Natty Changes His Will: Legacies and Beneficiaries in The Deerslayer and The Prairie

William Owen (Ryerson Polytechnic University, Toronto)

Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 2000 Conference of the American Literature Association in Long Beach, California.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No.13, July 2000, pp. 7-12.

Copyright © 2000, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

When Natty prepares for his death in The Prairie, (1827) he selects Hard-Heart, the Pawnee Indian chief, as the recipient of his belongings. The choice is surprising since Natty has had a longer connection with Duncan Middleton, the military officer and chief representative of the United States in the novel, through his ancestor 1 in The Last of the Mohicans (1826). Choosing Hard-Heart over Middleton signifies Natty’s continued aversion to the ways of the white settlements and his preference for the bold inhabitants of nature. He wishes his legacy to be evaluated in terms of his own life in nature on the frontier rather than with respect to his relations with society. Furthermore the qualities of honesty and courage he prizes in Hard-Heart are individual, not social ones. However, in his last novel of the Leatherstocking series, The Deerslayer (1841), Cooper develops a scene in which Leatherstocking announces another will. This time, preparing for what he imagines to be certain death, Natty declares his beneficiary to be Hist-oh-Hist, engaged to marry Chingachgook. The creation of this scene in which Leatherstocking pronounces his second will of the series, though the first of his life, must be for significant reasons, given the difficulties such an act creates with the continuity of the series. I suggest that the will in The Deerslayer indicates Cooper’s own change of values that now affirms the family over the individual and the maternal over the patriarchal. By offering these values in Natty’s new will Cooper performs a revision not only of Leatherstocking’s will in The Prairie but also of our idea of what Leatherstocking stands for in the series.

The will becomes important in the Leatherstocking series because it amounts to a definition of the protagonist’s values, especially of one who has chosen to remain single. While marriages at the conclusions of The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans and The Prairie provide social and historical meanings to the tales, such closings exclude Leatherstocking and the values he represents. However, in The Prairie Cooper saw fit to provide a scene that focused on the dying Natty delivering a will, a rite with personal and legal significance to parallel in the individual’s life the importance that the marriage ceremony holds for the couple. If the novel’s marriages between Middleton and Inez and Paul Hover and Ellen Wade suggest the direction, embodied in their combined roles and values, of American society, the will of the dying frontiersman becomes a way of summing up the particular legacy of individualism he wishes to leave behind him. The will is used for its importance as well in The Deerslayer, especially to give Deerslayer’s values equal authority to those expressed in The Prairie. What is striking in the new will is that it is not contrasted to the meaning of marriage. Indeed Leatherstocking expresses his support for marriage, as he specifically identifies it as the reason for his bequest to Hist-oh-Hist, the bride-to-be of his friend Chingachgook.

The new will thus discloses a significant change in Leatherstocking’s role. He is no longer set apart from the other characters but centrally involved with them. He is no longer the isolato of The Prairie, grouching about his run-ins with the law, but the leader of a small group gathered [8] at Lake Glimmerglass. In endorsing marriage, the new will and the values it expresses constitute a vision for the future for a number of people rather than a legacy of individualism.

The author’s revision of the will testifies to his change in the conception of the frontiersman’s character as well. Leatherstocking’s revival in the 1840s after his presented death in The Prairie itself suggests that the author has rethought the values he wishes to be attributed to his character. The unusual event of Deerslayer’s pronouncement of a will, which is supposed to summarize one’s life values, at this period of his life occurs because it is the only period in Natty’s fictional life left when such values can be expressed. The will belies the author’s ambitions in revising the character of Leatherstocking. By presenting both the introduction of the frontiersman and an imagined end in the tale, the author attempts to provide a completeness to Leatherstocking’s values to eclipse the ones already present in the mind of the reader familiar with The Prairie. What facilitates and validates this view of Deerslayer’s function is his precociously developed morality that endows him with a maturity well beyond his years in the tale.

