[James Fenimore Cooper, 1822. Except where indicated images provided by Michael Nighan]
There was so much of the wild and solitary character of the wilderness about Ontario; that one scarcely expected to meet with a vessel on its waters. – James Fenimore Cooper, The Pathfinder
The weather over Lake Ontario in the early summer of 1809 was stormy. So stormy that the small boat carrying two US Navy officers and their crew on a trip from Oswego to the Niagara River spent more time being pushed backwards and pulled up on the shore near the Genesee River than it did making westerly progress. To make matters worse, with their rations exhausted, Midshipman James Cooper and the rest were getting hungry. But hungry enough to eat a porcupine?
The 20-year-old James Fenimore Cooper had had a lively life so far. (1) Scion of a wealthy family, the owners of thousands of acres surrounding the aptly-named Cooperstown, precocious young James had been such an outstanding student at prep school that he was enrolled at Yale at age 13. But not so outstanding as to avoid being expelled at 16, ostensibly for locking livestock in a classroom or possibly for “unsanctioned experiments with explosives” (in the words of the Yale Alumni Magazine) which resulted in blowing up a fellow student’s room. (2)
So in 1807, rather then completing his education at another college, Cooper decided to sign aboard a merchant ship as a common seaman, deciding after a year’s service, and with the political pull of his ex-congressman father, to obtain a commission from President Thomas Jefferson as a midshipman in the miniscule United States Navy.
Cooper was assigned to Oswego on Lake Ontario where, as a sign that the post-Revolution “cold war” between America and Great Britain was heating up, the federal government had begun construction of the Oneida, the first US Navy warship on the Great Lakes. (3) There Cooper became second-in-command to Lt. Melancthon Taylor Woolsey, with whom he would establish a life-long friendship. And there he spent the next few months in the remote wilderness of Central New York, bored and itching for action but reduced to babysitting the tedious work of ship construction and trying without success to obtain a transfer to some more rewarding post.
With the Oneida finally launched in March 1809, Woolsey and Cooper decided to reward themselves with a short trip down Lake Ontario to see Niagara Falls. Taking the Oneida’s 30 foot ship’s boat (known as a pinnace) and a far-too-small crew of four men to row and handle the sails, the party set out on or about June 27 on what should have been an easy two day trip.
But almost immediately the weather went to hell. As Cooper latter described the voyage, the six men spent four days and nights fighting the wind and waves without landing (why they didn’t return to Oswego isn’t explained), eating up their food supplies in the process. One old sailor in the crew, claiming to be familiar with the location of the few cabins and huts then standing along the Lake Ontario shore west of Oswego, persuaded the officers during a lull in the storm to beach their craft somewhere near the Genesee River. Given the lateness of the hour it was decided to go to sleep dinnerless rather than stumble through the dark and forbidding forest to one of the cabins reputed to be nearby. Fortuitously, as Cooper later wrote, he “accidentally came across a hedge-hog, which he killed with the sword of a cane. On this animal all hands supped, and very good eating it proved to be.” (4)
The next morning the two officers and the old sailor walked inland to a small log hut where, finding no one at home, the men helped themselves to some milk, a loaf of bread, and two whortleberry pies, leaving behind the munificent sum of two silver dollars as payment. After breakfasting on their purchases and sending the leftovers back to the rest of the crew, Cooper and Woolsey investigated a group of nearby cabins and found in one, “the mistress of the mansion already invaded”. Unable to purchase any additional foodstuffs, the party returned to the pinnace and once more set sail.
But the weather continued uncooperative and once more finding themselves losing ground to the wind, the explorers were forced to find shelter in Irondequoit Bay where they beach the pinnace with all hands bivouacking for another night of fasting.
The next morning the party went looking for the cabin of a cockney immigrant said to have settled in the area many years before. Locating the man and his wife and children, Woolsey attempted to negotiate the sale of one of their half dozen sheep. Despite being offered the astounding price of a five dollar gold piece, both the cockney and his wife vacillated between acceptance and driving a harder bargain. Cooper wrote that Woolsey, “commenced an attack on the lady by paying compliments to her fine children, three as foul little Christians as one could find in the frontier. This threw the mother off her guard…” The cockney took advantage of this interruption to accept the five dollars, with the wife finally acquiescing as long as she could retain the fleece. The deal was consummated, “and the carcass was borne off in triumph.” That day, somewhere on the shores of Irondequoit Bay, the crew ate heartily of a lunch of boiled mutton.
