Reading James Fenimore Cooper’s The Prairie

An Introduction and Annotations

Karen Lentz Madison and R. D. Madison

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 32.

Copyright © 2016 Karen Lentz Madison and Robert Durwood Madison.

“History and Social Change” from History and Utopia: A Study of the World View of James Fenimore Cooper. Copyright © 1978 by Allan M. Axelrad.

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


The authors are happy to acknowledge the assistance of several individuals who contributed at different stages of this monograph: Mindy Besaw, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art; Lisa Caprino, The Huntington Library; Nathaniel Ethan Clark, WorldStrides; James P. Elliott, Clark University; Wayne Franklin, University of Connecticut; Emma-Leigh Gardiner, graphics; Coi Gehrig, Denver Public Library; Steven Harthorn, University of Northwestern-St. Paul; Marie E. Lamoureux, American Antiquarian Society; Alexandra Lane, White House Historical Association; Elizabeth Maisey, Assumption College; and Jackie Donovan Penny, American Antiquarian Society. As always, the entire Interlibrary Loan staff at the University of Arkansas’s Mullins Library have been invaluable. We are especially grateful to Allan M. Axelrad for allowing us to reprint his thoughts on Cooper and Volney.

I. Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • I. Table of Contents
  • II. List of Illustrations
  • III. Introduction
  • IV. Table of Scenes in The Prairie
  • V. A Note on Cooper’s Text
  • VI. Explanatory Notes [keyed to The Prairie 1827 first edition]
  • VII. Cooper’s Introduction to the 1832 London Edition
  • VIII. Cooper’s Notes to the 1832 London Edition
  • IX. Cooper’s Preface to The Leather-Stocking Tales [1850]
  • X. Cooper and Volney — Allan M. Axelrad
  • XI. Afterword: Cooper and the American West
  • XII. Suggestions for Further Reading

II. List of Illustrations

  • Plate 1: Uncolored engraving by S. S. Jocelyn after Charles Bird King, “A Pawnee Brave Son of Old Knife,” (Jedidiah Morse, A Report ... On Indian Affairs, 1822), frontispiece.
  • Plate 2: Colored lithograph by J. T. Bowen after Charles Bird King, “Ong-Pa-Ton-Ga. An Omakas [sic] Chief,” Thomas McKenney and James Hall, The Indian Tribes of North America (Philadelphia: D. Rice and A. N. Hart, 1850), removed.
  • Plate 3: Detail, A. M. Perrot, Carte dressée pour la lecture de La Prairie in La Prairie (Paris: Furne, Charles Gosselin, 1835).
  • Plate 4: Uncolored engraving by Boyd after C. Schetky, “Flicker,” The Port Folio 12:2 (December 1821), frontispiece.
  • Plate 5: Charles Willson Peale, “Thomas Say” (Academy of Natural Sciences, Ewell Sale Stewart Library and Archives, Drexel University).
  • Plate 6: Charles Bird King, “Sharitarish” (White House Collections).
  • Plate 7: Seth Eastman, “Pawnees Torturing a Female Captive” ca. 1850 (Henry R. Schoolcraft, Historical and Statistical Information Regarding the History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States, 1847-57), Volume 5 Plate 6 (p. 78).
  • Plate 8: Uncolored engraving by Young and Delleker after T. R. Peale, “Moveable Skin Lodges of the Kaskaias,” The Port Folio 2 [14]:6 (December 1822), facing p. 449.

III. Introduction

“In that day, people read Pope, and Young, and Milton, and Shakspeare, and that sort of writers; a little relieved by Mrs Radcliffe, and Miss Burney, and Monk Lewis, perhaps. As for Fielding and Smollett, they were well enough in their place, which was not a young lady’s library, however.”

Afloat and Ashore 1

In Cooper’s day, people read Mrs. Opie, William Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Southey, Thomas Campbell, and Lord Byron. They still read Shakespeare and Pope, of course, along with James Thomson and Bishop Percy. Among Americans, people read William Cullen Bryant and Washington Irving. Americans were increasingly drawn to English poet Felicia Hemans, and Cooper especially came to appreciate Samuel Rogers.

But there was another kind of literature that people read: the literature of exploration. They read about Parry and Scoresby visiting the arctic regions; they read about Cook charting the Pacific; they read about Lewis and Clark reaching the same ocean by land after traversing the great American desert and the Rocky Mountains.

All of these works were informational, although not all were inspirational. Of all the accounts of the western exploration previous to Cooper’s fictional one, only Henry M. Brackenridge viewed the prairies as Cooper had viewed the sea and the forest:

I confess, that to me, Nature never wore an aspect so lovely as on the lonely plains of the west. From their dry and unsheltered surface, no damp and unwholesome vapors rise to lessen the elasticity of the air, or dim the brilliant blue of the heavens. So transparent is the atmosphere, that a slight smoke can be discerned at the distance of many miles, which curiously exercises the caution and sagacity of the fearful savage, ever on the watch to destroy, or to avoid destruction. And then, that sublime immensity which surrounds us; the sea in motion is a sublime object, but not to be compared to the varied scenes which here present themselves, and over which, the body as well as the imagination, is free to expatiate. The beams of the sun, appeared to me, to have less fierceness, or perhaps this might be owing to the cool breezes which continually fan the air, bringing upon their wings the odours of millions of flowers. The mind appears to receive a proportionate elevation, when we are thus lifted up so much higher than the centre of the valley. There was to me something like the fables of fairy land, in passing over a country where for hundreds of miles I saw no inhabitants but the buffaloe, deer, the elk, and antelope: I have called it the PARADISE OF HUNTERS, for to them it is indeed a paradise. 2

As for pure information, after the publication of James Wallis Eastman and Robert C. Sands’s Yamoyden: A Tale of the Wars of King Philip in 1820, Cooper had before him an index to the riches of American ethnography. 3 In Sands (Eastburn had died before the work was completed), who was a member of Cooper’s club, the Bread and Cheese, Cooper found a friend who was immersed in Native American history, who had absorbed virtually all there was to know about the eastern tribes. Another member of the club was Samuel Finley Breeze Morse, son of the Jedidiah Morse who in 1822 published his Report to the Secretary of War on the western Indian tribes, with, as its frontispiece, its portrait (after Charles Bird King; see Plate 1), of the Pawnee hero and warrior Petalesharo, whom Cooper is believed to have met when the former was part of the Indian delegation to Washington in 1821. Wayne Franklin speculates that Cooper may also have seen the delegation at his hotel and at an art exhibit in New York. 4 Whatever the occasion, Cooper claimed to have known both Petalesharo and another delegate, Ongpatonga (see Plates 1 and 2). In a March 1827 letter to Albertine Ida Gustavine de Staël (1797?-1838), Duchesse de Broglie, Cooper accounted for the gift of a work of travel — his primary source for The Prairie; A Tale (1827) — and attributed his inspiration for the Pawnee hero of his novel to the meeting in Washington:

2016other-madison1.jpg (25K)

Plate 1: Uncolored engraving by S. S. Jocelyn after Charles Bird King, “A Pawnee Brave Son of Old Knife,” (Jedidiah Morse, A Report ... On Indian Affairs, 1822), frontispiece. Courtesy Major Edmond J. Mallet Collection, Emmanuel d’Alzon Library Manuscript Collection, Assumption College, Worcester, Massachusetts. The “Pawnee Brave” is Petalesharo, whom Cooper met in Washington.

2016other-madison2.jpg (25K)

Plate 2: Colored lithograph by J. T. Bowen after Charles Bird King, “Ong-Pa-Ton-Ga. An Omakas [sic] Chief,” Thomas McKenney and James Hall, The Indian Tribes of North America (Philadelphia: D. Rice and A. N. Hart, 1850), removed. Courtesy K. L. and R. D. Madison. Regarded by some as the model for Chingachgook, Ongpatonga’s well-publicized oratory might serve as the most immediate source (and justification) for Cooper’s examples of formal Native speech.

In one of the early chapters of the 1ˢᵗ volume, there is a long account of the manners, habits &c of the Omawhaw tribe, a people that were once powerful in this way, but which are now going rapidly into their decline. M. Cooper knew Ongpatonga i.e. le gros cerf, personally. He was a chief of great dignity and celebrated for his eloquence. Peterlasharoo, who is mentioned in the visit to the Pawnees, was also an acquaintance. This man would have been a hero in any civilized nation-He is the model of le cœur dur or Hard-Heart the principal Indian character of the “Prairie.” M. C[ooper] has in no degree exaggerated his appearance or the imperturbable qualities of the savage — The Duchess will find him particularily mentioned, page 356, vol. 1 — In form, Peterlasharoo was an Apollo — 5

Cooper’s source and gift was the two-volume set of Edwin James’s Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains under the Command of Major Stephen H. Long. 6 But there were many other models for both his Native protagonist and the rest of the book.

Cooper was inescapably infatuated by both the real Indians he met and those he read about. 7 In the five years between his meeting of the Indian delegation and the publication of The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 (1826) Cooper undertook a formal study of Native Americans as ambitious as any. By 1827, when he published The Prairie and had at least begun his research for The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish (1829), he may have known as much about American Indians in toto as any other writer alive (for knowledge of living Indians, one would perhaps give the nod to Thomas L. McKenney, head of Indian affairs for the War Department and the person most responsible for the publicity surrounding the visits of trans-Mississippi Indians to the east coast). Of the antecedents of The Prairie, in particular Cooper knew about Jonathan Carver’s Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America (1778), with its extensive description of the eastern Sioux, Zebulon M. Pike’s An Account of Expeditions to the Sources of the Mississippi River and through the Western Parts of Louisiana Territory (1810), either directly or through Jedidiah Morse, and Paul Allen’s History of the Expedition under the command of Captains Lewis and Clark (1814); he was probably familiar with Thomas Nuttall’s A Journal of Travels into the Arkansa Territory (1819) and John Bradbury’s Travels in the Interior of America (1817), dedicated to De Witt Clinton, who, if not a member, certainly came within the orbit of the Bread and Cheese.

But however much Cooper delved into the world of the Natives of the American west, his literary imagination remained charged with the Rousseauvian portrait of the Indian he had encountered in the writings of Moravian missionary John Gottlieb Ernestus Heckewelder (1743-1823) while he was laying the foundation for The Last of the Mohicans. Even in name, the Hard-Heart of The Prairie remains a Delaware, so that Cooper’s claim of modeling his Pawnee brave after Petalesharo remains (and perhaps deliberately so) at least incomplete. 8 By setting The Prairie in 1805, the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Cooper avoids the irony that by 1826 the Pawnees faced far more disruption from relocated Delaware than from the Sioux.

When Lewis and Clark set off to explore the Louisiana Purchase, most Americans forgot that the immense tracts they had just acquired from France had been traipsed by French trappers for a century, and by English trappers and traders for half a century. Each subsequent exploration purveyed the same myth: that they would explore an unknown wilderness and bear witness to the vanishing American before he was overrun by hordes of settlers from the east. Each in turn distinguished between the noble savage of the interior and the degraded hangers-on around the forts and settlements. Clearly, the advance of civilization brought destruction before it could impose the benefits of enlightenment. It was the duty of each subsequent expedition to record the brief interval between discovery and extinction. 9

Cooper accepted this paradigm and improved on it in The Prairie. Rather than show “the light and the dark together,” as Richard Henry Dana, Jr., claimed to do in Two Years Before the Mast (1840), Cooper idealized the light and the dark as every mythmaker has done, and as he had done in each book since The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground (1821). But even Cooper’s daughter Susan thought of T he Prairie as something different, a setting that required a defense of artistic verisimilitude in place of downright authenticity. Cooper had never seen the prairie, so the argument runs, so his writing could not be, in the representational sense, true. The converse, that personal observation guarantees truth, is a fallacy so equally abused that it lends authority to such palpable and clumsy fictions as George Frederick Ruxton’s Life in the Far West (1848), which was taken as gospel by the credulous for over a hundred years:

Ruxton was first among writers to use the Mountain Man as literary material. In doing so he cast aside the romantic approach of J. Fenimore Cooper and portrayed his heroes in a realistic pattern. Having roasted buffalo humps and rolled in a blanket before a trapper campfire, Ruxton knew the heart that beat beneath fringed buckskin. He could describe the fascinating life of fur men and express their thoughts in their own distinctive jargon. 10

As Cooper might say (and did say in The Sea Lions; or, the Lost Sealers [1849]), “Tell that to the Marines.”

Susan Fenimore Cooper had a better understanding of her father’s art, even though she sometimes falters on the details:

The prairies he had never seen. His travels westward had not extended farther than Buffalo and Niagara, where he had gone on duty, when serving in the navy. And at the moment of planning the book, he had not leisure for an excursion beyond the Mississippi, much as he wished to see that singular region. The necessary information could therefore, be drawn from books and conversation only. But the eye of genius has a living lens of its own, peculiar to itself, endowing it with an insight which penetrates far below the surface of things, which seizes objects though veiled by the intervening cloud, which is capable of clear perception far beyond the common horizon; give it but a vague outline, let it but fix its vision on some distant point, and ere long great facts appear, strong and distinct in all the force of their reality, while lesser details of poetical grace and natural feeling come to light, and live and glow like the flowers beneath the sunbeam. With Shakespeare it looks toward Italy, and he who had never trod other than his native soil, brings all Venice, and Verona, and “Padova la dotta” to the shores of England, and throws the softness of the Italian moon over the nearest lawn. With the author of “Waverly” it looks into the scroll of History, and the page becomes illuminated with all the quaint pageantry of mediæval Time, in life-like glow and movement. It turns, with the poet of “Childe Harold,” toward the Russian steppe, and the wild troop of untamed horse comes rushing in savage fury toward the terrified reader. 11

Of course, Susan’s memory could not fill in events that happened before she was born, when Cooper rolled in a blanket before a campfire and feasted on roasted porcupine on the shores of Lake Ontario.

Susan’s recognition of her father’s artistic genius, far from merely expressing filial piety, is less applicable to earlier works like The Pioneers; or, The Sources of the Susquehanna (1823) or The Last of the Mohicans only in degree. The Prairie is obviously not Cooper’s first experiment with idealized character in an idealized landscape, but among the Leatherstocking Tales his art has this difference: Although he grew up in the landscape of The Pioneers and was inspired to write of the events at Fort William Henry by an actual excursion, despite a close attention to the geographical and ethnographic details of his setting, the art of The Prairie is never subservient to its sources, and in this is perhaps found the key element of its perfection among all of Cooper’s novels. The Pioneers is perhaps Cooper’s greatest contribution to literature, in part because it stands alone — while The Prairie depends in some measure on its two predecessors. But as a formal work of art, The Prairie stands without equal among Cooper’s writings.

The very structure of the work reveals a mind influenced by the conventions of the Shakespearian stage. The form of The Prairie is not classical (the work, after all, is a two-volume novel), but one can see evidence of an awareness of the unities of time and place (see Table). If it were not for the necessity of the prairie-desert setting and its natural plot elements (a prairie fire, a river, a herd of buffalo, a fall of snow), the characters of The Prairie could get along very well on the stage, and indeed with much more effective dialogue than in Mercedes of Castile; or, The Voyage to Cathay (1840), The Pathfinder: or, the Inland Sea (1840), or The Deerslayer: or, the First War-Path. A Tale (1841), in which Cooper seems to be self-consciously driving the plot through speechiness.

The Prairie is split down the middle by the appearance of the wilderness hero of the book. That split is every bit as apparent as the division in The Last of the Mohicans between the white-controlled world leading to Fort William Henry and the red-controlled world leading away. 12 The Pawnee’s “Wagh!” invites an intermission as abrupt as closing one volume and opening another, and yet literally the scene remains the same in time and place across the two volumes. Control of the prairie setting does not, however, change races at this moment. Instead, Cooper continues to develop themes and conflict particular to that setting, as he had done in The Pilot; a Tale of the Sea (1824) when he delineated the three types of conflict in the sea-story: man against man, man against the sea, man against the creature from the sea. 13 In The Prairie, the primary threat to order (as exemplified through the interrupted marriage of Middleton and Inez) comes through Ishmael’s wandering band. Once on the prairie, both the love-interest (Middleton) and the white action-hero (the Trapper) confront the natural dangers of a buffalo stampede, fire (by whomever set), and snow. The latter is a betrayal into the hands of the other human threat in the novel, Mahtoree’s band of Sioux. Late in the novel the Trapper theorizes these dangers somewhat differently, but with the same purport of classifying the dangers of the prairie: “It is easy to outwit a furnace, for it is nothing but a raging element; and it is not always difficult to throw a grizzly bear from his scent, for the creatur’ is both enlightened and blinded by his instinct; but to shut the eyes of a waking Teton is a matter of greater judgment, inasmuch as his deviltry is backed by the cunning of reason” (2.94).

