“The Lake Gun” (1850)

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. 84-86.

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.]

The central story in this brief political allegory is presented twice, first in expository form by a narrator, then in more dramatic form by a cast of three characters. Set on Seneca Lake in Central New York, it is based partly on a real Indian legend and partly on a fictitious tale which Cooper endowed with some of the qualities of legend. For centuries Seneca Lake has periodically emitted loud explosive sounds, detonations from what the white settlers call “The Lake Gun.” This documented phenomenon has never been scientifically explained, but the Indians consider it the voice of the Manitou, their god. Equally mysterious is the author’s invention called the “Wandering Jew,” a tree trunk that is said to have floated for ages on the lake, moved back and forth by winds and currents.

Early in the nineteenth century one Fuller, a traveler in the Finger Lakes region, hears accounts of the “gun” and the “Jew,” and sets out to investigate these two wonders of nature. For this purpose he engages a small sailboat owned and operated by an aged mariner, Peter, who is well acquainted with both of these phenomena. Together the two men cruise along the shore of Seneca Lake looking for the “Wandering Jew,” which Peter has not seen for the past three years, and listening to tales about the area told by local residents.

One morning as Fuller is returning to the boat, having lodged the previous night at a farmhouse, he sees a motionless human figure, statuesque in appearance, gazing steadily out over the lake. Approaching this individual, he discovers him to be a young Iroquois of the Seneca tribe. The unidentified Seneca, a college graduate, speaks fluent English, but in most other respects he has reverted to the ways of his people. Clad in buckskin leggings and draped in a light, summer-weight blanket, he has returned to visit the land of his ancestors. He has been gazing at the Swimming Seneca, which the palefaces call the “Wandering Jew”; and he points out this strange being, a mere spot in the distance. As the two men strain their eyes to see this object, they hear a deep booming noise, the angry voice of the Manitou, the palefaces’ “Lake Gun.” Thereupon, the young Seneca recounts the Indian explanation of these two phenomena.

Long ago there arose among his people a dangerous demagogue, a young chief named See-wise. He broke many of the traditions that had been given to the Senecas by the Great Spirit. He declared that fishing could be carried on at any time of the year and need not be restricted to a prescribed season. Flattering the masses and appealing to their vanity, he told them what they wanted to hear: that they were as wise as the Manitou and did not have to obey his laws. By such demagoguery See-wise gained the support of half the young braves, a matter of grave concern to the older chiefs. Then suddenly See-wise disappeared, never again to be seen in human form. Shortly afterwards, however, the trunk of a tree was observed floating in the lake, and this, proclaimed a wise old chief, was See-wise metamorphosed for his wickedness. A cursed creature, he would float for a thousand years, a wanderer on the waters of Seneca Lake. Whenever he dives deeper in the water to catch fish out of season, the Manitou warns him in a voice of thunder to desist.

Fuller now proposes that they board the sailboat and approach the wanderer to get a better look at him. His companion agrees at once; for as an enlightened man, he seeks the truth, he says. But when pressed to state whether or not he believes the legend, the young Seneca gives a carefully qualified answer. “I cannot say. The things learned in childhood remain the longest on the memory. They make the deepest marks. I have seen the evil that a demagogue can do among the pale-faces; why should I not believe the same among my own people!” (p. 48).

When Peter sails close to the large trunk, he points out to his two passengers the curious configuration of one end of the log, a shape that resembles a human face. Its features include a retreating forehead and a hatchet-shaped face. [As Robert E. Spiller has pointed out in his Introduction, these were facial characteristics of William Seward, the demagogue whom Cooper had many specific reasons to dislike, though contemporary readers failed to penetrate the allegory sufficiently to recognize this butt of his satire.] The tale ends in a discussion of the dangers of demagoguery, especially as it misleads man from divine truth. Such false prophets will be punished: “The man or the people that trust in God will find a lake for every See-wise” (p. 54).

Fuller, Peter, [Seneca Indian].