Wish-ton-Wish: Muck or Melancholy?

Robert D. Madison (United State Naval Academy)

Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 1993 Conference of the American Literature Association in Baltimore.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 4, September 1993.

Copyright © 1993, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

We all had a good opportunity to hone our critical skills at Cooper’s grindstone with Michael Mann and Christopher Crowe’s recent screenplay of Last of the Mohicans — the American Barry Lyndon. I like seeing what materials an artist draws on and how the artist puts them together — a rather technical aspect of the “genetic process,” but an aspect that engages my curiosity. In Mann’s Mohicans, I appreciated the theft of the judgment scene from Pioneers (Natty’s crime at urging desertion), the opening canoe sequence from Pathfinder (which becomes a major escape scene in the movie, even though it ultimately reminds us more of W.H.H. Murray at “Phantom Falls”), and the ritualized climax that owes its tone more to the end of Prairie than anything in Mohicans. I especially liked the borrowing of Hetty’s and Judith’s characterizations from Deerslayer to replace those of Alice and Cora.

I was still a little concerned at the disfranchisement of the Native American — a major theme of the book, but strangely handled in the movie: why cast Russell Means as ‘Gach and then give him no lines (the elegy at the end hardly makes up for the silence elsewhere). Means is a good orator, but his talent was clearly wasted in this script: his silence gives new meaning to the phrase “lip service.” And Duncan’s transformation into the major villain even disfranchises Magua, whose death following the N.C. Wyeth “still” is the unclimactic climax to the multiple death scene which is otherwise so beautifully (if not faithfully) done. The most disturbing element to me was Duncan’s merciful death at the hands of his white rival: hardly Cooperian, although the detail was almost certainly suggested by the shooting of the Huron about to fall into the abyss — an instance of mercy killing from the book itself, but ultimately a waste of powder and ball.

None of these transformations differs significantly from the kinds of problems Cooper created for himself, though. The association of the names “Uncas” and “Mohican” begins a series of confusions — if not blunders — that Cooper seemed to wish to clarify or rectify the next time he wrote about eastern Indians. The difficulty of his task, as he expressed it in the 1826 preface to Mohicans, arose from “the utter confusion that pervades the names.” Undoubtedly, Cooper began to take the heat for his “faults” even before the work was published, and looked forward to an opportunity of demonstrating a clear grasp of Indian affairs.

I’m sure that when Cooper began The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish he had a double motive: first, to correct the Uncas-Mohican problem, and second to write one of his projected series of tales focussed on the original thirteen colonies. That combination led Cooper inevitably to Connecticut, and to Benjamin Trumbull’s A Complete History of Connecticut (1818). Trumbull, whom Cooper refers to in the preface of Wept as “The venerable historian of Connecticut,” provided Cooper with a clearly focussed account of a relatively small cast of Indians interacting with a white population that could be adequately represented by the Massachusetts emigrants and the regicide “Submission.” But moving from Mohicans’ Uncas to Wept’s generates the same response we have when we meet the Oxford-educated “Mingo” of Fess Parker’s Daniel Boone movie: what possible relation can there be between these two? Trumbull’s Uncas is a toady of the Yengeese colonists, and Cooper has to delve deeply into Connecticut history to come up with a suitable red hero. Cooper does show the other branch of “Mohegans” — the true “Uncas” branch — but subordinates that group to the portrait of the Wampanoag Metacom and, primarily, to an imaginative reconstruction of the Narragansett sachem Canonchet [spelled Conanchet in Wept].

Trumbull provides Cooper with the long foreground that takes up the first half of the novel. Early in the book he reinforces Cooper’s deepest fear — the miscegenation of names: “The word Moheagans, is a corruption of Muhhekaneew, in the singular, or of Muhhekaneok in the plural number” (53). Much of his second chapter is devoted to a description of the Pequots — the group always associated with the Mohegans. Chapter four follows the removal of the colonists from Massachusetts to Connecticut. Chapter five covers the Pequot War (1636) and describes in vivid and frightening detail Indian warfare of the period (76-77); it is in this chapter that Uncas is introduced as an ally of the English.