After their repast, Cooper and company tried again to sail west toward the Niagara frontier but had only made it as far as the mouth of the Genesee River when a squall, which almost sank the pinnace, forced them up the river where they apparently anchored in the area of today’s River Street (although there has been speculation that they might have sailed further up the Genesee to a location closer to the not-yet-in-existence Rochester). Climbing ashore, officers and men spent the night at a solitary log cabin, possibly the home of Sam Latta, one of Charlotte’s earliest settlers, where some left over mutton was traded for bread and milk. (5)
The next day the weather had improved somewhat and progress was made by rowing and sailing close to shore until the men reached the Devil’s Nose, a promontory jutting off the shore in what today is Hamlin Beach State Park. “Then came the tug at the Devil’s Nose” wrote Cooper. Three times the pinnace tried to sail around the point, twice it was pushed back by the wind, finally making it past on the third try after which favorable conditions allowed them to complete the final 60 miles to the Niagara River without incident.
Arriving at the mouth of the river on the morning of July 4 with their ship’s flag flying, they sailed between the British forces at Canadian Fort George (today’s Niagara-on-the-Lake) and the American forces at Fort Niagara, ending a journey in which the pinnace became the first United States naval vessel (albeit a small one) to sail on the Great Lakes.
After celebrating the 4th of July at Fort Niagara, Woolsey and Cooper opted to avail themselves of the more comfortable accommodations offered by the British on the Canadian side of the river. A week of sight-seeing, including the planned visit to Niagara Falls, ended with Cooper and company sailing back to Oswego in two days with no further stops at the Genesee River or Irondequoit Bay. In 1840, by then a successful author, James Fenimore Cooper used his experiences and memories of Lake Ontario and his stormy voyage in his novel, The Pathfinder, or the Inland Sea, and again six years later in his mini-biography of his commanding officer and friend Melancthon Taylor Woolsey, in which he described their Oswego to Niagara adventure in detail.
By the end of 1809 problems began to pile up on Cooper. Following his time as a boat-sitter in Oswego, he finally received his much-desired transfer to sea duty, only to end up a few months later stuck ashore as a recruiting officer. Then in December his father suddenly died. Giving up on a naval carrier, he resigned his commission in the spring of 1810, about the same time that he met Susan Augusta deLancey, who he married on Jan.1, 1811 following a whirlwind courtship.
By 1820, despite his hopes to live the life of a country gentleman, Cooper was up to his ears in financial problems due to the numerous disputes and legal challenges filed against the land holdings which made up his father’s estate and the need to financially assist several of his relatives. These problems would plague Cooper and strain his financial resources for years. Seemingly not content with monetary problems in New York, he decided to speculate heavily in lands in Michigan which, if unprofitable, would at least allow us to eventually add him to our list of 19th. Century American men and women of letters who had passed through Rochester.
Also in 1820 occurred the oft-recounted, but likely apocryphal scene which turned James Fenimore Cooper from wilderness squire to household name. Asked by his wife to read to her from a contemporary English novel, Cooper soon threw the book aside and exclaimed that he could wrote a better one, which Susan challenged him to do. Picking up the literary gauntlet, Cooper hammered out Precaution, a mediocre-at-best first attempt. Vowing to do better, he began work on The Spy, a Revolutionary War thriller set in the Hudson River valley. The rest as they say, is literary history as over the next three decades he wrote and published nearly 60 novels, travel books and short stories, including The Spy, The Deerslayer, and The Last of the Mohicans, making Cooper wealthy as well as the bane of many a future high school English students.
When I began researching what post-1809 visits Cooper may have made to Rochester and Western New York, I was intrigued by stories from Niagara County that he’d visited Lewiston in 1821 (if so I reasoned, his path would have taken him along the Ridge Road through Rochester) where it was claimed he wrote “The Spy”, basing many of the story’s protagonists on local colorful characters he found hanging around a Lewiston tavern. To my surprise after digging through numerous Cooper biographies and a timeline of his life and travels compiled by the James Fenimore Cooper Society, not only did it become clear that Lewiston’s claim was unsubstantiated, merely a folk tale (rural legend?), but that identical claims made by Scarsdale, NY (where Cooper lived for a good part of 1821) had a multiplicity of confirming evidence. So regrettably, no Cooper in either Lewiston or Rochester that year.
Indeed, the history of his travels described in his letters, journals and writings makes it abundantly clear that after 1809 he didn’t return to Western New York until the 1840s when he began a series of visits to Geneva where his son Paul was attending Geneva College (now Hobart and William Smith), interspersed with business trips to Detroit in 1847-1850 utilizing the recently-completed railroad network through Rochester. (6)
Most memorable of those Geneva visits would doubtless have been the one on Aug. 4, 1841 when, as part of the college’s commencement activities, he gave an address (which he subsequently burned as he did with all his speeches) using as his theme, “Public opinion is a despot in a democracy”. Later relating the address to a friend, and for well or ill sounding like a 21st. century NeoCon, Cooper described how he castigated the newspapers of his day for the way they handled their reporting:
In the course of this address, the condition and influence of the press of this country, were freely commented on. As I view them both, in a general way, to be deplorable, and, in many respects, menacing the most serious results. I did not hesitate to say so. ….No one I think, could have carried away the impression …that the press of this country, viewed as a whole, was a blessing instead of a curse.
