James Fenimore Cooper
James Fenimore Cooper
born September 15, 1789, Burlington, New Jersey, U.S.
died September 14, 1851, Cooperstown, New York
first major U.S. novelist, author of the novels of frontier adventure
known as the Leatherstocking Tales, featuring the wilderness scout
called Natty Bumppo, or Hawkeye. They include The Pioneers (1823), The
Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840),
and The Deerslayer (1841).
Cooper’s mother, Elizabeth Fenimore, was a member of a respectable New
Jersey Quaker family, and his father, William, founded a frontier
settlement at the source of the Susquehanna River (now Cooperstown, New
York) and served as a Federalist congressman during the administrations
of George Washington and John Adams. It was a most appropriate family
background for a writer who, by the time of his death, was generally
considered America’s “national novelist.”
James was but a year old when William Cooper moved his family to the
primitive settlement in upstate New York. He was doubtless fortunate to
be the 11th of 12 children, for he was spared the worst hardships of
frontier life while he was able to benefit educationally from both the
rich oral traditions of his family and a material prosperity that
afforded him a gentleman’s education. After private schooling in Albany,
Cooper attended Yale from 1803 to 1805. Little is known of his college
career other than that he was the best Latin scholar of his class and
was expelled in his junior year because of a prank. Since high spirits
seemed to fit him for an active life, his family allowed him to join the
navy as a midshipman. But prolonged shore duty at several New York
stations merely substituted naval for academic discipline. His father’s
death in 1809 left him financially independent, and in 1811 he married
Susan De Lancy and resigned from the navy.
For 10 years after his marriage Cooper led the active but
unproductive life of a dilettante, dabbling in agriculture, politics,
the American Bible Society, and the Westchester militia. It was in this
amateur spirit that he wrote and published his first fiction, reputedly
on a challenge from his wife. Precaution (1820) was a plodding imitation
of Jane Austen’s novels of English gentry manners. It is mainly
interesting today as a document in the history of American cultural
colonialism and as an example of a clumsy attempt to imitate Jane
Austen’s investigation of the ironic discrepancy between illusion and
reality. His second novel, The Spy (1821), was based on another British
model, Sir Walter Scott’s “Waverley” novels, stories of adventure and
romance set in 17th- and 18th-century Scotland. But in The Spy Cooper
broke new ground by using an American Revolutionary War setting (based
partly on the experiences of his wife’s British loyalist family) and by
introducing several distinctively American character types. Like Scott’s
novels of Scotland, The Spy is a drama of conflicting loyalties and
interests in which the action mirrors and expresses more subtle internal
psychological tensions. The Spy soon brought him international fame and
a certain amount of wealth. The latter was very welcome, indeed
necessary, since his father’s estate had proved less ample than had been
thought, and, with the death of his elder brothers, he had found himself
responsible for the debts and widows of the entire Cooper family.
The first of the renowned “Leatherstocking” tales, The Pioneers (1823),
followed and adhered to the successful formula of The Spy, reproducing
its basic thematic conflicts and utilizing family traditions once again.
In The Pioneers, however, the traditions were those of William Cooper of
Cooperstown, who appears as Judge Temple of Templeton, along with many
other lightly disguised inhabitants of James’s boyhood village. No known
prototype exists, however, for the novel’s principal character—the
former wilderness scout Natty Bumppo, alias Leatherstocking. The
Leatherstocking of The Pioneers is an aged man, of rough but sterling
character, who ineffectually opposes “the march of progress,” namely,
the agricultural frontier and its chief spokesman, Judge Temple.
Fundamentally, the conflict is between rival versions of the American
Eden: the “God’s Wilderness” of Leatherstocking and the cultivated
garden of Judge Temple. Since Cooper himself was deeply attracted to
both ideals, he was able to create a powerful and moving story of
frontier life. Indeed, The Pioneers is both the first and finest
detailed portrait of frontier life in American literature; it is also
the first truly original American novel.
Both Cooper and his public were fascinated by the Leatherstocking
character. He was encouraged to write a series of sequels in which the
entire life of the frontier scout was gradually unfolded. The Last of
the Mohicans (1826) takes the reader back to the French and Indian wars
of Natty’s middle age, when he is at the height of his powers. That work
was succeeded by The Prairie (1827) in which, now very old and
philosophical, Leatherstocking dies, facing the westering sun he has so
long followed. (The five novels of the series were not written in their
narrative order.) Identified from the start with the vanishing
wilderness and its natives, Leatherstocking was an unalterably elegiac
figure, wifeless and childless, hauntingly loyal to a lost cause. This
conception of the character was not fully realized in The Pioneers,
however, because Cooper’s main concern with depicting frontier life led
him to endow Leatherstocking with some comic traits and make his
laments, at times, little more than whines or grumbles. But in these
sequels Cooper retreated stylistically from a realistic picture of the
frontier in order to portray a more idyllic and romantic wilderness; by
doing so he could exploit the parallels between the American Indians and
the forlorn Celtic heroes of James Macpherson’s pseudo-epic Ossian,
leaving Leatherstocking intact but slightly idealized and making
extensive use of Macpherson’s imagery and rhetoric.
Cooper intended to bury Leatherstocking in The Prairie, but many
years later he resuscitated the character and portrayed his early
maturity in The Pathfinder (1840) and his youth in The Deerslayer
(1841). These novels, in which Natty becomes the centre of romantic
interest for the first time, carry the idealization process further. In
The Pathfinder he is explicitly described as an American Adam, while in
The Deerslayer he demonstrates his fitness as a warrior-saint by passing
a series of moral trials and revealing a keen, though untutored,
The “Leatherstocking” tales are Cooper’s great imperfect masterpiece,
but he continued to write many other volumes of fiction and nonfiction.
