The Captivity Narrative and The Last of the Mohicans: Foundation and Modification

Franklin Hillson (Morgan State University)

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. 50-55).

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

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

The American captivity narrative genre bursts onto the American literary landscape in 1682 with the publication Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God (hereafter the narrative). It is the tale of a colonial woman captured during wartime and forced to accompany the Indians for nearly three months in the New England wilderness before she is eventually redeemed to Puritan society. Published in Boston in 1682, the narrative became an instant bestseller. The text was something never before experienced. The literary diet of the Puritans had been a predictable serving of bureaucratic edicts, Bible-infused sermons, and religious tracts. So when the captivity narrative entered the market in 1682, it was quickly consumed by an eager and perhaps aesthetically starved population. It was a piece filled with texture, with adventure, with local color and local people, a refreshing and needed complement to the bland fare of proclamations, biblical heroes, and religious allusions, which had constituted the Puritan diet for over sixty years. Kathryn Derounian states that the narrative had “an estimated minimum sale [emphasis added] of 1000 in 1682” (239). “Its unexpected popularity,” she continues, “warranted second and third editions ... and ... the fourth edition appeared in London” that same year (251). The narrative would go through fifteen editions by 1800 (Pearce 3). Roy Pearce adds that the vast appeal of this story ranges from “religious confessional to that of the noisomely visceral thriller” (1). Indeed, the narrative offers a host of fascinating and captivating elements for the reader. It depicts savage warfare, it describes a still mysterious Indian culture, it hints at rape, and it foregrounds the vast wilderness. Relying heavily on the 1682 Rowlandson prototype, writers over the next two hundred years cranked out approximately two thousand captivity narratives (non-fiction works) across the nation, reflecting the tension and drama of expansion and red-white contact (Ebersole 9). This popular genre also influenced the novel: “by 1823 at least fifteen American novels included a captivity episode” (Vaughan and Clark 27).

About a century and a half later, another bestseller rocks the literary landscape echoing many characteristics of the Rowlandson text. In 1826, James Fenimore Cooper publishes The Last of the Mohicans, a historically-based work about the French and Indian War, which concerns the captivity and rescue of two colonial women taken deep into the woods by Indians. Cooper wrote a number of bestsellers, but ” The Last of the Mohicans was first among them all: his most popular book, and one of the most widely read American novels ever” (Railton xii).

Interestingly, while David Haberly maintains that this novel is “above all a captivity narrative” (433), some critics consider The Last of the Mohicans a derivative from the “model of the historical romance that Walter Scott established in Waverly (1814)” (Railton xii). Steven Blakemore notes that there is an ancillary “context of chivalry and damsels in distress” in Cooper’s novel, especially with the gallant Major Heyward and the ever-meek and fearful Alice Munro (47). Others see the influence of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (c.1596) as the justice-seeking Magua a la Shylock presents his case before the assemblage of Delaware Indians to keep his female captive (Milder 419). Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) suggests allusions of Satan for Magua who as the stereotypical Satanic Indian and arch villain in the text “rules his subordinate devils through cunning and oratory and consistently stands apart from both the more low-minded and the more thoughtlessly ferocious savages, just as Satan does from Mammon and Moloch” (Milder 412). To be sure, Scott’s historical-romance novels like Ivanhoe (1820) enjoyed much success across the Atlantic, and the works of Shakespeare and Milton were no doubt familiar to the Yale-educated Cooper. One can also add John Heckewelder’s An Account of the History, Manners and Customs of the Indian Nations (1819), which provided information on Native American society for many writers (Clark 116). While Scott and others certainly had some influence on Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, the novel is undergirded by the captivity narrative tradition. Indeed, although Cooper does modify several captivity elements according to his literary style and the prevailing zeitgeist, the true underpinning for Cooper’s most popular and critically acclaimed novel in his Leatherstocking series is the captivity ur-text of Mary Rowlandson and, to a lesser extent, one of its many descendants, the “Hannah Dustan” captivity narrative (1699).