It is from Trumbull’s chapter seven that Cooper begins to draw in earnest: the victory of Uncas over the Narragansetts, the death of Miantonimoh in 1643 and his burial on Sachem’s Plain in the eastern part of Norwich. From intervening chapters Cooper draws suggestions for the attacks of the Narragansetts and the arrival and persecution of the regicides in Connecticut in 1661:

For a short time, they made their quarters in the woods and then fixed them in a cave in the side of a hill, which they named Providence Hill. (246)

But it is chapter fourteen that is the heart of Cooper’s interest in Trumbull’s book: the account of Philip’s War and the Great Swamp Fight of December 19, 1675. It is in this section that Cooper finds a host of details — not only earmarks like the Pocasset Neck swamp and Pettyquamscot, but also major thematic elements like the construction of the Narragansetts’ bastion in the swamp, which in retrospect seems to have been the product of Canonchet’s study while a captive in the Puritan valley. It is in this chapter, also, that the figure Canonchet first appears in Trumbull’s work. Trumbull’s details of the pursuit and capture of Canonchet [see Appendix A] are incorporated verbatim but much amplified in Cooper’s novel. It becomes clear that while most of Cooper’s characterization of the North American native came from his earlier research and imagination, the historical facts and names were not about to be wrong in Wept — or were they?

It is clear from the borrowing of language and statistics that Cooper had Trumbull’s book with him in Europe while he composed Wept, and that nearly every fact can be pinned down to some point in that work. There are some key exceptions — primarily among names.

Cooper obviously consults his own genealogy more than history when he names his leading family “Heathcote,” and the first names reach allegorical proportion in this story where pity, content, and submission are key traits that shift back and forth between the often ruthless, discontented, and proud white and red worlds. But while in his other fiction Cooper revels in the symbolic value of Indian names, he seems to avoid such translations here. “Nipset” ought to have something to do with water (in Narragansett, at least), but this seems to have nothing to do with Whittal’s deficiencies. Cooper may have borrowed the name from one of his Delaware or western sources, but if he had a specific reason for doing so it is not apparent. “Narra-mattah,” another supposedly Narragansett name translated by Cooper as “driven snow,” doesn’t quite work either: “matta” means “not” — “matta moohpinoo” would mean “it does not snow” (Josiah Cotton, Vocabulary, 1829).

But the most curious adaptation of all occurs in the very title of the book. In chapter twenty-two of Mohicans Cooper has introduced the wish-ton-wish:

“You know the cry of a crow, friend, from the whistle of the whip-poor-will?” “’Tis a pleasing bird,” returned David, “and has a soft and melancholy note! though the time is rather quick and ill-measured.” “He speaks of the wish-ton-wish,” said the scout; well, since you like his whistle, it shall be your signal.” (227)

Did Cooper ever think that anyone would question this key symbol? Surely the whip-poor-will is thematically important to the book, as this description suggests:

The Indians say these birds were never known till a great massacre was made of their countryfolks by the English, and that they are the souls of departed spirits of the massacred Indians. ... Abundance of people here look upon them as birds of ill-omen; and are very melancholy if one of them happens to light upon their house, or near their door, and set up his cry (as they will sometimes upon the very threshold), for they verily believe one of the family will die very soon after. (Clayton to Catesby, quoted in Penny Cyclopaedia, 1843)

But this Penny Cyclopaedia entry also states, “This is the Wecoalis of the Delaware Indians.” So Cooper’s name must be Algonquian, from the tribes he was actually writing about, right? But according to Styles, the Pequot word for the bird is “Muckko-wheesce.” Carver, whose work Cooper had read while preparing Mohicans, cites “The Whipperwill, or as it is termed by the Indians, the Muckawiss.” (quoted by OED).

Cooper did not, however, make up the word. Undoubtedly he ran across it in reading works that would later be used in Prairie — but of course that means that he was well along in his study of western Indians even before he finished Mohicans, since the word appears there. What is a wish-ton-wish, and where did Cooper find it? “Wishtonwish” is nothing more nor less that the Pawnee word for prairie dog. He could have found it in Pike’s account of his journey to the Pawnee country: “24 October, Friday [1806] ... We returned and on our way, killed some prairie squirrels, or wishtonwishes, and nine large rattle snakes, which frequent their villages.” This passage is accompanied by a long footnote, which a reader could scarcely forget [see Appendix B].

Could Cooper have planted a misake on purpose? Did he mistakenly subtiute the whistle-like name of the prairie dog for the whistle of the whip-poor-will? Or might the same name have been applied by one of Cooper’s live Pawnees to a bird as well — perhaps to Nuttall’s whip-poor-will, the equivalent bird of the plains? (“The lugubrious vociferation of the whip-poor-will; the croaking frogs, chirping crickets, and whoops and halloos of the Indians, broke not disagreeably the silence of a calm and fine evening,” Nuttall had written in 1819.) Maybe the answer lies at hand in the pages of Lewis and Clark; maybe we’ll never know. We can, at least, take consolation that we are not the first to become impatient in the matter of these names. About the whip-poor-will — or wish-ton-wish, if you still insist — the ornithologist Alexander Wilson long ago wrote:

I shall not, in the manner of some, attempt to amuse the reader with a repetition of the unintelligible names given to this bird by the Indians; or the superstitious notions generally entertained of it by the same people. These seem as various as the tribes, or even families with which you converse; scarcely two of them will tell you the same story.