His fourth novel, The Pilot (1823), inaugurated a series of sea novels,
which were at once as popular and influential as the “Leatherstocking”
tales. And they were more authentic: such Westerners as General Lewis
Cass, governor of Michigan Territory, and Mark Twain might ridicule
Cooper’s woodcraft, but old salts like Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad
rightly admired and learned from his sea stories, in particular The Red
Rover (1827) and The Sea Lions (1849). Never before in prose fiction had
the sea become not merely a theatre for, but the principal actor in,
moral drama that celebrated man’s courage and skill at the same time
that it revealed him humbled by the forces of God’s nature. As developed
by Cooper, and later by Melville, the sea novel became a powerful
vehicle for spiritual as well as moral exploration. Not satisfied with
mere fictional treatment of life at sea, Cooper also wrote a
meticulously researched, highly readable History of the Navy of the
United States of America (1839).
Cultural and political involvement
Though most renowned as a prolific novelist, he did not simply retire to
his study after the success of The Spy. Between 1822 and 1826 he lived
in New York City and participated in its intellectual life, founding the
Bread and Cheese Club, which included such members as the poets
Fitz-Greene Halleck and William Cullen Bryant, the painter and inventor
Samuel F.B. Morse, and the great Federalist judge James Kent. Like
Cooper himself, these were men active in both cultural and political
Cooper’s own increasing liberalism was confirmed by a lengthy stay
(1826–33) in Europe, where he moved for the education of his son and
four daughters. Those years coincided with a period of revolutionary
ferment in Europe, and, because of a close friendship that he developed
with the old American Revolutionary War hero Lafayette, he was kept
well-informed about Europe’s political developments. Through his novels,
most notably The Bravo (1831), and other more openly polemical writings,
he attacked the corruption and tyranny of oligarchical regimes in
Europe. His active championship of the principles of political democracy
(though never of social egalitarianism) coincided with a steep decline
in his literary popularity in America, which he attributed to a decline
in democratic feeling among the reading—i.e. the propertied—classes to
which he himself belonged.
Return to America
When he returned to America, he settled first in New York City and then
for the remainder of his life in Cooperstown. In the gentlemanly
tradition of Jefferson and Lafayette he attacked the oligarchical party
of his day, in this case the Whig Party, which opposed President Andrew
Jackson, the exponent of a more egalitarian form of democracy. The
Whigs, however, were soon able to turn the tables on Cooper and other
leading Jacksonians by employing Jackson’s egalitarian rhetoric against
them. Squire Cooper had made himself especially vulnerable to popular
feeling when, in 1837, he refused to let local citizens picnic on a
family property known as Three Mile Point. This incident led to a whole
series of charges of libel, and suits and countersuits by both the Whigs
and Cooper. At this time, too, agrarian riots on the estates of his old
New York friends shattered his simple Jeffersonian faith in the virtue
of the American farmer. All of this conflict and unrest was hard to
bear, and harder still because he was writing more and earning less as
the years went by. The public, which had reveled in his early forest and
sea romances, was not interested in his acute political treatise, The
American Democrat (1838), or even in such political satires as The
Monikins (1835) or Home As Found (1838). And though he wrote some of his
best romances—particularly the later “Leatherstocking” tales and
Satanstoe (1845)—during the last decade of his life, profits from
publishing so diminished that he gained little benefit from improved
popularity. Though his circumstances were never straitened, he had to go
on writing; and some of the later novels, such as Mercedes of Castile
(1840) or Jack Tier (1846–48), were mere hackwork. His buoyant political
optimism had largely given way to calm Christian faith, though he never
lost his troubled concern for the well-being of his country.
George G. Dekker
THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS: A Narrative of 1757
Type of work: Novel
Author: James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)
Type of plot: Historical romance
Time of plot: 1757
Locale: Northern New York State
First published: 1826
This novel remains the most popular of Cooper's Leatherstocking
Tales, a classic story of the French and Indian War. The battles and
exciting pursuits which constitute the book's plot are rounded out by
interesting Indian lore and descriptions of the wilderness.
Natty Bumppo, called Hawkeye, the hardy, noble frontier scout in his
prime during the French and Indian Wars. Traveling with his Indian
companions, Chingach-gook and his son Uncas, in Upper New York, he
befriends an English soldier, a Connecticut singing master, and their
two female charges. When the travelers are ambushed by hostile Huron
warriors, he leaves the party to get help, in turn ambushes their
captors with the aid of Chingach-gook and Uncas, and leads the group to
Fort William Henry, besieged by the French. In the massacre of English
that takes place after the garrison is forced to surrender, the girls
are captured again by Indians. Hawkeye assists once more in the escape
of one of the girls; however, a renegade Huron chief, Magua, claims the
other as his reluctant wife. In the ensuing fighting the girl and
Hawk-eye's friend, the noble young Uncas, are killed. Hawkeye shoots
Magua in return. In the end he and Chingachgook return sorrowfully to
Chingachgook (chin-gach'gook), a courageous, loyal Mohican Chief,
Hawkeye's inseparable friend. An im-placable enemy of the Hurons, he is
decorated as Death. Left to protect the English Colonel after the
massacre, he joins the final battle with intense ferocity, only to see
his son die. His grief is relieved somewhat by Hawkeye's companionship.
