Landownership and Representation of Social Conflict in The Pioneers

Douglas Buchholz (University of Pennsylvania)

Presented at the 7ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1989.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the Bicentennial Conference, July 1989, State University College of New York — Oneonta and Cooperstown. George A. Test, editor. (pp. 94-102).

Copyright © 1991 by State University of New York College at Oneonta.

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

Previous critical accounts of Cooper’s The Pioneers, even those drawing on socially and historically materialist methods, have underestimated the importance of the central conflict in the novel over control of the land (Thomas; Clark 48ff). In the following analysis, I will seek to elucidate the novel from a historical materialist viewpoint by focusing on this central conflict. In this analysis, I will use some of the critical concepts developed by Georg Lukacs, in his comparison of Cooper’s work to that of Sir Walter Scott in The Historical Novel (64-65; Buchholz).

In The Pioneers (1823), Cooper’s choice of setting decisively affects his representation of the novel’s conflicts. The Pioneers is set in the Otsego Lake region of east-central New York state, twelve years after the Revolutionary War. That this choice of setting enabled Cooper to deal fluently with the conflicts represented in the novel scarcely needs demonstration. His father’s estate, which Cooper himself struggled to restore to the family’s control, lay on the shores of Otsego Lake, as does the town of Cooperstown, named for Cooper’s father (Butterfield). Cooper drew extensively on his rather’s experience in his representation of Judge Temple, the chief landlord and governmental official of post-revolutionary Templeton in The Pioneers.

The Otsego Lake region during the period of the novel was eminently the scene of decisive social conflict. As the novel’s title suggests, white farmers and bourgeois had only very recently settled in the region, and material and economic as well as legal and political control over the land remained uncertain. As the novel’s conflict develops, control over the land, and more abstract kinds of control rooted in this basic material power, assume a central dramatic and thematic role in it.

We are introduced immediately to Judge Temple, the principal representative of bourgeois society in the novel, and to his young daughter Elizabeth who is returning to Templeton after completing her studies in England. Before the judge and his daughter succeed in reaching their frontier home, they encounter the two principal “middle-of-the-road” heroes of the novel, the aging hunter Natty Bumppo and a mysterious young companion of Bumppo’s who is later identified as “Oliver Edwards” (Lukacs 30-64). In the course of the first four chapters, Edwards saves a party of Judge Temple’s friends from a potentially deadly sleigh accident, and a dispute erupts between Natty Bumppo, Edwards and the Judge over rights to a deer which Edwards has shot. This early conflict serves to develop the dramatic and thematic roles of the central characters both rapidly and acutely.

Having heard Natty Bumppo’s hounds on the chase, Judge Temple prepares himself to fire at the approaching game with his smooth-bore shotgun. He misses the buck entirely as it bounds across the road in front of his sleigh. Natty Bumppo fires one shot from his rifle which enters the buck’s neck, but {95} Edward fires the deadly shot through the animal’s heart. Judge Temple’s scattered shot lodges both in a tree beside the road and in Oliver Edwards’ arm, causing a wound which Edwards does not reveal until a decisive moment in the ensuing conflict over the buck.

On very uncertain evidence, Judge Temple claims a share in the killing of the buck, when this is respectfully but firmly denied by Natty and Edwards, Temple offers to flip a coin to decide the ownership of the venison. After Edwards’ claim is clearly established by examination of the deer, Judge Temple offers to buy it from him. This, too, Edwards refuses, and he ends the dispute by revealing the wound he has received from Temple’s careless aim.

Not only Edwards’ and Natty’s superior marksmanship and woodsmanship, and their firmness in principles, and Judge Temple’s glibness and casuistry are established by this early dispute, but also the decisive central theme in The Pioneers of ownership of the land and its resources. Judge Temple claims to have granted Natty Bumppo by informal contract the right to hunt on land which he owns by having bought it (at depressed, revolutionary-era prices) from the Continental government. Natty, who we later learn guided Judge Temple years before to the spot where his mansion now stands, claims the primordial hunter’s right to the necessary use of any abundant land.