The language of classification runs throughout The Prairie, emphasizing the theme of breeding through which Cooper examines his types of humanity. “We ar’ of a slow breed,” the squatter says of his brood, leading up to his claim of inevitable justice (1.85). “Then has Ishmael Bush followed the instinct of the beasts rather than the genuine principle which ought to belong to his kind,” replies the Trapper. The wandering naturalist, Obed Bat, fails to recognize his own beast of burden, and in his frenzy in classifying his lusus naturae ironically gives it the Latin form of his own name, Vespertilio. Cooper makes it clear through the novel that the prairie beyond the frontier of the Mississippi is not a place for the white man, whether learned in the universities, as Dr. Battius is, or endowed with the most pragmatic frontier outlook, as bee-hunter Paul Hover is. Only the Trapper, who has deliberately divested himself of the “trappings” of civilization to the point where he becomes the adoptive father of the Pawnee, finds an appropriate white presence on the prairie, but it is one of only symbolic and temporary presence, since the Trapper is long past the age of breeding or performing any of the functions of the pioneer.

Although Susan Fenimore Cooper reported that the novelist later regretted having inserted the love story of Inez and Middleton into the book, in fact their presence is essential to the story as conceived. 14 Beyond the mere fact of the abduction of Inez being the reason for the Bush family’s flight up the Platte River, Inez is a complicated symbol of creolization along the frontier. She represents the decay of Old World civilization awaiting the invigorating infusion of Anglo-Saxon and (at least symbolically) Delaware blood of Duncan Uncas Middleton to create a new race adapted to the new (to the fledgling United States) borderlands. Inez, in a degree much more threatening than in the case of Ellen Wade, faces the threat of sexual exploitation throughout her captivity by Ishmael and his brother-in-law Abiram White, a slave stealer now-become dealer in white flesh. Her precarious position as a potential breeder is reinforced by the admiring looks of both Hard-Heart and Mahtoree, in a display of sexual desire instantly recognized by old Esther. Unlike Cora in The Last of the Mohicans, whose taint is too deep for Cooper’s world, the Creole Inez is allowed to survive, although Cooper’s customary delicacy with characters of Inez’s class prohibits a discussion of a progeny about which Cooper feels no restraint in the case of Paul Hover and Ellen Wade.

The threat of rape is the most powerful gothic element in a story where a rock takes the place of a castle and Sioux take the place of phantasms. Whether that threat comes from the degraded white (the Bush family), the primitive good (the Pawnee), or the primitive bad (the Sioux), it remains the most persistent tension in the novel. Even the gothic interlude is charged with sexual tension, although here it is inverted as Inez represents the latent passion of the Catholic Creole which is resisted by Middleton only in its religious manifestation: “Middleton was among the first, of the new possessors of the soil, who became captive to the charms of a Louisianian lady” (1.214). He endures the family priest’s attempts to Catholicize him while “glimpses of the light, sylphlike form of Inez flitted like some fairy being past the scene of their conferences” — language worthy of the seduction of Monk Lewis’s Ambrosio.

Significantly, Abiram’s abduction of Inez interrupts not the sacrament of her marriage with Middleton but the legitimate consummation of that marriage. That Inez remain a virgin during her captivity is perhaps a theme central to the earliest conception of the novel. When Cooper met Petalesharo, he was surely as aware as the rest of the American public of the Pawnee’s role in attempting to eradicate the Morning Star ritual among his people:

At the age of twenty-one, his heroic deeds had acquired for him in his nation, the rank of “the bravest of the braves.” The savage practice of torturing and burning to death their prisoners existed in this nation. An unfortunate female, taken in war, of the Paduca nation, was destined to this horrid death. The fatal hour arrived; the trembling victim, far from her home and her friends, was fastened to the stake; the whole tribe was assembled on the surrounding plain, to witness the awful scene. Just when the funeral pile was to be kindled, and the whole multitude of spectators were on the tiptoe of expectation, this young warrior, having, unnoticed, prepared two fleet horses, with the necessary provisions, sprang from his seat, rushed through the crowd, liberated the victim, seized her in his arms, placed her on one of the horses, mounted the other himself, and made the utmost speed toward the nation and friends of the captive ... since this transaction, no human sacrifice has been offered in this, or any other of the Pawnee tribes. 15

The young ladies of Washington, infatuated (or titillated) by Petalesharo’s chivalry, awarded him a silver medal.

In fact, the Morning Star sacrifices (which involved both male and female victims) continued as late as 1838, although the female victims attracted the most attention both before and after the publication of The Prairie. The sexual tension was built into the novel’s sources and carried over into the novel itself. 16

Beyond all of this is the Trapper himself. Although young enough to be a player in The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper carefully isolates Leatherstocking (the name itself perhaps a Freudian expression of Natty Bumppo’s sexual sterility) from the love interests of the story, assigning Duncan and Alice to each other and Cora and Uncas to death. And in The Pioneers Leatherstocking is safely beyond sexual attraction. Only in The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer does Natty have to struggle with temptations of the heart, and even in these late works they are not expressed as temptations of the flesh. The Trapper of The Prairie achieves his apotheosis in the opening pages of the book, but he is immediately reincarnated into the octogenarian. His rebirth is but an awakening and a remembrance; the worldly powers with which he had been endowed (without symbolic value) in The Pioneers and that sustained him through The Last of the Mohicans have fled; his most memorable posture in The Prairie is standing inactively leaning on his relic of a rifle. If, for only a moment, he stands as a giant silhouetted against a setting sun before resuming his human stature, in that briefest of literary moments he nevertheless becomes the symbol of both the potential and the limitations of white expansion in the New World. Cooper will refine that symbol more extensively in The Deerslayer after abandoning it in The Pathfinder, but it is on the prairie that Leatherstocking for the first time becomes a national symbol.

Karen Lentz Madison

R. D. Madison

The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville


1 James Fenimore Cooper, Afloat and Ashore, edited by Thomas Philbrick and Marianne Philbrick (New York: AMS Press, 2004), p. 273.

2 Views of Louisiana; Containing Geographical, Statistical and Historical Notices of that Vast and Important Portion of America (Baltimore: Schaeffer & Maund, 1817), pp. 73-74.

3 New York: James Eastburn, 1820.

4 Wayne Franklin, James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), pp. 478-79.

5 James Franklin Beard, The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper Volume 1 (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960), p. 199.

6 Philadelphia: Carey and Lea, 1823. The French noblewoman was presumably more worldly than the “young lady” of Afloat and Ashore and could handle James’s definitions of penis, vulva, and copulation in a half-dozen Native languages (2: Vocabularies lxxi, lxxix) along with descriptions of sexual practices among the Konza and Omawhaw:

In the nation, however, are several courtezans; and during our evening walks we were sure to meet with respectable Indians who thought pimping no disgrace. Sodomy is a crime not uncommonly committed; many of the subjects of it are publicly known, and do not appear to be despised, or to excite disgust; one of them was pointed out to us: he had submitted himself to it, in consequence of a vow he had made to his mystic medicine, which obliged him to change his dress for that of a squaw, to do their work, and to permit his hair to grow. (1:129)Among their vices may be enumerated sodomy, onanism, and various other unclean and disgusting practices (1:267).

James’s Journal of an Expedition was reviewed in The Port Folio (14 [July-December 1822], 465-503) along with an extract on skin lodges (516-517). See Plate 8. The reviewer of the somewhat squeamish journal did not elaborate on sexual practices, but condensed his account of “[s]ome of the most revolting practices which are recorded in these volumes” into a substantial extract from James’s account of Petalesharo’s interference with the “Great Star” sacrifice (501-503).

7 In our introduction and notes we use the terms “Indian,” “Natives,” and “Native Americans” interchangeably, recognizing that the acceptability of these terms varies. “Indian,” in particular, is as fundamentally erroneous as “buffalo” when used to describe a “bison,” but it is clearly the dominant term in Cooper’s usage and (at least there) seems to lack the racial loading of other terms. See Wayne Franklin’s discussion of “red-skins” (2007), pp. 476-77.

8 See Edwin L. Stockton, The Influence of the Moravians Upon the Leather-Stocking Tales. Transactions of the Moravian Historical Society, 20:1 (1964), passim.

9 See, for instance, Michael McDonald Mooney’s summary of George Catlin’s mission:

Out there, out west beyond the boundary zone, out beyond the corruptions of the frontier, an extraordinary man-adventurer, promoter, painter, reporter — described what was to be the last high afternoon of glory for the American Indian. He was George Catlin. His task, he said, was to rescue “from oblivion the looks and customs of the vanishing races of native men in America.” ... American ethnology begins with Catlin.

Cooper would have known better — both about Catlin’s antecedents and Mooney’s summary. (George Catlin, Letters and Notes on the North American Indians, Michael MacDonald Mooney, ed. [New York: Gramercy Books, 1975], pp. 1-2.

10 LeRoy R. Hafen, in his introduction to Ruxton’s Life in the Far West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951), p. xiii.

11 Pages and Pictures, from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper (1861; rpt. Secaucus: Castle Books, 1980), p. 164-65. “Padova la dotta”: Padova the learned.

12 Thomas Philbrick, “The Last of the Mohicans and the Sounds of Discord,” American Literature 43:1 (March 1971), 25-41. Up to Hard-Heart’s appearance at the end of the first volume, Weucha may be a more dangerous threat than Mahtoree, and the two together remain little more than horse-stealing nuisances compared to the ominous and overbearing Bush family. But in the second volume the novel’s tension plays out almost entirely within the struggle between Pawnee and Sioux. In the first volume the Sioux raiding party lurks on the edge of Ishmael Bush’s camp; in the second the Bush family lurks on the edge of the Sioux encampment.

13 As exemplified by the fight between the Ariel and the Alacrity, the wreck of the Ariel, and the chase of the whale.

14 “The introduction of Inez and Middleton, he declared a great blemish. The book was a favorite with himself...” Pages and Pictures, p. 183. If it remained a favorite, the blemish could not have been too great.

15 Jedidiah Morse, A Report to the Secretary of War of the United States, on Indian Affairs (New Haven: S. Converse, 1822), Appendix, pp. 247-48. Cooper’s description of his meeting with the Pawnee chieftain in Notions of the Americans Picked up by a Travelling Bachelor (1828) emphasizes gravitas rather than romantic heroism. It also reveals, by contrast, Cooper’s deliberate art in his portrayal of Hard-Heart and Mahtoree as romantic extremes:

The character of the American Indian has been too often faithfully described to need any repetition here. The majority of them, in or near the settlements, are an humbled and much degraded race. As you recede from the Mississippi, the finer traits of savage life become visible; and, although most of the natives of the Prairies, even there, are far from being the interesting and romantic heroes that poets love to paint, there are specimens of loftiness of spirit, of bearing, and of savage heroism, to be found among the chiefs, that might embarrass the fertility of the richest invention to equal. I met one of those heroes of the desert, and a finer physical and moral man, allowing for peculiarity of condition, it has rarely been my good fortune to encounter.Peterlasharoo, or the young knife chief of the Pawnees, when I saw him, was a man of some six or seven-and-twenty years. He had already gained renown as a warrior, and he had won the confidence of his tribe by repeated exhibitions of wisdom and moderation. He had been signally useful in destroying a baneful superstition, which would have made a sacrifice of a female prisoner, whose life he saved by admirable energy, and a fearless exposure of his own. The reputation of even this remote and savage hero had spread beyond the narrow limits of his own country; and, when we met, I was prepared to yield him esteem and admiration. But the impression produced by his grave and haughty, though still courteous mien, the restless, but often steady, and bold glance of his dark, keen eye, and the quiet dignity of his air, are still present to my recollection. With a view to propitiate so powerful a chief, I had prepared a present of peacock’s feathers, which were so arranged as to produce as much effect as the fine plumage of that noble bird will allow. He received my offering with a quiet smile, and regarded the boon with a complacency that seemed to find more of its motive in a wish to be grateful, than in any selfish gratification. The gift was then laid aside, nor was it regarded again, during the whole of a long and interesting interview. You may judge of my surprise, when I afterwards learned that this simple child of the plains considered my gift in some such light as a courtier would esteem a brilliant. The interpreter assured me that I had made him able to purchase thirty horses, a species of property that constitutes the chief wealth of his tribe. But, notwithstanding my unintentional liberality, no sign of pleasure, beyond that which I have related, was suffered to escape him, in the presence of a white man. (1828; rpt. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1963; 2.287-88)

16 John Treat Irving, Jr., Indian Sketches Taken During an Expedition to the Pawnee Tribes [1833], ed. John Francis McDermott (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1955), pp. 184-88). Cooper is not likely to have been aware of a later rescue gone awry, although the story itself had reached the east coast by late 1827: “They had torn the wretched being to pieces, smeared themselves with her gore, and were whirling her head and quivering limbs in the air” (Irving, p. 188).

IV. Table of Scenes in The Prairie

  • Volume One
  • 24 Scene 1: 500 miles from the Mississippi: halfway across present-day Nebraska
  • 108 Scene 2: Three long miles to the hill
  • 115 Scene 3: One week later
  • 131 Scene 4: A few short miles
  • 160 Scene 5: Back to the rock
  • 213 Gothic interlude: Middleton’s flashback
  • 230 Scene 5 (continued)
  • Volume Two
  • 66 Scene 6: Twenty miles away
  • 119 Scene 7: Sioux lodges on another tributary
  • 235 Scene 8: Hours to the eastward
  • 249 Scene 8: Pawnee village
  • 261 Scene 9: Return to the home of Certavallos on the banks of the Mississippi
  • 264 Epilogue: A year later (Fall 1806) et sequitur

V. A Note on Cooper’s Text

Cooper proposed his work to Philadelphia publishers Carey and Lea before leaving for Europe in 1826. On April 4 he playfully described the work as a kind of real estate:

The sale of the Prairie shall be a leasehold for fourteen years-it must be a pretty good Prairie too, that such a thorough tiller as you, wont work the substance from, in that time-Never fear, though, the book will do-It will be somewhere between Pioneers and Mohicans-More sprightly than the former and less intense than the latter-(James Franklin Beard, The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper Volume 1 [Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960], p. 131).

The Prairie; A Tale was published on 21 April 1827 in London and on 17 May 1827 in Philadelphia (Letters and Journals Volume 1, p. 183).

This essay is keyed to the first American edition of the text of The Prairie. The stereotyped plates of the Carey, Lea & Carey edition provided the text best known to Americans during Cooper’s lifetime through subsequent impressions leading up to the Civil War. This text has been digitized as a searchable pdf and at this writing is available through the HathiTrust Digital Library. Our annotations attempt to place Cooper’s novel squarely within the tradition of writing about the American West by emphasizing his sources and contemporaries.

In 1832, at the instigation of his London publisher Richard Bentley, Cooper supplied a new introduction to a revised Carey, Lea & Carey text for the Standard Novels edition. Although seeming to draw on the main body of Brackenridge’s Views of Louisiana in his introduction and writing a dozen and a half footnotes for Bentley’s pocket edition, Cooper may no longer have had his other sourcebooks before him, and his engagement with the visionary themes of the novel (and with Brackenridge’s aesthetic enthusiasm) seems to have evaporated. Cooper’s introduction and notes are included at the end of this work specifically to show how Cooper packaged The Prairie for a non-American audience.

Cooper wrote his Preface to the Leather-Stocking Tales for New York publisher G. P. Putnam’s revised edition of The Deerslayer in 1850.

VI. Explanatory Notes

Keyed to The Prairie (1827; Carey, Lea & Carey stereotyped plates)

Edwin James, Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, 2 volumes (Philadelphia: Carey and Lea, 1823. Cited as James.

Paul Allen, History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark, 2 volumes (Philadelphia: Bradford and Inskeep, 1814). Cited as Allen.

Volume 1

t.p. Tempest: Cooper carried with him to Europe an eight-volume set of Shakespeare (London: J. Nicholls et al., 1811) from which he drew most of the mottos in the books he wrote while abroad. See Hugh C. McDougall, “The Cooper Epigraphs: Sources of the Epigraphs in the Novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Susan Fenimore Cooper,” James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 12 (August, 1999).

viii Wahcondah: Apparently the first published appearance of this word is in James. It is equated with the Gitche Manitou of northeastern tribes. The latter term is not simply a holdover from The Last of the Mohicans, however: James quotes Marquette and Joliet using Manito twice in one paragraph (1.46).

xi Leatherstocking: This is the only appearance in The Prairie of the name by which the Trapper was known in The Pioneers. We retain the unhyphenated form except in quotations.

13 Louisiana Purchase controversy: In light of the uncertainty inherent in doubling the size of the United States, there was considerable opposition to the purchase of the Louisiana territory from France in 1803 by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). The purchase was completed under the authority of the Executive to make treaties.

