The Unknown War: The Last of the Mohicans and the Effacement of the Seven Years’ War in American Historical Myth

Nicholas Birns (New School University)

Presented at the 15ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2005.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2005 Cooper Seminar (No. 15), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall and Steven Harthorn, editors. (pp. 25-30).

Copyright © 2007, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

The Last of the Mohicans is that rare American war novel that is better known than the war it was written about. If the Civil War is, to use Daniel Aaron’s famous phrase, “the unwritten war,” the Seven Years’ War/French and Indian War is the unknown war. In Revolutionary War novels from Cooper’s own The Spy (1821) to twentieth-century books by Howard Fast and Esther Forbes, the war gives weight to the novel. In the case of The Last of the Mohicans, the novel gives weight to the war.

Lately, the Seven Years’ War has become a bit more visible. Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War (2000) is the first popular history of the war ever to have appeared in this country, although works by Angus Calder and the encyclopedic Lawrence Henry Gipson long ago set the precedent. More generally in this millennial era, breakdowns of formerly rigid Anglo-American dichotomies, and the waning of an old-fashioned, exceptionalist approach to US history, has removed the old taboos against recognizing the importance of a war in which Americans fought valiantly, against the French, as British subjects in defense of their own land. 1 These taboos were previously an inherent part of American national myth and existed even more monumentally when Cooper published his novel in the fiftieth anniversary year of the Declaration of Independence. 2 (This latter fact makes it all the more ironic that the subject was suggested to him amidst an expedition to the upper Hudson valley area in the company of the future Lord Derby, who would one day be British Prime Minister.) Though his native state of New York had seen many battles in the Revolutionary War, including the Sullivan expedition against the Iroquois where it would have been much more historically convenient for Magua to be the villain, Cooper chose the Seven Years’ War period as his setting for what was then planned to be one of thirteen novels dealing with the original colonies. But Cooper simply could not write a novel in which the Americans were seen as primarily British, even with incipient nationalistic stirrings. As is obvious, Cooper Americanizes the novel through contrasting Natty Bumppo with Duncan Hayward-the wilderness fighter against the trained regular soldier. The America of 1826 required not just gung-ho nationalism but historical recalibration.

Critics have long accused Cooper of ideological distortion in this novel. The British scholar Robert Clark, for instance, accuses Cooper of “the desire to transpose historical experience” into an “inverted mythological frame.” Clark’s focus is on how not just the Mohicans but Lenape people — Delawares, Algonquins — are the Indian heroes of the book, not the Iroquois, who in Clark’s view should be. As Clark points out, in Cooper’s novel the Iroquois are the enemies of the English, not, as was historically true, their crucial allies. The mountain and lake-dwelling Mohicans (Mahicans) are conflated with the coastal Mohegans (somewhat like confusing Britons and Bretons). As the novel cannot help but reveal, no Mohicans have lived in New York State since the coming of the colonists in the past century, one of the reasons why Tamenund has to be so preternaturally, unrealistically old to remember Mohicans in New York State at all. The Iroquois were not called Mingoes, at least by anyone but the Lenapes themselves. The Mingoes are not one of the Six (previously Five) Nations of the Iroquois and were geographically removed from the scene of the novel. And Glens Falls is given its current name when the locale had many other available names in the 1750s, thus not necessitating the imposition of the anachronism. But Cooper does not give the reader a clear picture of the “geopolitical” dimensions of the Seven Years’ War, not because of his own ideological desires but because of the frame imposed on him by national expectation. Cooper tacitly lets the reader know this by writing a novel that is often as consciously imaginary as it is purportedly historical. Cooper’s opening admission of the invented nature of “Horican” as applied to Lake George lets the reader in on this from the beginning. Similarly, the novel is placed in a liminal zone, what Cooper in his Westchester novel called a “neutral ground,” between what we would today call the Catskills, Adirondacks, and the Hudson Valley; its setting is not really in any of these places as precisely defined geographically, but in a trackless void between them. This liminality is overtly announced in one of the strangest passages in the novel, the beginning to chapter 21, where the setting is described as “the sterile and rugged district which separates the tributaries of Champlain from those of the Hudson, the Mohawk, and the St. Lawrence. Since the period of our tale the active spirit of the country has surrounded it with a belt of rich and thriving settlements, though none but the hunter or the savage is ever known even now to penetrate its wild recesses.” This territory is unmapped. It is also well-nigh unmappable. True, it could be what we refer to today as “the Adirondacks,” a name that, as Alfred L. Donaldson’s history of the Adirondacks makes clear, was unknown both in the day in which Cooper was writing and the day he was writing about (the indigenous people, according to Donaldson, called the region “Couchsachrage”). But it is not the mountainous quality but the trackless, unmapped quality of the “wild recesses” that seems salient. Cooper’s description seems less to refer to the Adirondacks as such than perhaps to the area immediately west of what is now Saratoga Springs, to the south of Corinth, and to the east of Great Sacandaga Lake. This region is hardly storied even today; so why is Cooper writing about it when, for local-color purposes, many richer regions lie within reach? He has already taken such liberties with history; why go to an area so denuded it lacks the sophistication of urbanity or even the glamour of wilderness? Cooper is creating a consciously synthetic no-man’s-land. Rather than writing a pastiche of the “vanishing American” designed to palliate white guilt while flattering US nationalism, Cooper is suturing proto-American history in order to present its instabilities in disguised form to a public not ready to accept them.

