Oak Openings and the Michigan Frontier in the Antebellum American Literary Imagination

Stephen Carl Arch (Michigan State University)

Presented at the Cooper Panel on “The Frontier in American Literary Imagination” at the 2018 Conference of the American Literature Association in San Francisco, California.

Originally published in the James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal 30.2 (Summer 2019), pp. 5-12.

Copyright © 2019, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

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

Near the end of his life, Cooper became invested financially in Michigan. Wayne Franklin has traced that investment, which dated back to Cooper’s final year in Europe when his work turned a tidy profit before both his reputation and the U.S. economy entered a recession in the mid-1830s. In 1835, Cooper invested some of those profits in a speculative real estate venture in Chicago, and through a series of note and mortgage transactions over the next several years he ended up owning more than a dozen lots in Kalamazoo, Michigan, at his death. 1 Between 1847 and 1850, he made five trips to Michigan, on three of which he journeyed across the lower Lower Peninsula, from Detroit to Kalamazoo, and possibly even farther west. The first two of those trips to Kalamazoo — in October 1847 and in June 1848 — provided the inspiration for his 1848 novel, The Oak Openings; or, The Bee-Hunter.

Taking “invest” in one of its figurative senses — “to clothe or endue with attributes, qualities, or a character” 2 — Cooper became invested in the Michigan landscape before and during the composition of Oak Openings. We know that his novels were often inspired by landscapes or locales, such as Glens Falls in the case of The Last of the Mohicans or the ruins of the church and monastery near Bad Dürkheim in the case of The Heidenmauer. From the landscape of Michigan in and around Kalamazoo, Cooper generated a complex and peculiar vision of the frontier in 1848.

Like many investors in Michigan following its creation as a Territory in 1805, Cooper did not know or value the entire region, territory, and then state known as Michigan. Early investors focused on the strip of land in the lower Lower Peninsula from Detroit to St. Joseph, plotting to develop that relatively less-forested area into towns and farms, and even more to develop quick overland transportation between Detroit and the new city of Chicago. When Tocqueville traveled to the Michigan Territory in 1831, he represented himself to an American official as a potential investor. The official pointed on a map to “the Saint Joseph river which, after many a bend, flows into Lake Michigan”; that area “seems to me best suited for your [investment] scheme,” the official told him. 3 However, because he was intent on visiting the “wilds,” Tocqueville instead turned north from Detroit, not west. Passing through Pontiac and nearing Saginaw, amid what he called the “wild forest,” Tocqueville noted the same “sense of isolation and of abandonment that had weighed on [him] so heavily in the middle of the Atlantic.” 4 It was all trees, white pine in particular. It was that landscape that would re-define Michigan when the demand for lumber grew in the 1850s and beyond. The Michigan fiction of Hemingway and Jim Harrison and many others is defined by the white pine forests and the lumber industry that developed from and eventually devastated them.

By 1839, Caroline Kirkland noted that all the woods in Michigan were called “timbered land.” Her comic introduction to Michigan as she travels about sixty miles west of Detroit to Pinckney is familiar to anyone who travels Michigan roads today and pays attention to the surroundings: wetlands abound. Seeing amid the oak openings “a broad expanse of what seemed at a little distance a smooth shaven lawn of the most brilliant green,” Kirkland’s narrator instead discovers “a quaking bog” into which her horse sinks up to his chin. About thirty percent of the surface area of Michigan in the 1830s was wetlands, including some of the oak openings. Kirkland’s narrator complains that Charles Fenno Hoffman and others had given her a false sense of the “interior” of Michigan, having led her to believe that one could drive a horse-drawn carriage “through the oak-openings” without a care in the world. 5 Kirkland’s satiric portrait in A New Home — Who’ll Follow? of the speculators and dreamers and eccentrics in rural Michigan depended on her keeping her distance from the land and people. In her three books about the frontier, she gradually softens that portrait, but to the end, she remained an eastern writer who kept her distance emotionally from the Michigan landscape.

Cooper imagined a closer connection to the Michigan frontier, resisting both Tocqueville’s sense of detached sublimity and Kirkland’s attitude of ironic distance. I want in this essay to focus first on Cooper’s use of the upper Midwest biotic region known as an “oak opening,” and then speculate on the possibilities that that frontier setting opened up for him in 1848.

