The Faces of Racism in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish

Barbara Rumbinas (Jagiellonian 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. 94-98).

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

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

Since the voyage of Giovanni de Verrazzano in 1524, which brought him into the Bay of present day New York, the published personal accounts of exotic and wild places that brave and adventurous men had explored and claimed for Spain, France, Holland, and England have been widely read throughout England and continental Europe. These letters, histories, and travelogues excited the imagination of those who read them with vivid images of plants, animals, and wild tales about encounters with indigenous peoples which heretofore had been unheard. Richard Hakluyt’s highly influential, The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English World (1584) compiled many of these accounts and wove them into a fascinating book that laid the justifying foundation for English colonization (Tomlins 319-320). Images presented by Hakluyt intrigued and fascinated his audience. The descriptive statements reminded his reader that the inhabitants “of that parte of America,” were “idolaters”; while the repetitious pattern of linking the word Infidel with Sauage (Savage) and Sauage with Indian forever etched a stereotype of the indigenous peoples of the New World as a brutal and ungodly people (qtd in Tomlins 319; Hakluyt 06). The accounts of the English adventurers in the New World blended seamlessly with published reports common in Europe for a generation about colonization of the lands the so-called pagan-savages and barbarians of Gaelic Ireland who were depicted as “superstycyous and worshippers of images and open idolaters” (qtd in Canny 584). It is no accident that Hakluyt uses the same terms in describing the Native Americans since the intent in both cases was to justify the colonization and usurpation of the natural ownership rights of the inhabitants. Canny reports that many West County English noblemen, including Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Sir Richard Grenville, and Sir Walter Raleigh, Grenville’s half-brother, were active in colonization and pacification efforts in Ireland (578). Although Hakluyt never set foot in the colony, he and Sir Humphrey Gilbert were among the eight named grantee-investors of the first Virginia Charter of 1606, while Grenville and Raleigh went on to sail to America with the First Colonists, repeating the pattern of pacification common in Ireland (Wiersema). Thomas Churchyard, a pamphleteer who accompanied Gilbert and Grenville to Ireland, reported that Gilbert had ruthlessly killed non-combatants and had justified the acts by saying that “killyng of theim by the sworde was the waie to kill the menne of warre by famine” (Canny 582). Richard Grenville sailed to the New World in 1585 to establish a military presence on Roanoke Island after his participation in the pacification efforts in Ireland. Not surprisingly, shortly after his arrival in the New World, conflict with some of the local inhabitants ensued. One of his company suggested that “some of our company towards the end of the year showed themselves too fierce in slaying some of the people” (qtd in Canny 281). There exist numerous accounts of explorers in the New World violently attacking, burning villages, and kidnapping indigenous people to sell into slavery. One particular incident was to have profound implications on the formation of colonial America. Captain Thomas Hunt, a lieutenant of Captain John Smith, seized Squantum and twenty-seven other Wampanoag, Patuxet and Nauset Indians to sell into slavery in 1614 (Who was Squantum?).

According to Alden Vaughan, when the Puritans landed in Plymouth in 1620 near the site of Hunt’s kidnappings, the “Indians of southern New England still viewed the white man with suspicion if not with hatred” (Freeman 282). Michael Freeman quotes one of the explorers who states that, the Native Americans had “contracted such a hatred against our whole nation as they immediately studied how to be revenged” (ibid.). Pre-colonial contact with European explorers created a negative stereotype of Europeans among many Native American tribes which was freely applied to all those who arrived upon their shores; they were greedy, untrustworthy, and deadly.

James Fenimore Cooper was keenly aware of the racial tensions which emanated from colonial and pre-colonial times that were threatening to undermine the burgeoning nation. One of the themes in The Wept of Wish-ton Wish is an attempt by Cooper to challenge the European perception that they held a Divine Right to America (and her resources), as espoused by the Puritans and based upon notions of racial and religious superiority. He presents a counter-argument for the Natural Right of the Native indigenous population to live unmolested on their own land. Cooper often used paired characters as foils to express multiple perspectives and highlight the racial tensions created by this cultural clash. His goal was to educate and guide his readers in “right thinking” so the nation could unite for a brighter future.