Hypersensitive to what he perceived as unfair criticism in the newspapers of his political and social views, over the years Cooper would file libel suits against a number of editors which, although he was more-often-the-not successful, served also to increase such criticism.
A reading of Cooper’s correspondence confirms that his first visit to Rochester occurred on June 17 or 18, 1847 while on a trip to Michigan to look after his real estate investments. Writing to his wife he explained how:
“I did intend passing the night at Geneva; but it rained and Mr. Beach induced me to go on to Rochester, where I arrived at 4 A.M. I went to bed and slept until eleven…I went to the City Bank to beat up (an archaic term meaning to locate or look up) Tom Rochester.(7) He was at Canandaigua, but his father took me in charge, covered me with civility and pressed me to stay some time. I went with him in a carriage, even to the landing, saw the outside of everything, and found Rochester a far pleasanter, as well as larger place than I expected to see.
Cooper’s dealings in Michigan clearly kept him coming and going through town. On December 25 that same year, he wrote a Christmas letter to 11 year old Mary Abigail Doolittle in Rochester, telling her that, “For the first time in my life I passed through your place this summer, and what is a little remarkable, I have been four times in Rochester already.” (8)
Copper then apologized for not stopping to visit her, explaining how on his second trip to town, “Young Mr. (Tom) Rochester took me to see the falls, and my time was fully occupied. On the other two occasions I merely made the stop of the cars and did not go any distance from them”.
Although Cooper’s letters tell of him making six more trips which took him back and forth through Rochester between 1848 and 1850, none of them mention any stops or further visits there.
James Fenimore Cooper died of liver disease on September 14, 1851, one day shy of his 62nd. birthday.
Although such greats as Leo Tolstoy acknowledged his influence on their style others, notably Mark Twain, went out of their way to disparage Cooper’s works. Writing in “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”, Twain states his belief that:
Cooper’s art has some defects. In one place in Deerslayer, and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record. There are nineteen rules governing literary rt in the domain of romantic fiction – some say twenty two. In Deerslayer Cooper violated eighteen of them.”
I wonder if Twain had Cooper’s porcupine lunch in mind when he decided to “stick” it to him?
(1) Christened simply “James Cooper”, the “Fenimore” (his mother’s maiden name) was allegedly later added by Cooper because it was the wish of his grandmother who, having no male descendants to carry on the name, wanted to ensure its survival by other means. In 1826 the New York legislature granted Cooper’s petition to do so and “re-christened” him “James Fenimore-Cooper”, the hyphen being subsequently dropped.
(2) Coincidently, James’ brother had been expelled from the College of New Jersey (Princeton) in 1802, allegedly for participating in an attempt to burn down Nassau Hall.
(3) Built at a cost of $20,505 (plus 110 gals. of whiskey), the USS Oneida was the first true American warship on the Great Lakes (although the army had previously launched a glorified barge on Lake Erie which carried a couple of cannon). In the War of 1812 the Oneida saw more combat with the British than any other United States navy vessel, including participation in a battle against the British fleet off Charlotte on Sept. 11, 1813.
(4) Of course the animal Cooper mentioned couldn’t have been a hedgehog as they had been extinct on the continent for several million years. Probably it was a porcupine, which were known to be eaten by frontier families. For those wishing to follow Cooper’s example: Recipe for blackened porcupine with forest salad
(5) In 1805, despite the lack of shipping, the lack of a port, and the lack of Rochester (Nathaniel Rochester and his partners did not begin development of the community until 1811) the federal government had designated the Genesee River as a port of entry and later appointed Sam Latta as the first collector of customs.
(6) Although graduating in 1844 at the top of his class, Paul seemingly was not a fan of Geneva College, his father later writing that, “Paul has returned, as much of a loafer as ever. He says that Geneva College is falling into premature decay, and wishes this had happened before he was sent there.”
(7) Tom Rochester being Thomas Fortescue Rochester, grandson of Nathaniel Rochester.
(8) Abigail was the daughter of Isaac Doolittle, a Rochester businessman who in the 1847 city directory advertised himself as proprietor and agent for Crossett’s Patent Stave Machine, a mechanical contraption said to be able to cut a thousand barrel staves an hour. Cooper’s friendship with Doolittle must have been fairly close to necessitate explaining to his daughter why he’d been unable to visit her.