A Guide in the Wilderness

Author: William Cooper  | Date: 1810

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How to Found a Settlement (1785–1806)


YOU have desired to know something of my own proceedings, and since I am to speak of myself, I can no where better introduce that subject than now, in proof of what I have asserted.

I began with the disadvantage of a small capital, and the incumbrance of a large family, and yet I have already settled more acres than any man in America. There are forty thousand souls now holding directly or indirectly under me, and I trust, that no one amongst so many can justly impute to me any act resembling oppression. I am now descending into the vale of life, and I must acknowledge that I look back with self-complacency upon what I have done, and am proud of having been an instrument in reclaiming such large and fruitful tracts from the waste of the creation. And I question whether that sensation is not now a recompence more grateful to me than all the other profits I have reaped. Your good sense and knowledge of the world will excuse this seeming boast; if it be vain, we all must have our vanities, let it at least serve to show that industry has its reward, and age its pleasures, and be an encouragement to others to persevere and prosper.

In 1785 I visited the rough and hilly country of Otsego, where there existed not an inhabitant, nor any trace of a road; I was alone three hundred miles from home, without bread, meat, or food of any kind; fire and fishing tackle were my only means of subsistence. I caught trout in the brook, and roasted them on the ashes. My horse fed on the grass that grew by the edge of the waters. I laid me down to sleep in my watch-coat, nothing but the melancholy Wilderness around me.

In this way I explored the country, formed my plans of future settlement, and meditated upon the spot where a place of trade or a village should afterwards be established.

In May 1786 I opened the sales of 40,000 acres, which, in sixteen days, were all taken up by the poorest order of men. I soon after established a store, and went to live among them, and continued so to do till 1790, when I brought on my family. For the ensuing four years the scarcity of provisions was a serious calamity; the country was mountainous, there were neither roads nor bridges.

But the greatest discouragement was in the extreme poverty of the people, none of whom had the means of clearing more than a small spot in the midst of the thick and lofty woods, so that their grain grew chiefly in the shade; their maize did not ripen; their wheat was blasted, and the little they did gather they had no mill to grind within twenty miles distance; not one in twenty had a horse, and the way lay through rapid streams, across swamps, or over bogs. They had neither provisions to take with them, nor money to purchase them; nor if they had, were any to be found on their way. If the father of a family went abroad to labour for bread, it cost him three times its value before he could bring it home, and all the business on his farm stood still till his return.

I resided among them, and saw too clearly how bad their condition was. I erected a store-house, and during each winter filled it with large quantities of grain, purchased in distant places. I procured from my friend Henry Drinker a credit for a large quantity of sugar kettles; he also lent me some pot ash kettles, which we conveyed as we best could; sometimes by partial roads on sleighs, and sometimes over the ice. By this means I established pot ash works among the settlers, and made them debtor for their bread and labouring utensils. I also gave them credit for their maple sugar and pot ash, at a price that would bear transportation, and the first year after the adoption of this plan I collected in one mass forty-three hogsheads of sugar, and three hundred barrels of pot and pearl ash, worth about nine thousand dollars. This kept the people together and at home, and the country soon assumed a new face.

I had not funds of my own sufficient for the opening of new roads, but I collected the people at convenient seasons, and by joint efforts we were able to throw bridges over the deep streams, and to make, in the cheapest manner, such roads as suited our then humble purposes.

In the winter preceding the summer of 1789, grain rose in Albany to a price before unknown. The demand swept the whole granaries of the

Mohawk country. The number of beginners who depended upon it for their bread greatly aggravated the evil, and a famine ensued, which will never be forgotten by those who, though now in the enjoyment of ease and comfort, were then afflicted with the cruelest of wants.

In the month of April I arrived amongst them with several loads of provisions, destined for my own use and that of the labourers I had brought with me for certain necessary operations; but in a few days all was gone, and there remained not one pound of salt meat nor a single biscuit. Many were reduced to such distress, as to live upon the roots of wild leeks; some more fortunate lived upon milk, whilst others supported nature by drinking a syrup made of maple sugar and water. The quantity of leeks they eat had such an effect upon their breath, that they could be smelled at many paces distance, and when they came together, it was like cattle that had pastured in a garlic field. A man of the name of Beets mistaking some poisonous herb for a leek, eat it, and died in consequence. Judge of my feelings at this epoch, with two hundred families about me, and not a morsel of bread.

A singular event seemed sent by a good Providence to our relief; it was reported to me that unusual shoals of fish were seen moving in the clear waters of the Susquehanna. I went and was surprised to find that they were herrings. We made something like a small net, by the interweaving of twigs, and by this rude and simple contrivance, we were able to take them in thousands. In less than ten days each family had an ample supply with plenty of salt. I also obtained from the Legislature, then in session, seventeen hundred bushels of corn. This we packed on horses backs, and on our arrival made a distribution among the families, in proportion to the number of individuals of which each was composed.