James Fenimore Cooper’s The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish is set in approximately 1665, just ten years before the outbreak of hostilities of what is now called King Philip’s War. Cooper likely he chose the era of King Philip’s War because few events in American history have left such a deep a psychic scar on the national character as that of this war. According to Jill Lepore, “in proportion to population,” King Philip’s war inflicted “greater causalities than any other war in American history” both for the indigenous population and for the English colonizers (xi). The damage was, borrowing from McWilliams, “cataclysmic” on both sides: “nine frontier towns totally destroyed, eleven others badly burned,” and virtually “every coastal community in Massachusetts and Rhode Island” assailed (108). Estimates vary; however, approximately “10% of the adult male English population of Massachusetts” perished, condemning their families to a perilous future (108). Meanwhile the human cost for the Wampanoags, Narragansetts, Nipmucs, and Pocumtucks was that “thousands were killed in the fighting while more died of disease, starvation, or were shipped out of the colonies as slaves” (Lepore xii). These Native peoples lost nearly “all their hunting lands, their cleared fields, their warriors, and their cultural independence” (109).

The Wept of Wish-ton Wish offers us insight into what lies beneath the ferociousness of this war. Cooper sets the stage by acknowledging that lands upon which the Puritans settled were “formerly occupied by four great nations of Indians” (2). He goes on to tell his reader that James I of England had given a land patent to the colonists which “constituted them proprietors” of distant lands which he claimed by Divine Right (4). These details foreshadow the epic cultural clash set in motion by a distant king who claimed title to land and all its resources from the shores of the “Atlantic” to those of the “South Sea” based on the egocentric belief that his prosperity and that of his countrymen/ women, and their religious precepts were superior to those of the local population (ibid). This assertion of Divine Right had already caused over one hundred years of violence perpetrated by European explorers against the indigenous population of the Atlantic coast.

The character of Mark Heathcote represents the type of person who arrived to colonize New England; “private gentlemen” of good “moral character,” “intelligent,” who display “deep” and “sincere piety” and who had invested their wealth, and that of their families, in the colony (5). They were an unbending, “fanatical” and prideful people who had been “driven into voluntary exile” because of their rigid beliefs (5, 6). Yet, Cooper argues that their “moral elevation” and superior intelligence “sustained” the colony “to the present hour” (ibid.). Heathcote values his image of religious piety more than anything else. His pride compels him to reveal the secret of family’s apparent miraculous survival of the fire to Metacom, Conanchet, and the other Native Americans, rather than to allow to them to continue to believe it was the result of supernatural powers, even though doing so puts his entire family at risk for immediate death (190). He would rather have his whole family perish than to have anyone accuse him of necromancy (189, emphasis added).

In spite of his other failings, Heathcote strives to be fair and balanced in his actions. After the fire, he sends messengers to alert the colony of the attack. Before their departure, he specifically instructs them “you are messengers of peace” and reminds them that their “errand toucheth not the feelings of vengeance” (114). He chooses to pray for peace after the first attack on Wish-ton-Wish, rather than to seek vengeance for the loss of property, kidnapping of his grand-daughter Ruth, and the deaths of many of his household. Heathcote has a deep desire for peace with the Native Americans; however, his vision of peace only benefits the Europeans.

Heathcote represents the voice of those religious pioneers who viewed their Divine Right to land and their culture superior to the claims and customs of the Native Americans. He also represents that failure on the part of the Puritan settlers to accept personal responsibility for their ethnocentric treatment and murder of the indigenous population, whom they viewed as subhuman, by attributing the repercussions of their actions to God’s punishment for a failure in their faith. He makes no connection between his family’s capture and “tethering” of Conanchet like “a wild” and “untamed” colt, the “fear” he used to “wring” a confession out of the youth, and the attack upon his family by Conanchet’s people (30) Instead, he philosophizes that since all of humanity are sinners, is it a surprise that “shall we not receive evil?” (115).

His parallel on the Native American side of the debate is Conanchet, son of Miantonimoh, the Narragansett Sachem (Chief). He too is loyal to a fault. When the English launch their surprise attack, he protects the peace delegate from the betrayed Metacom, who has raised his tomahawk to kill him. In a “thundering” voice, Conanchet commands Metacom to stop while he is in mid-strike, declaring that his and the delegate’s “lives are one” (228). Later, the delegate refuses to flee the approaching enemy. He instructs Conanchet to escape as Metacom had. Conanchet, however, explains calmly to the delegate that, “If my brother stays to be killed, Conanchet will be found near him” (229). Each time Conanchet is offered an opportunity to escape death; he refuses saying that it is better for a Sachem to die honorably than live in disgrace. Like Puritan Heathcote, his view is unbending. He represents the view of Native Americans who would rather die than accept the Puritan religion and assimilate into European culture.

