The Deerslayer; or, The First Warpath (1841)

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. 34-42.

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

[This is the first of the five Leather-Stocking Tales in relation to plot, the last in order of composition.]

[1] In the year 1740 two woodsmen are traveling together in central New York near Lake Otsego, then often called Glimmerglass. Henry March, nicknamed Hurry Harry, is a large, powerful, and handsome young man of twenty-eight. Nathaniel (Natty) Bumppo, whose Indian sobriquet at this point is Deerslayer, is several years younger and of slighter build, though no less able than his companion. From the beginning, their moral views are revealed to be quite different. March acknowledges no law beyond his own strength and will; Deerslayer has respect both for Indian justice as he has learned it among the Delawares and for Christian values as he has learned them among the Moravian missionaries to these Indians.

The conversation of the travelers introduces us to three other central characters: Thomas Hutter and his two daughters, Judith and Esther (Hetty). The father is rumored to be a former pirate now eluding the law by living on the frontier. Harry confesses that he has unsuccessfully courted Judith, strikingly beautiful but flirtatious and fickle. She has been too familiar with officers at British garrisons to escape gossip. The younger sister, Hetty, is feebleminded but virtuous to the point of piety.

[2] On the shore of Glimmerglass, Harry removes from a hollow linden log a birchbark canoe which the two men launch and paddle toward a strange structure a quarter of a mile offshore. It is "Muskrat Castle," one of Tom Hutter's two abodes. Having been burned out three times on shore and having there lost his only son in a conflict with Indians, Hutter has grown wary of the land. Muskrat Castle is a log fortress built on piles driven into a shoal; his alternate home is mobile, an ungainly but practical houseboat known as "The Ark." When the two woodsmen reach the castle, they find no one there.

[3-4] Searching for the ark, they locate it just beyond the outlet of the lake on the headwaters of the Susquehanna River, where Tom Hutter is tending his muskrat and beaver traps. When the old man learns that the French-allied Canadian Indians are preparing to go on the warpath, he realizes the vulnerability of the present position of the ark. With the aid of Harry and Natty, he hastily pulls the vessel upstream by means of a rope attached to an anchor in the lake. As they pass the last clump of trees at the outlet of Glimmerglass, six of a large force of Indians spring from the overhanging branches toward the ark. Only the first manages to land on the scow, and this invader is pushed overboard by Judith, who rushes from the safety of the cabin to perform this act of bravery. The Indians are Hurons, of Iroquois stock and language but living farther north than the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. [Throughout the novel they are referred to as Hurons, Iroquois, and Mingoes, the last being a pejorative name.]

[5] Once away from the treacherous shore and out of danger, Tom Hutter switches from defensive to offensive strategy. Knowing that the colony is paying a bounty for enemy Indian scalps, just as the French are buying British scalps, he suggests that they locate the Huron camp and scalp its women and children before the warriors return. March agrees at once to participate in this raid, but Deerslayer opposes it as being unchristian. In rebuttal March repeats the two premises of his frontier ethic: first, that the Indians are only animals, not human beings; and, second, that you should "do as you're done by" (p. 91). Tom accepts Natty's decision not to engage in the scalping foray, and is grateful for his willingness to guard the ark and the girls during his own absence. Overhearing this discussion, Judith and Hetty are morally in sympathy with Natty's position. As Tom and Harry conspire together from their rowing position near the bow, Judith moves to the stern, where Natty now serves as helmsman. Her interest in Natty is evident both in her warm response to his honest simplicity and in her effort to gainsay any malicious reference Harry March may have made about her past.

[6] Arriving at the castle about an hour before sunset, Hutter suggests that they make that fortress more secure by removing from the shore the two additional canoes he has hidden there. They go ashore in a canoe, retrieve from hollow logs Hutter's two additional canoes, and set them adrift to float away in the gentle offshore breeze. Paddling around a point, the three men now locate the Indian camp when they see the dying embers of a fire glowing in the dark. Harry and Tom now pursue their plan to collect scalps, leaving Deerslayer in the canoe to pick them up later at a given signal. Both the invaders are captured, however, and they warn Natty away, Tom again admonishing him to guard the castle and the girls.