Cooper uses several major and minor captivity narrative protocols in his most famous novel. One main characteristic is background and imagery. Both works use the backdrop of war: King Philip’s War for Rowlandson’s narrative and The French and Indian War for Cooper’s novel. Warfare provides a heightened sense of danger and awareness — and a keen opportunity to portray the Other. The accounts of Native American fighting are quite gruesome. The Algonquin assault on Rowlandson’s hometown is particularly horrific with settlers (women and children included) killed by bullets, clubs, or hatchets — with some of the bodies scalped or disemboweled. Rowlandson describes the carnage: “Another there was who running along was shot and wounded, and fell down; he begged of them his life ... but they would not hearken to him but knocked him in [the] head, and stript him naked, and spilt open his bowels” (33). Arguably, Rowlandson’s narrative is the most violent of the colonial captivities. The Last of the Mohicans is equally intense. Haberly and others consider this novel “the most violent of the Leatherstocking tales” (440). There are multiple tomahawkings and scalpings. For example, Uncas attacks the Hurons and “leaping on an enemy, with a single, well directed blow of his tomahawk, cleft him to the brain” (Cooper 112). Scalping follows in profusion.

Tales of the frontier would be incomplete without the dual image of savage Indian and bloody scalp. Rowlandson’s text mentions scalping early in the third remove. When several celebratory warriors return from a successful raid on a frontier town, Rowlandson laments: “And then, oh, the hideous insulting and triumphing that there was over some Englishmen’s scalps that they had taken (as their manner is) and brought with them!” (40). Dustan’s story highlights scalping but with a bazaar twist: Dustan scalps her abductors in a bold reversal of roles. She and two fellow captives kill and scalp ten Native Americans (including women and children) while they are sleeping and successfully escape to collect a generous bounty of £50 from colonial officials. Per historian Neal Salisbury, Hannah Dustan is the “next truly prominent New England captive after Mary Rowlandson,” well known to many Americans (164). 1 Her captivity is retold in Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1839) and in Hawthorne’s “The Duston Family” (1848). 2 Scalping, whether by Indians or colonists, is well established in the captivity narrative tradition and profusely illustrated in The Last of the Mohicans.

There are over fifty references to scalps/scalping with many examples of Indians scalping Indians and non-Indians. 3 Chingachgook is quite industrious in the scalping business, “flaying the scalps” of many dead Hurons after the first rescue of the Munro sisters (Cooper 115). Later, he scalps a French sentinel in a significant scene. The young Frenchman had allowed Hawkeye and his band to pass through the French lines to Fort Henry, and the guard was quite civil and friendly. However, Chingachgook silently leaves the band and later reunites with the party: “As the chief rejoined them, with one hand he attached the reeking scalp of the unfortunate young Frenchman to his girdle, and with the other he replaced the knife and tomahawk that had drunk his blood” (138). Hawkeye, of course, never scalps anyone, considering the act inhumane for a white man: ” ‘Twould have been a cruel and an unhuman act for a whiteskin; but ‘tis the gift and natur’ of an Indian, and I suppose it should not be denied. I could wish, though, it had befallen an accursed Mingo, rather than that gay young boy from the old countries” (138). Better for Indians to kill and scalp Indians. It is a primitive act that emphasizes the base nature of the indigene and the corresponding civilization and worth of the colonist, Dustan an interesting anomaly. No white person scalps anyone in The Last of the Mohicans.

Another horrific and standard captivity image is the baby dashed against a rock or tree or otherwise killed in a gruesome manner, which becomes part of our frontier mythology — the evil Indian baby killer. At the Huron massacre at Fort Henry, an Indian “dashed the head of the infant against a rock, and cast its quivering remains to her [mother’s] very feet” (Cooper 179). This dramatic event is a common staple in the captivity tradition. In The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, pregnant Ann Joslin and her two year old child are stripped naked, cruelly dispatched with a blow to the head, and “when they [the Indians] had done that, they made a fire and put them both into it” (42). In the Hannah Dustan tale, Indians attack a small town in Massachusetts during King William’s War where they capture Dustan, her family, and others. During the hurried march into the wilderness to escape pursuing colonial forces, the Native Americans gruesomely lighten their load:

About nineteen or twenty Indians now led these away with about half a score other English captives; but ere they had gone many steps they dashed out the brains of the infant against a tree. And several of the other captives, as they began to tire in their sad journey, were soon sent unto their long home. The savages would presently bury their hatchets in their brains, and leave their carcasses on the ground for birds and beasts to feed upon. (Mather 163)

Cooper’s novel, replete with menacing Indians dashing a baby against a tree and doing other dastardly deeds, is a continuation of the extreme violence already established in the much earlier captivity narratives of Rowlandson, Dustan, and other captivity tales.

