Leather-Stocking’s Mother

Allan M. Axelrad (Emeritus, California State University, Fullerton)

Presented at the 18ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2011.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2011 Cooper Conference and Seminar (No. 18), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Steven Harthorn and Hugh C. McDougall, editors. (pp. 5-10).

Copyright © 2013, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

In the Prologue to his 1955 classic study, The American Adam, R. W. B. Lewis describes the new American literary hero as

an individual emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race; an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources.

Adam was the archetype. “His moral position was prior to experience,” Lewis explains, “and in his very newness he was fundamentally innocent. The world and history lay all before him. 1 Lewis finds this Adam-like hero in a variety of nineteenth-century texts, including works by Hawthorne, James, and Melville, but “it was Cooper’s contribution,” he says, “to bring the hero fully to life.” 2 The paradigmatic work, according to Lewis, is The Deerslayer, where Leather-Stocking makes his appearance as “the full-fledged fictional Adam.” 3

James Fenimore Cooper’s 1841 novel, The Deerslayer, certainly plays with the biblical story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. The Glimmerglass setting of the tale is paradisical. Our Adamic hero, Deerslayer, is drawn to the lake by his best friend, Chingachgook, whose name means Great Serpent. After being enticed to an edenic place by the Serpent, he kills his first enemy warrior, and experiences a symbolic fall and loss of innocence. At the lake he also meets this lovely lake’s resident Eve, Judith Hutter, who would like the two of them “to turn this beautiful place” into “a garden of Eden.” 4 Unfortunately, she already is a fallen woman. Moreover, over the course of the novel, we also learn that he is not exactly, to re-quote Lewis, “untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race.” Although his mother, father, and sister are only briefly mentioned in the novel, “the usual inheritances of family and race” loom quite large in the story that is told. “I’m white and Christian born,” Deerslayer repeatedly proclaims; “I’m altogether of white blood,” he says again and again, “and, in a nat’ral way of white gifts too.” 5 His doctrine of gifts looks forward in time to modern cultural relativism: “You find different colours on ‘arth, as any one may see,” he explains, “but you do n’t find different natur’s. Different gifts, but only one natur’.” 6 Matters of race — including his distinction between “red” gifts and “white” gifts, and his adamant opposition to mixed-race marriage — figure prominently in the story Cooper told. 7

Leather-Stocking has traditionally been regarded as a peculiarly American hybrid, an amalgam of European and Native America. His parents were European-American; however, he was a product of the wilderness and greatly influenced by the Native people who called it home. Speaking of Leather-Stocking, while recalling Daniel Boone and other “white denizens of the forest and the prairie,” in 1852 Francis Parkman wrote: “There is something admirably felicitous in the conception of this hybrid offspring of civilization and barbarism,” mixing the Indian’s “wandering instincts and hatred of restraint” with “the truest moral perceptions” of European-American civilization. 8 Leather-Stocking was a white man, but a cultural crossbreed. This view was self-evident to Parkman, and it has always been taken for granted in Cooper scholarship. Thus there has been little reason to look more closely at Leather-Stocking’s parents, until recently.

The first (and only) scholarship to inquire into the racial background of Leather-Stocking’s parents has come to the surprising determination that theirs was a mixed-race marriage. Although his father was of European stock, his mother was an Indian. In this view, Leather-Stocking was not only a cultural hybrid, he was also a racial hybrid; in the language of the day, he was a half-breed. 9

This re-interpretation challenges the essential Leather-Stocking that we thought we knew. Natty Bumppo’s full Christian first name is Nathaniel. His biblical namesake appears in John 1 in the New Testament. In the language of Cooper’s King James Bible, “Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and said of him, ‘Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!’” 10 The hero of The Leather-Stocking Tales is repeatedly referred to as a man without guile. We have come to know him as a man of superhuman integrity, honest to a fault, and completely transparent. He lives in historical time, but his character belongs to myth or legend. Not only does he affirm the purity of his European-American bloodlines over and over and over again, he often speaks righteously against blood-mixing between European Americans and Native Americans. If it were true that his mother was an Indian, we would have to re-imagine the hero of The Leather-Stocking Tales. Instead of a man without guile — a man of legendary honor and extraordinary virtue — this mixed-race hero would actually be a self-loathing liar and one of the greatest hypocrites in American literature.

