The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish: A Tale (1829)

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. 243-252.

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

[1] Set in the seventeenth century on frontier land later to become part of Connecticut, The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish is a fairly realistic story of the early American wilderness experience. Captain Mark Heathcote, a widower now for more than twenty years, decides (for religious reasons never fully particularized) to leave the Massachusetts Bay Colony and resettle in a fertile valley of the Connecticut Territory, not far from Fort Hartford. The new settlement is called Wish-Ton-Wish, a name which, the author claims, is the Indian term for whippoorwill. [Doubt has been cast on Cooper’s translation of the word, but this disagreement is unimportant here, for the name has no bearing on the action of the novel.] A sturdy, resolute Puritan who had served in the English civil war, Captain Heathcote has also the more humble Christian qualities of forgiveness for evildoers and submission to the will of God. When his wife (his juni some twenty years) had died in childbirth on the very day the Heathcotes had landed in the New World, the captain had overcome his grief enough to christen the baby boy with the meaningful name of Content. Now that he feels compelled to resettle, late in life, he does so without bitterness or rancor. With him go a considerable household including his son and the latter’s wife, Ruth Harding Heathcote, a girl with many of the qualities required of a good wife and a good mother on the frontier.

As several years pass, Wish-Ton-Wish grows and prospers. Content Heathcote takes over more and more of the responsibility for the management of the settlement while his aging father remains the moral guide of the little community. The old Puritan is known and respected for his sense of justice and his hospitality toward all men. He had paid the Indians a fair price for his land — a rare virtue among English settlers — and he made a point of turning no stranger from his door.

[2] The first action occurs on a day when Whittal Ring, a half-witted boy, rounds up a drove of colts he has been pasturing, and young Mark, Content’s son, brings his flock back to the fold missing one of its thirty-seven sheep. [3] An elderly and somewhat bedraggled stranger rides up to Wish-Ton-Wish (still an uncommon event at that remote site) and is welcomed by the captain to bed and board. At the conclusion of the evening meal, the unidentified guest shows his pistols and knives to young Mark, who, at fourteen, is fascinated by such weapons. In the middle of this demonstration, Whittal Ring observes on the haft of one knife what is unmistakably a tuft of the distinctive wool of the missing sheep; being a simpleton, the boy blurts out his discovery in no uncertain terms. After a few awkward moments, Captain Heathcote signals for everyone but the stranger to leave the room, and then he carries on a long, private conversation with his guest. When there is no longer the sound of voices in the dining room, Content, concerned about his father’s safety, returns and finds, to his amazement, that the stranger has vanished. Still more odd than the disappearance of their guest is the order now given to Content to go at once to a designated place in the forest and bring home what he finds there.

[4] At the specified location Content discovers the carcass of the missing sheep. An even greater surprise awaits him when he returns to the gate of the palisades encircling the homestead and hears his wife report that during his absence she has seen an Indian. Since there have been no red men in the area for some time, Content wonders if Ruth only imagined that she saw a savage. When Content and two of his men investigate, however, they do indeed find an Indian, a youth of fifteen, whom they capture, confine in the blockhouse, and hope to convert to the white man’s civilization. [5] But after six months of kindness and patience on the part of his instructors (primarily Ruth and Captain Heathcote) the boy seems to remain quite unchanged. It is the unidentified stranger who, on repeated brief visits to the settlement, seems to establish the greatest bond of sympathy with the young Indian.

[6] In the meantime, four special agents of Charles II arrive in pursuit of a regicide (one of those responsible for the execution of Charles I) known to have fled to the New World after the Restoration. They arrive at Wish-Ton-Wish with a search warrant to inspect all buildings in the settlement, for they have had a report that the wanted man is being shielded by Captain Heathcote. Arrogant, rude, and worldly, these agents of the “merry monarch” provide a sharp contrast to the Puritans and their spiritual orientation. After a thorough search of Wish-Ton-Wish, the investigators grudgingly acknowledge their error in suspecting the Heathcotes and ride away to hunt their quarry elsewhere. It becomes evident to the reader that the strange guest occasionally found at Wish-Ton-Wish is the regicide sought. It is clear too that Captain Heathcote knows the man’s identity, though the rest of the family does not, and that the captain is aiding him if not actually housing him.

