Cooper’s Indians: A Critique
Presented at the 2ⁿᵈ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1979.
Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 1979 Conference at State University College of New York, Oneonta and Cooperstown. George A. Test, editor. (pp. 63-76).
Copyright © 1979, State University of New York College at Oneonta.
[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]
My task, as I understand it, is to discuss the Indians of northeastern North America as they are depicted in several of the novels of James Fenimore Cooper. This body of literature, the so-called Leatherstocking Tales, includes The Deerslayer, The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, and The Pioneers. A fifth work, The Prairie, is set in Iowa and Missouri, a region far from Cooper Country. Consequently, it will not be part of this presentation.
The Indians of Cooper’s novels have been a theme or matter of concern and debate in a number of scholarly books, essays and articles. Intellectual historians, psycho-historians, students of literature, and others, have approached the topic of Cooper’s Indians from a variety of academic and analytical directions (cf. Walker 1962; House 1965; Hirsch 1971; Slotkin 1973; Railton 1978; Berkhofer 1978). However, few have addressed the details, or, if I may, the anthropological accuracy, of the Indians he described. Instead, most writers have chosen to discuss symbolism, romantic imagery, the dichotomy of savagery and civilization, or the moral polemic of good and evil. The exceptions are of varied quality and purpose (cf. Parker 1954; Wallace 1954; Walker 1962; House 1965; Berkhofer 1978). Parker (1954) and Wallace (1954), participants in the Cooper Centennial celebration held at Cooperstown in 1951, each chose to critique different aspects of Cooper’s Indians. Paul Wallace, the father, incidentally, of Anthony F.C. Wallace, an internationally-known anthropologist and author of The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, an important work on the Iroquois, dealt with two general subject areas. First, he attempted to explain Cooper’s subjective position regarding the categorization of Woodland Indians into two types: the “noble savage” and the “savage fiend,” a fundamental and often discussed theme in Cooper’s writings. The former type, the “noble savage,” is represented by the Delaware, while the latter, “savage fiends,” are associated with the Iroquois or “Mingoes.” Wallace contends that this error in interpretation, or misunderstanding of Eastern Woodland Indian cultural dynamics on Cooper’s part, can be traced to an equivalent error in the source of his information on Indians. It is generally acknowledged that Cooper relied extensively on John Heckewelder’s Account of the History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations, who once inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighboring States, who once inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighboring States , published in 1819. Heckewelder, a Moravian missionary and staunch, if overly zealous, advocate of the Delaware Indians, quite clearly establishes and is the originator of, the good- evil dichotomy later employed by Cooper, at least in terms of its application to the Indians of the Northeast.
Second, Wallace discusses an often debated issue described in Cooper’s The Pioneers. This concerns the appellation “women” as a referent to the Delaware by the Iroquois. Cooper’s writings imply that the term was used in a disparaging manner and numerous contemporary students of Cooper’s works have rushed to clarify, qualify, or correct his apparent error. However, in many cases, the cure has turned out to be worse than the illness. Wallace demonstrates that this entire issue is traceable to a Delaware folk-explanation of their relationship to the Iroquois, detailed again, in Heckewelder. Briefly, this legend or folk-tale outlines and explains the Delaware’s defeat and subsequent subjugation by the Iroquois, making the claim that the Delaware were deceived and tricked into surrender without a fight. A tributary relationship was established, the Iroquois then asserting that the Delaware were “women.” Although there are earlier allusions, this referent was not explicitly applied until 1742 (Goddard 1978:223). Wallace (1954) was apparently the first individual to point out that the term “woman,” as used by contemporary Iroquois, was one not of reproach but rather complimentary or honorable. Whether or not this is precisely the case, or, that this meaning is applicable to an earlier historic period, is difficult to assess. Currently, two words are used by the Iroquois to refer to women. The first is wenon’towisas “women.” The other is nyeosjishaekaye, “she’ll do the hoeing” (Marianne Mithun, personal communication). Neither seems to be judgemental in their use. In Goddard’s (1978:223) summary, he notes that the term “women” as applied to the Delaware denoted that they had no right to sell land or engage in war. This metaphorical status of Delaware as women was reflected by their dwelling on Iroquois land. This is confirmed by the fact that upon their reaching nominally Wyandot territory farther west in Pennsylvania they reasserted their independence and at the same time their status as males.