This need for disguise is underscored by what I believe is the cryptic, occulted name Cooper does not believe he can give to this unmapped area — “Tryon County.” This was the name of a large county that extended from present-day Otsego County northeastward to what we call the Adirondacks. It was the last county in upstate New York to be organized, in 1772, and was named after the last royal governor, William Tryon. After the Revolution, though, in 1784, Tryon was renamed (a rarity in the US after the Revolution; even New York City still has its Fort Tryon Park) Montgomery County after the deceased Revolutionary War general, and partitioned into many counties. That Tryon County had a role in Cooper’s historical imagination can be seen in Wyandotté, where at the end the area around the Hutted Knoll is its own county whereas in the time of the novel’s main action it was but one of many “fragments of a county” (368) — Tryon County unnamed. Even in Wyandotté there is a reticence about actually naming Tryon County, but also a sense of its cryptic centrality, so in a sense the proleptic Tryon County is unnamed by the circuitous language in Mohicans, and it is unnamed because it would too explicitly parade fissures of the Anglo-American history of upstate New York that Cooper wants to suture for his readers. Cooper, indeed, for a novelist who writes so much about war, is surprisingly irenic when it comes to cultural conflict. He does not represent British and Americans fighting each other or white Americans and indigenous Americans fighting each other in a conflict that is exclusively racial. He avoids jingoism on both sides.

What do those critics who accuse The Last of the Mohicans of covering up history, such as Clark, in fact want Cooper to do in the novel? One could be to write the novel in a rousingly anticolonial way, picturing Natty as the virtuous backwoodsman in opposition to the hierarchical British regulars. Cooper is clearly a committed democrat. He clearly gives those who retain allegiance to Britain no long-term role in the future history of his country; witness the nostalgia visit, and then denature, of the younger Willoughby in Wyandotté. But he is not out to demonize the British or those who were loyal to them, and this is less because of some pretentious Tory identification with Loyalists, as mediated through Susan de Lancey’s Loyalist ancestors, than because of a disinclination to succumb to the chauvinistic screeds of some of his contemporaries — a disinclination prompted by his historical awareness of the split loyalties in upstate New York. There, the Revolutionary War was what Wayne Franklin terms “a civil war more than a revolution” (Franklin 155), generating the intimate tensions more familiar to Americans with respect to The War between the States. Cooper is not out to gore the ox of the former colonists. Avoiding the American Revolution in Mohicans avoids anti-British resentment, out of date considering friendly post-1820 relations, as seen in the very fact of his friendship with the future Lord Derby.