[7-8] After half a year of captivity, the Indian youth is finally trusted enough to be permitted to go on a deer hunt with the men of the village. The boy is Conanchet [Canonchet], son of the recently killed Miantonimoh, chief of the Narragansetts, but for some time yet his real name will be unknown to the settlers. They call him Miantonimoh because he resembles the late chief and because he once emotionally exclaims “Miantonimoh!” when he hears the settlers discussing his father. The hunt is successful, but Conanchet takes advantage of this opportunity to escape into the forest, where he eludes all pursuit.

[9] At the conclusion of the expedition, Eben Dudley, doughtiest of all the frontiersmen at Wish-Ton-Wish, recounts an event that had startled him that day, an experience which reveals both his own superstition and the general willingness of the Puritans to believe in signs and omens from the invisible world. A ghostly deer had vanished, and the stranger to whom the wild animal had seemingly led Dudley had talked of troubled times ahead. At the moment of their sudden meeting (almost collision) on the narrow path, a single peal of thunder was heard, though the sky was clear and the weather was calm. When several of the women report having heard that same lone thunderclap at precisely the same time, it is generally taken to be an ominous sign. Without even permitting Eben to conclude his story, Captain Heathcote immediately raises a prayer for the protection of the community. In the midst of the prayer, a conch horn blown twice at the palisade gate startles everyone with its eerie sound. Responding to the urgent horn blasts, the guards are surprised to find at the postern gate their former, still unidentified guest and with him Conanchet. Captain Heathcote and the stranger are immediately closeted again in private conversation.

[10] Just as the two older men rejoin the others, two blasts are blown on a conch horn, apparently the horn that hangs at all times outside the stockade gate. When Content and two others go to the gate, however, they find no one there. Posted inside the gate to watch for intruders, the powerful Eben Dudley, detecting no one, grows drowsy and falls asleep; he is aroused to his duty by his shrewish sweetheart, Faith Ring, who knows well both the strengths and weaknesses of her beloved. When Dudley returns to Captain Heathcote at the appointed hour, he reports having seen nothing unusual, but even as he is speaking, more eerie notes from a conch horn fill the night air. [11] As Eben Dudley and the stranger (now called Submission) are sent outside the palisade wall to scout the area, repeated horn blasts are heard. Since no one is visible outside the gate, the two men conclude that the sounds have supernatural origins. They are presently disabused of this notion, however, as a horde of whooping savages rush at them from behind trees and stumps. In a rain of arrows the two scouts dive for the hitherto secret doorway in the wall through which they had emerged a few minutes earlier. [12] When Conanchet is sent out, shortly afterwards, to ask the unidentified savages their reason for molesting a friendly settlement, he returns with a bundle of arrows wrapped in the skin of a rattlesnake, a well-known Indian sign for relentless warfare.

[13] The attack is not long delayed. The Indians begin by setting fire to the wheat stacks in the fields and later, after several scale the stockade, to the outbuildings. [14] Greatly outnumbered by several hundred savages, the settlers are slowly forced to retreat to their last defensive stronghold, the blockhouse. Under a steady shower of arrows and bullets, the besieged settlers dash in great confusion for this log structure, which most of them reach safely. Among those lost (though perhaps still alive) are Ruth Heathcote, a child of seven or eight, and Whittal Ring. Ring had been wounded while carrying a child — it turned out to be Martha, little Ruth’s adopted sister — to the door of the blockhouse, and he is last seen being dragged away by two Indians. What has become of Ruth, child of Content and Ruth Harding Heathcote, is unknown; it is Ruth who is thenceforth referred to as the “wept” of Wish-Ton-Wish. [15] Even the blockhouse does not offer certain security, for its roof is soon ignited by heat from the buildings burning all around it. Despite their efforts to quench the flames, the whole fortress is eventually consumed by fire.

