Introduction to The Oak Openings (1848)

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: Cooper’s 1847 trip to Michigan; never-completed idea for a book about Indians at Niagara; description of Michigan prairie and oaks [quotation]; long anecdote about a farmer tracking down a lost hive of bees at Cooper’s “Châlet Farm”; The Oak Openingsthe last of Cooper’s twelve Indian tales; novel begun January 1, 1848 [quotation from diary].

Pages and Pictures, pp. 379-383.

Contents: THE OAK OPENINGS. — Journey to Michigan — The writer’s enjoyment of the excursion — Changes in the country — Prairie Ronde — The Châlet — The swarm of bees — Indian conquered by Christianity — Lines from diary — Extract, The Council Fire in the Oak Grove.

[379] IN the month of June, of the year 1847, the author of the Pathfinder made a pleasant excursion westward. The journey was not a long one, reaching only as far as Detroit, the prairies, and the beautiful open groves of southern Michigan. Beyond Seneca Lake, the ground, in its actual aspect, was quite new to him; recollections of the journey taken through the same region, in early youth, now giving additional interest to every mile of the way, as he moved along among well tilled lands — garden, orchard, and grain-field, all rich in full midsummer promise — and passed from one large and affluent town to another, where, forty years earlier, he had travelled thorough a wilderness. He had now reached his threescore years, but, full of vigor and spirit, still felt undiminished the interest he hail always taken in the advancing movement of civilization. He saw Niagara again. The sublime character of the cataract impressed him very deeply on this occasion; it far surpassed his recollections, and, having now seen the most admired falls of Europe, he could better comprehend its dignity and grandeur — the out-pouring of great seas amid those ragged cliffs. The idea of an Indian narrative, connected with Niagara, occurred to him; he would have dated it a century earlier, and have carried a party of savages to Goat Island ere any bridge had been built, and while the whole adjoining country was still a forest. Would that the book had been written! What varied pictures of Niagara should we have had in its pages; what wild interest of adventure would he not have thrown over its scenes! With Buffalo and Detroit he was much pleased, from admi[380]ration of their growth and promise. But with the beautiful flowery prairies and natural groves of Michigan, he was quite charmed. Indeed, it would not be easy to say from which source he derived the greatest pleasure on this excursion — whether from the spirit of practical progress, or from the natural objects before him — the lakes, the cataracts, the prairies, and their groves. Here is a passage relating to this excursion:

“To get an idea of Prairie Round, the reader must imagine an oval plain of some five-and-twenty or thirty thousand acres in extent, of the most surprising fertility, without an eminence of any sort; almost without an inequality. There are a few small cavities, however, in which there are springs forming large pools of water that the cattle will drink. This plain, so far as we saw it, is now entirely fenced and cultivated. The fields are large — many containing eighty acres, and some one hundred and sixty; most of them being in wheat. We saw several fields of this size in that grain. Farm-houses dotted the surface, with barns, and the other accessories of rural life. In the centre of the prairie is an “island” of forest, containing some five or six hundred acres of the noblest native trees we remember ever to have seen. In the centre of this wood is a little lake, circular in shape, and exceeding a quarter of a mile in diameter. The walk in this wood, which is not an opening, but an old-fashioned virgin forest, we found delightful of a warm summer’s day. One thing that we saw in it was characteristic of the country. Some of the nearest farmers had drawn their manure into it, where it lay in large piles, in order to get it out of the way of doing any mischief. Its effect on the land, it was thought, would be to bring too much straw!” [James Fenimore Cooper, The Oak Openings [1848] (New York: W.A. Townsend and Co., 1860), Chapter 30, pp. 493-494]

