The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 (1826)

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. 86-92.

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.]

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

[1] As the French and Indian forces under Montcalm press southward from Canada into the English colony of New York in 1757, General Webb dispatches 1,500 British reinforcements from Fort Edward, near Glens Falls, to nearby Fort William Henry, at the southern tip of Lake George. [2] Traveling with the troop movement and personally escorted by Major Duncan Heyward go Cora and Alice, daughters of Lieutenant Colonel Munro, commander of Fort William Henry. They are joined by David Gamut, a comic, hapless Yankee teacher of sacred music, especially psalm singing. Their Indian guide is Magua, a Huron exiled among the Mohawks, allies of the British, but recently reinstated as a chief of the Hurons, who support the French cause. He promises to take Heyward, Gamut, and the Munro girls to Fort William Henry by a route shorter than that to be used by the heavily encumbered contingent of troops, but his real intention is to lead them into an Indian ambush. [3-4] In the late afternoon they encounter along the trail Natty Bumppo and his two Mohican Indian friends, Chingachgook and the latter’s son, Uncas, who apprise Heyward of Magua’s deception. When they try to capture Magua, the Huron escapes; Natty Bumppo is certain that he will soon return with hostile Indian forces.

[5] Natty agrees to guide the four travelers to safety in the morning; at night no one could safely pass through the forest filled with predatory Indians. Heyward’s and Natty’s groups move, via canoe, to an island in the turbulent waters at the foot of Glens Falls, a position more easily defended than a camp in the woods. [6] Before they retire for the night, David Gamut leads them in singing a psalm of thanksgiving. [7] They repulse the first Indian attack, led by Magua, but are then [8] rendered helpless by the theft of the canoe in which all their ammunition is stored. Hiding Heyward, the now wounded Gamut, and the Munro girls in a cave, Natty, Chingachgook, and Uncas escape (by swimming down the river) to bring help.

[9] After searching the cave in vain for some time, the Indians locate and capture their prey. [10] As the Hurons lead their captives away, the women on horseback, the two men on foot, Heyward pretends that he has always trusted Magua as their protector and promises a substantial reward for the safe delivery of the party to Fort William Henry. As they travel, the resourceful Cora takes every opportunity to break small branches along the way to leave a more visible trail.

[11] Magua offers his captives the choice between death for all and freedom for Heyward, Alice, and David Gamut if Cora will consent to become his wife. His interest in the girl is not sensual but vengeful. Once a scout for Colonel Munro, Magua had broken a military regulation by going to his commander’s tent intoxicated. Flogged for this offense in the presence of the garrison, Magua had suffered irreparable injury to his pride. Now Magua envisions continuous vengeance against Munro by enslaving and abusing his daughter, knowing too that he could, at any time he might wish, kill her. Cora rejects this offer, and the captives are prepared for death. In a supreme effort to protect the women, Heyward bursts his bonds but is immediately overpowered. As a Huron raises his arm to stab Heyward, he is felled by a rifle ball before he can deliver the blow. The shot has come from La Longue Carabine, an epithet applied both to Natty Bumppo and to his rifle, otherwise called “Killdeer.”

[12] Natty and his two Indian companions, having replenished their supply of powder and shot, have returned to rescue the white prisoners. After a brief battle, they defeat the four remaining Hurons, but Magua again escapes. [13] Recapturing their horses, the party proceeds again toward Fort William Henry. [14] Unaware that Montcalm’s lines have already outflanked the British fortifications, they are almost intercepted, just before dawn, by French pickets; but when Heyward and Cora answer the guards’ challenges in fluent French, they are allowed to pass. Later they are pursued, in heavy fog, to the very gates of the fort before their safety is assured.

