The Pioneers; or, The Sources of the Susquehanna (1823)

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. 155-162.

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

[1] Near sunset of Christmas Eve, 1793, Judge Marmaduke Temple and his daughter, Elizabeth, are approaching Templeton, a village of Central New York, in a sleigh driven by Agamemnon, a Negro slave. Elizabeth is returning home after four years spent in the city completing her education. When a deer, pursued by hounds, crosses their path, Judge Temple fires at it with his shotgun, but the animal continues to flee until two rifle shots bring it to earth. Natty Bumppo, an aged woodsman, and a youthful companion emerge from the place where they had been hiding to ambush the deer. Hoping to lay claim to at least part of the carcass, the judge insists that at least one of his five buckshot must have struck the deer. Natty’s young friend proves the Judge in err pointing out four bullet holes in the tree behind which he had been hiding and a fifth bullet hole in his own arm. The ownership of the deer is all but forgotten as the Judge and Elizabeth, shocked at the mishap, persuade the reluctant youth, who goes by the name of Oliver Edwards, to return with them to Templeton for treatment of his wound.

[2] The Temple estate through which the sleigh now passes had been earlier part of the property of a business partnership between Temple and Edward Effingham, both then young Pennsylvanians, the former a Quaker. The partnership had deliberately been concealed from Effingham’s father, a retired British major who disliked Quakers and who eschewed, as a matter of professional principle, all mercantile connections. The Revolutionary War had separated the partners, with Effingham remaining loyal to England, Temple supporting the patriot cause, and the separation continued after the war when Effingham failed to reappear. Temple had then moved permanently to Central New York, where he had added to his extensive holdings by purchasing at low rates Loyalist lands that had been confiscated. [3] The party soon comes within view of the Temple mansion, a large but architecturally dubious structure conceived by Richard Jones, the Judge’s cousin and business manager, and erected by Hiram Doolittle, an erratic, incompetent builder and jack-of-all-trades.

[4] The travelers are met by a welcoming party of Temple’s friends in a second sleigh driven by Richard Jones. With Jones is Major Frederick (Fritz) Hartmann, an elderly German descendant of Palatines settled along the Mohawk River shortly after the reign of Queen Anne; he is a frequent guest at the Temple mansion. A second friend is Monsieur Le Quoi, a political refugee from the French island of Martinique, who operates a small general store at Templeton and, near the end of the novel, moves to Paris. Among the welcomers is also Mr. Grant, Episcopal minister and temporary rector of the newly constructed and still inter-denominational St. Paul’s Church. Jones’s poor horsemanship almost causes his companions and himself to be thrown over a cliff, but the wounded Oliver Edwards, dashing forward from Temple’s sleigh, saves the welcomers.

[5] At the mansion two others welcome the Judge and Elizabeth: Remarkable Pettibone, the competent but presumptuous and disputatious housekeeper, and Ben Stubbs (called Ben Penguillan or Pump), the majordomo who still thinks and talks like the bluff British sailor he had been during much of his previous life. [6] Oliver Edwards’s wound is to be treated by Dr. Elnathan Todd, a Yankee pretender to more medical knowledge than he possesses. After the doctor makes an incision in the skin of Edwards’s arm, the shot falls out unaided. [7] Indian John, or John Mohegan (whose Indian name is Chingachgook, meaning Big Serpent), appears and proceeds to dress the wound quietly and efficiently. Oliver Edwards then leaves after insisting on his right to the carcass of the deer; Judge Temple acknowledges his claim but is baffled by the younger man’s barely restrained hostility.

[8-9] The Judge and his friends dine well at the mansion and then proceed to a [10-11] Christmas Eve church service conducted by Rev. Mr. Grant. Afterwards the characters divide into three groups. [12] Oliver Edwards and John Mohegan walk home with Rev. Mr. Grant, a widower, and his daughter Louisa, the latter the sole survivor of six children in the family. Oliver claims Delaware descent, a claim which the Grants take literally; his Indian lineage, however, is from his grandfather, an adopted member of the Delawares, who called him Fire-eater. Oliver condemns Temple for being unjust and rapacious, one whose sole objective is the acquisition of gold. Grant supposes that this enmity results from Temple’s accidental wounding of the young man, but Oliver hints vaguely of some greater evil committed by the Judge. [13] Meanwhile, the Judge and his friends gather at the Bold Dragoon Tavern, owned and operated by Captain Hollister, a Revolutionary War sergeant now commander of the local militia, and his good- natured, garrulous Irish wife, Betty. [14] Having left the Grant residence, John Mohegan also joins the group and proceeds to become helplessly drunk. Amid the revelry of song and drink, melancholy notes are struck by Natty Bumppo’s recollections of John as a powerful chief and of Fire-eater as the original white owner of the area. [15] A third scene is set at the Temple mansion, where, after Elizabeth retires for the night, Remarkable Pettibone and Ben Pump, both comic characters, drink and quarrel in slapstick fashion.

