Cooperstown, Otsego, NY
Cooperstown Firsts, Part I
By Holice and Debbie

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Cooperstown Firsts, Part I

The curtain which had been listed for a brief period was again dropped, and we hear nothing of this region until 1783, when General Washington visited it on an exploring expedition, as shown by the following extract from a letter written by him to the Marquis de Chastellux, under date of Princeton, Oct. 12, 1783: "I then traversed the country to the head of the eastern branch of the Susquehanna, and viewed the lake Otsego."

Cooperstown was founded by William Cooper, father of J. Fenimore Cooper, who became the owner of a tract of land embracing 100,000 acres, lying on the west side of the river and the lake, both north and south of the village, in May, 1785. Mr. Cooper acquired the title to his land from Colonel George Croghan, who had purchased it from the Indians. In the fall of the same year, she visited his purchase with a party of surveyors, and in January, 1786, took possession of his property, which has subsequently been known as the "Cooper patent."

The first building on the site of the present village of Cooperstown was undoubtedly erected by Colonel Croghan, as a place where he might hold negotiations with the Indians. This was a building constructed of hewed logs, and during General Clinton's campaign against the Indians was occupied by him as headquarters.

It was said that between the years 1761 and 1770, John Christopher Hartwick, proprietor of the "Hartwick patent," and Colonel Croghan each resided a short time on the site of Cooperstown, but the first permanent settlement was made under the auspices of Mr. Cooper, in the winter of 1786.

One of the first settlers was John Miller, in 1786. A widow Johnson also located here in the same year, and erected the first frame building,--a two-story structure, built for a tavern. On eof the first conveyances of real estate executed by Mr. Cooper was to Isreal Guile, a pioneer, who, with William Ellison, a surveyor, and the widow Johnson mentioned above, were the only families that passed the winter of 1786 in this frontier settlement.

The spring of 1787 witnessed the arrival of many emigrants ready to face the hardships of pioneer life. Mr. Cooper visited his purchase during this year, and perfected the necessary arrangements for erection of a building for his own occupancy during the coming season. During 1787 several log dwellings were erected, and in 1789 Mr. Cooper's dwelling was completed on Second street. This was a second regular dwelling-house in the place. It was two stories in height, with two wings, and was covered with wide boards. It commanded a full view of the lake, and was considered a very pretentious establishment for those early days. This building was burned in 1812.

The first streets in the village were surveyed and platted, under the direction of Mr. Cooper, by William Ellison, in 1788. These were nine in number, six extending in a parallel direction east and west, and three crossing them at right angles. The street along the margin of the lake was designated as Front street, and those running parallel were numbered from Second to Sixth street. The street lying next to the river was called Water street, and that one divided by the grounds of Mr. Cooper was known by two names, Fair and Main street, while the one on the west side of the survey was called West street. This survey embraced an area of 112 acres.

In the year 1789, as mentioned above, Mr. Cooper's house was completed and it seems that he at once manifested a lively interest in the embryo village, as he brought in a stock of goods and opened a store. This was the pioneer mercantile establishment in the place, and was conducted by R. R. Smith. The first tannery was also erected in 1789, by john Howard. In the year 1790, Mr. Cooper brought his family to the village and became an actual resident of the town.

The following pleasing description of his advent is from the pen of G. Pomeroy Keese, Esq., of this village:

"One bright October afternoon eighty years ago, as the sun was drawing lengthened shadows over the landscape bathing in rich autumnal light the hills which surround the limpid water of Otsego lake, came around the base of 'Mount Vision' a lumbering family coach, bearing with its attendant vehicles the founder of Cooperstown and his household to their new home. All the glorious beauties of the changing foliage which has since charmed so many thousands who have visited this still rural retreat, were in their virgin splendor, and as the new-comers looked upon the scene and beheld in the reflection of the lake below the dark shades of evergreen contrasted with the gold and crimson hues of the maple and the beech, they must have been sadly insensible to the chief attraction of their future abode if they failed to see in it one of the most perfect combinations of hill and valley, lake and forest, which the hand of painter could portray. The party, numbering fifteen in all with the family and domestics, was an imposing cavalcade in this primitive region just emerging from the wilderness.

"The pilgrimage of which this afternoon's journey was the conclusion had taken two long and steady weeks of travel; and as the party left their former home in Burlington, New jersey, and severed all the connection which bound them to a residence in the midst of the civilization and refinement of the early days of the republic, they doubtless felt that they were far more the pioneers in a new and untried venture than many an emigrant now feels when he starts for the most distant valleys of Montana.

