The Crater; or Vulcan’s Peak (1847)

Warren S. Walker (Texas Tech University)

Originally published in Warren S. Walker, Plots and Characters in the Fiction of James Fenimore Cooper (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1978), pp. 25-33.

Copyright © 1978 by Warren S. Walker.  Placed online with the kind permission of Warren S. Walker, and of Shoe String Press, Inc.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Chapter numbers [in square brackets] have been inserted by the webmaster at approximately the point where each chapter begins, to facilitate locating particular plot incidents in the text.

— Hugh C. MacDougall

[1] Born in Bristol, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Mark Woolston, protagonist of the novel, is the oldest child of one of the village’s two physicians. After attending Princeton for three years, Mark hears the call of the sea and, in 1793, ships aboard the Rancocus (Captain Crutchely, Master), a vessel in the China trade. Adapting quickly to nautical life, Mark advances in station so rapidly that he returns, still not quite nineteen, as second mate with the promise of being first mate on the next voyage.

Back in Bristol, Mark now seriously courts Bridget Yardley, only child of Dr. Yardley, aggressive and somewhat paranoid medical competitor of Dr. Woolston. When Dr. Yardley learns of this relationship, he orders Mark out of his home, more for economic reasons than for any personal dislike of the youth. The doctor cannot bear the thought that his professional rival might benefit from the considerable wealth left to Bridget by her mother, who had died while Mark was at sea. Although Yardley suspects Mark of courting Bridget for her money rather than for herself, the young suitor is not even aware, at this point, of the girl’s inheritance. [2] The prospect of lengthy separation during Mark’s next voyage encourages the couple to marry; but because of parental disapproval, the wedding is a secret one held aboard the Rancocus and conducted by a young minister who had been a college friend of the groom. When they break the news to their families, they experience the displeasure of both Dr. Woolston and Dr. Yardley. A compromise is reached, however, when these two professional rivals confer on the matter. In view of the tender age of the bride — she is sixteen — it is agreed that the marriage will not be consummated until Mark returns from his imminent voyage to the Orient. Dr. Yardley secretly hopes that he will not return.

Rounding Cape Horn and sailing north past Valparaiso, the Rancocus approaches uncharted reefs in the Pacific. [3] Refusing to believe either the lookout’s or Mark’s warning of white water ahead, Captain Crutchely, drinking with the second mate, Hillson, runs the ship aground. [4] When Crutchely is swept overboard from the canting vessel, Mark launches a jolly boat in an attempt to rescue him; but neither the captain nor the six-man boat crew is seen again. While Mark is preparing to drop anchor, Hillson gathers all but one of the remaining ten crew members and departs in the launch of the Rancocus, leaving Mark and the “old salt” Bob Betts the sole occupants of the vessel. When morning comes, the two leave the ship in a dinghy to explore what appears to be an island some two leagues away. Upon arriving there, they discover it to be an almost barren reef at the center of which is the cone of an extinct volcano. The crater within the cone covers about a hundred acres.

[5] With no hope of maneuvering the Rancocus against the wind to extricate her from the maze of shoals and reefs, and with no illusions about sailing the crewless vessel to civilization even if they could free her, Mark and Bob decide to bring the ship in as close as possible to the crater islet and then ferry ashore in the dinghy its usable stores. They are obliged, as Betts says, to “Robinson Crusoe it a while” (p. 61). A small collection of livestock — pigs, a goat, chickens, and ducks — are taken ashore to fend for themselves as much as possible. All kinds of seeds are found in the ship’s supplies (intended as items to be traded with the Fijis for sandalwood), but the reef is void of soil in which to plant them. [6-7] They laboriously begin amassing a substitute for ordinary soil, a mixture of seaweed, volcanic ash, guano, and humus, a pocket of which Bob finds in the large cavity of a nearby reef. They plant as many seeds as their supply of soil substitute will accommodate, and within a few days they are gratified to see their first crop sprouting. While it grows, Bob catches great quantities of fish with which they feed both themselves and their livestock. Boatloads of seaweed are also brought ashore as fodder for their animals and fowls. As more humus is hauled to the crater and its salt content leached out by gentle rains, Mark gradually sows the slopes with grass seed.