14 The distinguished and resolute forester: Daniel Boone (1734-1820).

16 La Platte: From Jedidiah and Richard C. Morse, A New Universal Gazetteer or Geographical Dictionary (New Haven: S. Converse, 1823):

Platte, or Shoal river, Indian Nebraska, a large river which enters the Missouri from the west. In the summer of 1820, the expedition under Major Long traversed the country along its banks to the Rocky mountains. The river is formed by the confluence of 2 branches of nearly equal size, called the North and South Forks, both of which rise considerably within the Rocky mountains, and unite after an easterly course of about 400 miles; the united stream pursues still an easterly course of 400 miles, till it falls into the Missouri in lat. 41° 3’ 13” N. 700 miles from the Mississippi. The volume of water discharged by it during floods occasions a reflux for many miles in the current of the Missouri, and changes the character of that river, which below the mouth of the Platte is more rapid, more difficult of navigation, and its water more turbid than above. The principal tributaries of the Platte are the Elkhorn, entering near its mouth, and the Loup fork 90 miles above. As its name implies, the Platte is a broad river, varying from one to three miles in width, and so shallow, that except in floods, it may be forded in almost any place. It is full of islands which are covered with a growth of cotton wood, willows and shrubs; and the shifting sands in its bed, together with the rapidity of the current, effectually obstruct the navigation even in canoes. The valley through which it passes is from 3 to 10 miles wide, and is bordered by a range of hills 25 or 30 feet high; beyond which the country is a vast undulating plain of a barren and dreary aspect. The only growth of timber is that which occurs on the islands in the river, and even this disappears as you advance towards the Rocky mountains, so that from the confluence of the North and South forks for a distance of nearly 200 miles westward, scarce a tree, bush, or even shrub, is to be seen. The country abounds with wild animals, particularly the bison, which are seen grazing in immense numbers. The party under Major Long saw, as they judged, not less than 10,000 in a single drove. (603)

18 white-headed, olive-skin’d: The mixed description suggests both inbreeding and cross-breeding.

27 savage looking: Literally, perhaps darker skinned as well as wilder.

23 Big River: The Mississippi; Cooper occasionally fails to capitalize the nickname, as on p. 30.

24 ’camp: Cooper indicates a contraction of encamp; this is a fairly early use of camp as a verb. James, for instance, consistently uses encamp.

26 cotton-wood: See notes pp. 16 and 44. “The growth of the cotton tree is very rapid, that of the salix angustata, the most common of the willows found here, is more tardy” (James 1.70).

30 Canada traders: By 1805, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Northwest Company. The fur trade down the Missouri was dominated by the Chouteau family of St. Louis. John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company would not be founded until 1808.

30 a trapper: This early use of what would become the mountain man of fiction probably draws on the figure of noted hunter and trapper Hugh Glass in James Hall’s “The Missouri Trapper.” See following note.

31 plunder: Steven Harthorn finds Cooper’s source for the speech of the plainsmen in James Hall’s “The Missouri Trapper,” first printed in The Port Folio 19 (January-July 1825), 214-19. Cooper would have known The Port Folio well — it carried, for instance, the obituary of his best-friend’s brother, Navy Lieutenant John T. Shubrick. Cf. Harthorn, “’Plunder,’ ‘Fixens,’ and Bee Hunting: Cooper’s Manuscript Notes for The Prairie,” James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art: Papers from the 2013 Cooper Conference and Seminar 19 (2013), 12-16. Harthorn includes a complete transcription of a page of notes Cooper made about mountain men, many of which ended up in The Prairie.

2016other-madison3.jpg (25K)

Plate 3: Detail, A. M. Perrot, Carte dressée pour la lecture de La Prairie in La Prairie (Paris: Furne, Charles Gosselin, 1835). Courtesy K. L. and R. D. Madison. The map delineates Ishmael’s route from New Madrid to his camp on the Platte River.

33 left bank: Not in accordance with the Perrot map (see Plate 3), unless Cooper has Ishmael invert the common usage regarding banks of a river, which are customarily identified as looking downstream. Cooper, in his narrative voice, follows the convention with “right bank” on p. 14.

38 half-and-halfs: Cooper experimented with miscegenation in his Indian novels The Last of the Mohicans (1826) and The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish (1829), bracketing this work with its heavy imagery of breeding. Cooper does not seem to have ever developed the actual half-breed character, as, for instance, Mark Twain did with Injun Joe in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer 1876). The sallow-faced Christopher Dillon, the villain of The Pilot, has a cross of blood, but it is not Native.

42 I scorn a shot-gun: Natty’s enthusiasm for Paul recalls the incident in Chapter 22 of The Pioneers in which Leatherstocking shoots a single pigeon in flight in response to the woodchopper Billy Kirby:

“It’s better for you, maybe, Billy Kirby,” replied the indignant old hunter, “and all them that don’t know how to put a ball down a rifle-barrel, or how to bring it up ag’in with a true aim; but it’s wicked to be shooting into flocks in this wasty manner; and none do it, who knows how to knock over a single bird” (The Pioneers, or the Sources of the Susquehanna; A descriptive Tale [Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980], 247).

The Billy Kirby passage suggests Cooper was already depending on James Hall by 1823:

My arrival had been foretold, not like that of Fitz-James, by “a minstrel old and blind,” but by the good man of the house, who said he had heard the sound of a shot-gun in the woods, and knew there were strangers about. He eyed my piece with a great deal of contempt, and wondered I did not shoot a rifle. Throughout the west, a fowling piece is viewed rather as a toy for children, than as a weapon for a man. Hunting is here, as Walter Scott expresses it, “mimicry of noble war.” The people scorn a weapon less deadly than a rifle, and practice has made them remarkable expert in the use of it. “Luck’s like a shot-gun, mighty uncertain,” is a common saying, and indeed the poor shot-gun is a standing butt for ridicule, and a common subject of comparison with every thing that is insignificant. I obtained no other information here, than that the country was healthy, and that lawyers were very plenty; my respondent added, by the by, that the latter were wonderful good shots. (“Letter III,” The Port Folio 12 [July-Dec 1821], 444)

43 bee hunter: James mentions bees only twice, and never a bee-hunter. Cooper may have derived his interest in bee-hunters from John Bradbury:.

The honey bees have been introduced into this continent from Europe, but at what time I have not been able to ascertain. Even if it be admitted that they were brought over soon after the first settlement took place, their increase since appears astonishing, as bees are found in all parts of the United States; and since they have entered upon the fine counties of the Illinois and Upper Louisiana, their progress westward has been surprisingly rapid. It is generally known that in Upper Louisiana, that bees had not been found westward of the Mississippi prior to the year 1797 ... Bees have spread over this continent in a degree, and with a celerity so nearly corresponding with that of the Anglo-Americans, that it has given rise to a belief, both amongst the Indians and the Whites, that bees are their precursors, and that to whatever part they go the white people will follow (Travels in the Interior of America [Liverpool: Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, 1819] pp. 41-42).

Cf. Irving’s Tour on the Prairies (1835), in which there is an entire chapter on bee-hunting, and Cooper’s own Oak Openings; or, the Bee-Hunter (1848; set in 1812), in which the bee-hunter is the protagonist.William Cullen Bryant, who visited the Illinois prairie in 1832, used the same imagery to much the same end in “The Prairies” (1832 or 1833):

The bee,A more adventurous colonist than man,With whom he came across the eastern deep,Fills the savannas with his murmurings,And hides his sweets, as in the golden age,Within the hollow oak. I listen longTo his domestic hum, and think I hearThe sound of that advancing multitudeWhich soon shall fill these deserts. From the groundComes up the laugh of children, the soft voiceOf maidens, and the sweet and solemn hymnOf Sabbath worshippers. The low of herdsBlends with the rustling of the heavy grainOver the dark — brown furrows. All at onceA fresher wind sweeps by, and breaks my dream,And I am in the wilderness alone. (ll. 109-24)

Bryant was very much an appreciator of The Prairie:

The first of Cooper’s novels published after leaving America was the Prairie, which appeared early in 1827, a work with the admirers of which I wholly agree. I read it with a certain awe, an undefined sense of sublimity, such as one experiences on entering, for the first time, upon those immense grassy deserts from which the work takes its name. The squatter and his family-that brawny old man and his large-limbed sons, living in a sort of primitive and patriarchal barbarism, sluggish on ordinary occasions, but terrible when roused, like the hurricane that sweeps the grand but monotonous wilderness in which they dwell-seem a natural growth of ancient fields of the West. Leatherstocking, a hunter in the Pioneers, a warrior in the Last of the Mohicans, and now, in his extreme old age, a trapper on the prairie, declined in strength, but undecayed in intellect, and looking to the near close of his life, and a grave under the long grass, as calmly as the laborer at sunset looks to his evening slumber, is no less in harmony with the silent desert in which he wanders. Equally so are the Indians, still his companions, copies of the American savage somewhat idealized, but not the less a part of the wild nature in which they have their haunts. (“Discourse on the Life, Genius, and Writings of James Fenimore Cooper, Delivered at Metropolitan Hall, N.Y., February 25, 1852,” in J. Fenimore Cooper, Precaution: A Novel [New York: Stringer & Townsend, 1852], p. 13)

Cooper used four lines from Bryant’s poem as the motto for The Crater; or, Vulcan’s Peak. A Tale of the Pacific (New York: Burgess, Stringer & Co., 1847):

Thus ariseRaces of living things, glorious in strength,And perish, as the quickening breath of GodFills them, or is withdrawn.

44 willow bush: See notes pp. 16 and 26. James (1.70) notes the “young willows and poplars, (which are the first and almost the only trees, that spring up on the lands left naked by the river).

47 pack after pack [wolves]: James provides a long note on wolves to gloss “The prairie wolves roam over the plains in considerable numbers, and during the night, the principal season of their hunts, they venture very near to the encampment of the traveller” (1.168).

47 panthers down from the mountains: Cooper’s major sources do not mention panthers in Pawnee territory-perhaps because the mountains are another five hundred miles to the west. Lewis and Clark shot one above the Yellowstone (Allen 1.339).

49 accursed Sioux: Early in April 1827, Cooper defended his portrayal of the Sioux to his Paris publisher, Charles Gosselin, apparently after his treatment of them was compared to that in Les Natchez (1826) by François-René de Chateaubriand (1768-1848):

Madame de Broglie [to whom Cooper had given his set of James’s narrative one or two weeks earlier] has lent me the “Natchez” but I have not read it. I don’t think it worth while to make any explanations concerning the Siouxes. The book speaks plainly for itself, and if Mr. Chateaubriand has painted them materially different from what I have done he has been led into an error. They are notoriously the most troublesome and the most lawless of all the western Indians. He has probably gained his information from the old French writers, half a century old, while I have consulted our own means of intelligence, and my own observation. Of course my own description is a little poetic, as it should be, but in the main it is correct enough. (James Franklin Beard, Letters and Journals, p. 212)

Cooper’s attitude does not originate with James, who praises the Sioux highly (1.179-80). Cooper may have taken a hint from Lewis and Clark’s narrative, which translates the name of the Yankton Sioux as “Big Devils (Allen 1.61, but at 1.146 “Big Devils” refers to Assiniboins). Lewis and Clark turned against the Sioux after some of the expedition members had been robbed by them:

The men who had stolen our horses we found to be all Sioux, who after committing the outrage went to the Ricara villages, where they said that they had hesitated about killing our men who were with the horses, but that in future they would put to death any of us they could, as we were bad medicines and deserved to be killed (Allen 1.66).

But whatever his specific source may have been, the sentiment and possibly even syntax of Cooper’s expressed opinion derive from Clark’s “A Statistical View of the Indian Nations” contained in Jefferson’s widely reprinted “Message” to Congress of 1806: “These [the Tetons Bois Brule of the Sioux] are the vilest miscreants of the savage race, and must ever remain the pirates of the Missouri ... Persuasion or advice, with them, is viewed as supplication, and only tends to inspire them with contempt for those who offer either.” Clark elsewhere had labeled them “that lawless, savage and rapacious race the Sioux Teton.” (Doug Erickson, Jeremy Skinner, and Paul Merchant, Jefferson’s Western Explorations: Discoveries made in exploring the Missouri, Red River, and Washita [Spokane: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 2004], pp. 127, 117)

59 Assiniboine: Lewis and Clark consistently spell the name without the final “e.”

59 Weucha: “Shake Hand” in Sioux. Cooper borrows the name but not the character of this Sioux grand chief (Allen 1.57).

60 Mahtoree: “White Crane,” or Whooping Crane. Cooper also leaves Mahtoree’s character behind when he borrows the name (Allen 1.58).

61 love our horses: About the plains Indians’ love of horses, James noted “About the three [Pawnee] villages are six or eight thousand horses, feeding on the plains during the day, but confined at night” (1.445).

65 fowling piece: Technically a shotgun, although Cooper may intend a short-barreled smoothbore trade gun in lieu of a rifle.

65 wampum: Wampum, shell beads manufactured primarily along the coast of New England, was traded extensively and woven into belts indicating status.

65 Teton: James uses the name only to discuss fidelity to the white man, in complete opposition to Mahtoree’s scout on Ishmael’s camp (1.180). Lewis and Clark are more specific: “[T]he bands of Sioux most known on the Missouri are the Tetons. The first who are met on ascending the Missouri is the tribe called by the French the Tetons of the Boise Brule or Burntwood ... ” (Allen 1.146).

67 fog: Weeds, not vapor, although haze and mist occur shortly (cf. pp. 69, 80).

72 master of evil: Cooper deliberately draws on Satan’s scout of Eden in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667).

77 Delawares: Cooper is not likely to have known that, beginning the year The Prairie was published, the Delaware faced removal to become neighbors of the Pawnee to the south along the Kansas River. They did not get along. Cf. John Treat Irving, Jr., Indian Sketches Taken During an Expedition to the Pawnee Tribes [1833], ed. John Francis McDermott (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1955), pp. 5-6.

85 Cherokee: Cherokee removal was not yet a major issue for Cooper’s literary contemporaries. It would become so by the time Cooper published Notions of the Americans a year later. See Lydia Maria Child, The First Setters of New-England (1829) for an early response.

85 Mad Anthony: U.S. General Anthony Wayne (1745-96) defeated the Native American Northwest Confederacy at the Battle of Fallen Timbers 20 August 1794. The struggle was between Native nations who had not been signatory to the Treaty of Paris (1783) and the United States, which regarded the treaty as having ceded British lands east of the Mississippi and north of the Ohio rivers.

88 Ceres: Goddess of agriculture.

88 to cast ... before: Thomas Campbell, “Lochiel’s Warning” (1802).

89 borderer: The term would become more closely associated with Cooper’s The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish (1829) through its English and European titles. It has less to do with pioneering and exploration than with living on the fringe.

89 medical man: Øverland points out that a naturalist in the west might be thought as much comic as heroic, citing the example of Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859). Francis Parkman, whose summer with the Sioux in 1846 is famously recorded in The California and Oregon Trail: Being Sketches of Prairie and Rocky Mountain Life (serialized 1847-1849; book 1849), did not approve of this character:

The grand deformity of the story is the wretched attempt at humor in the person of Dr. Obed Battius. David Gamut, in The Mohicans, is bad enough; but Battius outherods Herod, and great must be the merit of the book which one such incubus would not sink beyond redemption. (“The Works of James Fenimore Cooper,” North American Review 74 (January 1852), 158)

Cooper nevertheless captured a frontier type. The most suggestive portrait of Nuttall comes from Henry M. Brackenridge’s account of his meeting with Bradbury and Nuttall on the Upper Missouri in 1811:

There is in company, a gentleman of the name of Nuttal [sic], engaged in the same pursuits, to which he appears singularly devoted; it seems to absorb every thought, so as to be troublesome to the company, which has sometimes to wait for him; it appears to have done away every regard of personal safety.-To the ignorant Canadian boatmen, who are unable to appreciate the science, it affords a subject of merriment; le fou, the fool, is the name by which he is commonly known. No sooner does the boat touch the shore, than he leaps out. and when his attention is arrested by a plant or flower, every thing else is forgotten. The inquiry is sometimes made, où est le fou? where is the fool? il est après ramasser des racines, he is gathering roots. He is a young man of genius, and very considerable acquirements, but is unfortunately too much devoted to his favorite study. A characteristic anecdote of this gentleman was related to me, by Mr. Miller, who commanded one of the boats, and shews to what an astonishing degree the pursuit of natural history had taken possession of his mind, to the exclusion of every thing else. The day after passing the Sioux tribes, they met, as I have before mentioned, three hundred Arikara Indians, these were so delighted to see them, that a number rushed into the river, to swim or wade to the boats; the party supposing them to be inimical, was on the point of firing; while every one was in momentary expectation that this would take place, Nuttal, who appeared to have been examining them very attentively, turned to Miller, “sir,” said he, “don’t you think these Indians much fatter, and more robust than those of yesterday.” (Views of Louisiana; together with a Journal of a Voyage up the Missouri River, in 1811 [Pittsburgh: Cramer, Spear, and Eichbaum, 1814], pp. 239-40).