The later introduction of Chingachgook, or “John Mohegan” or “Indian John” as he is patronizingly called by the whites, also raises obliquely the question of the Indians’ prior right to the land. Chingachgook is the only remaining member of the once proud New England tribe of Mohicans. His personal dignity, social authority and unsurpassed wilderness skills, which will be fully developed in the later novels of the Leatherstocking series, have devolved in The Pioneers into drunkenness and a tendency to wandering speeches. Chingachgook’s role in the novel, while strictly peripheral to its central conflicts, is nonetheless important, since the Indians’ claim to the land which he abstractly represents is never entirely resolved.

The initial dispute over the buck is dropped when Edwards reveals his wound, and Judge Temple and Elizabeth remorsefully insist that Edwards come to their house to recuperate. Edwards saves the lives of several inhabitants of Templeton who have come to greet the Judge and his daughter in the subsequent incident of the sleigh accident, thus paralleling Natty’s earlier service as a guide to the man who will prove his nemesis, and beginning a motif which continues throughout The Pioneers of “middle-of-the road” heroes spontaneously serving the white bourgeois who intend their destruction.

Edwards’ “middle-of-the-road” status is further developed during the several months he remains in the Temple house. While he has the appearance of the frontier hunter and has been one in the recent past, his speech and manners suggest an upper-class origin. Significantly for the themes and conflicts of the Leatherstocking Tales as a whole, the Temple family and some of the townspeople of Templeton suspect that he is of mixed white and Indian race. This is an impression which whites often receive from Natty Bumppo as well because of his sunburnt features and semi-“savage” manner of living. Edwards is inexplicably cold to the attentions of Judge Temple and his attractive, intelligent daughter; he thus begins to acquire the aura, by now familiar to readers of Cooper’s fiction, of concealed identity.

Edwards, Natty and Chingachgook are established hunting companions, and {96} spend much time together in the woods even while Edwards is living with the Temples. The textual role of their “middle-of-the-road status becomes apparent in the novel through a series of apparently ordinary, yet dramatically and thematically concentrated incidents which occur in the frontier village during the months succeeding Edwards’ injury. All of these incidents involve misuse of the natural resources of the Otsego Lake region, and in each case Judge Temple intervenes in the role of regulator and rationalizer of these abuses (Robinson).

The first such incident involves Natty Bumppo’s frequent objections to the wholesale clearing of forests. The rapid settlement and agricultural development of the New York frontier during the period of the novel has given rise to a socio-economic stratum of professional woodcutters, represented in the novel by the powerful and blunt Billy Kirby. Kirby and Natty Bumppo carry on a friendly but intense rivalry during the early parts of the novel, although Natty’s later victimization by the representatives of bourgeois society makes Kirby his ally. The early dispute between Kirby and Natty takes the characteristic form of a shooting match, which Natty wins, but it is rooted in the socio-economic structure of the New York frontier, which thus conditions even relatively peripheral conflicts in the novel.

While Natty Bumppo is a subsistence hunter and occasional guide, closely connected by occupation as well as ideology with the indigenous tribes, and dependent like them on unrestricted use of large tracts of land, Billy Kirby is a semi-proletarian, dependent on capitalist development and labor and commodity markets. Besides working as a woodchopper for farmers clearing their land, he produces maple products in season, and sells them to the townspeople. Despite their superficial similarities, therefore, Natty’s and Billy’s personal dispute is based on a fundamental class division.

Judge Temple’s relation to the dispute between Natty and Billy clarifies its socio-economic origins. In response to Natty’s frequent complaints about the destruction of the hunting grounds around Otsego Lake by Kirby’s activities, Temple proposes not to curtail, but to systematize and regulate these activities. In keeping with his bourgeois status, Judge Temple is particularly interested in promoting the commodification of timber and maple products, and has plans for improved communication and transportation systems to accomplish this goal.