Appendix A. The Capture and Execution of Canonchet

Excerpt from Benjamin Trumbull’s A Complete History of Connecticut (1818), Vol. I, pp. 343-345:

In February, 1676, a number of volunteers from Connecticut, belonging principally to New-London, Norwich, and Stonington, formed themselves into companies, under major Palms, captain George Denison, captain James Avery, and captain John Stanton, for the annoyance of the enemy. They engaged a number of Moheagans, Pequots and Narragansets, to be associates with them, for the sake of plunder, and other considerations. The Moheagans were commanded by Onecho, one of the sons of Uncas; the Pequots, by Cassasinamon, their chief; and the Narragansets, consisting of about twenty men, by Catapazet. These latter were Ningrate’s men; but at this time they remained quiet, and would not join the other Narraganset sachems.

These companies began to range the Narraganset country, and harass the enemy, the latter part of February, and continued making their incursions from that time until the enemy were driven from those quarters. As soon as one company returned, another went out immediately, so as to keep the enemy in continual alarm. Their success was admirable.

Captain Denison, of Stonington, on the 27ᵗʰ of March, began a very successful incursion into the country.

Nanunttenoo, or Canonchet, the head sachem of all the Narragansets, son of Miantonimoh, inheritor of all his pride, and of his insolence and hatred towards the English, had ventured down from the northern wilderness in Seaconk, near the seat of Philip, to procure seed corn, to plant the towns which the English had deserted, upon Connecticut river. He had been aiding in the slaughter of captain Pierce and his men just before. After captain Denison and his party had wearied themselves for several days, in hunting the enemy, they came upon their tracks near Blackston’s river, and soon discovered, by a squaw whom they took, that Nanunttenoo was in a wigwam, not far distant. The captain made dispositions immediately to surprise him. While he was boasting of that great feat of cutting off captain Pierce, and diverting himself with the story, the English came upon him. Some of his party, discovering them, ran off with great precipitation; but one more faithful than the rest, entered the wigwam and acquainted him with his danger. He instantly fled with all his might. Catapazet, from the manner of his running, suspecting it was Nanunttenoo, gave chase with as much eagerness as he fled. The other Indians, who were most light of foot, joined in the pursuit. They pressed him so hard, that he soon threw off his blanket, and then his silver laced coat, which had been given him at Boston. The pursuers, perceiving that they were not mistaken with respect to the person, employed their utmost exertions to seize him. At length, plunging through the river, his foot slipped, upon a smooth stone, and he fell and wet his gun. One Monopoide, a Pequot, outrunning the other Indians, leaped through the river after him, and soon laid hold upon him. Though he was a man of goodly stature, and of great strength and courage, yet he made no resistance. One Robert Stanton, a young man, was the first Englishman who came up to him. He asked him several questions; but this haughty sachem, looking with disdain upon his youthful countenance, replied, in broken English, “You too much child; no understand matters of war — Let your captain come; him I will answer.” This party, in about sixteen days, killed and took nearly fifty of the enemy, without the loss of a single man. This success was more important on account of the capture of the chief sachem, and a number of counsellors and war captains.

Nanunttenoo would not accept of life when offered upon the condition that he should make peace with the English; nor would he so much as send one of his counsellors to make a single proposal for that purpose. When he was made acquainted that it was determined to put him to death, he said, “He liked it well; that he should die before his heart was soft, or he had spoken any thing unworthy of himself.” The Moheagan sachem, his counsellors, and the principal Pequots, shot him at Stonington. Those brave volunteer captains and their flying parties had, at this time, killed and captivated forty-four of the enemy, and before the end of April, seventy-six more, about a hundred and twenty in one month. Among these was another sachem, a grandson of Pomham, who was esteemed the best soldier and most warlike of all the Narraganset sachems. They made, in the spring, summer, and fall, ten or twelve expeditions, in which they killed and captivated two hundred and thirty of the enemy, took fifty muskets, and brought in one hundred and sixty bushels of their corn. They drove all the Narraganset Indians out of their country, except those at Westerly under Ninigrate. In all these expeditions they had not one man killed or wounded! Governor Hutchinson observes, that “the brave actions of the Connecticut volunteers have not been enough applauded. Denison’s name ought to be perpetuated.”

