Sources and Range of Cooper’s Indian Lore

Arthur C. Parker * (Past President, New York State Historical Association)

Published as New York History, Vol. 35, No. 4 (October, 1954), pp. 447-456 (Special Issue — James Fenimore Cooper: A Re-Appraisal).

Papers from the 1951 James Fenimore Cooper Conference, Cooperstown, New York.

Copyright © 1954, New York State Historical Association.

Placed online with the kind permission of the New York State Historical Association.

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

TRANS-ATLANTIC beliefs prevalent in America during colonial days often gave rise to the emphasis of strange doctrines. That any non-pagan sailor who beheld the coast line of the Philistine world might claim the whole region in the name of his sovereign was one accepted tenet. Title to all such areas was thereupon taken by the discoverer’s king and the discredited aborigines could thereafter be disposed of as expediency directed. This adverse title, justified by “the right of discovery” justified conquest and expunged native rights.

Such was one folk-belief that lay behind the action of nations when they came in contact with the aborigines of the New World, and with it was the doctrine of the divine right of kings. These deeply embedded beliefs tinctured the entire thinking process of European discoverers and lent authority to measures intended to bring the “cumberers’ of the ground,” as natives were called, into disrepute, especially when they resisted encroachment.

The incidents of this conflict afforded ample texts for moralists, disciples of progress, and soldiers, and it also gave themes to those who wrote books. One will detect the mixed feelings of some writers who recorded the conflict, and who sympathised with the noble red man of the forest quite as as often they warped the facts. Some proclaimed biblical authority for the right of conquest, and some finally fictionized. For the North American story read Father Sagard, Lafitau, LaHontan, Heckewelder and Colden. Note the varied opinion in these works, note the mixed sentiments of the writers, note the conflicting evidence that is given.

As might be expected, therefore, the first literary response in the field of fiction was one that employed selected facts edited to conform to the every-day beliefs of Europeans. Anything else would not have appeared plausible. Not until after the American Revolution, however, did works of fiction having a good circulation come from the presses. These were planned to entertain a public that was still smarting with resentment against the varlets who had fought the settler, though some writers sought to excuse the Indian for his attacks.

In a measure this was so with Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810) who wrote Edgar Huntley, or a Memoir of a Sleep-Walker, 1799. This 1 was a notable book for its period, and without doubt set the pattern for many that were to follow. It gave the background of the Indian depredations of Pennsylvania and describes the perplexities of a character called Old Deb, an aged Delaware woman. Her problem was to oppose the migration of her people from their pleasant lands in the East who, under the pressure of the settlers, were moving to an unknown country on the Wabash. She failed to achieve her ends and remained behind a lonely, vengeful figure.

Most successful of all who employed the Indian in fiction was James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) who, glimpsing the unique drama of the American scene, wrote with an eloquence that gripped many thousands of readers. In the series known as The Leatherstocking Tales Cooper pictured red men both as heroes and villains in what appears to be an honest attempt to depict them as they actually were. In all these volumes Cooper envisioned the aboriginal people as disrupted, beleagured, and fading before the inevitability of something called civilization. Though he was not loath to portray their faults and their ignorance of the ways of Europeans, he sought to do them literary justice by crediting them with many noble qualities. For the latter he was roundly criticized by those who recalled the atrocities suffered in frontier raids, and by those who, with Ponteach by Major Robert Rogers (1776) had prayed,

“God send the day that puts them all to sleep.”

Of one who dipped his pen in the ink of borrowed Indian lore, as Cooper did in numerous instances, it is natural that the critic should ask, “What did Cooper actually know about Indians?” His daughter Susan provides an answer when she writes, 2 “Occasionally he met some small parties of Oneidas. ... ” Dr. Albert Keyser 3 quotes the more direct answer of Cooper himself replying to an acquaintance. “You have the advantage of me,” admitted Cooper, “for I was never among Indians.” Only much later did he observe first hand some of the broken tribal bands in regions beyond the New York area, but not until he had written bravely, and with penetrating imagination, of the impacts and clashes of tribes that he often placed in the wrong territory or misnamed. For instance, Cooper did not distinguish between the Mahicans and the Mohicans, or as generally written the Mohegans. 4 Quite as carelessly he borrowed a hero from the Mohicans and gave him to the Mahicans. Uncas, 5 be it known, was not a Hudson River Mahican, historically speaking, and it may be gravely doubted that his father was Chingachgook. 6 Nor is the name of the father unquestionably to be interpreted “big snake”. Ching 7 is more like the Delaware for stiff than for big, and snakes are often better stiff than big.

