Book Reviews: William Cooper’s Town

William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic
William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic Amazon

William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic
Alan Taylor

Random House

When she was 11 years old, Jane Jacobs trailed along with her great-aunt Hannah Breece as she paid a visit to a nursing home called, regrettably, the Home for the Friendless. Hannah had come to see a former colleague, and despite the grim setting, the two women soon were laughing and talking of their adventures decades earlier, when both had been dispatched by the Department of the Interior to serve as schoolteachers in Alaska. Eleven-year-old Jane retained only one sentence of their conversation: "He was rotten with syphilis."

It is fortunate, then, that Hannah Breece's family prevailed upon her to write an account of her 14 years in Alaska: otherwise this dubious — though memorabl &30151; -snippet of oral history would be Hannah's entire legacy.

It took some years for the memoir to come to light. Hannah's niece first attempted to edit the "maddeningly unassembled" manuscript half a century ago, but she didn't get very far. "For one thing," she admits, "I lacked sufficient craftsmanship and knew it." Today Jane Jacobs is a renowned urban theorist &#-151; the author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Systems of Survival — and apparently she now has craftsmanship to spare. Her affectionate introduction and helpful commentary provide the historical context necessary to appreciate the story and fill in where Hannah's sense of discretion leaves a void.

"To be openly proper and conventional yet also openly daring is a way of being that was seldom available to women in the past," Jacobs writes. "Some who did pull off this trick without being either aristocratic or rich were Americans on the frontier. Hannah Breece was one of these women.

"To her great-nephews and great-nieces, of whom I was one, she had the glamour of a storybook heroine. She camped out with Indians! She held a hundred wild dogs at bay by herself and escaped them! She traveled in a kayak wearing bear intestines! A bear almost ate her right from her bed, and this time the dogs saved her!

"Hannah Breece was no rash or spry young thing in a band of spry young things when she experienced exotic perils. She was a middle-aged woman essentially on her own. Her job was serious and responsible: teaching Aleuts, Kenais, Athabaskans, Eskimos and people of mixed native and European blood in Alaska from 1904 to 1918. She was forty-five years old when she went to Alaska and fifty-nine when she completed her assignments there, a fact to remember when we observe her, in her memoir of those years, scaling cliffs, falling through ice or outracing a forest fire. That was part of the daring. She did those things encumbered by long and voluminous skirts and petticoats. That was part of the propriety."

The popular view in those days held that Alaska was no place for a lady-no matter how daring she happened to be. Purchased from Russia only 37 years earlier in a deal negotiated by Secretary of State William H. Seward, the territory still was regarded by many as "Seward's Folly." During Hannah's 14 years there the population never rose above 65,000, and if her account is to be credited, nearly all of these people were colorful eccentrics and adventurers. Rugged pioneers, blind sages, penniless widows, hardheaded clerics, village mystics and a mysterious "Reindeer Man" trail freely through these pages.

Of all of them, Hannah herself is easily the most engaging. Over the course of her 14 years in Alaska, Hannah pushes farther and farther into the interior, braving fresh hardships with each new assignment. "The people out there by themselves, groping for the light, appealed to me," she writes. Hannah has little patience for self-dramatization, so when we suddenly find her plunging through a hole in a frozen lake or nearly being swept away in a fast-moving current, she dispenses the details and remarks upon her own survival in the brisk, no-nonsense tone of a schoolteacher eager to carry on with the geography lesson. Occasionally she allows herself to dwell briefly on her rigors and privations, as when she describes winter at Iliamna, a village near Alaska's largest lake, where temperatures could fall to 45 degrees below zero inside her cottage. "Getting up in the morning was not delightful," Hannah concedes, "but I kept my parka and fur boots beside the bed and first thing slipped into them. Then I lit the two fires in my rooms, a quick operation since the fuel was all ready and a bit of kerosene or a lighted candle set the wood quickly ablaze."

