Elizabeth Cooper (Fenimore) (1752 - 1817)

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Birthplace: Rancocus, Burlington, New Jersey, USA
Death: Died in Cooperstown, Otsego, New York
Managed by: Steven McRorie
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About Elizabeth Cooper (Fenimore)

From findagrave.com:

Birth: Jun 11 1752, USA

Death: Sep 15 1817, Otsego Co, NY, USA

Dtr of Richard & Hannah Allen Fenimore. She m Wm Cooper Nov 12 1774, in Burlington, N.J.

Burial: Christ Church Cem, Pittsfield, Otsego Co, NY, USA

Who was Elizabeth Cooper?Alan Taylor (Univ of CA Davis) Publin Heritage: Magazine of NY State Hist Assn, Vol 11, No 1 (Autumn 1994), p 14-19.

NOTE: Heritage is quarterly magazine, intended for gen'l audience, published since 1984 by NY State Hist Assn

©1994, NY State Hist Assn, & placed on-line w/its kind permission [may be downloaded & reproduced for personal or instructional use, or by libraries]

Judge William Cooper (1754-1803) is relatively well-known figure in history of upstate NY. Born in obscurity in PA, he began to ascend as storekeeper in Burlington, NJ during early 1780s. In later 1780s he became rich as successful speculator & frontier developer in lands around Lk Otsego, where he founded Cooperstown in 1786. He moved there w/his family late 1730. Prominent politician, he presided over Otsego Co Courts during 1790s & he served 2 terms in Congress. But he is best known as father of novelist James Fenimore Cooper & inspiration for Judge Marmaduke Temple, prominent character in 1st of his son's Leatherstocking novels, The Pioneers. Far less is known abt Judge's wife & novelist's mother, Elizabeth Fenimore Cooper (1752-1817). She remains elusive, shadowy figure seen fleetingly & incompletely thru brief & often cryptic observations in letters of others. Voluminous Cooper papers contain no letters written by or directly to Elizabeth-apparently because she could not write, not even signature. When obliged to co-sign land deed or lease she made "X" as her mark. When away from home, William had to obtain news of his family from friends & neighbors who could write. From Cooperstown in early 1790, Cooper urged his friend Henry Drinker: "Be sure to find out how my Family is as my Burlington Friends Neglects me on that head." That she could not write does not mean she could not read. Indeed, letters from family & friends refer to her delight in reading, especially novels. In late 18th cent it was common for families to teach dtrs to read but not to write. Her silence in documents leaves biographer w/great latitude to reconstruct Elizabeth's personality & story. James Beard, Jr, insists, "Mrs Cooper was patrician who detested frontier. W/her books, her music, her flowers, & her hospitality to all respectable company, she insisted on primacy of civilized values." Henry W Boynton reached harsher conclusion: Elizabeth Cooper was "imperious personage, less friendly to all world than her genial mate." Fuller & fairer reading of evidence suggests Elizabeth was neither patrician nor "imperious personage," but plain Quaker woman who became, over yrs, ever more withdrawn & sickly. She was often ill in body & spirit in reaction to what Boynton calls her husband's geniality: his boisterous engagement w/outsiders to frequent neglect of his own household. Impecunious wheelwright from Byberry, PA, William Cooper began his ascent from poverty Nov 3 1774 by marrying Elizabeth Fenimore, dtr of well-to-do Quaker farmer who lived in Willingboro, just outside mkt town of Burlington, NJ. Surviving documents indicate neither how nor when couple met. Family tradition maintains Richard Fenimore opposed his dtr's marriage to so poor & young husband, which would explain their civil ceremony (Quaker practice required parental approval for couple to marry w/in unity). 2 wks shy of his 20th birthday, Cooper m unusually young: he was more than yr short of legal age when young men could 1st make binding contracts for themselves; he was 2 1/2 yrs younger than his bride. She came from much wealthier family. In 1774 her father was 2nd richest taxpayer (of 68) in Willingboro Twp. He owned 500 acres & 20 horses & cattle-especially lrg & prosperous farm for such old (1st settled by Eng folk in 1670s), fertile, & populous county. It could not have reassured Elizabeth's father to hear his new son-in-law declare "he was poor & she must shift for herself." Richard Fenimore may have soaked his anger in alcohol. Aug 1775 (9 mo aft marriage), overseers of Burlington Monthly Mtg charged Fenimore "with taking strong drink to excess, with prophane Swearing & other reproachful Conduct for which they have unsuccessfully treated with him." Finding Fenimore "in a situation unfit to be spoke with," overseers were "discouraged by his disorderly conduct from paying him another visit." But it is also possible Richard Fenimore's personal crisis had long been simmering, prior to