The Oak Openings; or, The Bee-Hunter (1848)

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. 133-140.

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

Although the action of this Indian story turns on physical combat and the flight-and-pursuit motif, its theme is religious. [1] The novel opens in July of 1812 on the partly wooded prairies of western Michigan known as “oak openings.” Four men, all strangers to each other, meet in apparent amity and talk together. Two of these men are Indians: Elksfoot, an elderly Pottawattamie, and Pigeonswing, a young Chippewa. The other two are white men: Benjamin Boden, a bee-hunter and honey merchant from Pennsylvania, and Gershom Waring, an alcoholic trader from New England. In the story’s first episode Boden shows his three new acquaintances the scientific method he practices for locating hives of wild bees. He uses simple triangulation, releasing two honey-laden bees at points 1,600 feet apart and then observing closely the direction of their respective flights; where their lines of flight intersect, there will be their hive.

[2] After chopping down the dead oak tree containing several hundred pounds of honey, the men go to Ben Boden’s log cabin for dinner. As they are smoking their pipes and talking about the possibility of another war between the Americans and the British, Pigeonswing startles his three companions with the announcement that the war has already started and that Fort Mackinaw has fallen to Canadian forces.

[3] The next morning before breakfast, Pigeonswing draws Boden aside and warns him against Elksfoot, who, he claims, is in the pay of the Canadian British. Then to prove his own pro-American position, the Chippewa takes from his tobacco pouch a letter which he is bearing from Detroit-based General Hull (Governor of the Michigan Territory) to Captain Heald, the officer who commands the small garrison at Chicago. After breakfast the two Indians depart, and Boden and Waring proceed by canoe to a point along the river near the felled bee tree in order to collect the honey. After driving off eight bears which are also interested in the honey, they accomplish their mission and start back down the Kalamazoo River to their cabins. [4] Boden has decided to move back to the settlements until the British-American conflict has ended lest he be caught in the Indian hostilities that will inevitably erupt during such a war. He hires Waring to help him take out of the wilderness the large store of honey he has been accumulating for several months. As they are about to proceed to Whiskey Centre, the Waring shanty, they discover the shot and scalped body of Elksfoot propped in a sitting position against a tree, and it seems likely that the Pottawattamie died at the hands of the Chippewa just after the two Indians had left Boden’s cabin that morning. As their heavily laden canoe floats down the river, Gershom Waring reveals how his drinking has brought him down in life from a fairly prosperous New England merchant to a frontier trader whose whole wealth now is two barrels of whiskey. He had heard that in the West soldiers and Indians were paying high prices for whiskey, so he had put all of his remaining funds in that commodity and come to western Michigan accompanied by two virtuous and loyal women, his wife, Dorothy (Dolly), and his sister, Margery (Blossom) Waring.

[5] At Whiskey Centre — it is the name Waring gives to every house he lives in and a name used as an epithet for the man himself — Benjamin and Gershom are welcomed by the two women, who have spent five wakeful nights in fear of Indian attack. Their fears were warranted, for the women had seen on the river three canoes loaded with Indians. The men realize that the savages will probably return with the intention of taking all their scalps. Upon Boden’s advice, they abandon the Waring cabin, hide all its contents in the nearby woods, and prepare to leave in two canoes between which the bee-hunter has divided his stock of honey. While Gershom is occupied with this work, Boden discovers and destroys his two kegs of whiskey in an effort to save the alcoholic from his greatest enemy. [6] As they are near the river that evening, ready to depart, they observe the arrival of four canoe loads of Indians who land and proceed to the now deserted cabin. There they build a large fire, in the glow of which Boden is able to discern the figure of a captive tied to a tree. It is Pigeonswing. Boden circles the cabin carefully and cuts the withes binding the Chippewa while Margery, standing at a safe distance, focuses a shielded lantern in such a way as to provide a guide point for the bee-hunter but remain invisible to the Pottawattamies. All three escape the Pottawattamie camp.