Cf. also R. D. Madison, “Cooper and Nuttall: The Course of Empire,” James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers 26 (2009), 9-10.

90 Bat: James (1.167) has a long note on the Vespertilio pruinosus; “This bat is common in this region, and was observed by Mr. Thomas Nuttall at Council Bluff” (1.167). See also 1.96.

90 cis-atlantic learned societies: Nuttall, for instance, represented himself as “Honorary Member of the American Philosophical Society, and of the Academy of Natural Sciences, &c” (Journal of Travels into the Arkansas Territory [Philadelphia: Palmer, 1821], t.p).

93 Buffon ... Solander: George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), whose works dominated the study of natural history through the early nineteenth century; Daniel Charles Solander (1733-1782), who sailed as botanist with Captain James Cook on the latter’s first voyage to the Pacific.

95 Oct. 6, 1805: Precise dates are rare in the Leatherstocking Tales, although a general chronology can usually be worked out from historical events. The Trapper’s actual age remains fluid: the “ten tiresome years” of 1.41 is now fixed at 1795-1805; the time of his travels to the Pacific Ocean (1.101) now anticipates Lewis and Clark; the Trapper has seen four-score and seven winters” (2.180), suggesting an age of eighty-seven and a rough fictional birth date of 1718 — close enough for the Trapper to say he has lived “near ninety winters and summers (2.256). Not coincidentally, in autumn 1805 a sixteen-year-old Cooper was recovering from expulsion from Yale. The young artillerist had perhaps blown up an assailant’s door in retaliation for a beating (Wayne Franklin, James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), pp. 54-60).

101 I have seen it all: That is, the Trapper has been to the Pacific Ocean and back, antedating the concurrent exploration of Lewis and Clark.

104 Bison or buffaloe: James uses bison throughout except when quoting a speaker.

105 great bears ... Long River: Grizzly bears on the upper Missouri.

106 medal of Washington: Lewis and Clark carried a supply of medals with them for presentation. Cf. Allen 1.384 for particular mention of Washington.

108 prairie dogs: James has a long note describing the Arctomys Ludoviciana [sic] or Prairie dog, including instructions on imitating its warning cry (1.451-53). James cites Nuttall but not Pike’s wish-ton-wish.

114 Red Mingos: Cooper is not simply employing a racially charged adjective: the distinction between White and Red Mingoes existed as early as 1805. See letter of John McKee to General Wilkinson dated 1 August 1805: “I have had some talk with both the White and Red Mingoes, about securing a tract of land ... ” (American State Papers, Class 10 Miscellaneous Volume 1 No. 230 [1834], 594).

114 Hori — : Horican, the Indian name for Lake George in The Last of the Mohicans, p. 12. Often spelled Horicon.

116 single naked and ragged mount: Although Ishmael’s rock may be the least characteristic aspect of prairie geography to be imagined by Cooper, Samuel Seymour’s “View of the Castle Rock, on a Branch of the Arkansa” may have suggested such an eminence to the author. His plate illustrated this passage in James:

One of these singular hills, of which Mr. Seymour has preserved a sketch, was called the Castle rock, on account of its striking resemblance to a work of art. It has columns, and porticoes, and arches, and, when seen from a distance, has an astonishingly regular and artificial appearance. (2.16)

But the imaginary conception may have more to do with the frontispiece of Eastburn and Sands’s Yamoyden (1820), Asher B. Durand’s engraving of J. Neilson’s “Seat of King Philip” at Mount Hope in Narragansett Bay.

116 Father of Rivers: The Mississippi.

119 a thistle or a mullein: Significantly for the context, both non-native species.

120 burrowing barkers: Prairie dogs.

124 A female: The first appearance of Inez de Certavallos evokes the Trapper’s debut on pp. 20-21. Although Inez is usually taken as symbolic of Old World civilization verging on Old World decay, in Master Plots: Race and the Founding of an American Literature, 1787-1845 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), pp. 109 ff., Jared Gardner importantly links Inez with the expansion of American slavery. The Missouri Compromise, in theory opening all of the Louisiana Purchase to slavery, was passed in 1820.

125 a dealer in black flesh: Abiram’s extension of his calling to “white families” carries an undercurrent of sexual exploitation that will increasingly emerge through the gazes of Hard-Heart and Mahtoree, culminating in the offer of flesh trade that so incenses Esther at 2.156-57.

129 alive with birds: “Great flights of geese, swans, ducks, brant, and cranes have been passing up the river, at their usual migrating altitude above the surface of the earth; but this migration of these aquatic birds has nearly ceased” (James 1.197, referring to the spring, rather than fall, migration. Apparently the movement of birds could be confusing: John Treat Irving, Jr., has birds migrating north in the fall (Indian Sketches Taken during an Expedition to the Pawnee Tribes [1833], passim).

131 savoury bison’s hump: “Cooked for dinner the entire hump of a bison, after the manner of the Indians; this favourite part of the animal was dissected from the vertebrae, after which the spinous processes were taken out, and the denuded part was covered with skin, which was firmly sewed to that of the back and sides of the hump; the hair was burned and pulled off, and the whole mass exhibiting something of a fusiform shape, was last evening placed in a hole dug in the earth for its reception, which had been previously heated by means of a strong fire in and upon it. It was now covered with cinders and earth, to the depth of about one foot, and a strong fire was made over it. In this situation it remained until it was taken up for the table to-day, when it was found to be excellent food.” (James 1.192-93)

134 exploring expeditions: Cooper over-dignifies Bat’s excursions by using a phrase more appropriate to the undertakings of Lewis and Clark to the Pacific Ocean (1804-06), Freeman and Custis up the Red River (1806), and Pike to the Rockies (1806-07), as well as Long’s later expedition up the Platte.

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Plate 4: Uncolored engraving by Boyd after C. Schetky, “Flicker,” The Port Folio 12:2 (December 1821), frontispiece. Courtesy K. L. and R. D. Madison. Whereas artists of this era like Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon attempted to draw birds in lifelike poses, this bird is clearly drawn from death. The Flicker is Paul’s “High hole.”

137 high-holes: The Port Folio reprints “The Golden-winged Woodpecker, or Flicker” from Alexander Wilson Ornithology (12 [July-December 1821], 475-482). The last paragraph gives the alternate name “High hole” (482). See Plate 4. Paul’s offhand allusion is admittedly slight in the text. Its possible source from Wilson (1766-1813) in The Port Folio nevertheless offers a clue to Cooper’s development of Obed Bat’s taxonomy:

The abject character which the Count de Buffon, with equal eloquence and absurdity, has drawn of the whole tribe of Woodpeckers, belongs not to the elegant and sprightly bird now before us. ... It is truly ridiculous and astonishing that such absurdities should escape the lips or pen of one so able to do justice to the respective merits of his subjects; but the Count de Buffon had too often a favourite theory to prop up, that led him insensibly astray, and so, forsooth, the whole tribe of Woodpeckers must look sad, sour, and be miserable, to indulge the caprice of a whimsical Philosopher who takes it into his head that they are and ought to be so.But the Count is not the only European who has misrepresented and traduced this beautiful bird. One has given him brown legs, another a yellow neck; a third has declared him a cuckoo, and in an English translation of Linnæus, lately published, he is characterised as follows — “Body striped with black and gray, cheeks red, chin black, never climbs on trees, &c.” which is about as correct as if in describing the human species we should say-skin striped with black and green, cheeks blue, chin orange, never walks on foot, &c. The pages of natural history should resemble a faithful mirror, in which mankind may recognise the true images of living originals; instead of which we too often find this department resembling the hazy medium of wretched window-glass, through whose crooked protuberances every subject appears so strangely distorted, that we scarcely know our most intimate neighbours and acquaintances. (480-481; Wilson’s citations omitted)

Wilson’s parody applies well to the closing scene of the first volume, in which Hard-Heart first appears as a “party-coloured” nondescript. See note to 1.250.

139 discussing: That is, chewing.

146 American desert: Identified in display caps as “Great American Desert” on map in James, “Country drained by the Mississippi: Western Section.”

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Plate 5: Charles Willson Peale, “Thomas Say” (Academy of Natural Sciences, Ewell Sale Stewart Library and Archives, Drexel University). Courtesy Drexel University. Thomas Say was the naturalist with the James expedition. His exuberant hair, far from being unique, was the style of the period. Say wears a military uniform jacket, as does Middleton (under his hunting frock).

147 to be military: As a former naval officer, Cooper ought to be familiar enough with an artillery officer’s uniform. Several of the details — including the exuberant, curling, jet-black hair — match Charles Willson Peale’s portraits of expedition naturalist Thomas Say and leader Major Stephen H. Long. See Plate 5. The details of the borderer — the buckskin leggings, Indian moccasins, and dirk-may have been drawn from Cooper’s own service on the shores of Lake Ontario. Lewis and Clark specifically mention the artillery officer’s coat as a gift:

We then acknowledged their chiefs, by giving to the grand chief a flag, a medal, a certificate, with a string of wampum; to which we added a chief’s coat; that is, a richly laced uniform of the United States artillery corps, and a cocked hat and red feather. (Allen 1.57)

147 short heavy military rifle: Cooper gives Middleton the same armament as the Lewis and Clark expedition. The barrel, still nearly three feet long, would not seem short by today’s standards, but would certainly seem so compared to the Trapper’s beloved mid-eighteenth-century long rifle, examples of which had barrels around four feet long.

149 an alarming rivalry: The late James Franklin Beard (personal communication) believed that the scientific rivalry at the heart of the book — and indeed its major theme — was that initiated by Buffon’s claim in Histoire Naturelle that all the productions of nature of the New World were inferior to those of the Old. Thomas Jefferson responded in Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). Obed Bat’s insecurity seems more personal, as in the encounter between John James Audubon (1785-1851) and Alexander Wilson:

On this journey Wilson was a pioneer in much of the territory which Audubon had hardly begun to explore, but which later became the scene of his wanderings and adventures for many a year. At Louisville the two naturalists met, but they did not become good friends; though devoted to the same objects, differences in temperament might in any event have kept them apart. Unfortunately, the feelings of jealousy which were then aroused, or which were stirred up at a later day, were fostered by some of Wilson’s injudicious friends to such an extent that from the moment Audubon’s work became known, and long before he had published a line, they became as thorns in his path, and they continued to vex him for thirty years. (Francis Hobart Herrick, Audubon the Naturalist: A History of his Life and Time, Second Edition [New York: Appleton-Century, 1938], 1.207)

152 Duncan Uncas: Major Duncan Heywood, character in The Last of the Mohicans, the love interest of Alice Munroe, surviving daughter of the commander of Fort William Henry. Uncas was the son of Leatherstocking’s companion Chingachgook or (as he had appeared in The Pioneers) Indian John.

155 Le Cerf Agile ... Great Serpent: Names for Uncas and his father Chingachgook (Le Gros Serpent) in The Last of the Mohicans.

159 the party: That is, the party of Lewis and Clark.

162 junketts: Recreational gatherings, rather than short trips.

164 Imaun: In Cooper’s day, the governor of an Arab city-state as well as a local religious leader.

164 Pharos: The ancient lighthouse at Alexandria (Egypt).

168 hiation: Yawning. See “gaping” in next paragraph.

169 cataplasm: Poultice, or medicated bandage.

180 ignis fatuus: False fire; in French le feu follet, the name of Raoul Yvard’s lugger in Cooper’s The Wing-and-Wing (1842).

184 white bear: That is, the Grizzly Bear.

184 upper falls: The Great Falls of the Missouri, some 2,600 miles above St. Louis. Lewis and Clark provide a map facing this description:

In this direction captain Lewis had gone about two miles when his ears were saluted with the agreeable sound of a fall of water, and as he advanced a spray which seemed driven by the high southwest wind arose above the plain like a column of smoke and vanished in an instant. Towards this point he directed his steps, and the noise increasing as he approached soon became too tremendous to be mistaken for any thing but the great falls of the Missouri. Having travelled seven miles after first hearing the sound he reached the falls about twelve o’clock, the hills as he approached were difficult of access and two hundred feet high: down these he hurried with impatience and seating himself on some rocks under the centre of the falls, enjoyed the sublime spectacle of this stupendous object which since the creation had been lavishing its magnificence upon the desert, unknown to civilization. (Allen 1.260)

187 vultures and buzzards ... heavy wings: Not necessarily redundant, since in Cooper’s day (and much later), the term “buzzard” also referred to the Buteo complex, which included the “Red-Tailed Buzzard” of Audubon. “They have a heavy, laborious flight, flapping their wings, and sailing alternately,” reported Alexander Wilson (quoting William Bartram) of the Black Vulture in American Ornithology; or, The Natural History of the Birds of the United States (Philadelphia: Bradford and Inskeep, 1813), 7.105. In a later edition of Wilson’s work, Charles Lucian [sic on t.p.] Bonaparte lamented, “Although an account of this vulture was published more than twenty years ago, by Mr William Bartram, wherein it was distinctly specified as a different species from the preceding [Turkey Vulture], yet it excites our surprise that the ornithologists should have persisted in confounding it with the turkey buzzard; an error which can hardly admit of extenuation, when it is considered what a respectable authority they had for a different opinion” (London: Whittaker, Treacher, and Arnot: 1832), 3.236. Cooper subsequently met Charles Lucien Bonaparte, Prince of Musignano, “a gentleman well known in America for his work on its birds,” at a small fête at the palace of the Comte de St. Leu in Florence (Gleanings in Europe: Italy, ed. Constance Ayers Denne with an Historical Introduction by John Conron [Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981], pp. 73-74, 202). The Black Vulture would not have been a familiar sight in Cooper’s normal northeastern haunts, although the Turkey Vulture should have been a regular summer visitant. If Cooper conflated the reputations of the two, there are certainly “extenuating” circumstances given the state of ornithological classification in 1826. See following note.

193 screaming vultures: Vultures are usually silent on the wing. Cooper may have confused the Turkey Vulture with the Red-Tailed Hawk or have been misled by such accounts as Audubon’s “The noise made by the vultures through the air as they glide obliquely towards the earth, is often as great as that of our largest hawks when falling on their prey; but they never reach the ground in this manner, always checking when about 100 yards high, and going several rounds to examine well the spot they are about to alight on.” Cf. “Account of the Habits of the Turkey Buzzard (Vultur aura), particularly with the view of exploding the opinion generally entertained of its extraordinary power of Smelling,” The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal 2 (October-April 1826-27), 181.

200 tales of female heroism: As, for instance, the story of Hannah Dustin as related by Timothy Dwight in Travels in New England and New York (1821), a work Cooper had consulted while writing The Last of the Mohicans. William W. Fowler records several other instances of female heroism in Woman on the American Frontier (1876; rpt. Hartford: S. S. Scranton & Co., 1881) that are early enough for Cooper to have been aware of them, but original sources remain obscure. The tales of Mrs. Porter, the Cook wives, and Mrs. Bozarth are particularly analogous to those recalled by Ellen (passim).

202 Confederacy: Changed to “Union” in 1832. Andrew Jackson’s famous retort to Nullification had been made in 1830: “The Union must and shall be preserved.” Cf. Øverland, p. 131.

214 officer of the crown ... the little town: In Cooper’s day a “Louisianian lady” could have been an inhabitant of any place from the mouth of the Mississippi to St. Charles, although “little town” (which Cooper is careful not to name) would suggest it is not one of the larger settlements. Cooper’s “immediate vicinity of the post” is likewise vague, and perhaps deliberately so. With the alternatives of escaping to the west up the Red or Arkansas rivers, Ishmael Bush’s choice of flight up the Missouri and the Platte suggests an origin of the kidnapping somewhere above the Arkansas. The “Gallic” neighbors were the French. Inez, sixteen at 1. 215, would have been born while the territory was still under the administration of Spain (1762-1803); she would have been engaged to Middleton by June 1804. The name “Certavallos” has no analogues in the early history of the Purchase. Cooper seems to have thought this out carefully. The only stated detail is what Middleton discovers of the family’s flight: “They were traced along the margin of the Mississippi for some distance, until they took boat and ascended the river to its confluence with the Missouri” (1.228). An otherwise likely candidate, Campo de la Esperanza, later Hopefield, across the Mississippi from Chickasaw Bluffs (now Memphis) fails because Arkansas wasn’t a state until 1836 (see note to 2.261). Ste. Genevieve and Fort de Chartres/Fort Kaskaskia may be the best remaining candidates if Cooper indeed had any real place at all in mind.Henry R. Schoolcraft, in A View of the Lead Mines of Missouri, offers the following:

Kaskaskia was then [1720] inhabited solely by the French, and was one of the earliest posts from Canada along the great western Lakes, and down the Ohio and Mississippi. Renault established himself in the vicinity of this town, near Fort Chartrès, at a spot which he named St. Phillips, (now called the Little Village,) and from this sent out his mining and exploring parties into various sections of Illinois and Louisiana. ... The emigration to Louisiana, which had partially commenced under the Spanish government, took a more decided character after the cession of the country to the United States; but has been particularly great within the last few years. (1819; rpt. New York: Arno, 1972, p. 15, 20-21)

The Perrot map from the French translation of Cooper’s complete works shows the Bushes’ track beginning at New Madrid. There is a certain charm in setting your novel in a town subsequently destroyed by an earthquake:

The rivers they boiled like a pot upon coals,And mortals fell prostrate, and prayed for their souls;The rocks on our orders, crack’d, quiver’d, and shrunk,And Nackitosh tumbled, and New Madrid sunk.(H. R. Schoolcraft, “Transalleghania; or the Groans of Missouri,” The Port Folio, 15 [January-June 1823], 78)

The earthquake Bradbury experienced was in mid-December 1811; the earthquake that destroyed the town occurred in early February 1812.

