The True Beginning of Native American Novels by James Fenimore Cooper and Helen Hunt Jackson

Taisuke Suzuki (Asahi University, Japan)

Presented at the 13ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2001.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2001 Cooper Seminar (No. 13), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 100-104).

Copyright © 2001, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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


(100} James Fenimore Cooper may have been the first writer in American literary history to write seriously about Native Americans. Susan Fenimore Cooper writes in her Small Family Memories (1883) that James Fenimore Cooper had talked with members of the Pawnee and Sioux nations. She reports that her father was interested in the lives of Native American people and that he had done much research with respect to them. Cooper seemed to have cherished a special interest in his talk with one tribal chief. After publishing The Last of the Mohicans (1826), Cooper conceived of writing a new romance novel about Native American peoples and their swift horses on the Great Plains. We feel an interest in when and how James Fenimore Cooper met some of these Native American peoples.

We also feel an interest in when and how Helen Hunt Jackson talked with Native American peoples. Helen Jackson was especially interested in Native American problems. After making a thorough investigation of Hispanic colonial society in California, Jackson published A Century of Dishonor (1881). It was a detailed historical survey of the people living in California in her day. Helen Jackson also wrote a novel, Ramona (1884). It was another important novel, the like of which was never duplicated in early American literary history.

To summarize, James Fenimore Cooper and Helen Hunt Jackson thought seriously about Native American peoples. These two writers were imaginative in depicting Native American figures in their works. They were the first American novelists to be really successful in writing novels in which Native American heroes played an active part. The Literary History of The United States: Bibliography tells us that Lewis H. Morgan (1818-1881), who may be said to have established the study of American anthropology in this country, began his research with investigations about Native American matters. According to this source, serious investigations about Native American matters began with Lewis H. Morgan in 1851. So it may be correct to say that James Fenimore Cooper and Helen Hunt Jackson were the first novelists in American literary history to deal with Native American peoples.

Part One

If we want to go back to the literary history of the novels concerned with Native American peoples, we can consult a really good guidebook, the Columbia Literary History of the United States, edited by Emory Elliott and five others and published by Columbia University Press, New York, in 1988. 1

In truth, we can say that it was James Fenimore Cooper who first wrote literary romances in which Native Americans appear as main characters. Firstly, Cooper contributed to promoting a better understanding by Americans of the life of Native Americans. Secondly, the main characters in Cooper’s literary works were depicted as individuals, but at the same time they always try to live together to create a new life in the depths of the virgin forest. They showed the development of the future of American society. Lastly, an ideal of human relationship between Native American people, Afro-American people, and White Americans is graphically narrated in his novels, especially in his Leatherstocking stories. That is why his works are important to the development of literary history in America. We want to begin with finding what sort of human relationships can be found in Cooper’s The Pioneers (1823). In Chapter 28, the text reads:

“He said that Natty Bumppo had lived most of his life in the woods, and among the Indians, by which means he had formed an acquaintance with old John, the Delaware chief.”

“Indeed! that was quite a matter of fact tale for cousin Dickon. What came next?”

“I believe he accounted for their close intimacy, by some story about the Leather-stocking saving the life of John in a battle.” 2

{101} This conversation shows us the supreme human relations between Natty Bumppo and old John, the Delaware chief. The two persons have lived together for a long time in the woods. A relationship of mutual trust between them has deepened far beyond words.

The next is a citation from The Last of the Mohicans, chapter 33:

“My race has gone from the shores of the salt lake, and the hills of the Delawares. But who can say that the serpent of his tribe has forgotten his wisdom? I am alone — “

“No, no,” cried Hawk-eye, who had been gazing with a yearning look at the rigid features of his friend, with something like his own self-command, but whose philosophy could endure no longer; “no, Sagamore, not alone. The gift of our colours may be different, but God has so placed us as to journey in the same path. ... ” 3

In this scene, Sagamore, the last of the Mohicans grieves over his only son’s death, saying that he has been left alone. Here is Fenimore Cooper’s strong assertion about his way of understanding the human races. We can see a fresh insight into human relations through reading Cooper. Here is another similar example of Cooper’s ideal, as expressed in Chapter 3 of The Deerslayer:

“ ... Here’s three colours on ‘arth ; white, black, and red. White is the highest colour, and therefore the best man; black comes next, and is put to live in the neighborhood of the white man, as tolerable and fit to be made use of; and red comes last, which shows that those that made ‘em never expect an Indian to be accounted as more than half human.”