Appendix B. The Wishtonwish is a Prairie Dog

Footnote from Major Zebulon M. Pike’s An Account of Expeditions to the Sources of the Mississippi. ... (1810), p. 156n.

* The Wishtonwish of the Indians, prairie dogs of some travellers; or squirrels as I should be inclined to denominate them; reside on the prairies of Louisiana in towns or villages, having an evident police established in their communities. ... As you approach their towns, you are saluted on all sides by the cry of Wishtonwish, from which they derive their name with the Indians, uttered in a shrill and piercing manner. ... It requires a very nice shot with a rifle to kill them, as they must be killed dead, for as long as life exists, they continue to work into their cells. It is extremely dangerous to pass through their towns, as they abound with rattle snakes, both of the yellow and black species; and strange as it may appear, I have seen the Wishtonwish, the rattle snake, the horn frog, of which the prairie abounds, (termed by the Spaniards the cammellion, from their taking no visible sustenance) and a land tortoise all take refuge in the same hole. I do not pretend to assert, that it was their common place of resort, but I have witnessed the above facts more than in one instance.

A Note on Sources

An Account of Expeditions I don’t take too seriously Susan Fenimore Cooper’s claims as to what the novelist used or didn’t use in the preparation of his works. But I have no doubt that his tremendous interest in writing about Native Americans was matched by his interest in reading about them. Thus I think it is more than an even chance that Cooper was familiar with works like Pike’s (Philadelphia: C. & A. Conrad & Co., 1810) and Thomas Nuttall’s A Journey of Travels into the Arkansas Territory (Philadelphia: Thos. H. Palmer, 1821). The latter author, I think, may even have provided a prototype for Dr. Obed Bat. Despite some other liberties with dates (for instance, having Ruth Heathcote die in 1675 instead of after the historical Canonchet died in 1676), Cooper very clearly paid strict attention to the account in Benjamin Trumbull’s A Complete History of Connecticut (New Haven: Maltby, Goldsmith and Co. and Samuel Wadsworth, 1818). Although he may have brought the work to Europe as part of his nephew’s intended education, I think it probable that he already had the notion that he would soon be attending to a “correct” Indian novel. My reading for this talk, by the way, is from the earliest edition I could get (usually the best for source study): since I have never even seen the Molini edition, however, I have used the Carey, Lea & Carey edition of 1829. Cooper would have loved James Hammond Trumbull’s Natick Dictionary (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1903) for its compilation of southern New England dialects, including Narragansett and Pequot. Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology came out in several editions during Cooper’s lifetime; I don’t know to what extent Catesby’s work was available to the novelist, but Cooper’s thematic use of the bird does seem to indicate some familiarity with the legends. My version of Catesby comes through the Penny Cyclopaedia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, but this volume (27; London: Charles Knight and Co., 1843) obviously is much too late for Cooper’s use.

Supplementary Note

(in response to the Conference discussion, wherein it was noted that: (1) Cooper denied having read Hope Leslie and (2) Sedgwick used the Pequot name for whip-poor-will for the major character Magawisca):

In Hope Leslie, Sedgwick suggests that the identity and the symbolism of the “magawisca” were known to her and possible to her readers: “[Y]our voice is too sweet” Everell says to the savior-figure Magawisca early in the novel, “for a bird of ill-omen” (p. 62). Not too much later in the book, one of the “Housatonick” Indians warns, “Hark to the wekolis!* — he is perched on the old oak, by the sacrifice-rock, and his cry is neither musical, nor merry — a bad sign in a bird” (p. 89). Sedgwick’s note to “wekolis” is simply “*Whip-poor-will.” But why should a Housatonick be speaking Delaware? Is Sedgwick’s double emphasis on the bird a commentary on Cooper’s blunders in Mohicans? Does Cooper persevere in that error in Wish from ignorance or out of a deliberate wish to tweak Sedgwick?. ... (Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Hope Leslie; or, Early Times in the Massachusetts [New Brunswick: Rutgers, 1987]).

Supplementary Note by Hugh C. MacDougall

In the discussion that followed, the following was noted. Cooper asserted in two novels that “wish-ton-wish” was an Eastern Indian word for the whip-poor-will — although the evidence suggests that it is a plains Indian term for the prairie dog, and that Cooper should have known as much. Meanwhile, Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie (which Cooper asserted he had not read) contains an important character named Magawisca, which is suspiciously like the real Pequot term for the whip-poor-will!

