William Cooper (judge)

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William Cooper (December 2, 1754 – December 22, 1809) was an American merchant, land speculator and developer, the founder of Cooperstown, New York, and a judge. A politician, he served two terms in the United States Congress, representing Otsego County and central New York. He was the father of James Fenimore Cooper, who became a noted writer.

William Cooper painted by Gilbert Stuart


William Cooper was born in a log house in Smithfield (now Somerton), Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia, the son of English Quaker parents, James Cooper (b. Byberry, Philadelphia, 1729–1795) and Hannah (Hibbs) Cooper. He appears to have worked as a wheelwright in and around Byberry. There is no record of his attending school.

Marriage and family[edit]

On December 12, 1774, in Burlington, New Jersey, he was married by a civil magistrate to Elizabeth Fenimore, daughter of Richard Fenimore, a Quaker of Rancocas. When Fenimore asked how William intended to support his daughter, the young man answered that he was poor and "she must shift for herself."[citation needed]


During the early 1780s, Cooper became a storekeeper in Burlington, New Jersey. By the end of the decade, he was a successful land speculator and wealthy frontier developer in what is now Otsego County, New York. Soon after the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, he acquired a tract of land several thousand acres in extent within the borders of New York state and lying along the head waters of the Susquehanna River. He founded the Village of Otsego at the foot of Otsego Lake in 1786, and moved his family there, arriving on 10 November 1790.

After 1791, when Otsego County was split off from Montgomery County, Cooper was appointed as a county judge. He was later elected to two terms in Congress, representing the Federalist Party in the 4th (March 4, 1795 – March 3, 1797) and the 6th United States Congresses (March 4, 1799 – March 3, 1801).

In 1796, Cooper determined to make his home permanently in the town he had founded, which by that time promised to become a thriving settlement. He began the construction of a mansion, completed in 1799, which he named Otsego Hall. For many years it served as his manor house and was by far the most spacious and stately private residence in central New York.

Cooper family tradition has it that Judge Cooper was killed by a blow to the head sustained during an argument with a political opponent after a public meeting in Albany, New York on December 22, 1809. No evidence of this can be found. The story cannot be traced to before 1897. A great-grandson of the judge published this account, which historians consider implausible. They now believe that Judge Cooper died of natural causes.

Cooper was buried at the Episcopal Christ Churchyard in Cooperstown where his son was buried many years later.

His great-grandson, Paul F. Clark, was a Nebraska State Representative. Cooper's great-great-grandson was the writer, Paul Fenimore Cooper, whose most notable novel was the children's adventure, Tal: His Marvelous Adventures with Noom-Zor-Noom.

Legacy and honors[edit]

  • Cooperstown was named after him



External links[edit]

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Silas Talbot
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 10th congressional district

1795 – 1797
Succeeded by
James Cochran
Preceded by
James Cochran
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 10th congressional district

1799 – 1801
Succeeded by
Thomas Morris