“That they might sweep the Indians from the land”: Assessing the Place of Native People in The Deerslayer

By William A. Starna (Emeritus, State University of New York College at Oneonta)

Presented at the 21ˢᵗ International James Fenimore Cooper & Susan Fenimore Cooper Conference: Watersheds at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, September, 2017.

Originally published in The James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal 29.2 (Whole No. 82, Fall 2018): 56-62.

Copyright © 2017, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer and The Pioneers mark one of the most challenging periods for American Indians inside the borders of colonial and the state of New York. Cooper tells us that events in The Deerslayer took place between 1740 and 1745, while The Pioneers begins in December 1793 and ends in the fall of the following year. In the former novel, Indians are visible, plural, and share center stage with Natty Bumppo and company. In the latter, they are reduced to a singularity, the stoic yet failing Delaware Chingachgook who carries the culturally off-course sobriquet John Mohegan. Over the half-century bookended by these novels, perhaps more so than many imagined, Chingachgook’s words to Elizabeth Temple — “there will soon be no red-skin in the country” — would approach a reality.

The characters in both of these well-known works spend a good deal of time on the upper reaches of the Susquehanna River’s East branch, with much of their activity concentrated around Otsego Lake. Cooper’s mistaken etymology of Otsego, a Mohawk-derived word he believed suggested “meeting place,” has nonetheless become a brand for the Fenimore Art Museum. ¹ However, Iroquoian linguists inform us that only the verb root -o in this word conveys any meaning — “be in water.” Complicating matters, Otsego is actually a corruption of an earlier form Ootseke (1736), whose suffix -ke is the locative or place word “at,” although “at what” remains a question. ²

The Native people who through time routinely made their way into the upper Susquehanna Valley were Iroquoian-speakers — Mohawks and the Oneidas. However, these were but occasional visitors whose numbers in the area remained sparse over the decades from 1600 into the 1720s. Indeed, there is little archaeological evidence for any substantial Indian occupation of the upper valley between 1400 and 1600 CE. The homeland of the Susquehannocks, also Iroquoians, was south of Binghamton, until they were dispersed and most took refuge among the Iroquois in the 1670s. ³ But through the years of King George’s War (1744-1748) and the French and Indian War (1754-1763), which roughly bracket the story in The Deerslayer, numbers of Indians made their way out of New England and the Hudson Valley, and also south from Iroquoian communities and north from Pennsylvania, to [57] settle along the Susquehanna. Many Indians in the novel likely came out of the towns established in the valley, namely Onaquaga at Windsor, Cunnahunta near Afton, and Unadilla, where the so-named river joins the Susquehanna at about Sidney. The earliest of these relocations followed efforts by the Iroquois to encourage Natives to settle in the valley to impede further colonial intrusions on lands they viewed as being under their supervision. Soon it became the strategy of Sir William Johnson, Crown agent for the northern Indian department, to put Indians on the frontier, thus removing them from around colonial towns where they were regarded to be a danger. However, his immediate objective was to reinforce his Indian allies, especially the Mohawks, by having Native forces on the Susquehanna so they might serve as a buffer in the war with New France.

In The Deerslayer, the Indians named are the Delaware, Chingachgook’s people, who on occasion Cooper refers to with the redundant Leni-Lenape, properly, Lenape. There are the Mingos, a term that Cooper uses as a generic for the six nation Iroquois although in the eighteenth century it was more narrowly applied to Senecas, Cayugas, and other Iroquoians in the Ohio Valley. Of course, the “Mohicans” are present along with their chief Uncas, who in truth was a Mohegan. The entire business of Mahican, Mohican, and Mohegan continues to confuse in the literature, and although Cooper was writing historical fiction, he nonetheless erred in applying these terms. The short story is that the Mahicans formed several communities in the upper Hudson and Housatonic valleys in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Mohican reflects the Anglicizing of the historically earlier word Mahican, and also Mahikander and Maikans (Cooper’s Mahicanni), names that resulted from the early Dutch use of Munsee-speaking interpreters in the Hudson Valley. Mohican became the preferred name of these Indians around the time of the Revolution. The Mohegans are an entirely distinct and distant people of eastern Connecticut.

Cooper also names the Hurons and the Mohawks. By the time of The Deerslayer, the Hurons, an Iroquoian people originally located northwest of Lake Simcoe, Ontario, had been in the diaspora for about a century, having suffered catastrophic defeat, dispersal, and at times enslavement by the Iroquois in the mid-1600s. The Mohawks in turn were in two towns north of Otsego Lake: Tiononderoge at the mouth of Schoharie Creek, and Canajoharie, just east of Little Falls.

With respect to The Deerslayer, the mid-eighteenth century had come to the Iroquois — Cooper’s Mingos — only in exchange for European dominance. Changing village life, an economic downturn as trade [58] faltered, and a diplomacy aimed at preserving maneuvering room between the English and French told the story. Now they found themselves under military and political assault from the north, west, and east, while simultaneously facing clashes with the Catawbas and others to their south. The hardships caused by famine, disease, and alcohol further complicated matters, all of which encouraged an exodus of their people who resettled in the Ohio country. Those who remained in their homeland — excepting the Mohawks — allied themselves with Pennsylvania. As a whole, Natives in the region suffered a battering during what was a troublesome and often desperate era, losing by increments whatever advantage they held or had asserted in their dealings with competing and hostile European sovereigns.