What Cooper’s detractors also may want him to do is to center the plot more thoroughly around the Iroquois, or to give them the proper name the Hodenosaunee. The Iroquois were, after all, allies of the “Yengeese” doing the Seven Years’ War, and if Leatherstocking’s Indian boon companion had been an Iroquois, not a Lenape, it would have squared with the political and diplomatic record of the war. But Cooper was trying to tease history and to show how individuals, especially in as porous an environment as the frontier, slip in and out of its sinew. He was not simply using literature to mechanically reflect political alliances. What the champions of the Iroquois admire is the complex political organization of the Six Nations, what Clark calls — in terms that George Dekker would style strongly “stadia” — “their superior military, political, and agricultural development” (Clark 117). This development made the Six Nations, through the mechanism of the Covenant Chain, an ally of the British in the Seven Years’ War in a manner not too far different from the way in which Prussia was an ally. (The work of Francis Jennings has been particularly important in bringing this connection to light). But this championship runs into problems. First of all, the Six Nations largely take the British side in the Revolutionary War, and then where is this line to go? Is it, in a half-Atlanticist, half-multicultural way that holds white Americans in pincers, to champion a British- Iroquois alliance? But this line has no place to go after the war. Furthermore, it was not a line that would either excite a national audience or-and this is perhaps crucial-captivate an international audience that had long forgotten the continental dispute of the previous century over control of North America and accepted the US as an independent country. Cooper made much of his money abroad, and in his career’s latter days his sales in England were better than in America; but an overly pro-English line would have disturbed the international, even the English audience, who in buying a Cooper novel were buying an American commodity and expecting a certain pro-American stance. On the other hand, Cooper, for the same reason, could not be gratuitously anti-British. Cooper’s treatment of the intricacy of British-American relations is evident in its consistency between a novel such as Mohicans, where British and Americans as allies in fact are both, as “Yengeese,” the same people, and a book such as Wyandotté — what Steve Harthorn has termed the “sixth Leatherstocking novel” (see Harthorn) in many ways-that emphasizes what Thomas and Marianne Philbrick call “inglorious aspects” of the Revolution (xxi). When Cooper finally has an Iroquois on stage in Wyandotté, a member of the final group to join the Six Nations, the Tuscarora, Saucy Nick (no relation) is depicted as pro-revolutionary, as, with greater historical fidelity, are another Iroquois people, the Oneida. If Cooper were a fierce partisan of the Lenape and was out to slight the Iroquois, he would have, as he could have historically, introduced the Mohicans as United States allies during the Revolution — as indeed a later novel, Robert Chambers’s Hidden Children (1914) did. Oddly, Cooper has those Iroquois represented in the novel allied with the United States in Wyandotté and sets the novel in such a way as to avoid the Wyoming and Cherry Valley incidents and the Sullivan expedition. Whatever Cooper’s motivation, this provides symmetry with respect to the treatment of the Mingoes in Mohicans, as if to alert his reader that ahistoricism goes both ways. But this ahistoricism also liberates individuals. Indians in Cooper’s fiction are not simply pawns of diplomatic alliances. They are independent people who, like Natty himself, are moral free agents who can make what choices they want, not pawns of state power. Magua, whatever his character flaws, makes his own choices, (Granville Ganter speaks of the eloquence and oratorical skills Cooper gives Magua; Magua is an individual, not a stage villain). Chingachgook makes his own choices as well, and so does Uncas. True, in Wyandotté Cooper really has no other option, if he wants to square the circle and ally the future of his neck of the woods with American rather than British culture, but to have the indigenous reconciled, as Saucy Nick is at the end, with an American, not a British, Christianity. But the Iroquois are not simply pictured en bloc; indigenous individuals are given far more agency in Cooper’s vision than a vision that would hail the Iroquois as a collective simply because of their diplomatic position during the Seven Years’ War. If he had portrayed the Iroquois-British alliance, the Iroquois would merely be Scots to Britain’s French, as in Scott’s Quentin Durward. Cooper’s novel would have been, in feel, more European than American.