As for the “last of the Mohicans”, let no man mourn. Mohegans may still be found, even in colleges. One was an informant of the late Frank G. Speck at his anthropological laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania and another was a flyer in World War I. Or if one insists on referring to the Hudson River Mahicans, plenty of them will be found in Wisconsin, where on Green Bay, they are mingled with the migrant Oneidas who took them in after the Revolutionary War. Some are, or have been, lawyers, clergymen, teachers, physicians, farmers and skilled mechanics. Most are good Episcopalians, with some warm Methodists. They are among those who have refused ” ... to go to sleep.” Of course it was not possible for Cooper, with the traditions of the border behind him, to foresee that descendants of the wandering Oneidas within a century after he wrote would become fully assimilated citizens of the United States and almost completely governed by the culture of the white man. The tearful old days and the rugged personalities among the red men that Cooper described have gone with the Wept of the Wish-ton-Wish. If Cooper were not a prophet of Indian destiny, and he never said he was, he did apply the hearsay traditions and the misconceptions of his time in a remarkably effective way. Nevertheless he did ignore numerous vital facts and real personalities. Captain Skenandoah and Scout Honyost of the Oneidas, and Captain John Konapot and Captain David Nimham of the Hudson River Indian tribes, all loyal to the Colonists, would have made incomparable heroes for border fiction.

Where, then, did Cooper get his ideas when he needed facts about the natives of the forest and prairie? One answer is that the entire region about Cooper’s Otsego- Mohawk homeland was redolent with tales of the lurking redman, of his incursions, of his attacks on Cherry Valley and Springfield, German Flats and Schenectady. There was scarcely an old family that did not have a still-green tradition of encounters with Indians and of harrowing captivities. Indeed, there were many families that were inter-married with the Mohawks. Sir William Johnson was not alone in having a dusky brood, and many a Palatine German had sealed his marriage vows with a pretty forest maid in a Christian church. Cooperstown, in the days of Cooper’s youth, was a reservoir of Indian lore, but this lore’s most prevalent form was that dealing with the red man as an enemy, a gloomy creature destined to attain only extinction.

At the very time that Cooper was thinking of his career as a writer there were many others whose minds had been stirred by the same urge, indeed, a flood of factual and fictional literature was in motion when Cooper began his writings, for example, William Campbell’s Annals of Tryon County, (1831), and Alexander Scott Withers’ Chronicles of Border Warfare, (Clarksburg, Virginia, 1831). The Indian was coming into his own, but Cooper seems to have seen those of his day mostly as doomed and degenerate figures petitioning the government at Washington for redress, or trying, like Long Island’s King Peter, sachem and preacher to the Montauks, to convert his dispirited brood to the religion of the dominant group. But those red men whom Cooper saw, when he did see them, were not the people of the forest, self-sufficient in their native haunts. Nor were the books available to Cooper written by Indians anthropologists capable of interpreting one race to another. Cooper did, however, discover one source that had great effect on him.

This find was a book written by the Reverend John Gottleib Ernestus Heckewelder, a Moravian missionary who had labored with prayerful devotion among the Delaware Indians and their allies. Published in 1819, this volume was called History, Manners and Customs of the Indian Nations who once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighboring States . It is asserted by W. H. Gardner, who reviewed the Last of the Mohicans, that “Cooper relied exclusively upon the narrations of the enthusiastic and visionary Heckewelder whose work is a mere eulogism upon the virtues of his favorite tribe ... and contains a world of pure imagination.” Of course, reviewers, too, can be prejudiced, visionary and over eager to display superior knowledge. It is quite likely, however, that Heckewelder’s account of his “favorite tribe” is more than imagination, and it is equally possible that Cooper’s leaning toward the Delawares and Mohicans sprang in part from Heckewelder’s bias. The missionary writer had little love for the Iroquois, for his predecessors who were missionaries among them, had left an unhappy account of wild events among the Onondagas. The part taken by these same Onondaga-Iroquois in the American Revolution also had left its sting, for they were allies of the Tories.