[16] The next morning Elizabeth presents Richard Jones with a Christmas present: a commission as sheriff secured for him by Judge Temple. [17] The group from the mansion then proceeds to the annual Christmas-day turkey shoot. Abraham Freeborn (Brom), a free Negro, is the proprietor of this event, providing a large turkey to be won by the marksman who can hit its head at a distance of a hundred yards. Elizabeth chooses Natty as her champion at this contest and pays his entrance fee. After Billy Kirby, a boisterous woodchopper, and the injured Oliver fail to hit the bird, Natty kills it and presents it to Elizabeth, who, in turn, gives it to Oliver as a peace offering from her family. [18] Oliver is then offered the job of private secretary to the Judge, the position held by Richard Jones before his appointment as sheriff. Both the Judge and Elizabeth are baffled by the impoverished Oliver’s reluctance to accept such a fine offer. Richard Jones, jealous of Oliver, attributes his strange behavior to what he insists are the young man’s half-breed origins. En route home to the cabin of Natty and John Mohegan. Oliver laments that he has agreed to live and work thereafter in the dwelling of his “greatest enemy.” [19-22] At the end of April the citizens of Templeton organize, under Richard Jones’s direction, to shoot pigeons migrating northward in great flocks that darken the sky. In the resulting mayhem thousands of birds are slain needlessly and wastefully. Natty Bumppo, after shooting the single bird he needs for food, leaves the scene uttering his condemnation of the sinful carnage, and afterwards Judge Temple acknowledges the error of his townsmen’s ways. [23] Soon after this a similar onslaught against Nature is made as part of Lake Otsego is seined and more fish are taken than can be consumed by the entire settlement. [24] Again Natty inveighs against the waste, demonstrating the moral norm by spearing just the one fish that is needed at his cabin. The fishing ends in near tragedy as Ben Pump, coxswain of the seining bateau, falls overboard and almost drowns. Natty catches the old sailor’s queue in the tines of his long fishing spear and pulls him to safety.

[25] On the following day the Judge receives in a large shipment of mail a distressing letter from one Andrew Holt, an English lawyer. It bears the bad tidings of the loss at sea of someone close to the Judge, though the name of the person is not revealed to the reader. The Judge closets himself all day with his attorney, Dirck Van der School, and Richard Jones, the business at hand being too personal and confidential to permit the presence of Oliver Edwards.

[26] Early in July Judge Temple and Richard Jones ride out to inspect what the latter has often claimed is the start of a silver mine. Elizabeth and Louisa walk in the woods after Elizabeth has superciliously rejected Oliver Edwards’s offer to accompany them with a gun for protection. Oliver, thus rebuffed, visits briefly the cabin of Natty Bumppo and observes the hasty departure of Hiram Doolittle from the premises. An hour later, while Oliver, Natty, and John Mohegan are fishing together, they hear Natty’s hounds, tied securely when Oliver left the cabin, baying a deer on the mountainside. [27] When the deer enters the lake to escape the dogs, its nearness arouses the hunting instincts of Natty and Mohegan. Despite Oliver’s repeated warnings that the deer season has not yet opened, the old men pursue and kill the deer in the water. It is then discovered that the buckskin thongs with which the dogs had been tied had not broken but had Been cut by a knife; Hiram Doolittle is justly suspected of having committed this act of stealth. They later discover the padlocked door of the cabin has been tampered with. [28] On their walk Elizabeth and Louisa, beset by a panther, are rescued from the beast by two shots from the rifle of Natty Bumppo.

[29] Meanwhile, Richard Jones leads Judge Temple to sites which, he feels, will substantiate his claim that there are rich silver deposits in the area. They first visit a site at which Jotham Riddel, a shiftless Yankee employed by Jones, is prospecting on behalf of the Temple estate. Although Jotham insists that silver deposits are present, he can offer no tangible proof, and he evades questions about his rationale for digging there. The pair then proceed to an even more mysterious undertaking. By piecing together bits of circumstantial evidence, Jones has half persuaded Temple that Oliver and his two aged friends are secretly mining silver and smelting it at night in Natty’s closely guarded cabin. He shows the Judge a nearby natural cave in which marks of excavation are clearly evident. Although no trace of ore is visible, the Judge is convinced that further investigation is warranted.