marriage, & perhaps accounting for Elizabeth's anxious haste to leave his household. Whatever her other attractions, Elizabeth Fenimore's potential inheritance would have been alluring to penurious & ambitious young wheelwright-especially as she had no bros to serve as Fenimore male heir. Richard Fenimore had to anticipate passing on his property to grdson born to 1 of his 3 dtrs. It is suggestive that Elizabeth & William married suddenly & w/out parental approval w/in wk of her sister Rachel's more orderly marriage w/in mtg to John Heaton. Had William Cooper applied his considerable charm to persuade Elizabeth they could & should win race to provide grandson? If so, William & Elizabeth did win, as they quickly conceived son, b Aug 12 1775-exactly 9 mo aft their marriage-& named him Richard Fenimore Cooper. In any event, Richard Fenimore did favor his 1st grdson & namesake w/largest bequest of land given in his will drafted Apr 1789. At 1st new couple, their son, & then their 1st dtr, Hannah (b 1777 & sharing name of both William & Elizabeth's mothers), lived in Byberry where William continued to ply his trade & hope for reconciliation w/Richard Fenimore. Abt 1778 Coopers moved to Willingboro & began to draw upon Fenimore estate. Apparently mollified, Richard Fenimore seems to have given William Cooper at least 169 acres at crossroads 3 mi SW of Burlington City. Rather than farm land or set up there as wheelwright, William Cooper established store & probably tavern & developed small commercial hamlet of dozen bldgs he dubbed "Cooperstown"-little forerunner of his NY venture. Not satisfied w/his ascent from wheelwright to country storekeeper & real estate developer, Cooper gambled he could also succeed at more competitive, but potentially more lucrative, mercantile business of Burlington City-trading ctr for county. By spring 1782 he had moved into city & established store. Successful as storekeeper, William Cooper reaped enhanced social status. He accumulated civic responsibilities & important friends-evidence he had won respect of town fathers. According to his store ledger listing credit accounts of 6 esquires, Burlington's leading men frequented Cooper's store. Beginning in 1783, Cooper served on 3 criminal trial juries & 1 grand jury-further marks of his acceptance as solid citizen. In summer 1787 he played leading role in mtg of Burlington merchants convened to protest new state excise tax. In 1786-87 he won seat on City Council & he was Overseer of Poor in 1787 & 1788. He had risen from poverty to community responsibility for those still in need. He also launched ambitious & promising land speculation in central NY by acquiring 29350 acres beside Lk Otsego in 1786. During next 10 yrs Cooper became rich by retailing homesteads to settlers who emigrated from New Eng seeking farms. His family also grew over course of 1780s. In 1778 William & Elizabeth Cooper had moved to Burlington w/2 young children-3-yr-old Richard Fenimore & 1-yr-old Hannah. During next 11 yrs Coopers celebrated births of 8 children but mourned early death of 3. Born Mar 7 1779 Ann Cooper soon died. Twins, Isaac & Abraham followed May 6 1781 but only 1st survived infancy. Feb 24 1784 another dtr assumed name Ann &, as longest lived of children, kept it for next 86 yrs. Elizabeth gave birth to another set of twins Jan 4 1786- girl & boy; 1 took her name & other assumed her husband's. Dtr soon died but William Jr survived childhood. 2 more sons followed, Samuel May 1787 & James, future novelist, Sep 15 1789 (he did not add middle name Fenimore until 1827). Elizabeth bore increasing burden as births & deaths mounted. Burden was compounded by husband's increasingly frequent & prolonged absences as he pursued his distant land speculations. In 1786 William departed for central NY to secure Otsego Patent in depth of winter just days aft Elizabeth gave birth to her 2nd set of twins-& abt time 1 of them died. When we get little clearer picture of Elizabeth in 1730s she is profoundly unhappy woman. Her alienation & morbidity may have their roots in burdens & traumas of preceding decade. William Cooper's life during 1780s is narrative of increasing success in public sphere; Elizabeth Cooper's story-virtually lost to us-was far more private & probably far less happy. Her patrimony had been essential to Cooper's early ascent in Burlington as storekeeper & petty speculator, but she became burden or afterthought during 1790s as he sought to make himself into gentleman. Usually preoccupied w/his complicated, diverse, far-flung & extensive enterprises both speculative & political, William Cooper was often away from home & family. Worldly, ambitious, active man, he plunged into his social, business, & political affairs to neglect of his family-to judge from their brief & only occasional appearance in his letters. Jun 1790 Cooper departed for Beech Woods of NE PA, leaving wife behind in Burlington w/7 children, including 