The metaphor was rhetorically useful, and many attempts have been made to read into it a number of other, and deeper meanings. For example, House (1965:63 fn), eschewing Occam’s razor, and adding confusion to an already problematical situation, offers the following scenario. Uncas, one of Cooper’s Delaware Indians, has a turtle tattooed on his chest. Cooper s literary vision is said to be based on ancient Greece, an example of which is his comparison of Indians with Spartans and Apollo. The Delaware were known to the Iroquois as “women.” House then concludes that since the turtle was the Creek symbol of “woman,” the direct relationship of Cooper’s literary vision and ancient Greece is established. I am afraid, however, that the explanation and reason for Uncas’s turtle tattoo is less esoteric and more mundane than House suspected. The Delaware, into the Colonial period, were organized into three corporate social units called phratries, essentially, groupings of clans. These phratries were named Turtle, Turkey and Wolf (Goddard 1978:225), representing totems or eponyms for each. Uncas’s turtle simply signified his phratry affiliation, and nothing more.
Parker’s (1954) brief paper dealt with several more specific issues than Wallace’s. For example, Parker notes that Cooper had erroneously placed Uncas, an actual historic figure I shall discuss at a later point, in New York, although he was a Connecticut Indian. Also, he has New Jersey Delawares on Lake Champlain. A more glaring mistake is to have Lower Mohawk Indians aiding the French instead of being allied with the English as they, in fact, were. Finally, Cooper depicts the Huron as a viable and effective fighting force, when in reality they were far from such in the eighteenth century. They had been almost totally decimated by the Iroquois by 1649-50. Shortly thereafter, remnant groups of Huron traveled west into the Upper Great Lakes area, joining with the Tionontati, also Iroquoian speakers, thus forming the Wyandot. Estimates of Wyandot warriors range between 150 and 250, never approaching the military effectiveness or power of the early seventeenth-century Huron (Tooker 1978:398).
Other critiques have, in general, approached Cooper’s work with less detail. Walker (1962) and Berkhofer (1978) are appropriate examples, each noting that Cooper had very little first-hand knowledge of either Iroquoian or Algonquian Indians; that he confused tribal designations and origins; that historical events and detail are often reported inaccurately; and that descriptions of Indian cultural systems and dynamics are, for the most part, piecemeal fabrications and certainly naive.
I do not wish to reiterate, any more than I already have, what has been written in regard to Cooper’s Indians. Instead, I will discuss the specifics of, first, the main Indian characters of his novels; second, the Indian cultural systems at contact, i.e., a synchronic reconstruction of Indian populations and lifeways at that point in time when they were first encountered by white Europeans; and, finally, the description of Indian populations during the time-frame and settings of Cooper’s novels, ca. 1740 to 1800.
The three Indians of import and focus in the Leatherstocking Tales are Uncas, Chingachgook and Magua. The first two are identified as Delaware, while Magua is a Huron. Cooper’s choice of names is interesting, and, as far as I know, none of them have been examined in detail until now.
Uncas is portrayed as the son of Chingachgook, a Delaware chief. In Walker’s (1962:54) words, Uncas is “strong-bodied, agile, swift of foot, and graceful in all his movements ... a specimen of ... flawless physique.” He shows great promise as a warrior, and clearly demonstrates a noble and chivalrous nature toward Cora Munro, his unrequited love. He dies stoically and with honor at the hands of Magua after Cora is killed by another Huron.
