Introduction to The Deerslayer (1841)

Susan Fenimore Cooper

Introductions to novels by her father, with significant biographic and literary information, were written by Susan Fenimore Cooper as prefaces to excerpts from 25 Cooper novels in Pages and Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper, with Notes by Susan Fenimore Cooper (New York: W.A. Townsend and Co., 1861). She also wrote introductions to 15 (not all the same) novels published between 1876-1884 as the Household Edition of the Works of J. Fenimore Cooper (New York and Cambridge: Houghton, Mifflin and Co. [Hurd and Mifflin]).

These introductions are collected for the first time on the Cooper Society website. Lengthy quotations have been reproduced in indented form, but retaining the quotation marks of the original, and their sources have been indicated in [square brackets].

Topics Covered:

I: From Pages and Pictures  Genesis of The Deerslayer; Natty as a youth and Lake Otsego before settlement.

II: From Household Edition  Early history of the Lake Otsego area; wild animals; Dutch and French explorers; Mohawk Indians hunters and fishers; the Mohawk Valley; Indian trails; Palatine and Scotch-Irish settlers; fancied childhood of Natty Bumppo among the Delawares of Pennsylvania; Cooper’s life-long love of Lake Otsego; Chalet Farm; genesis of The Deerslayer; scenes laid at Three Mile Point; original beauty of the once-isolated Point; the Signal Oak; destruction of the Point environment by visitors; beech tree carved with names and initials of villagers — and Cooper’s parents; Cooper’s love of picnics at Three Mile Point; his famous chowder, prepared with aid of Joe Tom; A triumphant chowder-kettle procession; Cooper’s last visit to the Point, just before his death in 1851.

I. Pages and Pictures, pp. 322-323

Contents: THE DEERSLAYER. — The lake-road — Natty on the first war-path — The ark — Musk-rat castle — Floating Tom — Extract, The Rescue of Hist.

[322] ONE pleasant summer evening the author of the Pathfinder was driving along the lake shore in his farm wagon, singing cheerily, as he passed over that quiet, shady road, as he frequently did. Though no musician, he often sang — when in a gay mood — snatches of familiar songs which had struck his fancy; and many a time, when driving along the quiet, shady road leading to his mountain-farm, the squirrel at play, or the sleepy teamster, dozing on his seat, has been surprised by some sudden burst of Burns’ “Scots wha ha’ wi’ Wallace bled!” or Moore’s “Love’s Young Dream” — always especial favorites with him. On the present occasion, however, it was a political song that he was singing; and, shall we avow the act of infidelity, an electioneering song of the party opposed to his own! Suddenly he paused, as an opening in the wood revealed a sweet view of the lake. His spirited gray eye rested a moment on the water, with that expression of abstracted, poetical thought, ever familiar to those who lived with him; then, turning to the companion at his side — the daughter now writing these lines — he exclaimed: “I must write one more book, dearie, about our little lake!” Again his eye rested on the water and the banks, with the far-seeing look of one evoking [323] imaginary figures to fill the beautiful scene. A moment of silence followed — his daughter being unwilling to interrupt the train of thought opening before him; a few minutes passed — again he cracked his whip, resumed his song, with some careless chat on little incidents of the hour, and drove homeward. A few days later the first pages of the Deerslayer were written.

During many a long year had Natty now been, as it were, a constant companion of the writer: in four different works the Leather-stocking had been brought before the public; and very many were the hours, no doubt, in which the author held communion with this creature of his imagination in scenes never recorded. Reversing the usual order, when himself a young man, he had first brought the hunter into view at the age of three-score and ten; now, when his own head was growing hoary, he brings Natty before the reader as a youth — he leads us over the first war-path of his hero. And the same lake shores on which that striking figure had first appeared, are again chosen for the closing work of the series, as the scene of Natty’s earlier prowess in the hunt and in war. We are made to look backward at the highland lake, to behold it in its native aspect, when, a hundred years earlier, no building of the white man was yet reflected from its banks; which, girt to the very water’s edge with forests, the growth of ages, the eye of the savage and the hunter had alone beheld its sylvan beauty. With singular fertility of invention, a train of appropriate and very original incident — full of spirit, of feeling, of interest — is woven about the shores, and over the very bosom of the little lake. Muskrat Castle, and the Ark of Floating Tom, with the Indian canoe, give a strange, wild interest to the picture; while the well-drawn characters of Judith, beautiful, but designing — of simple-hearted Hetty, touchingly innocent and artless — give the lighter and sweeter touches to scenes which were otherwise wholly wild.