Uncas (un'kas), Chingachgook's stalwart son, the last of the Mohicans. A
young and handsome chieftain, he falls in love with Cora Munro while
protecting her and proves invaluable in tracking her after she has been
captured. When a Delaware chief awards her to Uncas' rival, Magua, he
follows them and is killed avenging her murder.
Major Duncan Heyward, the young English officer in charge of escorting
the Munro girls from Fort Edward to Fort William Henry. Brave,
good-looking and clever, he falls in love with Alice Munro and
eventually succeeds in rescuing her from the Hurons. He finally marries
her with Colonel Munro's blessing.
Magua (ma'gu-э), "Le Renard Subtil," the handsome, renegade Huron chief.
Both cunning and malicious, he seeks to avenge himself on Colonel Munro
by turning his spirited daughter Cora into a servile squaw Twice
thwarted by Hawkeye and his companions, he wins Cora by putting his case
before Tamenund, a Delaware chieftain. This victory, however, is short
lived. Cora is killed by another Huron and Magua, after killing Uncas,
is shot by Hawkeye.
Cora Munro, the Colonel's beautiful older daughter. She is independent,
equal to every situation, and bears up well under the strain of a
capture, a massacre, and the threat of marrying Magua. Her love for
Uncas, however, remains unrequited when she is carried off by Magua and
Alice Munro, the Colonel's younger daughter, a pale, immature, but
lovely half sister of Cora. Frail and clinging, she excites Heyward's
protective feelings during their adventures, and he marries her.
Colonel Munro, the able but unsuccessful defender of Fort William Henry
and the affectionate father of Cora and Alice. After surrendering to the
French he is forced to watch helplessly the slaughter of the men, women,
and children from the fort. His sorrow is doubled when Cora is killed.
David Gamut, a mild, ungainly singing master who accompanies Heyward and
the Munro girls. His school-book piety contrasts with Hawkeye's natural
pantheism. A rather ineffective person, he is nevertheless useful to
Hawkeye, for the Hurons believe him insane and let him pass without
The Marquis de Montcalm, the skilled, enterprising general who captures
Fort William Henry and then allows the defeated English to be massacred
by savage Hurons.
Tamenund (ta-тэ-пшкГ), the old Delaware chief who foolishly decides to
give Cora to Magua.
Hard Heart, the Delaware chief whom Magua flatters to gain Cora.
General Webb, the incompetent commander of Fort Edward. He refused to
aid Colonel Munro.
A Huron Chief. He calls on Heyward, who is impersonating a witch doctor,
to cure a relative, and he is duped when his captives are released.
Major Duncan Heyward had been ordered to escort Cora and Alice Munro
from Fort Edward to Fort William Henry, where Colonel Munro, father of
the girls, was commandant. In the party was also David Gamut, a Con-necticut
singing master. On their way to Fort William Henry they did not follow
the military road through the wilderness. Instead, they placed
themselves in the hands of a renegade Huron known as Magua, who claimed
that he could lead them to their destination by a shorter trail.
It was afternoon when the little party met the woods-man, Hawkeye, and
his Delaware Mohican friends, Chingachgook and his son Uncas. To their
dismay, they learned they were but an hour's distance from their
starting point. Hawkeye quickly decided Magua had been planning to lead
the party into a trap. His Mohican comrades tried to capture the
renegade, but Magua took alarm and fled into the woods.
At Heyward's urging the hunter agreed to guide the travelers to their
destination. The horses were tied and hidden among some rocks along a
river. Hawkeye pro-duced a hidden canoe from among some bushes and pad-dled
the party to a rock at the foot of Glenn's Falls. There they prepared to
spend the night in a cave.
That night a band of Iroquois led by Magua surprised the party. The
fight might have been a victory for Hawk-eye if their supply of powder
and ball had held out. Unfortunately, their ammunition had been left in
the canoe which, unnoticed until it was too late, was stolen by one of
the enemy who had ventured to swim the swirling river. The only hope
then lay in the possibility of future rescue, for the capture of the
rock and the little group was a certainty. Hawkeye, Chingachgook, and
Uncas escaped by floating downstream, leaving the girls and Major
Heyward to meet the savages.
Captured, Cora and Alice were allowed to ride their horses, but Heyward
and David were forced by their captors to walk. Although they took a
road paralleling that to Fort William Henry, Heyward could not determine
the destination the Indians had in mind. Drawing close to Magua, he
tried to persuade him to betray his companions and deliver the party
safely to Colonel Munro. The Huron agreed, if Cora would come to live
with him among his tribe as his wife. When she refused, the enraged
Magua had everyone bound. He was threatening Alice with his tomahawk
when Hawkeye and his friends crept silently upon the band and attacked
them. The Iroquois fled, leaving several of their dead behind them. The
party, under David's guidance, sang a hymn of thanksgiving and then
Toward evening they stopped at a deserted blockhouse to rest. Many years
before, it had been the scene of a fight between the Mohicans and the
Mohawks, and a mound still showed where bodies lay buried. While
Chingachgook watched, the others slept.
At moonrise they continued on their way. It was dawn when Hawkeye and
his charges drew near Fort William Henry. They were intercepted and
challenged by a sen-tinel of the French under Montcalm, who was about to
lay siege to the fort. Heyward was able to answer him in French and they
were allowed to proceed. Chingachgook killed and scalped the French
sentinel. Through the fog which had risen from Lake George and through
the enemy forces which thronged the plain before the fort, Hawkeye led
the way to the gates of the fort.