218 Creole: Technically, perhaps, one born in the New World of Old World parents, but its single other occurrence (1.223) suggests that Cooper applies the label to a family maintaining an Iberian identity or ethnicity on new soil. Surprisingly for The Prairie, the term does not seem to imply miscegenation — at least in context. The term was ambiguous (possibly loaded) even in Cooper’s day.

222 felo de se: Suicide.

223 margin of the Mississippi: Not only does this account differ from Ishmael’s (perhaps not surprising), but it also differs from the possibly-authorial Perrot map, which shows no boat journey. See Plate 3.

233 Sir William: Sir William Johnson (1715-1774) was Major Edward Effingham’s commander in the back-story to The Pioneers. He ordered the building of Fort William Henry, in which much of the action in The Last of the Mohicans takes place. Epaphras Hoyt describes the defeat of Dieskau in Chapter 17 of Antiquarian Researches: Comprising a History of the Indian Wars in the Country Bordering Connecticut River and Parts Adjacent (Greenfield: Ansel Phelps, 1824), a book which was also a major source for Cooper’s The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish (1829).

235 ’Kentucky Hunters’: An anachronism, if Cooper intends Samuel Woodworth’s 1821 celebration of Jackson’s victory at New Orleans in 1815 (Hunters of Kentucky, or Half Horse and Half Alligator, undated broadside). One verse runs

But Jackson he was wide awake,And was not scar’d at trifles,For well he knew what aim we takeWith our Kentucky rifles.So he led us down to Cyprus swamp,The ground was low and mucky,There stood John Bull in martial pomp,And here was old Kentucky.Oh, Kentucky, the Hunters of Kentucky!Oh, Kentucky, the Hunters of Kentucky!

241 many leagues from the La Platte: Loup Fork; see note p. 16.

250 black and a bright vermilion: Cooper may be recalling these colors from an actual meeting with Pawnees, but the surviving Charles Bird King portraits as a rule limit colors to the first two named. Subsequently Cooper reveals that the other colors were “party-coloured leaves” (2.4).

252 “Wagh”: Øverland reports that this word was altered from the manuscript’s original “Hugh.” Cf. 2.56 but “Hugh” at 2.59. See Carver, p. 247: “OAH.”

Volume 2

4 Alston or Leslie: Washington Allston (1779-1843) was a teacher of Samuel F. B. Morse; Charles Robert Leslie (1794-1859) was also a student of Allston. In 1832, Cooper revised “Leslie” to “Greenough.” In that year, Horatio Greenough (1805-1852) was commissioned to sculpt George Washington; when completed in 1840, the statue depicted the American hero in toga and sandals. Cooper also misspelled Allston’s name in Notions of the Americans (1828).

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Plate 6: Charles Bird King, “Sharitarish” (White House Collection). Courtesy White House Historical Association. Although Cooper claimed that Petalesharo was the model for Hard-Heart, a better physical match is Sharitarish (Wicked Chief).

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Plate 7: Seth Eastman, “Pawnees Torturing a Female Captive,” Plate 6 (Henry R. Schoolcraft, Information Respecting the History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States ... Part V [Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1855], facing p. 78). Courtesy American Antiquarian Society. Eastman clearly includes Petalesharo (in full head-dress) and Sharitarish (seated behind him), based on the King portraits, in this retelling of the former’s intervention in the Morning Star sacrifice.

5 His head ... sinews: The description more nearly resembles Sharitarish than Petalesharo, although Cooper obviously draws on the appearance of several native delegates — at least as depicted by Charles Bird King. In S. F. B. Morse’s “The House of Representatives” (1822), Petalesharo is still wearing his characteristic headdress. In “Pawnees Torturing a Female Captive” (ca. 1855), Seth Eastman (1808-1875) portrayed Petalesharo, with headdress, seated uneasily in front of Sharitarish. The context of the illustration is the Morning Star sacrifice of 1838, but the two are recognizable from the King portraits. See Plates 6 and 7. The Pawnee’s leggings of “bright scarlet cloth” owe as much to the sensitivities of one of Cooper’s readers as they do to Cooper’s source — ultimately Bell’s official report of the Long expedition. “The girls of all ages are clothed; the boys mostly naked in summer.” Bell had written of the Pawnees; “The wives and daughters of distinguished Indians, and also women, who were supposed to be the wives and daughters of French traders, wear mocasins [and] leggins of red serge” (Jedidiah Morse, A Report to the Secretary of War of the United States, On Indian Affairs [New Haven: S. Converse, 1822], pp. 239-40). Mrs. Peter Augustus Jay had apparently disliked the “bare-legg’d Indians in moccasins” of The Last of the Mohicans; Cooper responded on 27 October 1827, “I’m sure, my dear Mrs. Jay, that if I had the ordering these [matters?] there should not be an Osage of them all without spurs, but as I am only a chronicler, why I can only talk of things as they are-” (Letters and Journals Volume 1, pp. 163-64). Hence Hard-Heart’s “womanish vanity.”

11 Konzas: Visited and described at length by the Long Expedition (James 1.111-35).

11 Welshers: Lewis and Clark found no evidence of Welsh Indians, supposedly descended from the followers of Madoc in the twelfth century.

12 Hard-Heart: Cooper conflates the Otoes and Ioways with the Pawnee Loups in drawing this name from James (1.363; 2.181, 249-50, 288), but he had already used Hard-heart, or “Le-coeur-dur,” as a Delaware warrior in Chapter 28 of The Last of the Mohicans (p. 290).

15 Omahaws: Discussed at great length in James, 1.201 ff.

16 Yanktons: See note to 1.49.

28 restaurans: The Prairie was completed and first typeset in Paris, so this spelling may be exactly what Cooper intended.

28 falls of the Mississippi: St. Anthony.

32 buzzards ... balancing themselves: An acute observation that somewhat tempers Cooper’s mistake at 1.193.

44 Mahomet’s coffin: “One of the most celebrated wonders of the East, is the suspension of Mahomet’s coffin, by the attraction of magnets. The following description of the situation in which this curiosity stood in 1804, is from the pen of an enterprising American traveller, Mr. Anderson, whose travels are as yet (1820) unpublished ... ” “Mahomet’s Coffin,” Curiosities for the Ingenious (London: Thomas Boys, 1822), 73-74.

50 his carabine: Like Middleton, and unlike the Trapper, Mahtoree carries a short-barreled weapon.

52 creatur’ ... natur’: Probably Cooper’s attempt to show the clipped final syllable in American pronunciation, as opposed to a longer u sound in King’s English; the result might sound like “kreecher.” These spellings and their variants do not seem to indicate “critter” or some form of nature that would rhyme with it or have a short a. Cf. Notions of the Americans, 2.129-36.

57 Menahashah ... Washsheomantiqua: Sioux and Gros Ventre (Long “Vocabularies,” lxxxiv).

58 Wahconshecheh: Sioux (Long, “Vocabularies,” lxxii).

66 Montgomery: James Montgomery (1771-1854), “The Common Lot,” 33-36 (identified in MacDougall, 1999). The poem concludes with the ephemerality of man and his works:

The annals of the human race,Their ruins, since the world began,Of Him afford no other traceThan this, — There lived a Man!

68 Tell me, lad ... nobly did he maintain it: Incidents from The Last of the Mohicans.

70 moiety’s: Cooper may be attempting to represent some kind of dialect here.

75-81 By Old and New World ... already done to his hands: Natty’s discourse on temporality and the works of man recalls C. F. Volney’s The Ruins (1791; three English translations by 1826) and anticipates Thomas Cole (1801-48), whose essay “American Scenery” would not appear until after the composition of The Prairie, in The American Monthly Magazine 1 (January 1836). Nor would Cooper have seen Cole’s landscapes until after he returned from Europe. But for obvious counter-influences, see Donald A. Ringe, “James Fenimore Cooper and Thomas Cole: An Analogous Technique,” American Literature 30:1 (March 1958), 26-36. Cooper may also be responding to a lengthy disquisition of the course of empire by Brackenridge: “Who will assign, as the age of America, a period of years different from that allowed to, what has been denominated, the old world?” Cf. Views of Louisiana; Containing Geographical, Statistical and Historical Notices of that Vast and Important Portion of America (Baltimore: Schaeffer & Maund, 1817), p. 181.For discussions of Cooper and Volneyism, see especially Allan M. Axelrad, History and Utopia: A Study of the World View of James Fenimore Cooper (Norwood: Norwood Editions, 1978), 49-71, and Hugh C. MacDougall, ‘Their Waste Has Done it All’: The Prairie as a Post-Apocalyptic Novel,” James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, 13 (2001), 66-71. In brief, The Ruins is presented as a revery in which the author is plunged into melancholy at the sight of the ruins of ancient empires until the “Genius of tombs and ruins” presents him with a theory of history, politics, religion, and morality.

77 Moravians: Edwin L. Stockton detailed the influence of John Heckewelder’s An Account of the History, Manners, and Customs, of the Indian Natives who once inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighboring States (Philadelphia: Abraham Small, 1819, and A Narrative of the Mission of the United Brethren among the Delaware and Mohegan Indians, from Its Commencement, in the Year 1740, to the Close of the Year 1808 (Philadelphia: M’Carty and Davis, 1820) on Cooper’s conception of Native Americans throughout his literary career. To Cooper, the Delaware — the first Indian Nation he exhaustively encountered through the pages of history — remained the epitome of excellence among Native Americans. See The Influence of the Moravians upon the Leather-Stocking Tales (The Moravian Historical Society, 1964). Among the many places Cooper may have encountered Heckewelder, The Port Folio (8 [January-June 1819], 248-259) reprinted a lengthy review from Miner’s Village Record. From this review, Cooper may have drawn his essential dichotomy between his good and bad Indians: “But some centuries ago, two distinct people, the Lenni Lenape, or Delaware Indians, and the Mengwe, or Mingoes, (known better to us as the Iroquois or Six Nations) ... divided the country between themselves:

From these two people sprung all the recent nations and tribes. ... Sometime after the white people arrived, more by fraud than force, the Lenni Lenape or Delawares were induced by the Mengwees, and the Dutch, to lay down the hatchet, to wear petticoats, and to consider themselves women-warriors no longer. This astonishing metamorphosis, we confess is not satisfactorily accounted for. Some facts, not known to the reverend author, we are compelled to believe, existed in relation to the subject. ... The stories of the battles between the natives and the white people; and the gradual recession of the former, until they are nearly extinct, are generally known. Though Mr. Heckewelder refers to many of the wars which have taken place, he does not pretend to go into detail upon the subject. A wide field is here left open for some other historian ... (248-249)

Never was there more explicit invitation to the writer of fiction.A number of Cooper’s subsequent borrowings from Heckewelder are present in this article, passim. Notably, the reviewer initiates a confusion between Mahiccanni and Mohegans (258).

79 Thebes ... Balbec: The language and imagery are most immediately from Cooper’s Yale mentor Benjamin Silliman (1779-1864):

“The earth,” in the eloquent language of Professor Silliman, “is unlike Memphis, Thebes, Persepolis, Babylon, Balbec, or Palmyra, which present merely confused and mutilated masses of colossal and beautiful architecture, answering no purpose, except to gratify curiosity, and to awaken a sublime and pathetic moral feeling; — it is rather, like modern Rome, replete indeed with the ruins of the ancient city, in part re-arranged for purposes of utility and ornament, but also covered by the regular and perfect constructions of subsequent centuries.” (quoted from Bakewell’s Geology by Edward Hitchcock, The Connection Between Geology and Natural Religion [Edinburgh: Thomas Clark, 1835], p. 79)

Silliman is alluding to, and noting the impressionistic nature of, the second and fourth chapters of Volney’s The Ruins:

Ah! what are become of those ages of abundance and of life? What are become of so many productions of the hand of man? Where are those ramparts of Nineveh, those walls of Babylon. those palaces of Persepolis, those temples of Balbec and of Jerusalem? ... Here is the monument of its splendid metropolis, Thebes with its hundred palaces, the progenitor of cities, the memento of human frailty. (The Ruins: or a Survey of the Revolutions of Empires. To which is added, the Laws of Nature [London: Edward Edwards, 1822] pp. 8, 29)

Volney would also have been known to geologists like Silliman for A View of the Soil and Climate of the United States of America, translated with some skeptical notes by Charles Brockden Brown (Philadelphia: J. Conrad & Co., 1804) and to systematic moral philosophers for his pamphlet The Laws of Nature, often appended to editions of The Ruins (as a preliminary document in the edition cited above, but apparently intended to be the final chapter). The Laws of Nature, presented as a catechism and pretending to strict logic but often based on premises unexamined in the document itself, may be the primary butt of Cooper’s extended parody here.

85 entirely encircled by fire: “The Sioux surrounded this spot, and set fire to the windward side of the reeds, in order to drive them out” (James 1.255).

85 Salamander: The idea that a salamander could quench fire was as old as Pliny the Elder (23-79).

88 Eastern hills: The Trapper refers to the fire in Chapter 37 of The Pioneers.

90 Columbus ... egg: Cooper alludes to the same anecdote related in book five, chapter seven of Washington Irving’s History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828); Cooper subsequently used the anecdote again in Chapter 9 of Mercedes of Castile (1840).

92 beheld the first Christian: Presumably Tamenund in The Last of the Mohicans:

They were all aged, even beyond that period to which the oldest present had reached; but one in the centre, who leaned on his companions for support, had numbered an amount of years, to which the human race is seldom permitted to attain. His frame, which had once been tall and erect, like the cedar, was now bending under the pressure of more than a century ... So soon as the first hum of emotion and pleasure, which the sudden appearance of this venerated individual created, had a little subsided, the name of “Tamenund” was whispered from mouth to mouth. (p. 293)

100 hide of a buffaloe: Cooper found the trick in Lewis and Clark:

In the evening the prairie took fire, either by accident or design, and burned with great fury, the whole plain being enveloped in flames: so rapid was its progress that a man and a woman were burnt to death before they could reach a place of safety; another man with his wife and child were much burnt, and several other persons narrowly escaped destruction. Among the rest a boy of the half white breed escaped unhurt in the midst of the flames; his safety was ascribed to the great medicine spirit, who had preserved him on account of his being white. But a much more natural cause was the presence of mind of his mother, who seeing no hopes of carrying off her son, threw him on the ground, and covering him with the fresh hide of a buffaloe, escaped herself from the flames; as soon as the fire had passed, she returned and found him untouched, the skin having prevented the flame from reaching the grass on which he lay. (Allen 1.121)

106 bark of so frail a construction: Cooper drew from both of his major sources:

Our heavy baggage was ferried across in a portable canoe, consisting of a single bison hide, which we carried constantly with us. Its construction is extremely simple; the margin of the hide being pierced with several small holes, admits a cord, by which it is drawn into the form of a shallow basin. This is placed upon the water, and is kept sufficiently distended by the baggage which it receives; it is then towed or pushed across. (James 1.428-29)Two sticks of an inch and a quarter in diameter are tied together so as to form a round hoop, which serves for the brim, while a second hoop, for the bottom of the boat, is made in the same way, and both secured by sticks of the same size from the sides of the hoops, fastened by thongs at the edges of the hoops and at the interstices of the sticks: over this frame the skin is drawn closely and tied with thongs, so as to form a perfect basin, seven feet and three inches in diameter, sixteen inches deep, and with sixteen ribs or cross-sticks, and capable of carrying six or eight men with their loads (Allen 2.400).

111 fusee: Another word for the short, light (compared to a military musket) predominantly trade guns used by the Sioux — the French name probably derives from the French having initiated the trade in firearms as early as the seventeenth century. Lewis and Clark note that the Sioux were armed with “only a few fowling pieces” (Allen 1.60).

