James Fenimore Cooper’s depiction of the frontier, as expressed in the “Leatherstocking Tales,” transcends race and sex. The frontier can make anyone a true American—noble, liberty-loving, and virtuous. Ultimately, “Americanness” is individual and cultural; it is based on virtue and merit.

1822-1827: Republicanism and the American Frontier

With his third novel, The Pioneers, James Fenimore Cooper secured his place as the first true American novelist. Cooper introduced his greatest literary creation, the character of Natty Bumppo. He followed The Pioneers with four more novels involving Natty, collectively known as the Leatherstocking Tales: The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840), and The Deerslayer (1841). The publication order of the novels does not reflect the chronology of Natty’s life. He is a young man in The Deerslayer, a middle-aged man in The Last of the Mohicans and The Pathfinder, and an elderly man in The Pioneers and The Prairie.

Natty Bumppo personifies the American frontier. Though he is of European origin genetically, Natty’s parents died when he was a very young child. A family of Christianized (Moravian) Delaware Indians raised him. Natty, therefore, embodies the best, according to Cooper, of both worlds. An excellent hunter and warrior, Natty prefers the company of Indians, white woodsmen, and frontier soldiers to “civilized” and class-status persons of the town or city. Though shunning Christianity as a doctrine, Natty excels at virtue, spending most of his life helping those in need. For Cooper, Natty Bumppo represents the true American: free, innovative, and virtuous.

Cooper impressively anticipated Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous historical arguments as presented in his “Significance of the Frontier in American History.” First delivered on a hot humid afternoon, July 12, 1893, at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Turner’s frontier thesis claimed that the frontier made the American. It was at the point where “savagery” met “civilization” that Americans developed the characteristics of individualism, innovation, and equality. “American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier,” Turner said. The American was neither European nor Indian. Instead, he was something altogether different, a synthesis, more than either individually.

“This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society,” Turner stated unequivocally, “furnish the forces dominating American character.” In a famous passage, in which Turner could easily be describing Natty Bumppo, the young historian wrote:

The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization. The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and Iroquois and runs an Indian palisade around him. Before long he has gone to planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick, he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion.[1]

Turner, though essentially correct in his description of the frontier, offers a simple two-dimensional theory. There exists in Turner’s argument little or no room for those of non-European descent, and it especially ignores the frontier’s effect on American Indians. Indigenous people serve merely as a catalyst for Europeans to become Americans. Once the transformation is complete, the Indians are no longer needed. They simply disappear from Turner’s story.

Cooper presented a far more nuanced and realistic view of the frontier than Turner’s better-known theory. Eerily similar in description to Turner’s wording regarding the effects of the frontier on those of European descent, Cooper wrote of Natty Bumppo as he stands next to his closest friend, Chingachgook, a Delaware Indian: “the habits of the ‘Leatherstocking’ were so nearly assimilated to those of the savages, the conjunction of their interests excited no surprise. They resided in the same cabin, ate of the same food, and were chiefly occupied in the same pursuits.”[2]

Further, far from being merely a catalyst to make Natty a true American, Chingachgook plays a vital role in the five Leatherstocking Tales. “From his long association with the white men, the habits of the Mohegan were a mixture of the civilized and savage states, though there was certainly a strong preponderance in favor of the latter,” Cooper wrote of Chingachgook. “In common with all his people who dwelt within the influence of the Anglo-Americans, he had acquired new wants and his dress was a mixture of his native and European fashions,” Cooper continues, “a profusion of long, black, coarse hair concealed his forehead, his crown, and even hung about his cheeks, so as to convey the idea, to one who knew his present and former conditions, that he encouraged its abundance, as a willing veil, to hide the shame of a noble soul, mourning for glory once known.”[3] The frontier has affected him, an Indian, as well. Cooper successfully fleshed out Turner’s relatively simplistic theory.