[8] After three months, with food for the future now assured, the two men search the hold of the Rancocus for parts of a prefabricated pinnace, about which Bob had heard the owner, Abraham White, speak while the ship was being loaded. Supposedly, the boat was to be assembled for use while the officers traded with the natives of the Fiji Islands. Mark doubts the existence of such a vessel, but among the lumber in the hold, they do indeed find the carefully cut and marked pieces of a pinnace. This thirty-foot boat — small enough to thread the shoals but large enough to be fairly seaworthy — they now begin to assemble on shore, close to the water’s edge to permit easy launching. When the construction is completed, the Neshamony (as they name the pinnace) is outfitted and provisioned from the ship’s stores. A tropical storm now begins and threatens to inundate much of the lower levels of the reef. While Mark carries tools and other valuables up to the crater, Bob goes to secure the new boat. Before Mark can return to aid the old seaman, a large wave lifts the Neshamony from her ways and launches her prematurely. The gale drives the boat to sea with Bob Betts aboard.

[9] Soon after the hurricane subsides, Mark becomes seriously ill with a tropical fever. Sick aboard the Rancocus for several weeks, he requires more than two months to recover fully. During that time, he reflects upon his solitary condition and the minimal chance of his ever being rescued. His survival is no longer in question, however, for he finds his garden lush with melons and many kinds of vegetables.

[10] Using lumber and some ready-cut parts found in the hold of the Rancocus, Mark puts together another boat, an eighteen-foot craft which he christens Bridget Yardley. [11] Sailing her among the reefs and shoals on a trial cruise, Mark hastens home at sunset after observing a strangely ominous sky. In the middle of the night an earthquake rocks the area, and a volcano erupts, casting a lurid glow and emitting noxious fumes. When dawn arrives, Mark discovers that the quake has thrown upward some ten or fifteen feet a nearby reef. Later he finds that his own reef, crater and all, has risen the same amount without any discernible damage to its surface. Climbing to its summit, Mark is able to see numerous new islands around him, most of them shoals or reefs that have been thrust upward by the convulsion of the earth. Some of these now connect with his own reef, thus adding extensively to his domain; from one of these newly risen areas bubbles a freshwater spring which soon forms a small lake. In the distance, near the volcano erupting in the sea, towers a mountain to the height of a thousand feet or more. [12] When he sails the sixty miles to this mountain, which he names Vulcan’s Peak, Mark realizes that its upper section must have been above the surface of the sea for many years, for it is heavily wooded with trees of many kinds, including coconut palm, fig, and breadfruit. For ten days Mark explores the region in the Bridget Yardley, naming all its topographical features.

[13] One day while he is on Vulcan’s Peak, Mark is amazed to see, at no great distance, the Neshamony manned by Bob Betts and a companion. It had been fourteen months since Bob and the pinnace had vanished in the hurricane, and Mark had had little hope of ever seeing him again. Firing his musket, Mark attracts the attention of his old friend, and the two are soon reunited. So great are the surprise and shock to Mark that Bob relates his story slowly lest it overcome the distraught young man.

Carried away from the crater reef by high winds, Bob had sailed the Neshamony to an island populated by friendly natives. Ooroony, leader of these people, had transported Bob to a distant island where a Spanish pearl-fishing ship lay at anchor. Joining this ship’s company, Bob had sailed with them to the Isthmus of Panama and had, in several stages of travel, made his way to Bristol, where he had given accounts of the fate of the Neshamony and the plight of Mark Woolston. Bridget, whose father had taken unsuccessful legal action to force a divorce on her, at once organized and funded an expedition to rescue Mark. Besides Bob Betts and his newly wed wife, Martha, the party of twelve included Mark’s sister, Anne, her husband, Dr. John Heaton, and a shipwright named Bigelow. Bob guided the group, retracing his course, step by step, until he reached Ooroony’s island and repossessed the Neshamony (which during his absence had been isolated and protected as a taboo object by the tribesmen). The pearl fishermen who had brought them to this island had also transported for them horses, cattle, and ample equipment for farming. From there, Bob had carried the passengers in the Neshamony to an island not far from Vulcan’s Peak while native catamarans transferred the freight.