It is obvious, then, that the Billy Kirby-Judge Temple-Natty Bumppo conflict over use of the land has more socio-historically extensive dimensions than would a merely personal dispute. It is important to the dramatic conflict of the novel, however — and ultimately to Cooper’s status as a socio-historical realist — that this conflict is never simplified or rendered abstractly. While in socio-historical terms, the Billy Kirby-Judge Temple-Natty Bumppo conflict encapsulates the overall struggle in early American society between subsistence hunters and farmers (Indian and white), that is, the nascent proletariat and the bourgeoisie, it always appears in the novel as a dispute between just these representatives of their classes. The reader experiences the dispute, as do the novel’s characters, “from within” — as a collision of opposing kinds of work, domesticity, affection, self-regard, and so on. 1

The central conflict over use of the land in The Pioneers develops through subsequent incidents exemplifying the waste and economic irrationality {97} attendant on capitalist development. During the annual migration of passenger pigeons through the Otsego Lake region, the townspeople appear armed with every available weapon, resulting in a senseless slaughter on which the subsistence hunter Natty Bumppo looks with sadness and disgust. The most destructive role in this, as in later such incidents, is played by Sheriff Jones, Judge Temple’s cousin and a tragi-comic “type” of the emerging bourgeois petty official.

Sheriff Jones exemplifies Cooper’s success in the Leatherstocking Tales in utilizing peripheral comic characters. He carries Judge Temple’s bourgeois qualities to ludicrous extremes, as becomes evident through a friendly rivalry between the cousins which parallels that between Hilly Kirby and Natty Bumppo. Sheriff Jones is not merely ridiculous, however. For example, Judge Temple is forced continually to compensate for his cousin’s excesses — excesses which he himself has promoted by having Jones appointed sheriff.

During the pigeon-shooting incident, Sheriff Jones, not satisfied with the destructive effect of smaller arms, trains a small, mobile cannon on the migrating flock, with predictable results. The great masses of dead birds are of no practical use to the townspeople, as Natty Bumppo trenchantly observes. Judge Temple, as usual, does not object in principle to the waste of resources, but seeks to organize it along capitalist lines. He offers children of the town a bounty for the dead birds’ heads, and thus sees to the disposal of the surplus.

A similar incident immediately ensues, in which Sheriff Jones, impatient with the hook-and-line techniques of subsistence fishermen (not to mention Natty Bumppo’s and Chingachgook’s skilled use of the Indian fishing spear), supervises the dragging of Otsego Lake with a giant seine. The catch is of course far in excess of the needs of Jones’s party or indeed of the entire town, though Judge Temple foresees the potential profitability of the export market.

While Natty Bumppo is an observer of and critical commentator on these early incidents of bourgeois irrationality and waste, he becomes a central participant in the climactic conflict between the representatives of surplus and subsistence production in The Pioneers. A victim of his own socio-economically determined skills as a hunter, Natty kills a buck swimming in Otsego Lake after a difficult chase, two weeks out of the newly-declared legal season for deer hunting. The incident is reported to Sheriff Jones by one Hiram Doolittle, himself a novel bourgeois “type” of professional bureaucratic lackey. Indeed, it later becomes evident that Doolittle has deliberately sought to “frame” Natty, whom he suspects of secreting wealth, by freeing the hunter’s hounds.

Shortly after killing the deer out of season, Natty saves the life of Elizabeth Temple on a hill overlooking Otsego Lake, by shooting a panther which is about to attack her. This apparently gratuitous act of skill and heroism on Natty’s part in fact contributes decisively to the central characters’ “internalization” of the novel’s climactic social conflict. Judge Temple receives the report of Natty’s poaching immediately after Elizabeth returns safely home. Consistently with his public role and the requirements of bourgeois legal formalism, the Judge determines to prosecute Natty for his offense, despite his recent service to the family.

{98} Cooper constructs this climactic conflict with supreme dramatic skill and socio-ideological acuity. Natty’s background and skill as a hunter make him unable to resist the challenge and opportunity of killing the buck, in favor of respecting a newly enacted law which he sees as abstract and superfluous. His instinctive courage combined with his superior marksmanship likewise determine his killing of the panther which threatens Elizabeth. Judge Temple, in turn, is forced by his socio-political position to ignore the claims of personal gratitude to Natty for the latter’s rescue of his daughter. When Natty offers as a compromise to forego the bounty due him for killing the panther in exchange for the poaching fine (which he characteristically lacks the money to pay), the Judge necessarily refuses, on the ground that “the law” must be enforced.

