I began with the disadvantage of a small capital, and the incumbrance of a large family, and yet I have already settled more acres than any man in America. There are forty thousand souls now holding directly or indirectly under me, and I trust, that no one among so many can justly impute to me any act resembling oppression. I am now descending into the vale of life, and I must acknowledge that I look back with self-complacency upon what I have done, and am proud of having been an instrument in reclaiming such large and fruitful tracts from the waste of the creation. And I question whether that sensation is not now a recompense more grateful to me than all the other profits I have reaped. Your good sense and knowledge of the world will excuse this seeming boast; if it be vain, we all must have our vanities, let it at least serve to show that industry has its reward, and age its pleasures, and be an encouragement to others to persevere and prosper.
In 1785 I visited the rough and hilly country of Otsego, where there existed not an inhabitant, nor any trace of a road;2 I was alone three hundred miles from home, without bread, meat, or food of any kind; fire and fishing tackle were my only means of subsistence. I caught trout in the brook, and roasted them on the ashes. My horse fed on the grass that grew by the edge of the waters. I laid me down to sleep in my watch-coat, nothing but the melancholy wilderness around me. In this way I explored the country, formed my plans of future settlement, and meditated upon the spot where a place of trade or a village should afterward be established.
In May, 1786, I opened the sales of 40,000 acres which, in sixteen days, were all taken up by the poorest order of men. I soon after established a store, and went to live among them, and continued so to do till 1790, when I brought on my family. For the ensuing four years the scarcity of provisions was a serious calamity; the country was mountainous, there were neither roads nor bridges.
But the greatest discouragement was in the extreme poverty of the people, none of whom had the means of clearing more than a small spot in the midst of the thick and lofty woods, so that their grain grew chiefly in the shade; their maize did not ripen; their wheat was blasted, and the little they did gather they had no mill to grind within twenty miles distance; not one in twenty had a horse, and the way lay through rapid streams, across swamps, or over bogs. They had neither provisions to take with them, nor money to purchase them; nor if they had, were any to be found on their way. If the father of a family went abroad to labor for bread, it cost him three times its value before he could bring it home, and all the business on his farm stood still till his return.
I resided among them, and saw too clearly how bad their condition was. I erected a storehouse, and during each winter filled it with large quantities of grain, purchased in distant places. I procured from my friend Henry Drinker a credit for a large quantity of sugar kettles; he also lent me some potash kettles, which we conveyed as we best could; sometimes by partial roads on sleighs, and sometimes over the ice. By this means I established potash works among the settlers, and made them debtor for their bread and laboring utensils. I also gave them credit for their maple sugar and potash, at a price that would bear transportation, and the first year after the adoption of this plan I collected in one mass forty-three hogsheads of sugar, and three hundred barrels of pot and pearl ash, worth about nine thousand dollars. This kept the people together and at home, and the country soon assumed a new face.
I had not funds of my own sufficient for the opening of new roads, but I collected the people at convenient seasons, and by joint efforts we were able to throw bridges over the deep streams, and to make, in the cheapest manner, such roads as suited our then humble purposes.
In the winter preceding the summer of 1789, grain rose in Albany to a price before unknown. The demand swept the whole granaries of the Mohawk country. The number of beginners who depended upon it for their bread greatly aggravated the evil , and a famine ensued, which will never be forgotten by those who, tho now in the enjoyment of ease and comfort, were then afflicted with the cruelest of wants.
In the month of April I arrived among them with several loads of provisions, destined for my own use and that of the laborers I had brought with me for certain necessary operations; but in a few days all was gone, and there remained not one pound of salt meat nor a single biscuit. Many were reduced to such distress as to live upon the roots of wild leeks; some more fortunate lived upon milk, while others supported nature by drinking a syrup made of maple sugar and water. The quantity of leeks they eat had such an effect upon their breath that they could be smelled at many paces distance, and when they came together it was like cattle that had pastured in a garlic field. A man of the name of Beets mistaking some poisonous herb for a leek, eat it, and died in consequence. Judge of my feelings at this epoch, with two hundred families about me, and not a morsel of bread.