For the sake of definition, then, the oak openings are plant communities with scattered open-grown, fire tolerant oak trees. The oak savanna canopy ranges from ten percent to no more than sixty percent, open enough to allow the growth of grasses and flowers. The oak savannas are transitional between the tall grass prairies in the west, which Cooper described in The Prairie without ever having actually seen, and the deciduous forests in the east, which he described in a number of frontier novels. An oak opening is a fire-controlled vegetation community. Native Americans had for hundreds of years played an integral role in the fire regime of the oak openings, purposefully or accidentally setting fires that cleared the brush and enabled a high diversity of fast-returning grasses. With settlement, fires were eliminated and the savanna was developed or it reverted back into denser forested landscapes. 6

Daniel Peck notes in A World By Itself that Cooper’s “oak openings” are fundamentally different from the western “prairie” he had imagined twenty years earlier. The prairie depends on “vastness and sublimity,” the oak openings on “enclosure and amenity.” 7 The prairie is sublime, the oak openings are beautiful. Cooper thus imagines the oak openings as pastoral, a garden-like locale that Peck argues “is the most consistently drawn edenic landscape in all [his] fiction.” 8 The fact that Ben Boden “hunts” bees to collect honey in the oak openings suggests the tamer, cultivated, pastoral aspect of the Michigan landscape.

The oak openings are exemplified in the novel by Prairie Ronde, a grassland prairie within the oak openings that Cooper describes as “an oval plain of some five and twenty or thirty thousand acres in extent, of the most surpassing fertility, without an eminence of any sort.” 9 This is where Boden builds his home after the War of 1812 and where the narrator visits him in 1848. It is fifteen miles from Kalamazoo, as the crow flies. In the novel, Cooper imagines that Kalamazoo itself was founded very close to the shanty out of which Boden operated as a bee hunter in the years leading up to the War of 1812.

Dismissed by many nineteenth-century readers, The Oak Openings was in the twentieth century read “as an example of the intense religious and social conservatism that finds expression in Cooper’s late work.” 10 As Donald Ringe put it in his still-important assessment of Cooper’s last five novels, Cooper moves after the mid-1840s to a very dark assessment of the human condition, insisting that “man alone cannot hope to arrive at truth or justice solely through the use of his unaided reason.” 11 His last five novels demonstrate that idea through several quite different scenarios, like trial by jury in The Ways of the Hour and the collapse of a utopian society in The Crater. According to Ringe, Cooper imagines in these late novels “an ideal of Christian humility and self-control by which [people] should guide their lives and their society,” and demonstrates that without such bedrock principles man will be at the mercy of what he thinks is “reason” but is in fact ignorance, foolishness, and fallibility. 12

In such a reading, the Native Americans in Oak Openings stand in for the democratic masses in the 1840s. Driven by their love of whiskey, Cooper’s Native Americans foolishly believe Boden’s pretense that as a “medicine man” he can magically conjure whiskey out of a spring in the ground. Similarly, they are misled by Scalping Peter into a doomed, defiant, and tragic opposition to the white invaders, in large part because they do not understand their technological superiority nor the concept of European immigration. But they are not alone in their foolishness, according to the narrator. Gershom Waring dies from the alcoholism that (mis)led him into Michigan in the first place, Parson Amen foolishly maintains that the Native Americans are Jews, and Boden in a silly way pretends in later years to be a “general” even though he had only “seen some sharp fighting on the banks of the Niagara” (2.222) in the War of 1812. Cooper’s ideal in the novel is the man formerly known as Scalping Peter, or Onoah according to his tribal name, or “Tribeless” in the sobriquet attributed to him by the narrator. Transformed by the power of Parson Amen’s Christ-like death, during which he continues to bless his persecutors, Peter becomes a “subdued, benevolent Christian” (2.221) who believes that Christ died for all, that race is “only skin deep” (2.220), and that Providence had an inscrutable purpose in sending the “pale face” invaders to America.

Framed this way, Peter sounds suspiciously like an apologist for Manifest Destiny, that term coined only three years before Cooper wrote Oak Openings. Turned by the example of Amen’s death from the resistance of Tecumseh, Peter acknowledges white superiority and is living peacefully as a retainer of the Boden family in 1848. And indeed the narrator alludes on several occasions in the novel to Manifest Destiny’s first major objective, the annexation of Texas and then the war with Mexico, recently concluded as Cooper wrote the novel; and more broadly, the narrator alludes to the imperialistic designs of the United States: “the progress of the nation has, by the aid of a beneficent Providence, been onward and onward. ... it much exceeds the power of all the enemies of her institutions to make any serious impression on her” (1.184).

But what interests me in the novel is not what Peck termed its “intense religious and social conservatism,” but its radicalism, radical both in the sense of returning to the root or to grounded principles and in the sense of far-reaching change. I want to think about Cooper’s late-life radicalism in The Oak Openings in light of three contemporaneous events in 1848.

