demonstrates the artifacts and crafts of rural nineteenth century New York State. The site of Fenimore Farm has thus become a major focal point for the study of the people and environment in which James Fenimore Cooper lived and worked.

Mount Ovis

The hill behind The Farmers’ Museum, once part of Cooper’s Fenimore Farm, rises some 600 feet above lake level. Cooper named it “Mount Ovis.” Here he kept some of the first Merino sheep known in the Cooperstown area, part of a boom in sheep which helped make Otsego County for a short time one of the wool-producing centers of America.


Two miles north of the village is Brookwood Point, beyond which the highway approaches the very edge of the lake shore. The Brookwood Point area figures in The Deerslayer, when Hetty Hutter lands at night on Three Mile Point and makes her way south along the coast to seek out the Huron encampment at Blackbird Bay and plead for the life of her captured father. After spending the night in the woods:

She ... proceeded on her course, along the margin of the lake, of which she now caught glimpses again through the trees. ... In this manner ... the girl proceeded nearly a mile, thrice the distance she had been able to achieve in the darkness, during the same period of time. She then reached a brook that had dug a channel for itself into the earth, and went brawling into the lake, between steep and high banks, covered with trees. ... Her course now lay {82} along a broad and nearly level terrace, which stretched from the top of the bank that bounded the water, to a low acclivity that rose to a second and irregular platform above. This was at a part of the valley where the mountain ran obliquely, forming the commencement of a plain that spread between the hills, southward of the sheet of water. [Chapter X]

This description fits the terrain around Brookwood Point, where begins the valley floor that extends south along the shore of the lake and then down the Susquehanna River. Here Hetty encounters Hist, the captured maiden beloved of Natty Bumppo’s Indian friend Chingachgook, and with her continues south to the Huron encampment at Muskrat Cove, or what is now Blackbird Bay.


A mile further north is Three Mile Point, which has more associations with Cooper than any other spot on Lake Otsego. Today, it is a public village park, where for a small fee visitors can swim and picnic.

Originally known in Cooperstown as Myrtle Grove, or Wild Rose Point, Three Mile Point was retained by Judge William Cooper, Cooperstown’s founder, as a family recreation spot. In early days, it was covered with oak trees and known for its profusion of wild roses. The Coopers and their friends visited the point regularly. In 1837 James Fenimore Cooper wrote the local paper that he particularly loved the point because of its family memories:

I have myself seen children of my family sporting in the shades of Myrtle Grove, as I saw their parents sporting as children, before them. We meet here, as on common ground, and the recollections associated with the spot, the records on its trees, the scenes of {83} my boyhood, produce on me, who stand, as it were, between the present and the past, sensations that no man of sentiment will require language to explain.

The Three Mile Point Controversy

When James Fenimore Cooper returned from Europe to live in Cooperstown in 1836, he found that Three Mile Point was being used as public property, and that there had been extensive vandalism. The public, Cooper wrote in 1842 to the magazine Brother Jonathan, “cut down a tree that had a peculiar association connected with my father, and which I would not have permitted to be cut down for any ordinary reason.” In fact, Judge Cooper had left Three Mile Point to all his descendants in common, to pass in 1850 to the youngest family member then bearing the name of William. As his father’s executor, and angered by the destruction, Cooper in July 1837 placed a curt announcement in the Freeman’s Journal that “the public is warned against trespassing on the three mile point...[and] has not, nor has ever had, any right to the same, beyond what has been conceded by the liberality of the owners.”

Few villagers remembered that the Cooper family still owned Three Mile Point, and many were outraged. A public meeting denounced James Fenimore Cooper for closing the point, asserting that Judge Cooper had left it to the community, and resolved that his son’s works should be removed from the village library. The Whig-dominated New York press used the story to denounce Cooper, a life-long Democrat, as an aristocratic snob; his successful libel suits against these papers contributed to the development of New York libel law. Cooper helped keep the controversy alive by including it, in considerable detail, in his novel Home as Found (1838), which describes with biting satire the social climates of New York {84} City and Cooperstown as Cooper saw them in the midst of the Jacksonian era.

There was no real question of Cooper’s rights, however, and Three Mile Point remained in his custody until it passed to William Storrs Cooper (1845-1914), who in 1871 leased it to the Cooperstown Village Improvement Society. In 1899 a public appeal raised money to acquire Three Mile Point for the village, and it has since been a public park. The northern edge of the point was bought in 1904 by Adolphus Busch, the St. Louis brewer, and is occupied by a Busch family boathouse. In 1928 a proposal by the Busch family to acquire the rest of the point, in exchange for property further up the lake, was rejected by the village trustees. The desire of the villagers in the 1830s, to have Three Mile Point as a recreation spot open to all, was thus eventually achieved.