This heroic and great-hearted Uncas, however, bears little relationship to the historical figure, Uncas, undoubtedly the source of the name and model of Cooper’s character. The “real” Uncas was a factionalist chief who had broken away from his people, the Pequot-Mohegan of eastern Connecticut, becoming sachem, that is, chief, of the smaller Mohegan tribe in the 1630’s (Jennings 1975:202). The Pequots and Mohegans were related by kinship, not differing culturally. However, Uncas sought to precipitate hostilities between the groups in order to enhance his power. Ultimately, by instigating a war he hoped to wrest the grand sachemship from Sassacus, a Pequot, thereby attaining absolute leadership over both the Pequot and Mohegan (Jennings 1975:199-203). To accomplish this plan, Uncas manipulated the English into a war against the Pequots. This was done by his telling malicious tales of supposed Indian threats to attack English settlements. When, in 1637, war finally broke-out, Uncas allied himself and the Mohegans with the English. In the so-called “Pequot War,” the Pequot were nearly totally destroyed, Sassacus was killed and Uncas stepped into the grand sachemship. In 1643, Uncas, acting at the behest of English officials, murdered a hostage Narragansett chief named Miantonomo (Jennings 1975:267-268).
Though often at odds with neighboring Indian groups, the Mohegan, following the Pequot war, remained friendly to the English, fighting as their allies in King Philip’s War. This latter conflict, an uprising of southern New England Indians in a last desperate resistance to the colonists in 1675-76, resulted in exceedingly heavy Indian casualties and the virtual extinction of some groups (Salwen 1978:171-173; Jennings 1975). Uncas and his Mohegans were active participants with the English in this bloodbath.
Clearly, Uncas was an opportunistic, complicitous, malicious Indian, with little sympathy for his kind or their cause or state of affairs vis-a-vis the colonists. As a namesake for The Last of the Mohicans, or as a model, he left much to be desired. That he was one of the “greatest chiefs of Algonquin peoples” (Walker 1962:51) is certainly questionable. That Cooper applied this name to his heroic figure is perplexing. The role of Uncas, as outlined here, is not a result of revisionist history, but was probably recognized by nineteenth-century historians and writers. At best, the choice by Cooper was a careless one. (The name Uncas appears in a number of Puritan histories of New England. Cooper apparently read some of these, selecting the name for use in his novels. I am indebted to James H. Pickering for offering this information.)
The name Magua and its application in Cooper’s novels is interesting, if not more complicated, than the previous name. Magua was born a Huron and later adopted by Mohawk Indians. He is depicted as the archvillain, ferocious, savage, maniacal, evil and brutal. These traits are a result of not only his Mingo Indianness, i.e., a genetic predisposition toward meanness, but also because of his encounters with the French, who introduced him to whisky (Walker 1962:56). Even so, at times he reveals qualities of “innate bravery and dignity,” providing a hedge against any oversimplification of the “good” versus the “bad” Indian (Walker 1962:56).
An analysis and etymology of the name Magua reveals some interesting and curious issues. To start with, Magua is clearly not an Iroquoian name or word, even though Cooper uses it as a name for a Huron, an Iroquoian speaking group. Iroquoian has no labial phonemes, e.g., there are no sounds made with the touching of the lips, like “b,” “p,” and “m” (cf. Lounsbury 1978). On that basis alone, the name Magua is inappropriate and is apparently an error, or at least as good an example of careless judgment on Cooper’s part as was the use of Uncas. However, in examining the etymology of the word, which Cooper had found in Heckewelder, questions are raised. Magua is a variant form of Maqua, an early reference to the Mohawk Indians, Iroquoian speakers residing in the lower and middle Mohawk Valley of New York State. The spelling “Mohawk” has been in general use since 1747. Other forms include Mahnukes, 1666; Mawhankes, 1648; Mohacks, 1673; Mohaggs 1691; Mohaukes 1666; Mohoggs, 1702, and others. Etymologically, the earliest correct spelling is Mohowawogs, 1638 [Roger Williams]. This word is a Narragansett or Massachusett word for “man-eaters,” with the English plural -s added. It is cognate with the Unami mhune, “cannibal monsters” (cf. Fenton and Tooker 1978:478-479). All three of the groups just mentioned are Algonquian speakers.
Mohowawog was the name applied to the Mohawk by neighboring Algonquian speakers. The Mohawks’ name for themselves is kanye’keha ka’, i.e., “people of kanye ke’, which has long been rendered as “people of the place of the flint” (Fenton and Tooker 1978:478). In any case, Mohowawog was applied both in fear and loathing by the Algonquian speakers, since the Mohawk were, at least ritually, cannibals.