For all of that, Hannah admires the "wild grandeur" of Alaska's winter landscape, although her relief is evident when the snow finally melts: "Summer and fall were lovely seasons," she writes. "The summer dawn came as early as two in the morning. . . . The sky was so blue, the grass so green, the air warm and mild. Every stump was covered with fern-like moss, and air-moss floating from the trees gave the forests a tropical air. Dandelions . . . were as large, brilliant and wide-petalled as asters."

Alaska's native traditions and folklore also hold a particular fascination for her. "They were superstitious about the whale hunt," she writes of the men on Wood (now Woody) Island, near Kodiak Island. "While the men were on the water, women were forbidden to cast their eyes toward the sea, so every woman had to stay closely indoors. If a whale was wounded and a woman looked at it, they believed, one of the hunters was sure to be killed and the whale itself would escape. They also believed that when the men started out, a tiny man no bigger than a finger ran on top of the water after the bidarkas [kayak-like boats]. If he caught up to one and climbed on it, the man in that bidarka would surely be killed."

During her time in Alaska, Hannah had frequent correspondence with Sheldon Jackson, head of the Alaska division of the Bureau of Education in the Department of the Interior. A Presbyterian missionary, Jackson came to be known as the "Bishop of All Beyond" for his efforts to bring civilization to Alaska-a cause he apparently viewed as a holy crusade. Jane Jacobs came to take a dim view of Jackson while editing her great-aunt's memoir and describes him as a man bent on "expunging native ways, root and branch, and exerting total control."

Against this background, the compassion of Hannah Breece's teaching methods seems all the more remarkable. "Jackson thought in terms of control, Hannah in terms of nurturing," writes Jacobs. "She was eager to open her pupils' eyes to the great world beyond their hermetic ken through study of geography, stories and pictures of other people and how they lived; nature study that went beyond the economic and practical; introduction of new games and toys, evidence that people far away knew and cared about them."

Hannah Breece died in 1940 at the age of 80 after a long retirement in Oregon and Pennsylvania, during which she occasionally gave lectures on her Alaskan experiences. For all the richness of this material, Jacobs originally hesitated to publish her great-aunt's manuscript: "Some of her assumptions and assertions, to my mind, were imperialist, chauvinist and racist-white man's burden stuff." Now, more than 50 years later, Jacobs has come to regard these elements as necessary to the story, inherent to the times and central to understanding what possessed Hannah to go to Alaska in the first place. It must be said that by the end of her memoir, Hannah has clearly begun to register a certain ambivalence about her role.

The result is a thoughtful and entertaining memoir. "I was glad," writes Hannah, "that I had had a small part in blazing the way for better things in this most beautiful, most wonderful land."

After all, as her great-niece concludes, "What more could a pioneering teacher ask?"

Daniel Stashower is a freelance writer who is based in Washington, D.C.

William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic
Alan Taylor
Knopf, $35

It is sometimes hard to remember today, in an era when conservation has been elevated to the level of secular religion, that there was a time when Americans thrilled at the destruction of nature. "Leave to Caesar the boast of having destroyed two million of men; let yours be that of having cut down two million of trees. He made men disappear from the fruitful soils where they were born; your labours made a new and happier race appear where none before had been," an investor wrote glowingly, in 1807, to William Cooper, the most celebrated land speculator of his time. Cooper's remarkable life transcended his humble origins as a nearly illiterate wheelwright and his flamboyantly flawed ethics. His meteoric political career as a frontier power broker — recounted in fascinating detail by Alan Taylor, a professor of history at the University of California at Davis, who won this year's Pulitzer Prize in history for his book — vividly encapsulated the first halting steps in the development of American democracy in the decades after the American Revolution. No less significantly, Cooper's saga also became fodder for the first great popular American literature, the novels of his son, James Fenimore Cooper.

Upstate New York was then the new nation's frontier. Its hectic transformation from wilderness to farmland was guided by rough-and-ready types like Cooper, a lapsed Quaker, self-made man and founder of Cooperstown, New York (today best known as the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame). Cooper was the kind of man who made pioneering possible. He purchased vast tracts of woodland and then sold or leased them to individual settlers. A stranger to modesty, he saw himself as a visionary blessed with courage and foresight.

