The Pathfinder; or, The Inland Sea (1840)

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. 140-147.

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 third of the five Leather-Stocking Tales in relation to plot, the fourth in order of composition.]

[1] Accompanied by her seaman uncle, Charles Cap, Mabel Dunham travels toward Fort Oswego, on Lake Ontario, to visit there her father, a sergeant major in the British 55ᵗʰ Regiment. They are guided through the wilderness by a Tuscarora (Iroquois) named Arrowhead, who is accompanied by his wife, Dew-of-June. En route they come upon the camp of Natty Bumppo (the guide and scout now known as Pathfinder) and his adopted brother Chingachgook (Great Serpent), both sent as additional protection for Mabel and Cap as the French and Indian War flares up sporadically along the northern edges of the British colonies. [2] With the scout and his Delaware companion is their friend Jasper Western, a young freshwater sailor on the “inland sea” (Lake Ontario).

An opinionated, dogmatic “old salt,” Cap appreciates only the ocean mariner’s way of life. He scorns in supercilious manner both Pathfinder’s forest and Jasper’s freshwater lake. As the whole party proceeds on its way, the scout and his friend retaliate with a frontier-style practical joke: they take Cap over the falls of the Oswego River in a bark canoe. [4] The fun ends quickly when they discover that they are beset by a band of Iroquois on the warpath. [Although historically the Six Nations of Iroquois were allied with the British cause, there were always renegades whose services could be bought; more important, there were northern groups of Iroquois-speaking Indians, notably the Hurons, who, living in the French territory, were traditionally pro-French. Natty refers to all Iroquois-speaking Indians as “Mingos.”]

Greatly outnumbered by the Iroquois, the party bound for Fort Oswego uses every possible stratagem to escape its pursuers: decoy, camouflage, the superior canoe handling of Jasper Western, and the reliable marksmanship of Pathfinder. Although they manage to place the river between themselves and their foes — they on the west bank, the Indians on the east — they lose one of their two canoes. When this light vessel hangs up on a shoal, it affords the Iroquois a potential means of reaching the opposite shore. As Jasper and Chingachgook swim to the shoal to recover the canoe, under the cloak of darkness, they discover that several Iroquois are on the same mission. By a series of maneuvers, Jasper and Chingachgook, unidentified in the indifferent light, secure the canoe; but the last Iroquois who might obstruct their flight recognizes the ruse and locks himself in fierce struggle with the Delaware chief. As the two grapple in the water, Jasper, unable to aid his friend in the dark and fearful of being captured by the now alerted Iroquois, paddles the canoe to the west bank. All but Pathfinder feel that an effort should be made to rescue Chingachgook, but Natty, confident of his friend’s prowess, insists on their next dash down the river toward Fort Oswego. [6]They are rejoined a short distance downstream by Chingachgook, richer by three Iroquois scalps. By now several of the attackers have been killed, but Pathfinder’s group has been reduced by two through the desertion of Arrowhead and Dew-of-June. While he was among the Iroquois, Chingachgook discovered from their conversation that Arrowhead had deliberately led them into an ambush. [7] Under the cover of darkness the refugees at last reach the safety of Lake Ontario.

[8] Sergeant Dunham discloses that one of the reasons for inviting his daughter to this frontier outpost is to have her married to his close friend Pathfinder. [9] Natty himself has serious doubts that a refined girl accustomed to life in the settlements could accept an illiterate woodsman or be happy in the rude living conditions of the frontier. The sergeant will not, however, listen to such misgivings. [10] Shortly after his discussion with Pathfinder, Sergeant Dunham is summoned by his commanding officer, Major Duncan, who speaks on behalf of Lieutenant David Muir, regimental quartermaster, for the hand of Mabel. Duncan is surprised to learn of her betrothal to Pathfinder. Later in the evening the major breaks the news to his thrice-married fellow officer, and the two share a bottle of wine as they reminisce in broad Scotch dialect of their boyhood together in the old country. None of these men is aware that Mabel’s heart has been won by young Jasper Western.

