The Pioneers: Creator of a New York Frontier Image

Hugh C. McDougall (James Fenimore Cooper Society)

Presented at the 16ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2007.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2007 Cooper Seminar (No. 16), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall and Steven Harthorn, editors. (pp. 63-68).

Copyright © 2009, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

It would be hard to imagine any aspect of Cooper’s third novel, The Pioneers, that has not been analyzed in detail by literary scholars, both as to its biographical and historical sources, its literary content, and its place in the development of American literature. It is, as the distinguished Cooper scholar George Dekker wrote forty years ago “one of a handful of great novels which deal so profoundly with American experience in the context of American social history that no American literature or history course can be sound without them.” 1 But there is a side of The Pioneers that has seemingly received less attention.

Wayne Franklin states in his epochal new biography of James Fenimore Cooper, that the settlement of the “new” west after the Revolutionary War “was to become the first great national theme. ... The establishment of that theme was owing almost entirely to Cooper. In penning The Pioneers he was able to produce ... an extraordinarily useful fiction.” 2 But if it was thus The Pioneers which taught that theme to much of America, and to much of the literate world, what was the theme that it taught?

The Pioneers, we must remember, is a novel, and literary scholarship aside it has been purchased, read, enjoyed, and understood primarily as a work of fiction. It was not intended as a sociological or historical study, and I do not intend to take up the question of whether The Pioneers should be read as biography, whether of William Cooper or James Fenimore Cooper. 3 But for an unusually broad spectrum of readers at home and abroad, over an extended period, it has provided a memorable image of an archetypal aspect of American culture about which its readers had considerable interest but little direct knowledge. I want to look today at the image of frontier life that The Pioneers presented to ordinary readers, whether in the 1820s or today, and also, briefly, at Cooper’s rather extraordinary choice of his title. We know, have known from our childhood, about America’s pioneers who form a sort of collective national hero. But what did the term mean to Cooper and his early readers?

In December 1821 the publication of The Spy had launched James Fenimore Cooper, to his surprise, into literary celebrity at home and abroad. Readers in America and elsewhere, not surprisingly, anxiously awaited his next book. Although the title of Cooper’s next novel, “The Pioneers; or the Sources of the Susquehanna” was announced as early as February 1822, it was just a year later, at the beginning of February 1823, that the novel actually appeared, and reportedly sold 3,500 copies within one day. 4

Readers eagerly bought The Pioneers, and bookstores and libraries headlined its availability. 5 Reviews were generally favorable, and praised its depiction of frontier life. The New York Statesman asserted that “some of the personages are new to novel readers, but they are met with in real life. ... It gives the reader a perfectly natural description of the persons who compose a new village. The characters are taken from life, and the author, no doubt, has been acquainted with society in similar situations.” 6 William Gardiner, reviewing the novel in 1826, concurred, saying: “The numerous characters introduced to play their respective parts in the rise and progress of Templeton ... are drawn with great spirit and originality, and are precisely such a collection as we uniformly meet when we visit a young thriving village in the interior of our country.” 7

For some readers, The Pioneers was already a nostalgic description of a way of life that had passed. A month after the book appeared a widely reprinted letter to the Boston Patriot said that:

The Pioneers ... is an admirably finished picture of the manners, habits and peculiarities of the “early settlers”. ... I am surprised at the intimate knowledge the author displays, of the peculiarities of their way of living ... [and] I am heartily glad, that some one has arisen who does not think it unworthy of his time & genius, to collect & preserve memorials of those who seemed, almost, to belong to a different species from ourselves — another century, and all traces of originality and cleverness of these early settlers, will be lost; the progress of civilization and education has been so rapid, that they are fast disappearing. ... ” 8

Within a few months, The Pioneers had spawned paintings, 9 poetry, 10 and even a play. 11 Foreign printings and translations followed rapidly. 12 All of Europe was struck by what has been called “Coopermania.” 13 Editions appeared almost immediately in England and France, followed quickly by other European countries. 14 By 1826, at least eleven British literary magazines had reviewed it. 15 Even in Russia, to quote a modern scholar, “all the main works of Fenimore Cooper ... were translated and widely read in Russia long before the Revolution. ... ” 16

If The Pioneers never achieved the popularity of The Last of the Mohicans, it was included in all the many sets of Cooper’s 32 novels, and the even more common sets of the five so-called Leatherstocking Tales, that have appeared at home and abroad, and that graced the bookshelves of readers throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