A singular event seemed sent by a good Providence to our relief; it was reported to me that unusual shoals of fish were seen moving in the clear waters of the Susquehanna. I went and was surprized to find that they were herrings. We made something like a small net, by the interweaving of twigs, and by this rude and simple contrivance we were able to take them in thousands. In less than ten days each family had an ample supply with plenty of salt. I also obtained from the Legislature, then in session, seventeen hundred bushels of corn. This we packed on horses' backs, and on our arrival made a distribution among the families, in proportion to the number of individuals of which each was composed.
This was the first settlement I made,3 and the first attempted after the revolution; it was, of course, attended with the greatest difficulties; nevertheless, to its success many others have owed their origin. It was besides the roughest land in all the State, and the most difficult of cultivation of all that has been settled; but for many years past it has produced everything necessary to the support and comfort of man. It maintains at present eight thousand souls, with schools, academies, churches, meeting-houses, turnpike roads, and a market town. It annually yields to commerce large droves of fine oxen, great quantities of wheat and other grain, abundance of pork, potash in barrels, and other provisions; merchants with large capitals, and all kinds of useful mechanics reside upon it; the waters are stocked with fish, the air is salubrious, and the country thriving and happy. When I contemplate all this, and above all, when I see these good old settlers meet together, and hear them talk of past hardships, of which I bore my share, and compare the misery they then endured with the comforts they now enjoy, my emotions border upon weakness, which manhood can scarcely avow. One observation more on the duty of landlords shall close my answer to your first inquiry.
If the poor man who comes to purchase land has cow and a yoke of cattle to bring with him, he is of the most fortunate class, but as he will probably have no money to hire a laborer, he must do all his clearing with his own hands. Having no pasture for his cow and oxen, they must range the woods for subsistence; he must find his cow before he can have his breakfast, and his oxen before he can begin his work. Much of the day is sometimes wasted, and his strength uselessly exhausted. Under all these disadvantages, if in three years he attains a comfortable livelihood, he is pretty well off: he will then require a barn, as great losses accrue from the want of shelter for his cattle and his grain; his children, yet too young to afford him any aid, require a school, and are a burden upon him; his wife bearing children, and living poorly in an open house, is liable to sickness. and doctors' bills will be to pay.
1 From Cooper's "Guide in the Wilderness," published in Dublin, Ireland, in 1810, and of which a reprint has appeared in recent years in Rochester, N. Y. Cooper was the father of the novelist, Fenimore Cooper. His home originally was in Burlington, N. J., where he became interested in mortgages that had been foreclosed on large tracts of land around Lake Otsego in Central New York. To investigate these lands, he went out to Otsego in 1785 and finally concluded to remove there with his family in 1790. His "Guide in the Wilderness" was a pamphlet issued in Dublin for the purpose of promoting immigration to Otsego. Cooper's son Fenimore, as a child about four years old, went to Otsego with him and grew up there in the wilderness, thus acquiring that familiarity with the Indians and with frontier life of which he has left such famous pictures in his "Leatherstocking Tales." Except for the accident of the foreclosing of the mortgages on these lands, William Cooper probably never would have gone to Otsego and thus his son Fenimore never would have been able to depict Indian life. William Cooper was the first judge of Otsego County. He led a semi-baronial life at his home in what is now Cooperstown, the town founded by him at the foot of the lake, building there what for its day was perhaps the most notable house in New York State, south of the Mohawk and west of the Hudson valley.
2 Settlements had been begun in this part of New York State as early as 1740at Cherry Valley and at the foot of Otsego Lake, at Unadilla, forty miles down the Susquehanna, and at a few other remote places ; but they were all destroyed during the border wars of the Revolution.
3 At the foot of Otsego Lake, and since called Cooperstown, Here Judge Cooper and his son Fenimore are buried.
JOHN ADAMS' AUDIENCE WITH GEORGE III AS THE FIRST AMERICAN MINISTER