First, the Mexican-American War. Cooper says near the end of the novel that Divine Providence for its own purposes has often allowed “civilization, the arts, moral improvement, nay, Christianity itself” to follow the bloody train of a conqueror. In this way, he says, America “is about to pay the debt she owes to Africa” and in this way the invasion of the oak openings will “be made to atone for itself by carrying with it ... a juster view of the relations which man bears to his Creator” (2.221). And “[p]ossibly Mexico may [also] derive lasting benefit from the hard lesson” of American military might, he adds (2.221). Cooper sounds here like a Democratic nationalist, confident that there is a power or force that guides the progress of mankind, i.e., white America. What is radical here, as Scott Michaelsen has argued in The Limits of Multiculturalism, is that Cooper’s Christianity in the novel is “a radically ‘Protestant’ vision ... of the self at war with itself, undermining itself, reducing its individuality and its typicality to the smallest size possible and flirting with becoming nothing that matters.” 13 Michaelsen reads the novel as a complex critique of the Enlightenment belief in reason, extending Donald Ringe’s argument to suggest that Cooper’s radicalism challenges fundamental categories of knowledge like “nation,” “self,” and “race.” Thus, while the then-recently-concluded Mexican-American War might be seen as an instance of Manifest Destiny, Cooper specifically refers to it as another instance of the “conqueror’s car,” leaving a bloody train in its wake. Hardly jingoism. And the mistake that nationalists make, Cooper implies in the Preface to the novel, is to believe that they are driving that car: we have “a propensity to dwell on such interests as those over which we have a fancied control, [rather] than on those which confessedly transcend our understanding” (1.iii). The conqueror fancies he is in control; he is not.

Second, the Revolutions of 1848. Cooper began writing Oak Openings in the fall of 1847, and completed work on it in June of 1848. The political upheavals in Europe began in Italy in January of 1848, and Cooper followed their progress throughout the spring. He was especially attentive to events in France. He writes in the novel that “A great and spasmodic political movement is [currently] convulsing Christendom. That good will come of it, we think is beyond question; but we greatly doubt whether it will come in the particular form, the specified agencies that human calculations would lead us to expect” (2.159). In fact, he says, current events have been produced in opposition to “calculated [human] agencies” (2.159). The reformers fancy they are in control; they are not.

I am suggesting, of course, that in that critical year of 1848, when the U.S. advanced its imperial agenda and when reformers in the west from Seneca Falls to Paris dreamed of democratic possibilities, Cooper used his “homely legend” (1.93) of peril and romance on the Michigan frontier to inform his readers that all of human history is on a frontier. A frontier is that line or border or limit of settled land beyond which lies wilderness. More abstractly, it is the extreme limit of understanding in a particular area of knowledge. Mankind tends to believe in its own agency, Cooper argues, to think that we are on settled land and to think that we know and can control events. We do not. We are always on a frontier, a bit of land that seems settled to us but is in fact unknown to anyone but Providence. Emerson wrote a few years earlier: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” In Oak Openings, Cooper says, don’t trust yourself. And don’t trust the nation. And don’t trust history. And don’t trust what you think you know.

Edging toward allegory, the oak openings in the novel become a peculiar and particular locale. They seem to the white settlers to be natural phenomena, but the narrator knows that they are not. The open spaces around the oaks are “in some degree accidental,” the narrator tells us, “the burning of the prairies depending more or less on contingencies of that sort” (2.53). His hesitation here — wait a minute, all these miles of open space around the oaks depend on “more or less” on contingency? — implies a suspicion that the frontier in Michigan is not really a frontier. The Native Americans settled it long ago and used their know-how to create those spaces.

The land the white settlers thought was frontier turns out to have been settled. The land and politics we think are settled — in France, and throughout Europe — turn out to be in flux. Borders and political alliances in 1848 were careening, Cooper says, toward a goal known only to Providence. “We are in the hand of Providence, and I strive to submit,” Cooper wrote to his wife as he was finishing the novel. 14

Which brings me then to a third contemporaneous event: spiritualism. The modern origins of spiritualism date to 1848, perhaps even more specifically to the Hydesville incident involving the Fox sisters on March 31, 1848. The following event goes unmentioned in Wayne Franklin’s biography of Cooper, just as it goes unmentioned in Cooper’s journals and letters, but in September, 1850 — according to Nathaniel Parker Willis — Cooper attended a séance led by the Fox sisters at the house of Rufus Griswold. Cooper supposedly asked the spirits to tell him about the person he had in mind. The spirits said it was a woman and that she had been dead for fifty years. How did she die? Cooper then asked, to test the spirits. By accident, the spirits communicated. He had in mind his sister, who had died fifty years earlier that very month. 15

