The book is the second in a five-novel series known as the Leatherstocking Tales and starring a hero called Natty Bumppo, a child of white parents who grew up among Natives. Bumppo, nicknamed “Hawkeye” in The Last of the Mohicans, is a fearless warrior who carries a long rifle and wanders across the frontier, often accompanied by a Native friend or brother.
The novel, set in 1757, follows the saga of Cora and Alice Munro, daughters of a lieutenant colonel serving in the French and Indian War. During the first third of the book, the sisters rely on a Native guide, Magua, to journey to Fort William Henry to be reunited with their father. On the way, they stumble upon Hawkeye, who is traveling with two Mohican men: Chief Chingachgook and his only son, Uncas, who is considered the last of the Mohicans.
The second part of the book follows the French siege of the fort and the subsequent attack on the soldiers and their families by Natives. Magua, an enemy to Colonel Munro, kidnaps the women and carries them into the Adirondacks, which were almost totally unexplored at the time Cooper was writing.
The third part takes place among the Natives and ends with the death of Uncas, signaling the final chapter of Mohican history. The book closes with the words of the wise Chief Tamenund, who predicts the end of the race: “The palefaces are masters of the earth, and the time of the red-men has not yet come again.”
Cooper researched the French and Indian War and read contemporary authors’ works about American Indians, but he made erroneous assumptions in his writing, said Hugh MacDougall, a historian in Cooperstown, New York, and founder of the James Fenimore Cooper Society. Perhaps the most egregious assumption was that the tribe was dying out.
The Mohican Tribe originally settled in the Hudson River Valley, near Albany, New York, but relocated to Stockbridge, Massachusetts in the late 17th century. They were moving again when Cooper wrote his book—this time to central Wisconsin, where they still live.
“Cooper later said that he called it The Last of the Mohicans not because he didn’t know that the Mohicans were still around, but because they were the first tribe to come into contact with white folks in New York and they were strongly expelled from that area,” MacDougall said. “Cooper said he felt since they were the first to be here, to be pushed out of New York State, that they were the first that would perhaps die out. But he knew perfectly well there were still Mohicans living.”
Although Cooper was considered sympathetic toward American Indians, the book helped promote ideas like Westward Expansion and the belief that Natives would either assimilate or disappear.
“He was writing at a time when a lot of Americans believed that the only good Indian was a dead Indian,” MacDougall said. Contemporary authors, including Mark Twain, shared that view. Twain famously insisted on the inferiority of the Indian and supported extermination and seizure of Native homelands.
Cooper was born in 1789 in New Jersey. As an infant, he moved with his family to upstate New York, to a town his father founded and named Cooperstown. After getting expelled from Yale University over a prank, Cooper took a job on a merchant ship then joined the Navy. His career as an author began when he threw down a popular book he was reading and exclaimed that he could do better.
His wife reportedly replied, “Why don’t you, dear?”
Cooper went on to write 32 novels and 15 other books, including the first major history of the Navy. The Last of the Mohicans was his fourth and most famous novel.
“It was received enthusiastically,” MacDougall said. “It was published and was an immense bestseller and has continued to be ever since.”
At least 20 adaptations of the story have been made, with the characters appearing in radio and television series, in comic books and operas and seven versions of the film. The most recent film version, released in 1992, starred Russell Means as Chingachgook.
Cooper died in Cooperstown in 1851.
Despite some success in communicating the struggles of American Indians, the book did damage to the Mohicans, said Molly Miller, chairwoman of the historical committee for the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians.
“When we talk about it, we laugh at it because it’s so wrong,” she said. “We’re infamous because of the book, but we’re constantly having to tell our story to people. We’re still here. The book was inaccurate, it was wrong, it was poorly written and it doesn’t have much to do with us as people, as a tribe.”
More than 1,500 enrolled members of the tribe live in Wisconsin.