2016other-madison8.jpg (25K)

Plate 8: Uncolored engraving by Young and Delleker after T. R. Peale, “Moveable Skin Lodges of the Kaskaias,” used to illustrate Edwin James, Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, 2 volumes (Philadelphia: Carey and Lea, 1823). Peale was an artist-naturalist on the expedition.

121 lodges were of skin: “Moveable Skin Lodges of the Kaskaias” [plate]; cf. James 2.105. The plate was reprinted in The Port Folio in 1822. See Plate 8.

128 Master of Life: The phrase, which seems to replace “Wahcondah,” is conspicuous in Brackenridge’s account (p. 256), as are several other details of Mahtoree’s camp, such as the division of men by manner of distinction (p. 254) and Mahtoree’s self-serving generosity:

All these had been bestowed, as they had been acquired, by the generous chief, on his subordinates, to purchase an influence that might render him the master of their lives and persons” (The Prairie, 2.137). Sans Oreille, as is usual with the ambitious amongst these people, is the poorest man in the nation: to set the heart upon goods and chattels, being reckoned indicative of a mean and narrow soul: he gives away every thing he can obtain, in order to procure popularity (Brackenridge, [1814], p. 217).

Sans Oreille, however, is Osage; Brackenridge’s later descriptions are of the Arikara.

131 Loup-river: See note p. 16.

139 Tristram Shandy: In book three, chapter eleven of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy Gentleman (1761), Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) gives his character Dr. Slop an elaborate curse based on the ritual of excommunication composed by the Twelfth-Century Roman Catholic Bishop Ernulf (1040-1124). Perhaps the most famous passage of the Shandean version runs thus:

“May he” (Obadiah) “be damn’d wherever he be-whether in the house or the stables, the garden or the field, or the highway, or in the path, or in the wood, or in the water, or in the church — May he be cursed in living, in dying.” [Here my uncle Toby, taking the advantage of a minim in the second bar of his tune, kept whistling one continued note to the end of the sentence. ------ Dr. Slop, with his division of curses moving under him, like a running bass all the way.] “May he be cursed in eating and drinking, in being hungry, in being thirsty, in fasting, in sleeping, in slumbering, in walking, in standing, in sitting, in lying, in working, in resting, in pissing, in shitting, and in blood-letting!”

Cooper’s edition has not been identified.

140 the mysterious and sacred medicine-bag: “[W]e felt desirous to examine the contents of the medicine bag of the man of mysteries, who was at once a magician and the leader of the party. At our solicitation he readily opened his sacred depository, and displayed its contents on a skin before us...” (James 2.194).

142 Tachechana: Sioux; James, “Vocabularies,” lxxvi.

162 pipe: “He then smokes, and puffs the smoke towards the bisons, towards the heavens, and the earth, and finally to the cardinal points successively. These last, they distinguish by the terms, sunrise, sunset, cold country, and warm country, or they designate them collectively, by the phrase of the f our winds, Ta-da-sa-ga-to-ba” (James 1.208).

165 head of hair: This passage is somewhat at odds with the wig-deprived “white and shining poll” of 1.158.

165 sundry toads, frogs, lizards, butterflies: The Port Folio for January 1819 reprinted (from The Edinburgh Review) Professor Jameson’s instructions for “the best mode of preserving the various objects of natural history. Jameson’s headings included “quadrupeds and birds,” “reptiles and fishes,” “animal concretions,” “molluscous animals — vermes and zoophytes,” “shells,” “insects,” “crabs,” “crustaceous animals,” “seeds,” “dried plants,” and “minerals.” Jameson instructed naturalists to collect “Antiquities, articles of Dress, Agriculture, Hunting, and Warlike Instruments, etc. of different nations and tribes” and to make drawings of everything (7.73-78).

173 La Balafré: “The Scar”; although there was a Little Osage chief of this name during the Spanish administration of Francisco Cruzat, no source linking that figure to Cooper has been located. The appellation was not unknown in European contexts.

176 waters of the wolves: Cooper assumes a French etymology for Loup; river with a traveled stream: Missouri.

192 lawless holes: The Trapper alludes to the trial scene in Chapter 33 of The Pioneers.

213 ’the Swooping Eagle’: James offers the Sioux and Gros Ventre words for “eagle” but not for “swooping” (“Vocabularies,” lxxxiv-v).

224 fever-and-agy: Fever-and-ague; malaria.

233 perfectly dead: Cf. the judgment of Ananias in Acts 5:1-6.

236 fantsatic: One of the few original typographical errors in the Philadelphia plates. More errors were introduced as repairs were made to worn plates in later impressions.

261 the very door: Cooper still refrains from identifying the spot. Paul and Ellen, after being married by a priest, go to Kentucky, with no upstream passage implied; Paul later is a member of the bicameral legislature (2.263) of his recent state of residence; Middleton becomes a member of Congress (2.263-64). Missouri became a state in 1821; Louisiana, in 1812: both had bicameral legislatures.

264 most of the intelligence: Middleton, like Bell, the designated journalist of the Long Expedition, was an artillery officer.

271 this rifle, and pouch, and horn ... the person: Legacies to Oliver Effingham, the young companion of Leatherstocking in the fictional village of Templeton (Cooperstown) in The Pioneers.

276 “Here”: The same word Leatherstocking had used to respond to his verdict in The Pioneers (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980; p. 369).

VII. Cooper’s Introduction to the 1832 London Edition

The geological formation of that portion of the American Union, which lies between the Alleghanies and the Rocky Mountains, has given rise to many ingenious theories. Virtually, the whole of this immense region is a plain. For a distance extending nearly 1500 miles east and west, and 600 north and south, there is scarcely an elevation worthy to be called a mountain. Even hills are not common; though a good deal of the face of the country has more or less of that “rolling” character, which is described in the opening pages of this work. There is much reason to believe, that the territory which now composes Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and a large portion of the country west of the Mississippi, lay formerly under water. The soil of all the former states has the appearance of an alluvial deposit; and isolated rocks have been found, of a nature and in situations which render it difficult to refute the opinion that they have been transferred to their present beds by floating ice. This theory assumes that the Great Lakes were the deep pools of one immense body of fresh water, which lay too low to be drained by the irruption that laid bare the land.

It will be remembered that the French, when masters of the Canadas and Louisiana, claimed the whole of the territory in question. Their hunters and advanced troops held the first communications with the savage occupants, and the earliest written accounts we possess of these vast regions, are from the pens of their missionaries. Many French words have, consequently, become of local use in this quarter of America, and not a few names given in that language have been perpetuated. When the adventurers, who first penetrated these wilds, met, in the centre of the forests, immense plains, covered with rich verdure or rank grasses, they naturally gave them the appellation of meadows. As the English succeeded the French, and found a peculiarity of nature, differing from all they had yet seen on the continent, already distinguished by a word that did not express any thing in their own language, they left these natural meadows in possession of their title of convention. In this manner has the word “Prairie” been adopted into the English tongue.

The American prairies are of two kinds. Those which lie east of the Mississippi are comparatively small, are exceedingly fertile, and are always surrounded by forests. They are susceptible of high cultivation, and are fast becoming settled. They abound in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana. They labour under the disadvantages of a scarcity of wood and water, — evils of a serious character, until art has had time to supply the deficiencies of nature. As coal is said to abound in all that region, and wells are generally successful, the enterprise of the emigrants is gradually prevailing against these difficulties.

The second description of these natural meadows lies west of the Mississippi, at a distance of a few hundred miles from that river, and is called the Great Prairies. They resemble the steppes of Tartary more than any other known portion of Christendom; being, in fact, a vast country, incapable of sustaining a dense population, in the absence of the two great necessaries already named. Rivers abound, it is true; but this region is nearly destitute of brooks and the smaller water courses, which tend so much to comfort and fertility.

The origin and date of the Great American Prairies form one of nature’s most majestic mysteries. The general character of the United States, of the Canadas, and of Mexico, is that of luxuriant fertility. It would be difficult to find another portion of the world, of the same extent, which has so little useless land as the inhabited parts of the American Union. Most of the mountains are arable, and even the prairies, in this section of the republic, are of deep alluvion. The same is true between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific. Between the two lies the broad belt, of comparative desert, which is the scene of this tale, appearing to interpose a barrier to the progress of the American people westward.

The Great Prairies appear to be the final gathering place of the red men. The remnants of the Mohicans, and the Delawares, of the Creeks, Choctaws, and Cherokees, are destined to fulfil their time on these vast plains. The entire number of the Indians, within the Union, is differently computed, at between one and three hundred thousand souls. Most of them inhabit the country west of the Mississippi. At the period of the tale, they dwelt in open hostility; national feuds passing from generation to generation. The power of the republic has done much to restore peace to these wild scenes, and it is now possible to travel in security, where civilised man did not dare to pass unprotected five-and-twenty years ago.

The reader, who has perused the two former works, of which this is the natural successor, will recognise an old acquaintance in the principal character of the story. We have here brought him to his end, and we trust he will be permitted to slumber in the peace of the just.

Paris, June, 1832

VIII. Cooper’s Notes to the 1832 London Edition

Volume 1

14 father of rivers: The Mississippi is thus termed in several of the Indian languages. The reader will gain a more just idea of the importance of this stream, if he recals to mind the fact, that the Missouri and the Mississippi are properly the same river. Their united lengths cannot be greatly short of four thousand miles.

14 New States: All the states admitted to the American Union, since the revolution, are called New States, with the exception of Vermont; that had claims before the war; which were not, however, admitted until a later day.

15 human institutions: Colonel Boon, the patriarch of Kentucky. This venerable and hardy pioneer of civilisation emigrated to an estate three hundred miles west of the Mississippi, in his ninety-second year, because he found a population of ten to the square mile, inconveniently crowded!

29 hommony-mortar: Hommany, is a dish composed chiefly of cracked corn, or maize.

30 trapper: It is scarcely necessary to say, that this American word means one who takes his game in a trap. It is of general use on the frontiers. The beaver, an animal too sagacious to be easily killed, is oftener taken in this way than in any other.

31 plunder: The cant word for luggage in the western states is “plunder.” The term might easily mislead one as to the character of the people, who, notwithstanding their pleasant use of so expressive a word, are, like the inhabitants of all new settlements, hospitable and honest. Knavery of the description conveyed by “plunder,” is chiefly found in regions more civilised.

32 country hunt: There is a practice, in the new countries, to assemble the men of a large district, sometimes of an entire county, to exterminate the beasts of prey. They form themselves into a circle of several miles in extent, and gradually draw nearer, killing all before them. The allusion is to this custom, in which the hunted beast is turned from one to another.

38 half-and-halfs: Half-breeds; men born of Indian women by white fathers. This race has much of the depravity of civilisation without the virtues of the savage.

75 Long-knives: The whites are so called by the Indians, from their swords.

85 mad Anthony: Anthony Wayne, a Pennsylvanian distinguished in the war of the revolution, and subsequently against the Indians of the west, for his daring as a general, by which he gained from his followers the title of Mad Anthony. General Wayne was the son of the person mentioned in the life of West as commanding the regiment which excited his military ardor.

106 Washington: The American government creates chiefs among the western tribes, and decorates them with silver medals bearing the impression of the different presidents. That of Washington is the most prized.

115 livery of the fall: The Americans call the autumn the “fall,” from the fall of the leaf.

137 scorn to eat it: It is scarcely necessary to tell the reader, that the animal so often alluded to in this book, and which is vulgarly called the buffaloe, is in truth the bison; hence so many contre-tems between the men of the prairies and the men of science.

138 keeper of curiosities: The pursuit of a bee-hunter is not uncommon, on the skirts of American society, though it is a little embellished here. When the bees are seen sucking the flowers, their pursuer contrives to capture one or two. He then chooses a proper spot, and suffering one to escape, the insect invariably takes its flight towards the hive. Changing his ground to a greater or less distance, according to circumstances, the bee-hunter then permits another to escape. Having watched the courses of the bees, which is technically called lining, he is enabled to calculate the intersecting angle of the two lines, which is the hive.

Volume 2

68 concerned them: They who have read the preceding books, in which the trapper appears as a hunter and a scout, will readily understand the allusions.

82 from his tail: The American hunters consider the tail of the beaver the most nourishing of all food.

253 partisan: The Americans and the Indians have adopted several words, which each believes peculiar to the language of the others. This “squaw,” “papoose” or child, wigwam, &c. &c., though it is doubtful whether they belonged at all to any Indian dialect, are much used by both white and red men in their intercourse. Many words are derived from the French, in this species of prairie nomaic. Partisan, brave, &c. are of the number.

IX. Cooper’s Preface to The Leather-Stocking Tales [1850]

This series of Stories, which has obtained the name of “The Leather-Stocking Tales,” has been written in a very desultory and inartificial manner. The order in which the several books appeared was essentially different from that in which they would have been presented to the world, had the regular course of their incidents been consulted. In “The Pioneers,” the first of the series written, the Leather-Stocking is represented as already old, and driven from his early haunts in the forest, by the sound of the axe, and the smoke of the settler. “The Last of the Mohicans,” the next book in the order of publication, carried the readers back to a much earlier period in the history of our hero, representing him as middle-aged, and in the fullest vigor of manhood. In “The Prairie,” his career terminates, and he is laid in his grave. There, it was originally the intention to leave him, in the expectation that, as in the case of the human mass, he would soon be forgotten. But a latent regard for this character induced the author to resuscitate him in “The Pathfinder,” a book that was not long after succeeded by “The Deerslayer,” thus completing the series as it now exists.

While the five books that have been written were originally published in the order just mentioned, that of the incidents, insomuch as they are connected with the career of their principal character, is, as has been stated, very different. Taking the life of the Leather-Stocking as a guide, “The Deerslayer” should have been the opening book, for in that work he is seen just emerging into manhood; to be succeeded by “The Last of the Mohicans,” “The Pathfinder,” “The Pioneers,” and “The Prairie.” This arrangement embraces the order of events, though far from being that in which the books at first appeared. “The Pioneers” was published in 1823; “The Deerslayer” in 1841; making the interval between them eighteen years. Whether these progressive years have had a tendency to lessen the value of the last-named book, by lessening the native fire of its author, or of adding somewhat in the way of improved taste and a more matured judgment, is for others to decide.

If anything from the pen of the writer of these romances is at all to outlive himself, it is, unquestionably, the series of “The Leather-Stocking Tales.” To say this, is not to predict a very lasting reputation for the series itself, but simply to express the belief it will outlast any, or all, of the works from the same hand.

It is undeniable that the desultory manner in which “The Leather-Stocking Tales” were written, has, in a measure, impaired their harmony, and otherwise lessened their interest. This is proved by the fate of the two books last published, though probably the two most worthy an enlightened and cultivated reader’s notice. If the facts could be ascertained, it is probable the result would show that of all those (in America, in particular) who have read the three first books of the series, not one in ten has a knowledge of the existence even of the two last. Several causes have tended to produce this result. The long interval of time between the appearance of “The Prairie” and that of “The Pathfinder,” was itself a reason why the later books of the series should be overlooked. There was no longer novelty to attract attention, and the interest was materially impaired by the manner in which events were necessarily anticipated, in laying the last of the series first before the world. With the generation that is now coming on the stage this fault will be partially removed by the edition contained in the present work, in which the several tales will be arranged solely in reference to their connection with each other.

The author has often been asked if he had any original in his mind, for the character of Leather-Stocking. In a physical sense, different individuals known to the writer in early life, certainly presented themselves as models, through his recollections; but in a moral sense this man of the forest is purely a creation. The idea of delineating a character that possessed little of civilization but its highest principles as they are exhibited in the uneducated, and all of savage life that is not incompatible with these great rules of conduct, is perhaps natural to the situation in which Natty was placed. He is too proud of his origin to sink into the condition of the wild Indian, and too much a man of the woods not to imbibe as much as was at all desirable, from his friends and companions. In a moral point of view it was the intention to illustrate the effect of seed scattered by the wayside. To use his own language, his “gifts” were “white gifts,” and he was not disposed to bring on them discredit. On the other hand, removed from nearly all the temptations of civilized life, placed in the best associations of that which is deemed savage, and favorably disposed by nature to improve such advantages, it appeared to the writer that his hero was a fit subject to represent the better qualities of both conditions, without pushing either to extremes.

There was no violent stretch of the imagination, perhaps, in supposing one of the civilized associations in childhood, retaining many of his earliest lessons amid the scenes of the forest. Had these early impressions, however, not been sustained by continued, though casual connexion with men of his own color, if not of his own caste, all our information goes to show he would soon have lost every trace of his origin. It is believed that sufficient attention was paid to the particular circumstances in which this individual was placed, to justify the picture of his qualities that has been drawn. The Delawares early attracted the attention of the missionaries, and were a tribe unusually influenced by their precepts and example. In many instances they became Christians, and cases occurred in which their subsequent lives gave proof of the efficacy of the great moral changes that had taken place within them.