This was the first settlement I made, and the first attempted after the revolution; it was, of course, attended with the greatest difficulties; nevertheless, to its success many others have owed their origin. It was besides the roughest land in all the state, and the most difficult of cultivation of all that has been settled; but for many years past it has produced every thing necessary to the support and comfort of man. It maintains at present eight thousand souls, with schools, academies, churches, meeting-houses, turnpike roads, and a market town. It annually yields to commerce large droves of fine oxen, great quantities of wheat and other grain, abundance of pork, pot ash in barrels, and other provisions; merchants with large capitals, and all kinds of useful mechanics reside upon it; the waters are stocked with fish, the air is saluorious and the country thriving and happy. When I contemplate all this, and above all, when I see these good old settlers meet together, and hear them talk of past hardships, of which I bore my share, and compare the misery they then endured with the comforts they now enjoy, my emotions border upon weakness, which manhood can scarcely avow. One observation more on the duty of landlords shall close my answer to your first inquiry.

If the poor man who comes to purchase land has a cow and a yoke of cattle to bring with him, he is of the most fortunate class, but as he will probably have no money to hire a labourer, he must do all his clearing with his own hands. Having no pasture for his cow and oxen, they must range the woods for subsistence; he must find his cow before he can have his breakfast, and his oxen before he can begin his work. Much of the day is sometimes wasted, and his strength uselessly exhausted. Under all these disadvantages, if in three years he attains a comfortable livelihood, he is pretty well off: he will then require a barn, as great losses accrue from the want of shelter for his cattle and his grain; his children, yet too young to afford him any aid, require a school, and are a burden upon him; his wife bearing children, and living poorly in an open house, is liable to sickness, and doctors bills will be to pay. If then, in addition to all this, he should be pressed by his landlord, he sinks under his distress; but if, at this critical moment, he be assisted and encouraged, he will soon begin to rise. The landlord should first give him a fair time; if after that he cannot pay the principal money, he may take from him a release of the equity of redemption, and then grant him a lease for ever with a clause of fee on payment of the principal, and the rent reserved, which it would be well to make payable in wheat, with a moderate advance on the first price and interest.

Indeed justice and policy combine to point out the duty of the landlord; for if a man has struggled ten years in vain, and is, at the end of that time, unable to pay, not only humanity, but self-interest dictates another course, and some new expedient for reciprocal advantage. So here, the tenant instead of being driven for the principal, will not only keep his possession, but retain the privilege of re-acquiring the principal at a future day, by the very produce of the lands. He will be happy in the idea of still preserving his home, will pay his rent with cheerfulness, and the landlord has so much certainly added to his capital, whether the tenant re-purchases the fee or not; the improvements if he does purchase it, and if not, the price agreed upon. . . .

Some rich theorists let the property they purchase lie unoccupied and unproductive, and speculate upon a full indemnity from the future rise in value, the more so as they feel no want of the immediate profits. But I can assert from practical experience, that it is better for a poor man to pay forty shillings an acre to a landlord who heads the settlement, and draws people around him by good plans for their advancement, and arrangements for their convenience, than to receive an hundred acres gratis from one of these wealthy theorists; for if fifty thousand acres be settled, so that there is but one man upon a thousand acres, there can be no one convenience of life attainable; neither road, school, church, meeting, nor any other of those advantages, without which man’s life would resemble that of a wild beast.

Of this I had full proof in the circumstances of the Burlington company; they were rich, and purchased a tract of sixty-nine thousand acres, and made a deed of gift of one hundred acres out of each thousand to actual settlers; and this they were bound to do in compliance with a condition in the king’s patent. They provided these settlers with many articles of husbandry under the particular agency of Mr. Nathaniel Edwards. But he very soon returned, and not long afterwards the settlers followed, stating, that they could not support themselves so far in the woods in that scattered situation.

I then resided in Burlington, and when I undertook to make the settlement on those very lands, where so rich a company had failed, it was thought a romantic undertaking for a man unprovided with funds, to attempt what gratuitous donations had not been able to achieve. Nevertheless I succeeded, and for that very reason that I made no partial gifts, but sold the whole at a moderate price with easy payments, having for myself a handsome profit; and people were readily induced to come when they saw a number of co-operators, and the benefits of association.

You have now before you, as well as I can explain, the advantages and the difficulties which belong to an enterprize in new lands. But let me be clearly understood in this, that no man who does not possess a steady mind, a sober judgment, fortitude, perseverance, and above all, common sense, can expect to reap the reward, which to him who possesses those qualifications, is almost certain.

Judge [William] Cooper, (Dublin, 1810), 12–21 passim.

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Chicago: William Cooper, A Guide in the Wilderness in American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. Albert Bushnell Hart (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1902), 98–101. Original Sources, accessed March 18, 2019, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DL548KQ7LQLLTT5.

MLA: Cooper, William. A Guide in the Wilderness, in American History Told by Contemporaries, edited by Albert Bushnell Hart, Vol. 3, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1902, pp. 98–101. Original Sources. 18 Mar. 2019. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DL548KQ7LQLLTT5.

Harvard: Cooper, W, A Guide in the Wilderness. cited in 1902, American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. , The Macmillan Company, New York, pp.98–101. Original Sources, retrieved 18 March 2019, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DL548KQ7LQLLTT5.