9-mo-old infant James. In Beech Woods Jun 7, Cooper wrote long letter to partner Henry Drinker, adding as afterthought, "Be kind Enuff to send word to my Family that thee hath heard from me that I am well & hope to see them in a few months, say August, as I am so Pinch'd for time that I cannot write." Yet, he did have time to write frequent, detailed, & solicitous letters to Drinker-recent acquaintance but wealthy & prominent merchant whom Cooper wanted to cultivate. Cooper's references to Elizabeth in his letters to others were as infrequent as his correspondence home. James Hibbs corrected his nephew, William Cooper: "Thou gave account of self, children, brothers, sisters, &c. but nothing of thy wife, who I should have been glad to hear from." Family's removal from Burlington to Cooperstown in fall 1790 must have been traumatic for Elizabeth. At least in Burlington she had emotional & physical support of relatives & friends, as well as comforts of old & thriving town well-supplied w/stores, library, & Quaker mtg. In 1790 Cooperstown was distant & raw frontier hamlet surrounded by stumps, forests, wolves, & bears. If married to chronically absent husband, far better be it in Burlington than in Cooperstown. Family tradition plausibly maintains, just as Coopers were abt to embark in their wagons for trip north, Elizabeth suddenly rebelled, planting herself in wooden arm-chair, refusing to budge. Losing patience, brawny William Cooper picked up wife-laden chair & placed it & her in waiting wagon. Significantly, tradition identifies arm-chair as legacy from her recently deceased father; in vain, Elizabeth clung to her memories & kin in Burlington. Nov 1790 Cooper reported their journey was long & arduous as 4 wks of daily rain produced "Horridness of the Roads." Indeed, for time being, family had to leave in Albany much of their furniture-no doubt including fabled arm-chair. In combination w/deaths of 4 of her children during preceding decade, removal to frontier profoundly demoralized Elizabeth Cooper. During 1790s, family correspondents almost invariably discussed Elizabeth in terms of her health, physical & mental. Letters usually describe sickly, uneasy, withdrawn, & apparently depressed woman. "My wife is very unwell & hath been for some Months. scarcely expect she will recover her usual Health." William Cooper wrote in 1792. 4 yrs later Hendrick Frey reported to absent Cooper Elizabeth was on mend. Frey expressed more sympathy for William than Elizabeth: "She must have been Afflicted with the common Disorder attending Women who do not give over Breeding, Viz. Hysterics." It was pleasant surprise for correspondent to report Elizabeth was feeling well. In 1800 Frey heard from Richard Fenimore Cooper "he Never saw his Mother so healthy as she has been this Winter, that she Reads Novels till 12 at Night. Even tempered & Every thing that could be wished to make the life of a family under the Auspices of an Empress happy and Agreeable." Implicit in Frey's marvelling tone is too often Cooper household was less than happy & agreeable because "Empress" was so rarely healthy & even-tempered. Her illnesses & discontent peaked during-or in immediate anticipation of-husband's absences. Summer 1792 Cooper had to cancel planned trip to NY City because, he explained w/some disappointment, "The situation of my wife is Such that I cannot Leave her at Present." It seems sickness not only expressed her distress but was Elizabeth's 1 means to keep her peripatetic husband home. She had particularly severe illness & depression in late winter & early spring 1796, when William was away attending Congress in Philadelphia. Elizabeth was especially lonely because husband had taken along son Isaac & dtr Ann (also known as "Nancy"). Hearing in Mar his wife again had fallen ill, Cooper wrote to Elihu Phinney, editor of village newspaper, seeking his "honest" assessment. Apr 7 editor breezily replied, "Mrs Cooper is recruited very fast. Hr ago I met her walking very spruce along w/Mrs Woodworth, your sister; you need not give yourself any concern on account of her health, in my 'honest' opinion." However, same day Moss Kent, lodger in Manor House, described profoundly discontented Elizabeth Cooper in his letter to William Cooper: Mrs Cooper is gradually gaining strength. She has rode out in the Carriage for several Mornings past & means to continue riding when the weather will permit. Mrs C[ooper] has enjoined it upon me to inform you that she lives very unhappy & is very impatient for your return & wishes you to bring Isaac and Nancy with you. She is also desirous that you should engage a House at Burlington before your return as it is her determination never to spend another winter in this Country. I could have wished that [your eldest son] Richard had wrote you on this business, but Mrs Cooper enjoined it on me, & my duty & politeness to her induced me to be obedient to her request.

