Monday, January 29, 2007

The Peter Cooper Story, 1: The Lost Peekskill Years


Few people hurrying along the north side of South Street in Peekskill, N.Y., take notice of the tablet gracing the wall of the Wachovia Financial Center. For the past 76 years this bronze bas-relief casting has marked the site where Peter Cooper once lived. Erected by Peekskill's Friendly Town Association and affixed to the since-demolished building of the Peekskill Savings Bank, the tablet was unveiled on Peter Cooper's 140th birthday, February 12, 1931.

Designed and sculpted by George T. Brewster, head of the art department at Cooper Union in New York City, and cast by the Gorham Company in Providence, R.I., it reads, "Upon this site from 1793 to 1810 lived Peter Cooper, inventor, educator, philanthropist." Through the years, the tablet and its almost ghostlike image of Peter Cooper have acquired a lovely moss-green patina. Unfortunately, the plaque also has the baggage of an erroneous and imprecise legend.

Unfortunately, the tablet's claim of a 17-year residence in Peekskill by Peter Cooper is inaccurate. Buried in biographies of Peter Cooper by Allan Nevins (Abram S. Hewitt: With Some Account of Peter Cooper. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1935) and Edward C. Mack (Peter Cooper: Citizen of New York. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1949) is incontrovertible evidence that he lived in Peekskill during only part of that period. A year before he died, Peter Cooper dictated to a stenographer more than 200 pages of a memoir of his early life. The typescript of these reminiscences was lost, but fortunately the original stenographic notes were discovered later at Cooper Union, the remarkable educational institution he founded.

Peter Cooper was one of the most significant American figures of the 19th century. Although he had less than a year of formal schooling, he became a successful inventor, engineer, industrialist, educator, civic reformer and philanthropist. He had the Midas touch--but not the Midas curse. He made a fortune and gave much of it away during his lifetime. He did indeed spend part of his youth in Peekskill--but not over the span of years shown on the tablet. To trace where Peter Cooper lived as a youth, we must trace the movements of his peripatetic parents.

A Genealogical Detective Story
Historical and genealogical research is not unlike detective work, requiring patience and attention to detail. Hidden clues often confirm suspicions and reveal truths. Just as frequently they lead to dead ends. Here is what can be pieced together about the Cooper family's years in Peekskill and elsewhere:

Peter Cooper's father, John Cooper, was born in Fishkill, N.Y., in 1755, the fifth of eight children of Obadiah Cooper and Hester Terboss Cooper. The Terbosses were among the first settlers in Fishkill. His mother, Margaret Campbell Cooper, was born in 1762 in New York City, the daughter of John and Sarah Oakley Campbell. Her father was a wealthy manufacturer of pottery and tiles. His business located on the site of the future St. Paul's Chapel on Broadway at Fulton Street, erected between 1764 and 1766.

When the Revolution began, Peter's father was in business as a hatter in Fishkill and owned a few slaves. He was among the first to enlist in the fight to free the colonies from British rule, serving as a sergeant in a regiment of local Fishkill "minutemen." Minutemen were expected to be ready to assemble under arms on a minute's notice. His regiment was rushed to New York City in 1776 to dig trenches on Governor's Island. A huge fleet of British warships and troop transports was anchored in the Lower Bay, and British troops had landed on Staten Island.

The American forces were too few to hold the city and abandoned it. A week later, a fire broke out in a tavern called the Fighting Cocks. Swept by a brisk wind, the flames raced through the city, destroying the original Trinity Church and everything as far north as Barclay Street. The regular firemen had left with the American forces. The retreating American army had carried off most of the church bells and other fire alarm bells.

Suspecting arson, irate British authorities rounded up some 200 men and women for questioning. Among them was a young captain in the American forces named Nathan Hale, who was not in uniform. When questioned at the headquarters of British General William Howe in the Beekman House at 50th Street and the East River, he was found to be carrying incriminating papers. General Howe ordered him hanged without the formality of a trial. His last words from the gallows, paraphrased from Joseph Addison's play, Cato, were to become famous: "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country." For collectors of trivia, the site of the hanging is believed to have been in a British artillery park at about today's Third Avenue and 66th Street.