An additional source of disruption for the Iroquois and in the ethnically diverse towns strung along the Susquehanna, was the activity of missionaries from New England who began arriving in the 1740s. Two decades earlier, Anglican ministers had made significant inroads with the Mohawks, who attended local Palatine German or Dutch churches in their valley. By the 1760s, Presbyterians had established themselves among the Oneidas. In all cases, the presence of missionaries raised challenges to traditional beliefs, sowed discord, and fostered or validated factionalism in Indian communities. The resulting cultural and religious tensions and ambiguities experienced by Native people are on full display in The Deerslayer and The Pioneers.

In the late 1730s, the process of surveying, purchasing, and obtaining letters patent to the vast lands in the region surrounding Otsego Lake was begun by enterprising traders and certain wealthy and well-placed gentlemen — land speculators. And as everyone recognizes, these lands were originally in the hands of Native people who many times cooperated or were complicit in the transfer of these holdings. They also misjudged the land hunger of the colonists and did not always see what was coming, usually in the form of outright fraud and theft.

The French and Indian War came to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in February 1763. France surrendered its claims to Canada and all of its territories in North America east of the Mississippi River. Hardly had the ink dried on the treaty when hostilities were renewed along the frontier. That August, Sir William Johnson was informed of the King’s desire to protect the tribes against illegal land sales and directed to prepare a report on the state of Indian affairs under his supervision. Johnson recommended that a line be established “at the back of the Northern Colonies, beyond which no settlement should be made.” His justification in erecting a boundary was that by restricting [59] access to Indian land, the Crown would force those who were holding large unoccupied tracts to subdivide and sell the parcels, thus populating the existing frontier areas. That October the King issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763 which forbid settlement west of a line drawn along the crest of the Appalachians.

It would take five years for Johnson and the Indians — essentially the six nation Iroquois — to agree on the placement of the northern course of the line, which was formalized in the 1768 Treaty of Fort Stanwix. Historian Ray Billington described it as “one of the worst treaties in the history of Anglo-Indian relationships.” The actions of Johnson in negotiating the agreement, Billington argued, were those of an unscrupulous government official seeking private gain and bending to the pressures of powerful land speculators. There has been little argument with his assessment.

But closer to home, the six nations first called for the line to pass from Cherry Valley Lake, that is, Otsego Lake, north to German Flats near present-day Herkimer. ¹⁰ Johnson dismissed their demand telling the Indians that there were already “good Titles with[in] that line.” Unspoken was that a tract of 100,000 acres immediately west of Otsego Lake had been earmarked for the trader and land speculator George Croghan, Johnson’s former deputy. ¹¹ Negotiations continued and with the signing of the treaty, the six nations agreed to move the line west, surrendering title to all of their lands east of the Unadilla River and, of course, in the Otsego Lake region. The continued presence of Indians on those lands, while not prohibited, can only be described as desultory and certainly temporary.

There is one confirmed Native settlement at Otsego Lake between the time frames of The Deerslayer and The Pioneers, although it was short-lived. The town of Onaquaga, mentioned before, had suffered a failed corn crop in 1764 amid the on-going disorder stemming from the ruin of alcohol. In the spring of 1765 a small group of Indians, members of a recently established mission school, left Onaquaga and settled themselves at the foot of Otsego Lake. Among them were several Mohawks, one of whom, the convert Moses, tutored his students from what was described as an “open barrack.” By October of the following year these Indians had abandoned their retreat on Otsego Lake and returned to Onaquaga. ¹²

It has been argued that the intention was to make the mission school on the lake a permanent place replete with farms, mills, a blacksmith, and white settlers. However, this view rests on a mistaken reading of the record. Planned instead was an enlargement of the [60] mission at Onaquaga, not at Otsego Lake and the future site of Cooperstown, and also, that missionaries and artisans be sent not to the encampment there but to the six nation Iroquois. ¹³

Between The Deerslayer and The Pioneers there was a second Treaty at Fort Stanwix, this in 1784. It followed on the heels of the 1783 Treaty of Paris ending the Revolution and ushers in the central theme of The Pioneers — the rapid, some believed the inexorable, advance of the frontier in New York State, further restricting the territory, free movement, and visibility of the Indians. And here it is important to take note of a calamitous fulfillment of Chingachgook’s words in The Pioneers: “that they might sweep the Indians from the land.” In 1779 the Sullivan campaign, a series of retaliatory raids deep into Indian country, destroyed some forty villages along with crops, food stores, and extensive orchards sending over 5,000 Indians fleeing westward to refugee villages along the Niagara River. On August 11 of that year, Brigadier General James Clinton led four regiments and over 200 batteaus from Otsego Lake down the Susquehanna to rendevous with Sullivan’s army at Tioga. Yet the Indians were not out of the picture. As an officer of the campaign put it: “The nests are destroyed, but the birds are still on the wing.” ¹⁴