On the fifth day of the siege, Hawkeye who had been sent to Fort Edward
to seek help was intercepted on his way back and a letter he carried was
captured. Webb, the commander of Fort Edward, refused to come to the aid
Under a flag of truce, Montcalm and Munro held a parley. Montcalm showed
Webb's letter to Munro and offered honorable terms of surrender. Colonel
Munro and his men would be allowed to keep their colors, their arms, and
their baggage, if they would vacate the fort the next morning. Helpless
to do otherwise, Munro accepted these terms. During one of the parleys
Heyward was surprised to see Magua in the camp of the French. He had not
been killed during the earlier skirmish.
The following day the vanquished English started their trip back to Fort
Edward. Under the eyes of the French and their Indian allies, they
passed across the plain and entered the forest. Suddenly an Indian
grabbed at a brightly colored shawl worn by one of the women. Terrified,
she wrapped her child in it. The Indian darted toward her, grabbed the
child from her arms, and dashed out its brains on the ground. Then under
the eyes of Montcalm, who did nothing to discourage or hold back his
savage allies, a monstrous slaughter began.
Cora and Alice, entrusted to David Gamut's protection, were in the midst
of the killing when Magua swooped down upon them and carried Alice away
in his arms. Cora ran after her sister, and faithful David dogged her
footsteps. They were soon atop a hill, from which they watched the
slaughter of the garrison.
Three days later, Hawkeye. leading Heyward, Munro, and his Indian
comrades, tracked the girls and David, following a path where they had
found Cora's veil caught on a tree. Heyward was particularly concerned
for the safety of Alice. The day before the massacre he had been given
her father's permission to court her.
Hawkeye, knowing that hostile Indians were on their trail, decided to
save time by traveling across the lake in a canoe which he discovered in
its hiding place nearby. He was certain Magua had taken the girls north,
where he planned to rejoin his own people. Heading their canoe in that
direction, the five men paddled all day. at one point having a close
escape from some of their intercepting enemies. They spent that night in
the woods and the next day turned west in an effort to find Magua's
After much searching Uncas found the trail of the captives. That
evening, as the party drew near the Huron camp, they met David Gamut
wandering about. He told his friends that the Indians thought him crazy
because of his habit of breaking into song, and they allowed him to roam
the woods unguarded. Alice, he said, was being held at the Huron camp.
Cora had been entrusted to the care of a tribe of peaceful Delawares a
short distance away.
Hey ward, disguising his face with paint, went to the Huron camp in an
attempt to rescue Alice, while the others set about helping Cora. Hey
ward was in the camp but a short time, posing as a French doctor, when
Uncas was brought in as a captive. Called to treat an ill Indian woman,
Heyward found Alice in the cave with his patient. He was able to rescue
the girl by wrapping her in a blanket and declaring to the Hurons that
she was his patient, whom he was carrying off to the woods for
treatment. Hawkeye, attempting to rescue Uncas, entered the camp
disguised in a medicine man's bearskin he had stolen. Uncas was cut
loose and given the disguise, while the woodsman borrowed David Gamut's
clothes. The singer was left to take Uncas' place while the others
escaped, for Hawkeye was certain the Indians would not harm David
because of his supposed mental condition. Uncas and Hawkeye fled to the
The following day Magua and a group of his warriors visited the
Delawares in search of their prisoners. The chief of that tribe decided
the Hurons had a just claim to Cora because Magua wished to make her his
Under inviolable Indian custom, the Huron was permitted to leave the
camp unmolested, but Uncas warned him that in a few hours he and the
Delawares would follow his trail.
During a bloody battle Magua fled with Cora to the top of a cliff.
There, pursued by Uncas, he stabbed and killed the young Mohican and was
in his turn sent to his death by a bullet from Hawkeye's long rifle.
Cora too was killed by a Huron. Amid deep mourning by the Delawares, she
and Uncas were laid in their graves in the forest. Colonel Munro and
Heyward conducted Alice to English territory and safety. Hawkeye
returned to the forest. He had promised to remain with his sorrowing
friend Chingachgook forever.
The Last of the Mohicans is the second title published in what was to
become a series of five entitled collectively the Leatherstocking Tales.
When Cooper published the first of these "romances," as he called them
to dis-tinguish them from the somewhat more realistic contemporary
novels, he had no plan for a series with a hero whose life would be
shown from youth to old age and death. In The Pioneers (1823) Natty
Bumppo or Leatherstocking is in his early seventies. Responding to a
suggestion from his wife, Cooper went back in The Last of the Mohicans
to Natty's early thirties when he was called Hawkeye. The great
popularity of The Last of the Mohicans led Cooper then to move
chronologically beyond The Pioneers and to picture in The Prairie (1827)
the last of Natty's life when he was in his eighties, living as a
trapper and finally dying on the Great Plains far from his early home.
At the time, Cooper did not intend to revive Natty in further romances.
One minor romance of the forest, The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (1829), was
followed by a stream of nautical novels, socio-political novels, and
nonfictional works of social and political criticism extending until
1840, when Cooper finally answered the pleas of many literary critics
and readers and revived the hero whose death he had so touchingly
portrayed at the end of The Prairie. In The Pathfinder (1840), Natty is
called Pathfinder and the action shifts from land to the waters of Lake
Ontario and back again. Pleased by the resounding praise he gained for
having brought back his famed hero, Cooper decided to write one final
romance about him in which Natty would be younger than in any of the
earlier books. In The Deer slayer (1841), Natty is in his early twenties
and goes by the nickname Deer-slayer. In 1850, Cooper brought out a new
edition of all five Leatherstocking Tales arranged according to the
order of events in Natty Bumppo's life: The Deerslayer, The Last of the
Mohicans, The Pathfinder, The Pioneers, The Prairie. For this edition he
wrote a preface in which he remarked (prophetically, as it turned out):
"If anything from the pen of the writer of these romances is at all to
outlive himself, it is, unquestionably, the series of The
Leather-Stocking Tales Г Despite many complaints from Mark Twain and
later critics about Cooper's style, plots, structure, characterization,
and dialogue, the Leatherstocking Tales continue to be read, both in the
United States and in many foreign countries, and they seem assured of a
long life to come.