In addition to the wartime backdrop and violent imagery, the Rowlandson and Cooper texts are driven by the rhythm of captivity and (possible) rescue or escape of the captives followed by concomitant movement deep into the wilderness by their Native American captors. On their trail are the rescuers either in the form of military/militia or parties of white men and their Indian assistants. The circularity of structure is evident in both texts as the rescuers and their charges move from civilization to wilderness and back to civilization, encountering hostile Indians and difficult terrain. Cooper’s text showcases the frontier-savvy Hawkeye, the brave and resourceful woodsman, and his Indian friends Chingachgook and Uncas as they search for and attempt rescue of the two ladies. Rowlandson is also rescued by a white man, the brave John Hoar with the help of his two Indian friends, Tom and Peter. While not the woodsman per Natty Bumppo, Mr. Hoar is well known to the indigenes and respected for his fairness in his dealings with them.

And, of course, both works contain saved and doomed ladies. The fair Alice is saved in the novel to be wed to the handsome Major Heyward, implying continuation of the white race. In contrast, the dark Cora, in love with Uncas, is killed by Native Americans. Cast as the tragic mulatta, Cora’s death suggests the non-viability of miscegenation within the new republic. And the death of Uncas portends the doom of Native American society as a whole. The narrative also contains the redeemed and unredeemed. The patient, God-fearing Rowlandson is saved and reunited with husband and family in civilized Boston to rebuild their Puritan lives, implying the demise of their Native American counterparts who are still roaming helter skelter in the woods. Unfortunately, a fellow captive is killed. Goodwife Joslin, a close acquaintance of Rowlandson and captured in the same garrison, is dispatched with a blow to the head after pestering the Indians to allow her to return home. Earlier, Joslin had mentioned to Rowlandson her desire to escape, but she admonishes her not to do so but to wait on the Lord and have confidence in His plan. Joslin’s demise suggests a Puritan warning to spiritually weak, unruly Christians.

Interestingly, the geography in both these works is similar with frequent mention of big rivers, steep hills, and dense forests. In a remarkable coincidence, both texts contain a hill encampment after the ladies are first captured. In the first remove, Rowlandson is taken to a steep hill outside of Lancaster where the Indians rest and eat. After their capture at the cave, Cora et al. travel to a steep hill where the indigenes do the same. The arduous climb up the hill is indicative of the difficult physical and emotional challenges which lie ahead in the wilderness as both parties journey deeper into the forest.

The narrative, however, presents a darker view of the landscape than Cooper’s novel. Rowlandson portrays the wilderness as that “horrible pit” (74), filled with “tiresome and wearisome hills” (50), “bad rivers” (42), and a swamp that is a “deep dungeon” (45). She elaborates on climbing an “exceeding high and steep hill” that sorely tests her strength: “Before I got to the top of the hill, I thought my heart and legs and all would have broken and failed me” (45). In one of her many river crossings, she almost succumbs to the cold, strong currents: “We began this remove [the sixteenth] with wading over [the] Baquag River; the water was up to the knees and the stream very swift and so cold that I thought it would have cut me in sunder” (58). Later, she praises the Lord for blessing her with dry feet when she is fortunate to take a raft across yet another river crossing. And the weather is dismal with periodic snowfall, cold rain, and freezing temperatures. The narrator constantly laments the “cold winter night” (37), the “bitter cold day” (49), and how it is so cold that “sheaves of wheat ... were frozen together in the shock” (45).

