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



{123} The western border of Otsego County is formed by the Unadilla River, which flows south to join the Susquehanna River near the town of Sidney. Before the American Revolution the Unadilla marked the western limit of white settlement, set by the 1768 Treaty of Fort Stanwyx signed with the Iroquois Indians. The broad and fertile Butternut Valley winds southwest through western Otsego County. The Butternut Creek flows down the valley to enter the Unadilla about ten miles north of the point where the Unadilla enters the Susquehanna. Among the geological features of the Butternut Valley are the round hillocks, or knolls, that rise up along the floodplain of Butternut Creek.


In 1769 Col. Staats Long Morris obtained and began to settle a patent of over 33,000 acres along the Butternut Valley. His efforts were interrupted by the American Revolution, which became in central New York a civil war between American Patriots and Americans loyal to the Crown. The farms and settlements of both sides were burned and most white settlers were temporarily driven from the area. Because Col. Morris, a career officer in the British Army, remained loyal to the British cause, the Morris Patent was confiscated in 1785 and given to his patriot brothers Richard and Lewis, the latter a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

{124} General Jacob Morris (1755-1844), Lewis Morris’s son, first came to the Butternut Valley in 1787 and settled on the Morris Patent ten miles up Butternut Creek, where Morris Brook enters the creek through a deep ravine from the hills to the north. The site is now the intersection of State Route 51 and Dimock Hollow Road, some three miles south of the village of Morris. Jacob Morris first built a frame house south of the brook’s outlet into Butternut Creek, and several years later a second one a bit further south. The large mansion now known as Morris Manor, for many generations the home of the Morris family, was built in 1805 just to the north of the brook.

Like William Cooper, General Morris was a staunch Federalist. The two families, both prominent in the affairs of the fledgling Otsego County, established a close friendship and frequently exchanged visits. The author’s brother Isaac married Jacob’s daughter Mary Ann Morris (1784-1873) in 1804, and brought her to Cooperstown to live. It is therefore not surprising that Cooper’s Wyandotté or The Hutted Knoll (1843), a novel of the conflicts of Revolution on the New York frontier, is set in the Butternut Valley that was so familiar to him.


Captain Willoughby, the British protagonist of Wyandotté, settles in colonial America after the French and Indian War and marries an American wife. Learning of 6,000 acres of prime bottom land, including a large beaver pond, in central New York, he obtains in 1765 a grant of of the land as a reward for his military services. He has the land surveyed and marked out with blazed trees and “butternut corners,” and heads west from Albany to inspect it:

After finding their way to the head of the Canader{125}aga, mistaking it for the Otsego, they ... wormed their way through the Oaks, into the Susquehannah, descending that river until they reached the Unadilla, which stream they ascended until they came to the small ... creek, that ran through the Captain’s new estate.

There the Captain finds a large beaver pond, of some 400 acres, in the center of which rises “an island of some five or six acres in extent. It was a rocky knoll that rose forty feet above the surface of the water. ... The stream had long before been dammed, successions of families of beavers having probably occupied the place ... for centuries. ...” [Chapter I]

Captain Willoughby destroys the dam, draining the pond and leaving the large natural clearing or “beaver meadow” that had first drawn him to the site. He builds his first “hut” on the former island, and here his Scotch mason, Jamie Allen, erects the walled homestead that Willoughby calls the Hutted Knoll in honor of its humble beginnings. Nearby, Willougby’s sawmills are “buried in the ravine,” out of sight, and this “glen ... was very narrow, so much so, as barely to leave sites for the buildings themselves. ...” [Chapters IV, XXV]

Morris Manor as the Hutted Knoll

Morris Manor has long claimed to be the site of Wyandotté, with the Morris Creek ravine as the model for the glen that concealed Captain Willoughby’s mills. But Cooper does not seem as topographically exact as in the novels set around Lake Otsego. One cannot, for example, identify a narrowing of the riverbanks or cliff-edged knoll corresponding with site of the beaver pond described in Wyandotté. But the Hutted Knoll is certainly intended to be in the Butternut Valley, though the real landscape seems {126} rather more gentle than that depicted in the novel.

In describing Willoughby’s house, Cooper may have thought of Hyde Hall at the head of Lake Otsego which, like The Hutted Knoll, is built around a central courtyard. Moreover, Hyde Hall’s proprietors suffered from the social unrest of the “anti-rent wars” between landlords and tenants in the mid-1840s, unrest which is foreshadowed in Wyandotté, and which was to become the main topic of the “Littlepage Trilogy” of novels Cooper wrote during the next few years.