In Cooper's day, The Last of the Mohicans was the most popular of the
five tales, and it has continued to be so. It has been filmed by
American and British companies, and the British version was serialized
on American television. Structurally, the novel is superior to the other
tales, with three major plot actions and a transitional though bloody
interlude (the massacre after the surrender of Fort William Henry).
Cooper's action-filled plot, with bad characters chasing good ones or
good characters chasing bad ones, has since become standard in many
action novels as well as motion pictures and television dramas.
Romantic love was conventional in the plots of novels in Cooper's day.
His portrayal of Duncan Hey ward and the Munro sisters, Cora and
Alice—who carry most of the love interest in The Last of the
Mohicans—shows no originality. They are all genteel characters and they
speak in a stiff, formalized manner that seems unreal to present-day
readers. Duncan is gentlemanly and the two "females" (as Cooper
repeatedly calls them) are ladylike. Cooper contrasts Cora and Alice as
he does the pairs of women who keep turning up in his books. Cora, the
dark one, is passionate, independent, and unafraid, even defiant; blonde
Alice is timid and easily frightened into faints— she resembles the
sentimentalized helpless girls of popular early nineteenth century
Cooper does much better with his forest characters. Hawkeye is
talkative, boastful, superstitious, scornful of the book learning he
does not possess, and inclined to be sententious at times. Yet he is
brave, resourceful, and loyal to his two Indian friends. His French
nickname. La Longue Carabine, attests to his shooting skill. He is
religious but sometimes seems more pantheistic than Christian in any
formal sense. Hawkeye's arguments with David Gamut oppose his
generalized beliefs and Gamut's narrow Calvinism. With his dual
background of white birth and early education by Moravian missionaries
on the one side and his long experience of living with the Indians on
the other, he is, as Balzac called him, "a moral hermaphrodite, a child
of savagery and civilization."
Chingachgook and Uncas are idealized representatives of their race. As
"good" Indians, they are dignified, taciturn, even noble despite their
savage ways. Uncas is lithe, strong, and handsome; he reminds the Munro
sisters of a Greek statue. Magua is the "bad" Indian, sullen, fierce,
cunning, and treacherous. His desire for Cora as his squaw is motivated
by his wish to avenge a whipping ordered by Colonel Munro.
In addition to the love theme, which provides for the marriage of Hey
ward and Alice, Cooper includes others. Related to the love theme is
miscegenation, which Cooper has been accused of evading by killing off
both Cora, who is part black, and Uncas, who had wanted to marry her.
Another theme is suggested by the title of the romance. Chingachgook is
left mourning for his son, the last of the Mohican sagamores. He grieves
also because he foresees the eventual vanishing of his race. Both he and
Hawkeye despair as they envision the end of their way of life in the
great American wilderness, which will gradually disappear.
It is easy to complain of Cooper's faulty style, his verbosity, his
heavy-handed humor (with David Gamut), his improbable actions, the
insufficient motivation of his characters, the inconsistency and
inaccuracy of his dialogue, yet many readers willingly suspend their
disbelief or modify their critical objections in order to enjoy the rush
of action which makes up so much of The Last of the Mohicans. They
sorrow over the deaths of Cora and Uncas, and their sympathies go out to
Chingachgook and Hawkeye in the loss of what had meant so much in their
lives. Also, especially in a time when ecologists are fighting to
preserve some of the natural beauty of our country, they enjoy Cooper's
respect for nature found in his descriptions of the northeastern
wilderness as it was in the eighteenth century.
THE PIONEERS: Or, The Sources of the Susquehanna
Type of work: Novel
Author: James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)
Type of plot: Historical romance
Time of plot: 1793
Locale: New York State
First published: 1823
The Pioneers, the first of the Leatherstocking Tales, is a
romantic story of life in Upstate New York ten years after the
Revolutionary War. The novel is filled with scenes of hunting and
trapping life, and the description ofTempleton is based upon the
author's memories of his boyhood home of Cooperstown. The portrayals of
Natty Bumppo and Indian John point to the tragedy of frontiersmen and
Indians in a rapidly disappearing West.
Judge Marmaduke Temple, the principal citizen and landholder of
Templeton, a settlement in upstate New York. He is at once shrewd and
honorable, benevolent and just. While trying to kill a deer he shoots an
unfamiliar, educated young hunter named Oliver Edwards, has his wound
dressed, and offers him a position as a secretary. When the young man's
friend, the old woodsman and hunter called Leatherstocking, is arrested
for threatening to shoot an officer, the judge sentences and fines the
old man but pays the fine himself. Later he learns that Edwards is in
reality Edward Oliver Effingham, the son of an old friend who had
entrusted him with personal effects and family funds years before. The
judge restores the property and the money to Edwards. Meanwhile Edwards
and Elizabeth Temple have fallen in love, and the judge gives the young
couple his blessing.
Elizabeth Temple, the judge's spirited, pretty daughter. Although she
respects Oliver Edwards' abilities, she maintains a feminine
independence. Grateful to Leatherstocking for saving her life when a
savage panther attacks her, she assists in his escape from jail after
the old man has been arrested for resisting an officer. Her romance with
her father's secretary develops after the young man and Leatherstocking
save her from a forest fire. When Edwards' true identity is revealed and
he declares his love, she readily marries him.
