NEW CHAPTER IN HISTORICAL FEUD
By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
FLY CREEK – Wuz we robbed?
The Pomeroy Foundation has, finally, approved a “Legend & Lore” marker for the grave of David Shipman, whom James Fenimore Cooper himself identified as the model for Natty Bumppo, who ranks with Huck Finn among the foremost protagonists in American literature.
At the same time, though, Pomeroy also approved a “Legend & Lore” marker for Nathaniel Shipman’s grave in Hoosick Falls, giving him equal billing with the local woodsman who inspired the most memorable character in Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans.”
The “Legend & Lore” marker is a step down from Pomeroy’s “Historical Marker,” which would actually aver David Shipman was the model for Natty Bumppo. Instead, the marker set up at the Adams Cemetery between Fly Creek and Toddsville simply said that some people think he was Cooper’s hero, also known as the Leatherstocking and “La Longue Carabine.”
“It means you can’t prove it,” said Sherlee Rathbone, president of the Fly Creek Historical Society, which sought the Pomeroy designation. “In order to have a ‘History’ sign, we need to have primary sources. And we don’t; we can’t find it. We had no option.”
That is contrary to the conclusion reached by Alan Taylor, author of the Pulitzer-winning “William Cooper’s Town” (1996), who now holds the Thomas Jefferson Chair in American History at the University of Virginia. He has since won a second Pulitzer, in 2014 for “The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832.”
Taylor researched the complicated relationship between the Cooper family and David Shipman, who would often provide the village’s first family’s table with venison, fish and other edible wildlife.
As proof, Taylor cites James Fenimore Cooper identifying David Shipman as Bumppo in “Chronicles of Cooperstown” (1838).
That – the writer himself designating David Shipman – would constitute a primary source.
In a 2016 e-mail to this newspaper, Taylor declared, “I certainly consider DS to be the model for JFC in crafting the character of Natty Bumppo.”
In addition to the gravesite, former county treasurer Dan Crowell’s family has identified the confluence of Oaks Creek and the Susquehanna – it can be seen on the north side of the Route 11C bridge – as the site of David Shipman’s cabin. A depiction of Shipman also appears atop the Cooper obelisk in Lakewood Cemetery.
On its website, the Pomeroy Foundation also includes an audio tape, recording Rathbone and Joyce Brewer, from the Hoosick Township Historical Society.
It traces the rivalry between Cooperstown and Hoosick Falls to 1874, when David Shipman’s great-granddaughter threatened to sue, blocking plans in the Washington County town from raising a statue to Nathaniel Shipman.
Nathaniel was born in 1738 in Connecticut, moving to Hoosick in 1756, where he was a scout for the British. When the American Revolution began, Nathaniel was tarred and feathered for his loyalty to the crown, and fled to the Otsego Lake region, supporting himself by hunting and fishing, and living in a cave.
Back in Hoosick Falls, his daughter, Patience, married a John Ryan, who became a state Assemblyman, Brewer recounts. In Albany, he met Judge William Cooper, also an Assemblyman, who regaled him with stories about a Shipman.
Acting on this information, Ryan and Patience retrieved an “aged white man” from the Cooperstown area, and brought him back to Hoosick Falls, where he died in 1809 and is buried in the Baptist Cemetery. Patience was “pretty sure that was her father,” the audiotape says.
“Natty,” Brewer says, is a nickname for “Nathaniel,” not “David.”
The audiotape, quoting Rathbone, reports David Shipman was born in 1740 in Saybrook, Conn., and died in Fly Creek in 1813 and was buried in the Adams Cemetery. “He was a renowned hunter and trapper,” she said, “dressed in leggings and high moccasin boots – hence Leatherstocking. He supplied the table of many folks with venison and wild meats, include Judge Cooper’s.”
Hoosick Falls has a corpse, Brewer said. “We do not,” said Rathbone. “We do have anecdotes.”