Wishing to pick up the two drifting canoes at daybreak, before they fall into Huron hands, Natty paddles his own canoe into deep water and permits it to drift while he sleeps. [7] At dawn he recovers one canoe quite quickly and then proceeds cautiously to the beach where the other boat has drifted. As he reaches it, he is fired upon by an Indian. Aware of the easy target he offers while afloat so close to shore, Natty lands the canoes and slips into the protective brush. Catching off guard his assailant reloading his rifle, Natty could easily have shot the man, but his sense of chivalry forbids his taking this kind of advantage of his enemy. Waiting until the Indian starts toward the shore, Natty steps into the path and confronts him in a friendly manner. In seemingly amiable fashion, the two haggle over the ownership of the canoes until Natty shows the brave that these light craft have been constructed not as Indians but as white men build such vessels. With a quick thrust of his foot Natty sends one of the canoes skimming many yards away from shore. The Indian, whose name is Le Loup Cervier (Lynx), pretends that he is convinced by Deerslayer's argument, turns his back, and walks away into a thicket. As the woodsman is about to step into his canoe, however, his peripheral vision detects that the Indian is again taking aim at him from behind a bush. Only the face and the rifle of Lynx are visible. With the quick reflexes of a successful hunter, Deerslayer wheels about and fires at the spot in the brush where the man's body should be. Their two rifles discharge simultaneously. Natty's side is grazed, but his opponent is mortally wounded. With what remains of his ebbing strength, Lynx rushes at Deerslayer, hurls his tomahawk at close range, and then collapses. The tomahawk has little force behind it, and Natty catches it by the handle as it sails past. Carrying the Indian to the water's edge so that he can drink, Natty assures him of his forgiveness and promises not to scalp him — scalping being a proper practice for Indians but not for Christians. [Here, as elsewhere in the Leather-Stocking Tales, Natty refers to the values and conditioned traits of ethnic groups as "gifts."] The expiring Indian gives Deerslayer a new and more appropriate name, Hawkeye. Musing about having killed his first human being, Natty paddles toward the drifting canoe. Discovering that it contains an unarmed Indian who, while lying in the bottom, is quietly urging the boat toward the shore, Hawkeye refrains from shooting the man and is satisfied to allow him to swim ashore with impunity.

[8] Returning to the castle with the canoes, Natty informs the Hutter girls of the captivity of their father and Harry March. It is hoped that at the appropriate time it will be possible to ransom them with furs or other valuable goods, Judith's admiration of Natty now becomes more apparent as she talks with him long and earnestly. Late in the afternoon Natty and the two girls leave the castle and proceed in the ark — they travel in zigzag fashion hoping to confuse the Hurons — towards the large flat rock near the outlet of the lake where, by prearrangement, Natty is to meet the Delaware chief Chingachgook, his adopted brother, at exactly sunset. The purpose of their mission in this area is the liberation of Wah-ta-Wah (English: Hist-oh-Hist), the betrothed of Chingachgook (English: Great Serpent) from Huron captivity.

[9] When the scow edges up to the designated place of rendezvous, Chingachgook leaps aboard pursued by twenty Hurons. Pulling hard on the grapnel line, Deerslayer and the Delaware quickly move the ark into deeper water beyond the reach of their enemies. As darkness settles around the vessel, the two men and Judith are discussing their next strategy when they are startled by the sound of a canoe paddle in the water. Fearing that the barely visible canoe contains Huron warriors, Natty, ready to fire upon it, calls out a challenge. The response is made in a woman's voice. To their surprise, the sole occupant of the canoe is Hetty Hutter, setting out to rescue her father and "Hurry Harry" March, the man for whom the feebleminded girl has an unspoken and hopeless infatuation. They try to catch Hetty and halt her mad endeavor, both for her own safety and to prevent her from unwittingly supplying the Hurons with the only equipment they need to attack the castle: a canoe. [10] While cruising along the shore searching for her, they find her canoe (deliberately set adrift) and even talk with her briefly. Telling those on the ark that with her Bible she is going to teach the Hurons Christian forgiveness, Hetty plunges into the darkened forest and is heard no more. Natty and Judith take some comfort from the knowledge that Indians hold in religious awe the mad and feebleminded.

[11] When she is brought before the Huron chief, Hetty reads to him from the Bible and pleads for his forgiveness of her father and Harry March. Failing in this effort, she is successful in serving as a messenger between the captive Hist-oh-Hist and Chingachgook. She apprises Hist of Chingachgook's presence in the area; later, after she has been brought back to the castle on an Indian raft, she informs the chief of the time and place on shore where he can find his beloved that night in order to rescue her.