A number of historical observations are presented that presumably identify Leather-Stocking’s mother as an Indian. These include the absence of European women on the frontier, forcing white frontiersmen to take Indian women for their wives; his mother’s illiteracy, which would not be true of white Christians at this time; and our knowledge that he lived with Delaware Indians, but was not taken captive in a mourning war. 11 In the following discussion I will test the hypothesis that Leather-Stocking’s mother was an Indian by consulting the actual historical record and the text of The Deerslayer. But my primary resource is a little-known introduction to the novel by the author’s daughter, Susan Fenimore Cooper. Her introduction augments the little that we know about Leather-Stocking’s family, and fills us in on what his life was like in the years before we meet him in The Deerslayer.

Susan Fenimore Cooper has long been regarded as an important source of insider information about her father’s novels. Scholars regularly look to her introductory notes to the excerpts from twenty-five of his novels in her beautifully illustrated 1861 coffee table edition, Pages and Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper. 12 Introducing an excerpt from The Deerslayer, she recalls driving along the shore of Otsego Lake on a “pleasant summer evening,” with her father in “a gay mood” heretically singing a Whig political tune. “Suddenly he paused,” she continues, “as an opening in the wood revealed a sweet view of the lake. His spirited gray eye rested a moment on the water, with that expression of abstracted, poetical thought, ever familiar to those who lived with him”; then he turned to his daughter and “exclaimed: ‘I must write one more book, dearie, about our little lake!’” And only a “few days later,” she tells us, “the first pages of the Deerslayer were written.” 13 This charming episode is frequently cited in Cooper scholarship.

While scholars continually mine her introductory notes in Pages and Pictures, they much less frequently mine the fifteen, often highly informative introductions she wrote for the Household Edition of her father’s works. 14 Her Household introduction to The Deerslayer is a case in point. She discusses the wild animals and the human history of the region of the tale. She provides an insider’s account of the “great delight” her father took in the farm he named the Châlet, located on the eastern shore of Otsego Lake; it was on a drive home from the farm when that oft-cited moment of inspiration mentioned in Pages and Pictures occurred. She also provides new insider information about picnicking and her father’s chowder making at Three-Mile Point, the site of several scenes in the novel; and, most important for our purposes, she provides biographical information about young Leather-Stocking and his mother that appears to have slipped under the scholarly radar screen.

While she does not give the precise location where the Bumppo family — Natty, his sister, and their mother and father-lived, it was in the vicinity of Chingachgook’s village in the Susquehanna River Valley in Pennsylvania, perhaps, she suggests, toward the north in Wyalusing, or down the river in Wyoming, or even further down in Shamokin. 15 Their dwelling was “some rude frontier home,” a “log-cabin” with a “bark roof.” His father was “a pale-face hunter and trapper of note,” who was “trampled to death, it was said,” she writes, “by an enraged moose at bay.” 16 After he died, she notes, the Delaware Indian warriors who lived nearby no longer visited and sat by the fire in their cabin, passing on their tales and traditions, as they had when the famous hunter was alive.

Yet the children of the two races continued to play together. Unlike his Indian playmates — who “looked on with cold disapprobation” — Natty, says Susan, “scorned no errand” for his “Christian mother,” bringing “water from the spring,” hewing “wood for the fire,” and also planting “the potato and the maize.” 17 For Indians, this was women’s work, yet Natty’s Anglo-American mother expected it of her son. Of course he also “shouldered his father’s rifle,” supplying his family with game to eat, as well as skins “for the dainty moccasins worn by his young sister” and “rude leather leggings” for himself. Susan points out that his Delaware Indian companions called him “’Straight-tongue’” for “his love of truth”; and after joining a Delaware “hunting party” and returning “laden with choice venison,” Chingachgook’s father re-named him Deerslayer. 18

Leather-Stocking’s mother aged quickly after her husband’s death. In this time of sadness, Susan continues, Deerslayer “would often hear her singing some pious song, psalm, or hymn, learned in her girlhood.” He often found her kneeling in prayer. “She could not read,” Susan explains, but “she knew by heart a few verses from the Holy Book.” 19 The “mother now told” Bible stories to “her children” — stories about “Noah and the Ark” and “David and Goliah.” She recited “some verses of the Sermon on the Mount.” But “above all,” Susan writes, “she told them the glad tidings of the Gospel.” Listening to his pious mother, says Susan, young Leather-Stocking “received into his guileless, kindly heart, many a word which gave coloring to his later life.” Deerslayer also “learned important truths,” she adds, from missionaries who stayed “at the widow’s cabin” when they came to preach to the Indians. 21

