James Fenimore Cooper was born on September 15, 1789, in Burlington, New Jersey. He was the eleventh of twelve children born to William Cooper and his wife Elizabeth Fenimore Cooper. Most of his siblings died during infancy or childhood. His great-great-grandfather was James Cooper who immigrated to the American colonies from Stratford-upon-Avon, England, in 1679. “James and his wife were Quakers who purchased plots of land in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.” William Cooper was born on December 2, 1754, seventy-five years after his great-grandfather arrived in America.
James had just passed his first birthday when William moved his family to Cooperstown, New York; this community was founded by “on a large piece of land” his father had purchased to develop. William was later elected as a United States Congressman representing Otsego County. Cooperstown was located in central New York, in an area previously “occupied by the Iroquois of the Six Nations. The Iroquois were forced to cede their territory after [the] British defeat in the Revolutionary War” because “they had been allies.”
The state offered the former Iroquois land for sale and development soon after the end of the Revolutionary War, and William Cooper purchased “several thousand acres” of upstate New York land. The land was located “along the head-waters of the Susquehanna River.” William selected the site and surveyed it by 178 in preparation for erecting Cooperstown. He built a home on Otsego Lake and moved his family there in the fall of 1790. He wasted no time in constructing Otsego Hall, the family mansion. James was ten years old when it was completed in 1799.
James Cooper enrolled at Yale when 13 years old and was expelled three years later without a degree. He went to work as a sailor in 1806 and became part of the crew of a merchant vessel at age 17. “By 1811, he obtained the rank of midshipman in the fledgling United States Navy, conferred upon him on an officer’s warrant signed by Thomas Jefferson.
Cooper was only 20 years old when he inherited a fortune from his father. At age 21, he married Susan Augusta de Lancey on January 1, 1811. Her family was loyal to Great Britain during the Revolutionary War. Her parents had seven children, but only five lived to adulthood. James and Susan’s daughter Susan Fenimore Cooper wrote about “nature, female suffrage, and other topics;” she and her father “often edited each other’s work.” Another descendant of James Fenimore Cooper was writer Paul Fenimore Cooper (1899-1970).
James Fenimore Cooper was a member of the Episcopal Church and “contributed generously to it” in his later years. He lived most of his life in Cooperstown. He “was a prolific and popular American writer of the early 19th century, writing “historical romances of frontier and Indian life in the early American days.” He began writing after his time as a Midshipman in the U.S. Navy, and his experience there had great influence on his writing. “The novel that launched his career was The Spy, a tale about counterespionage set during the Revolutionary War and published in 1821. He also wrote numerous sea stories and his best-known works are five historical novels of the frontier period known as the Leatherstocking Tales. Among naval historians Cooper’s works on the early U.S. Navy have been well received, but they were sometimes criticized by his contemporaries. Among his most famous works is the Romantic novel The Last of the Mohicans, often regarded as his masterpiece.”
Cooper died of dropsy on September 14, 1851, the day before he turned 62 years old. He was interred in Christ Episcopal Churchyard, where his father, William Cooper, was also buried. Susan survived her husband by a few months and was buried by his side at Cooperstown.
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