Copway’s Homage to Cooper: Redefining the “Vanishing American”

David Shane Wallace (American University in Bulgaria)

Presented at the Native American Literature and Print Culture Panel of the 2012 Conference of the American Literature Association in San Francisco, California.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 29, May, 2012, pp. 17-24.

Copyright © 2012, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

The Saturday, September 20, 1851 edition of Copway’s American Indian contains a piece, the likes of which had never before and would never again appear in the pages of the short-lived newspaper. On page two appears an editorial titled “Death of James Fennimore [sic] Cooper.” The first couple of lines read much like any other obituary of the period stating:

One of the most distinguished authors of the present times has passed away from us, leaving a lasting name, as having contributed in a very great measure to build up his nation’s literary taste. James Fennimore [sic] Cooper, died at his residence, Otsego Hall, Cooperstown, on Sunday afternoon last, after several months illness (Copway, “Death”).

After noting Cooper’s early penchant for “sea tales” the piece goes on to note that, “his peculiar excellence laid in his description of the haunts and habits of the red man, and the early settlers of the West, and his own State; of this class, Leather-Stocking, the Mohicans, Deer-Slayer, etc., are examples” (Copway, “Death”). For several weeks following his death, notices of Cooper’s passing, details of his funeral and various memorial services appeared in scores of American and British newspapers. These other obituaries were all more or less alike; they listed the date and place of Cooper’s passing, that he had suffered from an extended illness, and many mentioned the time he spent as a midshipman in the navy. While most of these death notices did laud his immense contributions to American literature, including The Leatherstocking Tales (1823-1841), none specifically noted his representations of Natives nor did they refer to these particular works as Cooper’s “peculiar excellence.” 1 Copway’s memorial to the author stands alone in this regard.

In contrast to the lack of notice paid to the author’s treatment of Natives in these newspapers’ obituaries, since the mid-twentieth century Cooper scholarship has tended to focus almost exclusively on the author’s depictions of Native people. Robert Berkhofer notes that, “More than any other American author, James Fenimore Cooper established the Indian as a significant literary type in world literature” (93). Similarly, Brian Dippie observes that Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans is the “solitary masterpiece” of the “some forty novels published between 1824 and 1834 that included Indian episodes, constituting what G. Harrison Orians termed a ‘cult of the Vanishing American’” (21). Fascination with Cooper’s “Indian” portrayals has risen to such a level that current nineteenth-century literary scholarship dealing with Native people invariably includes a section on the author’s Leatherstocking Tales. Since the lion’s share of recent non-Native scholarship addressing Cooper’s “Indian” novels critiques the author’s depictions of the “Vanishing American,” we should note that the nineteenth-century obituary, which appears in Copway’s American Indian, penned by a Native individual, exists as the only one to highlight and, in fact, praise such representations.

Serving as somewhat of a testament to changing attitudes among non-Native scholars towards representations of America’s indigenous inhabitants, Cooper’s contemporaries criticized the author’s Native characters for slightly different reasons. Many of these nineteenth-century critics, including the historian Francis Parkman, viewed Cooper’s Indian representations as heavily romanticized and sentimental to a fault. 2 Thus, as Dippie points out, although Cooper was not alone in including Native characters in his works, due to the immense popularity of the author’s Leatherstocking Tales, “’Mr. Cooper’s Indians’ became a nineteenth-century synonym for any positive depiction” (23). Due in part to these “positive depictions,” which countered characterizations of Natives as blood-thirsty savages, George Copway expressed a particular fondness for Cooper’s representations of Native people, prompting him to declare in his memorial to the author, “Mr. Cooper was perhaps, the most original of our novelists, and took particular pains to vindicate and uphold the Indian character. He seemed to understand their character thoroughly” (Copway, “Death”). More importantly, I contend that Copway lauded Cooper’s Native representations precisely because they buttressed his own agenda for Native removal. Cooper’s eighteenth-century Indians provided literary evidence of the upright nature of Native moral character and issued forth an alarm regarding a history of Native disappearance.