[14] After a joyful and emotional reunion of Mark and Bridget and the introduction of Mark to his new brother-in-law, Dr. Heaton, the entire group rests for a week. Then begins the final stage of their trip, the ferrying of people, animals, and equipment to the Edenic loveliness of the lower slopes of Vulcan’s Peak. The Neshamony shuttles back and forth for several days until the move is completed.

[15] It soon becomes evident that this pristine site may not be entirely safe as a dwelling place. While Mark is at the crater reef, a large flotilla of war canoes and catamarans is sighted offshore. Studying the boats with field glasses, Bob sees in the lead boat one Waally, a fierce and treacherous native chief hostile to Ooroony. Bob thinks he can also distinguish among the occupants of that canoe two white men. To reconnoiter their movements and equipment, Bob circles them, at a distance, in the Neshamony, and later that night he has the temerity to land on their home island to gather additional information. To his great surprise, he is met near the shore by two former whalers, Peters and Jones; both had been guests and then captives of the islanders. Peters had married a native girl, Petrina, but now both he and ]ones are ready to leave and loin the new Colony. It is the intention of Waally, they claim, to massacre the white settlers and plunder their equipment and supplies. Back at Vulcan’s Peak, Mark, Bob, and their friends decide to mount strategically (so that they will command the landing places) two of the eight carronades stored in the Rancocus. These are brought and readied for service in any crisis that may develop.

[16] The settlers now begin to build houses with lumber hewn from trees on the Peak, and Bigelow begins the construction of an eighty-ton schooner, which will provide both a means of traveling anywhere in the Pacific and greater protection against any attack made by the Kannakas. For months, however, nothing menaces the tranquillity of the new Eden. Children are born to Anne and John Heaton, to Bridget and Mark Woolston, and to Martha and Bob Betts. Jones marries Martha’s sister, Joan, and Peters pleads for a boat with which to visit Waally’s island and carry off his lost Petrina. Mark so pities Peters (remembering his long separation from Bridget) that he agrees to take him back in the Neshamony. En route, they swing wide from their course in order to examine the volcano still erupting from the sea. After landing on the outer, cool edge of the cone, Mark and Bob hear a shout from Peters aboard the pinnace, and at the next moment they see the seaman rush ashore and embrace his Petrina. When Waally had assembled a hundred canoes and a thousand warriors to attack the settlement on Vulcan’s Peak, Petrina and her brother Unus had departed, under the cover of darkness, paddling in the direction of the smoking volcano, knowing that the mountain isle Waally was to attack must be nearby. Petrina felt certain that this was the place where her husband had taken refuge. With the news of imminent invasion, Mark and his companions immediately return to defend Vulcan’s Peak. Even with the addition of Unus, the settlement’s fighting force now numbers only eight men.

[17] When Waally’s armada comes close to shore, a cannon is fired into the air. Although some of the natives have heard artillery fire before, none has experienced the phenomenon of echo, and the reverberations rolling several seconds along the shores and among the heights frighten them. fearing that the local gods are angry, they paddle away in terror; but no one doubts that sooner or later they will return. Completion of the schooner now becomes crucial, for it will provide a vehicle of pursuit. Leaving men to handle the carronades at Vulcan’s Peak, Mark sails with four men to the crater reef to push forward the work on the new vessel. As they approach the reef, near sunset, however, they are shocked to find that it too has been discovered by Waally’s men, many of whom are camped on an adjacent island. The governor, as Mark is now called, calms the momentary panic of his handful of men with his quiet and confident preparations for defense. Earlier, Mark had learned from Jones of seven additional white sailors held by Waally, captives Jones had never seen but whose descriptions, as he had them from others, fitted those members of the Rancocus crew lost three years ago. [18] Now as they await Waally’s attack, Mark and his men are pleasantly surprised to be hailed in English from the darkened waterfront. There they find Jim Wattles, crewman, and Bill Brown, ship carpenter, of the Rancocus, who had made their escape from Waally’s warriors. They describe in detail their protracted stay with the savages and their method of escape during the present expedition; they also corroborate Jones’s report that there are five additional members of their crew still in captivity.