[7] Back at the riverbank, they find Gershom Waring dead drunk on some brandy found in Boden’s personal belongings. The bee-hunter mans one canoe and Pigeonswing the other as they edge away into the deep water towing behind them the four canoes of the Pottawattamies. The little flotilla moves silently across the river and ties up on the opposite bank. Instead of moving away with all possible dispatch, Boden (for some unexplained reason) feels it necessary to reconnoiter the Pottawattamie camp. Landing the contents of one canoe, he uses it to approach the Indians quietly in the dark and tie up in a tall clump of wild rice near them. [8] Observing the Pottawattamies behaving very strangely, Boden finally realizes that they are trying to account for the strong scent of alcohol which lingers around the spot where he had spilt some of Waring’s whiskey when rolling the two kegs from the cabin. The bee-hunter’s curiosity now makes him so careless that he is unaware that his canoe has come untied and is floating in to shore directly toward two sentinels. Making a virtue of what is now a necessity, Boden steps from his canoe and coolly greets the startled shore guards.

Ben now pretends to be a great white medicine man and indulges in elaborate mummery to distract the Indians sufficiently to permit his escape. He first impresses them with his power by means of the spyglass he uses in his trade. Having never seen such an instrument, the Indians are easily persuaded that its magnification or diminution, depending upon which end one looks through, is the result of magic. Boden then astounds his audience by informing them that they are close to the site of whiskey springs, hence the smell of liquor in the air. [9] After he has a large fire built, which he makes dazzling by throwing into it chunks of resin, he utters some supposed incantations and leads the Indians to the spot where the kegs had burst against a rock as they were rolled down a steep bank. There he points out small pools of whiskey in the rocks, and his ruse is complete. Saying that he needs more resin from his canoe in order to continue his conjuration and show them where to dig for firewater, Boden leaps aboard his bark vessel and attempts to escape. To his consternation, he discovers that the Pottawattamies have been smart enough to remove all of his paddles. As he pushes his canoe once again into the bed of tall wild rice, he is pursued by several savage young swimmers. When a captive canoe, containing Margery and towed by two of the swimmers, passes alongside his hiding place, Boden steps into this second boat and beats off the two surprised Pottawattamies with the butt of his rifle. [10] He and Margery, who had attempted to come to his aid, escape with both of the canoes and recross the river to join Gershom, Dolly, and Pigeonswing.

[11] The size of their group is increased the following day by the arrival of three newcomers: Parson Amen, Corporal Flint, and Onoah (better known as Scalping Peter). The Rev. Mr. Amen, missionary to the western Indians, is an ardent advocate of the theory [popular at the time] that the red men of America are descendants of the “lost tribes” of Israel. Amen is accompanied on his travels by an old soldier, Corporal Flint. Onoah, the third stranger, a man of about fifty, is a more complex character than either of the whites. Despite the fact that his tribal origin is unknown — he is sometimes called Nameless, at other times Tribeless — Onoah has great status among many tribes as a result of his persistent efforts to unite all Indians against the white settlers. Like Tecumseh, with whom he is compared, he entertains the hope that by united effort, the Indians can drive the European settlers from the whole North American continent. [12] He now visits the Pottawattamie camp and soon returns with the promise that those Indians will not attack the white group if the latter will leave the warriors’ canoes tied along the riverbank to be picked up at a later time.

[13] Boden, the Warings, Pigeonswing, and the three newcomers decide to leave the area now; to confuse the Pottawattamies, they travel not down river toward Lake Michigan (seemingly the easiest escape route) but upstream toward its source. They come, after more than a week of travel, to Castle Meal (a corruption of the French Château au Miel, meaning Honey Castle), a cabin built by Ben Boden near a clearing (opening) known as Prairie Round. [14-15] There the men set to work at once chopping trees and digging a trench in order to construct palisades around the cabin.

On two successive nights the inhabitants of Castle Meal are awakened by the sound of a mysterious horn. [16] On the second night Ben’s dog, Hive, leads the bee-hunter and Corporal Flint to the event announced by these strange horn blasts: a council on Prairie Round of fifty Indian chiefs from several different tribes. Boden and Flint conceal themselves near the edge of the clearing to observe the proceedings. They see the arrival of Parson Amen and Scalping Peter, who debate before the assembly the missionary’s contention that the Indians are really Jews. [17] They note also the arrival of a runner who brings the news that Detroit, as well as Chicago, has also fallen to the British. [18] At this point a herd of deer bursts upon the scene pursued by a wolf pack. The Indians kill several of the deer and begin shooting the wolves, but not before one of the predators overruns the position of the whites and tangles with Hive in a noisy fight. The eavesdroppers are exposed; but Peter, for reasons of his own, protects them from any hostile act. After Boden, Flint, and Amen return to their palisaded cabin, Pigeonswing takes the bee-hunter aside and warns him to depart at once and alone if he values his life at all. Boden will not leave, however, without Margery; Margery, in turn, will not desert her brother and sister-in-law.