[15] How long anyone will be safe within the fort, however, grows increasingly doubtful. The earthen walls have been severely damaged by French field artillery; many of the fort’s antiquated and poorly maintained cannon have become unusable; and the defenders are now greatly outnumbered by the attacking French and Indian forces. On the fifth day of siege Natty is delivered to the fort by a French officer. He had been sent by Colonel Munro to Fort Edward to request additional reinforcements from General Webb. Bearing Webb’s letter, Natty, to his great mortification, had been intercepted by a French sentinel. Montcalm, with the benefit of information Munro lacks, requests a parley with the British commander. Munro sends Heyward as his representative with orders to determine, if possible, the import of Webb’s letter; but in the guarded military repartee that ensues, Heyward learns none of the specifics of Webb’s intercepted message.

[16] Returning to his commander’s quarters, the major finds Munro talking affectionately with his daughters. After the girls’ departure, Munro insists upon discussing personal rather than professional matters. He grants Heyward’s earlier request to be allowed to court his daughter, supposing that it is Cora in whom he is interested. Learning that it is Alice’s hand that Heyward seeks, Munro again consents but only after an intense emotional struggle with himself that reflects some anguish. He tells Heyward that as a young officer in Scotland he had won the heart but not the hand of Alice Graham, for her parents had disapproved of their marriage. Later serving in the West Indies, he had married a girl of mixed British and Caribbean ancestry, from which union had come the dark-eyed beauty, Cora. After an absence of twenty years, Munro, by then a widower, had returned to Scotland; there Alice Graham, still single, had waited for him. They had married immediately, and a year later a daughter, Alice, had been born to them at the cost of the mother’s life.

After this domestic interlude, the two officers return to a consideration of the military crisis at hand. Heyward informs Munro that it is he, the commander of Fort William Henry, with whom General Montcalm wishes to confer. Attended by Heyward as interpreter, Munro meets Montcalm halfway between the fortress and the French front lines. To his bitter chagrin, Munro reads, in the intercepted letter which Montcalm now hands him, that Webb has refused to send additional reinforcements to Fort William Henry. Montcalm now makes a generous military proposal. If the British will surrender the fort, they will be guaranteed an unmolested retreat, departing in freedom, bearing their arms, and flying their national colors. It is a chivalric gesture that will permit the British to abandon the doomed fort with honor, and Munro gratefully but reluctantly signs a treaty which includes these concessions. Control of the fort is to change hands the next day.

[17] On the fateful morning that follows, the British, numbering nearly three thousand (including women and children), begin their withdrawal, taking their many wounded troops with them. They are suddenly fallen upon by two thousand French-allied Indians whom Montcalm tries to dissuade from their bloody purpose but does not forcibly restrain — if, indeed, such restraint lies within his power. Dissatisfied with Montcalm’s generous surrender terms, the savages, led by Magua, had waited in the forest to wreak their fury upon the enemy and plunder their provisions. [The massacre is more historical than fictional.] In the midst of the slaughter, Magua finds Cora and Alice and again abducts them, followed, at a distance, by David Gamut, the girls’ ineffectual “protector.”

[18-20] On the third day after the massacre, five men move in pursuit of Magua, his Huron band, and his captives: Heyward, Munro, Chingachgook, Uncas, and Natty Bumppo (Hawkeye, as his Indian friends call him, and La Longue Carabine to his Indian foes). They, in turn, are pursued by other Hurons and by Oneidas, whose tribe is a member of the powerful Iroquois Confederacy. [Behind much of the action here lies the confusion of Indian alignments during the French and Indian War. The French are supported by Hurons, the British by most of the Six Nations of Iroquois, though Hurons and Iroquois derived from the same stock. The numerous and widely distributed Delawares or Lenni-Lenape also fight on both sides — the Mohicans and other Southern Delawares (Delawares of the Hills) aiding the British and the Northern Delawares (Delawares of the Lakes) supporting the French — partly because of their hatred of the Iroquois. The Northern Delawares refuse, however, to participate in the battle for Fort William Henry, in which they would have to fight other Delawares; they inform Montcalm that they need more time to sharpen their tomahawks — an obvious subterfuge. (Cooper here distorts history somewhat for his own fictional purposes.)]