Natty Bumppo, called Leatherstocking, a hardy, simple, upright woodsman
in his seventy-first year. Although disgusted by wanton killing of game,
he defends his right to kill game for food. He shoots a deer out of
season and is arrested for resisting the magistrate who tries to search
his cabin. Sentenced to jail for a month, he escapes with the help of
Oliver Edwards and Elizabeth Temple. Twice he rescues Elizabeth, once
from a panther and again from fire. After he is pardoned by the
governor, the lonely hunter, his last two old friends dead, moves west
into unsettled territory.
Oliver Edwards, later revealed as Edward Oliver Effingham, the
impoverished young hunter who lives with Leatherstocking in a cabin near
Templeton. Believing that Judge Temple has appropriated his inheritance,
he is planning to recover it when he accepts the position of secretary
to the judge. In the meantime he falls in love with Elizabeth Temple.
Having quit his post when Leatherstocking is arrested and jailed, he
helps the old man to escape, aids Elizabeth during the fire, and finally
reveals his true identity. Judge Temple immediately restores his
inheritance and the young man and Elizabeth are married.
Indian John Mohegan, an old Mohican chief whose real name is
Chingachgook. Lonely, aged, and grieving for the old life of the
wilderness and his vanished people, he dies attended by Leatherstocking,
his blood brother and loyal companion, and by Elizabeth Temple, Oliver
Edwards, and Mr. Grant, in a cave where they have taken refuge from a
Hiram Doolittle, the cowardly, trouble-making, greedy magistrate who
informs on Leatherstocking for breaking the hunting law, gets a search
warrant, and is roughly handled by the old hunter when he tries to force
his way into Leatherstocking's cabin.
Richard Jones, the meddlesome, pompous sheriff, a frontier fop who
indulges in the irresponsible killing of game, spreads rumors that
Leatherstocking is working a secret mine, and leads a raggle-taggle
posse to recapture the old woodsman after his escape from jail.
Major Edward Effingham, a hero of the French and Indian War (see The
Last of the Mohicans), the aged and senile grandfather of the young man
who calls himself Oliver Edwards. The major was Leatherstocking's
commander in the war and became the owner of the land around Templeton
before the American Revolution, thanks in part to a gift from the
Delaware tribe. He gave all his property to his son, who, in turn, made
his friend, Marmaduke Temple, into his partner and manager.
Leatherstocking cares for him when communication between Temple and the
Effinghams breaks down after the revolution. His identity revealed after
the fire, the old man is taken to Judge Temple's home and nursed
tenderly until his death.
Mr. Grant, a sincere, eclectic minister adept at appealing to the
heterogeneous frontier faiths.
Louisa Grant, his timid daughter, Elizabeth's companion. She is inept
when faced with danger.
Benjamin Penguillan, called Ben Pump, an ex-sailor and Judge Temple's
salty majordomo. Out of sympathy he shares Leatherstocking's humiliation
in the stocks and thrashes Magistrate Doolittle.
Elnathan Todd, the gigantic village doctor who dresses Oliver Edwards'
wound; he is an awkward quack.
Monsieur le Quoi (тэ-syce' 1э kwa'), the village storekeeper, a friend
of Judge Temple.
Major Hartmann. a German farmer, also a friend of Judge Temple.
Billy Kirby, a good-natured woodcutter and strong man who sympathizes
with Leatherstocking but takes the side of the law.
Jotham Riddel, Magistrate Doolittle's good-for-nothing deputy.
Remarkable Pettibone, Judge Temple's housekeeper.
Squire Lippet, Leatherstocking's lawyer at the time of the old hunter's
Mr. Van de School, the thick-witted prosecutor.
Agamemnon, Judge Temple's Negro servant.
On a cold December day in 1793, Judge Temple and his daughter Elizabeth
were traveling by sleigh through a snow-covered tract of wilderness near
the settlement of Templeton. Elizabeth, who had been away from her home
attending a female seminary, was now returning to preside over her
father's household in the community in which he had been a pioneer
settler after the Revolutionary War. Hearing the baying of hounds, the
judge decided that Leatherstocking, an old hunter, had started game in
the hills, and he ordered his coachman to stop the sleigh so he could
have a shot at the deer if it came in his direction. A few minutes
later, as a great buck leaped into the road, the judge fired both
barrels of his fowling piece at the animal, but apparently without
effect. Then a third report and a fourth were heard, and the buck
dropped dead in a snowbank.
At the same time Natty Bumppo, the old hunter, and a young companion
appeared from the woodland. The judge insisted that he had shot the
buck, but Leatherstocking, by accounting for all the shots fired, proved
the judge could not have killed the animal. The argument ended when the
young stranger revealed that he had been wounded by one of the shots
fired by the judge. Elizabeth and her father then insisted that he
accompany them into the village in their sleigh, so he could have his
wound dressed as soon as possible.
The young man got into the sleigh with obvious reluctance and said
little during the drive. In a short time the party arrived at the Temple
mansion, where his wound was treated. In answer to the judge's
questions, he gave his name as Oliver Edwards. His manner remained
distant and reserved. After he had departed, a servant in the Temple
home reported that Edwards had appeared three weeks before in the
company of old Leatherstocking and that he lived in a nearby cabin with
the hunter and an Indian known as Indian John.
