Guides in the Wilderness: An Extract, Glossary, and Chart of Cooper’s Fictional and Factual Boat Journeys on Lake Ontario

Robert D. Madison (Northwestern University) with Mary K. Madison (Northeastern University)

Presented at the 4ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1982.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 1982 Conference at State University College of New York, Oneonta and Cooperstown (pp. 55-70). George A. Test, editor.

Copyright © 1982, State University College of New York, Oneonta.

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

THE reader of The Pathfinder finds himself in two wildernesses: that of the endless forest and that of the inland sea. In a book where few characters can see clearly — literally or figuratively — it’s no wonder that events themselves are deliberately portrayed with some confusion. The Scud’s passage through the storm is one such case: not only does the heavy use of nautical terms give an impression rather than a picture to the unversed reader, but the changes in the state of geography also often obscure our idea of just where the Scud is supposed to be. The following extract, glossary, and map are meant to help clear up some of these problems by showing the basis of Cooper’s knowledge of seamanship on the Lakes and its transformation into the art of the novel.

In his first Preface to The Pathfinder Cooper remarks,

It may strike the novice as an anachronism, to place vessels on Ontario, in the middle of the eighteenth century, but, in this particular, facts will fully bear out all the licence of the fiction. Although the precise vessels mentioned in these pages may never have existed on that water, or anywhere else, others so nearly resembling them are known to have navigated that inland sea, even at a period much earlier than the one just mentioned, as to form a sufficient authority for their introduction into a work of fiction. It is a fact not generally remembered, however well known it may be, that there are isolated spots, along the line of the great lakes that date, as settlements, as far back, as many of the oldest American towns, and which were the seats of a species of civilization, long before the greater portion of even the original states was rescued from the wilderness. 1

Cooper is undoubtedly referring to the evolutions of the French on the Great Lakes and especially to the work of Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who in the 1670s and 80s was the first European to make an extensive attempt to open the lower lakes to trade and navigation. From the published accounts of La Salle’s experiences or from his discussions with other historians, Cooper may have learned the details of the building of the Griffin (a vessel very like the Scud) and its passage through a great storm on one of the upper lakes. He may also have read of the treachery of a pilot that resulted in the loss of one of La Salle’s vessels on Lake Ontario itself. 2

But for the delineation of scenery Cooper relied on his own experiences on Lake Ontario as a midshipman in 1808. The heart of a sketch he wrote of the life of his commander, Melancthon Taylor Woolsey, is the account of a small-boat journey from Oswego to Niagara. 3 The reader is encouraged to compare the reminiscent tone of this passage to the description of the Scud’s passage along the same shore in Chapter XIX of The Pathfinder (p. 287). The coincidence of the two routes is shown graphically on the map (below). The outline of this map is based on the “General Map” by Lewis Evans, as published in the SUNY edition of The Pathfinder (facing p. 234). The chart shows the routes of Cooper’s boat journey in 1808 and the fictional route of the Scud. Evans’s map is one of very few which depict the western end of Lake Ontario in accord with the description in The Pathfinder. Important places mentioned in The Pathfinder or in the sketch of Woolsey have been labelled, following Cooper’s spelling. The numerals which accompany the Scud’s course refer to the following episodes in The Pathfinder:

  1. Arrowhead is apprehended on the lake (p. 218)
  2. Jasper is deprived of command (p. 226)
  3. The Scud lies-to (p. 233)
  4. They sight the garrison (p. 238)
  5. The Scud is put before the wind (p. 240)
  6. The Scud meets Le Montcalm (p. 241)
  7. The Scud anchors (p. 258)
  8. Le Montcalm chases the Scud (p. 288)
  9. The Scud enters the islands at the outlet of the Lake (p. 289)

A Glossary of Nautical Terms in The Pathfinder by Mary K. Madison

COOPER’s sea tales have many words that seem foreign to the landsman, and it is doubly frustrating to find that a desk dictionary can’t supply the necessary definitions. Most readers of Cooper first encounter heavy doses of sea language in The Pathfinder, the most “nautical” of his “forest” tales. The glossary below provides a supplement to Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (Webster’s Eighth). The numbers in parentheses refer to typical occurrences in the Signet edition of The Pathfinder, a convenient and popular reading text. For scholarly purposes, readers will wish to consult The Pathfinder or The Inland Sea, ed. Richard D. Rust (Albany: SUNY Press, 1981).