[11] At the request of several soldiers, Major Duncan announces that a shooting match will be held on the following day. After firing at a conventional bull’s-eye target, those still in contention must drive a nail into a stump with their bullets. All but three of the marksmen are eliminated by this test: the boastful David Muir, Jasper Western, and Pathfinder. When Jasper tells Pathfinder that he wishes to win the grand prize, a silk calash, in order to present it to Mabel Dunham, the scout decides to let his friend win. In the final trial of skill each contestant in turn shoots at a potato tossed up into the air. Muir misses completely; Jasper punctures the center of the potato; and Pathfinder deliberately nicks the skin. After Mabel receives the calash from Jasper and the shooting match ends, Natty confides to the girl that he could have defeated Jasper if he had wished to do so. To substantiate this claim, he kills with a single bullet two seagulls circling above the lake at some distance from them. In appreciation of his generosity to Jasper and of his superior skill, Mabel gives Pathfinder a silver brooch as a memento of the occasion.

[12-13] Major Duncan places Sergeant Dunham in charge of a unit to relieve a force stationed among the Thousand Islands to intercept French supplies coming to the area by way of the St. Lawrence River. The detachment is to travel in the Scud, a cutter-rigged vessel of forty tons burden, Jasper Western, Master. Pathfinder and Chingachgook are among the combatants selected to go; Mabel and Cap join the party by way of diversion from the routine of garrison life. Just before the Scud sails, the major receives an anonymous letter accusing Jasper of being a French spy. Although Sergeant Dunham defends Jasper’s loyalty when he is first apprised of the accusation, he later becomes suspicious himself, largely because the young sailor speaks fluent French. [14] Cap believes the accusation for equally specious reasons: he imagines that Jasper’s navigational tactics are French, and his prejudice against all freshwater sailors causes him now to see treasonous intent in the young man’s every motion. Pathfinder staunchly supports the fidelity of his young friend.

[15] En route to the Thousand Islands the Scud overtakes a canoe paddled by the treacherous Arrowhead and his wife, Dew-of-June. The two Indians are captured but manage to escape when they pretend to be going to their canoe for blankets. After Cap blames Jasper for the loss of the two prisoners, Sergeant Dunham has both Jasper and the pilot arrested and sent below deck. Command of the Scud is now transferred to Cap, who condescends to sail such an irregular little bark on what he considers a pond. Without charts or bearings, however, he becomes hopelessly lost as they approach the St. Lawrence River and the Thousand Islands.

[16] Although they are apparently close to their destination, they are suddenly driven westward by a heavy storm. They are swept past their starting point at Fort Oswego, and on toward Niagara and the end of the lake, held by the French. At one point they come within hailing distance of the Montcalm, a larger and better-armed French vessel. As they are about to be driven on the rocky shore, the baffled but stubbornly conceited Cap finally agrees to consult Jasper Western concerning means of saving the Scud. Brought up on deck, Jasper advises immediate anchoring, a move so unacceptable to Cap’s saltwater training that he scoffs at it in high indignation. [17] As a last resort, Dunham returns command of the vessel to Western, who confounds Cap even further by steering the Scud directly toward the steepest bluff, knowing that from it there must be an undertow, a current returning to the lake the water driven against the shore by the strong east wind. Locating such an undertow, Jasper knows that his anchors will hold and that he can ride out the storm in safety.

[18] With its ground tackle holding, the Scud awaits a change in the wind in order to sail east again. Sergeant Dunham, Mabel, and Pathfinder go ashore in a canoe, the father’s purpose being to provide the guide an appropriate time to propose to his daughter. This Pathfinder does in his untutored and backhanded way. Considering the difference in their ages — she is twenty, while he is in his mid-thirties — Mabel is surprised by Natty’s proposal and equally surprised by the fact that her father had encouraged this suit. Refusal of Pathfinder’s offer is made difficult for Mabel by the great respect and admiration she has for the man. Natty is so enamored of Mabel — this is his only active pursuit of a woman in the Leather- Stocking Tales — that he momentarily weeps at his rejection.

[19] When the Scud sails east, its access to the garrison at Oswego is cut off by the Montcalm, which lies in wait just beyond the range of the fort’s artillery. Outdistancing the French warship, Jasper finally eludes it completely among the Thousand Islands, where he threads his way easily to the secret British outpost. After the new contingent lands and the old embarks, the Scud sets sail again almost immediately for Oswego.