The referents used by various Indian groups in identifying themselves and others follows a well-known pattern. In general, the term used by a group to designate themselves often means “men,” “real men,” “the people,” “human beings,” or “people of” someplace or another. Conversely, appellations for other, foreign groups were often disparaging. For example, Eskimo is derivative from a Cree designation meaning “eaters of raw flesh,” the Eskimo calling themselves “Inuit,” “the people.” The Mohawk called populations north of them “Radirondak,” “bark-eaters,” from whence comes Adirondack, and so on.
Returning, now, to Magua, Cooper appears to be in error in choosing the name, which, again, is not Iroquoian but Algonquian, to apply to a Huron Indian. However, the name, in a literary or symbolic sense, seems appropriate given the fierce and savage character he created for his novels. Whether Cooper was conscious of the ramifications I have mentioned of the choice of the name is unknown.
Chingachgook offers little excitement. Etymologically it is a Unami Delaware word meaning “Big Snake,” “ching,” “big,” and “achgook,” “snake.” Cooper took the term directly from Heckewelder. However, it has been pronounced incorrectly since its appearance in Cooper’s works. It is pronounced properly “chingachgook,” the ch- in initial position resembling a gutteral “h” [“hing’”]. Heckewelder, a German, rendered the spelling as Cooper wrote it, but the pronunciation would be as in Heckewelder’s native language. In the recent past, Mark Twain noted that it was pronounced “Chicago,” while a reviewer in TV Guide, in a discussion of the BBC-PBS production of The Last of the Mohicans, “translated” it “he-whose-name-is-hard-to-pronounce.” These interpretations can now be dispensed with.
At the time of the earliest European contacts in the Northeast in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Indians had been in-place for about twelve thousand years. Initially, the broadest classification of these various populations is linguistic. Toward this end, the Indians of the Northeast constitute two language families, Iroquoian and Algonquian. The latter family is further divided into an Eastern and central branch. From all of the available evidence, both linguistic and archaeological, the Iroquoian family is apparently intrusive. However, no hypotheses have been forwarded regarding a possible homeland. In any case, it is generally agreed that the Iroquoian linguistic family has long occupied the area of central New York and north-central Pennsylvania, extending back in time perhaps in excess of four thousand years (Lounsbury 1978:336).
Within each language family are present a considerable number of cultural groups. For example, there were at least sixteen different groups of Iroquoian speakers including the St. Lawrence Iroquois, the Huron, Wyandot, Seneca, Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, the Susquehannock, the Nottoway, the Tuscarora, the Wenroe, the Erie and several others. Incidentally, the Susquehannock were called “Minguas” by the Delaware, from whence comes “Mingoes,” a generic term applied by Cooper and others to the Iroquois (Mithun n.d.:2).
The Eastern Algonquians, geographically placed along the Atlantic coast from the Maritimes to North Carolina, were comprised of approximately twenty language groups. These included the Micmac, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Etchemin, Eastern and Western Abenaki, Massachusett, Mohegan-Pequot, Mahican, Unami, Munsee, Montauk and others. The Delaware spoke Unami and Munsee languages. The Western Algonquians do not figure in this paper, being outside the scope of Cooper’s writing.
For the most part, the aboriginal populations of the Northeast were situated along the Atlantic coast or adjacent to river and lake systems in the interior. Mountainous or heavily forested regions away from waterways were generally avoided although hunting parties periodically entered these areas. Proximity to marine, riverine, and lacustrine environments assured human populations access to the greatest number and variety of food resources.
The procurement or exploitation of food resources, i.e., subsistence practices, took several forms in northeastern North America. At contact, the majority of groups were horticulturalists with domesticated crops providing a great percentage of both food bulk and nutritional requirements. Corn, beans and squash comprise the edible domesticates. These were supplemented by gathered wild plant foods including nuts, berries, roots and fibers, wild greens, and other edibles. These procurement activities were accomplished and directed primarily by women. Animal resources were, of course, an important aspect of the diet. Men were responsible for hunting and, to a varying extent, fishing. The whole spectrum of available mammals was exploited with white-tailed deer, raccoon, woodchuck, and bear being the most popular. All sorts of small animals, e.g., squirrels, rabbits, mice, etc., were also eaten. Fowl were taken, including turkey, passenger pigeon, ducks and others. However, although there is clearly a great diversity in hunted mammals, the deer was by far the most important, at times, providing ninety percent of the total diet (Salwen 1978).