Mark Twain, a much later critic, thought that such tales as The Deerslayer were too full of snapping twigs that could be heard by an alarmed enemy two-hundred yards away. “It seems to me,” asserted Mark Twain, “that The Deerslayer is simply a literary delerium tremens.” 8 To this diagnosis he added, ” ... its conversations are — oh! indescribable; its love scenes odious; its English a crime against the language!” Mark, however, was not alone in deriding James Fenimore. Governor Lewis Cass of Michigan Territory did not spare his punches when he wrote that The Last of the Mohicans“ ... is an Indian of the school of Mr. Heckewelder and not of the school of nature.” The Indian of Cass, by the same token, was not of the school of nature either, but of the school of the invader, the hunter of men, the settler who came to dispossess the native and forgive himself for treaty violations. Those of this school saw the red man only as harried, savage beings who lingered on the half-decayed rim of the acculturating process and who mere doomed to give way sooner or later, but the sooner the better.

It is likely that the missionary Heckewelder knew the Indian better than the soldier, Cass recalling, as Heckewelder certainly did, how Indians were massacred while attending their religious devotions, or were pursued into jail yards, as at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and butchered without mercy. Even Cass might have known the red man better had he lived with Father Sagard, Reverend Zeisberger, Lafitau or Roger Williams, or as such voluntary expatriates did as Chateaubriand’s Philip and when asked if he were happy living with the Indians, Philip had replied, “Happy! Happy! Yes but happy only since I became a savage.” Thus the critic who has fought the red man knew him only as an enemy, while the missionary who had striven to understand him knew him as a friend. It was this view that Heckewelder conveyed, and which Cooper leaned upon in writing of the Delawares. Even so, it was the Indian of printed pages that Cooper saw, though breathing Indians still lived not far from his Cooperstown home.

Near at hand were the Oneidas, whom Cooper thought of only as ragged peddlars, and not much farther to the west were the Onondagas, scarcely recovered from the trouncing administered by Colonel VanSchaick in 1779. If Cooper had lived for only a few months with the people about whom he wrote, studied their rich heritage of myth; legend, ceremony, social relations, government and ideals, he might have scooped the saga of Hiawatha, written one of the world’s greatest classics, and got it right before J. V. H. Clark of Onondaga Valley passed along the story to Henry R. Schoolcraft, who gave it to Longfellow, who got it all wrong, even though he did create America’s first great poem. Cooper might have found the Red Score of the Lenape (Delawares) before Rafinesque, and beaten Brinton to publication; he might have forestalled Lewis Henry Morgan with a mighty work on The League of the Iroguois. In fact, he might have become acquainted with living Mahicans and Mohegans among the Oneidas and made an earlier interpretation of the Walum Olum. With an open mind and writing from first-hand knowledge Cooper might have outdone Heckewelder, and even found the despised Maguas (Mohawks) endurable, not to say quite astonishing, in other respects than intrigue and war. A deep and rich historical mine was at his elbow, and it was filled with ores that would have given amazing tints to literature. Yet he preferred his easy chair and looked for topics through glasses not his own.

Cooper, of course, was not a historian, though much of that which he wrote has been taken literally as scarcely modified fact. He was a weaver of tales, and his first care was the story itself. The background was secondary. That some critics thought his Indians and their responses were not always historically correct troubled Cooper little, if we may judge. He caught the flavor of the forest which he knew well and into this he projected imaginary characters built from bones garnered hither and yon. From such personalities he achieved results that have lived to this day. Who can blame him for missing the boat if he didn’t wish to board it? That he might have done better with his ethnology and history is certain had he personally gathered his material at source. He would have learned, for example, that the Mohawks were not on the side of the French, but that some groups of his beloved Delawares were, but what matter? Mistakes like this did not stem the circulation of his books.