II. ousehold Edition, pp. xiii-xl

[xiii] THE readers of the “Deerslayer” may naturally ask who was the first man of the white race to stand on the pebbly beach of Lake Otsego, the first to slake his thirst at the limpid springs flowing into its basin, more than two hundred years ago. The question cannot be answered with certainty; there is no clear record, no general tradition to guide us. Rut simple conjecture mill probably, in this instance, bring us near the truth. We may well believe that some Dutch adventurer, from Fort Orange, was the first European to hear from Mohawk lips the name of Otesago applied to this secluded sheet of water. Unlike the early French emigrants, who were their neighbors on the St. Lawrence, the Dutch were but little given to the romantic love of exploring, so characteristic of the coureurs des bois. The great object of the Hollanders was the fur-trade. There, it is true, the gallant French were as much their rivals as if there had been no delights in the chase, no exciting joy in the discovery of vast inland seas, and mighty rivers. The French loved gain quite as much as the Hollanders. But their active nature led them far into the depths of the wilderness within the first dozen years of laying their hearthstones on the banks of the St. Lawrence. On this continent they early proved themselves to be admirable explorers, though very indifferent colonists. French adventurers, and French missionaries penetrated far within the limits of the present State of New York, very early in the history of the country, but they do not appear to have ever wandered to the south[xiv]ward of the valley of the Mohawk. As for the English it was their great object to obtain possession of the sea coast. Like the Dutch they were slow to penetrate into the interior. Yes; it was very probably some Dutch bosh-looper, from Fort Orange, in quest of furs, who chanced to be the first white man to look upon these highland waters. Although slow in exploring, yet the Hollanders had penetrated into the heart of the Iroquois country long before the Dutch flag had ceased to float over the little fort at Orange. They were fast friends of the Mohawks; and Lake Otsego, with its sister lake of Canaderaga [sic], lay within the home territory of that important tribe. This region was favorite fishing and hunting ground with the wild people from the villages on the banks of the Mohawk. The lakes were full of the choicest fish. Game of all kinds abounded in the dense forest. Deer, graceful and timid, came out of the leafy wilderness, either singly or in herds, to the shores of the lake to drink, morning and evening, or perchance to feed on the buds and flowers of the water-lilies, a dainty they much enjoyed. Wolves, gray and black, ferocious and cowardly, roamed in packs over ail the hills, in fierce pursuit of the defenseless deer, and other prey. Bears were very numerous, wandering to and fro with their clumsy gait, over hill and dale, climbing the trees in quest of wild cherries, grapes, or honey, and scrambling through the bushes, feeding On the smaller fruits abundant on the hills which surround Lake Otsego. In the cold months scarce a cave without a bear or two sleeping the long winter sleep, until the south winds thawing the snow, awakened them all. There was a tradition among the hunters that in the first days of February, all the bears would awake, and come out into the light; if the weather was moist and cloudy, they would set out on their spring march; if the sun shone and they could see their shadows, they foresaw a wintry spring, and went back to their caves to sleep away two months longer, until April came! Beavers, wise and diligent, were found in large families, on many of the streams. A large dam built by those [xv] skillful creatures was still standing when the whites first came to dwell here, and has given the name of the Beaver Meadow to a quiet valley, within a pleasant drive from the lake shore. Their dams are said to have been half a century old, in ground that suited their habits. After having felled all the wood on a space of perhaps twenty or thirty acres, the tender twigs and bark of the underwood failing, for lack of provisions they would abandon their old haunts For a new position. The beaver yielded one of the most important peltries of the New Netherlands. In 1633 the peltries exported from New Amsterdam amounted to 15,174 skins, valued at $57,250 of our currency. And those were chiefly beaver-skins. Indeed, the annual receipts of the colony from this peltry alone are said to have repeatedly amounted to £20,000. What vast numbers of these sagacious creatures there must have been, at that period, in the region now forming our own home country!

Otters were also common, although like the beaver they are scarcely now to be found within the limits of the State, even in the wildest forests of the Adirondacks. Panthers, haunting the cliffs, strong, ferocious, and capable of doing a deadly injury at times, though generally skulking through the darkness after their prey in a cowardly fashion, these were also common throughout the wilderness. The skins of these animals were sold to the early Dutch traders as lion-skins, and a report was carried over the sea, perchance in the Orange-Treeor in Blyde Boodschap, to the merchants of Antwerp and Amsterdam, that among many strange animals lions were also found in the interior.

The noble elk, the finest of the deer tribe, bearing on its brow stately rounded antlers some four or five feet in height and broad in proportion, haunted the islands in the streams or the lake shores, sometimes in herds, sometimes alone. When pursued by the Indian, with his bow, the hunter with the rude firearms of two centuries since, they would dash through the forest thickets with wonderful celerity, now crouching low, and bending their proud antlers almost [xvi] to the bed of the forest, as they passed beneath the branches, and at the next instant leaping high, with wild grace, over the fallen timber. The flesh was highly valued by the red people. The teeth were precious as so many pearls, being used as ornaments for the person, and also fastened to the dressed skin robes, among some tribes. A garment of this kind is on record as having been decorated with the teeth of fifty-six elks!