Fishing, in all areas, was a major subsistence activity. Marine and fresh water fish species were abundant, their availability dependent, of course, upon locality. Coastal groups exploited a variety of salt water fish and mammals including cod, salmon, smelt, herring, sturgeon, eels, porpoises, seals, whales and others. Lobster and crabs were taken along with other shellfish. Waterfowl were also hunted. Inland groups harvested primarily fresh water fish and shellfish including walleye, sucker, pike, trout, mussels and clams. Those populations situated on rivers that drained directly to the sea could depend upon runs of anadromous fish like herring, salmon and shad. Amphibians, e.g., turtles and frogs, were also taken as a food source. It is clear that nearly anything that walked, crawled, swam, flew or grew was regarded as a food resource (cf. Sturtevant 1978 for detailed discussions of separate Indian populations in the Northeast).
Social organization among Indian populations in the Northeast was varied. Social units ranged from families and households, among small groups of hunters and gatherers, to a village or several villages, as illustrated by agriculturalists like the Iroquois. Families and households formed characteristically a unit of social organization termed a “band.” Bands are aggregates of families that are loosely integrated through kinship and marriage alliances. Often bands or aggregates of families form ad hoc to carry out functions such as communal hunting, fishing, or to exchange women with another band, since bands are commonly exogamous units. Formal, differentiated institutions, e.g., economic, political, ideological, and others, are absent. Instead, the family is that unit responsible for the undertaking of roles normally performed by such institutions. The band is, therefore, a familistic order in terms of both social and cultural organization. Leadership is generally ephemeral, with positions of “authority” being occupied by charismatic individuals. I have italicized “authority” for the simple reason that it may be too strong a term to describe such activity among the Indians. It is probably more accurate to state that leadership roles are held by important, influential, or specially talented individuals, for example, an outstanding hunter, and recognized by the rest of the band. Again, these roles are ad hoc and transient. Adjudication of conflict many times is dealt with by custom, consensus, consulting elders, peer-group influence, public sanction, or other means. Feud is the most extreme form of adjudication, although the actual facts regarding this level of conflict, i.e., armed conflict with the express purpose to injure an offending individual or group, are surprising. That is, peace is the normal condition, with fighting a rare event, consciously avoided by band members. The danger of feud and resultant injuries or death is appreciated by everyone, since within such small populations, the loss of one or two adult individuals would seriously threaten the band’s capabilities to survive.
Shaman, part-time magico-religious specialists, are probably the most influential people in band societies in northeastern North America. As intermediaries between the natural and supernatural world, and capable of curing sick or injured persons and performing divination and sorcery, these individuals hold extraordinary power. After all, if one could heal people, could not one equally harm them? (See Service 1979 for a complete survey of band social organizations.)
Social organization at the other end of the scale, that illustrated by agriculturalists, is based upon the unit of a village or aggregation of villages. The term most often and possibly inaccurately applied to these social units is “tribe.” Currently, there is a debate over the concept and definition of tribe (cf. Fried 1975). To a certain extent, this discussion has been enlivened by the litigation over Indian land claim cases. Of special note are claims made by various Indian populations in Maine, Massachusetts and here in New York State.
In any case, tribes are most often defined as social aggregates, occupying and possessing, to whatever degree, territory, with characteristics of corporateness (e.g., control over admission to membership, clear recognition of rights and obligations, jural equality, and perpetuity), and an explicit, recognized ethnic identity and purpose.
Leadership roles manifest themselves in different ways. Among the Iroquois, for example, the most visible leaders were of two classes; war chiefs and civil chiefs. The latter are called sachems, a word derived from the Algonquian term Sakamak or Sakamaker [sakamak] [sakam] (cf. Erickson 1978; Goddard 1978). Sagamore, the term most often applied to Algonquian civil chiefs, is also derived from and represents a corruption or Anglicization of Sakamak. The office of civil chief was hereditary, being passed through a matrilineage or matriclan to an appointed male individual. Women, in fact, were the power behind the authority vested in the male sachems. This power included the right to appoint and depose the civil chiefs. War chiefs attained their positions through merit. Even so, to function effectively in this role they required the support of the local group, including the women.
