Cooper as Historian

Kay S. House (San Francisco State University)

Presented at the 6ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1986.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 1986 Conference at State University College of New York — Oneonta and Cooperstown. George A. Test, editor. (pp. 1-13).

Copyright © 1987 by State University of New York College at Oneonta.

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

IN the last long talk I had with the late Richard Hofstadter, he said that his next big project, which he thought would take some three years to complete, was going to be a thorough reassessment of Cooper’s historical works. He said that he had been told by people whose knowledge he trusted that Cooper’s History of the Navy had never been superseded and that he suspected that Cooper was probably the most important neglected figure in American historiography. Within months, Richard became a victim of leukemia and he obviously never got started on the Cooper project, but the memory of our conversation is partly responsible for this essay.

Cooper’s own remarks about his role as historian — besides the familiar comparison of himself with Fielding, the historian who wrote of men as they are — include some observations that can explain what otherwise might not be recognized as principles of selection and treatment of historical material. In the 1823 preface to The Pilot, for instance, he wrote:

The privileges of the Historian and of the writer of Romances are very different, and it behooves them equally to respect each other’s rights. The latter is permitted to garnish a probable fiction, while he is sternly prohibited from dwelling on improbable truths: but it is the duty of the former to record facts as they have occurred, without a reference to consequences, resting his reputation on a firm foundation of realities, and vindicating his integrity by his authorities.

Most of this is very clear. The writer of history has to record facts and realities while the creator of a romance can “garnish a probable fiction.” But what did Cooper mean by saying that the Romance writer was not allowed to “dwell on improbable truths”? Searching my memory for an illustration of what he might have meant, I came up with an example that came to my attention some years ago. As I have shown elsewhere (in Studi Americani), Cooper’s Wing and Wing is heavily dependent upon English and Italian history, particularly Horatio Nelson’s hanging of a Neapolitan admiral, Francesco Caracciolo, aboard his own flagship, the Minerva, in the Bay of Naples. Chapter XIV of Cooper’s novel ends with these words (which I quote because of verbal similarities with Billy Budd, which is indebted to this book):

There was a horrible minute, of the struggles between life and death, when the body, so late the tenement of an immortal spirit, hung, like one of the jewel-blocks of the ship, dangling passively at the end of the spar, as insensible as the wood which sustained it.

(I suspect that when should be then, but the jewel-block image and the attention given to the dying struggles of the man were not lost on Melville.) Chapter XV begins with a summary that states the body was lowered, the feet loaded with double-headed shot, and the corpse taken a league or more away from the spot and cast into the sea. Then we have this sentence:

The revolting manner in which it rose to the surface and confronted its destroyers, a fortnight later, has passed into history; and, to this day, forms one of the marvels related by the ignorant and wonder-loving of the region.

Cooper is here alluding to a well-documented piece of history that has been the subject of paintings still to be found in museums in Naples. At the time of this hanging, the King and Queen were in Sicily where they had fled with their children (and the Hamiltons) when the French troops were approaching Naples. A couple of weeks later, Nelson was returning to Naples from Sicily with the royal party when, about to enter the bag, they saw the body of Caracciolo floating upright in the water seeming to hail their ship. When the King, visibly shaken, asked what his former admiral wanted, a priest in the party said he probably wanted a Christian burial. The body was duly retrieved, taken ashore, and buried. Cooper let his readers know that he himself knew this story, agreed that it was true, but refused to incorporate it in his own narrative. It was, I suggest, the kind of improbable truth that he said the writer of Romances was “sternly prohibited from dwelling on.”

Except for the improbable variety, however, Cooper’s chief concern was for truth — and a survey of the Letters and Journals shows clearly his lifelong dedication to searching out and sifting through historical sources. The importance of arriving at the truth is not only, for Cooper, necessary out of respect for truth in principle, but as a defense against the alternative, which he once described as “political prejudices and political intrigues.”

These prejudices and intrigues rest, like a blight, on this country, even at the present hour; perverting facts, misleading opinion, and having the marked effect of placing unsuitable men in places of profit and power. Under this blight we possess two public opinions — a whig public opinion and a loco-foco public opinion. Of independent, sound, healthful, manly public opinion, there is very little — almost none; and every effort to extricate truth from the tyrants of the land should be hailed with pleasure. We get so little of that sacred quality, that there is great danger of our not knowing it when we see it. (L&J v, 359)

This same passage gives Cooper’s common-sense thinking about testing the reliability of testimony.