From Harlem Heights, George Washington watched the southern horizon glow red and remarked, "Providence, or some good honest fellow, has done more for us than we were disposed to do for ourselves." John Cooper's regiment retreated northward to Westchester County, taking part in the Battle of White Plains and garrisoning Fort Constitution, below West Point.

John Cooper's first wife was 19-year-old Martha Pinfold, from Newtown, a small settlement between Maspeth and Flushing in the present borough of Queens. They were married on May 4, 1777, in Newtown. Sixteen months later, on September 18, 1778, Martha Pinfold Cooper died in Fishkill, leaving him with a week-old infant son, also named John. After serving as a minuteman for two years, John Cooper was drafted for service outside New York State. He took advantage of a law that permitted him to pay $60 to get a substitute to serve for him.

Returning to Fishkill, he joined a regiment of Dutchess County militia as a second lieutenant and served for four years at West Point, at Highland under George Clinton and as commander of a detachment at Fishkill. On December 21, 1779, John Cooper married for the second time. His new wife was the 17-year-old daughter of General John Campbell, then deputy Quartermaster General of the Continental Army. She was educated at the Moravian Young Ladies Seminary in Bethlehem, Penna., the first boarding school for young women in America. Hugh Campbell, John Campbell's brother, evidently a Presbyterian, was buried in the graveyard of New York City's Brick Presbyterian Church at Beekman and Nassau streets, but John Campbell and his wife were--or became--Moravians and were buried in the graveyard of the Moravian Church in John Street.

The Revolution Ends
After the war, the couple continued to live in Fishkill. Around 1785, perhaps at the suggestion of her parents who had already returned to New York City, they moved their growing family to the burgeoning community at the south end of Manhattan Island. With daughters Sarah and Martha in tow, they became part of a large-scale migration from the country to the young nation's growing cities. John Cooper opened a business as a hatter, the only trade he knew, in his home on Little Dock Street, between Broad Street and Old Slip. At the end of the 18th century, Little Dock Street was close to the East River's docks and piers; later renamed Water Street, today it is lined with skyscrapers.

His business prospered. One day he met a young fur trader named John Jacob Astor, who was looking for a shop. He found one at 40 Little Dock Street. "Very likely through a hatter named Cooper, who dwelt not far from No. 40," wrote Arthur D. Howden Smith, Astor's biographer, in his biography, John Jacob Astor, Landlord of New York (Philaelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1929). John Cooper became a good customer of the fur trader, buying the beaver skins that Astor bought from western Indians and so-called "Mountain Men." If a customer lacked money to pay for a hat, Cooper took payment in "hay, buggy-hire, bricks, firewood, tobacco, wool, sugar, flour, honey, old sheepskins, casks of rum, three days' work of a Negro, and so on," according to an account left by one of his granddaughters. For all practical purposes, John Cooper was as much a grocer as he was a hatter.

A son, James, was born in 1786; another son, Thomas, arrived in 1788 but lived only 11 months. The 1790 census lists John Cooper as head of a household of five white males over 16, three under 16, and four females. Aside from the members of his family, the others may have been boarders, servants or helpers. On February 12, 1791, Margaret Cooper's third son, Peter, was born in the combination house and hatter's shop on Little Dock Street in New York City.

To Peekskill
John Cooper moved to Peekskill in 1794, with four children, ages 12, 10, 5 and 3. We can date Peter Cooper's arrival in Peekskill with a fair degree of accuracy. According to his own memoir, when Peter was three years old, John Cooper moved his family from Manhattan to Peekskill. Since Peter's third birthday was February 12, 1794, this would make the year of his arrival in Peekskill 1794--not the 1793 of the tablet on the bank building. In Peekskill, John Cooper bought a parcel of land, built a house and opened a grocery store. Since he had been successful in business in New York City, biographers ascribe no rational explanation for his move to the country other than wanderlust or restlessness--ignoring the appeal of the life he had previously known in the Hudson Valley.

