Editor’s Note: This editorial, from May 6, 2016, is timely again today, after the news that the Pomeroy Foundation has awarded a “Legends & Lore” historical marker to both Fly Creek, home of David Shipman, and Hoosick Falls, home of Nathaniel Shipman.
Alan Taylor, the eminent historian and author of the Pulitzer-winning “William Cooper’s Town” is emphatic in his conclusion: David Shipman was James Fenimore Cooper’s inspiration for the famed Natty Bumppo. Fly Creek Historical Society President Sherlee Rathbone says primary sources are lacking.
It’s a step in the right direction that Hawkeye is honored locally, but the “Legends & Lore” marker is a step short of Pomeroy’s “Historical Marker” designation.
Bruce Shipman, David Shipman’s descendant who was leading that argument, passed away in 2017. Someone needs to pick up the challenge and continue it until OUR Shipman’s rightful role is accurately recognized.
Who isn’t familiar with the image above? Daniel Day Lewis reinvented “The Last of the Mohicans” for a modern audience, although – believe it or not – that movie version (1992) came out almost a quarter-century ago. It’s time for another reinvention for the PS4
generation, and that inevitably will happen.
And, yet, here in the home of Hawkeye, or Natty Bumppo, or The Leatherstocking, or “La Longue Carabine,” he’s largely forgotten – but for his descendant Bruce Shipman. (And, of course, Hugh MacDougall, Cooperstown village historian, key player in the founding of the James Fenimore Cooper Society in 1989, which necessarily is a celebration of Cooper’s greatest creation and one of the most enduring characters in American literature.)
Yes, the next “Last of the Mohicans” hit movie is inevitable. But are we ready to celebrate – and capitalize on – our most famous citizen (the fictional one, but also his human counterpart) when that happens?
When you think about it, it’s quite shocking how little David Shipman, who James Fenimore Cooper acknowledged as “the Leatherstocking of the region” in “Chronicles of Cooperstown” (1838), is recognized around here.
As SUNY Binghamton professor Thomas Jordan put it in 2012, “Bumppo reflects the core qualities of the burgeoning American character – rugged individualism, self-reliance, moral certitude in the face of difficult ethical dilemmas, and freedom from the potentially stifling strictures of society.”
Think National Security State, and Natty Bumppo has never been more relevant.
In our PC-burdened national dialogue, Cooper’s hero – and his companion, Chingachgook (related to the Brushells of Richfield Springs, it’s said) – also reflect
a more complex reality, of newcomers and American Indians living side by side, the
good allied against the bad among settlers and natives alike.
David Shipman as Cooper’s inspiration was clouded by Ralph Birdsall’s seminal (and very readable) “The Story of Cooperstown” (1917), which lays out Hoosick Falls’ argument for the alternative Nathaniel Shipman.
But Alan Taylor’s Pulitzer-winning “William Cooper’s Town” (1996), which researches the complicated relationship between David Shipman and the Cooper family, proves outright
our local Leatherstocking’s status.
Taylor confirmed that in a recent e-mail: “I certainly consider DS to be the model for JFC in crafting the character of Natty Bumppo.”
That is the final word, and should bring all local historians behind Bruce Shipman of Richfield Springs in his effort to place a historical marker on his ancestor’s grave in the Toddsville Cemetery on Route 56 just east of Fly Creek.
Shipman, patriarch of the extensive Shipman clan, has sought the support of the Fly Creek Area Historical Society, and he should have it, and from the Otsego Town Board, and he should have it. But David Shipman is bigger than any single local community.
County Treasurer Dan Crowell’s parents live on Otsego Manor Road, and he will tell you that the legendary Shipman’s cabin was on the far end of that property.
As you cross the Route 11C bridge between Routes 28 and 33, look to the northwest, and you’ll see a V formed where Oaks Creek meets the Susquehanna. That’s where it was. That deserves a historical marker.
And the Leatherstocking-topped obelisk in Lakewood Cemetery (there’s a whole other story there) – that deserves a historical marker.
The point is that James Fenimore Cooper’s novels may be dated, but The Leatherstocking is not. He’s waiting to be reinvented in the next Hollywood block-buster, and to be rediscovered by scholars seeking to understand the nation’s complex ethnic interplay.
Meanwhile, we should be prepared for that inevitable day. Celebrating Hawkeye would
be a high-profile project for high-energy OCHA (the Otsego County Historical Association).
It would be a worthy project for the Cooperstown Graduate Program’s scholars.
As a community, we should understand Natty Bumppo’s significance, as Hannibal, Mo., should understand Huck Finn. Let’s digest Alan Taylor’s research, and recognize Cooper’s greatest hero with one historical marker, or two, or as many as necessary, and figure out how to tell “La Longue Carabine’s” story to the rest of the world.