As respects the main fact stated by Judge Jones, our reasoning ought to be very simple. He has either invented it, or he has heard it. I presume no one will affirm the first. If heard, then, we are to look at his sources of information, remembering that the point was publicly discussed at the time, and that his attention was drawn to the subject.

Cooper could not always set aside the possibility of invention, but when he could, he then went to the witnesses closest to the event and tried to assess their reliability.

He was undoubtedly fortunate, as he started to write historical fiction, in having for one source, as we all know, an absolutely dependable authority, John Jay, former chief justice and governor of New York. The prototype for Harvey Birch had served Jay as a spy and had refused payment. Heroic and chivalric acts from a man of Harvey’s social and economic status were not “improbable truths” in Cooper’s mind, given his faith in man’s ability to rise to a great occasion or to respond to a worthy cause. The pen that gave us Harvey Birch could go on, in other words, to produce Leatherstocking. For the rest o the information he needed for The Spy, Cooper could draw on local histories and legends as well as such witnesses as members of the de Lancey family. The same combination of reliable authorities, personal knowledge, and local histories formed the foundation for The Pioneers, as James Beard has shown.

In preparing to write his third historical novel, The Pilot, he had no such dependable sources. John Paul Jones’s papers that had been left in this country did not come to light until after the publication of the novel. Official accounts of his actions, while showing him as heroic, daring, imaginative, and successful, contained nothing reliable to explain his motivations — much less his emotions. (Why, for instance, would a Scotsman volunteer for service with the American colonies in a war against Britain?) To turn the historical figure into a character in a book, Cooper needed some sort of inside story that wasn’t British propaganda. (There was plenty of that scattered about in chapbooks portraying Jones as a pirate.) Cooper’s most valuable source turned out to be a narrative written by a Nathaniel Fanning who served under Jones at the time of the battle between the Bon Homme Richard and the Serapis. Fanning’s narrative was published anonymously in 1806 and a “second edition” giving Fanning’s name was supposedly published in 1808. The so-called “second edition” that most people were familiar with (and that John S. Barnes used for his reprinting for the Naval History Society) had been bowdlerized or sanitized by having some of the vulgar or crude passages removed from it; this copy was in the Boston Athenaeum, and still is. Several people have theorized that some of the Fannings wanted to protect the reputation of the family and deleted these portions of the book. (Fanning was an arch-democrat — what Cooper would call an “ultra” — who detested Jones, resented any authority, and was about as ugly an American as one can find.)

While it is highly improbable that Cooper would have used the Boston Athenaeum’s copy of the book, it was important to find out whether he had used the complete or the expurgated “second edition.” Finding that there was no second edition, just a change in title page, and that the material cut from the Athenaeum copy had been noticed by Barnes and later replaced, I was able to conclude that Cooper had been conscious of Fanning’s biases and that he used Fanning’s information warily. His mistrust of his source results in some equivocations in the text, and he allows his hero, Griffiths, to make some rather priggish criticism of Jones at the end of the novel, saying,

“His devotion to America proceeded from desire of distinction, his ruling passion, and perhaps a little also from resentment at some injustice which he claimed to have suffered from his own countrymen. He was a man, and not therefore without foibles — among which may have been reckoned the estimation of his own acts; but they were most daring, and deserving of praise! neither did he at all merit the obloquy that he received from his enemies. His love of liberty may be more questionable; for if he commenced his deeds in the cause of these free States, they terminated in the service of a despot! He is now dead — but had he lived in times and under circumstances, when his consummate knowledge of his profession, his cool, deliberate, and even desperate courage, could have been exercised in a regular and well-supported Navy, [we can pause here to allow Cooper to dismount from his hobby horse] and had the habits of his youth better qualified him to have borne, meekly, the honors he acquired in his age, he could have left behind him no name in its lists that would have descended to the latest posterity of his adopted countrymen with greater renown!”

Cooper could not have known that Thomas Jefferson himself had advised Jones to enter the service of Catherine the Great of Russia — the “despot” here mentioned. Certain that the fledgling United States could not support a Navy in peacetime, and believing that Catherine’s struggles to contain or defeat the Turks were in the best interest of what we would call the “free world,” Jefferson, when he heard that Catherine was interested in putting Jones in charge of her navy, advised him to take the position. Otherwise, however, Griffith’s summation of Jones’s character is not bad — given what was known in 1823 about Jones.