In time, his mother became seriously ill. “Her heart yearned for her kindred and the Lowlands where she was born,” Susan explains, and she “longed to see a Christian minister of the gospel. In response, Deerslayer, accompanied by Chingachgook, “walked a hundred miles over mountain and fell” and returned “with a Moravian Brother” to “his mother’s bedside.” Before she died, Susan says, “solemnly she charged him to take his young sister without loss of time into the Lowlands, among their own kindred, and to leave her there.” 21

After Christian words were said by the Moravian Brother, Leather-Stocking’s mother was buried beside her husband. “The next day,” Susan continues, “Deerslayer and his young sister with the Moravian Brother, and Chingachgook as an escort, went on their way through the forest towards the low country.” When they arrived in the settlements, according to Susan, “there was an aunt who was glad to fill a mother’s place to the young girl. Here, also, kindred gathered about the young Natty and urged him to stay among his own people.” 22 For a few weeks, Susan tells us, Deerslayer tried the life of a colonial American farmer, but “was sick at heart with longing for his old free life.” After telling his “kindred” goodbye and parting “kindly with all,” with “an eager heart and a light step” he “turned his face toward the Delaware country,” and found Chingachgook patiently waiting for him when “he reached the first belt of forest.” Once they reached the Delaware village, according to Susan, Deerslayer “was formally adopted as a son by the father of the young Serpent.” 23 Susan concludes the story of young Leather-Stocking and his mother by noting that in the years that followed Deerslayer “hunted with his Mohegan brothers over much of the mountainous country watered by the upper Susquehanna, and the Delaware,” 24 presumably in northern Pennsylvania and perhaps over the border into New York.

With his mother’s death and his sister’s disappearance into the settlements, the path is now laid out for the future hero of The Leather-Stocking Tales. In Susan’s story, Deerslayer’s best friends are Natives, and his chosen way of life blends Native America and European America. In combining guilelessness and Christian values, with woodcraft and extraordinary hunting skills, young Leather-Stocking anticipates his later mythic self.

Although Susan has provided us with the backstory of a legend, it does mesh pretty well with what historians have written about Pennsylvania at this time. In Susan’s story Leather-Stocking’s mother was an illiterate white woman, married to a white hunter, living in a log cabin in Pennsylvania near the Susquehanna River. White illiteracy was not uncommon. In their history of literacy in America, Edward and Elaine Gordon found that a large number of “children and adults” in colonial Pennsylvania “remained wholly illiterate.” 25 It is true that some white men, particularly French-Canadians, did marry Indian women; by contrast, Anglo-American colonials were more likely to settle on the frontier in families. 26 Quite a few of the European-American women became active participants in the colony’s frontier commerce. 27 In looking at the wives of Indian Traders registered with the colony’s government and living in the Susquehanna Valley at this time, Alison Duncan Hirsch found that some were Natives or métis, while others were French, English, or German. 28 Presumably something like this diversity could be found among the wives of white hunters as well.

During the time period of Susan’s story it was still possible for a white family to live harmoniously with Delaware Indian neighbors. David L. Preston’s description of marginal white families in the Susquehanna Valley in the 1730s fits the situation of the Bumppos: “Poorer frontier families typically lived in temporary log cabins in small, isolated clearings. They subsisted, in Indian fashion, through hunting and agriculture and depended on Indian largesse. Peaceable dealings with their Native neighbors were a necessity on a frontier that was still an Indian world and one increasingly threatened by French imperial power.” 29 Historically, in the Susquehanna Valley in the early middle years of the eighteenth century, Indians and squatters socialized, went hunting together, and sometimes became part of each other’s families. 31 On the frontier, both whites and Indians offered hospitality to travelers regardless of their race. Long nights were spent in conversation; and much like Susan suggested, Indians enjoyed passing on their tales. 31 This historical pattern of friendly Indian/white interaction was quite evident in the story that Susan told. While it never lived up to Edward Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom, European Americans and American Indians co-existed more successfully in Pennsylvania than in other colonies, at least until after midcentury when the French and Indian War laid waste to much of the interior. 32