But what was the frontier society that The Pioneers presented to its readers of the 1820s? How did it resemble, and how differ from, life in real frontier settlements of the late 18ᵗʰ and early 19ᵗʰ centuries? Even when it was true to the Cooperstown on which it was based, how did it differ from other parts of the expanding state and nation? And when we turn to more recent readers, what aspects of The Pioneers seem incompatible with their understanding; and what parts of their understanding of the frontier might have surprised earlier generations? In exploring these questions, of course, we must always remember that Cooper was writing a novel, and not a sociological treatise, and was thus under no moral obligation to include the whole reality, even if he had understood it, of the early 19ᵗʰ century frontier.

One of the first things that the original readers noticed about The Pioneers was the variety of ethnic and regional groups from which Cooper had drawn his cast of characters: Although the chief protagonists are, like the Cooper family itself, from the Middle States, Cooper’s Templeton is crowded with New Englanders from Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont; immigrants of German, French, Dutch, Irish, and English origin; African-Americans, both slave and free, and Native Americans. 17 For each Cooper has sought to define cultural characteristics, and replicate their ways of speaking English.

Readers evidently liked this variety, which spoke to the multi-ethnic nature of America, and it remains an important feature of the novel. But in reality most frontier settlements at this time — even in New York with its established Dutch and German minorities, and an often temporary influx of French refugees — were likely to be dominated by settlers of a more homogenous nature, especially as New Englanders poured out from their overcrowded states to populate America’s northern tier.

More important, perhaps, to the image of frontier life presented by The Pioneers, are basic aspects of reality that are virtually left out of Cooper’s presentation.

The most significant is that The Pioneers is an urban book. Though most real settlers along the frontier were engaged in agriculture, Cooper does not show us a single farmer. Except for Natty Bumppo and his Indian friend, and Billy Kirby, all the characters are essentially townsfolk, who make periodic excursions outside the village which is their home.

Another is that the village of Templeton is without politics. Judge Temple presides over the county court, and there are several lawyers about, but elected officials, village administration, and political party acrimony — which formed a vital part of real life in every frontier community, especially those that, like Cooperstown and Templeton, had been designated as county seats, are not to be found. Also missing are newspapers, though Cooper has set the date of his story shortly before the appearance of Cooperstown’s Otsego Herald.

Templeton also appears to be a community without commerce; though the real-life models for Richard Jones and M. Le Quoi ran a village general store, nobody in The Pioneers ever enters a shop or buys anything.

And, finally, Templeton is a community largely without wives or children — except perhaps for the boys hired by Judge Temple to wring the necks of wounded pigeons. Indeed, it is for most purposes an all-male community. Remarkable Pettibone sticks to her kitchen, Betty Hollister sticks to her tavern, and only Elizabeth Temple (sometimes accompanied, for propriety’s sake, by Louisa Grant) is allowed to venture forth into male territory.

In short, the frontier life that Cooper presents in The Pioneers, however minutely described, is only a small slice of the reality. For those who knew something of that reality, of course, this didn’t matter. But middle-class readers in America’s cities in 1823, readers around the world, and readers today, may not notice what they are missing.

Moreover, the story of The Pioneers is told primarily from the viewpoint of Templeton’s ruling family: Judge Temple and his daughter, his servants, and his friends and hangers-on. Although Judge Temple has gone downstate to bring back his daughter at the opening of the story, he does not again leave the community. In reality, such individual attention to community affairs by the proprietors who had founded them was unusual. Men who established such communities were more likely to live in urban centers, managing their properties through employees; or in some cases to live in mansions in the center of large estates. And, though William Cooper makes a point, in his posthumously published A Guide in the Wilderness, of the need for a proprietor to live in the community he has founded, in his own life he spent large parts of his time away from Cooperstown, whether serving as a Congressman or looking after his other far-flung business activities, to the apparent neglect of his own wife and children.

There are several aspects of life as presented in The Pioneers that contemporaries probably accepted as normal, but which may seem strange to modern readers.