The Reverend Meek Wolfe joins the settlement just before the beginning of King Philip’s War. He and Metacom (King Philip), who became the Sachem of the Wampanoags after the suspicious death of his brother, advocate genocide of the “Other” as a resolution of the current difficulties. The Reverend Meek Wolfe repeatedly and passionately exhorts his congregation, creating blind zealots who are told to “persevere” in inflicting the “wrath” of an “offended Deity”; kill all the Indians, every man, woman, and child irrespective of age or infirmity (200). Meek Wolfe echoes Churchyard’s account of the war at Munster where Sir Gilbert had ruthlessly killed the Gaelic Irish to every “manne, woman and childe” (Canny 582).

Metacom (King Phillip) is steeped in the anger and pain of loss. At one point, when asked what he sees when he looks at the pale-faces, he replies, “An Indian town burning in the midst of the snow; the young men struck from behind; the girls screaming; the children broiling on coals, and the old men dying like dogs” (Cooper 191). His eyes, he says, are blinded by the smoke of the burning village (ibid.). Likewise, Metacom proclaims that “there is no longer room ... for my pale friend” in the lands of the Wampanoags (226). He instructs Conanchet to “Let the white men die” (224). Cooper explains to his readers that Metacom spent the “morning of his life” planning for the “destruction” of this “strange race” of people who had arrived upon his shores (3). He is described as “jealous,” “plotting,” “fierce,” and “ruthless” in his bold desire to rid his country of the European infestation. The Reverend Meek Wolfe, on the other hand, spent his youth studying at the Puritan college of Harvard preparing for “intellectual warfare” and “doctrinal skirmishes” (162). Wolfe is described as a “zealot,” with a character known for its “indomitable obstinacy” and “bigotry” (ibid). He finds few who are worthy, except within his own congregation, of the rewards of the “strait (sic) and narrow path” (ibid.). Ironically, Metacom as well as both of his brothers attended Harvard College (Pokanoket Tribe / Wampanoag Nation). Perhaps it was Metacom’s experience while a student at the bastion of Puritan ideology that laid the foundation for both Wolfe’s hatred of the Native Americans and Metacom’s hatred of Puritanism. Metacom and Wolfe represent polar opposite views prevalent in nineteenth century America. They view the possibility of the two races living together peaceably as impossible, and ultimately fatal to both races.

Whittal Ring is a servant boy who lives in the family of Mark Heathcote. He is described as a “half-witted” or “ill-gifted” youth (11, 17). His youth and diminished capacity shield him from the otherwise harsh consequences of his actions even as the Puritan Heathcote admonishes him for how he “idlest and mispendest” time (11). Whittal functions in the role of the Shakespearean fool, who is the voice for issues that may be socially unacceptable or controversial. Captured by the Indians during the first attack on the village of Wish-ton-Wish, he and Mark Heathcote’s grand-daughter, Ruth, spend many years living with the Narragansetts. Years later, a man is captured by a party of militia out on patrol. In a scene meant to parody the classification of the races by scientific means propagated by Samuel George Morton, Ergot, the village doctor, compares the physiognomy of the white race to that of the Indians and ultimately pronounces the captured man “to be a Narragansett” (129). Cooper pokes good fun at the “scientific” nature of the study by revealing that the captive is none other than Whittal Ring, the long missing youth from the Heathcote family, who now identifies himself by his Narragansett name, Nipset.

When Nipset is asked for information about young Ruth who was captured with him, he asks if they have heard the story about how the “wicked race got into the hunting-grounds, and robbed the warriors of the country?” (146). The allusion to the first years the Puritans were in America is clear, they “spoke like sick women” until they got strong and then they “out-devilled the Pequots” in their “wickedness” (147). Nipset, speaking as an Indian, reminds the reader that the occupation by the Puritan settlers was unjust and illegal from the start.

Nipset gives the reader a clear picture of how the tribes felt about each other. Issues of race were not restricted to Europeans, but were also present among the nations of Native Peoples. Nipset alludes to intertribal strife by indicating that the Pequot people are wicked. He also refers to them as a “weak and crawling cub” while the Mohicans are the “basket-makers for the Yengeese” (147). These repeated negative stereotypes of the Pequot and Mohican people illustrate the deep seeded prejudice held by both the Algonquian and Iroquois (now known as the Haudenosaunee) nations. Nipset is used to remind the reader that while the English may see all Indians as equal, different nations within Native America do not accord equal status to all Indians.

