Leatherstocking Country: A Successful Combination of America’s History with Literature

Bruce Venter

Our July tour entitled Leatherstocking Tales: The Real Historic Sites of James Fenimore Cooper’s Novels proved to be a good bet as we combined familiar titles (and some not so familiar) from American literature with the historic sites that influenced the famous American author. I wasn’t sure how this concept would play when I first conceived it sometime last year, but finding the right tour leader made all the difference. Dr. Wayne Franklin, professor of English and department head at the University of Connecticut proved to be “the man” when it comes to Cooper expertise. Wayne did a fantastic job, demonstrating not only a knowledge of Cooper’s writings but also being familiar with the historical background of 18th and 19th century sites and personalities which influenced Cooper. Wayne has Albany, NY roots as does your humble blogger, so we were able to reminisce about the city’s rich, colorful political history which we shared in common. We had a great, mixed group of participants who came because of their interest in Cooper as well as American history. As always, there were a number of repeat customers along with some new faces. Wayne also brought along his lovely wife, Suzanne who provided much enjoyable conversation. It was great to have my cousin, Ann O’Brien Teta with us. One of America’s History’s tour leaders, Bill Welsch also joined the tour.

The tour started out heading south from Albany where we were headquartered. Our goal was to explore the historic sites and real life characters associated with Cooper’s novel, The Spy which is set during the Revolutionary War in Westchester County. Our first stop was the Bronck House Museum, a 17th and 18th century structure where Wayne discussed Dutch architecture and its influence on Cooper’s descriptions. Then it was off to Tappan where we saw the Dutch Reformed Church where British Major John Andre’s trial took place and the site where the young officer was hanged. Andre was implicated as a spy in the famous Benedict Arnold incident when the traitorous American general sought to sell West Point to the British. Cooper knew the story of Andre well and it factored into his novel. Lunch was at the historic Old ’76 Tavern in Tappan where Andre was actually held as a prisoner before his execution. After lunch we crossed the Hudson River at the Tappan Zee (that’s Dutch for “Sea”) and drove thru Tarrytown, NY where a monument marks the spot where three unsung American militiamen captured Andre. Our next stop was the John Jay Homestead. Cooper and this founding father were friends and Jay would regale the young author with stories of espionage on his front porch. The tour thru the house was excellent. We also stopped at the gravesite of Enoch Crosby who was an authentic American spy and perhaps the inspiration for Cooper’s character, Harvey Birch in the novel. Our last stop was the Van Wyck House which was General Israel Putnam’s headquarters during the American Revolution and was visited by Washington, Lafayette, de Steuben, Hamilton and Jay. This house is thought to be the “Wharton House” as described by Cooper in The Spy.

On Day Two we headed north; this time to cover the sites associated with The Last of the Mohicans. Our first stop was Rogers Island which gave us a view of where Fort Edward stood during the French and Indian War. Then it was on to a terrific site for Cooper fans, the famous Cooper Cave in Glens Falls. This site is nicely designed with a platform overlooking the cave and lots of great Cooper signage to illustrate its impact on the author. After we left the cave, we traveled on parts of the Old Military Road which would have been used by Major Heywood, Cora and Alice Munro before the evil Magua diverted them from the most direct route to Fort William Henry. We stopped at the site of Bloody Morning Scout, the opening engagement in the Battle of Lake George because I felt this location gives the best modern-day feeling for what travel on the Old Military Road was like. Then we went to the Lake George Battlefield Park which serves the dual role as the site of Sir William Johnson’s 1755 victory over the French and the site of Lt. Col. Munro’s entrenched camp at the time of the siege of Fort William Henry in 1757. The latter was the reason for our visit to the park because the siege and subsequent massacre was a focal point in Cooper’s novel. Then it was on to our summer home on Lake George at Still Bay where Lynne was waiting (with Sally, of course) to serve a delicious lunch of hamburgers, hot dogs and salads with homemade pie for dessert. Our good friend, Eddie Bartley served as master chef. From the lake house we went by boat in relays to sites on the lake which Cooper would have seen. Legend has it that Shelving Rock served as his inspiration for the novel’s most dramatic scene where Cora, Uncas and Magua die. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to talk about the battle of Diamond Island which happened during Burgoyne’s 1777 campaign because we see it from our porch and it has a special meaning to me. No one objected to the extra Lake George history. Wayne even brought in another Cooper novel (perhaps his best but certainly less famous), Satanstoe which also is set during the French and Indian War. After returning from our water excursion, we headed back to Albany.

Our final day took us thru the Mohawk Valley because it was the most direct route (not so today, however) to Cooperstown during Cooper’s lifetime. We made a brief stop at Fort Johnson, the 1749 home of Sir William who makes several cameo appearances in Cooper’s writings. We also passed the site to the Hendrick Frey house in Canajoharie which factored into Cooper’s life. We found a great view shed of the Mohawk Valley which allowed Wayne to discuss some aspects of Cooper’s lesser known book, Notions of the Americans. Then we drove thru Cherry Valley as Cooper would have on his way to Cooperstown. I was able to regale everyone with horrific stories of the 1778 Cherry Valley Massacre, a story dealt with in detail on another America’s History tour called “Drums Along the Mohawk.” We had lunch on Otsego Lake at the Blue Mingo Grill, a recommendation from Wayne which proved to a perfect location on a beautiful, sunny July day. After lunch we toured the Fenimore Art Museum which has a room dedicated to the author. Wayne spent a good amount of time explaining all the exhibits. Then we were free to explore the rest of museum before rendezvousing on the terrace for more Cooper information. After leaving the museum we took a walking tour of Cooperstown which included the Cooper family gravesite, Cooper’s statute and a stop on the shoreline. An extra treat was a surprise visit to the garden and grounds of Cooper’s daughter’s house which happened by chance when the home’s current owner spied our group gawking at the structure. We wrapped up our day in The Deerslayer country and headed back to Albany with lots of Cooper information and a much better appreciation for the author’s life and writings, all thanks to our great tour leader, Professor Franklin. If you missed it, this is definitely a tour that will be in our rotation cycle, so watch for it in the future.

~Bruce

 

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