Although almost half of The Pioneers takes place on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, virtually nothing we associate with Christmas is in evidence. There is no gift-giving, and the closest thing to a Christmas tree is the decoration with evergreens of the academy building that serves as a temporary church. The principal events, aside from a sex segregated religious service, are an all-male dinner given by Judge Temple for his friends, to which Elizabeth is exceptionally invited, and a drunken carousal at the Bold Dragoon Tavern at which she would not dream of appearing. But as Allan Axelrad has pointed out, this is what a New York Christmas in 1793 would have been like — and why New England Calvinists rejected the holiday entirely. 18 Only gradually would Christmas be tamed into the family, and commercial, festival it has become today. It is true, however, that The Pioneers played one small part in that transformation; it introduced to a national and international audience the name of Santa Claus, the Dutch nickname of St. Nicholas whose gift-giving tradition was in 1823 being revived in New York City.

A minor theme in The Pioneers that modern readers may find strange is the persistent search for silver mines by Jotham Riddle and his friends — a search that leads to the invasion of Natty Bumppo’s cabin retreat. But the belief in buried treasure, whether in the form of undiscovered mines, or of the pirate variety, was a frequent obsession along the northeastern American frontier after the Revolution, even in places where there was no rational basis for expecting success. 19

Finally, two themes that modern readers often find in The Pioneers would probably have escaped its earlier readers, especially in the United States. The first is that of conservation; to many modern readers The Pioneers appears to pioneer in the reproachful comments made by Judge Temple about the indiscriminate felling of trees, netting of fish, and slaughter of pigeons, and the even more forceful insistence of Natty Bumppo on the importance of nature and its creatures. 21 Yet for most settlers on America’s early frontiers, the replacement of forests with cultivated fields, and the rapid elimination of almost all wildlife, were objectives to be pursued without qualification.

As Alan Taylor has pointed out, to the real settlers of Otsego County, and presumably elsewhere, the cutting down of the forests was so laborious as to make the tree a virtual enemy of mankind, and as the rapid depletion of wildlife was assumed to be inevitable, settlers sought to appropriate as much of it to themselves as they could. 21 It was no accident that in introducing William Cooper’s 1810 pamphlet on the art of settling the frontier, William Sampson said of the author: “Leave to Caesar the boast of having killed two millions of men; let yours be that of having cut down two million of trees.” 22

Finally, few of Cooper’s original readers would have viewed his treatment of Native Americans and African Americans with the eyes of our time. If the death of Chingachgook at the end of the story could be seen as tragic, it also represented symbolically what Cooper himself considered as the inevitable fate of American Indians unable to cope with the demands of Euro-American civilization. Thus, in an 1831 introduction to The Last of the Mohicans, he defended his literary extinction of that people on the grounds that “the seeming inevitable fate of all these people ... is represented as having already befallen them.” 23

Cooper’s treatment of the two African Americans in the novel, Agamemnon, the slave rented out to Judge Temple, and Abraham Freeborn, who presides over the turkey-shoot, has led to charges of racism by many modern writers. 24 I strongly disagree with these interpretations, but that is beside the point. What is significant is that to many of Cooper’s original readers, he was far too kind to African Americans. One of the first reviews of The Pioneers stated baldly: “The blacks certainly do not add much to the beauty of the work. There may be wit and humour in the broken and vulgar language of these coloured personages, though it escaped our notice.” 25 Another suggested sarcastically that Cooper’s knowledge of African American speech patterns was itself suspect: “We cannot refrain ... from expressing our wonder at the faithfulness and accuracy with which Mr. C. deals out the negro ‘gibberish,’ and the great curiosity we feel to ascertain where, how, and when he became so intimately acquainted with this graceful and polished phraseology.” 26

In summary of this portion of our argument, then, we find that The Pioneers, as was perhaps inevitable for a novel, presented only a partial portrait of frontier settler life, and also that its original readers, and those of today, are likely to read some of that portrait in different ways.

But there is another aspect of this book that needs to be briefly examined, and that is the word “pioneers” itself. In the very first chapter Cooper contrasts what he calls “the expedients of the pioneers who first broke ground in the settlement of this country,” with the neat farms and communities of 1823, where these pioneers have been succeeded by “the permanent improvements of the yeoman, who intends to leave his remains to moulder under the sod which he tills, or, perhaps, of the son, who, born in the land, piously wishes to linger around the grave of his father.” 27 Then, in the very last sentence of the last chapter, he describes Natty Bumppo’s departure from Templeton as: “the foremost in that band of Pioneers, who are opening the way for the march of the nation across the continent.” 28 Amazingly, the only other use of the word in the novel is in its title.