The ungainly moose is said to have been also found as far south as the head waters of the Susquehanna. These animals, so strangely lacking in the graceful form and movement of their kindred of the deer family, were eagerly hunted by the Indians. They were of the size of a horse, with the addition of huge flattened antlers, and were called “wild cattle” by the early Dutch and French colonists. In summer time they loved to frequent the lake shores, feeding on the water plants, or browsing on the young trees on the banks. They were dainty in their food, at this season delighting in the water-lilies, root and plant, and also in the buds of the wild rose. There is something especially comic in the idea of the pendulous lip and ungainly snout of the moose beings fed with delicate lilies and rose-buds. The great size of their antlers, and the extreme sensitiveness of this singular excrescence while growing, would appear to have been one cause of their leaving the underwood of the forest in summer, and lingering near the open shores of lake and river. Those huge antlers were sometimes six feet in their full expansion, weighing perhaps seventy pounds. In winter the moose led a more hardy life. They sought a sheltered spot on a hill-aide, generally facing southward; and here in the midst of a growth of maple and birch, they trod down the snow, making what the hunters called a “yard,” where they lived in family parties. At this season they browsed on the tender twigs, or peeled off the bark. With their long pendulous lip they would grasp and pull down the branches, and holding them between their fore-legs eat off all the twigs, or with the hard pad on the roof [xvii] of the mouth placed against the trunk of a tree they would scrape upwards with their sharp gouge-like teeth, and soon strip away every shred of bark from the root to the height of seven or eight feet above. Of all the trees of the forest they fancied most the bark of the graceful, airy striped-maple, called moose-wood, from this fact, a tree found everywhere among the Otsego hills. The hunters red and white who pursued them through the forest in summer, or tracked them to their “yards” in winter, were at times in great danger from the fierceness of the moose, when at bay. This creature had great force in its fore legs, with which it would strike at its assailant. It was indeed a very powerful animal; and many a hunter has been in terror of being trampled to death by it. They have been known to tear a bark canoe to shreds, in their rage, when pursued in the water.

Lynx, sable, wolverene, fox, the cross-fox, and even possibly the black fox, whose fur is now considered six times more valuable than that of any other American animal, these were probably all found on the shores of Lake Otsego at that remote date.

The furs and skins of all these wild creatures must have found their way into the gabled trading-houses at Fort Orange very early in the Dutch period of our colonial story. The Hollanders were on the most friendly terms with the Mohawks, who hunted about Lake Otsego. Most of the peltries carried to Fort Orange were brought in canoes down the Mohawk River. The Indians generally landed just above the Cohoes, and carried their canoes, with the lading, across the portage, embarking again below the falls, and passing down to the Hudson, approached the little wharf at Fort Orange from the northward. A startling incident is related by an old Dutch chronicler in connection with one of these canoe voyages down the Mohawk. An Indian was paddling down the river in a bark canoe with his wife and child, and a load of sixty beaver-skins. At length the roar of a great fall was heard. The Indian was [xviii] familiar with the river, and with the cascade which his people called the Cohoes. It was in the spring of the year, when the stream was full and the current very rapid. The hunter carelessly misjudged the distance. or underrated the swiftness of the current, and suddenly discovered that his frail skiff was already within the influence of the rushing waters. He strained every muscle, exerting strength and skill to the very utmost, striving to touch the shore before reaching the final leap at the precipice. But in vain; the rushing downward tide was too powerful; the frail canoe, the little family party, and their peltries, were all swept over the precipice into the raging abyss below. The woman and child were killed. The skiff was broken into fragments; the package of skins was torn and battered, and greatly damaged. But the hunter himself escaped with his life, and after recovering from the shock and the bruises, collected as many of the beaver-skins as possible and went on his way to Fort Orange, where he told of his extraordinary escape. “This happened in our time,” says the old writer. “I have frequently seen the Indian and heard him relate the terrible occurrence” The height of the fall is seventy feet. Now some of those beaver-skins may well have come from the valleys about Lake Otsego. This singular escapee happened before the year 1653. 1

Every year must have brought fishing or hunting parties of the red men from the Mohawk to the shores of Lake Otsego. Of this fact there can be no more doubt than of the budding of the red maple, or the fall of the snow-wreath. But the Indians had no permanent abode here. Under the Mohawk rule there was no village on this ground. There is no record, no tradition of anything more enduring than the rude temporary shelter of bark intended only to last a few days, built up in an hour, and falling to the ground in the first high wind after they were abandoned. In other parts of the country included within the old Iroquois territory the sites of their villages are well known, while [xix] ruins of what must have been important fortifications still exist, a puzzle to the antiquary. But nothing of the kind has ever been found on the shores of Lake Otsego. Flint arrowheads are still picked up occasionally. Stone tomahawks have been found; but their numbers have never been as large here as elsewhere. And the writer has never heard of a single piece of pottery bigger than a pipe-bowl found in this neighborhood. There is no tradition of any very large burial-place on this ground. A few graves have been accidentally discovered. One of these was opened when building the stone wall which bounded on the eastward the garden of Otsego Hall; a skeleton in a sitting position was uncovered, but left undisturbed. The garden and the house to which it belonged have been swept away by the chances and changes of life, but the skeleton of the Indian warrior still sits in that rude unheeded grave.

It is indeed a singular fact that the country about Lake Otesago, a region so congenial to the habits of the red men, with its grand forests, its many streams, and its treasures of fish and game, should never have become a permanent dwelling-place of the Mohawks. Important villages of this tribe were found, both to the northward and southward. There was at one period a large village at Fort Plain, on the hill immediately overlooking the right bank of a little stream, the Otesquago, which enters the Mohawk at this point. Both history and tradition bear record to the existence of this village, to which the name of Canajoharie was given, a name now connected with the modern town three miles to the eastward.