At this new island quarters, the thrice-married Muir continues to bore Mabel with his exaggerated but insincere gallantries. As Sergeant Dunham prepares to lead two boatloads of troops to intercept French supplies bound for Frontenac, he calls his daughter to him in order to discuss her future. He could die in battle happily, he tells her, if he knew that she were to wed Pathfinder. His reluctance to insist on her marrying the guide prompts Mabel to promise to do just that if Pathfinder should propose again.

[20] Only six men, including the ineffectual Lieutenant Muir and Charles Cap, remain on Station Island after the raiding party leaves. Besides Mabel, supposedly only one other woman is present. She is Jennie, the wife of a soldier named Sandy. Mabel is surprised, therefore, to be visited on the following day by Dew-of-June, who urges her to sleep henceforth in the blockhouse. An Indian attack on the island is imminent, and June (as she is often called) has come to warn only Mabel; if the men are informed of the forthcoming strike, June says, her husband will kill her for having alerted his foe. June also reveals that Arrowhead wants Mabel for a second wife in his wigwam. After the Indian woman departs, Mabel finds a piece of red bunting tied to a tree, an obvious signal to someone. She takes the banner to Muir, who suggests that it resembles bunting he has seen aboard the Scud — a further intimation of treason on the part of Jasper. After Mabel has left him, however, Muir attaches the banner to a tree in an even more noticeable position than it had had earlier.

[21] Some twenty Indians attack the island, led by Arrowhead and loosely supervised by the French Captain Sanglier. Corporal McNab, his three regular soldiers, and Jennie are all killed and scalped. Cap and Muir seem to have disappeared. [22] Mabel and June retreat to the blockhouse and bar the heavy door. The logs of the blockhouse are still too green to burn easily, but actually neither Arrowhead nor Sanglier wants it destroyed. To set up a perfect ambush for the returning British troops, they wish to keep the scene completely unchanged. To achieve this end, they even prop up the bodies of the slain redcoats in likely postures.

[23] Mabel and June sleep in the blockhouse safely throughout the night. On the following day, the Indians, threatening to storm the blockhouse, announce that Muir and Cap will be scalped unless Mabel surrenders the little fortress and its valuable supplies. Brought forward, Muir pleads with Mabel to capitulate; Cap urges her to resist. A stalemate develops when Mabel tells the besiegers that the rifle protruding from one of the loopholes is that of Pathfinder. Later in the day Mabel sees Chingachgook approaching the island by canoe, and she waves to him. At dusk she sends June to serve as lookout on the upper level of the blockhouse while she herself stands ready to unbar its door if Chingachgook should appear. To her great surprise, however, the person she admits proves to be not the Delaware but Pathfinder.

After the expedition sinks three boatloads of French supplies, Pathfinder and Chingachgook, traveling in their respective canoes, return to Station Island more quickly than do the heavier boats carrying troops. Detecting and avoiding the ambush, Natty hopes to be able to warn Dunham of the well-laid trap, but the sergeant and his troops arrive before any communication can reach them. They march blindly into the ambush and suffer heavy casualties. Sergeant Dunham, mortally wounded, staggers to the blockhouse door and is dragged inside by Pathfinder and Mabel. Cap, effecting his escape during the massacre, arrives safely at the log stronghold.

[24] Muir now appears outside the blockhouse and tries, unsuccessfully, to persuade Pathfinder to surrender. The attack begins. The Indians fire into the blockhouse the single shell available for the howitzer captured the day before from the French. Although this blast causes some damage, the log walls remain impervious to the rifle balls that follow. Their next and expected stratagem is to attempt to set fire to the building. The flames from the burning brush heaped up against the front wall are easily extinguished by the water Cap pours on them from above, but not before their light has enabled Pathfinder to dispatch one of the enemy with a shot from his trusty rifle, Killdeer. This ends the attack for the night.

[25] When the Scud arrives the next day, Jasper approaches with great caution, informed by Chingachgook, who is aboard, of the state of affairs on the island. Sweeping in close to shore, he tows away the two British boats and all of the canoes tied up to them, thus making escape for the Indians impossible. A shower of small shot from the Scud’s howitzer, along with deadly fire from Killdeer and from Chingachgook’s rifle, soon forces the enemy to request terms of surrender. With Lieutenant Muir interpreting for him, Captain Sanglier agrees to return all British prisoners (six of whom, besides Muir, have survived), to surrender all arms (including the knives and tomahawks of the Indians), and to depart at once. Jasper recovers the Indian boats and then, when they are loaded, tows them a mile to leeward of the island; to each boat he allows but one oar, an implement with which they can steer to the Canadian shore.