Judge Temple, wishing to make amends for having accidentally wounded
Edwards, offered him a position as his secretary. When Elizabeth added
her own entreaties to those of her father, Edwards finally accepted the
judge's offer, with the understanding that he would be free to terminate
his employment at any time. For a while he attended faithfully and
earnestly to his duties in Judge Temple's mansion during the day, but
his nights he spent in Leatherstocking's cabin. So much secrecy
surrounded his comings and goings, added to the reserve of
Leatherstocking and his Indian friend, that Richard Jones, the sheriff
and a kinsman of the judge, became suspicious. Among other things, he
wondered why Natty always kept his cabin closed and never allowed anyone
except the Indian and Edwards to enter it. Jones and some others decided
that Natty had discovered a mine and was working it. Jones also
suspected that Edwards was an Indian half-breed, his father a Delaware
Hiram Doolittle, a meddlesome magistrate, believed Jones's tale of a
secret silver mine somewhere on Temple's land. Hoping to provoke
Leatherstocking into hunting out of season, Doolittle prowled around the
cabin and set free the hunter's dogs. In the meantime Elizabeth and
Louisa Grant, while walking in the woods, were attacked by a panther.
Leatherstocking saved them by shooting the panther; however, he was
unable to resist the temptation to shoot the deer his roving dogs had
flushed out. Hoping to find evidence of silver, Doolittle charged
Leatherstocking with breaking Judge Temple's newly instituted, strict
game laws and persuaded the judge to sign a warrant to search the
But when Doolittle went to the cabin, Leatherstocking, rifle in hand,
refused him entrance. Then the magistrate attempted to force his way
over the threshold, but the old hunter seized him and threw him twenty
feet down an embankment. As the result of his treatment of an officer,
Leatherstocking was arrested. Found guilty, he was given a month's jail
sentence, fined, and placed in the stocks for a few hours. When
Elizabeth went to see what assistance she could give the humiliated old
woodsman, she learned he was planning to escape. Edwards, who had given
up his position with the judge, was planning to flee with his aged
friend; he had provided a cart in which to carry the old hunter to
safety. Elizabeth promised to meet Leatherstocking the following day on
the top of a nearby mountain and to bring with her a can of gunpowder he
The next day Elizabeth and her friend Louisa started out on their
expedition to meet Leatherstocking. On the way Louisa changed her mind
and turned back, declaring that she dared not walk unprotected through
the woods where they had lately been menaced by a panther. Elizabeth
went on alone until she came to a clearing in which she found old Indian
John, now dressed in the war costume and feathers of a great Mohican
chief. When she stopped to speak to the Indian, she suddenly became
aware of dense clouds of smoke drifting across the clearing and
discovered that the whole mountainside was ablaze. At that moment
Edwards appeared, followed by Leatherstocking, who led them to a cave in
the side of the mountain. There the old Indian died of exhaustion, and
Elizabeth learned that he had been in earlier days Chin-gachgook, a
great and noble warrior of the Mohican tribe.
When danger of the fire had passed, Edwards conducted Elizabeth down the
mountainside until she was within hearing of a party of men who were
looking for her. Before they parted, Edwards promised he would soon
reveal his true identity.
The next day the sheriff led a posse up the mountain in search of
Leatherstocking and those who had aided him in his escape from jail.
Leatherstocking was again prepared to defend with his rifle the cave to
which he had taken Elizabeth the day before, but Edwards declared that
the time had now come to let the truth be known. He and Natty brought
from the depths of the cave an old man seated in a chair. The stranger's
face was grave and dignified, but his vacant eyes showed that his mind
was gone. Edwards announced that the old man was really the owner of the
property on which they stood. Judge Temple interrupted with a shout of
surprise and greeted the old man as Major Effingham.
The young man told his story. His name, he said, was Edward Oliver
Effingham, and he was the grandson of the old man who sat before them.
His own father had been, before the Revolutionary War, a close friend of
Judge Temple. Temple had managed the aristocratic Effingham's property
before the revolution. When they took opposite sides in the war, control
of the property-came to Temple, who held it in trust and developed it,
always with the idea of returning their fair share to the Effinghams.
Several years after the war, Temple lost contact with the Effingham
family and came to believe they all had died in a shipwreck off Nova
Because Temple had never met Edward Effingham's grandfather, he would
not have recognized him, even had he seen the helpless old man who had
been hidden in Leatherstocking's cabin on the outskirts of Templeton.
During those years he was nursed faithfully by Leatherstocking and his
Indian friend; by Leatherstocking because he had served with the major
on the frontier years before, by Indian John because the major was an
adopted member of the Mohican tribe.
Judge Temple ordered that the old man be carried to the Temple mansion
at once, where he would receive the best of care. Old Major Effingham
thought himself back home once more, and his eyes gleamed with joy. He
died, happy and well cared for, soon afterward.
Edward Effingham also explained to the Judge that he believed Temple had
stolen his father's property and the money left in trust years before.