Today, we use the word “pioneers” almost casually as a specifically American term for those who peopled the settlements along a constantly expanding American frontier. For readers of 1823, however, it was just beginning to emerge from its old technical military use for those who dug trenches and fortifications (the word derives from an old French term meaning spade or shovel), and from a more recent use to describe precursors of developments in the arts and sciences. As Cooper and a few other early American writers used the term “pioneers,” it referred not to the inhabitants of frontier settlements like Templeton, but to those who — like Ishmael Bush and his family in The Prairie, had gone before those settlements.

Thus in 1782 Crèvecœur, in his widely read The American Farmer, uses the word “pioneers” once, to refer to social outcasts who form “a kind of forlorn hope, preceding by ten or twelve years the most respectable army of veterans which comes after them.” 29 On June 9, 1819, possibly picking up on this, Major General Edmund Gaines, at a ceremonial dinner in Nashville, Tennessee attended by President Monroe, General Andrew Jackson, and New York Governor De Witt Clinton (just possibly accompanied by Cooper), proposed a toast to “The Frontier inhabitants; the pioneers & forlorn hope of our country.” 31 In 1820 Washington Irving, in his famous short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” referred, probably sarcastically, to “Connecticut, a state which supplies the Union with pioneers for the mind as well as the forest, and sends forth yearly its legions of frontier woodsmen and country school-masters.” 31

Most importantly for Cooper, perhaps, Timothy Dwight, ex-president of Yale College, in his Travels in New-England and New-York, published in 1821 and 1822 just as Cooper was composing The Pioneers, and probably known to him, 32 both used and defined the term in some detail in a discussion of early Vermont: “A considerable part of all those who begin the cultivation of the wilderness may be denominated foresters or pioneers. The business of these persons is no other than to cut down trees, build log houses, lay open forested grounds to cultivation, and prepare the way for those who come after them. These men cannot live in regular society. They are too idle, too talkative, too passionate, too prodigal, and too shiftless to acquire either property or character. ... ” 33

From all this we can gather that, startling as it may seem today, there are no pioneers in The Pioneers, except for Natty Bumppo — and he acts in that role not in Templeton, but only as he leaves that settled community for the West at the end of the story.

But the real significance of The Pioneers to its readers at home and abroad has not depended on its sociological accuracy, on the original meaning of its title, nor on its depiction of a particular phase in our historical development. Instead, Cooper’s vivid portrayal of exotic personalities and events in the frontier village of Templeton became for millions the archetype of America’s first great national theme. For them, and for many people today who have absorbed the novel only at second hand, it is Natty Bumppo and John Mohegan, Billy Kirby and Brom Freeborn, Dr. Elnathan Todd and Remarkable Pettibone, Frederick Hartmann and Monsieur Le Quoi, Ben Pump and Hiram Doolittle, Judge Temple and his vivacious daughter Elizabeth, who are in some sense America’s real pioneers.


1 George Dekker, James Fenimore Cooper: The Novelist (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967), p. 63.

2 Wayne Franklin, James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years (Yale University Press, 2007), p. 336.

3 This issue came to the fore with the publication of Alan Taylor, William Cooper’s Town : Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995) which, while concentrating on William Cooper and the early history of Cooperstown, repeatedly wove his son’s The Pioneers into the story.

4 New York Commercial Advertiser of January 31, 1823, as quoted in Baltimore Patriot of February 3, 1823. See also Beard, “Introduction,” pp. xlii, liv endnote 68.

5 E.g., “THE PIONEERS ... is announced for sale by S.S. Wood & Co. ... ” (Baltimore Patriot, February 5, 1823); “ROBINSON’S Circulating Library. ... Just received the regular supply of THE PIONEERS: ... A few copies for sale, price $2.” (Baltimore Patriot, February 8, 1823); “The Pioneers, A New Novel by the author of the Spy, is published in New-York, and will be received here ... in a few days. ... ” (New Bedford Mercury, February 21, 1823); “THE PIONEERS!. Just received and for sale. ... A FEW copies of the “PIONEERS, OR SOURCES OF THE SUSQUEHANNA. ... ” (Concord, New Hampshire Patriot & State Gazette, March 3, 1823); “A further supply of The Pioneers ... just received. ... ” (Baltimore Patriot, February 27, 1823).

6 Quoted in the Salem (Mass.), Essex Register, February 13, 1823.

7 William Gardiner, “Cooper’s Novels,” in The North American Review, July 1826, p. 195.

8 Reprinted in the Carolina Centinel, March 15, 1823.

9 Half a dozen paintings and other illustrations are cited in the Philadelphia United States Gazette, as quoted in the Providence (R.I.) Patriot, May 24, 1823.