The change of beneficiary from male to female native American may appear to be a minor change. After all, Natty decides to go outside white society in both novels to locate his legatees, which speaks to the frontiersman’s continuing disenchantment with the values of white society. In The Prairie, the will can be read as a final act of naysaying to society. Natty, presumably reflecting the views of his creator, Cooper, demonstrates a personal dissatisfaction with civilization. The Deerslayer expresses a more philosophical dissatisfaction with society than The Prairie. While Deerslayer disapproves of the laws present in the novel, identified as the bounties for scalps, his criticism extends to the institutions of society which produce such laws. However, his will, like his role, as Quentin Anderson has said, expresses a positive alternative to the existing system. 2 Thus, the legatee is someone Leatherstocking perceives represents his values. The native Americans chosen as beneficiaries exist in a dialectical relationship with white society, serving as an ideal other. The Native American acquires this ideological status since he or she is not bound by the existing laws which regulate white behaviour.

The change in gender of the legatee registers the differences in Leatherstocking’s argument with society because it is symbolic of the shift in Cooper’s values from a grudging acceptance of the patriarch’s rule in the period of the 1820s to a speculative advocacy of maternal values in the 1840s. This change in Cooper’s values is witnessed in other ways than in the change of beneficiary. For example, Natty’s earliest memories of his parent in The Prairie are expressed simply in one captured moment of returning to his father’s cabin with a rifle in his hand (250). The combination of the male parent and the early attachment to the rifle reinforce the frontier ethos and patriarchal values developed in the three tales to date. In The Deerslayer the values and memories present a significant contrast to those in The Prairie. The dominant note struck this time is the maternal one. 3 When he enters the Hutter houseboat Leatherstocking “bethought himself of his mother ... and he bethought himself of his sister.” (43) His discussions with the Hutter girls always contrast the mother favourably in a comparison with the father. Maternal values offer more acceptable guidance to the Hutter girls than those of their father, Thomas Hutter. He represents the corruption of patriarchy which goes beyond that evident in The Prairie, 4 for force and authority still reside in the figure of Ishmael Bush. Looking at the situation before him, Deerslayer offers his assistance to the Hutter [9] girls. But he takes on a role new for his gender — as an equal, rather than as a superior. Cooper’s justification for Deerslayer’s intercession is that the frontiersman’s moral direction is necessary even if it challenges the usual assumption that authority is the prerogative of the biological parent.

The switch of remembered parents is related to the life influences that shape Leatherstocking’s sense of moral responsibility in both books. The change in wills seems to emerge from these experiences. In The Prairie Natty’s solitary nature and his self-reliance have developed out of the harsh conditions of his life in the wilderness. His interventions are often self-preserving reflex actions. He is personally upright but he presents an antagonistic attitude toward society. Only when he says that the “law is needed, when such as have not the gifts of strength and wisdom are to be taken care of” (27), does he grudgingly admit the limits of his independent code of conduct.

Deerslayer however asserts a new individualism, both more morally active and ethically restrained, even as he retains woodcraft and hunting skills. His morality is also derived from nature but from a source different from the wilderness that shaped the old trapper. Deerslayer’s source is his vision of the lake (47). The values derived from the lake lead Natty to accord it, as Richard Forrer points out, “a moral authority which in his view makes all legal systems superfluous.” 5 Underlining the new values of The Deerslayer is the difference in setting. Where the barren desert of The Prairie symbolically conveys a harsh judgment of humankind 6, the lush fullness of the primeval forest of Lake Glimmerglass evokes Eden’s optimistic promise. The similar comment in both novels that the surveyors have not yet mapped out the area for civilization 7 leads to different implications. In The Prairie the surveyors will continue the incorporation of the west within an expanding America. Because The Deerslayer takes place in a time period prior to the establishment of America the surveyors signal the transformation of the wilderness into a new country. Given the link George Dekker and Marius Bewley 8 observe between Hurry Harry’s lax ethical standards and the 1840s, the time in which the novel is written, Cooper may not be accepting Lewis’s [10] Adamic thesis in The American Adam 9 that America is the new hope of the world but suggesting that it is time to begin creating America anew.