Judge Temple’s internal conflict is rendered in a more socially specific manner than are those of the central characters of Cooper’s earlier novel, The Spy, for example. Like these characters, Temple must choose between his “duty” and his “feelings,” and honorably (within the limits of his class), he chooses the former. But the sharpness of the Judge’s internal conflict, and its opposition to that of Natty, marks Cooper’s concreteness and progress in combining socio-historical “typicality” in the Leatherstocking Tales. Whereas Natty, like the “middle-of-the-road” heroes of The Spy, succeeds in integrating personal and socio-ideological values, albeit at great personal cost and in an objectively archaic manner, the Judge’s conflict immediately presents itself as insoluble. In order to uphold his political role in the community as chief representative of bourgeois justice, the Judge must abstract this role entirely from “personal” considerations.

We have seen that the kind of rationality which the Judge represents depends practically upon the waste of natural resources and the brutal uprooting of subsistence economies and societies (represented in the novel by Natty and Chingachgook). His kind of rationality is as it were “secondary,” an abstract system (covertly serving narrow class interests) which is built on the ruins of the concrete skills and practical reason of a Natty Bumppo or a Chingachgook.

The law specifying a deer-hunting season, for example, is necessary only because of the influx of pioneers into the former wilderness, and their “wasty ways,” as Natty calls them, of hunting. At Natty’s level of sparse, subsistence cultivation of game, no such law is necessary. Indeed, such a law is an objective threat to Natty’s livelihood, in that it limits access to a steadily-diminishing deer population, and thus forces Natty to become increasingly dependent on the very society he despises, by having to sell deer in season to garner cash for out-of-season necessities. The ultimate effects of this increased dependence will be represented by Cooper in The Prairie, narratively the last in the Leatherstocking series, in which Natty is reduced from subsistence hunting to trapping furs for sale in pioneer settlements. Here it is only necessary to point out that Cooper thus renders Natty’s fate in The Pioneers as typical of that of any subsistence-level socio-economic practice, when confronted with a rapidly developing capitalism.

{99} The culminating conflict between Natty and Judge Temple is fought out in the Judge’s courtroom, and in the Judge’s terms. During the courtroom scenes, Natty’s naive honesty and practicality are continually contrasted with the abstract scholasticism of the legal proceedings presided over by the Judge. The latter ignores Natty’s occasional, personal appeals with some difficulty, while Natty appears bewildered by the elaborate mystifications of the court.

The witnesses and spectators in the proceedings, small farmers, artisans and propertyless laborers from the town, repeatedly fail to show respect for the “impartiality” of the court’s justice, persistently treating the dispute at issue in concrete, personal terms (Thomas). Billy Kirby, for example, responds warmly to Natty’s honesty even while testifying against him, and he must be warned by Judge Temple to follow the pseudo-objective forms of the court. Hiram Doolittle, the prosecution’s key witness, further punctures the pretense of impartiality by his maliciously leading testimony.

It is in Natty’s courtroom speeches after having been convicted of poaching and of threatening a deputy officer (Billy Kirby) that the conflict between Natty and Judge Temple reaches its greatest intensity. Against the abstract legal formalism of the Judge (who has consistently and necessarily endeavored to erase his own personal role in the legal dispute), Natty eloquently asserts his personal service to the Judge and his family, early and late. The Judge will not be moved from his abstract “impartiality,” however. After rejecting a final compromise suggested by Ben Pump, Sheriff Jones’s servant, who offers to advance Natty’s fine in trust against his presumed hunting success, Judge Temple orders Natty taken to the stocks.