“God made all three, alike, Hurry — “

“Alike! Do you call a nigger like a white man, or me like an Indian?”

“You go off at half-cock, and do’n’t hear me out. God made us all, white, black, and red; and, no doubt, had his own wise intentions in colouring us differently. Still, he made us, in the main, much the same in feelin’s ; though I’ll not deny that he gave each race its gifts. A white man’s gifts are christianized, while a red-skin’s are more for the wilderness. ... ” 4

When we look back upon Cooper’s words from the viewpoint of our modern age, he may be said to have used many discriminatory terms. But in his days there was not even such an expression as “discriminatory terms.” In using these words, Cooper seems to have offered his own ideas about an ethnic minority. If it can safely be said that Hurry’s words quoted above show the general point of view in Cooper’s days, Natty Bumppo seems to have been the symbol of Cooper’s message to American society in which he lived. Namely, Cooper was not only a “pioneer” of the American novel but also a pioneer in seeking to promote a true understanding of ethnological problems. In other words, Cooper was one of the greatest humanitarians in nineteenth century America. His works were a supreme achievement and an expression of human understanding.

In The Pathfinder (1840) too, much the same can be said of Natty Bumppo. He makes his appearance under the name which is the title of the work. In the novel, he is depicted as a youthful warrior. He is always with his Mohican friend, though there is less heroic behavior in The Pathfinder than in The Last of the Mohicans. The young warrior Pathfinder loves Mabel, the daughter of Sergeant Dunham. Mabel and her young lover, Jasper Western, invite Pathfinder to live with them, but the young warrior politely declines their offer. At the end of the novel, he again loses himself in the deep forest. In The Prairie (1827), also, Natty Bumppo has a strong antipathy toward civilization and a calmer but strong inclination for the wilderness. It seems that he is destined to live in the untamed wilderness with his Native American friends. In The Prairie, the last novel in the series of the Leatherstocking tales, Natty the trapper dies surrounded by a crowd of Native American people, who offer a deep respect for him. Natty seems to be content with his long life on the prairie.

Part Two

{102} The westward movement was accelerated by the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny” which influenced many Americans in the nineteenth century. Henry Nash Smith points out in his Virgin Land: “for Americans of that period there were two distinct Wests: the commonplace domesticated area within the agricultural frontier, and the Wild West beyond it.” 5 Many people, with strong faith in the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny,” moved to the west to get “area within the agricultural frontier,” while another group of people had a strong yearning for the “Wild West.” However, not all the American people were strongly moved by this doctrine.

There existed people who had a strong antipathy to the march of progress of civilization. Fenimore Cooper expressed it in his portrait of the main character of the Leatherstocking stories, Natty Bumppo. The westward movement meant nothing to Natty; as he put it in Chapter 10 of The Prairie (1827): “I have come into these plains to escape the sound of the axe; for here, surely, the chopper can never follow!” 6 This was a clear-cut expression of antipathy to the idea of “Manifest Destiny.” We can say, therefore, that Cooper tried to depict Natty Bumppo as a man who marched forward with his friends who were “the children of nature that fled into the wilderness.”

The dichotomy in Cooper’s depiction of “the Leatherstocking tales” involved a most difficult problem: Cooper tried to express the support of public opinion for the westward movement and, at the same time, the antipathy towards it. Cooper’s dichotomy consisted of these two elements in his judgements; one was the popular westward movement which had begun in the middle of the eighteenth century, and the other was Cooper’s notion which had been identified with the life of Native Americans, “the children of nature.” The former was represented by such characters as Judge Temple, and the young couples of Jasper and Mabel (in The Pathfinder) , and Edwards and Elizabeth (in The Pioneers). The latter idea was embodied by Natty Bumppo and his Mohican friends who “fled into the wilderness.”