There was also, in the depths of the forest, about four miles from the village at the mouth of the Otesquago, a secret fastness, or fortified post, of more than usual strength. The spot is now called “Indian Hill.” It lies on the bank of the Otestungo, a small stream flowing into the Otesquago. This ancient work is remarkable in several particulars. The position is admirably chosen, and is said to be naturally the strongest of any get discovered in this State. [xx] The site was a high point projecting into a bend of the Otestungo, with an inaccessible slate cliff, more than a hundred feet high on one side, while on the opposite direction is a ravine, the bank sloping abruptly downward to the waters of another small stream running through the wild glen. A narrow isthmus connects this high point with the lands beyond. Here, across the isthmus, there is an embankment and ditch two hundred and forty feet long, extending from the precipice southward, to the brow of the ravine northward, where it makes a curve inward for a little distance, until it reaches a gigantic pine six feet in diameter. Some persons who have visited this secret fastness of the Mohawks, believe that the grand old pine has grown up since the earth wall was built, but this would require an antiquity of perhaps five hundred years for the fortification. The better opinion mould seem to be that some two centuries since or possibly earlier, the pine was the point where the wall commenced. At the highest elevation the wall rises some six feet from the bottom of the ditch. The area within this wall covers about six acres, being seven hundred feet long, by four hundred slid fifty broad, at the widest point. When surrounded by a double or triple stockade, according to the usual practice of the Iroquois, it would have proved entirely impregnable to any savage foe. Fragments of rude pottery, and various Indian implements have been found here. Several graves have also been discovered just beyond the inclosure, the skeletons beings in a sitting position. Copper kettles, beads, and other articles of European manufacture were also brought to light, proving that, whatever may have been the date of its origin, the Mohawks still held this fastness after the whites came into the country. Probably it was not entirely abandoned until this tribe deserted their former homes, and withdrew in the first years of the Revolution, to Canada.

This forest fastness is remarkable as being the most eastern of all the similar works found in the State of New York. It is the only one known to be situated on waters [xxi] flowing into the Hudson. Between this point and the Atlantic coast no similar work has yet been discovered. To the westward the nearest forts of the same character are those at Onondaga. 2

From these villages in the valley of the Mohawk, one of the regular highways of the forest, a well beaten trail trodden by the feet of many generations, passed southward directly to the shores of Lake Otsego. This trail followed the bank of the Otesquago for some distance through a wild valley, and reached in the course of some three hours’ march the little sheet of water lying on the highest level between the valley of the Mohawk and that of the Susquehanna. This little mere, sometimes called Wood-duck-Pool, from nests of these birds found there, has a northern streamlet flowing into the Otesquago, while through a southern outlet it finds its way into Lake Otsego. At certain periods, after the heavy thaws of spring, or when long rains have filled the brooks of the adjoining hills, the waters of this little mere may be seen actually flowing in opposite directions, at the same moment. From Wood-duck-Pool the head of Lake Otsego was soon reached. The trail, however, still continued southward, following the western bank of the lake until it reached the narrow valley at the outlet, where the Susquehanna enters upon its long and winding and troubled course toward the ocean. Here the wanderer may have paused to fish or to hunt, but he found no permanent bark lodge to receive him. The aspect of the country was very much as it is described in the pages of the “Deerslayer.” “A glorious picture of affluent forest grandeur” untouched by the hand of man, and relieved by the beautiful sheet of water. [James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer [1841] (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987), Chapter 2, p. 36.]

The limpid waves came rippling about the Otsego rock as they ripple to-day. And perchance the wanderer may have found some brother hunter or warrior awaiting him at the stone of meeting. That this rock was a trysting-[xxii]place with the Mohawk braves, and that important councils had been held on the adjoining banks, was the established tradition among the red people, and the rude white hunters their associates, at the time when the first little colony settled here. But after the council had broken up, after warrior and hunter had gone on their way, the lake and its shores were left to the deer and the bear, the wolf and the panther, who roamed over the adjoining hills.

The trail from the Mohawk did not, however, break off at this point. It continued an unbroken path, deeply marked as it passed over the leafy bed of the forest, leading southward for many a long mile. It was indeed the great southern war-path of the Mohawks. The parties of daring warriors encountered by John Smith in Chesapeake Bay in 1608, warriors so greatly dreaded by the tribes on the lower Susquehanna, and on all the streams flowing into the great bay, very probably had marched from their native valley along this very trail. This highway of the forest followed the western bank of the Susquehanna until it reached Oquago, which continued to be an important Indian village long after the whites had entered the country northward and southward. There was also formerly an ancient circular earthwork, on low ground near the mouth of the Unadilla, where it enters the Susquehanna. This ancient trail could be distinctly traced, at certain points, long after the first white farmers had appeared in the country. And it is possible that the deep indentation worn into the bed of the forest and formed by the passage of many successive generations of the red race, may still exist, here and there, in spots as yet untouched by spade or plough, and now half veiled by trailing arbutus, squirrel-cup, or dew-drop.