Historical Sources for Wyandotté

The plot of Wyandotté, with its familial conflicts between loyalist, patriot, and would-be neutral, seems influenced by local Revolutionary incidents with which Cooper was familiar.*

* Cooper’s sources for Wyandotté are discussed in the historical introduction to the Cooper Edition, and in James H. Pickering’s article in New York History, July 1982.

Mount Edmeston was a 5,000-acre grant a few miles further up the Unadilla River, made to British Army Major William Edmeston and his brother Robert as reward for their services in the French and Indian War. Major Edmeston established a settlement near the present village of Edmeston between 1770 and 1773, but it was burned in 1778 by pro-British Indians apparently unaware of his agent’s loyalist sentiments. In Wyandotté, after Captain Willoughby establishes himself at the Hutted Knoll, he “visited Edmeston of Mount Edmeston, a neighbor less than fifty miles distant; [and] was occasionally seen at Johnson Hall, with Sir William, or at the bachelor establishment of Sir John, on the Mohawk. ...” [Chapter III]

Col. Hendrick Frey (1734-1827) of Canajoharie on the Mohawk River, tried to remain neutral {127} during the Revolution but, despite having a brother who was an active patriot, was several times imprisoned. After the Revolution he became a close friend of William Cooper and regularly visited Cooperstown. Frey was the prototype for the fictional Major Fritz Hartmann in The Pioneers. His story may also have contributed to that of Captain Willoughby.

Finally, Captain Willoughby’s fictional beaver pond reflects the experience of a Major McVickar, who retired from his British regiment in 1765 and settled on a thirty-acre beaver pond in Vermont, only to be evicted by Yankee litigants. His attempt at settlement is described in Memoirs of an American Lady (1808), by his daughter Anne McVickar Grant. The book was well known to Cooper, who also borrowed from its descriptions of early Albany and the trails to Lake Ontario in his Satanstoe (1845) and The Pathfinder (1840).

But long before Cooper published Wyandotté in 1843, he had written The Spy (1821) and Lionel Lincoln (1825), both novels portraying the moral ambiguities of the American Revolution. His wife Susan’s heritage as a DeLancey, a family whose American branch was all but destroyed by the Revolution, no doubt contributed to all three novels.


On the west side of State Route 51, almost exactly 2.5 miles south of the “Four Corners” traffic light in the village of Morris, is a square marble pillar, about seven feet high, surrounded by a wrought iron fence. It marks the spot where James Fenimore Cooper’s oldest sister Hannah Cooper (1777-1800) died on September 10, 1800.

Hannah Cooper and her brother Richard had set out from Cooperstown to ride to Morris Manor, {128} a trip of some twenty-four miles. According to family tradition, she was worried about the nervous temperament of the her horse, a purebred and spirited English mare, but her brothers ridiculed her with timidity and she yielded. As the party neared its destination the horse shied at a dog, and she was thrown, fracturing her skull against a root. Richard brought news of the accident back to Cooperstown, and her father and other family members started on a long and silent ride to Morris. Hannah’s body was brought back to Cooperstown, and laid on the old dining table in Otsego Hall. She was buried in the Cooper Plot in Christ Churchyard, the stone inscribed only with verses written by her father; the identifying name and dates were added later.

The marble monument which stands where Hannah Cooper died was erected by admirers from Philadelphia, where she had accompanied her father William Cooper while he attended Congress as Representative from western New York. Three sides of the simple marble column are engraved with verse, and its top is formed into a chalice. The inscription on the south side reads:

Sacred to the Memory of

Miss Hannah Cooper, Daughter

of the Honble William Cooper

and Elizabeth his Wife.

In the bloom of Youth, in perfect

health, and surrounded with her


On the 10th day of September, 1800

She was instantly translated from

this World

Thrown from her horse, on the spot

on which this monument is erected.

Sensible, gentle, amiable,

In life beloved, in death lamented,

By all who knew her.

Unconscious of her own perfections

{129} She was a stranger to all ambition

but that of doing good.

By her death The tender joys of an affectionate

Father, the fond expectations of

a delighted Mother

In an instant were blasted!


And for a moment reflect— That neither accomplishments of


{130} Nor great improvements of mind

Nor yet greater goodness of heart,

Can arrest the hand of Death.

But—She was prepared for that

Immortality, in which she believed

And of which she was worthy—

To departed worth and excellence

This monument is erected.

This tribute of affection is inscribed

By a friend, this 1st day of January, 1801.

