The Early Life of Natty Bumppo

Susan Fenimore Cooper (1813-1894)

In her 1876 Introduction to The Deerslayer, Household Edition, New York and Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1876, Susan Fenimore Cooper described the childhood of Deerslayer in a manner that may have emanated from her father’s own storytelling. For the full text, see Introduction to The Deerslayer.

Natty and Hurry Harry are supposed to have approached this secluded lake from the little colony on the Schoharie, founded thirty years earlier by the “Palatines,” as they were called.

There was a village of the Mohegans on the Schoharie, at the foot of a hill called by them “Mohegonter,” or “the falling away of the Mohegan Hill.” These Mohegans came, it is said, originally from the eastward, beyond the Hudson. The clan is reported to have numbered some three hundred warriors when the Germans arrived among them. A tortoise and a serpent were the tokens of this clan. Documents, chiefly sales of land to the Germans, still exist bearing their signatures in this shape.

But this village on the Schoharie was not the region of Natty’s early forest training. It was not on the Onistagrawa, the “Hill of Maize,” that he had learned to chase the elk and the deer. It was among the mountains farther south on the banks of the Susquehanna and the Upper Delaware, that the young pale-face hunter had received from the “Lenni Lennapi” the name of the Deerslayer. Here in some rude frontier home, in a log-cabin, under a bark roof, the boy had grown up to a simple, hardy, brave, and kindly manhood. Here he had learned from the dark-skinned lads his comrades to tread lightly on the summer moss, to track the game over the winter snow. Here he had played with the fawn, tamed the beaver, and the cub of the bear. Here, by the broad uncouth chimney, the brilliant flame of the hickory log, or the torch of a pine knot lighting his honest face, he had listened to the wild legends of prowess and adventure of the Lenni Lennapi until his spirit kindled at the recital. Here, stretched at night on feathers of the wild fowl, covered with skins torn as trophies from panther and wolf, he dreamed stirring dreams of daring deed, hair-breadth escape, manly endurance. Here he dreamed of showing his red-skinned friends what a white brave could do and suffer. Here, in short, he became a hero at heart, although the word would have carried no meaning for his ear.

And, waking with the morning sun, he saw a Christian mother moving about the cabin, busy with homely household errands, — a woman ignorant in the ways of the world, of kindly nature, simple, true, and warm-hearted. He rose to do her bidding. Unlike the young Indian lad, he scorned no errand in behalf of the mother who bore him: he brought the water from the spring, he hewed the wood for the fire, he planted the potato and the maize. Homely tasks these, which he did not disdain although, forsooth, the young Panther and the young Serpent looked on with cold disapprobation, in the idle dignity of their savage manhood. The father — a pale-face hunter and trapper of note — died of some dire forest mischance, trampled to death, it was said, by an enraged moose at bay. Then it was that the lad took upon him to provide food for his mother’s lodge. He shouldered his father’s rifle, and before two days had passed he brought home an elk and laid it at the cabin door, at his mother’s feet. From that hour game was never wanting in the forest home. Skins for the dainty moccasins worn by his young sister, for the rude leather leggings worn by himself, were plenty in the cabin. Nay, more than once did some poor Indian widow, some ailing or wounded hunter, find a supply of venison laid secretly at their do a kindly hand, suspected to be his own. Among all the lads of the region there was no eye so sure, no hand so steady, as that of the young pale-face, “Straight-tongue,” as they first called him from his love of truth.

“After a while they found out I was quick of foot, and then they called me ‘the Pigeon,’ which you know has a swift wing, and flies in a direct line.”

“From carrying messages and striking blind trails, I got at last to following the hunters, when it was thought I was quicker and surer at finding the game than most lads, and then they called me ‘Lap- Ear,’ as they said I partook of the sagacity of a hound.”

“Then it was seen I could keep a wigwam in ven’son; and in time I got the name of ‘Deerslayer,’ which is that I now bear.”

And now it was that after joining a hunting-party of the Delawares, among the mountains which overhang the Susquehanna, he returned laden with choice venison, and at a great feast solemnly received the name of the “Deerslayer,” in a speech by the father of Chingachgook.

The Christian mother was growing old. Her head had turned gray since her husband was killed by the moose. When the lad returned to the cabin he would often hear her singing some pious song, psalm, or hymn, learned in her girlhood. Morning and night he saw her kneel, he heard her simple, short, but earnest prayer. She could not read, never a horn-book or primer had she held in her hand. But she knew by heart a few verses from the Holy Book. The red-skinned warriors no longer came with their tales of war and their wild traditions to the cabin fireside, as they had done when the hunter was living. But the mother now told her children more than one sacred history learned in her youth; she told them of Noah and the Ark; she told them of David and Goliah {sic}. And above all she told them the glad tidings of the Gospel. Here and there some verses of the Sermon on the Mount she could say by heart. These she taught her young daughter; and the lad listening at her elbow received into his guileless, kindly heart, many a word which gave coloring to his later life.