In this culmination of the conflict between Judge Temple and Natty Bumppo, then, Cooper achieves a profound insight into the reproductive apparatus of bourgeois society and its socio-material basis. Natty’s ultimate role in the novel is to unveil the false objectivity of bourgeois legality, justice and economic rationality, and to reveal the material, class interest which underlies them. Undoubtedly this insight was possible for Cooper because of his and his narrative’s situation at a relatively early state of bourgeois social development. Considering that the figure of Judge Temple was modelled in part on Cooper’s father, however, Cooper’s representation of Temple’s internal conflict and its socio-historical implications is a supreme example of what Engels called in Balzac’s work “the triumph of realism” (Marx 89-92).

It will perhaps have been noted that Natty Bumppo does not play a “middle-of- the-road” role during the climactic conflict of The Pioneers. I have suggested that he is fundamentally such a character; in the later Leatherstocking Tales, his overall significance depends on his increasingly tragic “middle-of-the road” status.

In the dramatic climax of The Pioneers, however, Natty clearly represents one of the opposed social forces which determine the conflict. This is a result of the nature of the conflict itself — that between a primeval, subsistence mode of production closely tied to the cycles of abundance and scarcity in the material world, and a “secondary” system of organized and rationalized surplus production, based on class exploitation. It is noteworthy that subsistence production in the novel is not represented principally by Indians, its most prevalent practitioners in early U.S. history. In this sense, Natty indeed mediates between the two races; his {100} close relationship with Chingachgook-“Indian John,” who is pathetically decayed, alcoholic and nominally Christianized in the novel, reinforces this mediating role. I will argue below that because of the sensitivity of the question of ownership of the land, subsistence production could not be represented principally by an Indian in The Pioneers.

During the climactic scenes of his arrest and trial, Natty stands alone as the representative of subsistence production. The result is not, however, schematization of the central conflict, as Lukacs’ analysis of the importance of “middle-of-the-road’ heroes in Scott might lead one to suppose (Ch. 1). Natty plays his central dramatic role only briefly, and is the only character in the novel (Oliver Edwards being too socially ambiguous) capable of playing such a role. If some incongruity between Natty’s peripheral role earlier and later in the novel and his courtroom heroism results, this is a relatively small price for the socio-ideological insight Cooper achieves through him.

The denouement of The Pioneers, like those of Cooper’s earlier novels, is relatively mechanical. It is significant, however, that in the first of the Leatherstocking novels this mechanical quality is experienced by the reader as a contradiction to the depth and breadth of the novel’s overall themes and conflicts. In particular, the central theme of landownership, which conditions all of the novel’s conflicts, and above all that between Natty Bumppo and Judge Temple, is unsatisfactorily resolved (Swann 23).

Natty is rescued from jail by Oliver Edwards and Chingachgook, with the collusion of Elizabeth Temple, who thus reveals her embryonically “middle-of-the- road” status. (Elizabeth is among the last of Cooper’s relatively schematic and ideological female characters. Beginning with The Last of the Mohicans, Cooper’s female characters grow in complexity and representativeness, and begin themselves to exhibit fully developed “middle-of-the-road” qualities, which necessarily differ according to gender from those of male characters.)

Natty’s final act of heroism in the novel is to save Elizabeth Temple once more, this time from an uncontrollable forest fire. Chingachgook dies in the fire, thus removing after Natty’s ultimate departure for the west the last representative of subsistence production from the scene of the novel.

After saving Elizabeth from the fire, Natty returns to jail voluntarily, we are told, to await a pardon from the governor. Meanwhile, however, the mystery of Oliver Edwards’ identity is resolved. When Natty and Edwards surrender to the Templeton militia after the incident of the forest fire, they bring with them Edwards’ grandfather, the long-lost Major Effingham. This now-senile old man was a distinguished British officer, and the father of a friend of Marmaduke Temple’s youth. To this friend Temple owes his present prosperity, including his ownership of the land around Templeton. Half of the value of this property rightfully belongs to Effingham’s heirs, that is, to “Oliver Edwards.”

We learn further that Oliver’s father, Judge Temple’s youthful friend, himself held title to the Temple estates before the Revolution. When this Effingham took a loyalist position, however, his lands were confiscated, and Judge Temple acquired them at reduced prices — in part with Effingham’s own money. It is next revealed that Temple, aware of the debt he thus owes the Effingham family, considers his estates as held in trust for them, and has so {101} directed in his will.