Susan’s picture of the Susquehanna Valley in the 1730s is somewhat askew in one particular. She has young Leather-Stocking living with Chingachgook’s family in a Delaware village. Historically at this time, however, the Indian towns in the Susquehanna Valley housed a mixed tribal population that might include Delawares, Shawnees, Oneidas, Conestogas, Conoys, or Cayugas. 33 Her story also contains at least one historical anachronism. Moravians did not found Bethlehem and send missionaries to the Susquehanna River country until 1741, 34 which would have been too late to provide spiritual solace to Leather-Stocking’s mother, who passed away some time back in the 1730s. Here, however, Susan was following her father’s text, which discussed the religious influence of the Moravians on young Deerslayer. Susan was also faithful to her father’s text in presenting the Bumppo family as white, European American. Not only does Deerslayer constantly call attention to his pure, European-American heritage, the major Native-American characters in the novel — Rivenoak, Hist, and his childhood friend, Chingachgook, who presumably knew his mother and his sister — take his unmixed, white identity for granted. 35 Though less than a paragraph is devoted to Leather-Stocking’s mother and sister, in her telling of the backstory of her father’s novel, Susan was faithful to the text of The Deerslayer. 36

Cooper is also quite clear about Deerslayer’s racial makeup. Early in the novel, Deerslayer wanders into the room in Muskrat Castle shared by Judith and Hetty Hutter. Using his authorial voice, Cooper states that it had been “several years since Deerslayer had been in a spot especially devoted to the uses of females of his own colour and race. The sight brought back to his mind a rush of childish recollections,” he explains. Deerslayer “bethought him of his mother, whose homely vestments he remembered to have seen hanging on pegs, like those which he felt must belong to Hetty Hutter, and he bethought him of a sister whose incipient and native taste for finery had exhibited itself somewhat in the manner of that of Judith, though necessarily in a lesser degree.” We are told that the “resemblances opened a long hidden vein of sensations,” and as Deerslayer “quitted the room, it was with a saddened mien.” 37 Other than passing reference to his father and the Bumppo family name, that is all that is said in the novel about Deerslayer’s family history.

Taken together, the historical record, the text of The Deerslayer, and Susan’s introduction confirm our traditional view of Deerslayer as a white man and a cultural hybrid. This said, we must also keep in mind that Leather-Stocking is a mythic hero, a literary creation, not a flesh-and-blood historical figure. Moreover, even while we are completely satisfied that Leather-Stocking’s mother was a white woman, one obvious questions remains. Where did the rest of Susan’s story come from?

While much of James’ early writing career benefitted from his access to the rich cultural and intellectual life offered by New York City and Paris, in his later years he lived in relative isolation in the remote, upstate village of Cooperstown. In 1841, when The Deerslayer was published, Susan had an extremely close personal relationship with her author father; and, more than anyone else, appears to have functioned as his literary confidante. After the family’s permanent return to Cooperstown in 1836 until the author’s death in 1851 — except for his occasional trips to Philadelphia and New York mostly to conduct business — they were together virtually every day. While he and she were out walking or driving along the lake shore or perhaps sitting at home in front of the fireplace on a cold winter night, it is easy to imagine James letting his imagination roam backward in time, delighting his daughter Susan with the story of Leather-Stocking’s mother and our hero’s early life. In this scenario, James Fenimore Cooper was the source of Susan’s story. But this is not the only scenario. It also could have been her own literary invention.


1 R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), 5.

2 Lewis, American Adam, 98. He singles out The Marble Faun by Hawthorne, Billy Budd by Melville, and The Golden Bowl by James as outstanding examples of novels that build on the myth of the American Adam.

3 Lewis, American Adam, 104.

4 James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer or, The First War-Path, hist. introd. and explanatory notes by James Franklin Beard, text established by Lance Schachterle, Kent Ljungquist and James Kilby (1841; Albany: SUNY Press, 1987), 376.

5 Cooper, The Deerslayer, 472, 302.

6 Cooper, The Deerslayer, 438-39.

7 Cooper, The Deerslayer, 440, 472.

8 Francis Parkman, “Francis Parkman on Cooper,” in Fenimore Cooper: The Critical Heritage, ed. George Dekker and John P. McWilliams (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), 252.

9 See Barbara Alice Mann, “Race Traitor: Cooper, His Critics, and Nineteenth-Century Literary Politics, in A Historical Guide to James Fenimore Cooper, ed. Leland S. Person (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2007), 155-85; Barbara Alice Mann, “Sex and the Single Mixed-Blood,” in Leather-Stocking Redux; Or, Old Tales, New Essays, ed. Jeffrey Walker (New York: AMS Press, 2011), 57-85.

10 The New Testament In Four Versions: King James, Revised Standard, Phillips Modern English, New English Bible (New York: Christianity Today, 1963), 270.