This championship of the Iroquois has become a very traditional “New York State” line, where the Iroquois are seem as totemic surrogates of New Yorkers in what is au fond a sectional contest with New England, in championing the Iroquois versus the Algonquins. Even if the motives have been not totally pure, this line has yielded a rich and in many ways responsible account of the history of the indigenous people of what is now New York State. Warren Broderick has said that “the literary treatment of New York State’s Native Americans tends to be more realistic than that in American literature as a whole” (1-2). But this accuracy was at least partially motivated by sectional pride, in that the complexity of Iroquois society was seen as an “asset” to New York State’s cultural history. In Cooper’s lifetime, both the New York poet Fitz-Greene Halleck and Cooper’s great nemesis and bane, William Leete Stone, wrote as champions of the Iroquois in precisely this sort of sectional way. The problem here is that this is, as far as cultural imperialism goes, really no better than what Cooper does in championing the Lenape versus the Iroquois, or the Pawnee versus the Lakota in the Prairie, the former as more spiritual, peaceable tribes, as against their more warlike counterparts. 3 This is all about white people using Indians as surrogates, and has little to do with real indigenous people. Clark claims that Cooper, in slighting the Iroquois, was trying to displace the awareness that the Mohawk had once inhabited Cooperstown. But the white reclamation of the Mohawk may be just another kind of displacement. There is a problem when white people take partisan sides “among” Indians, as if Indians are merely proxies for white ficto-geographical ambition.

Employing the Iroquois the way that Clark desires would have meant abandoning Heckewelder as source, and, in effect, replacing him with Cadwallader Colden, author of The History of the Five Indian Nations (1727). The Cooper-Colden intellectual relationship sheds crucial light on this entire dilemma. Colden was the longtime Lieutenant Governor of New York colony, serving under several governors, the last of whom was the aforementioned Tryon. In fact, the elderly Colden inherited nominal control over the colony once Tryon skedaddled in the wake of revolutionary agitation. If Cooper had been a Tory who wrote about the Seven Years’ War rather than the Revolution out of Tory motives, he would have used Colden as a source. His Indians would have been Colden’s Indians, not those of Heckewelder, the Moravian missionary among the Delaware, whose motivation was religious rather than political. 4 There are some interesting material reasons why Cooper perhaps did not idolize Colden. Colden had quarreled with the De Lancey family, though his family later intermarried with the De Lanceys. Cooper, as we know, liked, somewhat puckishly, to trace his wife’s family through the American past. But, fundamentally, Colden was too Loyalist for Cooper; as Franklin reminds us, Cooper was neither a “crypto-Loyalist nor an apologist for Loyalism” (Franklin 156) and was indeed filled, at least in his youth, with anti-British anger” (149). So the trace of Colden in Cooper’s fiction is slim, and this suggests a decided preference for Heckewelder’s vision of the Indian not just over those Indian-haters such as Robert Montgomery Bird but over-politicized admirers of the Iroquois such as Colden. There is an even more fundamental moral issue to consider: if Indians are made into honorary Europeans, as the pro-Iroquois white historiography from Colden to Schoolcraft to Morgan tended to do (though this was not true of the last in this sequence, the late William Fenton (1908-2005)), then the conquest of Indians by whites becomes something very different. The Sullivan expedition and the clearing-out of the Iroquois in central and western New York State — more like the Anglo-Saxons dispatching the Celts — something which more poetic souls still may lament, but which is not commonly called genocide.

Critics such as Barbara Mann have recently lauded Cooper’s grasp of Indian spirituality, and this emphasis on spirituality is a motif in Cooper’s depiction of Indians from the depiction of Tamenund in Mohicans, which is certainly an epiphanic moment, containing the key religion genres of lamentation and prophecy, down through The Oak Openings. The pro-Iroquois tradition in New York State literature does not parallel this influence on spirituality, emphasizing neither Hiawatha, the primal peacegiver of the Hodenausaunee, or Handsome Lake, who provides new religious hope after the calamity of the Sullivan expedition and the formation of the U.S. So, if both Cooper’s Indian and that of the pro-Iroquois tradition are not disinterested, Cooper’s at least addresses issues of spirituality that go beyond denotative political history.

