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James Fenimore Cooper by
John Wesley Jarvis
(c. 1781 – 1839)
The Last of the Mohicans, 1826 

The Last of the Mohicans is an American historical novel written by James Fenimore Cooper (15 September 1789 – 14 September 1851) that  commemorates the Siege of Fort William Henry.

Drawing of Otsego Hall, the residence of Unite...

Otsego Hall

Drawing of Otsego Hall, the residence of United States author James Fenimore Cooper. A few years after his death it burned, and the surrounding land was sold by the heirs. His daughter, Susan Fenimore Cooper, incorporated some of the bricks in a residence she built. It had been built by his father (completed 1799). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Six years earlier, Cooper had begun his literary career with the publication of The Precaution (1820), written in response to his wife, Susan DeLancey, who “challenged his claim that he could write a better book than the English novel he was reading to her.”[i]  Good for her and good for all readers. Cooper’s second book, The Spy, published in 1821, was a great success and marks the birth of a great American novelist. In 1823, he published The Pioneers, which confirmed his amazing talent for creating very fluent novels based on life in America.

The Pioneers was the first of his Leatherstocking Tales, a series in which he inserted The Last of the Mohicans, a novel that features Natty Bumppo (Hawkeye), a pioneering scout. Ending his Leatherstocking Tales series are The Pathfinder(1840) and The Deerslayer(1841).

The PLOT as told in the Oxford Companion to American Literature [ii]

The Last of the Mohicans is a romance featuring Cora and Alice Munro, the daughters of the English commander, Lieutenant-Colonel George Munro. They wish to join their father and are accompanied by Major Duncan Heyward and the singing teacher David Gamut, Alice’s fiancé. Also present is Amerindian Magua, a traitor to the British who will meet a sorry end, shot by Hawkeye and falling down a precipice to his death.  As the party travels to besieged Lake George, Magua’s treacherous intentions are foiled by Hawkeye, Bumppo, and his friend, chief Chingachgook and his son Uncas. They are the “only survivors of the Mohican Aristocracy.” Cora and Alice are captured by Magua with the help of the Iroquois. Here Magua promises them safety if Cora will become his Squaw, which she refuses. At this point, an instance of kairos, the opportune moment, Hawkeye rescues the girls. They reach Fort William and remain there until their father, Munro or Monro capitulates.

A gallant Montcalm “gives them a safe-conduct[,]” but, as we know, the Siege of Fort William Henry was followed by a massacre. Fortunately the vigilant Hawkeye finds Cora, imprisoned in a Delaware camp, and Alice, in a Huron camp. But Heyward who has entered the camp “in disguise, rescues Alice and, with Uncas, escapes to the Delaware camp,” where they are well received.

Upon learning Uncas’s identity, old chief Tamenund “hails him as his destined successor.” The plot thickens, however, when Magua, our traitor, shockingly claims Cora as his “rightful property” and Uncas cannot object. However, “joined by the English, leads his tribe against the Hurons” and, when Magua “attempts to desert,” Uncas follows, and tries to rescue Cora. Uncas and Cora are killed, and Hawkeye shoots Magua, who falls from a precipice to his death,” as mentioned earlier. The group returns to “civilization,” except for Hawkeye “who continues his frontier career.”

It’s all there: good and bad Amerindians, brave Munro, or Monro, who fights to the bitter end, gallant Montcalm, the death of Uncas, the last Mohican, Cora, who will not be a traitor’s squaw, the death of the bad Amerindian, action galore, losses and gains, and, finally, the clash between civilization and the frontier, the novel’s main source of tension.

Civilization versus the frontier

James Fenimore Cooper was fascinated by the juxtaposition of the “civilized” and the unpredictable “frontier.”  Let me quote Wikipedia: “In the Last of the Mohicans, the stereotypical, nineteenth century view of the native is seen in the character of Magua, who is devoid of almost any redeeming qualities. In comparison, Chingachgook, the last chief of the Mohicans, is portrayed as noble, courageous, and heroic.”

Cooper was an extremely prolific and successful novelist. He was admired everywhere and by almost everyone, including the equally prolific Victor Hugo (1802 – 1885). Not that his art was very polished, but that he was inventive and a phenomenal storyteller, a feature that keeps the reader in suspense. Rare are those writers whose books one cannot put down as of the end of the first paragraph.

James Fenimore Cooper
1940 issue

Cooper is best remembered for his Leatherstocking Tales, featuring the wilderness scout called Natty Bumppo, or Hawkeye. They include The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840), and The Deerslayer (1841).  According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, the “Leatherstocking” tales are Cooper’s “great imperfect masterpiece.”[iii]

However, he had been a midshipman and wrote sea novels or romances. He also wrote the scholarlyHistory of the Navy (1853) and championed egalitarianism.


[i] James D Hart, with revision and additions by Phillip W. Leininger, The Oxford Companion to American Literature (Oxford University Press 1995[1941]).

[ii] George G. Dekker, “James Fenimore Cooper.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 26 Mar. 2012. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/136268/James-Fenimore-Cooper>.

[iii] Ibid.

© Micheline Walker
26 March 2012