This secluded and silent character of Lake Otsego, lying isolated between the important Indian villages on the Mohawk to the northward, and those on the Susquehanna to the southward, was not confined to the period when the red men alone held the country. Some solitary Dutch bosh-looper, as we have chosen to believe, may have come [xxiii] and looked on the beautiful basin, he may have shot a deer on the hills, and fished in the lake, and then taken back to Fort Orange the report of the existence of such a sheet of water in the wilderness. But there were lakes innumerable in the country, and the vast forests must have seemed to the Hollanders literally boundless. The attention of the early colonists, both Hollanders and English, was turned in other directions. This little lake lay apparently forgotten, although its existence at the head waters of the Susquehanna was not actually unknown. Civilization advanced at a timid creeping pace, during the first hundred anti fifty years after it touched the soil at the mouth of the Hudson. From Fort Orange it moved cautiously along the Mohawk, feeling its way at every step, pausing nearly a century at Schenectady, then halting again at the “German Flats.”

In the year 1709 a large party of Protestant Germans from the Palatinate, fleeing from the effects of religious persecution, and the poverty brought upon Rhenish Germany by the wars of Louis XIV., emigrated to America under the patronage of Queen Anne. Some three thousand crossed the Atlantic at this period. Many of these settled in Pennsylvania, others on the Hudson, others at the German Flats on the Mohawk. A colony of several hundred of these worthy industrious people settled on the banks of the Schoharie in 1711. So wild was the country at that date, although only thirty miles to the westward of Albany, that the emigrants travelled to the lands allotted to them on foot, over an Indian trail, bearing their goods on their backs, their children in their arms; and they were four days on this toilsome march into the wilderness. The attention of the people belonging to this little colony was entirely absorbed by their own immediate neighborhood; they do not seem to have ever penetrated westward, and for all necessary supplies they looked northward to the valley of the Mohawk, or to Albany.

It was some thirty years later before the first settlement on a stream flowing southward, a tributary of the Susque[xxiv]hanna, took place. In the year 1741 a party of Scotch-Irish came to make their homes at Cherry Valley; but like the Germans at Schoharie, their eyes were also turned northward towards the Mohawk for all necessary supplies, and they saw too much of the wilderness in their own neighborhood to wish to penetrate farther into its mysteries. They little heeded the country to the westward. Several successive ridges of low mountains lay between their own valley and that of the Otsego. At that period the Indian trails were the only roads, and these almost invariably followed the water-courses and the valleys. There was, for instance, a well-beaten trail along the Cherry Valley stream, to its junction with the Susquehanna some distance below Lake Otsego, but none whatever across the hills to the lateral valleys.

This is the period chosen for the appearance of Natty and Harry March on the silent strand of Lake Otsego. And at that date lake and valley still formed part of a beautiful, unbroken sylvan wilderness, where wild creatures roamed at will.

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 [xxv] 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 [xxvi] 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 supply of venison laid secretly at their do a kindly hand, a 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.” [The Deerslayer, Chapter 4, pp. 68-69]

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 [xxvii] 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 [xxviii] 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 [xxix] 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.

And now if you ask the precise position of this village of the red man, we cannot answer the question. There is neither tradition nor record to guide us. It may have been near Wyoming. It may have been near Shamokin. It [xxx] may have been near Wyalussing. It must suffice for us to know that Natty hunted with his Mohegan brothers over much of the mountainous country watered by the upper Susquehanna, and the Delaware or Lennapi-Hittuck. And another fact is also clear; there was no lake of any size in the region where he passed his early youth.

The delight with which Natty first saw a fine lake and paddled over its waters in the Indian canoe, was a perfectly natural feeling to a spirit readily touched by the beautiful works of the Creator.

“My eyes never a-weary looking at it!” exclaimed the young hunter to Hurry Harry. [The Deerslayer, Chapter 2, p. 44]

And those words express with perfect truth the glow of interest with which the author of the “Deerslayer” had looked over the same waters, from early childish years to the hour when his pen traced them.

Many have shared in the same feeling. All whose paternal homes lie on a fine lake-shore can readily take part in it. Living waters are the very soul of a landscape. There is certainly no other natural object, however fine, whether imposing like a grand mountain, or winning like a smiling valley, which carries with it so much of the spirit of companionship through all the successive years of a human life, as a lake. And a lake of limited size awakens more of this feeling than a larger sheet of water, We are familiar with every point and bay forming the outline of its shores, we know the ever-varying aspect of its waters as we know the countenance of a friend. It enters into the frame-work of our home-life. It is graven in warm colors on our hearts.

With the author of the “Deerslayer” this feeling amounted to affection, — to enduring attachment. These were the first waters on which his eyes had ever fallen with a conscious look. He was brought to the lake-shore when an infant only a few months old. Here in boyhood he had first played with an oar or hoisted a sail. And although frequently absent in after years, yet at each return he never failed to greet the Otsego with especial pleasure.

[xxxi] When he returned from Europe, to make his home once more among these hills, many were the quiet hours of the summer afternoons and evenings, passed by him in rowing on the lake with the one companion whose society was most dear to him.