From this very high motive, we go to a diametrically opposite one in Cooper’s representation of the Iroquois role in the Seven Years’ War: audience and money. Though locally popular as a way to stir pride in upstate New York’s struggle to come out from under the shadow of its self-promoting New England neighbor, the pro-Iroquois tradition has never produced a book that has combined the literary and commercial success of Mohicans. On some level, conscious or unconscious, Cooper knew this. Giving the historical truth of the Seven Years’ War and of the Iroquois role in it would have meant stepping on too many patriotic toes. It would have unearthed too much complex history which national and international readers would have found does not square with their image of 1820s America. As Edward Watts points out, Cooper frequently destabilized American nationalism, and he is careful not to do this so much as to lose his audience. America in 1826, after all, had just celebrated the fifty-year anniversary of the Revolution, and had been moved by the simultaneous deaths of Jefferson and Adams, and had celebrated the recent return visit of Cooper’s friend, the Marquis de Lafayette. Disturbing a consensus history that was in any event only nascent would have stirred the pot in a way that would not have produced a successful literary outcome for Cooper. Even in the 1840s, we see in the preface to Wyandotté that Cooper has to cushion the reader for non-moralistic, non-jingoistic treatment of the Revolution. Even in the 1840s, when living memory was gone — in a book such as Mohicans occurring in the fifty-year anniversary of the revolution, a “fair and balanced” treatment of the Revolution on the frontier would not have been tolerated, even if it had somehow been possible. Cooper’s British audience, which, partially out of his discontent with his fellow countrymen in the late 1830s and early 1840s, he liked to claim was the major portion of his readership, also could be seen to have preferred a sutured history, with American unity played up as much as possible, in order to present the image of an exotic country which could be presented to them in a literary crystallization. 5 Even though a full portrait of the Iroquois role in colonial history would have increased the “Britishness” of the tableau, and diminished the autochthonous “Americanness,” Cooper’s British audience, more interested in exoticism than accuracy, presumably preferred their Americans as American as possible, if only because the books were a more interesting read this way. Cooper, though not calculating in a crude way, certainly had a keen sense of his audiences. Therefore, he sutured history, patched and rewound it in his own way to suit his own literary conjunction.

This suturing is necessitated by the ideological invisibility of the Seven Years’ War. For Cooper to be historically accurate would have been to take on national myths in a frontal way that he was too prudent and wise a man to do. Despite the novel’s well-known deflecting on the multiracial tableau it canvasses (as seen in Uncas’s and Cora’s early death), Cooper gives with one hand what he takes with the other, as his setting of the novel in a deliberately distorted historical and geographical no man’s land consciously reveals the fictiveness of the novel’s ideological closure.

In not writing the “real” history of the Seven Years’ War or the Iroquois role in it, Cooper is giving his audience what is palatable to it, in novel form. But he is also evading strict ideological lines that would corral his fiction in the service of one or another time-bound partisan rationale. Cooper’s evasion of ideology, though, is not really a matter of literary purism, or aesthetic autonomy (not concepts for which Cooper, perhaps rightly, ever had much time). Rather, it is a product of the way Cooper makes the best of the historical novelists’ dual need to present a compelling artistic frame and to keep faith with its sources, to be what William Hazlitt, in writing of Sir Walter Scott, calls “an amanuensis of truth and history.” An amanuensis is someone who keeps tally with the truth, but also, implicitly, in the act of transcribing it makes that truth into his own art. In getting 1757 “wrong” Cooper is actually taking the only course that makes 1757 representable in 1826. Cooper’s vision of 1757 is thus able to coalesce with America national myth for generations since then. He is not being true to history. But he is not being false either.

