Cooperstown, New York sits along the pristine water of Otsego Lake and is surrounded by the rolling and heavily wooded hills of Otsego County. The headwaters of the Susquehanna River begin here, and the river flows southward through New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland before emptying into the Chesapeake Bay.
Today, the village is best known as the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, but Cooperstown is also home to a number of other museums and historic locations including the Fenimore Art Museum, the Glimmerglass Opera, and the Farmers’ Museum. In fact the village is full of historic buildings tied to its early agricultural beginnings.
During the American Revolution, the area was still a vast wilderness. In 1779, General James Clinton led an expedition of Continental soldiers south from Otsego Lake against the Iroquois. General Clinton followed the Susquehanna River southward and eventually joined forces with General John Sullivan. The Sullivan-Clinton Expedition left a trail of destruction across Upstate New York and would alter the future settlement of the state.
At the conclusion of the American Revolution, large groups of white settlers looked to the untamed wilderness of Upstate New York for new land and new opportunities.
In 1785, William Cooper, a merchant from New Jersey, bought a large tract of land surrounding Otsego Lake. Cooper was able to resell most of this land in smaller parcels to eager farmers in a matter of weeks. In 1786, Cooper founded the Village of Otsego, helping to develop and plan the village himself. The village would eventually change its name to Cooperstown in honor of its founder.
The first settlers in the area had a rough existence. There were no roads through the dense forested hills and everything the first pioneers needed had to be carried through the rough terrain. Eventually roads were cut through the forests and under the supervision of William Cooper, the community flourished.
William Cooper would make Cooperstown his permanent home. He had a large manor house built in 1799 where he raised his family. William Cooper’s son, James Fenimore Cooper, would become one of America’s most important early novelists.
Fenimore Cooper relied on his childhood experiences of living on the frontier of New York to craft his most successful series of books known as the Leatherstocking Tales. Many of the locations and events found in Cooper’s works were based on real spots and occurrences from around Coopertown and Otsego Lake.
Both Willam Cooper and James Fenimore Cooper are buried in the Christ Church Episcopal Cemetery. The cemetery is only a short walk from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and also holds a number of other important members of the Cooper family.
Today, throngs of tourists continue to flock to Cooperstown to visit the numerous museums, historical locations, and locations found in the Leatherstocking Tales.
Learn more about the founding and early history of Cooperstown in Harvest, WSKG’s new local history documentary, premiering November 19th at 8PM.