In addition to Cooper’s affirmative representations of Native people in his novels, there appears yet another likely reason that the Ojibwa editor penned such a praiseworthy obituary for the famed author. Copway notes in a eulogy for the July 19 edition of the American Indian that, “It has been our good fortune to know [Cooper] personally for several years (Copway, “Cooper”). 3 A few months earlier, in a letter composed to support the launch of Copway’s newspaper venture, Cooper writes to the editor, “I hope you may find leisure to make your promised visit and that we may expect the pleasure of seeing you again at my house” (Cooper, Letter to George Copway). 4 We cannot ascertain the extent of the relationship between the two men, but evidence suggests that they had enjoyed a least a few social encounters and were expecting to meet again.

Dippie argues that, “Like so many authors of his time, Cooper knew little or nothing of Native Americans directly” (93); however, Cooper’s biographer Wayne Franklin claims that while growing up in Cooperstown “[the author] personally knew some of the ‘last’ of New York’s native inhabitants (28). 5 In addition, as Copway and Cooper were socially acquainted, Dippie’s contention seems to suggest that since the famed author very possibly did not have contact with any Natives in their tribal culture, he knew nothing of “true” Native people. While Copway, like Cooper’s Native neighbors in New Stockbridge, had, in certain ways, distanced himself from his tribal community and, as many critics have asserted, his personal and professional actions call into question his adherence to “traditional” Native cultural constructions, he still remained very much Native. 6 Dippie may have simply been unaware of the Copway-Cooper connection as well as the author’s early Native associations, but other critics have argued that Copway and these other Christianized Indians were in fact not representative of mid-nineteenth-century Native people. To the contrary, denying Copway’s “Indianness,” based on expectations of a static Native culture, merely reconfirms a limited Native identity and refuses to view Native character as dynamic and adaptable. To further counter Dippie’s claims, Copway, like Franklin, believed that Cooper had other lifelong Native associates. The Ojibwa editor notes in the September 20 obituary that, “[Cooper] courted [Indian] society, and died in the presence of their representatives — and in him they have lost a powerful friend and champion” (Copway, “Death”). We know nothing more of these attendant representatives, but their presumed presence at Cooper’s bedside at the time of his death further challenges assumptions about the author’s familiarity with Native people.

The two men never met again and a month prior to Cooper’s death Copway seems to have wanted to express his respect for the author while fearing the worst. Noting that stories of Cooper’s illness had reached him, Copway devotes the July 19 eulogy to praising the author. He writes, “Gratitude is one of the peculiar traits in the composition of the Indian character; and we would dishonor that attribute as an Indian, if we did not express our anxiety for the safety of one, whom, for the few days past we have seen paragraphs in the papers, that our friend Cooper was seriously and dangerously ill” (Copway, “Cooper”). In addition to showing his concern for his friend, Copway takes the opportunity to differentiate Native gratitude from that of Euro-Americans, emphasizing a positive attribute of “Indian character” and likewise reasserting the very “Indianness” modern scholars have questioned. After assuring his readers of his intimate familiarity with both Cooper and his literary works, Copway argues, “we have thought often when we read his life-like descriptions of Indian character, when it was in our power to do him justice we should endeavor to do so, for the exalted manner he has plead [sic] of the wild and noble genius of the American Indians” (Copway, “Cooper”). Although Parkman and others had openly criticized Cooper’s romanticized depictions, Copway clearly preferred these to those that painted the Native as degraded, savage, and beyond redemption. In fact, Copway needed the readers of Copway’s American Indian to believe that the Native people were vanishing and, more importantly, for his purposes, that the Indian was worth saving. Moreover, although problematic in their overall message, Cooper’s historical fictions established an affirmative Native presence for a people whose histories were largely unwritten. 7

Copway continues his praise of the Euro-American author’s works and links the Native and “American” through their similar praise of Cooper’s “Indian” novels: “No living writer, nor historian, has done so much justice to the noble traits of our people,” he writes; “The whole American feeling takes prides in such a man, as the author of ‘The Last of the Mohicans,’ and if the American can but be proud of such a literary man, what must the man of the forest feel, when he reads of heroes (possessing all the noble traits of an exalted character,) as soon as he is brought to read, and finds in the pages of history penciled his forefather’s features — yes!” (Copway, “Cooper”). Finally, the Ojibwa editor turns to what I perceive as his main purpose for writing and publishing the eulogy for his friend Cooper and seizes on the opportunity to simultaneously condemn early treatment of Native people and offer forgiveness to those Euro-Americans who, representing a new generation, will do as Cooper has done and record the exalted nature of the Native people. To achieve this rhetorical feat Copway writes,

with us one word of commendation from the white man, either by his pen or in history, learns us to forget outrageous usages — and the sweet morsel of approbation outweighs all other wrongs, which have been inflicted on our races in this country. It throws a rainbow of light around our heads and wins our hearts, when we hear one word of commendation, from a race who have [sic] been watching the gradual downfall of our ancestors (“Cooper”).