The following works provided definitions or suggestions for the present glossary:

  • Falconer’s Marine Dictionary (1780): A Reprint. Devon: David L Charles, 1970. The Mariner’s Dictionary, or American Seaman’s Vocabulary. Washington: William Duane, 1805. Microprint, AAS (Readex).
  • Noah Webster. A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. 1806, rpt. New York: Crown, 1970.
  • ------. An American Dictionary of the English Language. 1828, rpt. Anaheim: Foundation for American Christian Education, 1967.
  • ------. ------. Springfield: Merriam, 1851. I. R. Butts.
  • The Merchant’s and Mechanic’s Assistant, 3ʳᵈ ed. Boston: Butts, 1858.
  • The American Heritage Dictionary. William Morris, ed. Boston: American Heritage and Houghton Mifflin, 1973.
  • Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. Henry Bosley, ed. in chief. Springfield: Merriam, 1974.

The original idea for a Pathfinder glossary came from Richard D. Rust. Other help came from Thomas Philbrick, R. D. Madison, and James S. Bercaw, all of whom I wish to thank here.

a-: (before a word)
on or towards, as a-lee, a-starboard [170.14]
usually inside a ship; here, alongside [89.14]
all hands:
the ship’s whole crew [39.18]
balance reef:
a reef band that crosses a sail diagonally and is used to contract it in a storm [216.18]
bear up:
to change the course of a vessel in order to make it run before the wind [265.45]
better end:
that part of a cable which extends behind the fastening point when a vessel rides at anchor [238.22]
boarding pike:
an iron spike on a wooden staff, used to repel boarders [189.18]
the two curved sides of a vessel that together form the bow [191.11]
boxing (about the world):
going completely around [395.13]
brake (of the pump):
a brake pump is one whose handle is worked in a see-saw fashion; used for pumping water out of the hull [214.8]
breast up:
to move the head of a vessel nearer the wind and the intended course [372.35]
bring up:
to drop anchor, and thus stop a vessel [370.22]
by the wind:
the course of a vessel sailing as nearly in the direction of the wind as possible [225.8]
a room or apartment in a vessel where officers usually reside [17.31]
capstan bars:
the levers which are inserted into the holes of a capstan to turn it [97.19]
to bring the direction of the wind on one side of the vessel, from a position facing directly into the wind [207.45]
claw off:
to gain distance to windward from a lee shore in order to avoid shipwreck [235.17]
near the wind [91.16]
reefed as much as possible [223.2]
an iron lever (crowbar) with a sharp point on one end and two claws at the other [97.20]
crowning a cable:
splicing the end of a rope to prevent unravelling [162.18]
cut the anchor cable, to free a vessel quickly [238.30]
deep seas (lead):
the type of lead and line (leadline) used in very deep water [89.20]
to sail around an object (e.g. a line of ships or cape of land) so that the object is between the vessel and its starting point [31.20]
first rate:
(after the rating of ships) the largest size [162.5]
to fasten a fish, or long piece of wood, to a spar to strengthen it after it has cracked or otherwise been damaged [368.45]
foremast hand:
a common sailor (as opposed to an officer) on a merchant vessel [211.42]
the extreme end of the forecastle in the angle of the bows [213.41]
having three or more masts, each with its full complement of square sails [222.43]
gear (gore):
the angle by which a sail widens from top to bottom [368.44]
ground tackle:
the ropes, cables, anchors or other tackle used to anchor a vessel [229.6]
gunner’s handspike:
a shorter and flatter bar than an ordinary handspike, used for moving cannon [97.20]
having two masts, one of which has square sails, the other, fore-and-aft sails [17.40]
here, quickly and excessively [87.22]
haul upon it (the wind):
to turn a vessel’s course nearer to the direction from which the wind blows [91.26]; also haul up [372.31]
sailing in the general direction from which the wind comes [225.10]
heave the lead:
to find the depth of the water and the nature of the bottom, by means of a lead weight on a line [212.5]
heave to:
to bring the ship’s head to the wind and stop her motion [215.34]
tiller; to put the helm down (downwind) is to bring the head of the vessel up to the wind; putting the helm up makes the vessel fall off, or head away from thewind [191.9, 208.1]
holding ground:
bottom selected for an anchorage [213.17]
Cape Horn, the southernmost extremity of the continent of South America [23.4]
kid and can:
a small wooden tub (for food) and drinking cup [23.31]
a nautical mile, approximately 6,070 feet [193.32]
the left side of a vessel to a person looking from the stern toward the bow [31.12]; the larboard beam is the center of the left side of a vessel [221.15]
lay up:
go up; also, to put a vessel in dock or some other place of safety [91.15]
lie off and on:
to sail back and forth in order to stay near a certain point [358.42]
a device for gauging the speed of a vessel through the water [215.17]
long bowls:
sailors’ term for the firing of ships at a great distance from each other [30.28]