At dawn, work is resumed to launch Friend Abraham White, the new schooner named after the Quaker owner of the Rancocus. Before it is quite in the water, a force of 1,200 to 1,500 Kannakas attack from the next island. They are raked with grapeshot from carronades, and then when the schooner goes down the ways, pursued into the open sea by the new ship. In the course of this chase, the settlers run down a canoe and capture its crew, among whom is a favorite son of Waally. After extended dickering, Waally agrees to exchange his five white prisoners for his son’s release. [19] Accompanying the canoe fleet to its island base, Mark recovers his long-lost shipmates; and while there, he also strengthens the hand of Ooroony, Waally’s rival, by providing the friendly chief with supplies of various kinds. This, Mark feels, will reduce the likelihood of future attacks on Vulcan’s Peak and the crater reef.

Back at his colony, Mark begins to be bothered by a matter of conscience. With his greatly improved circumstances, does he not owe some return to the owners of the Rancocus? Abraham White, its original owner, had collected insurance for it after the Rancocus had been unheard from for a year; but there is still a moral obligation to the underwriters. Mark now has fourteen men under his command and could hire additional help from among Ooroony’s people. The skip, though still locked among the reefs, might now, with the manpower and skill available, be somehow hauled into clear water. Mark has been using the ship’s supplies for three years, but the Rancocus itself is still intact. It is decided, therefore, to complete, however belatedly, the original sailing plan: picking up sandalwood among the islands, selling it at Canton — the Chinese cherish it for making idols and other religious objects — and returning to Philadelphia with a valuable cargo of tea. This plan Mark proceeds to put into effect.

While at Canton, Mark purchases the Mermaid, an old ship of two hundred tons burden, and sends it to the crater reef, piloted by Bigelow and loaded with Americans who, for a variety of reasons, have been stranded in China and are now quite willing to join the Woolston colony. Back in Philadelphia, Mark reports to the insurance company which has legal rights to the Rancocus. After recovering their losses, with interest, the underwriters give the vessel to Mark plus $11,000, the value of the tea that exceeds their own claims. While back in Bristol, Mark is received by Dr. Yardley, who has recanted sufficiently to make available to his son-in-law extensive funds from Bridget’s estate.

Mark is now able to return to his islands with a ship loaded with settlers, additional livestock, and supplies of all kinds. [20] Enlisting first an old friend, John Pennock, he delegates to him authority to select willing settlers of good moral record and a wide variety of skills. Exactly 207, plus more than fifty children, embark on the Rancocus for a new life in the Pacific. As they approach the volcanic isles of Mark’s domain, they are met by the Mermaid, manned not by settlers but by Kannakas. Capturing the ship and driving off the natives, Mark finds imprisoned in the hold Saunders, Bigelow, and a steward; from these men he learns certain news: Ooroony had died, and his son had been quickly deposed by Waally, who immediately began to organize forces to move against Vulcan’s Peak. Capturing the Mermaid was but a minor part of the intended invasion. [21] Betts, commanding a launch, is sent with a force of twenty-five well-armed men to reinforce the defenders of the crater reef, who are attacked the following morning. Retreating upward into the mouth of the crater, the settlers hold an impregnable position. The siege is soon lifted as the Rancocus and the Mermaid, approaching from two different directions, come into view.

[22-26] With the military crisis at an end, the process of settling all of the colonists (soon to number more than five hundred) begins. Governor Woolston declares that the land belongs to the state, not to him and Bob Betts. Besides his garden in the crater, Mark accepts a thousand acres on Vulcan’s Peak and an unsettled island of the same size. Betts refuses to take more than a hundred acres on the crater reef. Each other man of twenty-one or more years receives a grant of fifty acres on Vulcan’s Peak and a hundred acres on an unsettled island. Farming soon flourishes throughout the group of islands, especially on Vulcan’s Peak, and there is never any doubt that the colony can be self-sustaining. There is some concern, for a while, about a source of cash income for the colony now that the sandalwood forests have been largely depleted. At the suggestion of a Nantucket whaler, Walker, a couple of whaling ships are fitted out, and within six months valuable cargoes of whale oil are being shipped to Hamburg.