Natty’s values are manifested in his relations with other characters. In pointing out the allegorical nature of these interactions in the last sections of the novel, Geoffrey Rans draws attention to the elaboration of Natty’s moral qualities. 10 Certainly, in addition to protecting the women from the dangers posed by the tribe surrounding the lake, Natty also provides advice and guidance to the Hutter sisters. His reform of Judith demonstrates the beneficial influence of his moral character traits. 11 His caring and sympathetic leadership differs from the authoritarian rule of the patriarch and is more akin to that provided within a family. It is noticeable that the small group he influences comes to resemble a family in its size and closeness of relationships. Thus the roles of its members differ from those of the characters in The Prairie, whose identities are established and conditioned by class, nation and history. Deerslayer’s relations with the others present Cooper’s alternative to society’s institutions in that the family can better serve persons than society. Cooper is thus extracting the value of Rousseau’s statement that the only society in nature is the family. 12 The interactions of the characters reflect the affectional values of the new paradigm of social relations that borrows much from the Scottish Enlightenment and which is articulated by Jay Fliegelman in Prodigals and Pilgrims. 13

The crisis that precipitates the announcement of Natty’s will occurs as a consequence of his involvement with the other characters. In the novel, as Philip Fisher has pointed out, the plot is centred on the rescue of Hist-oh-Hist, 14 the intended of Natty’s close companion, Chingachgook. This is the same [11] plot device that motivates the action of The Prairie, when Middleton enters the setting in search of his kidnapped wife, Inez. The similar plot feature poses the issue of freedom, 15 albeit the issue is framed differently in each novel. In The Deerslayer, Cooper focuses on the threat to relationships stemming from a loss of freedom of personal choice, particularly in relation to marriage. He alters Deerslayer’s role to emphasize the greater involvement of his protagonist in the affairs of others to safeguard this freedom. Natty’s active effort to rescue Hist leads to his capture by the tribe during her successful release. When the tribe allows him a furlough to meet again with the group, he conveys their demands that he will be spared if Hist-oh-Hist and Judith Hutter become wives of the tribe’s warriors. On one level, the request is identical to that of Mahtoree in The Prairie with respect to Inez and Ellen Wade. However, in the place of the clash of different cultures in The Prairie, the tribe’s requests in The Deerslayer serve allegorically as the pressures of society on the family and individuals.

Deerslayer’s new role increases the dramatic and ideological significance of the scene. The women have been placed unknowingly in a situation where their answers affect Natty’s life. When they refuse the requests indignantly, Natty congratulates them and notes the importance of the rights of the women and their value as wives and mothers. He accepts their decisions even though it means his death. It is in this situation that he delivers the speeches that can be considered as his will. Even though he bequeaths property in both novels, it is the values that he is transferring to his beneficiaries that are emphasized. Through the lengthy discursive section of The Deerslayer, he sets forth a hierarchy of relationships based on natural feelings and human imperatives which can be perceived to oppose society’s hierarchy based on class. He positions motherhood at the height of his hierarchy because the mother guides as well as guarantees the continuance of the family and thus society. As the only engaged woman present and thus the one most likely to be a mother, Hist-oh-Hist becomes his beneficiary. When Chingachgook offers as a friend to assist Natty fight the tribe, the frontiersman refuses his request by reminding him of his duties as a husband. Confirming the positions in his hierarchy, he says that a “fr’nd pulls strong ... but ... a betrothed pulls stronger” (434). His bequest to Hist has chivalric aspects but the values of the white society of the time govern his explanation for the bequest. He tells Chingachgook that “all I own, whether in ammunition, skins, arms or calicoes, I give to Hist, should I not come back to claim them by the end of the season. This will set the maiden up and buy labor for her” (454). He thus wants to save her from the labor expected of aboriginal women. When he gives Chingachgook his rifle, Leatherstocking signals Chingachgook’s role as the provider in the marriage. This gift of the rifle is more symbolically significant than his bequest in The Prairie to an unnamed individual at Lake Otsego. By giving all of his worldly goods to either the husband or wife, Natty underlines the importance of marriage in his will.