10 In the Connecticut Mirror, quoted in the Haverhill (Mass.) Gazette, March 14, 1823.

11 “now in rehearsal at the New York Park Theatre” Baltimore (Maryland) Patriot, March 22, 1823.

12 See, e.g. William Thorp, “Cooper Beyond America,” James Fenimore Cooper: A Re-Appraisal, Cooperstown: (New York State Historical Association, 1954), pp. 522-539.

13 Ray Allen Billington, Land of Savagery; Land of Promise: The European Image of the American Frontier in the Nineteenth Century (W.W. Norton, 1981), pp. 30-32.

14 Robert E. Spiller and Philip C. Blackburn, A Descriptive Bibliography of the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper (New York: R.R. Bowker Co., 1934; reprinted New York: Burt Franklin, 1968), pp. 28-31.

15 William S. Ward, “American Authors and British Reviewers 1798-1826: A Bibliography,” A merican Literature, March 1977, p. 7.

16 Pitirim Sorokin, Russia and the United States (Transaction Publishers, 2006, originally published 1944), p. 168; see also Tamara Logacheva, “James Fenimore Cooper — 200 Years of Admiration,” 14ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, July 2003.

17 See, e.g., Kay Seymour House, “James Fenimore Cooper: The Pioneers” in Wallace Stegner, ed., The American Novel from James Fenimore Cooper to William Faulkner (New York: Basic Books, 1965), pp. 1-12.

18 Allan M. Axelrad, “Christmas in Cooperstown and Templeton: The Coopers and the Invention of an American Holiday Tradition” 14ᵗʰ C ooper Seminar, July 2003.

19 Alan Taylor, “The Early Republic’s Supernatural Economy: Treasure-Seeking in the American Northeast, 1780-1830,” The American Quarterly, (Spring 1986, pp. 6-34.

20 See, e.g., E. Arthur Robinson, “Conservation in Cooper’s The Pioneers,” PMLA (December 1967), pp. 564-578; Nelson Van Valen, “James Fenimore Cooper and the Conservation Schism,” New York History (July 1981); Hugh C. MacDougall, “James Fenimore Cooper: Pioneer of the Conservation Movement,” Talk before the Oneonta Adirondack Club, 1999 (on James Fenimore Cooper Website).

21 Alan Taylor, “The Great Change Begins: Settling the Forest of Central New York,” New York History, July 1995; Alan Taylor, “’Wasty ways’: Stories of American Settlement,” Environmental History, July 1998.

22 William Sampson, introduction to William Cooper, A Guide in the Wilderness (Dublin: Gilbert and Hodges, 1810; facsimile reprint Cooperstown, NY, 1986), p. 3.

23 James Fenimore Cooper, Introduction (1831) to The Last of the Mohicans, quoted in the Cooper Edition (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983), pp. 6-7.

24 See, e.g., Therman B. O’Daniel, “Cooper’s Treatment of the Negro,” Phylon, 2ⁿᵈ Qtr., 1947, pp. 164-177; Chester H. Mills, “Ethnocentric Manifestations in Cooper’s Pioneers and The Last of the Mohicans,” Journal of Black Studies, June 1986, pp. 435-449; Nadesan Permaul, “James Fenimore Cooper and the American National Myth,” Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers, 2006, pp. 9-17.

25 “Leisure Hours — No. III. The Pioneers“ in Portsmouth (N.H.) Journal of Literature and Politics, March 22, 1823.

26 New York Minerva, February 8, 1823.

27 James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers, Chapter I.

28 James Fenimore Cooper, T he Pioneers, Chapter XLI.

29 J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, Letters from an American Farmer (Penguin American Library 1981, originally published 1782), pp. 72-73.

30 Quoted in, among other papers, the New York Evening Post of July 1, 1819 and the Newburyport (Mass.) Herald of July 6, 1819.

31 Washington Irving, History, Tales and Sketches (New York: Library of America, 1983), p. 1060.

32 See Wayne Franklin, James Fenimore Cooper: The Early Years (Yale University Press, 2007), p. 341, and more generally pp. 338, 338-343.

33 Timothy Dwight, Travels; in New-England and New York (New Haven: Timothy Dwight, 4 volumes 1821-1822, reprinted Harvard University Press, 1969), Vol. II, p. 321.