To complement these Panel papers, we append three documents relating to The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish.

First: The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish opens with the following dedication:


THE kind and disinterested manner in which you have furnished the materials of the following tale, merits a public acknowledgment. As your reluctance to appear before the world, however, imposes a restraint, you must receive such evidence of gratitude, as your own prohibition will allow.

Notwithstanding there are so many striking and deeply interesting events in the early history of those from whom you derive your being, yet are there hundreds of other families in this country, whose traditions, though less accurately and minutely preserved than the little narrative you have submitted to my inspection, would supply the materials of many moving tales. You have every reason to exult in your descent, for, surely, if any man may claim to be a citizen and a proprietor in the Union, it is one, that, like yourself, can point to a line of ancestors whose origin is lost in the obscurity of time. You are truly an American. In your eyes, we of a brief century or two, must appear as little more than denizens quite recently admitted to the privilege of a residence. That you may continue to enjoy peace and happiness, in that land where your fathers so long flourished, is the sincere wish of your obliged friend,


Almost certainly the Rev. J.R.C. was at least partly of Indian blood. What element of Wept did his story provide?

Second: From W.T. Bailey, Richfield Springs and Vicinity (New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1874), pp. 32-33:

Conrad House, with his family, resided during the Revolution about one and a half miles east of the Springs. ... During the Revolution, when the hostile bands of Indians were scouting the country south of the Mohawk, a party visited the cabin of House, who with his wife escaped to the woods, leaving in the hands of the savages a daughter of thirteen, who was carried off, and nothing was heard of her for several years, when she made her appearance, having escaped from the Indians, bringing with her a daughter, the fruits of a distasteful marriage with the Indian who had captured her. She had named the child Mary “Manton.” Mary had inherited the more prominent features of the Indian, straight black hair, black eyes, and high cheek-bones. She was well known to the first settlers, and continued to make this section her home till 1812, when she disappeared.

Richfield Springs is about 15 miles northwest of Cooperstown, and it seems probable that Cooper knew this story.

Third: A contemporary view of Canonchet (probably not known to JFC), from A New and Further NARRATIVE Of the STATE of NEW-ENGLAND, BEING A Continued ACCOUNT of the Bloody Indian-War, From March till August, 1676 (London: J.B. for Dorman Newman ... , 1676) [Readex Microprint, 1966], p. 9:

The 11. of April Cap. Denison with an 100. English Volunteers belonging to Connecticot Colony and as many Indiansof whom some were Mohegins, some Pequods, and some of Ninnicrofts men that had revolted from him; the said friendly Indians being commanded by the young Sachem Unkus whose Father (the only Christian Sagamore) hath during all this War continued faithful; Upon their March, ranging the Narraganset Countrey near Potuxit, they fell upon a Party of the Enemy, Commanded by that famous but very bloudy and cruel Sachem, Quononshot, otherwise called Myantonomy, whom the English formerly presented with a rich Lac’t Coat; they fought very obstinately a considerable time, but at last our men with very small losse obtained the victory, killed above 50 of the Enemy on the place, and took 40. more alive, and amongst the rest that insolent Sachem Myantonomy himself, together with another Sachem, and several other of his chief Counsellors and friends; The said Myantonomys carriage was strangely proud and lofty after he was taken; being examined why he did foment that War which would certainly be the destruction of him and all the Heathen Indians in the country, &c. He would make no other reply to any Interrogatories, but this; that he was born a Prince, and if Princes came to speak with him he would answer, but none present being such, he thought himself obliged in honour to hold his tongue, and not hold discourse with such persons below his birth and quallity; He told them, he wisht rather to die than to continue under confinement; that all he desired was not to be tortured, but presently put to death, which he requested might be done by young Unkus that aided us, as acknowledging him his fellow Prince, yet withall threatned, he had 2000. men would revenge his death severely; wherefore our Forces fearing an escape, put the stoutest men to the Sword, but preserved Myantonomy till they returned to Stoneington, where our Indian friends and most of the English Soldiers, declaring to the Commanders their fear, that the English should upon conditions release him, and that then he would (though the English might have peace with him) be very pernicious to those Indians that now assisted us, the said Indians (on these considerations, and the mischiefs and murthers he had done, during this war) permitted to put him to death; and that all might share in the glory of destroying so grand a Prince, and come under the obligation of fidelity each to other, the Pequods shot him, the Mohegins cut off his head, and quartered his body, and the Ninnicrofts men made the fire, and burned his quarters; and as a token of their love and fidelity to the English, presented his head to the Council at Hartford.