As we know, Cooper did not stop with the novel, but went on to write a biography of Jones for Graham’s Magazine (July and August 1843). The appearance of this biography prompted a twenty-page letter from Jones’s niece, Janette Taylor, correcting some errors and furnishing further information. Cooper pronounced Miss Taylor “a clever woman” and wrote William Gilmore Simms, “I am to see her when in town.” (L&J IV, 437) He made changes in the biography for Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers (1846), and so the matter rests, so far as Cooper is concerned.

But in fairness to Cooper as an historian, the question of Jones’s biography should not be dropped. The Pilot was published in 1824, and after its publication a man by the name of George Ward spotted some papers with Jones’s signature on them in the window of a bakery shop in New York. He sent a selection of letters and documents in Jones’s handwriting to Cooper the 28ᵗʰ of July, 1824, and later, probably on Cooper’s advice, turned them over to John Henry Sherburne, the Register of the Navy, who published a Life of Paul Jones in 1825. Actually, this was less a biography than a printing of the papers with some annotations.

In 1839, Cooper published his History of the Navy of the United States of America on which he had been working for years. It was reviewed in the North American Review by Alexander Slidell Mackenzie — who had his own highly partisan version of the Battle of Lake Erie. As Cooper wrote Commodore Shubrick, “As might be expected it [the review] is all pig tail — or Lake Erie. I think he will feel a paragraph in the Preface of the new edition [Cooper’s History of 1840] — if he do not, he must have little sensibility, as its truth is very biting.” (L&J IV, 9) Cooper later put out a pamphlet on the Battle of Lake Erie, to which Mackenzie replied in an appendix to the 5ᵗʰ edition of his biography of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry (1844), and so it went, with the results Cooper summarized in a letter to William Gilmore Simms on January 5, 1844.

As for the Lake Erie affair, it was an easy task to show the rascality employed against me; but cui bono? Few persons read my pamphlet, and I am still vituperated as the falsifier of history. The coarsest calumny that has been published against me, in connection with this affair has appeared since the explanations have been made. Unable to answer any thing, it runs into abuse and accuses me of being hired by Elliott! [Elliott was the Commodore that Perry had first praised and then later criticized in regard to the battle.] The edition of the Pamphlet is mostly on hand, and will probably never sell. ... Then the evil to my own book is irreparable. No work ever sold better or faster than the naval history, until the lies about the Battle of Lake Erie were published, and, from that moment, the sale dragged. I am a loser of several thousands by the book. You know enough of books to understand this is a wrong which can not be repaired. The labour of years is lost to me. When I got out the abridgment of this book, which the publisher is now selling at $1.50 a copy, I offered the navy department 500 copies at 60 cents, thinking it would make a useful reading book for the apprentices, and it refused them. The authorities of New York refused to recommend it for the School District Libraries, into which they had previously put Mackenzie’s Life of Perry! But Capt. Mackenzie was a pet, and I have been a proscribed man ever since I wrote my Notions of Americans, in 1828, when I broke ground against the English aristocracy and in favour of rational democracy; I sag rational, for I have never been an ultra. (L&J IV, 437-438)

(Cooper may sound paranoid about having been “proscribed” for anti-English remarks, but the Democratic Review of July 1849 said that much of the United States Press was still controlled by Englishmen. Of the nine daily papers in New York, four were owned and edited by British subjects, and of the eight weeklies, six were likewise in the hands of Englishmen.)

In the meantime, however, Mackenzie had written a Life of Paul Jones first published in 1841, and Cooper’s letter to Simms was an answer to Simms’s letter of 27 September, 1843, in which Simms mentioned “replies and objections” to Mackenzie’s biography. These objections, which had been published in Charleston newspapers, had not been seen by Cooper, but he told Simms that he “had some correspondence with a gentleman of Charleston on the subject, and he has promised to let me know more.” (L&J IV, 437). Whatever Cooper learned from this gentleman would have arrived in time to be included in the 1846 Lives.

Having established Mackenzie, I trust, as Cooper’s literary enemy, let me now quote from the beginning of Samuel Eliot Morison’s John Paul Jones:

In the words of a Scots ballad of over a hundred and fifty years ago:

You have heard o’ Paul Jones,

Have you not, have you not?

And you’ve heard a’ Paul Jones,

Have you not?

Of course you have! But have you read what a sailor has to say about him? That is the reason for this biography.