[19] On the following morning Boden is requested by the council of chiefs to demonstrate his art of finding honey. Again the bee-hunter attempts to intimidate the Indians with his purportedly magical powers — will they dare attack a great medicine man? — and he pretends to communicate with the bees for the purpose of prophecy. [20] Supposedly they tell him where their honey is stored, and they also inform him that a pack of bears is molesting the hive, though it is obvious to the reader that Boden has deduced these facts from observable evidence. [21] During all this flummery, which actually achieves nothing by way of safeguarding the whites, Margery’s conversation with Peter softens somewhat that fanatic’s hatred for them. She admits the truth of several of the charges leveled against the encroaching settlers. As Boden distributes great quantities of honey among the Indians, Peter confers privately with Parson Amen, exacting from the missionary a promise to do all he can to persuade Boden and Margery to be married at once, this very day.

[22] As the simple wedding rites are being performed by Parson Amen, the assembled chiefs discuss the time and method for the slaughter of the six Americans. Peter now takes the position that the bee-hunter and his squaw should be spared, but he is opposed by the opportunistic Ungque (better known as Weasel), an ambitious demagogue who has long resented Peter’s power. In the debate that develops, each speaker uses the high rhetoric and figurative language often attributed to Indian orators. Feeling in the council favors Weasel’s argument, and the meeting ends when Peter concedes victory to his opponent.

[23] The group at Castle Meal sees nothing of any Indians until breakfast time the next morning, when the Chippewa returns with venison and ducks he has killed. Although Pigeonswing has not mingled with the other Indians, lest he be recognized by one of the Pottawattamies, he senses that a crisis is at hand, and he uses all of his limited English to persuade first Margery and then Boden of the absolute necessity of their immediate departure. Scalping Peter, too, who appears shortly afterwards, leaves no doubt about the imminence of disaster. Meditative and melancholy, he finally reveals to Boden the decision of the council to kill all of the whites. It is evident from his speech and behavior that Peter is experiencing a powerful inner turmoil. Margery and Boden he admires and wishes to save; Amen, Flint, and the Warings he still views as part of that invading force he has worked twenty years to exterminate.

[24] Peter takes Parson Amen and Corporal Flint to Prairie Round, where the chiefs now have their followers around them, some three hundred Indians in all. When the two white men are completely surrounded, they are told their fate: immediate execution. The missionary now realizes that he has been mistaken about the intentions of Onoah, but with the fortitude of a martyr, he does not quail before the truth. He preaches to the assembled red men, and just before his death, he prays for his executioners. This Christian principle of returning good for evil Peter had often heard enunciated by Amen, but he had never considered it humanly possible. Witnessing it now in actual practice, he is profoundly moved. [25] The execution of Amen and his attitude toward his executioners constitute a close parallel to the Crucifixion. Corporal Flint, on the other hand, remains a soldier to the last. Although disarmed, he seizes Weasel’s tomahawk, brains its owner, and, slashing right and left, wounds six or seven others before he is subdued. Because of his bravery, the Indians decide to honor him with the opportunity to show how much torture he can stand. Bending two strong saplings to the ground, they tie the old soldier by the arms between the two. When the young trees are released, they will lift him from the ground, separating his shoulder sockets and causing excruciating pain. But the corporal never feels the intended agony, for just as the withes are cut to release the saplings, a rifle shot rings out and Flint is killed instantly by a bullet through the temple. The chiefs suppose that act was committed by one of their own number intent upon taking some private revenge; it is, instead, a coup de grâce from the rifle of Pigeonswing.

It is now noticed that Peter is missing, and the chiefs suppose that he has gone to fetch the remainder of the condemned whites. When he does not reappear, the Indians decide to attack Castle Meal and capture its defenders. Hive barks at them from within the building, but no human form is seen at the palisades or near the cabin. Flaming arrows set fire to the roof, but still no one appears from within the cabin. At last the Indians realize what has happened: their quarry has escaped. [26] Peter rejoins the Indians now; but in the meantime, he has given the inhabitants of Castle Meal timely warning and has guided them a quarter of a mile farther upstream in canoes to a place where they can hide safely. He now suggests to the other chiefs that their intended victims must have taken the obvious route of escape and fled downstream.