long thirty-two pounder:
a long-barrelled cannon firing a 32 pound shot [41.43]
low sail:
reduced sail [368.28]
lower yard:
the lowest, and usually longest, spar set athwart the mast to support or extend a square sail [224.19]
make him suck:
as a pump’s sucking when there is no more water, to show there is nothing more to be got out [212.17]
to tie, or secure with a seizing [27.5]
on board:
on or in a vessel
on a wind:
sailing closer to the direction from which the wind comes, than to the opposite direction [266.28]
— — pounder:
see long thirty-two pounder
quarter-deck officer:
usually a commissioned officer; one who is berthed in the after part of a vessel, and who may thus frequent the quarter-deck (a place usually off-limits to common sailors) [211.43]
the several stations where men are posted; but also as close quarters — strong barriers of wood stretching across a merchant vessel to provide protection while being boarded in a battle [30.29]
a sufficient length of cable, drawn up on deck before the anchor is cast loose from the bow, to let the anchor sink to the bottom without interruption, allowing the anchor to be forced deeper into the ground [234.23]
rated able:
classified as an able-bodied seaman, i.e. one who is not only able to work, but also well acquainted with his duty as a seaman [162.45]
(dead) reckoning:
the determination of a vessel’s position by means of course and speed rather than by celestial observation [92.35]
Mabel’s error in supposing that round-rigged must be the opposite of square-rigged; no rig is thus called [163.11]
round shot:
a cannonball [161.6]
round turn:
the situation of the two cables of a vessel which, when moored, has swung the wrong way three times successively [169.23]
running rigging:
lines which can move, or run, and are used to manage the sails; as opposed to standing rigging, which supports the masts, and does not move in the normal management of a vessel [187.32]
running in:
sailing swiftly or easily towards the land [213.36]
sail trimmer:
one whose duty in a battle is to manage the sails [364.32]
sentry go:
the order to the new sentry to proceed to the relief of the previous one [267.28]
short allowance:
a smaller quantity of victuals and drink than usually allotted; thus, a deficiency of any item [161.31]
short canvas:
reduced sail for heavy winds [372.6]
short round:
very nearly in the same spot; taking very little room to perform a maneuver [91.15]
slip his cable:
to let go one’s anchor rope, but here Cap means to die [391.16, 394.17]
a small sailing vessel resembling a brig, carrying a main and fore mast and a supplementary trysail mast close behind the main mast [119.21]
a rope put out from the end or side of a vessel at anchor, made fast to the cable; also, to turn a vessel by means of such lines [375.36, 161.
(standing) bowsprit:
a large spar projecting over the stem, to carry sail forward and support the mast by stays; standing, that is, fixed, not the running (movable) bowsprit usually found in cutters [110.28]
mispronunciation of stern [34.44]
steady drag:
continuous pull [188.15]
storm staysail:
a staysail of reduced dimensions [221.9]
stow (a sail):
to to furl and lash it to its spar, when not in use [216.15]
the course sailed on one tack [266.23]
a batten; here probably a wooden sheerpole or ratline [187.35]
a long oar used in propelling a vessel when becalmed [168.23]
by applying tallow to the bottom of the lead the nature of the substrate (mud, sand, gravel, etc.) can be determined from the sample stuck thereto [213.26]
tiller ropes:
ropes used to assist in steering, usually in rough weather [369.41]
to suspend the outer end of a gaff or boom [169.20]
a rope for hoisting or lowering the top-mast (the second division or segment of the mast) [24.23]
small hawsers used to move vessels around a harbor, or for light moorings [238.19]
trade winds [12.21]
to change direction; to ware ship; to allow a line to run out to some extent; veer and haul is to pull a rope tight by drawing it in and slackening it alternately until the body to which it is applied acquires an additional motion, like the vibrations of a pendulum, so that the rope is strained to a greater tension with more facility and speed [91.25]
to bring a vessel sailing close-hauled to another tack by turning the head away from the wind and causing the vessel to ge nearly all the way round [91.15]
a board fitted over an open port (or, in this case, deck) to deflect water [369.42]
weather helm:
a vessel is said to bear a weather helm when it tends to come up to the wind, a tendency that must be counteracted with the helm [191.31]
a vertical wheel by which motion is communicated to the rudder through the medium of a tiller rope or other device [24.23]
wind’s eye:
the direction from which the wind is blowing [91.13]
York branch:
a pilot of New York; from branch pilot a grade in the station of pilots which implies superior experience and skill; one who is duly authorized to pilot vessels up particular channels and rivers [267.36]
a general name for a stripling in the service [91.37]