A leading character in a work of fiction has a fair right to the aid which can be obtained from a poetical view of the subject. It is in this view, rather than in one more strictly circumstantial, that Leather-Stocking has been drawn. The imagination has no great task in portraying to itself a being removed from the every-day inducements to err, which abound in civilized life, while he retains the best and simplest of his early impressions; who sees God in the forest; hears Him in the winds; bows to Him in the firmament that o’ercanopies all; submits to his sway in a humble belief of his justice and mercy; in a word, a being who finds the impress of the Deity in all the works of nature, without any of the blots produced by the expedients, and passion, and mistakes of man. This is the most that has been attempted in the character of Leather-Stocking. Had this been done without any of the drawbacks of humanity, the picture would have been, in all probability, more pleasing than just. In order to preserve the vrai-semblable, therefore, traits derived from the prejudices, tastes, and even the weaknesses of his youth, have been mixed up with these higher qualities and longings, in a way, it is hoped, to represent a reasonable picture of human nature, without offering to the spectator a “monster of goodness.”

It has been objected to these books that they give a more favorable picture of the red man than he deserves. The writer apprehends that much of this objection arises from the habits of those who have made it. One of his critics, on the appearance of the first work in which Indian character was portrayed, objected that its “characters were Indians of the school of Heckewelder, rather than of the school of nature.” These words quite probably contain the substance of the true answer to the objection. Heckewelder was an ardent, benevolent missionary, bent on the good of the red man, and seeing in him one who had the soul, reason, and characteristics of a fellow-being. The critic is understood to have been a very distinguished agent of the government, one very familiar with Indians, as they are seen at the councils to treat for the sale of their lands, where little or none of their domestic qualities come in play, and where, indeed, their evil passions are known to have the fullest scope. As just would it be to draw conclusions of the general state of American society from the scenes of the capital, as to suppose that the negotiating of one of these treaties is a fair picture of Indian life.

It is the privilege of all writers of fiction, more particularly when their works aspire to the elevation of romances, to present the beau-ideal of their characters to the reader. This it is which constitutes poetry, and to suppose that the red man is to be represented only in the squalid misery or in the degraded moral state that certainly more or less belongs to his condition, is, we apprehend, taking a very narrow view of an author’s privileges. Such criticism would have deprived the world of even Homer.

X. Cooper and Volney

Adapted with permission from Allan M. Axelrad, “History and Social Change,” History and Utopia: A Study of the World View of James Fenimore Cooper (Norwood: Norwood Editions, 1978), Chapter Two.

Neo-classicists enthusiastically interjected ruins of the past into their literature and art. 1 Whether ruins in nature or ruins of past civilizations, the message of mutability and impermanence was clearly signalled. C. F. Volney’s The Ruins: Or A Survey of The Revolutions Of Empire, published in 1791 and translated for an American edition in 1802, is an important landmark linking a Romantic idea of history to neo-classicism and also to a view of history held in the Enlightenment and in the Age of Democratic Revolution. Although Volney was committed to many of the basic tenets of the Age of Reason, his Ruins had a noticeable impact on Cooper and the Hudson River School. Jones speaks of “the American vogue of Volney” in the early nineteenth century, 2 and it is easy to see that the Romantic motif of moral-giving ruins which plays a significant role in The Course of Empire and The Crater was influenced by Volney’s treatise.

History for Volney, as for Cooper, characteristically revolves in analogous cycles according to prescribed stages. The difference between the two is that ignorance, not sin, is the chief culprit in Volney’s eyes and the ultimate cause of the impermanence of civilizations. So Volney’s chiliasm, in contradistinction to Cooper’s neo-orthodox Christian eschatology, has the millennial state appearing when ignorance is eradicated. Each acknowledges that the moral health of the community, in conjunction with its relationship to nature, determines its position in the cycle of history. But where Cooper finds moral deterioration due to man’s fallen state, Volney blames it on his lack of knowledge.

Cooper and Volney have an identical understanding of the mechanics of the historical process. According to Volney’s immutable rule of history, “If a people were powerful, if an emipire [sic] flourished, it was because the laws of convention were conformable to those of nature,” but if a people were decadent or civilization fallen to ruin, it was because the relationship of man to nature was out of kilter. 3 The right relationship of man to nature is one of close communion, but this does not sanction primitivism for Cooper or Volney. Volney affirms the pastoral in an analogy of the superiority of cultivated and sweetened fruit to wild and bitter fruit: “to say, that such a state is unnatural, because it is more advanced toward perfection, is to say that a fruit, which in the woods is bitter and wild, is no longer a production of nature, after having become sweet and delicious in the garden in which it has been cultivated.” He rejects Rousseauian primitivism, telling that “philosophers” who call “the savage state of life a state of perfection” are deluded; “man in a savage state” is “A brute and ignorant animal.” 4 Consistent with the pastoral ideal, his proximate utopia is neither the “savage state,” nor the state of indolent luxury. When “every man ploughed his own field,” he explains, a simple “purity of manners” is obtained “rendering luxury impossible.” 5 The social excellence attained through the balance of nature and society is lost as the cycle of history advances: society becomes increasingly complex, nature recedes, and immorality ensues, With phraseology anticipating Cooper’s in The Crater, Volney warns that once the cycle of history passes zenith, “The relations of men becoming complicated, the interior order of society was more difficult to maintain. Time and industry having created affluence, cupidity awoke from its slumber.” 6 Like Cooper, he fixes the blame for decline on “love of accumulation,” “licentiousness,” and a “diminished” ability to resist. 7 And like Cooper, he is concerned that once life becomes too easy the people will wax soft, such that “Hordes of barbarians” will find little resistance penetrating into the very bosom of an advanced civilization. 8 Time and again Volney repeats the message of The Crater — that the ruins of time are memorials to “terrible catastrophes” of the past, which will reoccur in the future, as history cyclically returns. 9

The sameness of language in The Ruins and The Crater establishes a similarity of world view. Volney uses “desolate” and “solitude” to depict civilization in “ruin;” and “vicious” defines the condition of society late in the cycle. 10 Identical language, in conjunction with a cyclical and apocalyptic idea of history, argues for an affinity of view; but it is their fundamentally different opinion about the cause of imperfection that separates the cosmology of the French rationalist from Cooper’s Christian cosmology.

The cyclic mode of history depicted in The Ruins became the official version of the Hudson River School once Volney’s eighteenth-century rationalism was replaced by the mystery and irrationalism of the Romantic imagination. Certainly the triumph of the idea of progress was not as complete at this time as often supposed. 11 Cooper was not alone in his rejoinder to the optimistic ethos of Jacksonian go-aheadism. His idea of history did not result from a private quibble with the press, nor antagonism to anti-rentism, nor a general quarrel with the excesses of egalitarianism. Rather, it was the outgrowth of a widely accepted European and early American view of history, endorsed by the Hudson River School, which was an integral part of his conservative world view prior to his return from Europe in 1833 and purported disillusionment. The motif, the-ruins-of-time, which frames The Crater, is a rich part of the literary expression contained in Cooper’s early as well as his later novels. The motif of ruins is not merely decorative and mood enhancing. Ruins are significant symbols of the temporality of human constructions and inseparable from a cyclical idea of history. (51-54)

In a dialogue between Dr. Obed Bat and Leatherstocking in The Prairie, the tree, as the exemplar of the organic cycle of time, provides a vehicle for repudiating the idea of progress. Dr. Bat, who is as blind as his namesake, is a foil for Cooper, whose position is eloquently put forth by the crotchety Old Trapper. Dr. Bat argues that reason, education, scientific advance, cultural refinement, and the progress of civilization go hand-in-hand. If properly directed by human reason, the course of history would be unrelenting progress. Leatherstocking turns to nature for his reply. The frontier philosopher’s response is an analogism, conceived through the life cycle of the tree.

The work of man is mutable, just as are all things in nature. “It is the fate of all things,” says Leatherstocking, “to ripen and then to decay,” interjecting organic metaphors “ripen” and “decay” to indicate the way of nature and course of civilization. He speculates that the barren plains upon which they sit might once have been a garden for a great monarch whose entire civilization has long since vanished, leaving no traces. Civilization is likened to the fruit of the tree — “The tree blossoms and bears its fruit, which falls, rots, withers, and even the seed is lost!” 12 He then extends the analogy to the tree itself:

There does the noble tree fill its place in the forest, loftier, and grander, and richer, and more difficult to imitate than any of your pitiful pillars, for a thousand years, until the time which the Lord hath given it is full. Then come the winds that you cannot see to rive its bark, and the waters from the heavens to soften its pores, and the rot, which all can feel and none can understand, to humble its pride and bring it to the ground. From that moment its beauty begins to perish. It lies another hundred years, a moldering log, and then a mound of moss and ‘arth, a sad effigy of a human grave. 13

But this is not all. Leatherstocking draws out his analogy to account for why there are no traces left of the vanished civilization that might once have dominated the Great Plains. Finally natural disintegration will be so complete that even “the cunningest scout of the whole Dakota nation” will be unable to detect the spot where the great tree lay. And he concludes on a somewhat different track, unmindful of the fact that the full sweep of the analogy has lost its consistency. As if to mock the arrogance of man, he says, “a pine shoots up from the roots of the oak, just as barrenness comes after fertility or as these wastes have been spread where a garden may have been created.” 14 In the natural cycle of genesis and decay, death produces life, such as the pine finding sustenance in the roots of the rotting oak, and also, fertility cyclically gives way to infertility. The implication for human society is that new civilizations are born on the ruins of old ones, but sometimes (as in The Crater or as on the Great Plains) they are entirely obliterated, leaving a desolate landscape in their wake. Yet the life cycle in the organic world is not precisely the same as the course of civilization. In nature the cycle of genesis and decay is perfectly natural, without moral innuendo, while the abiding presence of original sin explains the demise of civilizations. The Old Trapper asks, “how do you account for these changes on the face of the ‘arth itself and for this downfall of nations,” and answers his own question, saying “it is their morals.” 15 (59-61)

In every study which imposes the paradigm of progress on the Leatherstocking Tales, the death of Leatherstocking at the end of The Prairie is understood to herald the dawn of an even more promising future for America, as the old makes way for the new in the inexorable progress of civilization. 16 However, some scholars, unrestricted by the paradigm of progress, feel the death of Leatherstocking symbolizes the death of the hope for a more perfect world in America. 17 (67)

Not only do most scholars axiomatically assume Cooper believed in progress and interpret his writings within the paradigm’s scope, but they generally identify the source of his idea of history in the eighteenth century, and by implication, in the French Enlightenment. 18 Antoine-Nicolas de Condorcet’s Sketch For A Historical Picture Of The Human Mind, published shortly after the French Revolution, is identified by Henry Nash Smith, in Virgin Land, as the specific source of Cooper’s model of historical development. The Enlightenment philosopher’s universe is a mechanical contrivance that functions according to immutable laws, to which mankind’s contribution “is like a well-made machine” at “work towards a single end” — “the absolute perfection of the human race.” 19 Condorcet envisages the attainment of utopia through a process in which history is unfolded, stage by stage, in a linear development that “will never be reversed as long as the earth occupies its present place in the system of the universe.” 21 Smith finds that Cooper, among other early nineteenth-century Americans, was greatly attracted to Condorcet’s theory of history, with its unlimited faith in human reason and unclouded vision of the future. Smith reproduces this passage from The Prairie to demonstrate the impact of Condorcet’s idea of history upon Cooper:

The gradations of society, from the state which is called refined to that which approaches as near barbarity as connexion with an intelligent people will readily allow, are to be traced from the bosom of the states, where wealth, luxury and the arts are beginning to seat themselves, to those distant and ever-receding borders which mark the skirts and announce the approach of the nation, as moving mists precede the signs of the day. 21

The apparent meaning of the passage is that the Westward Movement reproduces the stages of development of the nation, from West to East, and the implication is that Cooper and Condorcet share a faith in unilinear progress. 22 But read in the context of the entire paragraph from The Prairie, the passage Smith quotes takes on a different meaning. The opening sentence of the paragraph reads: “Although the citizen of the United States may claim so just an ancestry [descended from good English family], he is far from being exempt from the penalties of his fallen race.” 23 So Cooper enters his discussion of the stages of development of civilization by recalling, not the perfectibility, but the imperfectibility of mankind due to its “fallen” condition. Cooper’s Christian concept of sin and Condorcet’s enlightened faith in progress, are antonymous and mutually exclusive. In its total context this paragraph in The Prairie warns that due to a moral flaw in man’s inborn nature, the result of original sin, progress is limited and impermanent. Perfection is unattainable within profane time. The Prairie (1827), published early in Cooper’s literary career, affirms his belief both in a cyclical idea of history and in the doctrine of original sin, and also his thorough distaste for the basic tenets of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment platitudes uttered by the foolish Dr. Obed Bat, who cannot even recognize his “own ass,” 24 represent a self-conscious parody of the naive rationalism contained in Condorcet’s Sketch For A Historical Picture Of The Human Mind. Cooper contradicts Condorcet. The historical time which Condorcet envisions, “when the sun will shine only on free men who know no other master but their reason,” 25 will never be a reality. The spoof of Enlightenment thought contained in the character of Dr. Bat signifies Cooper’s repudiation of the prospect for scientific, technological, social, and moral progress. The Old Trapper asks Dr. Bat, “is it not a plain consequence that” the “children” of “the first man in the garden” will “inherit his gifts?” Dr. Bat exclaims that his “reading” of “the Mosaic account” is “far too literal!” 26 Yet it is clear with whom Cooper sides in this debate. Over and over in his works he reminds his readers that God, as Moses was informed upon the Mount, “will visit the sins of the fathers upon the children.” 27 Sin is generic to the human species, and its consequences upon the historical process and social change are telling. Reason, education, science, technology — none of the properties linked to the idea of progress will prevail over original sin and hasten the millennium. All advances in human history are illusory; conditions will improve at times and just as surely worsen, in recurrent cycles. After all, history does not redeem fallen human beings; God does. (69-71)


1 Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite (New York: W. W. Norton, 1963), p. 336.

2 Howard Mumford Jones, O Strange New World, American Culture: The Formative Years (New York: The Viking Press, 1967), p. 430. He recognizes that Volney had an impact upon Cooper, p. 361. In The Pictorial Mode: Space & Time in the Art of Bryant, Irving & Cooper (Lexington: The Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1971), p. 129, Donald A. Ringe also notes the influence of Volney:

One book, however, stood out as perhaps the most influential in encouraging American artists of the early nineteenth century to use the ruins theme: the Comte de Volney’s Les Ruins, ou Méditations sur les révolutions des empires (1791). The American edition of this work, rendered into English by Thomas Jefferson and Joel Barlow, appeared in 1802, and although it was generally opposed by conservative Americans because of its strong antireligious bias, its influence was considerable. Bryant probably became acquainted with it while attending Williams College, and other contemporary writers and painters were undoubtedly familiar with it as well. Though none of them subscribed to the extreme rationalistic conclusions of the work, they used the same basic device to convey their own interpretations of the meaning of change.

3 Constantin François de Chasseboeuf, Count de Volney, The Ruins: Or A Survey Of The Revolutions Of Empire. To Which Is Added. The Law Of Nature (London: Edward Edwards, 1822), p. 53.

4 Volney, The Law Of Nature, n. pag.

5 Volney, p. 58.

6 Volney, p. 55.

7 Volney, pp. 47, 69, 56.

8 Volney, p. 71.

9 Volney, p. 76.

10 Volney, pp. 16, 51, 53.

11 In Social Change And History: Aspects of the Western Theory of Development (London, Oxford, New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1969), p. 125, Robert Nisbet writes, “the idea of progressive development is far from being the whole story in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries”). He thinks this particularly true of post-French Revolution conservatives, pp. 130-131. There is a variety of evidence of the less than universal acceptance of the idea of progress. For example, in Kindred Spirits: Knickerbocker Writers and American Artists (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1967), p. 163, James T. Callow cites a number of early nineteenth-century works yielding evidence of cyclical thinking based upon organic analogy, including Irving’s Bracebridge Hall, Wetmore’s Lexington, with Other Fugitive Poems, Halleck’s “Twilight,” Bryant’s “Ruins of Italica,” and Willis’ American Scenery. In American Thought And Religious Typology, trans. John Hooglund (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1970), Ursula Brumm develops a strong case for a cyclical view of history in Hawthorne, pp. 128-161. And in Andrew Jackson: Symbol for an Age (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1962), John William Ward notes that it was commonly thought that Europe was a degenerating civilization, located on the downward “curve” of history, while America was located on the upward “curve” of the cycle, p. 36.

12 Cooper, The Prairie, (New York and Toronto: The New American Library, 1964), p. 250. In his poem “The Prairies,” which was written in 1832, five years after The Prairie was published, William Cullen Bryant also speculates that this vast grassland once held a great civilization which vanished in accordance with the cyclical motion of history.