Peter Cooper himself later explained the move by saying that he "became enamored of the country life." He wrote, explaining his lack of education, "My only recollection of being at school was at Peekskill, where I attended three or four quarters, a part of the time (probably half of it) being half-day school." He added, "The reason I was the only one of my father's family who had so poor a chance was that he [Peter's father] moved to the country when I was only three years old."

Business in Peekskill was brisk for John Cooper--his ledgers show sizable sales of molasses, rum and sugar, along with such items as penknives, buttons, oilcloth and bridle bits. As before, he was a storekeeper, hatter, shoemaker, brewer and farmer, sometimes all at the same time. He also scoured the woods for wild honey and fur, netting wild pigeons for extra income. Young Peter was befriended by Pierre Van Cortlandt, New York State's first lieutenant governor, who used to give him peaches from his orchards at the Manor House in Croton.

But John Cooper was no businessman. An easy touch, he extended credit generously to customers. As a youth, he had been swept up in the fervor of the Methodist revivalism of evangelist George Whitefield's "Great Awakening." A devout Methodist, John Cooper not only took the time to help his fellow Methodists build a chapel but also opened his home to visiting clergy and gave them unlimited credit at his store.

An early Cooper biographer was J.C. Zachos, a professor at Cooper Union, the exceptional educational institution Peter Cooper founded, and the inventor of the stenotype machine. In his 1876 biography, he wrote that it was "not more than two or three years before he [John Cooper] found that nearly all of his property was in the hands of other people, and that it was impossible for him to collect it." The inevitable financial disaster followed. For the next dozen years or so, John Cooper and his family moved from place to place in the Hudson Valley seeking success but leaving little trace of their presence. Additional sons made their appearance: a second son named Thomas in 1794, William in 1799 and Edward in 1803.

Young Peter's sporadic education came to a halt after the family left Peekskill. He was forced to help his father as the family traveled from one location to another. In addition to hat making, the elder Cooper tried dairy farming, brickmaking and brewing. It is not easy to pinpoint the destinations of Peter Cooper's chronically restless and insolvent father and his tagalong family; they ranged from Brooklyn, then a separate city to the south across the East River from Manhattan, to the Hudson River town of Catskill on the west bank of the Hudson to the north.

Back to New York City
We know that John Cooper moved back to New York City around 1799 and took up hat making again. He either lived in Brooklyn (he had a home there some time between 1796 and 1808) or in a house on Duane Street owned by his mother-in-law, where Peter remembered living as a boy. Standing on Broadway in front of St. Paul's Chapel, Peter Cooper witnessed the mock-funeral procession of George Washington in New York City in 1799. Many other places conducted similar ceremonies to honor the former President, who died December 14, 1799, at Mount Vernon, his Virginia estate. Young Peter was particularly impressed by the "peculiar way in which his boots were reversed in the stirrups of the charger that followed the hearse."

John Cooper's ledgers show sales of hats between 1796 and 1808, and show that he accepted rum, food and wood in exchange. Eventually, he sold his hat shop at Duane Street to Peter's half-brother, John, 13 years older than Peter. We also know that Peter's father moved back to Peekskill at some time between 1800 and 1804 and built a brewery there, and that he later built another brewery in Newburgh, where he was living before 1808 and again after 1814.

One clue suggesting the Cooper family's presence in Peekskill in 1804 is the marriage in Peekskill of John Cooper, Peter's half-brother and only child of Martha Pinfold, who had died in childbirth. On April 21, 1804, 26-year-old John Cooper married 17-year-old Elizabeth Hawes. Born October 2, 1786, in Peekskill, she was the daughter of Soloman (Solomon?) Hawes and Lavinia Hammond. As might be expected, newlyweds John and Elizabeth Hawes Cooper remained in Peekskill after their marriage. A son, Thomas Edmund Cooper, was born there August 15, 1812.

