Wyandotté; or, The Hutted Knoll (1843)

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. 260-267.

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] The action of this novel is set in central New York near Unadilla Creek, a tributary to the headwaters of the Susquehanna River. There, in what was then (1765) frontier country, the British Captain Hugh Willoughby has just taken possession of a 7,000-acre patent. His first move toward settling his holdings is to drain a 400-acre beaver pond and establish a farm on the rich alluvial soil of its bottom. In the center of the pond there had been a rocky island rising forty feet above the water, and on this eminence the captain builds first some huts — hence the “Hutted Knoll” — and later a large house. (Both the building and its site are known as the Hutted Knoll and Beaver Manor.) [2-3] Although their daughters, Beulah and Maud (adopted), remain in school at Albany, and their son, Robert, serves in the army, Captain Hugh and his wife, Wilhelmina, move to this new home with a number of workers, some slaves, some regular employees. Among the latter are Joel Strides, a selfish and calculating Connecticut Yankee, Michael O’Hearn, a comic Irishman recently arrived from County Leitrim, and Saucy Nick, an outcast Tuscarora who had introduced Captain Willoughby to the area. Not so much servant as member of the household is the Rev. Mr. Jedediah Woods, former chaplain of the retired captain’s infantry company.

[4] During the ten years that elapse before the narrative resumes in 1775, the captain’s central holdings have been converted into a productive estate. Beulah and Maud, now young ladies, have completed their schooling and live at the Hutted Knoll with their parents. One morning in May the family sees Nick approaching on a trot, his first appearance at the Knoll in more than two years. He comes to announce the arrival of the captain’s son, Major Robert Willoughby, home on leave. After Nick has received the jug of rum owed to the bearer of good tidings, and after Robert and the family have joyfully reunited, the son reveals news of interest to all. [5-6] First there is a family matter, namely, the death of Sir Harry Willoughby, whose baronetcy now devolves upon his cousin, the captain. Although the old soldier is not at all interested in the title — what function would it serve on the frontier! — his wife and daughters point out that at some future date it might be useful to Bob. As the Willoughbys discuss this development, another conversation is carried on apart by Michael O’Hearn and Saucy Nick over the latter’s lug of liquor. The Tuscarora tells the Irishman that during his absence he had been on a warpath and had taken three scalps. As he drinks more, Nick also reveals his repressed hatred for the captain, who, during his days of military duty, had thrice horsewhipped the Indian for infractions of army discipline.

Far more important news than the death of Sir Harry is the information that the Revolutionary War has begun, that blood has already been shed, and that there is a very strong current of rebellion running throughout the American colonies. Bob reports specifically on the Battle of Lexington in which, he reluctantly admits, the British forces suffered three hundred casualties, he himself being slightly wounded in the engagement. [7] Captain Willoughby, shocked by the ominous nature of this news, begins at once to fortify the Knoll with stockade and trenches against Indian hostilities that may erupt in the wake of civil strife. Like many other families of the time, the Willoughbys are divided in their sentiments about the conflict between England and her colonies, the captain slightly pro-patriot but determined to take a neutral position, Beulah strongly pro-patriot, and Mrs. Willoughby, Robert, and Maud loyalist.

Another domestic dilemma arises from some apparent bad feeling between Robert and Maud. As she has grown into womanhood, Maud has fallen in love with Robert, their relationship, she feels, no longer being that of affectionate siblings. Since she is an adopted daughter of the Willoughbys and there is no consanguinity, there is no bar, theoretically, to their sexual attraction. In reality, however, there is indeed a great obstacle: the failure of everyone, including Bob, to recognize Maud’s mature womanly love for the young man. In vain does she hint of this in various ways. She has of late been signing her letters to Bob simply with the name Maud, not Maud Willoughby. Bob wonders why. Woven into the fine silken sash she has made him is the name Maud Meredith, Meredith having been her actual surname. With incredible denseness Bob asks if she has had a quarrel with his parents or has been otherwise alienated from the family! Since female propriety of the day forbids her from being so forward as to declare her love, she is most frustrated. [8] For the modern reader the misunderstanding becomes quite farcical when Mrs. Willoughby, in all maternal solicitude, brings together her two seemingly disaffected children and probes for some explanation of their differences. [9] It is only when departing from the Hutted Knoll that Bob, observing Maud wave to him from her window, wonders momentarily about the girl’s intentions.