Notably, Copway does not paint Native people simply as passive recipients of liberal-minded Euro-American goodwill; this piece in a number of ways also reconfigures Native / white power dynamics. Although Copway views the author’s Native-centered works as a sort of memorial to his forefathers, he, and his fellow “m[e]n of the forest[s],” reading, learning, and later commenting on Cooper’s historical eighteenth-century Indian “heroes” during the mid-nineteenth century, as well as surviving to forgive the Euro-Americans their earlier transgressions against the Native people, exist to complicate the “Vanishing American” narratives. According to Copway’s eulogy, while Indians may indeed be in danger of vanishing, they have not yet vanished.

Having firmly established Cooper as his example of a writer from a generation of Euro-Americans dedicated to Native prosperity and survival, Copway uses much of the remainder of the piece to appeal to his readers’ sense of charity and to slyly promote his plan for Native removal:

We attribute this carelessness on the part of the Americans, for the salvation of the Red Man on the ground, that no feasible means have been used for the recovery of the first owners of American soil, and not on the ground that they have no feeling for his good. (Copway, “Cooper”) While he does not explicitly mention the plan he authored and submitted to Congress the previous year, we can infer that Copway views his proposal for Native removal as a “feasible means” for saving the Native people. 8

Copway finishes his homage to Cooper in a truly Christian manner and, after mentioning Thomas McKenney as one who, like Cooper, “ought to receive the appellation as friends of the Indian,” challenges established notions of Native civilization, writing: “These men we adore for their love of our race-and may their lives be long spared to us for our special gratification, and if the prayers of the whole civilized race can be answered, they will” (Copway, “Cooper”). 9

The two pieces relating to Cooper, penned by Copway, and published in Copway’s American Indian provide examples of Native presence and Native action. Cooper and other Euro-Americans may produce depictions of Native people, but Copway and other Natives earn the responsibility of validating these representations or, conversely, for declaring them invalid. In this case, the Euro-American, Cooper, through death, gets removed from the narrative and the Native individual, Copway, remains to tell the tale. Ironically and singularly, Copway and other Native “representatives” are left to mourn the death of the Euro-American writer who has become most famous for writing the death and disappearance of the Native people.

Their emphasis on the death links the obituary titled “Death of James Fennimore [sic] Cooper” with the fictional and non-fictional accounts, many of which Cooper penned, that belong to the cult of the “Vanishing American.” In addition to providing fodder for the columns of his newspaper, publicizing Cooper’s death offered Copway a means of promoting his own agenda and establishing common ground with his Euro-American readers just as non-Native writers had used their works mourning the death of the Indian to connect with this same audience. Lucy Frank points out that, “Death in nineteenth-century America ... is not just a biological event but also an ideological operation, whereby the cultural meanings invested in particular bodies are overcome, and historically specific material conditions producing alienation, political difference and lack of freedom no longer signify” (5). In Cooper’s texts and those of other nineteenth-century authors who participated in the cult of the “Vanishing American” the Native, through death and disappearance, becomes the imagined American past. These authors construct the American past out of and directly atop a history of Native displacement and destruction at the hands of the colonizers. As a living specimen, the Indian functioned as an ever-present reminder of European colonization of the pre-inhabited land; his Indianness becomes useful to the development of the new nation only after he has been removed and dutifully mourned by those newly forged “Americans” who take his place. Conversely, Copway’s literary mourning of Cooper and the reestablishment of the Native in both the American present — standing alongside Cooper’s deathbed — and future — forgiving the wrongs inflicted by Euro-Americans and then surviving following his removal west — reconfigures and contests the developing national narrative. Importantly, Elisabeth Bronfen points out, “Horror at the sight of death turns into satisfaction, since the survivor is not himself dead. The dead body is the passive, horizontal position, cut down, fallen, while the survivor stands erect, imbued with a feeling of superiority” (65). Through their representations of the “Vanishing American,” Euro-American authors reinforced their superiority over the weak and less adaptable Native people.