[27] Ben Boden, now firmly convinced that the Michigan Territory will be unsafe until the war ends, hopes to be able, in some way, to return to the settlements in Pennsylvania. After remaining hidden for three days and nights, he and his party feel that it is time that they move again. Inasmuch as Peter has not returned to them, there is growing doubt in the minds of Boden and Pigeonswing about his real intentions. Boden is reluctant to go farther upstream, for if they continue in an easterly direction, they will eventually have to cross most of the Michigan peninsula by land, a hazardous journey among hostile tribes. The Chippewa now suggests that they float downstream behind their pursuers until they reach Lake Michigan, and this is the course ultimately agreed upon by all. They travel by night and rest by day hidden in swamps that drain into the river. After five nights of such guarded travel, they hear Indians ashore talking among themselves, but the canoes of the fugitives pass through the vicinity in the dark without being detected. The following day the travelers, weary as they are, sleep but little. Pigeonswing leaves at once to scout the area for Pottawattamies. [28] When Margery strays beyond the limits of their hiding place, she encounters Peter; the two talk at length of the conversion of Tribeless to Christianity after he had seen the martyrdom of Parson Amen. After they pray together, Margery teaches Peter the Lord’s Prayer. In their religious fervor, they unfortunately become oblivious to danger until they realize that their presence has been discovered by two youthful Pottawattamies posted along the riverbank as lookouts. As the guards rush back to give the alarm to the chiefs camped at some distance upstream, Peter urges the whites to flee immediately downstream, their only hope now being to reach Lake Michigan well in advance of their pursuers. [29] Peter leads the way in his own canoe; and at the mouth of: the Kalamazoo River, he distracts the attention of two canoeloads of braves until his white friends are safely past them and on the open waters of Lake Michigan.

Moving well away from shore, they paddle northward aided by a fresh breeze from the south. To increase speed and reduce lateral drift, Boden lashes their two canoes together and then swings a small lugsail from each side of this double-hull vessel. After sailing steadily in this manner for two days and nights, they reach the Straits of Mackinac and turn southeastward into Lake Huron. They are soon met by Peter and Pigeonswing, who have tracked Bear’s Meat and a band of Menominees across the Michigan peninsula to intercept the fugitives in Lake Huron. Abandoning their own makeshift canoe, the two Indians join their friends, one in each canoe; again Peter serves as guide. Avoiding several ambushes laid for them, they proceed from Lake Huron into Lake St. Clair, and then, via the Detroit River, into Lake Erie. As the group approaches Erie, Pennsylvania, its destination for now, Peter and Pigeonswing bid their white friends farewell in order to return to their own territory. Boden gives them one of the canoes plus his rifle and most of his personal possessions.

[30] The final chapter is not an integral part of the plot but rather a postlude to the action. The narrative method changes from that of omniscient observer to that of autobiographical commentator, and the coda is told from the author’s point of view. It is thirty-six years later when the author visits Michigan (now a place of fertile farms and pastoral villages) to meet those characters of the novel who are still alive. He comes as a result of receiving from Ben Boden, now nearing seventy, a set of notes that constitute the memoirs of his life in the oak openings. The author meets the elderly Ben and Margery Boden, their daughter (an only child), and their two granddaughters. He is also introduced to Pigeonswing during the Chippewa’s annual visit to the Boden homestead. Most impressive of all those he meets is Peter, completely Christianized and dressed in conventional clothes of the settlers. Now in his late eighties, Peter, though still illiterate, has spent the intervening years preaching the Gospel and witnessing in behalf of God’s “Blessed Son, who pray for dem dat kill him” (p. 497).

Rev. Mr. Amen, Bear’s Meat, Benjamin Boden, Bough of Oak, Crowsfeather, Elksfoot, Corporal Flint, Onoah, Mrs. Osborne, Dorothy Osborne, Margery Osborne, Pigeonswing, Thunder Cloud, Ungque, Dorothy Waring, Gershom Waring, Margery Waring, Wolfeye.