Just to be clear, that scene occurred in 1850, two years after the publication of Oak Openings. And yet, weirdly, there is in the novel a curious reference that suggests that Cooper was already personally attuned to events in the Burned-Over District in the spring of 1848. The narrator remarks at one point that it is not surprising that the Native Americans were taken in by the pretend magic of Ben Boden. “In his ignorance, how much was [the Native American] worse off than the wisest of our race?” the narrator says. “Will any discreet man who has ever paid close attention to the power of the somnambule, deny that there is a mystery about such a person that exceeds all our means of explanation?” Sure, some of them are fakers, as one of the Fox sisters revealed about herself many years later; but, the narrator goes on to say, “we have since seen that which no laws, known to us, can explain, and which we are certain [are] not the subject of collusion. ... We know that our own thoughts have been explained and rendered, by a somnambule, under circumstances that will not admit of any information by means known to us by other principles” (2.195). The narrator of the novel — and perhaps Cooper himself — believes in spiritualism. 16

“Why, then, are we to despise the poor Indian because he still fancied [that Boden] could hold communication with his bees?” (2.195), the narrator asks. Or because he thought that Boden could find a gushing spring of whiskey? Indeed. Even we, sitting here in San Francisco in 2018 and perhaps scoffing at the fact that eight in ten Americans believe in angels, need to have humility. 17 What do we know? Cooper asks us in his late novels. We think we are so smart. We think we are on settled ground and that the frontier is out there, far away, in Michigan, in the South Seas, in the Antarctic, perhaps in space, that so-called final frontier. But we don’t know settled from unsettled. It is all frontier to the wise man. Nothing is settled. Do not trust yourself. Trust only that there is a higher purpose and there is literally nothing that you can do to change it. Like Peter after his conversion in Oak Openings, be humble in response to events around you. The conquerors think they are driving their car, but they are not.

Watch, with humility.

Good advice, perhaps, in our own troubled times.


1 See Wayne Franklin, James Fenimore Cooper: The Later Years (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 172-174 and 426-440.

2 Oxford English Dictionary, “invest,” 3.A. Accessed online 31 July 2018.

3 Alexis De Tocqueville, “A Fortnight in the Wilds,” in Journey to America, trans. George Lawrence and ed. J. P. Mayer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), 336.

4 Ibid., 358.

5 Kirkland, Caroline [Mrs. Mary Clavers], A New Home — Who’ll Follow? Or Glimpses of Western Life (New York: C. S. Francis, 1839), 14-15.

6 See, for example, mnfi.anr.msu.edu/communities/community.cfm?id=10693 and oaksavannas.org.

7 Daniel H. Daniel, A World by Itself: The Pastoral Moment in Cooper’s Fiction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), 49.

8 Ibid., 50.

9 James Fenimore Cooper, The Oak Openings; or, The Bee-Hunter (New York: Burgess, Stringer, 1848), 2:225. Further references will be cited parenthetically in the text of my essay.

10 Peck 49. Peck’s assessment of the reception of the novel is echoed by other Cooper scholars such George Dekker, Kay Seymour House, and John McWilliams.

11 Donald Ringe, “Cooper’s Last Novels, 1847-1850,” PMLA 75.5 (1960): 586.

12 Ibid., 590.

13 Scott Michaelsen, The Limits of Multiculturalism: Interrogating the Origins of American Anthropology (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 136.

14 James Fenimore Cooper, The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, Ed. James Franklin Beard, 6 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960-1968), 5:372.

15 Nathaniel Parker Willis, “Post-Mortuum Soiree,” in The Rag Bag: A Collection of Ephemera (New York: Scribner, 1855), 184-194. Originally published in Home Journal, 15 June 1850.

16 Cooper had written about mesmerism, animal magnetism, and the “somnambule” in Gleanings in Europe (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, and Blanchard, 1837; published in the Cooper Edition as Gleanings in Europe: France). In Letter XI of Volume II, addressed to the physician James E. De Kay, Cooper recounts his visits to the mesmerist Jules Cloquet in Paris in 1830. He recounts how strongly Cloquet believed in the “miraculous powers” of mesmerism. Cloquet offers him example after example of its success: “I was nearly magnetized by second-hand facts,” Cooper jokes (2:212). But after pushing and prodding for proof, Cooper is still unconvinced: “If you ask me for the conclusions I have drawn from [all of this,] I shall be obliged to tell you, that I am in doubt how far the parties concerned deceived others, and how far they deceived themselves” (2:220). In Oak Openings, however, the narrator speaks with conviction and from personal experience that spiritualism is true.

17 “Poll: Nearly 8 in 10 Americans Believe in Angels,” CBS News. www.cbsnews.com/news/poll-nearly-8-in-10-americans-believe-in-angels/