No character in naval history, with the exception of Lord Nelson, has been the subject of as much romance and controversy as has John Paul Jones. Eminent writers as far apart in their tastes as Alexandre Dumas (Le Capitaine Paul), Herman Melville (Israel Potter), J. Fenimore Cooper (The Pilot), the American Winston Churchill (Richard Carvell), Allan Cunningham (Paul Jones, a Romance), Rudyard Kipling (“The Rhyme of the Three Captains”), William Makepeace Thackeray (Denis Duval) and Sarah Orne Jewett (The Tory Lover) have made him the subject of novels, poems and plays. ...

It is much easier to write a novel about a complex character like Paul Jones than to write a biography; that doubtless why some thirty different people have done so. “Happy novelists,” wrote Daniel Halevy in his Peguy, “who know all about their heroes! Biographers know very little, and must never forget it.” How true that is! After studying Paul Jones for years, I still feel that there are problems in his life that I can never clear up. It would have been so easy to set up an imaginary Jones whom I could “know all about.” But I am an historian, not a novelist, and feel that I owe it to Paul Jones’s memory to write a true biography, a sailor’s biography, which will give a lucid description of his complex and fascinating character, as it develops, as well as a clear narrative of his war cruises and battles. No sailor has done that since 1841, when Lieutenant Alexander Slidell Mackenzie USN published a biography of Jones (xi-xii).

Morison describes Mackenzie’s biography as “An excellent work by a professional naval officer,” and accepts Mackenzie’s criticism of Jones’s behavior. For instance, a Captain Landais (who had proved himself a coward, but who had powerful friends) came an board the Alliance, read his orders from Congress ordering him to take charge of the ship, and ordered all officers who had been on the Bon Homme Richard (including Jones) to shore. Jones duly disembarked and set out for Paris — where Franklin and Sartine were — to get things cleared up. Mackenzie says Jones should not have left the ship. “If he [Landais] ventured an personal violence, Jones, being in the right, would not have been blamed for the consequences. But, instead of bearding the false [treacherous] Frenchman on his own quarterdeck, Jones bustled off to Paris to seek fresh authority from Franklin and Sartine!” The murky reasoning Mackenzie shows here was the same sort of mentality he displayed the following year when, as commander of the Somers, he hanged three sailors during a training cruise.

As a consequence of his reliance on Mackenzie’s biography, Morison’s dislike for Jones was certainly not decreased. Instead of the “complex and fascinating character” that his introduction promises, we have a vulgar avaricious social climber whom Morison sneers at and ridicules. Perhaps these summary remarks will sufficiently indicate Jones’s general inferiority, as Morison depicts him:

He professed to have fallen in love with America at first sight, and declared undying allegiance to the new nation; but the last five years of his life were spent in Europe. On many occasions he wrote that he had drawn his sword from pure love of liberty as a “citizen of the world”; but he drew it for the last time in the service of the greatest despot of Europe, Imperial Catherine. He affected contempt for family and rank; but he longed to be accepted by the county families of Scotland, and his happiest years were spent in Paris under the shadow of royalty as le Chevalier Paul Jones. He professed to be indifferent to wealth; but no naval officer strove longer and more strenuously than he to exact the last penny due to him and his men for prize money. He could be tougher and rougher than the most apelike sailor on his ships; yet, when entertaining ladies on board or ashore, his manners were those of a very fastidious gentleman. He pretended total indifference to fame, but he took every possible means to place a far from modest estimate of himself before the public of two continents. (3-4)

Now “falling in love with America at first sight” is an experience that I have not found in the Jones papers, but those show that he lived in Europe in his last years for the best of economic and professional reasons. (When he died in Paris, a letter was on its way to him from Jefferson, who was our Secretary of State in 1792, asking him to hire a fleet of armed vessels to sail against Algiers for the protection of American shipping.) His service with a despot I have already mentioned, and Jefferson was not alone in thinking that Catherine’s activities were generally on the side of liberty. His striving to get prize money for his men and himself is perfectly sensible — even necessary — since that was the way they got paid for serving in the revolution. As for being “tougher and rougher than the most apelike sailor on his ships,” we have no way of knowing what Morison means, but we can object to apelike. On the next charge, his pretending total indifference to fame, evidence in Morison’s own book as well as Jones’s own writing (and Cooper’s biography) deny any such thing. And speaking of Cooper reminds me that the listing of Cooper’s The Pilot in the fictional treatments of Jones is the only mention of Cooper in the Morison biography and Cooper’s name does not appear in the index — even for The Pilot. Morison did not see the letter in which Cooper said that Mackenzie is “authority for nothing. I do not accuse him of intentional departures from the truth, but he has an obliquity of mind, and an obtuseness of morals that are almost as bad” (L&J IV, 437). When Morison wrote, Cooper’s letters were at Yale and accessible but not printed; his biography of Jones and his review of the court-martial of Mackenzie were in print, however, and Morison’s biography would have benefited if he had ceased to treat Mackenzie as a pet and Cooper as a man proscribed.