[16] By the following morning all of the Indians but Conanchet have left; after this young man gazes meditatively for a while at the smoldering ruins, he too departs from the valley of Wish-Ton-Wish. A couple of hours later a number of survivors crawl from the well shaft sunk deep beneath the blockhouse. Old Mark Heathcote, having lost so much, including his only grandchild, is still able to accept his lot as the will of God and offer up praise; although most of his followers are mute with awe at his resolute faith, Content and Ruth, his wife, manage to add a few words to the captain’s thanksgiving. The old Puritan wants no revenge; instead, he forgives the savages because of their ignorance. He dispatches Reuben Ring and a young companion to solicit aid from the nearest settlement. The rest unite their energies to construct a temporary shelter against the cold weather of early spring by roofing the stone basement of the blockhouse with pine boughs. When these makeshift living arrangements have been completed, Submission says that he must again depart lest the agents of Charles II discover him if he lingers longer.

[17] Again many years elapse in the action, and the story is renewed as the last quarter of the seventeenth century begins. Wish-Ton-Wish, more like the phoenix than the whippoorwill, has risen from its own ashes and has been enlarged to accommodate forty families. [18] While Eben Dudley (now titled Ensign) and Reuben Ring (now holding the rank of sergeant) are on guard duty, they capture an unusual Narragansett, one with painted face above his blanket robe but white shins protruding beneath it. After his face has been washed, this man proves to be Whittal Ring almost completely converted to Indian ways. He denounces palefaces, recites Indian accounts of injustices they have committed against the red men, and boasts that soon he will be honored as a brave in his tribe. Faith, his sister (now married to Eben Dudley), talks at length with Whittal several times in the hope of achieving two ends: first, to redeem her unfortunate brother from savagery, and second, to extract from him some word about the long-lost little Ruth.

[19] For some time now the child’s mother has suffered a physical decline as she continues to grieve for the loss of her daughter, and many efforts have been made to determine if a white girl is held captive among any of the neighboring Indian tribes. Content has traveled even among the Iroquois of New York in his attempts to locate little Ruth. The feelings of the parents are at times ambivalent. They both wish and do not wish to find their daughter; it would be bad enough to learn that she was dead but perhaps worse to discover that she was alive, Indianized, and mated to a savage spouse. She would now be a young woman of seventeen or eighteen.

[20] In 1675 Indians are again on the warpath, as Metacom (better known as “King Philip”) attempts to organize all the red men of New England in a mighty effort to annihilate the English settlers. When the Narragansetts (whose hunting grounds extend all the way to the ocean) begin to cooperate with Metacom’s conspiracy, they are attacked by a large army of aroused settlers; in a serious defeat at Pettyquamscott, they lose more than a thousand warriors. Conanchet, now their sachem, moves his people out of their villages, which are vulnerable to attack, and into the deep forest. This precaution taken, he commences systematic raids on English settlements, among them such important places as Andover, Groton, Warwick, and Weymouth. [21] Again a powerful colonial force is raised; Content, now a captain like his venerable father, is directed by the governor to lead a contingent of troops from Wish-Ton-Wish. Content does not refuse this duty, but he prefers any course short of violence to deal with the Indian problem.

[22] After the hasty arrival and departure of the governor’s messenger on a Sabbath morning, the people of Wish-Ton-Wish gather in their new church for services conducted by their newly arrived minister, the Rev. Mr. Meek Wolfe. In the middle of their worship, a loud call to arms rings out as a large body of Indians-Narragansetts under Conanchet, Wampanoags under Metacom — falls upon the settlement without warning. [23] As in the Indian attack ten years earlier, the defenders, though again outnumbered, put up a stubborn resistance to the invasion. That third of the white forces led by Content and Submission — the old regicide again arrives at a timely moment — is overwhelmed, and all its survivors are captured, among them the members of the Heathcote family. [24] As these captives are about to be tortured and killed, Conanchet is shocked to discover that they are apparently reincarnations of people he had seen destroyed ten years earlier. The Narragansett and Metacom confer apart about this awesome development. [25] When they question the captives, they are told by the honest Captain Mark that he and many of his followers had escaped the fire by retreating into the iron-covered well under the burning blockhouse. Metacom now assumes that Conanchet will have no further scruples about dispatching the prisoners at once, but he does not understand the inner conflict being experienced by his Narragansett counterpart. When Conanchet again postpones the execution, Metacom departs in disgust, taking with him his Wampanoag warriors.