Three Mile Point in Fiction

In The Deerslayer, Three Mile Point figures as the place where Hetty Hutter lands to seek the Huron encampment at Muskrat Cove and beg for her father’s release, and later as the site of the second Huron camp where Chingachgook rescues Hist, and Natty Bumppo, the Deerslayer, is captured. As Cooper describes it:

The whole projection into the lake contained about two acres of land, and the part that formed the point, and on which the camp was placed, did not compose a surface of more than half that size. It was principally covered with oaks. ... Beneath, except the fringe of thick bushes along the shore, there was very little underbrush. ... The surface of the land was tolerably even, but it had a small rise near its centre, which divided it into a northern and southern half. ... A brook also came brawling down the sides of the adjacent hills, and found its way into the lake on the {85} southern side of the point. It had cut for itself a deep passage through some of the higher portions of the ground, and, in later days, when this spot has become subjected to the uses of civilization, by its windings and shaded banks, it has become no mean accessory in contributing to the beauty of the place. ... There was a delicious spring on the northern side of the point. ... [Chapter XVI]

In Home as Found, Three Mile Point is called “Fishing Point.” The Effingham family, returning from Europe to live in the fictional “Templeton,” engage in the same controversy over the point that Cooper had endured in real life. As the family discuss the matter:

“That point has been ours ever since civilized man has dwelt among these hills; who will presume to rob us of it?”

“... The public — ;the all-powerful, omnipotent, overruling, law-making, law-breaking public — has a passing caprice to possess itself of your beloved point. ...” [Chapter XIV]

A protest meeting, ignoring the clear rights of the Effinghams, calls them “odious”, and it is said that “some have even spoken of Lynching.” There follows a controversy in the press, from which the Effinghams emerge victorious, if still slandered. [Chapters XIV, XV, XVI]

Later on, the protagonists of Home as Found meet at “Fishing Point” to fish, walk, and picnic. [Chapters XIX, XX]


The next promontory to the north on the western shore of Lake Otsego is Five Mile Point, which has often been identified with the fictional site of the third {86} Huron encampment in The Deerslayer. It does not, however, match Cooper’s detailed description, which better fits Six Mile Point a little further on.

Mohican Canyon

The brook which reaches the lake at Five Mile Point flows east down a deep ravine known as Mohican Canyon, at the head of which is the crossroads called Pierstown. County Route 28 parallels the brook up this ravine. Mohican Canyon figures incidentally in The Deerslayer, as the “deep glen” in which the hostile Indians gather after overrunning Deerslayer, as he hides on the crest above while seeking to escape them. Most of this scene, however, takes place on and around Six Mile Point.


The next significant point along the highway is called Six Mile Point, or Hickory Grove, though it is not marked by a road sign. Here the climactic scenes of The Deerslayer take place, where the Hurons are encamped near the underwater shoal or ridge on which Cooper has placed Tom Hutter’s “Muskrat Castle.”

This spot was similar to the one already described [Three Mile Point], with the exception that the surface of the land was less broken, and less crowded with trees ... the space beneath the branches bearing some resemblance to a densely wooded lawn. Favoured by its position and its spring, it had been much resorted to by savages and hunters, and the natural grasses had succeeded their fires, leaving an appearance of sward in places, a very unusual accompaniment of the virgin forest. Nor was the margin of water fringed with bushes, as on so much of its shore, but the eye penetrated the woods immediately on {87} reaching the strand, commanding nearly the whole area of the projection. [Chapter XXVII]

At Six Mile Point, towards the climax of The Deerslayer, Natty Bumppo makes a valiant but unsuccessful effort to escape from the Hurons. Cooper describes the chase in so much detail that it can only be summarized here:

After running south through the shallow waters along the shore for fifty yards, Deerslayer darts inland and climbs “in a diagonal direction up the acclivity, which was neither very high nor very steep, in this part of the mountain.” Reaching the summit, he notes “that a deep glen intervened, before the base of a second hill could be reached.” He hides under a log beyond the brow of the hill, and the pursuing Hurons, thinking he has gone ahead, jump over him and descend until “all were in the bottom of the glen, quite a hundred feet before him, and some had even ascended part of the opposite hill. ...”