Cooper’s next book after The Pilot, Lionel Lincoln, was unusual in that he called it, in the 1832 preface to a revised version, his “only historical tale.” The documentary history that went into the making of Lionel Lincoln has been well researched and discussed in Donald and Lucy Ringe’s historical introduction to the SUNY edition, and I shall say nothing more of it except to quote Cooper’s own comment on it: “This book failed, and perhaps justly. It was strictly an American Historical Novel, a class of which none ever succeeded” (L&J IV, 460). The 1832 preface is singularly helpful in explaining Cooper’s remark:

Perhaps there is no other country, whose history is so little adapted to poetical illustration as that of the United States of America. The art of printing has been in general use since the earliest settlement, and the policy of both the Provinces and the States has been to encourage the dissemination of accurate knowledge. There is consequently neither a dark, nor even an obscure, period in American annals; all is not only known, but so well and generally known, that nothing is left for the imagination to embellish. (6)

Cooper’s assertion that he is dealing with a country which has no pre-history to be dragged into the light of literature is not quite correct, as we shall see in a moment, but he is right in being aware that printed documents in the United States played the part in forming our sense of national identity that legends and folklore had played in older countries. He reiterated his belief in the 1851 preface to The Water-Witch, saying “The facts of this country are all so recent, and so familiar, that every innovation on them, by means of the imagination, is coldly received, if it be not absolutely frowned upon.”

Cooper did recognize that we had a pre-history and said so when he mentioned, in the preface to The Wept of the Wish-ton-Wish that “Indian traditions are listened to with the interest that we lend to the events of a dark age. ... ” The continent’s pre-history was all Indian, and the fracture between that past and our conception of it was put memorably by Donald Davie, who asked ” ... How could a white man know the reality of the red man’s life before the white man knew him?” Davie went on to draw the logical conclusion from this:

Therefore any writer on the Indians, which is to say any writer on American history, has to come to terms with Fenimore Cooper’s Indian, has to take him on Cooper’s terms. It is far too late to try to explode the myth — at least in imaginative writing. The American imagination has invested too much in Chingachgook; and its need to do so can never be allayed or met by a writer who refuses to acknowledge the investment. (230)

This is what made Twain so furious, really. Every time he looked westward from New England, back across the sections of the country that were his own literary capital, there on the horizon, like so many cinematic Apaches, loomed Cooper’s Indians. Twain is dead, but his essay lives on — and Cooper’s Indians are newly under attack by current critics as well. In a 1984 book, Robert Clark says romancers who are

“sternly prohibited from dwelling on improbable truths” must know truths which have been banished from what can be thought of as probable. One such truth, as Cooper’s writing was to show, was that Indians could be good human beings. ... Although ... Cooper’s representation of the Indians is generally malign and misleading, the fact that he represented the Last of the Mohicans as a man of noble sentiments enraged some of his critics, Lewis Cass in particular. The campaign that Cass waged against Cooper was in the end responsible for Cooper abandoning his claim to be considered an historian and his acceptance of the romance as a defensive shield. In the General Preface to the Leatherstocking Tales he is forced to admit that Indians are actually creatures of “evil passions” and adds, “especially when treating for the sale of their lands” (the latter a dig at Cass who as Indian agent had been party to many Indian treaties.) Having conceded the general point, Cooper then goes on to defend his right as a romancer “to represent the beau ideal of his characters to the reader.” Cooper had to be harried until he admitted that even his exceptional noble indians were figments of the romancing imagination (49-50).

The frequent use of passive voice (“truths have been banished,” “Cooper was forced,” “Cooper had to be harried”), and misreadings of the text (“Magua, however, murders both Cora and Uncas before being shot by Hawkeye” (82).) are only a few of the problems with this thoroughly deceptive book. Looking back at the passage I just quoted, for instance, we have Cooper being “forced to admit that Indians are actually creatures of ‘evil passions.’” Here is the complete quotation from the preface to the Leatherstocking Tales:

The critic (Cass] 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.

The Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups says that the Jackson government (in which Cass was involved) “sought out any handful of Indians who would sign a removal treaty without considering whether the signers represented the tribe as a whole” (116). Cooper is citing one such group, and he says that Indians have “evil passions” — which is not at all to sag that Indians are “creatures of evil passions.” I think we all agree that Cooper had accepted the Fall of Man, and I can’t imagine him acquitting anyone (except possibly Mrs. Cooper) of “evil passions.” Clark has accepted the Cass-Twain version of Indians and then twisted words around until he has Cooper “abandoning his claim to be considered an historian” and accepting “romance as a defensive shield.” In the very sentence which mentions the “beau ideal” of characters, which Clark quotes, Cooper wrote that this was desirable “particularly when their works aspire to the elevation of romances.” What Cooper considered an elevated and superior form, Clark terms a “defensive shield.”

But to return to Cooper as an historian — a role he never abandoned, as the Letters and Journals alone show — particularly as an historian of Indian life, I have been finding that he comes off better than some of us would have believed. One thing that he (or Deerslayer) was partly wrong about was the name of Uncas. In the preface to The Wept of the Wish-ton-Wish he said “The appellation of Uncas came ... to be a sort of synonym for chief with the Mohegans ... among whom several warriors of this name were known to govern in due succession,” but in The Deerslayer Hawkeye says that Uncas is the name of everyone in Chingachgook’s family “until they get a title that has been ‘arned by deeds.” Cooper had his own reasons for wanting Uncas to be a synonym for youth, particularly in The Last of the Mohicans, but Uncas as chief is closer to the truth. In 1976, Gladys Tantaquidgeon, sister of the Chief of the Mohegans, gave the following history in an introduction to Janet Lewis’s libretto for the opera of The Last of the Mohicans:

According to oral traditions of the Lenni-Lenape (Delawares) and our Mohegan Elders, a band of Mohican (Wolf people) left their homeland in the upper Hudson river valley in the early 1600’s and traveled across what is now Connecticut and settled in the area now known as Groton, Stonington, and Mystic. Sassacus, head chief, and the young, ambitious chief, Uncas, were rivals. They failed to settle their differences and about 1636, Uncas with a band of followers left the main body of the tribe and built a village on the west bank of the Pequot river (Thames) and called themselves “Mohegan.” ... With the beginning of English settlements, close by, Uncas evidently saw that in order to survive he would be wise to extend the hand of friendship to the newcomers, which he did. ... By 1769 Ben Uncas the last hereditary chief had died. After that the title became honorary.

Cooper’s and Heckewelder’s understanding of the importance of Indian names, with a name being an integral part of one’s identity, has been backed up in our time by Scott Momaday’s The Names, A Memoir which describes ritual naming, and near the end of June the Wall Street Journal reported that the Supreme Court had dismissed “the contention that assigning a Social Security number to an Indian maid, Little Bird of the Snow, robbed her of her spirit and violated her religious beliefs.”

Cooper’s (and Jefferson’s) descriptions of Indian rhetoric and imagery are being supported by examples of Indian speech now being printed in numerous anthologies. Also, Cooper’s placing of various Indian nations in the preface to The Last of the Mohicans, agrees with the map given in the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups (1980).

An important defense of the general accuracy of Heckewelder’s (and Cooper’s) Indians is Francis Jennings’ The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire (1984). The former director of the Newberry Library Center for the History of the American Indians, after twenty years of research, has traced some of the misinformation about Indians to Cadwallader Colden. For the sake of brevity, I quote from the jacket:

Ever since Cadwallader Golden wrote a rationalization for British colonial expansion in 1727, a myth has been solidly ensconced in American colonial histories — that the Iroquois nations had conquered a “savage empire” of the Indians in the Ohio valley, the Great Lakes regions, and Pennsylvania. Golden asserted that the Iroquois were “Depending on the Province of New-York,” and therefore their “conquests” belonged to Great Britain.

In this book, Francis Jennings traces the history behind the myth and demonstrates how that history proved decisive in building British colonial strength in preparation for the Seven Years’ War showdown with France. He shows that the so-called empire of the Iroquois was actually a complex alliance of tribes and colonies called the Covenant Chain, organized and maintained by incessant treaty negotiations.