Mr. Cooper was absent from home but a few weeks. One morning, not long after his return, passing, as usual, his leisure hours at the mountain farm, in overlooking his laborers, he observed a little skiff leaving a point on the opposite shore of the lake, and moving directly toward an opening on his own lands, made originally for the purpose of rolling logs from the heights above, but which was now occasionally used as a landing-place. The adjoining shores on the western side of the lake were scarcely peopled for some miles from the village, with the exception of a small inn, a baiting place for teamsters, and here and there a log cabin beyond. Mr. Cooper believed the boatman to be coming over the lake on some errand to himself, connected with hemlock timber, with which he was then supplying the new plank road on the opposite bank. Presently a stranger, with a tin pail in his hand, made his appearance, coming slowly up the winding road to the hill-top, where Mr. Cooper was engaged with his workmen. Approaching the party, he inquired if a large swarm of bees had not been seen somewhere in that direction; he had lost a fine swarm, which had left the [381] hive early in the morning, several days before, and, after looking for them in vain for a while, he had just learned that a farmer’s wife in his neighborhood had seen them cross the lake in the direction of the Châlet. No such swarm had been seen by the workmen at the Châlet; one of them remarked, however, that bees had been “very plenty about the blossoms for a day or two.” Learning this fact, the stranger began to look about him more closely, and, from the unusual number of honey-bees coming and going about the flowering plants on the hill, he became convinced that his swarm was lodged somewhere within reach. A search for the lost bees began; Mr. Cooper, who was much interested by the little incident, assisting the stranger in his task. The farm was belted by wood on all sides, while a young grove skirted the cliffs, and on the height a number of tall scattered trees, some charred and lifeless, others still in full vigor, showed the remains of the original forest. The farmer from Highborough professed himself very knowing in the ways of bees; boasted of having one of the largest “bee-sheds” in the country, running along two sides of his garden; he knew the trees in which the bees would be most likely to lodge, and accordingly he went directly toward those giant old oaks and elms on the hill-top, in some hollow of which he was convinced that the swarms had alighted. Rustic jokes passed at the cost of the stranger, who was asked by the workmen which of all the old trees, with straight, branchless trunks perhaps sixty or eighty feet high, he would most fancy to climb; when he was ready, he must let them know, they would like to see the sight! Mr. Cooper had a word to say also: while wishing the search good success, he protested against receiving the treatment which a friend of his had lately met with — a pine tree, nearly two hundred feet high, and perhaps five hundred years old, having been deliberately felled by some lawless fellow, for the sake of a swarm of bees which had alighted on one of the topmost boughs. The Highborough farmer nodded his head, and declared that be did not mean to waste any time in climbing or in “chopping” that day, the weather was too warm; he meant to call his bees down — that was his fashion. And taking up his tin pail, he began to move about over a little spot of waste land, where many flowering plants grew at will; here he soon found a honey-bee sipping from the cup of a rose raspberry; he professed to know at once the face of one of his own bees, “to say nothin’ of the critter’s talk,” as he termed the buzzing of the wings. A glass taken from the pail was placed over it, a few drops of sweet honey having boon previously thrown into it; the captive bee, after moving about uneasily for a while, began to sip the honey; when its little bag was quite full, it was set at liberty, the course it took being carefully followed as far as the eye could reach. Again the farmer looked over the flowers for a [382] second honey-bee, and one was soon found on a head of golden-rod; the little creature was captured, fed with honey, and set at liberty as the first had been; the stranger placing himself, however, at a different position, and at an opposite point of the compass from that where he had first stood. When the bee had taken wing, its course was closely watched until it had flown out of sight. In this way, some dozen bees were successively captured from the clover, or daisies, or wood flowers, found in mingled growth about the hill-top, until, at length, the general direction taken by them all, when set at liberty, was discovered. This process of “lining the bees,” or tracking them by an air-line to the natural hive, proved that the farmer had been correct; an old, half-charred oak stub, some forty feet in height, with a single limb near the top, had been their alighting place; once beneath the tree, the little creatures might be seen flying about the blighted bough above. The stranger now went to his boat again, and brought a new hive to the hill-top, placing it at a short distance from the old trunk where his bees had housed themselves; honey was sprinkled about the little doorway of the hive, flowering plants were gathered and strewn around, and some were placed in water to preserve them in freshness. The good man then withdrew to a little distance, and seated himself on a stump, awaiting the result; it was not long before a line of communication was opened between the bee-company above, and the hive with its store of honey, and the flowering plants below; and when the sun set, the bees had of their own accord taken possession of their new abode; by moonlight they were rowed across the lake, and placed on the shelf in the farmer’s garden, beside the mother swarm they had left a few days earlier on their adventurous journey to the Châlet.

This little incident interested Mr. Cooper very much, and in the course of the following autumn, while thinking over a new tale connected with the prairies of Michigan, he determined that a “bee-hunter” should be one of the principal characters. This book proved the last of a long series of Indian tales. In twelve different works of the imagination, from the same pen, the savages had held positions more or less prominent — among scenes of adventurous life in the Otsego hills, on the shores of the Horican, roaming over the far western prairies, on the waters of Lake Ontario, among the forests of New York, and now among the oak groves of Michigan. The last of the series is full of interest, original in incident, and different in spirit from those which preceded it. In the principal character, we see how the holy and peaceful influences of Christianity are made at length to triumph over that dearest passion of die American savage, the spirit of revenge.

The “Oak Openings” was commenced on New Year’s day of 1848, and written [383] in the course of the following winter and spring. A note, relating to the first pages of the book, occurs in a brief diary kept by the writer during that year:

“Saturday, January 1ˢᵗ, 1848. — Read St. John. No church. Weather very mild, though snow fell in the night. Walking very bad, and I paid no visits out of the family. Had ***, ***, ***, ***, and ***, at dinner. A very merry evening with the young people. Played chess with my wife. Wrote a little in ‘Oak Openings’ to begin the year with.” [see James F. Beard, Jr., ed., Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960-68), Vol. V, pp. 251-252]

Excerpt: “The Council Fire” [James Fenimore Cooper, The Oak Openings, Chapter 16, pp. 256-263].