Beulah’s love life is fraught with no such social or psychological complexities. She has been for some time courted by Evert Beekman, owner of a patent a few miles away, and when war breaks out, both families agree that their marriage should take place at once. They are wedded in the church on the Willoughby estate, the service being performed by the Rev. Mr. Woods. [10] The newlyweds continue their honeymoon until Nick returns from his trip (on which he had guided Bob back to his regiment) with news of the deadly Battle of Bunker Hill. Then Evert, a colonel in the Continental army, forces himself to leave his bride and hasten to American headquarters.

In November the family follows its usual practice of moving to the city for the coldest part of the winter. Instead of going to New York City this year, they choose Albany as a place less likely to be disturbed by the war. Colonel Beekman visits them there for several weeks in order to be with his beloved Beulah. Maud is courted by several eligible young men in Albany society, but she takes no interest in any of them, much to her parents’ concern.

In April of 1776 the family returns to the Hutted Knoll, where life continues much the same, with no indication at first that the nation is convulsed in civil war. [11] For some time the only threat to tranquillity at the settlement is the machination of the overseer, Joel Strides. He and a handful of other Yankees hope to benefit from the war by exploiting their employers, the Willoughbys. Joel has tried previously to betray Bob to patriot forces along the Mohawk River. Now he strives to represent the Willoughbys as strongly Tory, his purpose being to have their holdings confiscated so that they may then be acquired by him self and his friends. Under Strides’s coaching a Committee of Safety is formed among the employees and tenants, supposedly for the purpose of self-protection but in reality simply for furthering their own interests.

When danger does finally beset the Hutted Knoll, protection is provided by Captain Willoughby and a small number of faithful retainers, not by the Committee of Safety. While Maud is walking in the woods, late in September of 1776, she hears a shout of alarm and then observes a rush of settlers to the stockade. A few minutes later she discovers the cause of the alarm: the approach of seventy to eighty Indians. Although her first impulse is to run for home, Maud quickly realizes that her safest recourse is silent immobility. She is, nevertheless, soon discovered, not by Indians but by Major Bob, home on leave again and this time disguised in the garb of a hunter. [12] The two talk quietly until Michael O’Hearn and Joel Strides are dispatched to locate and rescue Maud. Not trusting the Yankee overseer, Bob sends Maud to meet the two men but remains hidden himself in the woods until nightfall. [13] When he does finally rejoin the family, Bob tells them of the Declaration of Independence and of George Washington’s masterly evacuation of New York City. His primary purpose in returning at this time is to bring his father a commission from General Howe reactivating him in the British army, but Bob finds Captain Willoughby growing more and more sympathetic to the rebel cause.

[14-16] The Indians camped outside the stockade are not immediately hostile, though several are in war paint. One appears bearing a white flag of truce and carries on a brief parley with the captain. He claims that his people are on a peaceful mission, traveling to the Hudson River to discover for themselves why the American English are fighting the British English. Not deceived by this story, the captain deems it prudent to pretend to accept it, and in a show of good will, he provides the Indians with rations of meat and meal. When, shortly afterwards, the captain and Bob scout the encampment of the besieging force, they become convinced that it is made up largely of white men disguised as Indians. (It is later discovered that twenty-seven of the party are real Indians, mostly Mohawks and Oneidas, the remainder being whites masquerading as savages.) After an exchange of musket fire (a single volley from each side), there is a lull in hostilities. Aware that something is unusual about this confrontation, Captain Willoughby decides to send a delegation to determine the real purpose of the invaders. He appoints Joel Strides to undertake this mission. [17] The wily overseer, who has by now penetrated Bob’s disguise, agrees to make this contact with the enemy if the newly arrived stranger will accompany him. once for the hostile camp. [18] When they disappear and do not return for several hours, the Rev. Mr. Woods, trusting to the savages’ reputed respect for religious leaders, dons his white surplice, proceeds to the hostile camp, and tries to ascertain what has become of the two negotiators. Woods himself fails to return, however. Much later Joel Strides comes back to the Hutted Knoll alone and reports that they are beset by a fierce band of patriot partisans who have captured as hostages both the British Major Willoughby and the Anglican chaplain, Woods.