As he grew older and the exercise of rowing proved more fatiguing, a drive on the lake-shore became a great pleasure. About a mile and a half from the village lay a wild mountain farm in which he took great delight. It rose from the eastern shore of the lake, covering an abrupt hill-side, stretching along the crest of the low mountain until it looked over towards the adjoining valley. He gave to this farm the name of the Châlet, from a rude cabin crowning a knoll near the summit. From this knoll the view was very lovely. It commanded the entire lake, or very nearly so, in its length and breadth, and included the heights of Springfield to the northward, and southward the village, picturesque in position, with the valley of the winding Susquehanna beyond. This was a poet’s farm, more romantic than profitable, The improvements, however, are said by those who have experience in such matters, to have been all skillfully planned and thoroughly carried out, so far as they went. When he first took possession of the ground it was rude and wild as possible. He began by removing the chalet, American fashion, from the knoll, and bringing it down the mountain-side to a picturesque spot, near a noble spring under the shadow of a cliff; retired in position but accessible from the highway, and quite near the lake. A good road was made to the hill-top, with the intention of rendering it at a later day a public track to the adjoining valley of Middlefield. A comfortable farm-house, dairy, barns, and other outhouses were built. Fields were cleared and several terraces of good soil brought under cultivation. For him this farm had a double charm. He had the true American passion for clearing and improving land; such was the practical attraction. And to his poet’s eye for natural beauty the views over the lake were an unceasing source [xxxii] of delight. For years a drive to this farm, summer or winter, often both morning and evening, entered as a matter of course into his daily life. There was always some piece of work going on in which he was much interested, — some bit of road to be made, a field to be ploughed, wood to be cut, a clearing to be opened, a fence to he built. The fences varied in character: some were of rails, some solid stone walls, and others of stumps. Clearing the hill-side and its level terraces from stumps, was indeed a formidable task. Often was the stump-machine, that useful Yankee invention, called upon to forward the work. After the great roots of pines, hemlocks, oaks, and chestnuts had cracked and snapped like so many threads under the powerful machine, and the wild looking mass was upheaved from the soil in which it had stood rooted so firmly for centuries, it was dragged away in chains by a double yoke of oxen, and ranged in grim array beside a row of comrades, making as formidable an agricultural chevaux de frise, as savage and forbidding a fence, as one can well imagine. These fences were, however, very durable, and after standing in position a year or two flowering shrubs of different kinds and wild vines grew up among them and softened their wild aspect not a little. In this latter stage they were not unpleasing, more especially as they were characteristic of the country.

One pleasant afternoon of the year 1840, there was some work of this kind going on at the Châlet. But the day’s task had closed; the cattle had been inspected, the milkhouse visited, the poultry fed, the eggs collected. It was time to drive homeward. The road between this farm and the village was charming, although the regular highway on the eastern shore of the lake. It was lined with open, unfenced woods on either side for the greater part of the distance, — a mile and a half, — varied by little openings; and occasional glimpses of the lake, whose rippling waters lay close at hand beneath the wooded bank. One of the natural fountains of the region stood by the road-side about a mile from the village, for the benefit of the teamsters passing to [xxxiii] and fro; it was merely a rude trough, the hollow trunk of a tree into which a spring ran trickling from the wood above. Here, as a matter of course, the pony always stopped for a drink, — whether thirsty or not. He was indulged as usual, and then he trotted slowly on towards the village. Mr. Cooper was singing to himself, as he often did on that quiet woodland road, — it was generally some snatch of a song popular in his youth; — upon the afternoon in question it chanced to be an election song of the party with which he did not vote. Suddenly we came out of the wood, and a view of the lake opened before us, a familiar view, but more lovely than usual in the soft lights and shadows of that summer evening. There was a pause in the song. The pony indulged himself with a walk. The author’s face was turned towards the lake, and the far-seeing look of inventive genius came into the clear gray eye. He was lost in thought for a moment, — figures and scenes foreign to the day and hour seemed to rise before him. Soon the vision passed away. Turning to his daughter with a smile he exclaimed, “I must write one more book, dearie, about our little lake!” Then the song was resumed, the whip cracked, the pony trotted on, and we went our way toward the village.

Within a few days the first pages of the “Deerslayer” were written. Natty appeared once more on the lake shore, where he had been first introduced to the reader nineteen years earlier. The words given above, foretelling the “Deerslayer,” chanced to be spoken at a point on the road now overlooked by Lakewood Cemetery. By an accidental coincidence a fine marble statue of Natty, standing erect on a tall monumental column, may now be seen from the same spot; the tall white figure of the old hunter stands gleaming among the higher branches of a grove of young pines, looking over lake and valley. Lakewood Cemetery, one of the most beautiful in the whole country, was not planned until several years after Mr. Cooper’s death. It was an open [xxxiv] wood hanging on the wild hill-side, at the time of the after noon drive alluded to.

For several of the most impressive scenes of the “Deerslayer,” the author selected a beautiful point of land on the lake shore, about three miles from the village. This was ground dear to him from the associations of a lifetime. At this point Hetty lands with her Bible, when bent on her loving errand of mercy in behalf of Walter [sic] and Hurry Harry.