[30] Hiram Doolittle, local justice of the peace, requests of Judge Temple a warrant to search the hut of Natty Bumppo for the remains of a deer allegedly shot out of season. However reluctant he is to intrude upon an old man who has saved his daughter’s life, Judge Temple must, in all impartiality, honor the request, supported as it is by sworn testimony. Afraid to serve the warrant himself, Doolittle deputizes Billy Kirby and Jotham Riddel to assist him. After Natty hurls Doolittle a distance of twenty feet from his door rather than permit him to step across the threshold, he picks up his rifle and confronts Billy Kirby. Terrified at the sight of Natty’s rifle, Doolittle and Riddel flee, whereupon Billy and Natty compromise and part as friends. Billy agrees to forgo entry into the cabin when Natty offers him the deer hide as evidence of having killed a deer illegally.

[31] Though Judge Temple has insisted on enforcing the game law against Natty Bumppo, he agrees to let Elizabeth pay the fine, thus clearing the old hunter. When, however, he now learns of Natty’s forcible resistance to the law and his menacing its agents, he rushes from his study to inform Elizabeth that Natty must be treated as a criminal and brought to trial. In his distress the Judge is unaware of the presence of Oliver Edwards, who has lust been entreating Elizabeth to aid Natty in his difficulty with the law. Oliver exchanges heated words with the Judge and then bids Elizabeth farewell, saying that he is forthwith leaving his employment in the Temple household.

[32] On the night before the regular session of the county court, presided over by Judge Temple, is to convene, Richard Jones, Sheriff, goes, with a number of deputies, to arrest Natty Bumppo for trial. To their great surprise, the group finds at the former site of Natty’s cabin only a heap of smoldering embers. Unarmed, Natty appears out of the dark and surrenders himself. He had burned his home of many years rather than have it entered against his will.

[33] At the trial Natty is arraigned on two charges: assault and battery against Hiram Doolittle, Justice of the Peace, and resistance to the execution of a search warrant. Acquitted of the first charge, he is found guilty of the second; and Judge Temple sentences him to one hour in public stocks, one month in jail, and a $100 fine. Quite out of order, Natty makes an ingenuous but touching plea for a lighter sentence, reminding the court that he had once provided food and shelter for Judge Temple and that recently he had saved the Judge’s daughter from a panther. A further disruption of courtroom procedure is then made by Ben Pump, who offers all of his savings to buy Natty’s freedom. Both Natty’s and Ben’s pleas are, correctly, ruled out of order.

[34] When Natty is being placed in the stocks, Ben Pump feels so sorry for the disgrace put upon the old man that he takes his place by Natty and bids the constable lock them both there. Hiram Doolittle comes to the stocks to gloat over Natty’s discomfort, but he passes so close to the prisoners that Ben Pump is enabled to grab him and pummel him badly before the sheriff can come to his rescue. Although Ben is Jones’s favorite employee, the sheriff has no choice but to order the ex-sailor to be imprisoned for the night with Natty Bumppo.

[35] That evening Judge Temple gives Elizabeth $200 to deliver to Natty. As Louisa and Elizabeth approach the jail to present this money to the old hunter, they meet Oliver Edwards driving a team of oxen in the same direction. Refusing to take the gold guineas, Natty does agree to accept on the following day a canister of gunpowder so that he can kill beavers to pay his own fine. He and his cell mate, Ben Pump, have cut through the wall to make their escape, so Elizabeth and Louisa leave quickly in order to avoid being party to a jailbreak. When a posse pursues Oliver and Natty, however, Elizabeth aids the fugitives. They abandon the ox cart Oliver has borrowed, sans permission, from Billy Kirby. Buried in the cart in straw is Ben Pump, too drunk to be helped to freedom. The owner finds Ben there and takes him, now asleep, to the place where Kirby is to chop wood the next day.

[36] In the morning, Elizabeth and Louisa go to the store of Monsieur Le Quoi and buy the canister of powder promised Natty. Louisa, still shaken by the panther incident, refuses to go beyond the village limits, leaving Elizabeth to ascend Mt. Vision alone to meet the hunter at the appointed time and place. Near the summit she comes across John Mohegan clothed and decorated as if for some special occasion. Talking mainly of his imminent death, John seems to be on the verge of answering Elizabeth’s repeated question about the identity of Oliver Edwards when they are engulfed in the thick smoke of a forest fire. Hearing John give a low and familiar call, Oliver Edwards rushes upon the scene.