[12] As soon as Judith, Deerslayer, and Chingachgook return to the castle, after Hetty has gone ashore, they start searching for objects which might be used to ransom Hutter and March. Finding little that would tempt Indian cupidity, they finally decide to look in Tom Hutter's old sea chest, the contents of which Judith has never seen. [13] There, beneath a layer of expensive clothes, they discover a pair of silver-mounted pistols and an ivory chess set. Deerslayer feels certain that the Hurons will be fascinated by the ivory elephants on which the castle-shaped rooks are mounted. The young Indian boy delivering Hetty to her home is allowed to examine at length one of these chess pieces. [14] Soon afterwards, Rivenoak and a lesser chief raft out to the castle to bargain with Deerslayer for the release of their two prisoners. The ransom finally decided upon is four of the elephant-borne rooks. just before sunset, Rivenoak returns with his captives, and the exchange is completed. Natty, with his chivalric sense of honor, prevents the liberated men from shooting the Indians who delivered them to the castle.

[15] An Indian boy later places on the porch of the castle a bundle of blood-covered sticks, a Huron declaration of war. Again Deerslayer thwarts Hurry Harry's attempt to kill an enemy emissary. Despite their narrow escape from death, Hutter and March again undertake a scalping foray — this time joined by Chingachgook — but find the old Indian camp deserted. As Deerslayer and the Hutter girls stand offshore in the ark, Judith makes a strong appeal for the affections of the white hunter.

[16] While the exhausted Hutter and March sleep aboard the ark, Deerslayer and Chingachgook go ashore in a canoe to meet Hist-oh-Hist. When the girl does not appear at the appointed time and place, the two friends find her, guarded closely by an aged squaw, at a new campsite. While throttling the squaw, Natty relaxes his stranglehold often enough to permit her to breathe; during one of these respites, the woman manages to shriek an alarm. [17] Racing to the canoe, Natty shoves it from the shore with such great force that it is out of sight in the dusk before his many pursuers arrive at the beach and fall upon him.

Although he fully expects to be tortured, perhaps killed, unless he can escape or be rescued, Deerslayer refuses to buy his freedom by returning to the ark and betraying its occupants. As he and Rivenoak, the foremost Huron chief, spar verbally, they are both amazed to discover Hetty Hutter standing beside them. She has been brought in a canoe by Judith so that she can ask Deerslayer what, if anything, can be done to save him. After assuring Hetty that he will in no way betray the white group, he instructs her to warn those on the ark to remain vigilant and to keep the vessel in motion to avoid attack. [18] Judith later picks up Hetty and paddles toward the position of the ark. As she does so, a shot from across the water (fired by Harry March) kills a Huron girl. Discovering that the scow has disappeared, Judith and Hetty move to the lake for protection and spend the night there in the canoe.

[19] As the ark approaches the castle the next morning, Chingachgook suspects that the building has been occupied by Hurons during their absence. He and Hist refuse to leave the ark. With his usual braggadocio, Harry March scoffs at them as he and Hutter proceed to embark. [20] Once inside the castle, they find it filled with warriors who, after a furious hand-to-hand struggle, subdue both of them. As the Delaware couple cast off, Hist urges Harry to roll from the dock, where he lies pinioned, into the scow. This he attempts to do but, missing the boat, falls into the water bound hand and foot. Grasping with his teeth and then one hand the coil of rope which Hist throws to him, Harry is towed to safety and hauled aboard the ark.

Judith and Hetty approach the castle while the struggle is still in progress. Suspecting that both castle and scow are in enemy hands, they cautiously keep their distance. Three Hurons soon emerge from the castle and pursue the girls in one of Hutter's canoes. Although competent canoers, Judith and Hetty are being gained upon when the Indians break a paddle and quit the chase. They return to the castle where all of the Hurons now enter canoes and go ashore. When, soon afterwards, the girls arrive at their home, they find there their father scalped and fatally stabbed but alive. [21] Before dying he tells Judith that the woman they had buried in the lake had indeed been the girls' mother but that he was not their real father. After Chingachgook, Harry, and Hist arrive with the ark, the group weights Hutter's body and buries it in the lake beside the girls' mother.