“’Hetty!’ called out Judith, — concern, even affection, betraying itself in her tones; ‘are you within hearing, sister? for God’s sake answer, and let me hear the sound of your voice again! — Hetty ! — dear Hetty!’

“’I’m here, Judith, — here on the shore, where it will be useless to follow me; as I will hide in the woods.’

“’Oh, Hetty, what is ‘t you do! Remember ‘tis drawing near midnight, and that the woods are filled with savages and wild beasts!’

“’Neither will harm a poor half-witted girl, Judith. God is as much with me here as He would be in the ark, or in the hut. I am going to help my father, and poor Hurry Harry; they will be tortured and slain, unless some one cares for them.  [The Deerslayer, Chapter 10, p. 168]

On this point the “Mingoes” are encamped when Natty’s daring rescues Hist; and here he sends the canoe with the Indian lovers adrift, and remains himself a prisoner.

“To gain the beach, and to follow it round to the place where Chingachgook was already in the canoe with Hist, anxiously awaiting his appearance, occupied but a moment. Laying his rifle in the bottom of the canoe, Deerslayer stooped to give the latter a vigorous shove from the shore, when a powerful Indian leaped through the bushes, alighting like a panther on his back. ... Deerslayer threw all his force into a desperate effort, shoved the canoe off with a power that sent it a hundred feet from the shore, as it might be in an instant, and fell forward into the lake, himself, face downward; his assailant necessarily following him.” [The Deerslayer, Chapter 17, p. 290]

It would be scarcely possible to imagine a spot more [xxxv] charming in quiet sylvan beauty that this little point, during the first years after the foundation of the village. Jutting out into the limpid waters of the lake, at the foot of a wooded height, lined with a clean pebbly beach, crowned with a noble growth of oak, elm, pine, and beech, their limbs garlanded with vines, it would seem to have gathered within its narrow limits every woodland charm. A limpid spring, remarkable for the coolness and sweetness of its water rose from among the gravel of the beach, at the very root of ancient trees; a wild brawling brook coming down from the hills, had torn for itself a rude channel, adding variety to the ground, and often blending the troubled murmur of its waters with the gentle play of the ripple on the beach. Azaleas and wild roses formed a luxuriant natural shrubbery, while the pitcher-plant, the moccasin flower, gentians, blue and white, and brilliant lobelias were also found here, blended with other native blossoms.

The views in every direction were in perfect harmony with the scene itself. In the rear a grand unbroken forest clothed the hills to their summits. The eye wandered over a beautiful expanse of water, while the opposite shore was clothed from the strand to the crest of the hills with the same unbroken wood, beautiful in its rich and varied growth. To the northward rose an isolated height of some dignity. To the southward lay the valley of the Susquehanna, with the first homes of the little colony gathering On the bank at the outlet, and a background of low mountains in the distance.

Such was the aspect of this point when Judge Cooper first set it aside as a gathering place for parties of friends and relatives in the pleasant summer days. Such was its condition when the author, then a mere boy, the youngest child but one of a family of thirteen, first visited the spot with his parents. Gatherings of this kind began very early, within a few years of the building of the first homes in the village. At that period, and throughout the early boyhood of Mr. Cooper, nine tenths of the hills surrounding the lake ware clothed with the forest.

From its position commanding the water for several miles, north and south, this point was often chosen as a look-out by the hunters, so long as game was still to be found on the hills. The deer when pursued by the hounds would fly to the lake for protection. There was an ancient oak on the extreme end of the Point projecting far over the water; in this tree a scout was placed, and a signal, agreed upon beforehand, betrayed to the hunters in the forest the direction taken by the deer. This old tree bore the name of the Signal Oak. It mould happen occasionally, in those early years, that as some party of pleasure was moving towards the Point, a deer could he seen in the water, at a distance, and an impromptu chase added zest to the day’s amusement. Parties went at that date, in rude scows, and even in Indian canoes. The old oak gradually lost one limb after another, but it remained a hoary trunk still bending over the water, for many long years, and the last fragments of bleached wood have only recently disappeared. The name of Signal Oak Point was occasionally applied to this point in connection with the tree.

Even at a much later date, when the author of the “Deerslayer” returned to his paternal home in the Otsego Hills after an absence of some seven or eight years in Europe, this point was still in a wild condition, more attractive from its absolute seclusion than it is to-day. It seemed a little sylvan world of itself. The bays on either side were bordered by the forest. There was neither road, nor field, nor farm, within a distance of a mile or more. The perfect woodland seclusion of the spot was indeed a great charm. Oaks of the grandest character still stood proudly rooted in the soil they had shaded before the white man came. Wild roses in profusion grew in rich clumps. The old oaks have now been destroyed by the fishermen building fires at their roots. The wild roses, and azaleas, and gentians have almost entirely disappeared. Thousands of pleasure-seekers now visit :he spot every summer; their busy hands and feet have [xxxvii] stripped the soil of half its shrubbery and nearly all its flowering plants. It is now a public picnic-ground.