The final touches to this excessively tidy conclusion are given by the revelations of Natty’s former servitude to old Major Effingham — an imputation no less incongruous with respect to Natty’s overall character than his passively returning to jail — and of “Oliver Edwards’” engagement to Elizabeth Temple. This last development at one stroke reunites the Temple and Effingham families and restores their joint control over the Otsego Lake estates, and symbolically heals the wounds of the Revolution. The schematic quality of this final theme is evident by comparison with the similar central theme of The Spy, through which the internal socio-ideological divisions caused by revolution are explored both subtly and extensively.

The missing element in the conclusion of The Pioneers is significantly that which will become central to the later Leatherstocking Tales: the role of the Indians. Chingachgook dies before the breathtaking series of revelations in the novel’s final chapters. We learn in the course of these revelations, again incongruousiy, both that Oliver’s father once saved Chingachgook’s life and that father and son were symbolically adopted as Delawares by Chingachgook’s tribesmen — “’I have no other’” Indian blood, says Oliver (441).

Oliver’s father, the friend of Judge Temple’s youth, was an “Indian agent” putatively much respected by the local Delaware. But of the original claims of the Indians to the land, and thus of the larger dimension of the conflict between subsistence and surplus production which dominates the novel as a whole, nothing is said in the conclusion.

In this glaring omission the — perhaps ideologically necessary — mechanical quality of the novel’s conclusion is most apparent, as is the reason for Natty’s sudden emergence as one of the central antagonists in its climax. The Indians are necessarily peripheral to the conflict of The Pioneers (and here Chingachgook’s decayed state also reveals its ideological necessity). Cooper’s critical perspective on early-bourgeois social relations took him far in The Pioneers, but only so far. It is only with the further development of this perspective in the later novels of the Leatherstocking series that the Indians are enabled to carry a directly critical force, through the mediation of Natty Bumppo’s “middle-of-the-road’ status.

University of Pennsylvania

Works Cited

  • Ball, Lee H. “James Fenimore Cooper’s Artistry in the Characterization of Leatherstocking,” DAI 19 (1959): 1740, University of Wisconsin.
  • Buchholz, Douglas. “Stages in the Development of American Realism: A Luckacsian Perspective.” Diss. University of Pennsylvania 1989.
  • Butterfield, Lyman. “Cooper’s Inheritance: The Otsego Country and Its Founders.” New York History 25 (1954):374-411.
  • Clark, Robert. History, Ideology and Myth in American Fiction 1823-52. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Pioneers. Albany: SUNY Press, 1980.
  • Dekker, George. James Fenimore Cooper the Novelist. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967.
  • ------, and John P. Williams, eds. Fenimore Cooper: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.
  • Lukacs, Georg. The Historical Novel. Trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell. London: Merlin Press, 1962.
  • Marx and Engels on Literature and Art. Moscow: Progress Publishers. 1978.
  • McWilliams, John P., Jr. Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper’s America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.
  • Robinson, E. A. “Conservation in Cooper’s The Pioneers,” PMLA 82 (1967):546-78.
  • Swann, Charles. “James Fenimore Cooper: Historical Novelist,” American Fiction: New Readings. Ed. Richard Gray, New York: Barnes and Noble, 1983, 15-37.
  • Thomas, Brook. ” The Pioneers,” or the Sources of American Legal History.” American Quarterly 36 (1984):86-111.


1 The socio-historically “typical” status of the character of Natty Bumppo, in Lukacs’ terms — though not necessarily of the conflicts in which he became involved — has been a staple of Cooper criticism since the mid-nineteenth century. See V. G. Belinsky 188-95; Balzac 196-200; Parkman 248-61; Sand 261-69 in Dekker and McWilliams. Among twentieth-century critics, the most incisive have recognized the “typical” status of characters of Cooper despite “naturalist” prejudices against this method of characterization. See Dekker 84ff and McWilliams 144ff. The most thorough treatment to date of Natty Bumppo as a socio-historically “typical” hero is that by Ball.