The harsh landscape and cold climate of the narrative stand in marked contrast to the almost bucolic scenes in the generally sunlit and summery The Last of the Mohicans. The novel presents a romantic view of nature — especially in the first volume compared to the second. The woods are tamer, the action is slower, and refined white civilization is relatively close by. While volume two turns darker and more sinister as the Munro sisters are led deeper in the wilderness, this latter section of the novel still does not evoke the same brutality of nature a la Rowlandson’s text. Overall, despite “the toils and dangers of the wilderness,” Cooper generally emphasizes the grandeur of nature and the superhuman ability of the protagonist to surmount it (3). There are steep hills, but Hawkeye scales them effortlessly. There are many rivers, but the protagonist seems to enjoy crossing and swimming in them — no concerns about wet or cold feet. We are not sure about swamps because they are never mentioned in the novel, which is quite odd considering the inherent swampiness of the area, but Hawkeye would have no doubt found swamps bearable. In concert, the ladies in Cooper’s story navigate the terrain with remarkable ease. Yes, they are tired from the lengthy trek in the “boundless woods,” but river crossings and hill climbing are accomplished without much deliberation (97). The only challenge to Cora and Alice, it seems, is in negotiating a hill that is “so steep and difficult of ascent” that they were forced to dismount their horses in order to reach the summit (98). Appropriately, the ladies frequently travel “in style” on horseback. Rowlandson travels mainly by foot, and once when on horseback, she falls off, much to the delight of the amused Indians. Indeed, The Last of the Mohicans is almost like a frontier Camelot: The weather is balmy, it never rains, and “the brooks and rivulets” are warm — quite lovely (98). There are no “rivulets” in the Rowlandson text.

These divergent views of nature are significant. Rowlandson is captured in the early colonial period where conditions are harsh, involving a constant struggle to survive. There are neither positive scenes of nature nor indigene. There is neither pastoral idyll nor noble savage. There are just vast numbers of “murderous wretches” (33) who are “as thick as the trees” in a sinister conflation of native and nature (45). It is a brooding, menacing environment. In contrast, Cooper’s novel is published almost a century and a half later in a time when the wilderness was essentially subdued. The nation had increased from thirteen to twenty-two states, and the population had grown from four million to ten million (Conn). Rapid industrialization and westward expansion continued unabated with the landscape scarred by emerging railroads, canals, and extensive road networks as cities increased in population and area. The nation was inexorably changing from an agrarian, rural society to an industrial, urbanized one. In a vivid phrase, Cooper mentioned that the forest around his home had been “badly lacerated by the white habitation” (Conn). The text presents an almost nostalgic view of the shrinking wilderness, its primal mystery and beauty fading before the onslaught of western civilization. Even Hawkeye laments: “natur’ is sadly abused by man, when he once gets the mastery” (122). At the same time the wilderness was disappearing so too were the Native Americans who through war, disease, confinement, and removal were already a minority in their own altered country. The notorious Trail of Tears begins in 1831, only five years after publication of Last of the Mohicans.

The Last of the Mohicans’ portrayal of the Indian generally shares this nostalgic view. The narrator and Hawkeye express admiration for the Native American in general (with Magua the noticeable exception). Of the Indian, the narrator mentions the “elevation of breeding that many in a more cultivated state of society might profitably emulate” (Cooper 255), and Hawkeye implies that the heaven of the Indian and the white are the same, a concept totally alien in the Rowlandson zeitgeist. An analysis of the two texts’ rhetoric in describing the Native American is illustrative of the differing views of the indigene.

Native Americans, including Christianized Indians, are vilified in Rowlandson’s narrative, and these derogatory names (e.g., “hell-hounds,” “ravenous Beasts,” “inhumane creatures,” and “pagans”) are mentioned early and repeated often in the text. Furthermore, these words with various modifiers (“bloody heathen”) and with extended prepositional phrases (“black creatures of the night”) add a darker tone to the already vitriolic rhetoric. Dustan continues the disparaging comments against Native Americans, and her narrative is replete with “savages” and adds the interesting epithets “furious tawnies” and “raging dragons” (Mather 162, 163). The constant repetition and the inflammatory nature of many of these words provide ample justification of the baseness of the Other, making it right to marginalize their culture and to take their land.

At first glance, the rhetoric of The Last of the Mohicans seems to perform similar duty. For example, Cooper echoes much of Rowlandson’s language, using “heathens,” “enemies,” and “devils” to describe the Native Americans. However, whereas Rowlandson is prolific with her negative adjectives (“bloody heathen,” “murderous wretches,” “barbarous creatures,” etc.), Cooper is less demeaning and, in fact, almost praiseworthy with his modifiers. For example, the Indians are “cunning varlets,” “risky devils,” and “subtle savages,” exhorting the cleverness of Hawkeye’s opponents while indirectly elevating the scout’s own status since he consistently bests the indigenes in his many engagements with them. In general, Cooper does not dehumanize the Indian as does Rowlandson. His softer Native American rhetoric parallels his delicate, almost melancholy view of the wilderness. Both the indigene and the forest are sadly disappearing. Rowlandson’s harsh view of the physical environment, on the other hand, is mirrored in her depiction of its indigenous population: She loathes them both and is happy to be done with them.