During the summer after the author’s return from Europe, there was a large festive party of friends and relatives making up a gay picnic welcome. The weather was charming, the party pleasant, the grove most beautiful; but the mode of reaching the Point was less pleasing than in earlier days. It was the age of the horse-boat, and on the deck of this clumsy and most prosaic craft were collected some three-score or more of pleasure-seekers, old and young. It was always an agreeable feature of the lake parties of that date, that several generations united in the holiday, there being always grand-parents and tiny little ones present, and not unfrequently four generations of the same family were found enjoying themselves in these rustic parties. There was an old tree visited with especial interest on this occasion, — an old beech whose smooth bark was covered to the height of eight or nine feet with the names of friends and relatives, many of whom had passed away during that long absence. The initials of the parents of Mr. Cooper, cut into the bark more than thirty years earlier, were still distinctly graven into the wood, though somewhat distorted by time. This old tree, with its record of the past in which many of the village people felt a lively interest, was blown down some years later.

The author always took great delight in these gatherings at the Point. Not a summer passed, until his last illness, without his giving more than one party of this kind. Against the horse-boat he early entered a protest. When directing the party himself rowing or sailing were of course the rule. And on these occasions the chowder was always of his own making. His old sailor’s tastes revived on these occasions. He was indeed a master in the art of chowder-making, admitted by all to be a cordon-bleu. Not content with planning and directing, he mixed the mysterious compound himself, built up the gypsy fire, pored over the brewing in the great black pot, not unlike a witch’s cauldron, [xxxviii] stirring and skimming. peppering and salting, all at the right moment. Lady housekeepers meanwhile would stand aside, with folded arms, lost in wonder at the motley contents of the great kettle, laughing not a little occasionally at the oddity of the scene, — the author in a new character. It was always natural to him to be eagerly intent on the task of the hour, His aide-de-camp and majordomo, on these occasions was a merry, quick-witted, smiling, pleasant mannered negro, Joe Tom, of well established fame as master of all the village revels. A failure in the chowder was unknown. European travellers, American commodores and generals, diplomatists and statesmen, with ladies old and young, all yielded their homage.

The writer of these notes well remembers a pleasant party of this kind in which dear friends from a distance were gathered, and which was honored by the presence of several gentlemen distinguished in military and political life. On this occasion the author of the “Deerslayer” considered his culinary reputation at stake. He devoted himself with even more than his usual assiduity to the chowder, — aided always by his dark-skinned coadjutor. When the last touch of pepper, and the last glass of wine had been added, he summoned two or three friends to the fire, and offering each a small quantity to taste, proudly demanded an impartial opinion as to its merits. There was perfect unanimity, enthusiastic approbation, in this politico-military committee on chowder. So high indeed did the admiration rise that it was decided on the spot that especial honors should be awarded to the chowder and the chowder-pot, discarding all tureens and other commonplace appliances of dinner-tables. The kettle, black and sooty, was seized, hung upon a stout stick, and borne in triumphal procession half-way around the Point, between the author and one of his friends, followed by a score or more of ladies and gentlemen, lads and lasses, including a sprinkling of children, and then lifted with cheers of enthusiasm to the place of honor on the damask cloth. Like the boar’s-head at a Christmas feast of olden [xxxix] time, the chowder kettle was greeted with acclamation, with cheering, and waving of hat, and veil, and handkerchief!

Overflowing with the spirit of hospitality and social feeling, Mr. Cooper enjoyed with peculiar zest these picnic gatherings at the Point.

During the last summer of his life, ten years after the “Deerslayer” was written, in 1851, when he had become too feeble to walk, a drive to his farm, or on the lake shore, still gave him very great pleasure. Though hand and foot were now almost useless, the head was clear, and the heart warm as ever. Singularly patient during that trying illness of ten months, always social, and receiving to the very last the friends who visited him daily with an unfailing smile, he was frequently urged to drive with one or another. One afternoon in the last days of August a friend came to offer him a drive. He was lifted into the carriage and asked in what direction he wished to go?

“To the Point!” was his cheery answer.

We passed along that beautiful road on the western bank of the lake, his companions very sad at heart, though concealing, of course, all that was painful. But he himself was smiling and cheerful, enjoying the views of the hills and the water. On reaching the Point the carriage stopped by the road-side, under the shade of the trees. Leaning a little forward, he looked wistfully down through the vista of wood, to the beach.

“I should like a drink from the old spring,” he said.

The gentleman who was driving proposed taking him down in the carriage to the spring, He was pleased with the idea.

“If it can be done without too much trouble!” he replied.

It was not easy to carry out the suggestion; there was no road, nothing but a rude track, worn by the sleighs, going and coming in winter when the ice lay on the lake. But the horses were led carefully through the wood, down the bank to the beach, and afterward passed round on the gravel to the spring. he drank a little of the water, prais[xl]ing its coolness. Quietly, and in silence, he then sat looking over the lake. Old recollections appeared to revive. There was a subdued and chastened smile on his face. The incident and the memories it awakened, appeared to give him pleasure.

Three weeks later he lay in the church-yard. He was taken from his family on the 14ᵗʰ of September, 1851.


[by Susan Fenimore Cooper]

1 Vanderdonck.

2 See Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, “Aboriginal Monuments of the State of New York,” by E.G. Squier.