In his literary work, Cooper gave a good picture of the ideas and life of his father, William Cooper, through the important character of Judge Temple (in The Pioneers). Judge Temple was depicted as an American gentleman who hacked his way through the forest, building a school and a society, appearing as a judge by profession. Judge Temple once arrested Natty Bumppo but the latter escaped from the former to run away with his friend Chingachgook, a chief of the Mohicans. Natty Bumppo was depicted as an idealized characteras Cooper’s outstanding hero of fiction.

And, at the same time, Natty was, in a sense, an idealized hero for Fenimore Cooper himself. Regarding this point, Cooper must have been emotionally troubled: Judge Temple kept giving chase to Natty Bumppo. Both these characters were important heroes to Cooper. The more Judge Temple tried to track down Natty Bumppo, the more he had to realize the limitations of his pursuit — because the chase turns out to be nothing more than a pursuit of Judge Temple himself. Judge Temple is the authority of his civilized world. He is the “gentleman” who should be followed by others, not one who follows them.

On the other hand, Natty Bumppo, who hates “the sound of the axe,” longs for the deep forest. Natty had already escaped capture, shaking off his pursuers. Natty will never come back to the civilized world. Here Cooper himself, the great storyteller, cannot take another step. As a great story teller, he could keep picturing both Judge Temple and Natty Bumppo splendidly. But his success in their depiction only breeds doubt in his own mind about his standpoint. Namely, Cooper inevitably finds himself standing in the middle of this dichotomy. The doctrine of “Manifest Destiny,” “the sound of the axe,” and the westward movement are the fundamental measure of Judge Temple. On the contrary, the “savage” life of Native Americans, the relationship between Hawkeye and his constant friend Chingachgook, and the expression “to escape the sound of the axe” are important keys to the workings of the mind of Natty Bumppo. In a word, Cooper stands between Judge Temple, the great representative of an advanced civilization, and Natty Bumppo, “the child of nature that fled into the wilderness,” and the man who hated “the sound of the axe.” Here we can see Cooper oscillating between these two fictitious characters — in his Leatherstocking stories and in his actual life.

Cooper’s greatest concern was how to depict his fictitious figures with a background of history and romance. In many of his literary works Cooper showed deep interest in drawing a relationship between European American people, together with Native American people, in as lively a fashion as possible. In a word, Cooper took interest in drawing the relationship between them from a viewpoint of a symbiotic relationship.

Part Three

{103} Here I would like to jump from James Fenimore Cooper to another American writer of the nineteenth century. Her name was Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885). I cannot say whether or not Helen Hunt Jackson read James Fenimore Cooper. Though Helen Jackson was much younger, they lived during the same era. At first, she was a popular poet with her contemporary rival, Emily Dickinson. When she was 49 years old, Helen Hunt Jackson was deeply moved by what members of the Ponca tribe told her. Michael Dorris explains in his “Introduction” to Ramona that Helen immersed herself in an intensive six-months period of research at the Astor Library in New York City. 7 After the research, she published A Century of Dishonor (1881). When we modern people read this book, we cannot finish reading it without being deeply moved. After reading the “Author’s Note,” we can not help being surprised by Helen’s striking straightforwardness, And if we read the book from chapter one on, we see how seriously and carefully Helen did her research into the area where Native American peoples lived. Helen tells us directly about the state of a place which had been ignored for a long time. Helen’s assertion is always clear. Her voice is loud and at the same time, her way of appealing is persuasive.

