Cooper, Dempsey (1796-1833)
Dempsey Cooper (1796-1833) was a Bertie County carpenter active in the early 19th century, when a number of handsomely finished houses and other buildings were constructed in the plantation county. Although only one structure, a jail, has been documented as his work, his large collection of tools suggests that he executed refined and substantial buildings as yet unidentified.
Dempsey Cooper was apprenticed in August 1811 to Jeremiah Bunch, a member of the large Bunch Family active in the carpentry trade in Bertie County from the 18th century until the Civil War. The next year, Jesse Cooper, aged six and probably Dempsey’s brother, was apprenticed to Nehemiah Bunch, a kinsman of Jeremiah’s. Jeremiah Bunch had served in 1807 as the administrator of the estate of Jesse Cooper, a farmer who owned a number of carpentry tools, and it is likely that Dempsey and Jesse were the orphaned children of the elder Jesse Cooper.
If he followed the usual pattern, Dempsey Cooper served Bunch as an apprentice until he was 21 and then established his own practice, which continued until his death at age 37. Between January 1832, and November 1833, Dempsey Cooper and one Myles Bayley built the Bertie County Jail, a 2-story frame structure in Windsor, for $2,999. Cooper probably worked on several of the county’s handsome Federal style houses and other buildings.
Like many rural artisans of his day, Cooper farmed and owned a few slaves. His estate sale on November 27, 1833, which netted $1,103.13, included $850 from the sale of four female slaves; an enslaved man, George, was hired out for the benefit of the estate. The estate sale also included farming implements and livestock including geese, cattle, pigs, and “hogs in the woods”—recalling the era of free-ranging livestock. Myles Bayley, Cooper’s partner in the jail project, purchased a mare for $66. Cooper’s household goods sold from the estate were sparse—2 beds, a chest, a buffet, a bureau, a clock, a looking glass, 3 tables, 6 chairs, and kitchen utensils—most of which his widow purchased.
By contrast, Cooper’s collection of carpentry tools required three pages to list, though they brought only $66.44. Indicative of the many different tools required for a country carpenter, these included 2 squares, 3 tenant saws, 1 saw set, 2 handsaws, 1 saw, 1 cross cut saw, 5 smoothing planes, 1 sash plane, 1 set “tung grooving plains” (tongue and groove planes), 1 lot of planes, 1 plane iron, 3 gouges, 2 lots gouges, 1 gouge and mallet, 3 files, 1 lot of files, 1 glue pot and file, 1 chisel, 2 lots of chisels, 1 lot of glue, 1 carpenter’s adze, 1 hand jointer, 1 brace and bit, 1 hammer, and 1 lot of walnut plank. With such equipment, Cooper could frame, roof, and floor a building, as well as fabricate, finish, and install refined and intricate woodwork, including the smooth paneling and ornate gougework ornament typical of Bertie County’s finest antebellum buildings. Among the largest purchasers of Cooper’s tools were Jesse Cooper (probably Dempsey’s brother) and Nehemiah Bunch. In addition, the estate listed debts from ten men, including Jesse Cooper and Cader and Nehemiah Bunch, indicating a continuing relationship between Cooper and the Bunch family.
- Bertie County Records (Estates Papers), North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- James H. Craig, The Arts and Crafts in North Carolina, 1699-1840 (1965).
- Windsor Bicentennial Commission, The Windsor Story, 1768-1968 (1968).
- Dates:1832-1833Location:Windsor, Bertie CountyStreet Address:Windsor, NCStatus:No longer standingType:PublicNote:The Bertie County Jail of 1832-1833, a 2-story frame structure (built from plans drawn by county commissioners Joseph B. G. Roulhac and William Hoggard) was demolished in 1904; no photographs of it are known to exist.