To Colden’s myth of Iroquois conquests, we find added Lewis Henry Morgan’s “lethal myths” (in Jennings’ terms) set down in his League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee, Iroquois in 1851. Morgan believed in white supremacy, writing “’The Aryan family represents the central stream of human progress, because it produced the highest type of mankind, and because it has proved its intrinsic superiority by gradually assuming the control of the earth’” (Jennings, 19). Morgan passed on the false notion that the Iroquois lived a nomadic life, and said that this was “’the true reason why the red race has never risen, or can rise above its present level’” (Jennings, xvi). He had even greater scorn for the Delaware than for the Iroquois. (This was the same Morgan who was picked up by Friedrich Engels and “established as the founding father of international Marxist ethnology as well as the profession of anthropology in the United States” (Jennings, 19).

Also in 1851, the year of Cooper’s death, Francis Parkman set down in The Conspiracy of Pontiac and the Indian War after the Conquest of Canada what Jennings calls “a gothically lurid tale of Iroquois ferocity and terrorism that cannot be fully appreciated without direct quotation” (18). He then gives a quotation from which one sentence will serve: “’On the north they [the Iroquois] uprooted the ancient settlements of the Wyandots; on the west they exterminated the Eries and the Andastes, and spread havoc and dismay among the tribes of the Illinois; and an the east, the Indians of New England fled at the first peal of the Mohawk war-cry.’” Jennings says this “is almost undiluted Colden and there is hardly a word of verifiable truth in the whole frenzied outcry” (18). Parkman, Jennings charges, “was a racist of the venomous type who did not hesitate to falsify his source materials to make them support his Social Darwinian preconceptions” (19). The Bureau of American Ethnology’s Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico continued to speak of Iroquois conquests in 1907; the Smithsonian’s Handbook of North American Indians dropped such talk in 1978 — but neglected to point attention to the previous fallacies. Unfortunately for the general public, the popular American Heritage Book of Indians (1961) “succumbed abjectly to Parkman’s rhetoric and added some of its own” according to Jennings (20).

A third person publishing almost simultaneously with Morgan and Parkman was George Copway, a Christian convert and Cooper’s friend. Parkman and Morgan praised each other’s work, but never acknowledged Copway’s The Traditional History and Characteristic Sketches of the Ojibway Nation (1850). Parkman, in fact, dismissed Copway’s history and legends without reading them, writing a friend, “Between you and me I shall have no great faith in them” (Jennings, 21). Parkman repeatedly wrote that Indian traditions are “very rarely of any value” as history, and he dismissed Copway’s work just as he had declared Heckewelder’s “utterly unworthy of credit.” Jennings, on the other hand, insists that both deserve a hearing. “Bostoner Parkman,” he protests, “was trumpeted by his associates as America’s greatest historian — and this nonsense is still maintained by persons who do not compare his writings with their sources” (22).

Cooper’s attempts to call our attention to the dispossession of the Indian as one of the fundamental facts of American history is still controversial — or ought to be, if we lived in a less Orwellian world. The startling extent to which the Indians have become unpersons — vaporized — is indicated by the fact that Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s Pulitzer-prize-winning history, The Age of Jackson, does not mention Jackson’s (and Cass’s) Indian policy of the forced removal of the Indians at Jackson’s direction and in defiance of an order from the Supreme Court. Charles and Mary Beard and Carl Becker also ignore the Indians’ struggles to retain their lands or to have the government honor its treaties.

Cooper made mistakes about Indians, particularly where details are concerned, but when we look at the larger picture, Hofstadter’s instincts seem to have been correct. As an historian of the American Navy and of American Indians, Cooper came closer to reality and truth — costly as it proved for him — than some of our best-known modern historians.

Works Cited

  • Clark, Robert. History, Ideology and Myth in American Fiction, 1823-52. New York: St. Martin’s, 1984.
  • Cooper, J. Fenimore. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. Ed. James Franklin Beard. 6 vols. Cambridge: Belknap — Harvard University Press 1960-68. Cited as L&J.
  • Davie, Donald. “The Legacy of Fenimore Cooper.” Essays in Criticism 9 (1959): 222-38.
  • Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. Cambridge: Belknap — Harvard University Press, 1980
  • House, Kay. “Francesco Caracciolo, Fenimore Cooper and ‘Billy Budd’” Studi Americani (Roma) (1973-74): 19-20.
  • Jennings, Francis. The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire. New York: Norton, 1984.
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. John Paul Jones: A Sailor’s Biography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1959.