Excerpt from Cooper’s Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers,volume 2 (1846).

The Oneida was launched early in the spring, and was immediately equipped for the lake. Erskine’s arrangement, as it was called, occurring soon after, however, she was not immediately used. Woolsey now determined to get a view of Niagara, as he did not know at what moment he might be ordered back to the seaboard. Manning and provisioning the brig’s launch, therefore, he and Mr. Cooper sailed from Oswego, late in June, 1809. The commencement of this little voyage was favorable, and it was thought the boat would reach the river in the course of eight-and-forty hours; but the winds proved very variable, and came out fresh ahead. Instead of making the passage in the anticipated two days, the launch was a week out, encountering much bad weather. Relying on his sails, Woolsey had taken but four men, and this was not a force to do much with the oars, so that turning to windward was the business most of the time. Three times the boat beat up to a headland, called the Devil’s Nose, and twice it was compelled, by the wind and sea, to bear up, before it could weather it. Four nights were passed in the boat, two on the beach, and one in a hut on the banks of the Genessee, a few miles below the falls, and of course quite near the present site of Rochester.

All the south shore of Ontario, with here and there some immaterial exception, was then a wilderness! Four days out, the provisions failed, and there was actually a want of food. It was not easy to starve so near the forest, certainly, but the men had been improvident, and a fast of a few hours threw Woolsey on his resources. Even the last cracker was eaten, and fish could not be taken. One old seaman had passed forty years on the lake, and he knew the position of every dwelling that stood near its shore. There might have been a dozen of these little clearings between the Oswego and the Niagara, and one that contained three or four log-houses was known to be some two or three leagues distant. There was no wind, and the launch was pulled up to a beach where it was easy to land, and at a point at no great distance from the houses. It was so late, however, that it was not thought expedient to search for the habitations that evening. The whole party was about to bivouac supperless, when Mr. Cooper accidentally came across a hedge-hog, which he killed with the sword of a cane. On this animal all hands supped, and very good eating it proved to be.

The next morning, the two gentlemen, accompanied by the old laker and another man, set out in quest of the log-huts, which stood a mile or two inland. One was found at the end of an hour, but no one was near it. It was inhabited, however, and in a pantry were found two loaves of bread, and a baking of dried whortleberry pies, as well as some milk. Necessity having no law, one loaf, two of the pies, and gallon of milk were sequestered, two silver dollars being left in their places. After breakfasting, and sending the old man to the boat with some food, the two officers followed their pilot toward the other cabins. These were also found, and in them the mistress of the mansion already invaded. A full confession of what had been done followed, and proposal was made to purchase the remainder of the pies. This alarmed the good woman, who returned with the party forthwith, but who took things more composedly when she got her hand on the silver. So difficult was it to obtain flour in those isolated clearings that she could not be tempted to sell any thing else, and the party returned to the boat, with about a fourth of a meal remaining in their possession. A breeze springing up, sail was made, and Woolsey proceeded.

Hunger and head winds again brought the adventurers to a stand. A solitary dwelling was known to be at no great distance inland from the point where the boat now was, and again the party landed. The boat entered by a narrow inlet into a large bay, that was familiarly called Gerundegutt, (Irondoquoit,) and was hauled up for the night. The whole party bivouacked supperless.