13 Cooper, The Prairie, pp. 250-251.

14 Cooper, The Prairie, p. 251.

15 Cooper, The Prairie, p. 249.

16 Scholars who think Cooper embraced the idea of progress, and, consequently, interpret Leatherstocking’s death optimistically, include: John P. McWilliams, Jr., Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper’s America (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: Univ. of Calif. Press, 1972), p. 275; Arthur K. Moore, The Frontier Mind (Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1957), p. 145; Roy Harvey Pearce, “The Leatherstocking Tales Re-examined,” South Atlantic Quarterly, 46 (Oct. 1947), pp. 531, 535, and Savagism And Civilization: A Study of the Indian and the American Mind (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1965), p. 207; Slotkin, p. 485; Warren Walker, “The Frontiersman As Recluse And Redeemer,” New York Folklore Quarterly. 16 (Summer 1960), pp. 115-116; John William Ward, Afterword to The Prairie (New York and Toronto: The New American Library, 1964), p. 410; William Wasserstrom, “Cooper, Freud and The Origins of Culture,” The American Image, 17 (1960), pp. 426-427.

17 Scholars, unrestricted by the paradigm of progress, who arrive at a pessimistic interpretation of Leatherstocking’s death include: Richard Chase, The American Novel And Its Tradition (Garden City: Doubleday, 1957), p. 61; David W. Noble, “Cooper, Leatherstocking and the Death of the American Adam,” American Quarterly, 16 (Fall 1964), pp. 429-431; Joel Porte, The Romance in America: Studies In Cooper, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and James (Middletown: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1969), p. 52; Donald A. Ringe, “Man and Nature in Cooper’s The Prairie,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 15 (March 1961), p. 323.

18 Here is a partial list of scholars who state that Cooper accepted the idea of progress: Henry Seidel Canby, Classic Americans: A Study of Eminent American Writers from Irving to Whitman (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1931), p. 139; Harry Hayden Clark, “Fenimore Cooper And Science,” Part I, Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, XLVIII (1959), pp. 186, 190, 191, 196; Edgar A. Dryden, “History and Progress: Some Implications of Form in Cooper’s Littlepage Novels,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 26 (June 1971), pp. 52, 58, 59; Leslie A. Fiedler, Love And Death In The American Novel (New York: Dell, 1966), p. 185; Edwin Fussell, Frontier American Literature and the American West (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1965), p. 65; Thomas R. Lounsbury, James Fenimore Cooper (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1882), p. 85; Moore, p. 212; Russell Blaine Nye, Society and Culture in America, 1830-1860 (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), p. 31; Pearce, “The Leatherstocking Tales Re-examined,” p. 525, and Savagism And Civilization, p. 82; Slotkin, pp. 485-486; McWilliams, p. 244; Ward, p. 410, Wasserstrom, pp. 426, 437.

19 Antoine-Nicolas De Condorcet, Sketch For A Historical Picture Of The Progress Of The Human Mind, trans. June Barraclough (London: William Clowes, 1955), pp. 168, 184.

20 Condorcet, p. 5.

21 Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West As Symbol And Myth (New York: Random House, 1950), p. 256.

22 The following scholars were influenced by Smith’s analysis of Condorcet’s social stages of development theory in Cooper: Fussell, p. 46; McWilliams, p. 262; Wasserstrom, pp. 425, 437.

23 Cooper, The Prairie, p. 68.

24 Cooper, The Prairie. p. 74.

25 Condorcet, p. 119.

26 Cooper, The Prairie, p. 205.

27 Cooper, Lionel Lincoln, p. 173. Cooper repeats this passage from Exodus in The American Democrat Or Hints On The Social And Civic Relations Of The United States Of America (New York: Minerva Press, 1969), p. 74; in The Chainbearer Or The Littlepage Manuscripts (New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1895-1900), p. 233; in The Crater Or Vulcan’s Peak, ed. Thomas Philbrick (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1962), p. 281; twice in The Heidenmauer Or The Benedictines (New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1895-1900), pp. 246, 256; and also in The Headsman Or The Abbaye Des Vignerons (New York and London: G. P· Putnam’s Sons, 1895-1900), p. 183.

XI. Afterword: Cooper and the American West

While Cooper’s 1832 Preface to The Prairie emphasized his accurate knowledge of the geographical description of the setting-and thus the authenticity of that aspect of the novel — in his 1850 Preface to the Leather-Stocking Tales as a series Cooper devotes his attention to the rights and privileges of romancers as far back as Homer. And shortly before Cooper’s death in 1851 his portrayal of Native Americans seems to have been vindicated by at least one Native voice: George Copway (Kah-Ge-Ga-Gah-Bowh, Ojibwa), the editor of Copway’s American Indian, enlisted several of the leading American non-Native writers for his journal but claimed none was “more justly entitled to be styled the friend of the red man.” 1

Through his tales of the sea, Cooper’s Romanticism extended to settings and characterizations around the globe, and in his European novels and travel books Cooper handled his subjects both roughly and gently, imaginatively and literally, revealing all kinds of prejudices along the way. But it is in particular his Indian characters, and especially those inhabiting the Great American Desert, that drew accusations of inauthenticity long after his death. The persistent attacks by Western writers during his lifetime, and a famous reformulation of those attacks in Mark Twain’s hilarious and unfortunately profoundly influential “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” in the North American Review (161:464 [July 1895], 1-12), have established Cooper as the whipping-boy of American literature. 2

Since these attacks largely began with so-called western writers, it might be worthwhile to look at their individual complaints in order to determine what it was they really found inauthentic. But first one might look at the predicament of the western writer in 1827. Cooper, the emergent literary giant of America and owner of the Eastern forests to an extent only dreamed of by his creation Aaron “Thousandacres” Timberman, had left for Europe in 1826 and was now expatriate. The frontier, which until the publication of The Prairie stretched from the Alleghany Mountains to the banks of the Mississippi, was wide open for literary exploitation. True, Daniel Boone and a few explorers had traveled farther westward, but the true frontier — the line between civilization and savagery — remained firmly in the valley of the Ohio, la Belle Riviere, and along the lakes. A writer in Pittsburgh, in Cincinnati, in Michilimackinac could report the true frontier. It was a niche, if a large one, that several displaced Yankees were ably exploiting by 1827. And their writings were authentic: “I am the man, I suffered, I was there.”

But when Cooper’s latest novel reached America, the frontier of the Great Lakes and Ohio River valley became, as far as literature was concerned and in Cooper’s words, the “eastern shores of the ‘father of rivers’” (1.14), and on the day The Prairie was published in Philadelphia all these professors of frontier authenticity were left behind. Even St. Louis — as a frontier town — was left behind. It had never been a suitable frontier town anyway: the French and Spanish had been there for two hundred years. The new frontier began somewhere along the banks of the Missouri, somewhere out on the Great American Desert where only explorers and batty naturalists had boldly gone before (Natives, French, and Spanish, of course, need not apply).

On the eve of World War Two, the collective whines of the western writers were assembled by literary historian John T. Flanagan (“I had never had a college course in American literature, nor even one in American history.” 3) without regard to the actual claims of the western critics or to their general predicament. In “The Authenticity of Cooper’s The Prairie,” Flanagan claims “practically every reviewer or critic who knew anything about the West from personal experience asserted that the novel lacked authenticity.” 4 Flanagan took the critics at their word when it came to personal experience: it is sufficient to note that none had experience on the Loup Fork of the Platte River and none (including Flanagan) thought that growing up in Cooperstown (read “Templeton”) or coasting Lake Ontario and living off porcupine was a frontier experience. Why would they? Theirs was the “West” (borrowing Flanagan’s upper-case W). Or was it? What was their West now that the West was west of the Mississippi?

Flanagan names Lewis Cass (1782-1866), “the distinguished soldier and territorial governor,” who “particularly objected to the manners and speech of Cooper’s Indians” (101). Cooper might have objected too, if he hadn’t had Ongpatonga’s and Petalesharo’s speeches before him. Cass was governor of the Michigan Territory, some hundred miles from the Mississippi and over 600 miles from the Loup Fork. Cass lived long enough that he may have read Cooper’s The Oak-Openings, set in southern Michigan — perhaps out of spite.

Flanagan’s next candidate is William Joseph Snelling (1804-1848), whose Tales of the Northwest was published in 1830. He lived with the Dakota at Fort St. Anthony, now a suburb of the Twin Cities — still four or five hundred miles from the Loup Fork, overland. Snelling also objected to Cooper’s Indian language; he particularly objected to the term “pale faces” (101). Cooper may have originated the phrase (we doubt it) but he certainly found the phrase a useful translation of references to skin color made by any number of Indians in his sources. It was certainly a good enough phrase for James Hall (q.v. below) when he employed the term in his biography of Petalesharo. Hall was complaining (justly, probably) about the translation of the Pawnee chief’s remarks on being awarded a medal by the ladies of Miss White’s school:

We would almost venture to represent the words of the brave in reply to the compliment. We saw the medal put on his neck, and saw him take it in his hand, and look at it. Holding it before him, he said — “This brings rest to my heart. I feel like the leaf after a storm, and when the wind is still. I listen to you. I am glad. I love the pale faces more than I ever did, and will open my ears wider when they speak. 5

Flanagan’s next witness is Timothy Flint (1780-1840), who wrote Recollections of the Last Ten Years (1826). Flanagan reports Flint’s claim that he refused to review The Prairie because “it contained little or no Kentucky (i.e. western) idiom and that it was a work which only a stranger to the prairies could have written” (101). Flint was based in Rapide, Louisiana, at the publication of his most recent book (or so states the title page) but made his dismissal in the Western Magazine and Review, published in Cincinnati by E. H. Flint and edited by Timothy himself from 1825 to 1828, presumably also in Cincinnati. He wrote extensively about St. Louis and even witnessed a prairie fire — in St. Louis. 6 He may have made it as far as St. Charles — still five hundred (deer) miles from Ishmael’s camp (1.24).

James Hall (1793-1868), mentioned above, wrote his Letters from the West, which Cooper almost certainly perused in The Port Folio, from Shawneetown, a few miles from the border of Indiana and Illinois on the Ohio River. Hall complained about Cooper’s dialogue, not recognizing that it was drawn in part from his own sketch of Hugh Glass in “The Missouri Trapper,” 7 a story he got second-hand but which passed for gospel in the East, and presumably with Flanagan (101-102).

Daniel Drake (1785-1852), a member of the Cincinnati literati, also traveled widely in Ohio. The West of which he spoke and which Flanagan apparently credits as first-hand was probably derived from Hall (102).

William Gilmore Simms (1806-1870), whom Flanagan hauls in to complain that Cooper’s “picture of the frontiersman was less true than picturesque” (102), is the exception to the Yankee migrants. He was no Yankee, and his fictional reach extended to the Mississippi, but Flanagan seems to have included him because he once edited the Southern and Western Magazine and Review. But that periodical was published in Simms’s home of Charleston, South Carolina. Flanagan could as easily have justified calling in witnesses like Washington Irving and William Cullen Bryant, who experienced prairies as much as any of Flanagan’s witnesses but still managed to express appreciation for Cooper’s tale.

Flanagan’s final witness is Francis Parkman (1823-1893), whose The California and Oregon Trail recorded a two-month adventure in 1846, after the collapse of the fur trade and at a time when the upper Missouri hosted a number of “tourist” excursions by notables from the United States and Europe. Surely there could be no just comparison of the denizens of the plains as imagined — or reported — in 1805 and the descendants of those same peoples forty years after contact with the “long knives.” Nevertheless, Parkman indulged in the by-now hackneyed western assessment of Cooper’s Indians: “We do not allude to his Indian characters, which it must be granted, are for the most part either superficially or falsely drawn; while the long conversations which he puts into their mouths, are as truthless as they are tiresome.” 8 We doubt there’s an Indian in all of Cooper who has a speech as long as Ongpatonga’s widely reported funeral oration. Parkman didn’t like Cooper’s Indians, but he found the Trapper authentic: “Men as true, generous, and kindly as Leatherstocking may still be found among the perilous solitudes of the West” (151). Parkman didn’t comment at all about “Kentucky” language in the book. Not a word. But by 1846 perhaps everyone who went west had learned to speak “Kentucky” the way Cooper had taught them.

Flanagan gives the impression that Parkman was mostly disappointed with Cooper’s scenery: “The pictures of scenery are less true to nature than in the previous volumes,” Parkman had written, “and seem to indicate that Cooper had little or no personal acquaintance with the remoter parts of the West” (Flanagan, 102; Parkman, 157). Flanagan omits the following sentence: “The book, however, has several passages of much interest ... ” What Parkman really didn’t like was the character of Obed Bat: “The grand deformity of the story is the wretched attempt at humor in the person of Dr. Obed Battius,” Parkman wrote (see note to 1.89), and we have already seen the foundation of that character in Brackenridge. Parkman might have been more lenient of he had not known the similar character of David Gamut from The Last of the Mohicans or if he had not read the hanging scene in The Spy (1821).

Aside from Parkman, none of Flanagan’s witnesses, in his own words, was “equipped to portray the trans-Mississippi West” (102). All but Parkman and Simms (the only ones who, politics aside, would earn first-rate literary reputations) were threatened by Cooper’s foray up the Missouri, palpably fictional as it was, and all would respond with howls of inauthenticity. And Flanagan himself, recipient of the first Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature award for “contributions to the study of Midwestern Literature,” 9 appears to have felt the lingering threat of the eastern interloper — almost certainly in part out of a thoughtless loyalty to the greatest of Mississippi writers. Flanagan was not alone in his era. In the 1950s and 1960s, university presses on both sides of the ‘father of waters’ strove to preserve the literature of the trans-Mississippi and Missouri frontiers. Scholarly editions of expedition journals abounded along with pretentious reprints of the most superficial frontier fiction. Flanagan himself was one of the editors, alongside such giants as John Francis McDermott. But none of them would touch The Prairie.


1 Quoted by James Franklin Beard, “Historical Introduction,” The Last of the Mohicans, p. xv.

2 See Sydney J. Krause, “Cooper’s Literary Offenses: Mark Twain in Wonderland,” New England Quarterly, 38 (September 1965), 291-311.

3 John T. Flanagan, “A Specialist Before My Time,” Minnesota History 46:1 (Spring 1978), 17.

4 Modern Language Quarterly, 2.1 (March 1941), 99.

5 History of the Indian Tribes of North America, Volume 1 (Philadelphia: Frederick W. Greenough, 1838), 104-105. Hall would also use the phrase in his sketches of Cherokee Major Ridge and the Sauk Keokuk in the same volume.

6 (Boston: Cummings, Hilliard, and Company, 1826), p. 239.

7 19 (March 1825), 214-219.

8 [Francis Parkman,] “The Works of James Fenimore Cooper.,” North American Review 74 (1852), 150. Flanagan didn’t quote this bit.

9 Italics ours; “Specialist,” p. 17.

XII. Suggestions for Further Reading

  • Carver, J[onathan]. Travels through the Interior Parts of North-America in the Years 1766, 1767, and 1768. Dublin: S. Price et al., 1779.
  • Fenimore Cooper, James. The Last of the Mohicans; A Narrative of 1757. Ed. James A. Sappenfield and E. N. Feltskog, and with an introduction by James Franklin Beard. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983.
  • Fenimore Cooper, James. The Prairie: A Tale. Edited, with Historical Introduction by James P. Elliott. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985.
  • Franklin, Wayne. James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
  • Fuller, Harlin M., and LeRoy R. Hafen, eds. The Journal of Captain John R. Bell: Official Journalist for the Stephen H. Long Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, 1820. Glendale, California: Arthur H. Clark, 1973.
  • Irving, John Treat, Jr. Indian Sketches Taken During an Expedition to the Pawnee Tribes [1833]. Edited and Annotated by John Francis McDermott. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1955.
  • Irving, Washington. A Tour on the Prairies. Edited with an Introductory Essay by John Francis McDermott. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1956.
  • McDermott, John Francis, Audubon in the West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.
  • McDermott, John Francis. A Glossary of Mississippi Valley French, 1673-1850. St. Louis: Washington University Press, 1941.
  • McDermott, John Francis, ed. Up the Missouri with Audubon: The Journal of Edward Harris. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951.
  • Morse. Jedidiah. A Report to the Secretary of War of the United States, on Indian Affairs. New Haven: S. Converse, 1822.
  • Nuttall, Thomas. A Journal of Travels into the Arkansas Territory during the Year 1819. Philadelphia: Thos. H. Palmer, 1821.
  • Øverland, Orm. The making and meaning of an American classic: James Fenimore Cooper’s The Prairie. New York: Humanities Press, 1973.
  • Viola, Herman. The Indian Legacy of Charles Bird King. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press and Doubleday & Company, 1976.