Deerslayer then crawls back over the crest, and walks “swiftly but steadily along the summit, in a dirith a view to prevent his escaping in that direction, while some crossed his trail towards the water, in order to prevent his retreat by the lake, running southerly.”

Seeing that “he was virtually surrounded on three sides, having the lake on the fourth,” and finding that “he was descending towards the glen, by the melting away of the ridge,” Deerslayer “turned short, at right angles to his previous course, and went down the declivity with tremendous velocity, holding his way towards the shore.” [Chapter XXVII]

It is to no avail. Though Deerslayer breaks through the few Indians left at the Six Mile Point encampment, and shoves off in his canoe, he is quickly recaptured and abandons all further hope of escape.

The terrain around Six Mile Point, as shown on topographic maps, fits this description closely. Tracing Cooper’s account on the map, Deerslayer climbs in an almost southerly direction up the slope of Red House Hill, which rises behind Six Mile Point. He follows a diagonal route somewhat to the south of today’s Red House Hill Road, until he reaches the crest overlooking Mohican Canyon [the glen] one hundred feet below. There he turns sharply to the right, and follows the crest of Red House Hill in a northwest direction, until it begins to descend towards the level of the Mohican Canyon which parallels it on the south. Turning abruptly back to the east, Deerslayer descends the steep slope, somewhere near Red House Hill Road, and returns to Six Mile Point. Overall, as the crow flies, he has run about a mile and a half, with a climb of 350 feet above the lake level.

Muskrat Castle

Offshore from Six Mile Point, on the western side of the lake, is the fictional site of “Muskrat Castle,” Tom Hutter’s fortified home on stilts where much of the action in The Deerslayer takes place.

Muskrat Castle ... stood in the open lake, at a distance of fully a quarter of a mile from the nearest shore. On every other side the water extended much farther, the precise position being distant about two miles from the northern end of the sheet, and near, if not quite a mile from its eastern shore. ... On this spot alone, a long narrow shoal, which extended for a few hundred yards in a north and south direction, rose within six or eight feet of the surface of the lake, and ... Hutter had driven piles into it, and placed his habitation on them, for the purpose of security. [Chapter II]

The shoal is real, though as Cooper {89} pointed out in his Preface to the 1850 edition of The Deerslayer, it “is a little misplaced, lying, in fact nearer to the northern end of the lake, as well as to the eastern shore, than is stated in this book.” But, he added, “in all but precise location, even this feature of the book is accurate.” The fictional location of Muskrat Castle has often been assumed to be further south off Five Mile Point, perhaps because Five Mile Point is more prominent and was long the site of a popular hotel. But only Six Mile Point fits both Cooper’s careful description and the narrative.

In The Deerslayer the fictional Muskrat Castle is described as a formidable fortress:

A good deal of art had also been manifested in the disposition of the timber, of which the building was constructed, and which afforded a protection much greater than was usual to the ordinary log cabins of the frontier. The sides and ends were composed of the trunks of large pines, cut about nine feet long, and placed upright, instead of being laid horizontally, as was the practice of the country. These logs were squared on three sides, and had large tennons on each end. Massive sills were secured on the heads of the piles. ... The floors were made of smaller logs, similarly squared, and the roof was composed of light poles, firmly united, and well covered with bark. The effect of this ingenious arrangement was to give its owner a house that could be approached only by water, the sides of which were composed of logs, closely wedged together, which were two feet thick in their thinnest parts, and which could be separated only by a deliberate and laborious use of human hands, or by the slow operation of time. [Chapter II]

Hetty’s Grave

In The Deerslayer, Hetty Hutter’s mother and her infant have been buried on the lake bed, {90} north of Muskrat Castle, and at the end of the novel Tom Hutter and Hetty herself are laid to rest beside them.

The castle stood near the southern extremity of a shoal that extended near half a mile northerly, and it was at the farthest end of this shallow water that Floating Tom had seen fit to deposit the remains of his wife and child. His own were now in the course of being placed at their side. [Chapter XXI].

Her [Hetty’s] body was laid in the lake, by the side of the mother she had so loved and reverenced. ... [Chapter XXXII].


Near the head of Lake Otsego lies “Sunken Island”, a long narrow shoal that rises from the lake floor to within six feet of the surface. For literary purposes Cooper moved this shoal south and west to support Tom Hutter’s “Muskrat Castle” in The Deerslayer. From the roadside near the state marker the shadow of the sunken island can be clearly seen. In 1911 the Vitagraph Company built a “replica” of Muskrat Castle on the real shoal, in order to make the first film version of The Deerslayer.