"With the fading sunlight our travelers passed along the western slope of Mount Vision, and as they paused to take a view of the lake, they saw a deer come out of the forest and drink of its waters. Soon they crossed the Susquehanna at its source, the outlet of Otsego lake, and entered the confines of the village named after its founder--Cooperstown. The whole population of the place--thirty-five in all--were drawn up to receive the 'lord of the manor,' who, from henceforth , as the first judge of the country and its largest landed proprietor, became the leading spirit in all that region."

Judge Cooper, in addition to his love of athletic sports, was also fond of the humorous, as the following incident, related by J. Fenimore Cooper, clearly illustrates:

"In the course of the winter of 1789-90, during one of the periodical visits of Colonel Frey, a large lumber-sleigh was fitted out with four horses, and the whole party sallied upon the lake for a morning drive. As ex-officer of the French army, a Monsieur Ebbal, resided by himself on the western bank of the lake. Perceiving the sleigh-and-four approaching his house, this gentleman, with the courtesy of his nation, went forth upon the ice to greet the party, of whose character he was not deceived by the style in which it appeared. Mr. Cooper invited his French friend to join him, promising him plenty of game, with copious libations of Madeira, by way of inducements. Though a good table-companion in general, no persuasion could prevail on the Frenchman to accept the offer that day, until, provoked by his obstinacy, the party laid violent hands on him and brought him to the village by force. Monsieur Ebbal took his captivity in good part, and was soon as buoyant and gay as any of his companions. He habitually wore a long-skirted surtout, which at that time was almost a mark of a Frenchman, and his surtout he pertinaciously refused to lay aside, even when he took his seat at table. On the contrary, he kept it buttoned to the very throat--as it might be in defiance. The Christmas jokes, plentiful board, and heavy potations, however, threw the guest off his guard. Warmed with the wine and the blazing fire, he incautiously unbuttoned, when his delighted companions discovered that the accidents of the frontier, the establishment of a bachelor who kept no servant and certain irregularities in washing-days that were attendant on both circumstances, coupled with his empressement to salute his friends, had induced the gallant Frenchman to come abroad without a shirt. He was uncased on the spot, amid the roars of the convives, and incontinently put into linen."

"Cooper was so polite," added the mirth-loving Henrick Frey, when he repeated this story for the hundredth time, "that he supplied a shirt with ruffles at the wristbands, which made Ebbal very happy for the rest of the night. But how his hands did go after he got the ruffles!"

Upon the organization of the county in 1791, Cooperstown was designated as the county-seat, and Mr. Cooper was appointed first judge. The population at the time was one hundred. This year ushered in a progressive era in the history of the village. A court-house, jail, and several other buildings were erected. It was during this year also that the first regular tavern was erected in this village, called the Red Lion, and stood on the southwest corner of Main and Pioneer streets. This was an inn of considerable note, and was a favorite rendezvous for the settlers generally, and in front of the old Red Lion occurred many of the wrestling matches for which Cooperstown is "ye olden time" was famous, and here it was that the celebrated contest took place between Judge Cooper and Timothy Morse."

The second tavern erected in the village was called the Blue Anchor, Wm. Cook proprietor, and stood on the site now occupied by the brick block of Hooker & Co., on the northeast corner of Main and Pioneer streets, and was diagonally opposite to the Red Lion. In speaking of this primitive establishment, J. Fenimore Cooper says, "This house was in much request for many years among all the genteeler portions f the travelers. Its host was a man of singular humor, great heartiness of character, and perfect integrity. He has been steward of an English East Indiaman, and enjoyed an enviable reputation in the village for his skill in mixing punch and flip. On holidays a stranger would have been apt to mistake him for one of the magistrates of he land, as he invariably appeared in a drab coat of the style of 1776, with buttons as large as dollars, breeches, striped stockings, buckles that covered half his foot, and a cocked hat large enough to extinguish him. The landlord of the Blue Anchor was a general favorite, his laugh and his pious oaths having become historical." Among the other inns at that time, the one that claimed the most importance was Washington Hall, which stood on the site now occupied by the "Skeleton Hotel."

In those days, as at the present, there were

"Doubtful balances of right and wrongs,
And weary lawyers with endless tongues."

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Transcribed by Holice B. Young

Copyright Debbie Axtman and Holice B. Young

December 24, 1999

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