[21] After tracking Magua and his group for some time, the five pursuers approach the Huron village. As they view the Indian settlement, they are alarmed by the sudden splashing of numerous bodies in a nearby stream. Cautiously investigating the source of the noise, they discover that it is being made by beavers diving furiously to escape the instructions in psalm-singing offered by David Gamut. David is dejected by their negative response to his efforts. [22] From the psalmodist they learn that Magua has gone moose hunting, that he has left Cora as his prisoner at a camp of Northern Delawares, and that he has kept Alice in captivity at his own Huron village. David himself has enjoyed immunity from harm, Natty conjectures, not because of his musical ability but because of Indian awe of and reverence for insanity. Taking his cue from this bit of Indian lore, Heyward has himself made up as a madman in order to gain safe entry into the Huron village with David, and then to try to rescue Alice. Chingachgook remains with Colonel Munro, whose age and recent losses have deranged him perceptibly; the two hide in an unoccupied beaver house. Natty and Uncas go to the camp of the Northern Delawares to negotiate for the release of Cora.

[23] Entering the Huron village with David, Heyward is readily accepted in the role he now chooses to play, that of a French medicine man. His discussion with the elders of the tribe is interrupted by the arrival of warriors bearing a pole covered with scalps and leading two captives: Uncas and Reed-That-Bends, a craven Huron who had fled from Uncas. Uncas successfully runs a gauntlet to the sanctuary of a sacred post before the council lodge; there he awaits the final judgment of the council. Reed-That-Bends, resigned to his fate, uncovers his breast to receive the knife of his chief.

Magua, back from the hunt, enters the council of chiefs to smoke a pipe with them. Discovering that the Delaware captured during his absence is Uncas, Magua delivers a powerful oration demanding the death of the prisoner. He then leaves the council lodge without recognizing Heyward in his antic attire.

[24] A chief requests Heyward to cure an ailing Huron woman whom their own medicine man has been unable to aid. As they proceed to the cave where the patient is kept, Heyward is astonished to find them being followed by a growling, fierce-looking bear. The Indians, recognizing the bearskin worn by their conjurer, know that the bear is not real. What they do not know is that inside the skin is Natty Bumppo, who has bound and gagged the conjurer and left him in another part of the cave. [25] Left alone with the sick woman, who is in a coma, Natty reveals his identity to Heyward and leads him to that section of the cave where Alice is imprisoned. When Magua surprises them, he is overpowered and, like the conjurer, tied up and left in the cave. Wrapping Alice in blankets, Heyward and Natty (still playing the bear) smuggle her from the cave by pretending that she is the sick woman being moved beyond the reach of the evil spirits which have possessed her. Once they have safely cleared the Huron settlement, Natty directs Heyward and Alice to the nearby Delaware camp where they will find asylum from the Hurons who will surely pursue them. Natty himself returns to try to rescue Uncas.

[26] Along with David Gamut, Natty visits Uncas in the tent in which he is imprisoned and cuts the young man’s bonds. Uncas then dons the bearskin and Natty the clothes of David in order to effect their escape. Wearing the scanty garb of Uncas, David is tied up in his place to deceive the guards temporarily. When, shortly afterwards, Magua is released and David’s identity is detected, two hundred Hurons set out on the trail of the woodsman and the young Mohican. The fugitives reach the safety of the Delaware camp, however, before they can be overtaken.

[27] Magua soon visits the Delaware camp to claim as his prisoners Cora, Alice, Heyward, Uncas, and La Longue Carabine. [28] With well-placed gifts and carefully calculated rhetoric, Magua influences the council of chiefs in his favor. The issue has too many implications, however, to be decided by the council. It must be aired before the Delaware nation presided over by the venerable sage Tamenund (Tammany). [29] When Tamenund asks the prisoners which of them is La Longue Carabine, Heyward claims the title in an effort to protect Natty. Natty resents this and insists that the title is his. In a shooting match arranged to establish the identity of the famous marksman, Natty easily outdoes the major’s best shots. Listening to Magua’s claims for the return of his prisoners, Tamenund rules initially in his favor. Cora’s plea before the sage for compassion fails, but she does succeed in drawing to the attention of the aged leader the Delaware among the prisoners, Uncas.