Again Harry March proposes to Judith, and again Judith tells him that she cannot accept him as her husband. She asks him to travel to the nearest garrison on the Mohawk River, report their desperate situation, and request military aid. She also requests that the relief force be led by anyone but one Captain Thomas Warley — another indication that gossip about her past may not be entirely baseless. Ready to leave the area anyway after his rebuff from Judith, Harry prepares to start northward for the Mohawk.

[22] In a canoe above the watery grave of their mother and Thomas Hutter, Judith tries to explain to Hetty why it is no longer possible for them to remain in the wilderness. The younger sister, who has lived all her life here and has associated the beauty and bounty of Nature with the Divine Being, is deeply disturbed by the news. Much like Deerslayer, she can see only wickedness in the settlements. As they are returning to the ark, they are astonished to see Deerslayer paddling toward them. They are even more astonished to learn that he intends to honor the terms of the "furlough" given him by the Hurons and to return willingly to their savage hands at noon of the following day. [23] His torture has been delayed to permit him to serve as messenger for proposals which the Hurons wish to make to the remaining occupants of the castle and ark. To Chingachgook they offer the opportunity to return unmolested to his tribe if he will leave Hist-oh-Hist with them. To Judith and Hetty they offer a home if they will consent to become the wives of a Huron widower. To Harry March the Hurons (thinking that his narrow escape has probably intimidated him) offer an open road to escape. The Delawares and the Hutter girls indignantly decline the proposals made to them; Harry had already decided to decamp, and Natty paddles him ashore for that purpose. Before they part, Natty urges the reckless giant to guide a force from a British fort to rescue the Hutter sisters. It was Harry's scalp hunting with Hutter, Natty observes pointedly, that had led to the present orphaned status of the girls.

[24] When he returns to the castle, Deerslayer assists Judith in examining the contents of Hutter's trunk. The girl's primary concern is to discover evidence that will reveal her and Hetty's real identity. Who are they? Letters and other papers in the chest indicate clearly that the name Thomas Hutter was an alias for Thomas Hovey, a proscribed pirate, but the exact relationship between this man and the girls' mother is not wholly revealed. Although most personal and place names, along with dates, have been erased or excised, Judith is able to piece together a partial account of her origins. Her mother, of an educated, affluent family, had been deserted by the father of her two children, a European military officer who had never married her. Motivated by resentment, she had married the coarse and semiliterate Thomas Hovey partly to disgrace herself further and thereby heap coals of fire on the head of the man who had wronged her. Disappointed at being unable to ascertain more than this vague familial background, Judith is doomed to additional frustration as she tries to suggest to Natty that they be married. So sincere is his humility that he cannot believe that Judith is really serious in saying that she could accept as husband an illiterate man of lowly status.

[25] In the early dawn of the following day Chingachgook and Hist pledge themselves to do everything possible to rescue Deerslayer from the Hurons, despite the hunter's remonstrance that such an effort by only two people would be sheer madness. Testing Killdeer, the fine Hutter rifle Judith had given him, Deerslayer brings down an eagle from a great height only to be embarrassed then by his wanton slaying of the bird. [26] As noon and the end of his "furlough" approach, Natty bids a solemn farewell to his friends; then Hetty paddles him to the shore, where he willingly returns to Indian captivity. He has honorably kept the terms of his agreement.

[27] Although some of the Huron chiefs are surprised at Natty's voluntary surrender of himself, Rivenoak had expected this unusual paleface to honor his "furlough." After some debate among themselves, the chiefs offer Natty an alternative to torture and death: adoption by the Hurons and marriage to Sumach, the widow of Lynx. Natty's refusal of this proposal so angers the chief Panther, brother of Sumach, that he hurls his tomahawk at the prisoner's head. Dextrously catching the weapon by its handle, Natty returns it with such force and accuracy that it brains its owner before he can raise a hand in defense. As the astonished Indians rush to aid the fallen chief, Deerslayer bolts from their camp and escapes into the forest. Soon pursued by the whole band of warriors, Natty doubles back to the lake, jumps into a canoe, and pushes it vigorously from the shore. Without a paddle, he relies on the wind to carry him away from the land as he lies in the bottom of the canoe in order to expose the smallest possible target for rifle fire. [28] The fickle wind shifts, however, and carries him to another point of land, where he is once again captured.