His speech also signifies that the family is more important than the individual. In essence, the will presents an explanation of the sacrifice Natty is prepared to make. His death will be an exchange of his life for the preservation of the family. 16 In testifying that the individual must subordinate himself to the needs of the family, Deerslayer revises the values of individualism as presented in The Prairie. Deerslayer recognizes that the self-[12]sufficiency achieved by the old trapper may be meaningless because it leaves the individual isolated. While the flaws of society leave him opposed to it, Natty shows that moral guidance can exist in society through the family if it in turn is directed by the values of the mother. As he adheres to these values he changes his role from that of the solitary asocial observer in The Prairie.

Deerslayer’s will is not executed in The Deerslayer due to the intervention of the army which rescues him and the others at the lake. Thus the narrative continuity of Leatherstocking’s life is maintained since he lives to deliver his will at the end of The Prairie. However, the epilogue to The Deerslayer, set many years after the novel’s events, reminds us indirectly how much the tale diverges from the values developed in the first three tales of the series. In informing us that Hist-oh-Hist has died in the intervening years, the narrator has pointed out that her life has been confined to this tale. While we recognize that her death is necessary to prevent the narrative inconsistency if she were presumed to be alive when the other will is delivered in The Prairie, we also perceive how valuable her creation has been to the codification of Leatherstocking’s new values in his will in The Deerslayer. There is an analogy to her life present in his will for the revision of his values is confined to The Deerslayer as well.

Works Cited

  • Chase, Richard, The American Novel and its Tradition. Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957
  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Deerslayer, Historical Introduction and Explanatory Notes by James Franklin Beard. Text Established by Lance Schachterle, Kent Ljunquist and James Kilby. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.
  • ------. The Prairie, Edited, with an Historical Introduction by James P. Elliott. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985.
  • Darnell, Donald, “The Deerslayer: Cooper’s Tragedy of Manners.” Studies in the Novel, 11, 1979, 406-15.
  • Fisher, Philip, Hard Facts. New York, Oxford University Press, 1985.
  • Fliegelman, Jay, Prodigals and Pilgrims: The American Revolution Against Patriarchal Authority. Cambridge, London, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
  • Forrer, Richard, Theodicies in Conflict: A Dilemma in Puritan Ethics and Nineteenth Century American Literature. New York, Westport Conn., London: Greenwood Press, 1986.
  • Kelly, William P., Plotting America’s Past: Fenimore Cooper and the Leatherstocking Tales. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983
  • Lewis, R.W.B., The American Adam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.
  • McWilliams, John P. Jr., Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper’s America. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1972.
  • Motley, Warren, The American Abraham: Fenimore Cooper and the Frontier Patriarch. New York, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
  • Patterson, Mark R., Authority, Autonomy and Representation in American Literature 1776-1865. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.
  • Peck, H. Daniel, A World By Itself: The Pastoral Moment in Cooper’s Fiction. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1977.
  • Ringe, Donald A., “Man and Nature in Cooper’s The Prairie.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 15, 1961, 313-23.
  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, The Social Contract. ed. Roger D. Masters, Translated by Judith R. Masters. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978, p.47.


1 Middleton’s disclosure that his brother and two of his cousins bear Natty’s name testifies to the frontiersman’s significance to Duncan’s family. See The Prairie, edited and with Historical Introduction by James P. Elliott, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985. p. 115. All future references to the novel will be from this text and will be enclosed parenthetically in the body of the essay.

2 Anderson’s comment is found in the “Introduction” to The Deerslayer, New York, 1962), p. 9, and is quoted in William P. Kelly, Plotting America’s Past, Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983. p. 175.

3 In his analysis of the tale’s imagery, notably the lake as symbolic of the womb, and language, H. Daniel Peck confirms the general dominance of the feminine, particularly the maternal, in the novel. See his book A World by Itself: The Pastoral Moment in Cooper’s Fiction, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1977, p. 84-5.