[30] The proud young Mohican’s censorious comments so anger the mass of Delawares that they demand permission to torture him. As they rush upon Uncas, they are suddenly frozen in superstitious awe, staring, with mingled fear and reverence, at the totemic turtle tattooed in bright blue on his chest. Uncas is not slow to remind them of the Indian creation myth that the earth was formed by the Manitou upon the back of a great sea turtle and that his lineage symbolically supports the world. It is then revealed that Uncas is the last of the most noble line of chiefs among the Mohican tribe of the Delawares. Tamenund, more than one hundred years old, gives thanks to Manitou for being able to see again before his death a direct descendant of the first great and, by now, legendary Uncas.

The youthful Uncas demands the release of the prisoners of Magua. All are freed except Cora, who was personally delivered into the custody of the Delawares by Magua. Tamenund rules that Magua’s claim on Cora must be honored if Indian justice is to prevail. To the grief of all observers, both red and white, Cora is led away the captive of Magua, who says that she will henceforth live in his wigwam.

[31] Uncas leads a ritualistic war dance as the Delawares await the three hours’ truce before they can justly pursue Magua. Preparation for war apparently is not one-sided, for several Huron snipers hiding in the adjacent woods have already found their range. David Gamut enters the Delaware camp to confirm the fact that Hurons have gone on the warpath and that Cora has been confined to the cave in which Alice was imprisoned earlier. Knowing well the cave and its various entrances, Natty Bumppo, accompanied by twenty braves, is to attempt the rescue of Cora while the rest of the Delawares engage the Huron forces and keep them occupied.

[32] Before this rescue operation can be carried out, however, a full-scale battle develops. Three units of Delawares and whites now attack the Hurons. One is led by Natty and Heyward, one by Uncas, and one by Chingachgook and Munro, who have now emerged from their hideout among the beavers. The Hurons are soon routed, and the action shifts to the pursuit of four fugitives: Magua, Cora, and the two Hurons who drag the girl along their escape route.

When the four reach a rocky ledge above a steep precipice, Core declares that she will go no farther, regardless of the penalty. Bidding her choose between flight and death, Magua twice raises his hand to stab her and twice hesitates to strike. Just at that moment, Uncas, leading the pursuit, rashly jumps from above to the ledge, where his prostrate body is fallen upon and stabbed in the back by Magua. In the meantime, one of Cora’s Huron attendants takes this opportunity to bury his knife in her bosom. With his remaining strength Uncas arises and kills Cora’s murderer, and then, powerless, is himself slashed in the breast three times by Magua. Thus ends the life of the last of the ruling family of the Mohicans’ turtle clan. Magua, attempting to escape by jumping across a narrow ravine to the opposite cliff, is struck by a shot from Killdeer, and his body hurtles downward to destruction.

[33] Funeral ceremonies are held for Uncas and Cora by the Delawares and the handful of whites present. In the elegies that are recited over the dead, the suggestion is made that an affinity between the two will unite them in the next world. Natty alone demurs at this notion, though he unhesitatingly renews his pledge of undying friendship with the bereaved Chingachgook. The venerable Tamenund closes the story with a broader elegy, one that goes beyond the fate of individuals to that of the race: “Go, children of the Lenape, the anger of the Manitou is not done. ... The pale-faces are masters of the earth, and the time of the red-men has not yet come again. ... ” (p. 443)

Nathaniel Bumppo, Chingachgook, David Gamut, Major Duncan Heyward, Magua, Marquis of Montcalm, Lieutenant Colonel Munro, Alice Munro, Cora Munro, Reed-That-Bends, Tamenund, Uncas, Uttawa, General Webb.