After Rivenoak and Sumach again urge him to accept Huron adoption, and after he for a second time rejects this offer, Natty's ordeal begins. [29] At first it is a form of mental torture as the Hurons tie him to a tree and demonstrate how close they can come to hitting him with thrown tomahawks and rifle bullets. Hetty now appears and berates the Indians for their cruelty. [30] When the physical torture is about to begin, the Hurons are interrupted by a stunningly beautiful woman, dressed in exquisite clothes and bearing herself with the demeanor of a princess, who demands the release of Deerslayer. The ruse fails, however, when the innocent Hetty identifies the newcomer as only her sister. The torture is next delayed by the unexpected arrival and attempted intervention of Hist. The small, sharp knife which she secretly passes to Judith is relayed to Hetty, but the younger girl's attempts to cut Deerslayer's withes fail. Hist then stalls for time by pouring invective upon Briarthorn, the renegade Delaware who had abducted her and joined the Hurons. After Rivenoak silences the loud bickering between Hist and Briarthorn, the attention of the Hurons is yet once more diverted by the appearance of Chingachgook, who bounds into the ring of startled warriors, cuts Deerslayer's bonds, and hands him Killdeer. Briarthorn identifies Chingachgook as the Hurons' mortal enemy and throws a knife at the naked chest of the chief, but Hist spoils his aim by grabbing his arm. Chingachgook retaliates, burying his weapon in the heart of the former Delaware. Their amazement now broken, the Hurons move to surround their two armed and dangerous foes when the rapid tread of marching feet is heard, and sixty British redcoats enter the camp at double time.

Although Deerslayer, Chingachgook and Harry March use their rifles, the British regulars, having trapped the Hurons on a point projecting into the lake, advance in a deadly bayonet charge. The result is a massacre from which few escape. [31] It is discovered that during the battle Hetty was mortally wounded by a stray bullet. She dies the next day after a protracted and pathetic death scene at the Hutter castle and is buried in the lake beside her mother.

[32] Also at the castle, now the temporary headquarters of the British troops, are Captain Thomas Warley and several of his officers. It becomes evident that Judith's earlier relationship with this officer was more than an innocent flirtation. A confirmed roue bachelor, Warley, struck anew by Judith's beauty, talks lightly with a fellow officer of his intention of renewing an affair with the girl now that there are no longer parents to interpose.

As the troops prepare to leave the following morning, Judith and Deerslayer paddle to the watery graves of the Hutters, and there Judith proposes that the two be married at once and take up permanent residence at the castle. Natty refuses her offer, at first protesting that it would be taking unfair advantage of her to consider such an offer while she is so bereaved. Upon further urging, Natty says that he cannot feel sufficient love for any woman to marry. Later, as they are bidding each other farewell on shore, Judith presses Natty with her final question: had the rumors of her moral misconduct, passed along by Harry March, influenced his feelings toward her? Although he utters no word, the answer is unmistakably revealed in Natty's honest face. Certain now that her past has doomed her hope of real love, Judith turns and follows the soldiers marching toward their garrison on the Mohawk. Tempted to follow and console her, Natty finally moves in the opposite direction to join Chingachgook and Hist-oh-Hist.

Although the three are warmly welcomed in the Delaware village, it requires months of activity to lighten the deep sorrow of Natty, now known among the Indians by his recently earned name, Hawkeye. During the French and Indian War, which soon erupts in full fury, both he and Chingachgook earn military distinction. It is fifteen years before the two friends revisit Lake Glimmerglass. With them is a son borne by Hist not long before her death, a boy named Uncas and destined to be the last of the Mohican Delawares with that family name. Hawkeye finds the castle and the ark in ruins, both shoal and shore having reverted to nature. All traces of the Hutters have disappeared, and at the garrison Natty can gather no reliable information about Judith, but instead only vague and contradictory rumors about her life with ranking British officers.

Bounding Boy, Briarthorn, Nathaniel Bumppo (Deerslayer), Catamount, Chingachgook, Lieutenant Craig, Dr. Graham, Thomas Hovey (Hutter), Hetty Hutter, Judith Hutter, Lynx, Henry March, Moose, Panther, Raven, Rivenoak, Shebear, Sumach, Ensign Arthur Thornton, Wah-ta-Wah, Captain Thomas Warley, Sergeant Wright.