Ever and anon some missionary would come to preach to the tribe. It was at the widow’s cabin that he always stayed. And in this way also the lad learned important truths.

The mother fell sick. Her heart yearned for her kindred and the Lowlands where she was born. The Indian women were kind to her; she took their medicines, but when the mystery-man came she shuddered, and would have naught to say to him. She longed to see a Christian minister of the gospel. With his rifle on his shoulder, and his comrade Chingachgook at his side, the young Deerslayer set out in the morning, walked a hundred miles over mountain and fell, and when the third sun was setting he came to his mother’s bed-side with a Moravian Brother. Solemn words were spoken. The good woman was near her end. She bade her son remember through life that he came of a Christian stock; she bade him keep a Christian heart and a straight tongue and a clean hand, to his last hour. And solemnly she charged him to take his young sister without loss of time into the Lowlands, among their own kindred, and to leave her there. She would have been glad if he would promise to turn farmer, and live among his own race. But she told him that she knew he loved the woods; his father had loved the life in the wilderness. Let him only be a good man, good and true, and her blessing would be with him whether in forest or field.

She died. Her son closed her eyes. The Moravian Brother stayed to give her Christian burial. They carried her body in a canoe across the stream into the forest, and laid her under the moss beside her hunter husband. The Delawares and Mohegans living with them followed, making a great wailing and mourning.

The next day, with the rising sun, the Deerslayer and his young sister with the Moravian Brother, and Chingachgook as an escort, went on their way through the forest towards the low country. Here there was an aunt who was glad to fill a mother’s place to the young girl. Here, also, kindred gathered about the young Natty and urged him to stay among his own people. His sister hung about him. Chingachgook looked cold and stoical, but his heart beat as he listened. Natty wavered. Had not his mother bade him try a farmer’s life? The trial he thought ought to be made. He went into the woods with the young Serpent. He told him his heart was heavy, but his mother’s spirit bade him try the life in the fields; he could not leave his young sister yet awhile. It was now planting-time. He would stay with his kindred until the maize was in the tassel, and then if the life of spade and plough did not suit him, he could return to the Delaware village with a clear conscience; and when he passed his mother’s grave his heart would not smite him with having forgotten her words. Chingachgook listened coldly. “It is well,” he said, with something of scorn and something of bitterness in his tone. Drawing the girdle tight about his waist, the young brave turned on his heel and walked off straight as an arrow in the direction of his father’s wigwam. Natty stood rooted to the spot, leaning on his rifle, and his eyes fixed upon his comrade so long as the lithe figure could be seen. Then he sat down in a clump of bushes and a tear came into his eye and fell upon the down of his boyish beard.

The next day’s sun saw Natty behind a plough; but shallow and crooked was the furrow he made. They tried him at gardening, but maize, beans, and squashes were the only plants he knew by sight in their seedling state. They put a goad in his hand and sent him a- field with a yoke of oxen. Small was his success as a teamster. Brindle and Dobbin did as well without him as with him. He was kindly with all the brute creatures, but pitied their tame, dull life. They put him on horseback and sent him to the mill for a sack of flour; the horse was old, the sack heavy. Natty considered it unmanly to ride the poor creature, especially as Providence had given him long sound legs of his own. He dismounted and led his steed, to the merriment of miller and man. The farm people laughed at his forest ways and forest talk. Long before the maize was in the tassel his uncle had told him he never would make a farmer. The lad himself was sick at heart with longing for his old free life. One morning he took his rifle, told his kindred with one of his silent laughs that he could bear the life in the thickly peopled country no longer; he parted kindly with all, and then with an eager heart and a light step turned his face toward the Delaware country.

In a few hours he reached the first belt of forest. He threw himself down to drink from a mossy spring, and then leaning against an old tree sat in silent happiness looking upward toward the blue sky through the shady canopy of leaves he loved so well. Squirrels gamboled about him. A wood-thrush sang him a song of greeting. A twig cracked beside him. He looked up, and there stood young Chingachgook. Great was Natty’s delight.

“I knew my brother would come!” were the only words of welcome spoken by the young Mohegan brave. He had lingered for weeks on the border of the forest, awaiting his comrade. They went on their way with eager steps. Before a week had passed Natty had received a wild but most hospitable welcome in the Indian village. He was formally adopted as a son by the father of the young Serpent. He was regularly engrafted into the tribe with full and solemn ceremony.