[19-23] The only fierce person visible, however, is Nick, who now reappears at the Knoll transformed from the begging, alcoholic hanger-on to Wyandotté, the proud Tuscarora chief he had been in youth. He indignantly refuses the dollar offered to him and warns Captain Willoughby not to speak again of the floggings inflicted on his alter ego Nick. The captain decides to detain Wyandotté and places him in a bedroom guarded by Michael O’Hearn. Unadaptable to military discipline, Mike releases his captive and travels with him to talk with the imprisoned Major Willoughby. When he returns to the Knoll, Mike brings news of the younger Willoughby’s well-being. He also bears a silver snuffbox which he delivers secretly to Maud. It contains a lock of her hair, and the girl reads correctly its symbolic message: Robert loves her.

The reader, enlightened by the omniscient narrator, learns as fact what Captain Willoughby can only suspect to be the case: that Joel Strides is a collaborator of the enemy to whom he has given the major. This becomes more apparent to those within the fortified manor house that night when Sergeant Joyce discovers that Joel Strides and all but one of his fellow Yankees have deserted, abandoning their cabins, taking along their families, and bearing with them all of their firearms. The defending force is now reduced to five men capable of performing guard duty: Captain Willoughby, his old comrade-at-arms Sergeant Joyce, a Scottish mason named Jamie Alien, the garrulous but goodhearted Michael O’Hearn, and the faithful but frightened slave Pliny the Younger. These five watch throughout the tense night, but the expected predawn attack, a regular feature of Indian warfare, does not occur. When daylight returns, the weary defenders are astonished to discover that all of the deserters have returned and are working at their usual occupations (plowing, gardening, chopping wood) as if nothing had happened.

[24] Baffled by the strange behavior of his employees, Captain Willoughby determines to leave the Knoll secretly with his four loyal supporters and attempt to liberate his son. En route, he learns from Wyandotté, who intercepts them, that the prisoner is being held in a log lean-to buttery attached to the log cabin of Daniel, the Yankee miller. The Tuscarora guides them past the real and make-believe Indians who lounge about their camp in indolent fashion. Leaving his four men on guard just yards from the lean-to, the captain proceeds cautiously with Wyandotté through a dense thicket toward the makeshift jail. [25] Nick soon returns, but not the captain. After waiting dutifully for a whole hour, Sergeant Joyce decides to leave his station to investigate. He fears that the excitement may have caused his commanding officer to suffer a “fit” [stroke]. He finds the captain leaning against the buttery dead, killed not by a fit but by a knife wound in his heart.

Stunned by this blow, the sergeant and his men carry the body back to the edge of the Willoughby estate, but there none can muster the courage to inform the women of the disaster. [26] Wyandotté volunteers to perform this painful duty, but as he heads for the Hutted Knoll he slows down from a trot to a walk to a standstill. The reader now comes to appreciate more fully the complexity of this Indian character. Not only is his personality split between the lowly, subservient Nick and the proud, masterful Wyandotté, but it is further divided by ambivalence of feeling toward the Willoughby family. Toward the captain he has borne resentment for thirty years, since his first flogging by that officer. Biding his time, he has taken vengeance at last by killing the captain; ferocity and savage satisfaction mark his features as he wipes the blood clots from his knife. Toward Wilhelmina Willoughby he has felt only affection ever since the woman cured him of a virulent disease, and as he prepares to break the bad news to the widow and her daughters, his face softens into kindness and a trace of sadness.

It is Maud who orders the barred door opened to the Tuscarora when he appears at the Knoll, and it is Maud whom he apprises of the captain’s death. Fond of Maud, he introduces his bitter news by insisting that the captain was not her father; the Indian had been present when her real father, Major Meredith, had been shot in the French and Indian War. [27] Then, to counterbalance the shock of the death of one she loves, he offers to save from possible death another whom she loves, Robert, if she will accompany him to the major’s place of imprisonment. Wyandotté knows that Maud trusts him and knows too that she can, in turn, persuade Robert to trust him in this delicate undertaking; he also knows intuitively what no one else has recognized: that Maud and Bob love each other.