Moved by seeing the Heathcote family again, Conanchet calls Narra-mattah, his wife, to his side. The beautiful blonde-haired, blue-eyed squaw who appears is young Ruth Heathcote. [25] She is confused and distressed when Conanchet informs her that she is not really a Narragansett but the child of the captive white family, taken away when he had thought her family dead. In a recognition scene filled with emotion — even the stoical Conanchet is moved to tears — mother and daughter are reunited. [26] Shortly afterwards Conanchet withdraws his forces from Wish-Ton-Wish, much to the dismay of the Narragansetts, who cannot understand why their chief thus leaves a hard-fought battle that he is winning. Conanchet himself returns to the area, just long enough to visit Submission at the old man’s hideout on a rocky crag in the forest. He leaves with the regicide a bundle to be delivered to his Narra-mattah, a blanketed bundle that is later discovered to contain their infant son.

[27] During family prayers that day Captain Mark offers thanks that Wish-Ton-Wish has not been destroyed this time. Required to attend these prayers, Narra-mattah is little moved by them. Nor is she at all responsive to her mother’s efforts to revive in her memory the images of her childhood in the Heathcote household. During Ruth’s attempt to communicate with her long-lost daughter, young Mark arrives with the beaded blanket pack left at Submission’s hut by Conanchet. Narra-mattah takes the bundle, unwraps from its folds the infant son of Conanchet and herself, and proudly holds up the child for Ruth’s approval. The entire family is shocked at the sight of the child, and Ruth’s response is not as warm as Narra-mattah had hoped it would be. Aware of her daughter’s disappointment, Ruth struggles bravely to show enthusiasm for her unexpected grandson, and manages to demonstrate love and sympathy for both her daughter and the infant boy.

[28] This trying family scene is interrupted by a deputation of four prominent colonists who have come to confer with Captain Content Heathcote. A Wampanoag prisoner, one Mohtucket, has agreed to betray Metacom and Conanchet to the English, and the deputation (the Rev. Mr. Meek Wolfe, Dr. Ergot, Eben Dudley, and Reuben Ring) advises Content to avail himself of this opportunity to kill the two Indian leaders. Opposed to further bloodshed and cognizant of Conanchet’s change toward more humane sentiments, Content at first rejects this proposal. His position becomes less tenable, however, when a scalped and mangled corpse is brought into his presence. It is the body of the official messenger who had come that morning to warn the community of a possible Indian attack. Notwithstanding this reminder of Indian ferocity, Content does not agree to lead the proposed punitive expedition.

[29] While Meek Wolfe and his collaborators seek elsewhere for support for their plan, a more peaceable approach to the Indian problem is taken by Submission. Long the friend of Conanchet, despite their having been on opposite sides in battle, the old Puritan convinces the Narragansett sachem that a bloodless solution is possible. The two set out together to find Metacom in order to persuade this most powerful chief to adopt a more conciliatory attitude in his dealings with the white settlers. After long and arduous travel through the forest, they reach the Wampanoag camp, where Metacom, though dubious about their mission, welcomes the visitors into his wigwam. As they begin their discussion, Mohtucket races into the camp purportedly with news of some kind for Metacom. The chief is scornful toward this ne’er-do-well straggler who has never proved himself in battle, and he quickly points out that the scalp which Mohtucket now proudly displays has a bullet hole in it, evidence that Mohtucket (who has no gun) had not killed the one he had scalped. As Mohtucket begins to remonstrate, a volley of musket fire rings out and three Wampanoags fall dead. A force led by Meek Wolfe and accompanied by official observers from the governor’s office has arrived. Inasmuch as both Mohtucket and the musket fire have entered the camp from the same direction, Metacom correctly deduces Mohtucket has revealed the position of the Wampanoag campsite to the English. He kills the traitor on the spot and then proceeds to extricate himself and his people from the trap.