4 While John P. McWilliams upholds this view by contending that Bush restores social order, Warren Motley observes a strong attack on the patriarch in The Prairie. For McWilliams’s views, see his book Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper’s America, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1972, p. 268. For Motley’s analysis of Ishmael Bush, see his The American Abraham: James Fenimore Cooper and the Frontier Patriarch, New York, Cambridge, New Rochelle, Melbourne, Sydney: Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 105-125.

5 Richard Forrer, Theodicies In Conflict: A Dilemma in Puritan Ethics and Nineteenth Century American Literature, New York, Westport Conn., London: Greenwood Press, 1986. p. 121.

6 For a view of a more distanced relationship between humans and nature that defines Cooper’s moral judgement in the novel, see Donald A. Ringe, “Man and Nature in Cooper’s The Prairie,” Nineteenth Century Fiction, 15, 1961, 31-23.

7 See The Prairie, p. 78 and James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987. p. 45. All future references to this latter novel will be from this text and included parenthetically in the body of the paper.

8 For the elaboration of this identification of Hurry Harry see George Dekker, James Fenimore Cooper the Novelist, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967, p. 176, and Marius Bewley, The Eccentric Design, New York: Columbia University Press, 1959, p. 95. The historical disjunction between the time period of the novel and the location of Hurry Harry in a different time period signals another change in Cooper’s approach to the construction of his Leatherstocking tales in the 1840s.

9 R.W.B. Lewis’s The American Adam, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955 defines important mythic attitudes in American culture. Despite The Deerslayer’s usefulness to his thesis, I think he overlooks the relation of the novel to the period in which it is written and, as I am trying to argue here, to the rest of the novels in the Leatherstocking series.

10 The allegorical treatment of Natty aids the revision of Leatherstocking in the book. Richard Chase denies Cooper is an allegorist, viewing the portrait of Deerslayer as a mythic beginning to the series. Chase thus supports R.W.B. Lewis who developed the idea of Leatherstocking as mythic figure more fully two years earlier in The American Adam. However, both critics, like many after them, are focusing on Natty’s actions, particularly his encounter with Le Loup Cervier, in the first part of the novel. For Chase’s views, see The American Novel and its Tradition, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957 p. 53. Geoffrey Rans’s examination of the allegorical presentation of Deerslayer is found in Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991, p. 229.

11 I view Judith Hutter as redeemed by Natty based upon his relationship with her at Lake Glimmerglass, up to and including her proposal of marriage to him. For other views of Judith Hutter that include the epilogue which insinuates her future as Warley’s mistress, see Donald Darnell, “The Deerslayer: Cooper’s Tragedy of Manners,” Studies in the Novel 11 1979 406-415 and Leland S. Person, Jr. “Cooper’s Queen of the Woods: Judith Hutter in The Deerslayer,” Studies in the Novel, 21 1989 253-67.

12 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, Ed. Roger D. Masters, Translated by Judith R. Masters. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978. p. 47. Rousseau’s views develop forward from this point while Cooper in a sense has worked backward from society to reach this point.

13 Jay Fliegelman’s Prodigals and Pilgrims: The American Revolution Against Patriarchal Authority, Cambridge, London, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982 provides the best articulation of the origin and role of maternal values in the culture of Cooper’s time.

14 While Fisher points out the importance of marriage and reproduction, he also contends the violence in the novel is developed to show how these matters are threatened. p. 59. Thus his identification of the motivating action is not as different from John P. McWilliams’s suggestion that “the scalp law becomes the motivating force of all the action” as it first appears. See McWilliams, Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper’s America, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1972. p. 278.

15 See Fisher, p. 43-5.

16 I am indebted to Mark Patterson’s discussion of Girard’s ideas on sacrifice. See Mark Patterson, Authority, Autonomy and Representation in American Literature 1776-1865, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988, pp. 99-120.