Repeatedly, Whittal’s alter ego, Nipset, tells the reader hard truths such as, “There is as much fire in snow, as truth in a lying Yengeese?” (150). Cooper uses the Whittal/Nipset character to push his readers into considering some “facts” or notions that they likely did not want to think about. However, by having the character of the fool voice these hard truths, Cooper was able to temper their impact on his audience.

The character of Ruth, wife of Content illustrates for the reader how issues of race are handed down from one generation to another. During the first attack upon the Heathcote homestead, Ruth leaves her child, also named Ruth, under the protection of the captive Indian, Conanchet. However, so deeply has Ruth sown the seeds of prejudice for the Native Americans into her child that young Ruth hides her face in her mother’s skirt, confessing that “he looketh at me, I fear, with wish to do us harm.” (94). When Conanchet attempts to approach little Ruth, she shrieks, “Mother! come to me, or I die!” (ibid.). The long years filled with stories of repeated Indian attacks had instilled a deep fear of Indians in the mother, which had been transmitted unawares to the child. In the latter part of the novel, both of young Ruth’s siblings are horrified at the appearance of Narra-mattah, newly returned to their home from captivity. Their sense of who their sister must be is couched in her image as a Puritan maiden. Their reluctance to accept her as a person separate from her Puritan identity can be seen in the declaration that, surely she must remember her “Christian lineage” and her “reputable name” (159). They worry that their sister has fallen prey to “Indian cunning” just like Whittal Ring (ibid). For her siblings, the Ruth/ Narra-mattah character must has been intellectually damaged or psychologically deceived in some unknown way to justify her strange acceptance of Indian culture to the extent that she does not recognize her mother tongue. It is of course, Cooper’s sense of irony that compels him to have the child, Ruth Heathcote, once terrified of Indians, transform into the woman Narra-mattah, the adoring and obedient wife of the Sachem Conanchet. Narra-mattah becomes the perfect image of successful amalgamation. She encompasses the best of both worlds, beautiful as a white woman, humble and obedient as the wife of the Narragansett chief, with an air of wildness that is not unattractive (191-192). Characters like Ruth/Narra-mattah exemplify the generalized fear of acculturation among the English as greater numbers of their people became enamored with the Native American lifestyle. According the Jill Lepore, it was this “fear of acculturation on both sides” that fueled King Phillip’s War (5-8).

The character pair of Content Heathcote and Eban Dudley represents two faces of hypocrisy. Content hides behind Puritan philosophy and hierarchical order to abdicate repsonsiblity for actions he knows in his heart are wrong; while Eban Dudley freely voices his racism and sees no contradiction between his espoused piety and his participation in the murders of Conanchet’s father, Miantonimoh and of Conanchet.

Captain Content led his militia during the colony’s war against the Narragansett. In the “depth of winter,” he and other colonists attacked a Narragansett village, where they killed “a thousand warriors” and burned ‘six hundred cabins,” the smoke of which was so thick that it remained in the eyes of Metacom to blind him to the pleadings of the peace delegate (152, 191). The nature in which the victory was achieved as well as the carnage caused some “conscientious religionists” to “doubt” the “lawfulness” of “the action” (Cooper 152). Content’s balm of justification for attacking a sleeping village comes from his belief that by “breaking the [Narragansett] nation” through his display of “courage” he would purchase peace for the settlers at Wish-ton-Wish (153).

When a colonial government messenger arrives with instructions that “beareth especial concern with the further destruction of the Indians” he remarks that Content possesses an unusual spirit of forgiveness (150). Content explains that he prefers to see the Indian attack on Wish-ton-Wish as “merciful chastisement inflicted for manifold sins” rather than as an event to be used to “stimulate passions” (153). The messenger brings tidings from the governing council which has authorized the “setting [of] a labor-earning price on the heads of our enemies,” in common English, a scalp bounty (155). At first, Content says that the measure should be “entertained with great wariness of manner, and some distrust of purpose” (ibid.). When he later inquires from Rev Meek Wolfe about the jurisdiction under which such laws could be enacted, his hesitation in adopting it is not based upon a disagreement with the council directive, but rather on not having received the instructions as “written mandates” from the council (217). Ultimately, he accepts Wolfe’s explanation that “there is the law, the necessities of a suffering nature, and God’s glory, for our justification” (ibid.).