This letter was especially difficult for Kent to write & for Cooper to receive, because 2 men were at bitter odds over impending Apr election. By engaging Kent, rather than her son Richard, to write, Elizabeth maximized her husband's embarrassment. When William continued to linger in Philadelphia, she obliged Kent to write sequel on Apr 21: Mrs Cooper still continues weakly & very low-spirited. She is very anxious that you should return soon & not wait till Congress adjourns. She blames me much for having written some time since that I thought she was getting hearty again, as she expects it will prevent your returning so soon as you otherwise would. I do not think Mrs C[ooper] so well as a fortnight ago. She is very thin, has but little appetite to eat & thinks she has a fever every afternoon.

8 days later, Kent added Elizabeth remained "very low-spirited & very impatient to have you return." Declining to cut short his attendance on Congress, Cooper did not return home until mid-Jun. His triumphant greeting in village streets & taverns was probably not matched when he repaired, at last, to Manor House. That summer Elizabeth conveyed her profound unhappiness to her husband so persuasively he agreed to bring her south to winter in Burlington w/children when he returned to Congress in Nov. She probably returned to Otsego w/husband & children for summer & fall 1797, but she returned to Burlington for winter 1797-8, even though her husband was not then mbr of Congress. Indeed, she remained in Burlington thru summer 1798, apparently resolved never again to return to Cooperstown. Making e best of situation, Mar 1798 Cooper entrusted Manor House, outbldgs, gardens, & livestock to innkeeper Samuel Huntington to use as extra lodging, stables, & supplies for guests. Cooper & "such of the family of the said William as may Reside in the Mansion house" retained right to board there. Sep 1798 William bought Elizabeth a house in Burlington (but put title in name of dtr Hannah). Month later, Elizabeth suddenly changed her mind & agreed to return to Otsego. William wrote from Burlington to Richard Fenimore Cooper at Cooperstown: "Your mother hath alleved her mind [and] is comeing home. Have the Bed Down stairs by the 21st. We shall be home by that day. Have good fires. If you could have the Room white-washed, so much the better." Decades later, James Fenimore Cooper explained his mother's change of mind: "So great was the grief of my brother and myself at giving up our lake and haunts (in Otsego) that she abandoned her own wishes to ours, and consented to return." Another factor may have been 5th death of Cooper child; born in Cooperstown late 1792, Henry Frey Cooper d as child in Burlington at unknown date during 1 of his mother's sojourns there, probably in 1798. Word that "Otsego Hall," family's new mansion in Cooperstown, was nearing completion probably eased her decision to return. She had never liked Manor House & Cooper probably designed grand new mansion w/such extensive grounds in part to make Cooperstown more palatable to his wife. Decision to build came in fall 1796 in wake of Elizabeth's crisis that spring. Extensive gardens were especially meant to appease Elizabeth, who delighted in flowers. Jun 1799 family moved into Otsego Hall. Thereafter, mansion became her cherished refuge as she became increasingly reclusive. Clinging to Quaker identity & piety her husband had forsaken, Elizabeth disliked raucous, worldly, & Yankee village beyond Cooper grounds. Pleasantly surprised by visiting Quaker preacher from Byberry, PA, she made him welcome & helped arrange religious mtg. Preacher later informed Cooper Elizabeth had confessed "her Discouragement on account of the Dissipation of some poor Creatures in your place." Sep 1800, tragic death of beloved dtr Hannah deepened Elizabeth Cooper's disengagement from wider world beyond picket fence surrounding Cooper grounds. Making coccoon of Otsego Hall, she rarely ventured out & usually disliked letting outsiders in. She lavished care on house & gardens but was disinterested in entertaining husband's many visitors, abdicating formal role of hostess to dtr or dtr-in-law. Feb 1809 Alexander Coventry visited Otsego Hall & reported: The Judge received me kindly. His lady appears rather odd: is an active, stirring little woman, rather plain in her manners and a little contradictory withal, but a notable housekeeper. A very genteel and accomplished daughter-in-law, formerly Miss Clason, did the honors of the table, and by her sweet amiableness, filled the place beautifully and the mother-in-law, although seeming a little outre [sic] at first, improved much upon acquaintance.