The lines have been attributed to various admirers, of whom the most likely was J. H. Imlay of Philadelphia. The north and east sides of the monument bear lengthy verses, with no biographic references, by a Mrs. Meredith and a Miss Wistar, also of Philadelphia. A poem intended for the fourth side was never inscribed.

The Belle of Otsego Hall

The lively, studious, and beautiful Hannah Cooper was not only beloved to her family, but had many admirers. One of them, William Henry Harrison, was elected President in 1840. Another was the French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand (1754-1838), later Foreign Minister to Napoleon, who visited America in 1794-97. On his way to Niagara Falls in September 1795, Talleyrand visited Cooperstown as the guest of William Cooper, and was so struck by the seventeen-year-old Hannah that he is said to have written the acrostic poem in her honor that appeared anonymously, as follows, in the Oct. 2, 1795 issue of the Otsego Herald:

A imable philosophe au printems de son age,

N i les tems ni les lieux n’alterent son esprit.

N e cedent qu’a ses gouts, simple et son etalage,

A u milieu des deserts, Elle lit—pense—ecrit. {131}

C ultivez, Belle Anna, votre gout pour l’etude;

O n ne saurait ici mieux employer son tems.

O tsego n’est pas gai—mais tout est habitude:

P aris vous deplairait fort au premier moment.

E t qui jouit de soi dans une solitude,

R entrant au monde, est sur d’en faire l’ornement.

An informal translation might read:

Cheerful philosopher in the springtime of her life,

Neither time nor place changes her disposition.

Following her own taste, simple and without affectation,

In the midst of the desert she reads—ponders—writes.

Cultivate, Beautiful Anna, your taste for study;

You cannot here better employ your time;

Otsego is not merry—but habit is everything:

Even Paris would much displease you at first.

One who can be content in a wasteland,

On returning to the world is certain to shine.


{133} The novels of James Fenimore Cooper remained popular throughout the nineteenth century and up to the First World War. Complete sets of his romances were published every few years. Then Cooper was gradually forgotten. The novels that remained in print, including the five Leatherstocking Tales, were considered as “children’s literature” and placed on school reading lists, although their leisurely style and detailed descriptions did not often appeal to children. In Europe, Cooper’s popularity proved more durable, and continues to this day, especially in Germany and Russia. Indeed, 24 million copies of Cooper novels have been published in the Soviet Union in the last decade and a half.

During the past few decades Cooper has enjoyed a renaissance, based not only on a renewed interest in his writing as literature, but also on an appreciation of his trenchant social commentary. James Fenimore Cooper lived through a critical period in the development of American society, and his portrayals of the era bear comparison with that of Tocqueville. His concern with basic issues of morality, social justice, government, and economic development are often far ahead of his time. Thus The Pioneers can lay a real claim to be the first novel of ecology, and the less-familiar The Bravo anticipates George Orwell’s portrayal of state totalitarianism in 1984 by over a century.

Cooper’s novels, and other writings, can be read with enjoyment and profit today. To best appreciate them, however, the reader will do well to follow the {134} cadence and rhythm of language written as much to be read aloud as to be silently skimmed, and to accept the nineteenth century romantic fictional conventions in which the modest but valiant hero always wins the chaste heroine, and somebody always turns out to be in disguise. Overcoming these difficulties, the reader will be rewarded by some of the best description of the sea and the wilderness in all of literature, by exciting action on land and water, by engaging portraits of men and women of all social classes and many ethnic groups, by a vigorous portrait of the brawling American society of the first half of the 1800s, and by thought-provoking discussion of issues and problems that are still very much with us.

It is hoped that this Guidebook will not only serve admirers of Cooper interested in his links with Otsego County, but will also encourage others to explore the enormous treasury of writings left by one of America’s foremost literary figures.


For more on James Fenimore Cooper, his literary works, and on his life in Otsego County, the following are good starting points. For more specific information see the Bibliography of works consulted in preparing this guidebook.


The five Leatherstocking Tales are easily available in paperback editions at most good bookstores. Other Cooper works are harder to come by. No full set of Cooper’s novels has been published for many years, but some titles have been reprinted, and old sets and individual novels can often be found secondhand. In 1980 the State University of New York Press, at Albany, began issuing the authoritative Cooper Edition of James Fenimore Cooper’s works, under the general editorship of James F. Beard. These are handsome editions with carefully edited texts, extensive contemporary illustrations, and ample but unobtrusive notes. The series now includes The Pioneers, The Deerslayer, and the three other Leatherstocking Tales, as well as Wyandotté, five volumes of European travel, and a growing list of other titles. [The series is currently be extended by AMS Press.] Penguin Books has used these Cooper Edition texts in its latest paperback edition of The Leatherstocking Tales. Home as Found was reprinted as a paperback in 1961 by Capricorn Books in New York, and The Chronicles of Cooperstown is included in several Cooperstown local histories. James F. Beard in 1960-68 published a definitive, six-volume edition of Cooper’s Letters and Journals.