When confronted with the issue of his grandchild’s mixed blood heritage, Content reddens with a “worldly feeling” and admits that “he troubled with this vain thought” about whether to remove the child from his household (220-221). However, he assures Dudley that the “Lord hath given me strength” to resist such thoughts (221). Yet, he refers to his grandson as ” one sprung of heathen lineage” which hints at a great distance from true acceptance (emphasis added, ibid.).

Eban Dudley is described as “uncouth,” but as “man of humane heart” (Cooper 217). He spent his youth and young adulthood in service to the Heathcote family. He was a member of the party that captured the young Conanchet. When Conanchet clearly longed to go out with the hunting party led by Dudley, he offered to take the Indian youth, provided he could “lead him like a hound in a leash” (49). However, the family believed that a young Indian with the “dignity of a warrior” would rebel against such an action (ibid.). The character of Dudley appears to enjoy taunting Conanchet with his knowledge of the “prowess of the white men in their encounters” with the Native Americans (48). He uses his bravado to re-enforce his superior position with the prisoner Conanchet.

The second volume of the novel finds Dudley, now an Ensign in Captain Content’s militia regiment. Dudley has also had an opportunity to display his “courage” during the assault upon the Indian village of “Pettyquamscott” (153). However, unlike Content who ponders the legality of the colonists’ attack, Dudley supports the council’s decision, remarking, that if there is any “law in the Colony, which says that men must strike with a gentle hand in open battle, it is a law but little spoken of in common discourse” (218). He goes on to tell those listening, that as far as he is concerned, it is a “law that may as well be forgotten until this outbreaking of the savages shall be quelled” (ibid). Thus, Dudley successfully bifurcates his reality such that the incongruities of religious piety and murder can coexist by building his faith upon the underlying belief that Native Americans are inferior to Puritans and separating this belief from what he considers the exigent circumstances necessitated by living in a border community. The law will come back when “the savages shall be quelled” and he can return to religious piety without guilt for the actions taken (Cooper 218).

The ending and the epilogue of The Wept of Wish-ton Wish has generated heated scholarly discussion. Fiedler has suggested that The Wept must be seen as the “first anti-miscegenation” novel (qtd in Wallace 189). Fiedler argued that Cooper demonstrated his distaste for the amalgamation of the races when he allowed Conanchet and Narra-mattah to die. Others have suggested that Cooper leaves the fate of the child born of their miscegenation unresolved in the epilogue (See Cagidemetrio and Karcher). However, Stephen Lambert has argued convincingly that the child is not dismissed at the end of the novel (Lambert 80). Contrary to what some critics have claimed, Lambert asserts that the deaths of Conanchet and Narra-mattah are never “implicitly or explicitly connected to the couple’s violation of the miscegenation taboo” (Lambert 80). However, these scholars have overlooked the positive light in which Cooper portrays the young couple. Had Cooper desired to malign interracial unions, one would have expected him to portray the couple’s marriage as being fraught with trouble. Instead, Conanchet and Narra-mattah are deeply in love and truly devoted to each other. In The Wept of Wish-ton Wish, Cooper is not only concerned with interracial marriage, but also with the hypocrisy of the Puritan claim to racial and religious superiority that they believe is their Divine Right.

Works Cited

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  • McWilliams, John. New England’s Crises and Cultural Memory: Literature, Politics, History, Religion 1620-1860. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Pokanoket Tribe / Wampanoag Nation. The Council of Seven / Royal House of Pokanoket. 2009. 30 June 2011. Web.
  • Tomlins, Christopher. “The Legal Cartography of Colonization, the Legal Polyphony of Settlement:English Intrusions on the American Mainland in the Seventeenth Century.” Law & Social Inquiry 26.2 (2001): 315-372.
  • Wallace, James D. “Race and Captivity in Cooper’s The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish.” American Literary History 7.2 (Summer 1995): 189-209. JSTOR. 20 March 2011. Web.
  • Wiersema, Garry. “The First Virginia Charter (April 10, 1606).” 14 September 2010. From Revolution to Reconstruction. 4 September 2011. Web.


I am grateful for the critical feedback and support I have received from Professor Wayne Franklin.