In his resentment he had come to Templeton to assist his grandfather and
regain in some manner the property which he believed Judge Temple had
Now the judge was glad to return to the heir of his friend the property
he had developed for him. The reconciliation of the two men was followed
in September by the marriage of Oliver and Elizabeth, which unified the
two inheritances, and shortly thereafter by the death of the elder
Elizabeth and Edward wanted to build a new cabin for Leatherstocking, to
keep him near as a valued friend and teacher, but Leatherstocking was
determined to move on westward into as yet unsettled wilderness where he
would feel truly at home. He departed after a touching meeting at the
monuments the Effinghams had erected to Major Effingham, the courageous
old soldier, and Chingach-gook, the last great Mohican chief and the
major's adoptive father. All three wept as they parted, and Judge
Temple's later efforts to find the old hunter and bring him back bore no
The first of the Leatherstocking tales Cooper wrote, The Pioneers is the
fourth, chronologically, in the life adventures of Cooper's most famous
hero, Natty Bumppo, or Leatherstocking. The Deerslayer (1841) shows
Bumppo's entry into manhood. The Last of the Mohicans (1826) and The
Pathfinder (1840) recount two of his mature adventures. The Pioneers and
The Prairie (1827) tell of the frontiersman's old age and death. Though
Cooper had begun writing novels in response to a challenge from his
wife, his second effort, The Spy, became an international best-seller in
1821. Having proved he could write successfully and having discovered
that he could supplement a diminished family income by writing novels,
Cooper conceived and composed The Pioneers with self-confidence and a
new vision of his artistic purposes. He said it was the first novel he
wrote primarily to satisfy himself.
The Pioneers is a great novel on several levels, with memorable
characters, absorbing and humorous adventures, rich portraits of pioneer
life, and a unified vision of Cooper's hopes for a high American
destiny. In a later novel, Home As Found (1838), Cooper outlined a
three-phase process by which he saw America being transformed from
wilderness into civilization. In a first, pastoral stage of natural
democracy, settlers of all kinds and classes work together equally to
establish a community. In a second, anarchic stage, the settlement
overcomes the tyranny of subsistence, and in the freedom of this
comparative wealth, people divide into groups with like interests. In
this phase, there is contention among families and other groups for
political and economic power. In the final phase, society establishes a
new order, based on written law rather than necessity. Cooper believed
that in America, this last phase would be uniquely republican, with a
natural order of fluid class divisions based on talent and inclination,
as opposed to the rigid hereditary class systems of Europe. The Pioneers
details the transition from the end of the pastoral phase through the
anarchic phase to the first blossoming of a mature American community.
In Home As Found, Cooper envisioned this process taking one hundred
years, but in The Pioneers the central transitions occur in a single
Before settlers can begin communities, frontiersmen must tame the
wilderness. In 1793, Leatherstocking is obsolete in Templeton, for this
wilderness is virtually tamed. However, he still has an important
mission in the community: to help pass on a legacy to the settlers. He
does this in part by teaching the heirs of the land, Oliver Effingham
and Elizabeth Temple, obligations to the land and nature that are
crucial to their future roles as natural aristocrats in a democratic
This teaching takes place in the context of their becoming uniquely
legitimate heirs of the land. Oliver's title derives from his
grandfather, who received the land from a high council of the Delaware
Indians, when he was made the adoptive son of Chingachgook (John
Mohe-gan). In this way, Cooper transfers the land from the "best" of the
local Indian tribes to a white frontier aristocrat, and Oliver stands in
this hereditary line. Elizabeth is the heir of Marmaduke Temple, who
took the land in trust when the Effinghams lost their title by being
Tories in the American Revolution. Temple develops and enlarges this
estate, holding it for the Effingham heirs out of friendship and
loyalty. For Oliver to deserve his inheritance, he must be Americanized.
For Elizabeth to deserve hers, she must fully understand the obligations
of ownership. Leatherstocking's teaching effects both of these
With the help of Chingachgook, Leatherstocking teaches these young
people the morality he has learned from the book of nature. This
morality has its foundation in Christianity and "natural" democracy,
values Leatherstocking learned in his brief childhood education and from
his friendship with the Delaware Indians. In his life as a scout and
hunter, Leatherstocking has learned to see how God's Providence operates
in nature. He believes that written law inevitably corrupts the
fundamental divine law as revealed in nature, so it is crucial that
gentlefolk and future rulers learn to renew continually their
understanding of law by worship in God's original temple.
One lesson nature has to teach the natural aristocracy is humility, a
sense of human limitations and dependence on the will and mercy of God.
Twice the citizens of Templeton commit ecological hubris, killing more
passenger pigeons and more fish than they can reasonably consume. Both
times, Leatherstocking rails against them like an Old Testament prophet,
saying that though nature is made for people's use, it is not made to
waste. He impresses upon Oliver and Elizabeth that people are stewards
of God's gifts.
Another lesson nature teaches is that all God's creatures are blessed
with different gifts. No person is complete in himself or herself. This
places upon a community an obligation to protect the weak, to treasure
the God-given gifts of those who are not economically and politically
strong. Leatherstocking and Chingachgook demonstrate this faithfulness
to community by protecting Oliver, his grandfather, and several other
characters from natural dangers and the sins of the community in its
anarchic phase. They teach a democratic noblesse oblige in which the
powerful are directly responsible not merely for the economic support of
the weak but also for enabling the weak to use their gifts and live
That all have different gifts and all are mutually dependent also
implies the most important lesson for Oliver: that legally inheriting
land does not fully legitimate ownership. His right to the land depends
more upon his being worthy than upon his legal status. He learns from
Leatherstocking that gentility is an achievement rather than an
inheritance and, thereby, learns to recognize the true nobility of Judge
Temple and his daughter, both of whom are "commoners" and American
The Pioneers is based on the experiences of Cooper's father, William,
founder of Cooperstown, New York, and author of A Guide in the
Wilderness (1810), a manual for frontier settlement. William was the
model for Marmaduke Temple. Reflecting James and William Cooper's
idealism, The Pioneers expresses one of the great traditions of the
American dream, the ideal of America as a rational, Christian, agrarian
Utopia, ruled by statesmen chosen democratically from a natural
aristocracy. This dream stands behind and informs a touching, amusing,
exciting, and informative novel.