What plots and personalities Cooper might have found with a day’s stage journey of Cooperstown. Witness what has been written since his days, yes, in the last quarter century, by those who found only the crumbs of the still warm loaf that he might have devoured between 1820 and 1850. Note the facts and plots employed by Robert Chambers in his Little Red Foot and in his Hidden Children. The romance of Joseph Brant and his sister Molly might have been unearthed and employed as Harvey Chalmers did in his West to the Setting Sun. Then there is Carl Carmer with his Genesee Fever, and Waiter Edmonds’ In the Hands of the Senecas. Within Cooper’s reach, had he stretched his hand or opened available pages, were personalities without peer, many of them arranged in pairs or foils. Call to mind De la Barre and Garangula, Johnson and Brant, Sullivan and Old King, Kirkland and Skenandoah, Wheelock and Occom, Cresap and Logan, Greathouse and Bald Eagle, Amhurst and Tecumseh, Thomas Morris and Red Jacket and a score more. Some of these were living and some but lately gone when Cooper wrote, and the facts were not hard to find. Of these Cooper did not choose to write. Instead he created a lively fiction. Instead he placed a Connecticut Uncas in King George’s New York “court yard,” mixed the Indians of the Thames with those of the Hudson and Lake George, and put the Delawares of New Jersey on Lake Champlain. He had Mohawks aiding the French instead of standing at the side of England’s William Johnson and his successors, and he made the Hurons a still effective fighting force, as if they had not been thoroughly scattered in 1650 by the despised Magwas. Then how he scrambled names! If he had had the enterprise of Ruttenber he would have given a far more accurate description of the customs and habits of the Hudson River tribes and mentioned names and customs that would have been historic enough to have pleased Daniel G. Brinton or Frank G. Speck. But no, Cooper was a fiction writer who only used the mingled aromas of fact; he was not writing history or anthropology.

Still we must acknowledge Cooper as an author to be judged by the prejudices, the taste and the conscience of his own times. It is likely that this taste and this conscience, measured by today’s better knowledge may cloy, and that our ears will be assailed by English that is not that of the frontiersman or the Indian, but for a moment let the critic forget this and consider the results. Whatever may be the faults of language and history as embodied in Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales, they still possess an attraction that lends a particular luster to the regions that form their geographical backgrounds. One explanation of this circumstance is the indubitable fact that he stamped legend, synthetic though it may be, into the soil and cultivated it with his imagination so that neither criticism nor time have obliterated it. Otsego Lake, Glens Falls, Ballston, Lake George, Westchester and the vale of the Hudson all share the added values provided by his literary allusions. More than this, numerous imaginary characters endure because Cooper gave them birth and immortality. One will not forget the Deerslayer, Natty Bumppo, Uncas, Chingachgook or the evil Magua, nor view their reputed haunts without recalling them.

As with Washington Irving and his Rip Van Winkle, Ichabod Crane and Katrina Van Tassel, we may walk with the characters that Cooper conjured into being and find them real. We may delight in walking where they walked, and we may relive the deeds they did. Cooper thus created a new folklore and planted its roots deeply in the soil. What would our region be without its Glimmerglass, without its Hawk Eye, its Le Renard Subtil? What would Gotham be without its Tamenund? 9

Though Cooper looked through borrowed lenses what he saw has made a wonderland glow and has implanted it with a delightful, if sometimes gory lore that in turn has made history.


1 Brown, Charles Brockden, New York, 1928. According to Keiser, q.v. Brown was the first professional man of letters to deliberately introduce and exploit native material, including the Indian.

2 Cooper, Susan Fenimore, Pages and Pictures fsom the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper, with notes. New York, 1861.

3 Keiser, Albert, The Indian in American Literature. Dr. Keiser provides a reliable and authoritative analysis of the subject, New York, 1959.

4 Mahicans, Mohicans, See Handbook 30, Bureau of American Ethnology, pp. 768-796. Washington, 1911.

5 Uncas as a name is a corruption of Woncus, “the circler.”

6 The father of the historical Uncas was Owenoco. In 1626 he married the daughter of Sassacus, chief of the Pequots. The monument at Norwich, Ct. commemorates the actual man; that at Cooperstown the literary character.

7 Chingachgook. See etymology in Daniel Garrison Brinton’s Lenape and their Legends, pp. 194 and 235. There ching is interpreted stiff.

8 Clemens, Samuel L. (Mark Twain), Authorized Edition, Vol. 22. Chapter on Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses. See pp. 79-96.

9 Tamenund, Tamanen, Tammany, etc. The word means “the affable.” The historical Tamanen was a signer of the Penn Treaty of 1685.

* Dr. Parker, former director of the Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences, past president and honorary trustee of the New York State Historical Association, is a noted authority on Indian culture. The most recent of his books in this field is Red Jacket.