The book contains 342 pages of text and 172 pages of Appendix. The Appendix turns out to be a document and at the same time, an historical article and an important collection of letters. After long years of hard work in an ignored land, Helen’s detailed investigation and her distinguished genius had flowered. Her work, A Century of Dishonor, was a thick report. According to Michael Dorris, Helen Hunt Jackson was so fiercely sincere in her beliefs as to send copies of the book to each member of Congress at her own expense. Michael Dorris tells us also that this book played a very important role, adding that the American Government began to take appropriate measures promptly, after listening to the voices reported in the book.

What was more important was that Helen began to write a novel, Ramona. It was published in 1884, a year before she died. In this novel, Helen depicted the situation under which Native American peoples lived. As it was a novel, Helen did not cite a large number of instances of their suffering of extreme poverty, the abandoned life deep in the mountains and many questions of the ethics of people in the old days. Helen wrote a powerful and romantic novel, creating main characters of pure-hearted nobility set in Old California.

The story is concerned with the life of Ramona Ortegna, born as the daughter of an unnamed Native American woman and a Scottish seaman named Angus Phail. Ramona grows up to be a beautiful young lady, brought up in a rich family of the California Mexican aristocracy. After she grows up, she recognizes the secret of her birth. She falls in love by chance with Alessandro. Ramona feels happy to find a good youth of her own race.

The young Native American, Alessandro, is very poor, but is a man of character. He wants to protect Ramona, marries her, and decides to lead a happy life with her. Her mother-in-law, however, tries to prevent the marriage between Ramona and Alessandro. Needless to say, there cannot be a happy ending to this story.

This novel was Helen Hunt Jackson’s emotional message to the American society in her day about Native American peoples. Just after the publication of Ramona, she suffered from nervous exhaustion. Michael Dorris reports that “her doctor forbade reading, writing, and, so far as possible, thinking.” In a word, Helen had contributed her whole life to “appealing to the heart and the conscience of the American people.” Helen Hunt Jackson was another writer who tried to express her feelings about Native American peoples and the situation that was imposed upon them at that time.

James Fenimore Cooper was a writer who offered a literary world concerned with Native American peoples. His aim was to show us what the true relationship between peoples should be in a changing American society. The changing America of his day caused him distress as he sought to define the American gentleman. Whether to choose the dense forest or the civilized society was a matter of grave concern to the common people of Cooper’s day. Thus, Cooper himself was a good example of the uncertainty of his times.

On the other hand, Helen Hunt Jackson never lost her way. She found her appointed task after she began to write non-fiction. Helen Jackson decided to fulfill her mission as an investigator about the situation of Native American peoples. She was, in a sense, therefore, a social crusader. On this point, we can find an essential difference between James Fenimore Cooper and Helen Hunt Jackson. We can say that the difference between them expanded the range of American literature as it reached maturity later on.


1 Emory Elliott, ed., Columbia Literary History of the United States. New York: Columbia University Press, New York, 1988, p. 326.

2 James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers; or, The Sources of the Susquehanna [1823]. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980, Chapter 28, p. 303.

3 James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans; A Narrative of 1757 [1826]. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983, Chapter 33, p. 349.

4 James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer; or, The First Warpath [1841]. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987, Chapter 3, pp. 49-50.

5 Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950, Reprinted, 1975, p. 52: “The following interests us; [Francis] Parkman’s antithetical attitudes toward back woods farmers and the hunters and trappers of the wilderness illustrate the fact that for Americans of that period there were two quite distinct Wests: the common place domesticated area within the agricultural frontier, and the Wild West beyond it. The agricultural West was tedious; its inhabitants belonged to a despised social class. The Wild West was by contrast an exhilarating region of adventure and comradeship in the open air. ... “

6 James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie [1827]. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985, Chapter 10, p. 116.

7 Helen Hunt Jackson, Ramona. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1884. p. ix. Michael Dorris writes as follows:      ” ... and amassed a selective record of government double dealings toward various tribes: Utes, Cheyennes, Nez Perces, Delawares, Cherokees, Sioux, as well as Poncas which she collected and published as A Century of Dishonor (1881).” This shows how Helen Jackson changed from a poet to an investigator, which then led her to write her last novel, Ramona.