Among the Delaware and several other Algonquian speaking groups in the Northeast, similar leadership positions existed, i.e., civil and war chiefs, or, simply village or tribal chiefs. However, among many Algonquian groups, for example, the Delaware, Maliseet-Passamaquoddy , Narragansett, Eastern Abenaki, and others, the hereditary or nominally hereditary leadership positions passed through the male line, that is, patrilineally. Although the overwhelming majority of leadership roles were filled by men, there are instances of women holding such positions of authority (cf. Feest 1978; Simmons 1978).
Several other positions of leadership and authority existed among agricultural groups. One of these was an orator, called by an appropriate title depending on his tribal affiliation. Among the Iroquois, they were called “Pine Tree Chiefs” or “merit chiefs.” Their role was to serve as emissaries on diplomatic missions between and among groups, and to provide liaison and to act as intermediaries between the councils of civil chiefs and the general populace. Additional adjudicative bodies present among agricultural groups included councils of village chiefs or elders, councils of women and others.
One of the well-known social and political institutions in the Northeast was the League of the Iroquois, a confederation of, initially, the five New York Iroquois tribes. This highly touted and often idealized political unit was, in essence, a loose alliance formed among the five Iroquois nations to face effectively the threat of European incursions into their homeland. It most likely formed in the mid-to late-sixteenth century and persisted until the American Revolution. Similarly formed alliance structures existed throughout the Northeast.
Settlements for nearly all groups in the Northeast were similar. Dwellings, for the most part, differed in size and type according to the time of year and several other factors. Settlement size varied according to the same variables. For example, villages, a clustering or nucleation of relatively large populations, represent long or extended periods of occupation and sedentism. In general, a number of houses (for some Iroquois villages, more than forty) were positioned in a cluster, at times, protected by substantial stockades or palisades. House types were the so-called “long houses.” These were rectangular structures framed with poles and saplings, and covered with bark or woven mats. Roofs were arbor or quonset shaped. Typical houses were twenty to twenty-five feet wide and one hundred or more feet in length. A house excavated near Syracuse, formerly Onondaga territory, measured 327 feet: in length (Tuck 1971). Maximum village populations appear to have occurred in winter, with dispersals of parties of people at other times of year to fish, hunt and carry out other seasonal activities, including warfare. At seasonal camps, structures were smaller and less substantial. Typically, these houses were round or oval, although sometimes rectangular, with a domed or arbor-shaped roof. A light frame of saplings was covered with bark or woven mat. Seasonal camps were usually occupied by one or two nuclear families and consisted of only a few small structures. Hunting and gathering bands’ settlements were of the same configuration.
This, then, in the broadest of brushstrokes, is a picture of northeastern North American Indians at the time of their earliest encounter with White Europeans.
What can be said about these groups at the time of Cooper’s novels? That is, what is an accurate portrayal of the Indians in the Northeast from about 1740 to 1800, the time-frame for his Leatherstocking Tales?
From the outset, it is clear and surely there is consensus, that Cooper was a novelist and not all that interested in, nor capable of, presenting an accurate historical or anthropological rendering of the time period in question. I do not really think any responsible person has ever claimed he did, so we can dispense with any straw men. But, still, our intellectual curiosity drives us to consider what the situation of Cooper Country Indians was, and I am hopeful I have not presumed beyond acceptable boundaries in claiming this. In this matter, I will consider only the Huron, the Delaware, and Iroquois.
As I mentioned briefly earlier in this paper, the Huron were a viable social and political entity until the mid-seventeenth century. Traditional Huron society, like nearly all Northeastern Indian populations, began disintegrating following a series of epidemics of smallpox, measles, typhus, and other diseases, introduced by Europeans, in the 1620’s and 30’s (Brasser 1478). Native populations lacked immunity against these diseases and resultant deaths were catastrophic. Post- epidemic populations were often fifty percent less than pre-epidemic figures. In many cases the mortality rates reached seventy to eighty percent of a population (Brasser 1978; Heidenreich 1978).