[26] Of the enemy forces only Arrowhead, June, and Captain Sanglier remain as the French officer and Lieutenant Muir draw up and sign the documents of surrender. With both Sergeant Dunham and his next in command, Corporal McNab, dead, the quartermaster (who had not fired a shot or otherwise aided the British effort) at once takes command and claims credit for the victory. He promptly orders that Jasper Western be arrested again for treason. Even the cunning Arrowhead is outraged by Muir’s duplicity. Before anyone can stop him, the Tuscarora stabs Muir to death and then slips away into the brush; he is trailed by Chingachgook, who soon returns with a bloody scalp. Jasper now appeals to Sanglier to identify his spy among the British forces. Sanglier points to Muir and then dumps from the dead man’s purse a number of double-Louis coins, part of his espionage pay from the French. It is also revealed now that it was Muir who had written the anonymous letter to Major Duncan accusing Jasper of treason and that it was Muir who had betrayed to the French the exact location of the British outpost in the otherwise French-controlled Thousand Islands area.

[27] While the affairs of war have been advancing thus rapidly, so have the affairs of the heart. Pathfinder unwittingly jolts Jasper when he discloses his intention of marrying Mabel, a step to be taken with the approval of her father. It is clear that the scout is totally oblivious to the affection felt by Jasper and Mabel for each other. The seaman controls his strong emotions and congratulates his friend as the person most worthy of wedding the beautiful and capable Mabel Dunham. [28] As Sergeant Dunham is dying, he clasps Mabel’s and what he thinks is Pathfinder’s hands, symbolically uniting the couple. The male hand he clutches, however, is Jasper’s rather than Natty’s, but no one tells the sergeant of this error as he draws his last breath. Immediately after the death scene Jasper and Pathfinder again discuss the latter’s forthcoming marriage to Mabel, and only now does the ingenuous woodsman discover that his friend too is desperately in love with the girl. The friendship between the two men is so strong that each defers to the other, and both suggest that they discuss their dilemma later.

[29] After a delay of three days, the Scud is ready to return to Fort Oswego, and all are aboard except the love triangle and the grieving Dew-of-June. As the first three are about to paddle to the ship in canoes, Pathfinder insists on resolving the marriage problem. With remarkable steadiness and candor he reviews the relationships among the three and acknowledges that the only woman he has ever loved would be better matched with the younger and more-educated Jasper than with himself. So impressive is his magnanimity that Jasper and Mabel momentarily feel guilty for their unspoken but clearly recognized love for each other. With a tearful embrace, Mabel and Pathfinder bid each other farewell, after which the girl kneels to receive the blessing of the woodsman. The essential saintliness of Natty Bumppo is perhaps most apparent in this scene. [30] As the young lovers embark for Fort Oswego, where they are to be married at once, Pathfinder remains on the island.

Finding June sorrowing over the grave of Arrowhead, Natty assures the forlorn woman of his understanding and friendship. Each day he brings her game which he has killed and cooked, but he maintains a proper relationship with the woman by sleeping on an adjacent island. After a month elapses and the falling leaves signal the end of the summer season, Chingachgook returns, and the three travel together to Fort Oswego. There Pathfinder talks for the last time with Jasper and Mabel as he visits them in their new log house. Leaving Dew-of-June with the Westerns, Pathfinder and Chingachgook disappear into the forest.

After living for a year on the shore of Lake Ontario, Jasper and Mabel move to New York City, where Jasper becomes a successful merchant. Over a period of several years, Mabel receives three large parcels of valuable furs, the sender unidentified, though she has no doubt that they are the gifts of Pathfinder. Once later in life, after the Revolution, she sees a renowned scout called Leather-Stocking gazing at her during a trip she is taking with her several sons along the Mohawk River. Although they do not speak or otherwise acknowledge each other, Mabel knows intuitively that this elderly figure is the Pathfinder she had known in her youth.

Anderson, Arrowhead, Nathaniel Bumppo (Pathfinder), Charles Cap, Chingachgook, Dew-of-June, Major Duncan, Mabel Dunham, Sergeant Thomas Dunham, Jennie, Corporal McNab, Lieutenant David Muir, Sandy, Captain Sanglier, Captain Jasper Western.