In the morning, the two officers and three of the men went in quest of the house, which was found, a mile or two inland. The man who lived here was a cockney, who had left London some fifteen years before, and pitched his tend, as he said himself, twenty miles from his nearest neighbors. He went forty miles to mill, by his account, making most of the journey in a skiff. He had neither bread nor flour to spare, nor would money tempt him. He had four or five sheep, but his wife remonstrated against parting with one of them; she wanted the fleeces to spin, and they had not yet been sheared. Woolsey, however, persuaded the man to have the sheep penned, when the sailors caught a wether, and began to feel his ribs. The animal was pronounced to be in excellent condition. A half eagle was now exhibited, and old Peter, the pilot, got his knife out, ready to work. The woman remonstrated, on a high key, and the cockney vacillated. At one moment he was about to yield; at the next, the clamor of the woman prevailed. This scene lasted near a quarter of an hour, when Woolsey commenced an attack on the lady, by paying compliments to her fine children, three as foul little Christians as one could find on the frontier. This threw the mother off her guard, and she wavered. At this unguarded moment, the man accepted the half eagle, about five times the value of the wether, as sheep sold at that season, in the settled parts of the country, uttered a faint, “Well, captain, since you wish it------” and a signal from Woolsey caused the animal’s throat to be cut incontinently. At the next instant the woman changed her mind; but it was too late, the wether was bleeding to death. Notwithstanding all this, the woman refused to be pacified until Woolsey made her a presentof the skin and fleece, whcn the carcass was borne off in triumph.

This sheep was all the food the party had for that day, and it was eaten without salt or bread. Woolsey contrived to make a sort of soup of it, over which he laughed and feasted, keeping everybody in good humor with his jokes and fine temper. Some scrapings of flour were thrown into the pot, and Woolsey called his dish a “noodle soup.”

These things are related more to show the state of the Ontario frontier five-and-thirty years since, than for any great interest the possess of themselves. Provisions were almost of as much importance among the dwellers of the forest, as with the mariner at sea; money itself, though of rare occurrence among them, becoming nearly valueless compared with flour, in particular. Even the Oswego currency, salt, did not abound among them, the difficulties of transportation rendering it of importance to husband the smallest article of subsistence. The party could get no salt to eat with their mutton.

The day the sheep was purchased, the launch went out, and began to turn to windward, in squally weather and against a foul wind. In crossing Genessee Bay it came near filling in a squall, and it was found necessary to bear up for the river. Here the party passed another night, in a solitary log cabin, at, or near the point where the steamers and other craft must now make their harbor. A little bread was got in exchange for some sheep, and milk was purchased. But six hungry sailors seemed to create a famine wherever they went, and next morning the launch went out, though the wind was still foul. Then came the tug at the Devil’s Nose, which has been mentioned, and the running to leeward to lie to in smooth water. At length the wind came off the land, when the remainder of the distance was run without much difficulty.

It was just as the day broke, that the party in the launch made the mouth of the Niagara. The lantern was still burning in the light-house; the two forts, the town of Newark, and the appearance of cultivation on every side, had an effect like that of enchantment on those who had been coasting a wilderness for a week. Even Oswego, though an old station, had little the air of a peopled country, but the region along the banks of the Niagara had been settled as long as that on the banks of the Hudson, and the transition was like that of suddenly quitting the forest to be placed in the midst of the labors of man. It was the Fourth of July, and the launch entered the river with an American ensign set. It proceeded to Newark, where the two officers took up their quarters for a week. In an hour a deputation from Fort Niagara came across to inquire who had brought the American ensign, for the first time, in a man-of-war’s boat, into that river. On being told, a formal invitation was given to join the officers on the other side in celebrating the day.

Woolsey and his party remained some time in an about the Niagara. He passed up the upper lake, and paid a visit on board the Adams, a brig that belonged to the War Department, which was subsequently taken by the British, at Hull’s surrender, named the Detroit, and cut out from under Fort Erie, by Elliott, in 1812. The return to Oswego was less difficult, and was accomplished in two days. These were the first movements by American man-of=war’s men that ever occurred on the great lakes — waters that have since become famous by the deeds of M’Donough, Perry, and Chauncey.


1 James Fenimore Cooper, The Pathfinder or the Inland Sea, ed. Richard Dilworth Rust (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981) pp. 1-2. Further references to this edition occur within parentheses in the text.

2 Francis Parkman’s La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West was not published until after Cooper’s death, and Jared Sparks’s biography of La Salle came out after the publication of The Pathfinder. Louis Hennepin, La Salle’s companion, had published an account which was first translated into English in 1698. Cooper corresponded with the historian Bancroft whose writings Cooper had referred to in the preparation of the History of the Navy.

3 J. Fenimore Cooper, “Melancthon Taylor Woolsey,” Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1846), II, 113-145. For Woolsey excerpt, see the Appendix to this paper.