This essay has examined several of the major elements of the captivity narrative tradition, which underpin The Last of the Mohicans, either unchanged or modified to fit Cooper’s style or the social milieu. Generally, these are background and imagery, structure and flow, and landscape and language. However, Cooper’s novel also borrows a host of lesser features, which show the influence of Rowlandson’s captivity narrative. Some are too specific to be a literary coincidence. For instance, the novel contains an interesting culinary scene where Magua’s minions kill a fawn and eat it “without any aid from the science of cookery” (99). They eat it raw. The narrative contains a similar episode where the Indians kill a pregnant deer, and they and Rowlandson eat the fetus and, as the text suggests, also raw. Rowlandson comments on the meal: “it was so young and tender, that one might eat the bones as well as the flesh, and yet I thought it very good” (93). Another shared image is the use of leaves to bandage and heal wounds. Rowlandson learns from a fellow prisoner how the Indians use “oaken leaves” to help heal a wound and does the same to her wound. Similarly, Magua is shot in the shoulder and later appears in good condition with a “bundle of leaves” bandaging his wound. Another common feature is the ransom. Recall that Rowlandson is freed for £20. Interestingly, the ransom theme occurs in The Last of the Mohicans as well. In attempting to induce Magua to release Cora, Major Heyward offers him “gold, silver, powder, lead — all that a warrior needs shall be in thy wigwam, all that becomes the greatest chief” (Cooper 325). To sweeten the ransom, Hawkeye throws his famous rifle Killdeer into the bargain. Magua rejects the offer. 4

The popularity of Rowlandson’s tale about captivity during the Indian war in New England spawned a host of imitators and derivatives. It went through fifteen editions by 1800 and was the genesis of thousands of captivity tales in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Pearce 3). Richard Slotkin states: “Narratives of the Indian wars of New England became the first significant genre of New World writing and formed the literary basis of the first American mythology” (56). The legends, myths, and traditions of this harsh new land with its dangerous natives and heroic frontier figures as depicted in The Last of the Mohicans find their antecedents in Rowlandson’s influential captivity text.


1 Indeed, she is very well known. There are two statues of Hannah Dustan. Erected in 1861, the one in Haverhill, Massachusetts, shows her steely-eyed, hatchet in hand. The more interesting statue (1874) is near Penacook, New Hampshire. She is depicted with the hatchet in the right hand and what looks like wilted flowers in her left. But on closer inspection the flowers are scalps. A website states that Hannah Dustan is “The First Woman in the United States To Have a Statue Errected [sic] in Her Honor” . There are no statues of Mary Rowlandson.

2 Dustan is also alternately spelled as Duston or Dustin.

3 The vast number of scalpings seems, at times, gratuitous, losing its overall impact. Cooper seizes on this captivity narrative element but goes overboard.

4 The captivity narrative is a well-culled genre in Cooper’s novel and has predictable literary offshoots into his other texts. In another Leatherstocking tale, Cooper uses another captivity narrative as source and foundation in The Deerslayer, although in the preface to this work he “concludes with the statement that the tale is ‘purely fiction, no authority existing for any of its facts, characters, or other peculiarities, beyond that which was thought necessary to secure the semblance of reality’” (Vanderbeets 544). Perhaps. A Narrative of the Incidents Attending the Capture, Detention, and Ransom of Charles Johnston (1827) depicts the tale of Johnston and company traveling down the Ohio River by flatboat in 1790. The boat is joined by a woodsman and two sisters and is later attacked by Indians who hide among the numerous branches that overhang the banks of the river as the boat nears the shore. In the melee, one young woman is killed, the woodsman is captured and later burned at the stake, and the other woman and Johnston are captured but eventually freed. Johnston is able to stay alive by agreeing to marry an Indian squaw, who later decides to take a ransom for him. Richard Vanderbeets maintains that “Cooper’s use of details and circumstances from Johnston’s captivity Narrative — the ark [the flatboat], the frontiersman and the two girls, the attack from overhanging trees, the marriage proposition — seems an accommodation of materials beyond that necessary to secure the ‘semblance of reality’ in The Deerslayer“ (546).

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