The parties to the 1784 treaty at Fort Stanwix were the United States and the six nation Iroquois. The Senecas, Cayugas, Onondagas, and Mohawks were dealt with harshly as defeated people, having “waged war without provocation” against the United States during the Revolution. Article 3 of the treaty compelled the six nations to surrender their claims to the Ohio Valley. The net effect of this cession was to force the Senecas to give up most of their land in New York to the national government. No land was demanded from the Oneidas and Tuscaroras, most of whom had joined the Americans in their struggle with the Crown. The Mohawks were no longer in their valley. Having supported the British during the war, they had removed north and settled on two reserves in Ontario.

The Pioneers takes place during the negotiations and signing of what is widely viewed as the most important treaty made between the United States and the Iroquois nations — the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua. It is unclear whether Cooper knew anything about this momentous event. Months of pre-treaty talks on rights to land, boundary lines, and the threat of hostilities and British military intervention in the Ohio Valley finally brought the parties together at Canandaigua. There, more than 1,500 Indians convened to observe federal commissioner Timothy Pickering and Iroquois chiefs — among them the Senecas Red Jacket and [61] Cornplanter — finalize terms. “The great object of the treaty,” Pickering wrote, “was to remove complaints respecting lands.” On November 11, 1794, the treaty was signed and in January 1795, submitted to the Senate. ¹⁵

The Canandaigua treaty returned to the Senecas the land they had lost at Fort Stanwix in 1784, and it secured for the Iroquois their reservations in New York. However, over the next several decades New York would take measures to further reduce these holdings through a series of agreements in violation of federal law. Today, while the Canandaigua treaty remains the primary basis for Iroquois assertions of sovereignty, and importantly, the security of their remaining lands, it has afforded little comfort or protection. ¹⁶


1. James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers, or the Sources of the Susquehanna (1823; Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009), 1; James Fenimore Cooper, The Chronicles of Cooperstown (Cooperstown: H & E Phinney, 1838), 5.

2. E. B. O’Callaghan, comp., Calendar of N.Y. Colonial Manuscripts, Indorsed Land Papers in the Office of the Secretary of State of New York, 1643-1803 (Harrison, NY: Harbor Hill Books, 1987), 221.

3. Charles E. Gillette and Robert E. Funk, “Europeans Come to the Upper Susquehanna,” in Archaeological Investigations in the Upper Susquehanna Valley, New York State, Vol. 1, Robert E. Funk (Buffalo, NY: Persimmon Press, 1993), 91; Francis Jennings, “Susquehannock,” in Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 15, Northeast, Bruce G. Trigger, ed. (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1978), 362-67.

4. William A. Starna, From Homeland to New Land: A History of the Mahican Indians, 1600-1830 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013), 196.

5. Starna, From Homeland to New Land, xiv-xv.

6. See James H. Merrell, Into the American Woods: Negotiators on the Pennsylvania Frontier (New York: Norton, 2000); Francis Jennings, The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire: The Covenant Chain Confederation of Indian Tribes with the English Colonies (New York: Norton, 1984).

7. See Roy L. Butterfield, The Land Patents of Otsego County (Cooperstown: The Freeman’s Journal, 1957).

8. E. B. O’Callaghan and Berthold Fernow, eds., Documents Relative to the Colonial History of New York; Procured in Holland, England, and France by John R. Brodhead (Albany: Weed, Parsons, 1853-1887), 7: 536, 578.

9. Ray Billington, “The Fort Stanwix Treaty of 1768,” New York History 25 (1944): 194; Peter Marshall, “Sir William Johnson and the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, 1768,” American Studies 1.2 (1967): 149-79.

10. O’Callaghan and Fernow, eds., Documents Relative, 7: 729-30. [62]

11. Butterfield, Land Patents, [4-5]; Nicholas B. Wainwright, George Croghan: Wilderness Diplomat (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959), 255-58.

12. See Eleazar Wheelock, A Continuation of the Narrative of the State &c. of the Indian Charity-School at Lebanon, in Connecticut (Boston: Richard and Samuel Draper, 1765), 12-14; McCallum, Letters of Eleazar Wheelock’s Indians, 79-80.

13. See the literature cited on page 447n17 in Alan Taylor, William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic (New York: Knopf, 1996).

14. Frederick Cook [ed.], Journals of the Military Expedition of Major General John Sullivan Against the Six Nations of Indians in 1779 ... (Auburn, NY: Knapp, Peck, and Thomson, 1887), 101.

15. Jack Campisi and William A. Starna, “On the Road to Canandaigua: The Treaty of 1794,” American Indian Quarterly 19.4 (1995): 479, 484.

16. Christopher Vecsey and William A. Starna, eds., Iroquois Land Claims (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1988); Campisi and Starna, “On the Road,” 486-87.