Beneath the heroic pose, Cooper was representative of the new men who saw financial opportunity in the chaotic aftermath of the Revolution. His methods were crude but effective. Having avoided taking sides during the Revolution, Cooper manipulated the property of exiled Tory friends (among them, the son of Benjamin Franklin) to make himself master of thousands of acres around Otsego Lake. To finance his speculations, he borrowed huge sums, which he rarely repaid, leaving a legacy of claims and counterclaims against his estate that took years to unravel. Nevertheless, he succeeded in populating the entire district in record time, creating a pattern for many later settlements.

Sensitive about his own coarse manners, Cooper was determined to make Cooperstown a seat of gentility that would be a model for the young nation. In that, too, he had considerable success, arranging for the establishment of a newspaper and academies of learning, and sponsoring architecture that is still admired for its neoclassical grace.

Politically, the last years of the 18th century were a critical time for the largely untried democracy, a watershed in the lurching transition from government dominated by wealthy patricians to the more freewheeling politics played out by competing parties, and William Cooper was right in the middle of it. Condescendingly styling himself as "Father of the People," the arch-conservative Cooper parlayed his wealth into political influence, winning election as a judge, then to the State Senate, and finally to the U.S. Congress. For a time, the huge Federalist majorities that Cooper produced made Otsego County the pivot of New York state politics, and a factor even in national elections.

In contrast to the relatively disciplined young Republican Party of Jefferson and Madison, however, Cooper's Federalists were a loose, often fractious, collection of men who depended on the obedient votes of docile tenants and debtors in order to win elections. Dominant during the first years of the republic, Federalist fortunes eventually foundered against the popularity of the increasingly self-assertive democrats. These ascendant populists were no longer cowed by wealth and were not prepared to see the political fruits of the Revolution hijacked by a new generation of native squires like Cooper.

His reputation dimmed by lawsuits, Cooper reluctantly retreated from politics and attempted, without much luck, to repeat his Cooperstown success in the less fertile regions of the St. Lawrence valley. After his death, in 1809, the pyramid of debt and questionable transactions that he had erected finally collapsed around his heirs.

It was, in part, in an effort to recoup the family's fortune that James Fenimore Cooper turned to writing. In doing so, he created a new, distinctively American genre of adventure fiction peopled with Indians and colorful frontiersmen, whose descendants continue to inhabit Hollywood Westerns even today. In an unraveling of the meanings buried within the serpentine prose of James Fenimore's 1823 novel The Pioneers, Taylor shows how the novelist converted his father's often unsavory story into a symbolic triumph over the popular democracy that he hated, and that had, James Fenimore believed, snatched away the patrimony that he had expected to claim. In The Pioneers, Taylor observes, Cooper reclaimed his lost legacy by crafting an improved past, where property and power flow from a flawed patriarch to his genteel heirs, in a vision of America that, fortunately, was defeated in real life by the democratic tidal wave of the late 1790s.

That may have been only a novelist's wishful dreaming, but the democrats' apparent victory ultimately proved less complete than it seemed. Although the polemics of radical democracy had, by James Fenimore's time, become the common coinage of political discourse, government was fast becoming the province of a new breed of political specialists — mainly lawyers and newspaper editors — as real power passed in great measure to the new corporations of private wealth, and banks. Writes Taylor: "Paradoxically, as common white men became the essential audience for aspiring officeholders, the power of these offices diminished. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the substantive meaning of democratic participation became diluted by the divorce of economic from political power."

American political life was already forming a pattern that, in many ways, is the one we know today. While William Cooper might have been perplexed by modern Americans' affection for untrammeled wilderness, he probably would not have felt out of place in the world of money politics and bare-knuckle negative campaigns.

Fergus M. Bordewich is the author of Killing the White Man's Indian: Reinventing Native Americans at the End of the Twentieth Century.

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