Works Cited

  • Broderick, Warren, “New York State’s Mohicans in Literature.” Hudson Valley Regional Review 19.2 (2002): 1-20.
  • Calder, Angus, Revolutionary Empire: The Rise of the English-Speaking Empires from the Fifteenth-century to the 1780s [1981]. London: Pimlico, 1998.
  • Clark, Robert, “Myth and History in The Last of the Mohicans.” Poetics Today 3 (1983): 115-34.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Last of the Mohicans [1826]. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.
  • ------. Wyandotté, or, The Hutted Knoll: A Tale [1843]. Edited, with an historical introduction, by Thomas and Marianne Philbrick. Albany: SUNY Press, 1982.
  • Donaldson, Alfred L., A History of the Adirondacks [1921]. Fleischmanns: Purple Mountain Press, 1996.
  • Franklin, Wayne, “Fathering the Son: The Cultural Origins of James Fenimore Cooper”. In Resources for American Literary Study 27.2 (2001): 149-78.
  • Ganter, Granville, “Battles of Rhetoric: Oratory and Identity in Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans.” Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 1997 Conference of the American Literature Association in Baltimore. James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers 9 (August 1997).
  • ------. “William Leete Stone” and “Benjamin Drake” American National Biography. New York: Oxford, 1999. 20: 874-5.
  • Gipson, Lawrence Henry, The British Empire Before The American Revolution. New York: Knopf, 1958.
  • Harthorn, Steven P., “What Happened to Cooper’s Sixth Leatherstocking Tale?” Presented at the 15ᵗʰ James Fenimore Cooper Conference and Seminar, June 13, 2005.
  • Hazlitt, William, “Walter Scott.” In The Spirit Of The Age (1825). Online at, accessed 10 June 2005. [Link no longer extant. – Ed.]
  • Jennings, Francis, The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire. New York: Norton, 1984.
  • Kelly, William, Plotting America’s Past: Fenimore Cooper and the Leatherstocking Tales. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.
  • Lustig, Mary Lou, “Cadwallader Colden”. American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
  • McWilliams, John, The Last of the Mohicans: Civil Savagery and Savage Civility. New York: Twayne, 1995
  • Mann, Barbara Alice, “Spirits of Sky, Spirits of Earth: The Spirituality of Chingachgook.” Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 2002 Conference of the American Literature Association in Long Beach, California. James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers 17 (September 2002): 1-5.
  • Railton, Stephen, Fenimore Cooper: A Study of His Life and Imagination. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978.
  • Watts, Edward, “Cooper, Richardson, and the Frontiers of Nationalism”. Paper presented at the American Literature Association conference, 2002. James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers 17 (September 2002): 14-19.
  • Williams, Kennedy Jr., “Cooper’s Use of American History.” Presented at the 1ˢᵗ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1978.


1 One of the most moving aspects of the 2005 Cooper seminar for me was, on the trip to Fort William Henry, seeing the American and British flags flying jointly over the reconstructed fort; even the fleur de lys was there, honoring the multiple nationalities at work in the early settlement of this country — something American ethnocentrism has tended to want to erase).

2 What many consider Cooper’s greatest sea novel, The Red Rover (1827) also has a good deal of its setting in the Seven Years’ War, and Cooper has to make a similar sort of apologia for using this war, and not the Revolutionary War, as his setting, despite the great popular success of Last of the Mohicans. Cooper seems more invested in Red Rover than in his Revolutionary War sea novel, The Pilot (1824).

3 The whole scenario is reminiscent of Cold War scenarios such as occurred in the Congo in the early 1960s, where US liberals championed Patrice Lumumba, conservatives, Moise Tshombe, without really knowing much about the situation on the ground in the former Belgian colony. There is something inherently neo-colonialist about the Iroquois partisanship, though it cannot be denied that this body of work produced, and preserved, much knowledge about the Iroquois that we would otherwise have lost.

4 Cooper thus chooses anthropology over history, and, though the ahistoricism of the anthropological outlook has been a huge problem for that discipline ever since the work of Clifford Geertz became widely known in the 1970s, anthropology still has some value — and had even more in the nineteenth century — as a barrier against a crude, ethnocentric historicism which postulated some people — say the Iroquois — as dynamic, and some — say the Lenape — as static., See James Buzard, Disorienting Fiction: The Autoethnographic Work of Nineteenth-Century British Novels (Princeton University Press, 2005) for a discussion of how nineteenth-century novelists fostered a homegrown anthropology. Buzard does not include Cooper; but he could have.

5 This is reminiscent of the way contemporary readers of post-colonial fiction see writers like Salman Rushdie as “representative” of India when in reality their national identity is far more splayed.