In the letter Cooper penned to Copway the author assures his Native friend that he firmly supports the publication of Copway’s American Indian, but aware of his declining health warns he may not be able to do much to contribute to its pages. “I will not say I cannot help you, because I feel too much interest in your success to give utterance to the words,” he writes (Cooper, Letter to George Copway). Unwilling to refuse Copway’s request outright, he continues:

But my health is such, at present, as to render me capable of doing but very little with the pen. If I redeem the pledges already given this summer, it will be quite as much as it will probably be in my power to effect. Still some little anecdotes or sentiment, or sketch, might possibly be thrown off by the aid of an amanuensis, in which case I promise you shall not be forgotten. (Cooper, Letter to George Copway)

Cooper died less than three months after composing the letter to Copway and never did contribute anything more than his name and the attached fame to the newspaper. Respectfully, Copway immediately removed him from the list of contributors after receiving news of his passing.

Works Cited

  • Berkhofer, Robert. The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present. New York: Vintage, 1978.
  • Bronfen, Elisabeth. Over Her Dead Body: Death Femininity and the Aesthetic. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1992.
  • Dippie, Brian W. The Vanishing American: White Attitudes & U.S. Indian Policy. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1982.
  • Copway, George. “Cooper.” Copway’s American Indian, 19 July 1851.
  • ------. “Death of James Fennimore Cooper.” Copway’s American Indian, 20 September 1851.
  • ------. Letter to James F. Cooper. 12 June 1851, Beinecke Library, Yale University, New Haven, CT.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. Letter to George Copway. Copway’s American Indian, 10 July 1851.
  • Frank, Lucy E. ed. Representations of Death in Nineteenth-Century US Writing and Culture. Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007.
  • Franklin, Wayne. James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
  • Parkman, Francis. “Indian Character.” Copway’s American Indian. 2 August 1851.


1 The Leatherstocking Tales consist of The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840), and The Deerslayer (1841).

2 In an article titled “Indian Character” published in Copway’s American Indian (2 August 1851), Parkman takes direct aim at those Euro-American authors, like Cooper, who speciously romanticized Native people in their fiction, thereby giving the reading public false ideas about the “true” nature of the Indian. He minces no words in his attack when he writes, “Of the Indian character, much has been written foolishly, and credulously believed. By the rhapsodies of poets, the cant of sentimentalists, and the extravagance of some who should have known better, a counterfeit image has been tricked out, which one might seek in vain for its likeness through every corner of the habitable earth; an image bearing no more resemblance to its original than the monarch of the tragedy and the hero of the epic poem bear to their living prototypes in the palace and the camp” (“Indian Character”).

3 While a eulogy is most commonly written in response to the death of the subject, it is also not uncommon to pen a eulogy for those still living, especially when the subject is facing a life-threatening illness.

4 From 1960-1968 James Franklin Beard edited and published The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper in six volumes. Included in these is the letter that Cooper wrote to George Copway in support of the establishment of Copway’s American Indian. The letter was published in the premier edition of the newspaper.

5 Franklin goes to great lengths to document Cooper’s personal knowledge of Native people and cites numerous sources.

6 See for example Joshua David Bellin’s, The Demon of the Continent. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. 187-199, Bernd C. Peyer’s The Tutor’d Mind. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997. 224-277, and Cheryl Walker’s, Indian Nation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997. 184-110.

7 See Vizenor, Gerald, ed. Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.

8 In February 1850 Copway submitted his plan for Native removal titled Organization of a New Indian Territory, East of the Missouri River to the 31ˢᵗ Congress of the United States. Although the plan never made it to the floor, Copway viewed this rebuff as little more than a temporary setback to his strategy. Copway decided to employ his newspaper to promote his agenda of Native relocation and consolidation.

9 Thomas McKenney’s views on the removal of the Native people are complicated. Although he argued for removal, he insisted that any relocation must be voluntary. For additional background information see Francis Paul Prucha’s “Thomas L. McKenney and the New York Indian Board.” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 48:4 (Mar., 1962), 635-655.