By the 1640’s, Iroquois warfare on the Huron was taking its toll. Revenge and blood feud were the original aims of these hostilities, and at a later point, the acquisition of furbearing territory in Canada (Beidenreich 1978). The Huron never effectively faced the Iroquois threat. By 1649, what little remained of the Huron abandoned Huronia, their homeland. Some found refuge at missions in Quebec; others fled west joining with the Tionontati (Petun) and later to the Neutral and Erie. A number dispersed to, and intermarried with, Ottawa populations, while a large part of the remaining Huron were adopted and assimilated by the Iroquois (Heidenreich 1978). Without doubt, Huron Indians, as described so vividly by Cooper, had ceased to exist almost a century before the time-frame of his Leatherstocking Tales. His depiction is pure fiction and has little basis in historical or anthropological fact.
I have, of necessity, chosen to discuss the Iroquois as a group rather than as separate tribes simply because this is how Cooper envisioned them. You will recall that he called them Mingoes, a generic applied to the Iroquois by Heckewelder, although, in truth, it was a referent used by the Delaware toward the Susquehannock, an Iroquoian-speaking group.
In terms of historical and demographic accuracy, Cooper is closest to the mark in his rendering of the Iroquois. Although all of the five nations were in social upheaval and populations had dwindled as a result of migration, disease and warfare, they remained a political and military force of significance.
Throughout the eighteenth century Iroquois groups remained, to varying degrees, in their original homelands. However, a number of factors affected the stability of these populations. Using the Mohawk as an example, and cautioning that they do not necessarily reflect what happened to the other tribes, we can see these factors at work.
In the 1660’s and 1670’s a number of Iroquois, particularly the Mohawk, migrated to Jesuit missions near Montreal. By the middle of the eighteenth century several other settlements were established taking additional Iroquois from New York State, including the Onondaga. By 1700 nearly two-thirds of the Mohawk had moved from their homeland to Canada. In 1704 English missionary activity began in earnest in the Mohawk Valley with the work of the Society of the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. The push was on to convert all of the Mohawks, one way or another. During this period Mohawk settlements were located at Fort Hunter and Canajoharie. In 1712 Palatines (German Protestant refugees from the Palatinate) began settling in the Schoharie Valley, moving into the Mohawk Valley after 1720. By 1743 most of the Mohawk remaining in their valley were nominally Christians. Throughout, the Mohawk continued to participate in the fur trade, from not only the Mohawk Valley, but also from the Susquehanna Valley where a number had settled at a village named Oquaga.
During the French and Indian War not only Mohawk, but some Oneida, Onondaga and others, fought alongside the English. By 1773 the Mohawk numbered over four hundred, still settled at Fort Hunter and Canajoharie. By the end of the American Revolution, during which the Mohawk and other Iroquois fought with the English, virtually none remained. The migration to Canada was complete. The fate of destroyed settlements and scattered populations befell all of the Iroquois, and the famed confederacy collapsed (cf. Tooker 1978).
By the end of the Dutch period in 1664, and as a result of previous conflicts with the Dutch, the Delaware had already begun withdrawing from their homeland. In the eighteenth century, into the French and Indian War, these trends continued, with various groups of Unami and Munsee Delaware speakers moving into central and western Pennsylvania. The moves westward increased as what is today New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware and southeastern New York became major colonial centers and settlements.
The fragmentation, dispersal and subsequent locations of various Delaware groups is exceedingly complex. Eventually, they found their way to settlements in Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma. By the end of the American Revolution none of the Delaware were east of northeastern Ohio (cf. Goddard 1978).
It is clear, therefore, that no one, not even James Fenimore Cooper, knew who the last of the Mohicans was.
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- Fried, M.H, (1975), The Notion of Tribe. Cummings Publishing: Menlo Park, California.
- Goddard, I. (1978), “Delaware.” In Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 15, pp. 213-239. W.C. Sturtevant, editor. Smithsonian Institution.
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