[30] Conanchet and Submission also flee, running downstream in a small brook to leave no trail. They are pursued, however, not only by colonists, whom they might elude, but also by the Mohican and Pequot allies of the settlers. Once aware that red men are tracking them, Conanchet realizes that the elderly Submission will never be able to escape by flight, if, indeed, he himself will now be able to do so. He therefore hides Submission in the top of a leafy tree and, departing, makes broad marks on the ground to give the impression two men had passed that way. This effort to protect Submission costs Conanchet those fatal few minutes that might have saved his own life. After a long chase Conanchet is captured by several swift young Mohicans and brought before their chief, Uncas. This Uncas is the son of the Uncas — there was a lengthy dynasty of Mohican chiefs so named — who had earlier dealt a devastating defeat to the Narragansetts, killing their leader, Miantonimoh. He is, thus, Conanchet’s greatest enemy. The Mohican delivers his captive into the hands of the English to be tried; the settlers, under Meek Wolfe’s urging, condemn Conanchet to death and then return him to the Mohicans for execution. Conanchet requests a day’s reprieve in order to visit his wife and child, giving his word of honor to return for his execution. Knowing that so great a chief could not violate Indian ethics on a point of honor, Uncas quickly grants this request.

[31] Conanchet proceeds to Wept-Ton-Wish, where, with the aid of Whittal Ring, he releases Narra-mattah and leads her into the forest. The chief, his wife, their son, and Whittal Ring (who carries the baby in his pack) travel during most of their last day together so that Conanchet can honor the terms of his reprieve. Back within the prescribed time, he places himself in the hands of the Mohicans. He is now ready for death and will accept neither assistance nor sympathy. He rejects Meek Wolfe’s attempt to convert him to Christianity. He also refuses Eben Dudley’s offer of a pardon if he and his Narragansetts will bury the hatchet and make peace with the Mohicans. Having resisted these two efforts to make him forsake his Indian values, he overcomes the third and final temptation: indulgence in sentiment toward his wife and child. Telling Narra-mattah that they will meet again on the happy hunting ground, he orders her to return to her people and there raise their son. Struck down by his two executioners, Conanchet dies with the fortitude and dignity appropriate for an Indian leader, his last words being “Mohican, I die before my heart is soft” (p. 461). There is an obvious dimension of irony in the execution of Conanchet, for regardless of how stoically the Narragansett dies, he had softened considerably, returning good for evil, while the Christian leader, Meek Wolfe, has played a vengeful role, returning evil for good.

[32] Narra-mattah now sits stunned with grief by the body of her dead husband. It is there that her parents find her when they arrive shortly afterwards, guided to the spot by Submission. As her heart begins to fail, Narra-mattah regresses to early childhood, talking and praying with her mother as she had done years earlier. But when she gazes at the dead Conanchet, she is suspended in bewilderment between past and present, between Indian and white cultures; thus she dies. Although Content Heathcote lives on for almost half a century longer, his wife, Ruth, dies within a few months of grief for her child, the “wept” of Wish-Ton-Wish.

In the closing pages of the novel, the narrator comments on the history of Wish-Ton-Wish from a nineteenth-century point of view. In accounting for the fortunes of the characters and their descendants since 1675, he suggests that there have been many alterations in life in Connecticut since the time of the central action. One change is symbolized in the name of the latest clergyman, Meek Lamb, a descendant of Meek Wolfe.

Annawon, Charity, Conanchet [Canonchet], Eben Dudley, Dr. Ergot, Hallam, Content Heathcote, Captain Mark Heathcote, Mark Heathcote, Martha Heathcote, Ruth Heathcote, Ruth Harding Heathcote, Hiram, Meek Lamb, Metacom, Mohtucket, Abundance Ring, Faith Ring, Reuben Ring, Whittal Ring, Submission, Uncas, Meek Wolfe, Wompawisset.