11 Mann, “Race Traitor,” 162-65; Mann, “Sex and the Single Mixed-Blood,” 57-85.

12 Susan Fenimore Cooper, Pages and Pictures from the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper (New York: W. A. Townsend, 1861).

13 Susan Fenimore Cooper, Pages and Pictures, 322, 323.

14 The fifteen Household introductions include the five Leather-Stocking tales, Jack Tier, The Pilot, The Red Rover, The Sea Lions, Two Admirals, The Water-Witch, The Wing and Wing, and three novels not included in Pages and Pictures: Afloat and Ashore, Miles Wallingford, and The Crater.

15 Susan Fenimore Cooper, Household Edition Introduction to James Fenimore Cooper, The Deerslayer or The First War-Path: A Tale (1841; Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1876), xxix-xxx. She spells Wyalusing as Wyalussing.

16 Susan Fenimore Cooper, Introduction to Deerslayer, xxv.

17 Susan Fenimore Cooper, Introduction to Deerslayer, xxv.

18 Susan Fenimore Cooper, Introduction to Deerslayer, xxv-xxvi.

19 Susan Fenimore Cooper, Introduction to Deerslayer, xxvi.

20 Susan Fenimore Cooper, Introduction to Deerslayer, xxvii.

21 Susan Fenimore Cooper, Introduction to Deerslayer, xxvii.

22 Susan Fenimore Cooper, Introduction to Deerslayer, xxviii.

23 Susan Fenimore Cooper, Introduction to Deerslayer, xxix.

24 Susan Fenimore Cooper, Introduction to Deerslayer, xxx.

25 Edward E. Gordon and Elaine H. Gordon, Literacy in America: Historic Journey and Contemporary Solutions (Westport: Praeger, 2003), 48. Even most of the leading European-American figures on the Pennsylvania colonial frontier, according to James H. Merrell, “were at best simi-literate.” See Merrell’s Into the American Woods: Negotiators on the Pennsylvania Frontier (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), 55. Also, see Merrell, Into the American Woods, 194.

26 For a synopsis of the difference between New France and the English colonies, see Gary B. Nash, Red, White and Black: The People of Early North America, 4ᵗʰ ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000), 43-44. Also see Merrell, Into the American Woods, 77.

27 Merrell, Into the American Woods, 68.

28 Alison Duncan Hirsch, “Indian, Métis, and Euro-American Women on Multiple Frontiers,” in Friends and Enemies in Penn’s Woods: Indians, Colonists, and the Racial Construction of Pennsylvania , ed. William A. Pencak and Daniel K. Richter (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004), 73. Also see Merrell, Into the American Woods, 68-77.

29 David L. Preston, “Squatters, Indians, Proprietary Government, and Land in the Susquehanna Valley,” in Friends and Enemies in Penn’s Woods: Indians, Colonists, and the Racial Construction of Pennsylvania , ed. William A. Pencak and Daniel K. Richter (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004), 185.

30 Preston, “Squatters, Indians, Proprietary Government, and Land in the Susquehanna Valley,” 189; Hirsch, “Indian, Métis, and Euro-American Women,” 81.

31 Merrell, Into the American Woods, 137-39.

32 James H. Merrell, Afterword, Penn’s Woods, Indians, Colonists, and the Racial Construction of Pennsylvania, ed. William A. Pencak and Daniel K. Richter (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004), 261. Merrell, Into the American Woods, 34-37, 51.

33 Merrell, Into the American Woods, 122.

34 Merrell, Into the American Woods, 84.

35 See Cooper, The Deerslayer, 294, 468, 178-79, 159, 261. In The Last of the Mohicans, Leather-Stocking also repeatedly calls attention to his uncrossed blood. Speaking with his own voice, Cooper confirms the fact that he is white: see James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans; A Narrative of 1757, historical introd. James Franklin Beard, text established, with explanatory notes by James A. Sappenfield and E. N. Feltskog (1826; Albany: SUNY Press, 1983), 29, 31, 33.

36 There may be one minor deviation. She states that Deerslayer “was formally adopted” by Uncas, “the father of the young Serpent.” See SFC, Introduction to The Deerslayer, xxix. Seeming to concur, in The Deerslayer, Chingachgook calls him “the great hunter of our tribe.” Elsewhere in the novel, Deerslayer says, speaking of his relationship with the Delaware, “I’m not born a red skin and have no right to sit in their councillings,” which, particularly with the added emphasis on “their,” suggests something short of formal adoption. See The Deerslayer, 428, 67.

37 Cooper, The Deerslayer, 43. My italics.