Over the years there have been many biographies of James Fenimore Cooper, as well as extensive literary commentaries on his works. Among the better works, many still in print in original or reprint editions, are Robert E. Spiller’s Fenimore Cooper: Critic of his Times (1931), James Grossman’s James Fenimore Cooper (1949), Donald A. Ringe’s James Fenimore Cooper (1962), Stephen Railton’s Fenimore Cooper: A Study of his Life and Imagination (1978), and Wayne Franklin’s The New World of James Fenimore Cooper (1982). Mary E. Phillips’s James Fenimore Cooper (1913) is out of print except in expensive facsimile, but is filled with anecdotes and hundreds of illustrations of Cooper sites [and is available on-line]. James F. Beard is preparing a new critical biography of Cooper based on the primary sources. [Alas, it never appeared.]

[Since Cooper’s Otsego County first appeared in 1989 there have been a number of important new biographical and critical works. Notable are Robert Emmet Long’s James Fenimore Cooper (1990), Geoffrey Rans’ Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Novels: A Secular R4ading (1991), Alan Taylor’s William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic (1995), and especially Wayne Franklin’s James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years (2007).]


Sources on Cooperstown are diverse, mostly out of print, and hard to find outside major collections, such as that of the New York State Historical Association Library in Cooperstown [though increasing numbers of them are now appearing on-line]. William Cooper’s A Guide in the Wilderness (1810), reprinted most recently in 1986 by the Cooper family, describes the settlement philosophy of Cooperstown’s founder and the earliest history of the area. Ralph Birdsall’s The Story of Cooperstown (1917), is full of lively anecdotes but lacks references. James Fenimore Cooper’s own The Chronicles of Cooperstown (1838) has several times been reprinted and extended up to date by Cooperstown newspaper editors. The latest version, History of Cooperstown, was published by the New York State Historical Association in 1976 [and is now on-line]. Cooper’s grandson, also named James Fenimore Cooper, published the valuable The Legends and Traditions of a Northern County (1921) and Reminiscences of Mid-Victorian Cooperstown (1936, reprinted 1986). Numerous articles, both on Cooper and on Otsego County, have appeared in New York History, the quarterly journal of the New York State Historical Association.


{139} (1745) Fictional setting of The Deerslayer

(1765-76) Fictional setting of Wyandotté

1786 William Cooper founds Cooperstown

1789 James Fenimore Cooper born in Burlington, New Jersey on September 15; the Manor House built

1790 Cooper brought to Cooperstown

(1793) Fictional setting of The Pioneers

1799 Otsego Hall built

1800 Hannah Cooper dies near Morris Manor

1809 William Cooper dies

1811 Cooper marries, moves to Westchester County

1813 Cooper settles at Fenimore Farm

1817 Cooper’s mother, Elizabeth Fenimore Cooper dies; Cooper returns to Westchester County

1823 Cooper publishes The Pioneers, his third novel

1834 Cooper buys back and remodels Otsego Hall, after living for seven years in Europe

(1835) Fictional setting of Home as Found

1836 Cooper resettles permanently in Cooperstown

1838 Cooper publishes Home as Found and The Chronicles of Cooperstown

1840 Cooper remodels Christ Church

1841 Cooper publishes The Deerslayer

1843 Cooper publishes Wyandotté

1851 Cooper dies on September 14

1852 Cooper’s wife, Susan DeLancey Cooper, dies

1853 Otsego Hall burns

1855 Cooper’s daughters build Byberry Cottage

1860 Leatherstocking Monument erected

1876 Kingfisher Tower built

1897 Cooper Grounds established as a park

1939 Cooper Sesquicentennial; New York State Historical Association moves to Cooperstown

1940 Cooper Statue erected in Cooper Park; Cooper commemorative postage stamp issued

1945 Fenimore House becomes headquarters of New York State Historical Association

1958 Chalet Farm burns

1978 First bi-annual Conference on “James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art” at State University College of New York, Oneonta and Cooperstown (repeated 1980,1982, 1984, 1986, and 1989) [and every two years since]

1986 Cooperstown celebrates its Bicentennial

1989 Bicentennial of James Fenimore Cooper’s birth [establishment of James Fenimore Cooper Society]