As the colony grows and develops, Mark can no longer govern it without help. Accordingly, a council of nine members is appointed to advise the governor. Mark’s brother Charles becomes the colony’s first Attorney General; his brother Abraham becomes its first Secretary; and an independently wealthy settler named Warrington becomes its first judge. To accommodate such governmental functions Mark personally finances the building of a large public structure named Colony House. One of the tokens most indicative of the tiny nation’s coming of age is the establishment of a postal system serviced by a packet boat that calls regularly at all populated islands.

[27-28] Such positive processes of society are suddenly threatened by a negative force from the outside world: piracy. A frigate-rigged ship tended by two armed brigs sails directly for Vulcan’s Peak guided in its course by Waally and several of his subordinate chiefs. When their demand for great quantities of meat and other supplies is rejected, hostilities commence. Although the firepower of the three vessels exceeds that of the colonists, the pirates have the disadvantage of operating in strange and treacherous waters. Waally can lead them to Vulcan’s Peak but is ignorant of the natural labyrinth of reefs, shoals, and blind passages throughout the group of islands that constitute the colony. Using his several small vessels strategically, always just beyond the range of buccaneer guns, he finally leads the frigate into a cul-de-sac where it runs aground while tacking to escape. A single shore battery now pounds the vessel steadily until two hot shots [cannon balls heated red-hot in a forge] set it afire. As the fames spread, the ship is abandoned by all those able to flee; shortly afterwards its magazine explodes, completely demolishing the vessel. Among the wounded left aboard was Waally, whose body is found, missing an arm, as the brigs escape to the open sea and disappear.

[29] A more serious threat to the colony comes from within. A few months after the conclusion of the “Pirate War,” a group of fifty new immigrants arrives. These are not applicants screened by either the governor or his council, according to the requirements for citizenship, but the relatives and friends of older settlers. Among them are a printer, a lawyer, and clergymen from four denominations (Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Quaker) to compete for souls with the Episcopalian Mr. Hornblower. All six of these newcomers create discord and wrangling among the settlers. There begins a great clamor for “rights” of all kinds, many of them running counter to the constitution and the laws of the little nation. The newspaper founded quickly by the printer constantly agitates the citizens, often with false or irresponsible editorials. Mark is ousted from the governor’s office and replaced by John Pennock, the first settler he had recruited for the colony. Claims are made against Mark’s property by newly arrived immigrants totally unaware that Mark and Betts had converted much of the land from barren waste to its present state of productivity. (Extensive authorial intrusions draw obvious parallels between the abuses of democracy here and in the United States of the 1840s.)

[30] Partly from disgust at these developments and partly because they wish to see their homeland again, the Woolstons, the Heatons, and the Bettses decide to visit the United States. This they do, arriving home in Pennsylvania after a long absence. Before the whole party is ready to return to the Pacific isles, Mark decides to take a shipload of supplies to his colony; Bob Betts accompanies him, this time as a passenger. When they reach the destined latitude and longitude, however, they cannot find the colony. Finally they identify just the tip of Vulcan’s Peak and the upper rim of the crater above the water level, the whole area having sunk into the sea to the depth of a hundred fathoms in some places. Discussing the catastrophe with young Ooroony, whom they visit on the way home, Mark and Bob learn of a recent devastating earthquake, apparently part of the titanic shift in the earth’s crust that had submerged their paradise in the Pacific Ocean. Although the disaster seemingly was caused by a freak of nature, there is a suggestion of divine retribution against a people gone astray, political and social behavior throughout the novel having been viewed in terms of their religious implications.

Robert Betts, Bigelow, Teresa Bigelow, Bright, Mary Bromley, Bill Brown, Charlton, Captain Crutchely, Dickinson, Dido, Dighton, Dunks, Edwards, Harris, Dr. John Heaton, Hillson, Rev. Mr. Hornblower, Johnson, Jones, June, Ooroony, Ooroony [the son], John Pennock, Peters, Petrina, Phoebe, Saunders, Socrates, Thomas, Unus, Waally, Walker, Warner, Warrington, Joan Waters, Martha Waters, James Wattles, Abraham White, Wilmot, Dr. Woolston, Abraham Woolston, Anne Woolston, Charles Woolston, Mark Woolston, Dr. Yardley, Bridget Yardley.