A family tradition insists mansion once caught fire, attracting village's volunteer fire company. Rather than permit them in, she locked doors & repelled firemen w/boiling water, while her servants subdued blaze. Dec 1813 son Isaac & his family moved into new house around corner from Otsego Hall; Jun 1814 he recorded astonishment in his diary: "Mother actually came to see us. First time she ever saw the House." Isaac was more surprised that she had come at all than that it had taken her 6 mos to travel 1 block. She was most at peace when w/drawn w/in Otsego Hall, surrounded by flowers & lost in novel. Her grddtr Susan Fenimore Cooper provides our most vivid & sympathetic description of Elizabeth Cooper: Occasionally I was taken to the Hall to see my Grandmother. I have a dim recollection of her sitting near a little table, at the end of a long sofa seen in her picture, with a book on the table. She always wore sleves [sic] to the elbow, or a little below, with long gloves. She took great delight in flowers, & the south end of the long hall was like a greenhouse in her time. She was a great reader of romances. She was a marvellous housekeeper, & beautifully nice and neat in all her arrangements.

Susan Fenimore Cooper refers to George Freeman's painting made in 1816 depicting Elizabeth Cooper w/in Otsego Hall. She sits in foreground thoroughly encased by walls, floor, ceiling, & furniture-& by layers of clothing that leave only her kind but mournful face exposed to viewer. Orange trees in boxes fill back wall & flowering plant nestles at her feet, as protective sentry. She d yr later. Elizabeth Fenimore Cooper, seen in this 1816 watercolor by George Freeman, is elusive, shadowy figure seen fleetingly & incompletely thru brief & often cryptic observations in letters of others. Evidence suggests she lived profoundly unhappy life. NYSHA Collections

Alan Taylor is Prof of History at Univ of CA at Davis. He is author of Liberty Men & Great Proprietors: Revolutionary Settlement on Maine Frontier, 1760-1820 (Chapel Hill, NC: Univ of NC Press, 1990). Essay comes from book, William Cooper's Town: Power & Persuasion on Early American Frontier, publ 1995 Aifred A Knopf. It is study of early history of Cooperstown & of Cooper family up to publication of The Pioneers in 1823.

From Cooper Family History & Genealogy, 1681 - 1931, Murphy Roe Cooper:

Elizabeth was dtr of wealthy aristocrat Richard Fenimore of Rancocus, NJ. Elizabeth was beautiful, wealthy, belonged to aristocracy but was known to be quarrelsome, which appears to be Fenimore trait followed down generations. Elizabeth refused to move to "Wilderness" w/husband, 7 children, 2 slaves, & 5 servants. Wagons were packed & she refused to leave chair in her father's library. William picked up chair w/her & baby she was carrying & put her into wagon w/Elizabeth still in chair. Elizabeth never was rec'd in Quaker Mtg. Out of 13 children only son & dtr survived beyond youth. Surviving son James became famous Am author (James Fenimore Cooper).

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Elizabeth Cooper's Timeline

1744
November 12, 1744
Burlington, New Jersey, United States
1752
June 11, 1752
Rancocus, Burlington, New Jersey, USA
1775
August 12, 1775
Age 23
Burlington, New Jersey, USA
1777
August 9, 1777
Age 25
Burlington, Burlington, New Jersey, USA
1781
May 7, 1781
Age 28
Burlington, Burlington, New Jersey, USA
1781
Age 28
Burlington, Burlington, New Jersey, USA
1784
February 24, 1784
Age 31
Burlington, Burlington, New Jersey, USA
1786
1786
Age 33
Burlington, Burlington, New Jersey, USA
1786
Age 33
Burlington, Burlington, New Jersey, USA
1787
1787
Age 34
Burlington, NJ, USA