Liberated from the buttery, the major is almost immediately pursued by a howling horde of real and pretended Indians. As he and Maud, guided by Wyandotté, make their circuitous way back to the Knoll, there is a final though only momentary failure of communication between them. Although their mutual love is now avowed openly, Maud’s countenance reflects not joy but anguish. The contretemps is resolved as Maud breaks down and reveals the tragic news of the captain’s death. After Bob recovers from the first impact of this loss, the three push on for home and enter the palisaded yard just as their pursuers come within musket range and commence firing.

[28] Resentful about Bob’s escape, the mixed red and white force now launches its long-awaited attack on the Knoll. With a total of only thirteen supporters, counting some of the female slaves, Bob makes good the defense of the house against the initial onslaught. During the temporary lull that follows, he rushes inside to pay respect to his dead father and to console his mother. Greater even than his grief for his father is that which he experiences when his gaze turns to his mother. Her sanity has snapped, and she is obviously raving mad. Beulah is distraught, Maud is deep in prayer, and Nick is trying to console the incoherent widow. [29] The deep pathos of this scene is suddenly shattered by pandemonium as screaming savages pour into the house. Strides and his accomplices have pried from its hinges the main gate, allowing the Mohawks and Oneidas easy access to the building. Wyandotté behaves heroically as he fights to protect the life of Maud and the scalps of Mrs. Willoughby, dead from an apparent heart attack, and Beulah, killed by a stray bullet. Despite their stalwart stand, the outnumbered defenders are in danger of complete annihilation until the timely arrival of Colonel Beekman with a company of fifty Continental regulars. Hearing of the unauthorized movement of some self-appointed guerrillas toward the Knoll, he had started to its relief when he had met the Rev. Mr. Woods, who made clear to him the urgency of the situation. By forced marches his corps has arrived barely in time to rescue the garrison from slaughter. As it is, only Beulah, Jamie Alien, and Bess (the Negro woman usually called Great Smash) die from enemy action. As Beekman’s troops quickly restore order, most of the Indians and guerrillas flee. A dozen cannot choose but to remain, four of them dead and the remainder seriously wounded; among the dead is Strides’s friend Daniel.

[30] After the funerals of Captain Hugh, Wilhelmina, and Beulah, the Hutted Knoll is closed. Robert and Maud are married and move to New York City after Beekman has arranged for the exchange of the major for a Continental prisoner held by the British. Young Willoughby now purchases a lieutenant colonelcy and assumes the baronetcy to which he has fallen heir. With this rank and title he is able to request and secure duty outside his native land for the duration of the war. He and Maud make their permanent home in England.

Nineteen years later, in 1795, Lieutenant General Sir Robert Willoughby and his lady visit America, their main objective being a pilgrimage to their old home in upstate New York. They arrive at the Hutted Knoll and walk through the rooms of the deserted house indulging in reminiscence of their years spent here at the family homestead. They then walk to the graves of their loved ones and find there Michael O’Hearn and Wyandotté (both aged markedly) and the Rev. Mr. Woods. After honoring the dead and renewing old friendships, Robert is apprised by the Rev. Mr. Woods that Nick, now Christian, has confessed having murdered Captain Willoughby. The chief places a tomahawk in the hands of the general, bows his head in resignation, and directs him to take vengeance for his father’s death. Though saddened by the news of Nick’s treachery, Robert forgives him his crime against man and urges him to make his peace with God. Overcome with emotion, the old chief dies of ” ... an incurable affection of the heart” (p. 521). The novel closes with Robert’s evaluation of the Tuscarora’s life. It serves as a paradoxical but fitting epitaph for the titular hero:

“As for Wyandotté, he lived according to his habits and intelligence, and happily died under the conviction of conscience directed by the light of divine grace. ... He never forgot a favor or forgave an injury” (pp. 522-523).

Jamie Alien, Colonel Evert Beekman, Evert Beekman, Bess, Blodget, Daniel, Desdemona, Farrel, Sergeant Joyce, Mari, General Meredith, Maud Meredith, Michael O’Hearn, Pliny the Elder, Pliny the Younger, Joel Strides, Lyddy Strides, Phoebe Strides, Beulah Willoughby, Captain Hugh Willoughby, Major (later Lieutenant General) Robert Willoughby, Wilhelmina Willoughby, Rev. Mr. Jedediah Woods, Wyandotté.