[37] Unable to stir to action the dying Indian, Oliver attempts to flee the fire-encircled summit with Elizabeth. All escape routes seem to be cut off by the flames, however, and the two prepare to die. At that moment, Natty comes crashing through the burning brush, hatless, hair and clothes singed, seeking Elizabeth. Hearing the canister explode, he thinks that she has been killed, but Elizabeth had earlier given the gunpowder to John Mohegan. [38] His approach to death is hastened by the powder burns he suffers, but Natty Bumppo straps the Indian on his back and carries him out of the flames. Oliver and Elizabeth follow Natty to safety. The group is joined by Rev. Mr. Grant, who ineffectually tries to rouse Christian thoughts in the dying chief. After John’s death, his body is carried to a nearby cave by Natty. As Oliver escorts Elizabeth to the highway, where voices of a rescue party can be heard, he promises her that the mystery of his identity will soon be removed.

[39] Rumors in Templeton make of Natty and Oliver at once possessors of great quantities of gold and silver and dangerous criminals. Sheriff Jones organizes a posse, supported by Captain Hollister and his militia troops, to attack the outlaws’ fortified cave. Natty Bumppo, joined by Ben Pump, holds off the fearful troops and their ludicrous commander with injury to none but Hiram Doolittle, who is nicked in the rump by a ball from Natty’s rifle. After Judge Temple arrives to order a cessation of hostilities, Oliver Edwards, accompanied by Major Hartmann, appears and also forbids violence, promising that the cave and its contents will be yielded.

[40] To the amazement of Judge Temple and the townsmen, Oliver Edwards and Major Hartmann carry from the cave on a rude chair a senile, white-haired figure. Oliver explains that this is his grandfather, Major Effingham (Fire-eater), the original owner of the land patent for that area. The Major’s son, Edward Effingham, had stayed loyal to the Crown as a colonel during the Revolutionary War after placing all his property in trust with his business partner, Marmaduke Temple. Taking his son to Nova Scotia, Edward had later moved to England; there he had secured a government position in the West Indies. En route to that new post, he had been lost at sea, with his only son assumed to have died in the same disaster, and thus Temple, never having met the Major and uncertain of his whereabouts, had lost contact with the Effinghams. Oliver, whose real name was Edward Oliver Effingham, had come when old enough to do so to what is now the United States and traced his grandfather to the cabin of Natty Bumppo, where the hunter (once the Major’s servant) and John Mohegan cared for the old man in his senility.

Back at the Mansion, Judge Temple shows Oliver a copy of his will, drawn on the day, earlier that year, when news of Edward’s death had reached Templeton. It bequeaths half his wealth to the heirs of Edward Effingham. Oliver and Judge Temple are now completely reconciled, and the Judge gives to the young man the hand of his daughter, Elizabeth. When, shortly afterwards, Monsieur Le Quoi arrives to make a chivalric but halfhearted proposal to Elizabeth, he is kindly but firmly refused. Le Quoi, again affluent, will soon move to Paris, abandoning his sugar plantation in Martinique.

[41] Early in September Oliver and Elizabeth are married. Shortly after this happy event a sad one ensues: the death of Major Effingham. Natty Bumppo and Ben Pump are persuaded to return to jail to serve their sentences, but they are soon freed by a pardon from the governor of the state, a pardon quietly arranged through the good offices of Judge Temple. Oliver gives a farm to the Rev. Mr. Grant, and Judge Temple secures for him a “living” along the banks of the Hudson River, a more settled area, where Louisa can meet other young people of her social and educational level. One day in October Oliver and Elizabeth visit the graves of Major Effingham and John Mohegan to examine their newly erected tombstones. There they find Natty Bumppo preparing to leave Templeton, his pack, his rifle, and his dogs in readiness for a long journey. Despite repeated pleas by the young couple to spend his last days close to them, Natty takes his farewell and heads west, never again to be seen by them.

Agamemnon, Nathaniel Bumppo, Chingachgook [John Mohegan], Hiram Doolittle, Edward Oliver Effingham, Major Oliver Effingham, Abraham Freeborn, Rev. Mr. Grant, Louisa Grant, Major Frederick Hartmann, Captain Hollister, Betty Hollister, Richard Jones, Billy Kirby, Le Quoi, Chester Lippet, Remarkable Pettibone, Jared Ransom, Jotham Riddel, Benjamin Stubbs [Ben Pump], Elizabeth Temple, Judge Marmaduke Temple, Dr. Elnathan Todd, Dirck Van der School.