The written record of the Cooper family's movements is often clouded. In 1866, when he was 75, Peter Cooper wrote in an eleven-page autobiographical fragment that when he was 12 or 13 (1803 or 1804), his father built a brewery in Peekskill and a year later another in Newburgh, a town in which he remained for two or three years. "He then again removed to Brooklyn and went back into hats and keeping cows for the sale of milk." That would place Peter Cooper in Peekskill again only until about 1805, making the 1810 date on Peekskill's plaque impossible.

Ten years after writing his brief autobiographical reminiscence, he told biographer J. C. Zachos that after building the Peekskill brewery his father moved to Catskill, where he made bricks and hats, and that he then moved to Brooklyn. In this account, the Newburgh brewery follows the Brooklyn interlude, and young Peter worked at brewing in Newburgh until he was 17--in 1808. Regardless of the sequence of the periods when he lived elsewhere, Peter was gone from Peekskill by 1805.

The Coachmaker's Apprentice
Young Peter Cooper cut family ties in Newburgh in 1808 and struck out for himself and headed for the burgeoning metropolis of New York City. Abandoning hat making, brewing and brick making, the trades at which he had worked for his father, he apprenticed himself for four years at $25 a year to coachmaker John Woodward, of the firm of Burtis & Woodward. So sure was his new employer young Peter would serve out the full term of his apprenticeship, he never asked him to sign an indenture bond. The coachmaking workshop was at the northeast corner of Broadway and Chambers Street. That corner in 1846 became the site of A.T. Stewart's "Marble Palace" department store, which later became the New York Sun building and still stands.

The dates and facts of his apprenticeship in New York starting in 1808 are well documented in existing records, further casting doubt on the Peekskill tablet. While he was learning coachmaking, Peter Cooper taught himself a variety of skills, including ornamental wood carving and sold his handiwork to Woodward and other coachbuilders. Always curious about new methods, young Peter invented a machine for mortising carriage wheel hubs--work that had previously been done by hand. Woodward was impressed with it and bought it from him. In 1879, Peter Cooper could write, "That method is still mortising all the hubs in the country."

So satisfied was Woodward with his apprentice that he voluntarily paid him $50 for his third year and $75 for his fourth. After completing his apprenticeship in New York City late in 1811, he rejected Woodward's offer to set him up in the coachmaking business. Instead, he found a job in Hempstead, Long Island, in a shop making machines for shearing the nap from cloth. In November of 1812, with two partners, he bought the rights to the machine.

Peter Cooper married 20-year-old Sarah Bedell of Hempstead, N.Y., in her parents' home in that Long Island community on December 22, 1813. The marriage lasted 56 years, ending with her death in 1869. The couple had seven children--although only three would live to adulthood. The new groom delayed announcing his marriage to his parents--still in Newburgh--in a letter two weeks after the event. "I would inform you that you now have another daughter-in-law," he wrote laconically. After his marriage, he bought out his partners. Now he was in business for himself and would never work for another person. Peter Cooper was on his way and never looked back. There is no record that he ever visited Peekskill again.

When a newspaper makes an error in reporting a story, it prints a correction. If errors are found in a book after it has been printed, the publisher inserts or tips in each copy an errata sheet correcting the errors until a new printing is made. But what can a community do when a 76-year-old memorial contains misinformation?

In John Ford's 1962 motion picture The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, actor James Stewart, playing a U.S. senator, returns to the small town of Shinbone in which he got his start. He attempts to correct the story that he shot a notorious outlaw named Liberty Valance by explaining to the editor of the local newspaper that the real hero of the incident was Tom Doniphon, played by John Wayne.

At the end of the film, Stewart asks the editor, Maxwell Scott, played by veteran character actor Carleton Young, "Mr. Scott, you're not going to use the story?" "This is the West, sir," the editor replies. "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." That seems to be what happened in the eastern city of Peekskill in 1931, when some overenthusiastic citizens created a legend and then cast it in bronze.

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