Indeed, Chingachgook is Natty’s equal in almost every respect. In terms of his Christianity, he seems to be the better of the two. While Natty holds great respect for Christian arguments, he thinks very little of Christians themselves. He believes that as a philosophy it puts too much emphasis on mercy, ignoring justice.[4] Chingachgook agrees with Natty in this aspect, but he treats the Christian God and His ministers with great respect. The ministers, in turn, think highly of Chingachgook, seeing him on the right path.[5]

The Indians, for Cooper, were also great republicans. Though they took their republicanism to extremes by nearly abolishing all government, their republican beliefs gave them freedom and, therefore, allow them to discover virtue. Their unrestrained freedom, of course, can also lead to vice.[6]

Despite Cooper’s language in the above quoted passages, one should not conclude that Chingachgook represents Rousseau’s Noble Savage, as many scholars have argued. Though elements of the Noble Savage exist within Cooper’s works, Cooper nuanced his characterizations of the Indians. Like all humans, Cooper’s Indians appear to be moral, immoral, and, often, somewhere in between.

Cooper’s version of the frontier, unlike that of Turner’s, transcends race and sex. This issue is extremely important for Cooper, not only in his fiction, but in all of his written works. The American is not a white man with Indian characteristics. Instead, the frontier can make any one—regardless of background or sex—a true American, noble, liberty-loving, and virtuous. Ultimately, then, one cannot base “Americanness” on racial or ethnic background or terms. Instead, Americanness is individual and cultural; it is based on virtue and merit.

Cooper’s idea of the frontier is best exemplified by the character of Cora Munro in The Last of the Mohicans. From the first time the reader is introduced to Cora, he learns that she is beautiful, skilled, intelligent, and virtuous. She is also dark-complexioned. Her sister, Alice, is equally beautiful, but she is timid and, consequently, lacks the virtue of Cora. While she may want to do the right thing, her diffidence holds her back. Unlike Cora, Alice is blond and fair-skinned.

It is not until the middle of the novel that the reader discovers why Cooper describes the two female characters by their complexion over and over again. Cora is actually part African, as her father, a Scottish officer in the British army, had had an intimate relationship in the West Indies as a young man. Once Cooper reveals Cora’s background, several pointed conversations occur between main characters regarding the issue. Accusations of prejudice fly.[7] Indeed, Cooper chastises, through his characters, those who hold racial prejudice. “The dogs and crows of their tribes [white men]” Tamenund, a Delaware Sachem, says, “would bark and caw before they would take a woman to their wigwams whose blood was not of the color of snow.” Taking it further, the sagacious Indian implies that God may send a plague against those who put race above virtue.[8]

While modern readers do not find this shocking, American readers in the 1820s would have been aghast to find the heroine of the story to possess any amount of African blood. Cooper wanted to make a significant point. Being American transcends the narrow biological categories and confines of race or sex. Instead, the frontier provided the freedom for each person to discover and use his moral gifts, to submit to his God-given teleology. In the end, Cora proves the most moral and virtuous of all characters in The Last of the Mohicans, even more so than Leatherstocking or Chingachgook. She does everything well, and she does it without hesitation—even if it involves the ultimate sacrifice, her own life, for her friends and loved ones.

Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels proved astoundingly successful, especially in Europe. Publishers throughout Europe—Britain, France (18 different ones), the German states (30 different ones)—competed to print Cooper’s works. Cooper saw little, if no, money from these publishers. Editions of the Leatherstocking Tales also appeared in Russian, Egyptian, Turkish, Persian, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. Within a decade of the publication of The Pioneers, children throughout Europe and the Middle East played “Indian,” inspired by Natty and Chingachgook.[9] The Leatherstocking Tales also served as a recruiting agent for European immigrants who saw America’s wilderness as a site opportunity and adventure.[10]

Cooper’s ideas also significantly influenced American artists and scholars regarding the Indians and the frontier. Cooper’s portrait of the Indians, for example, inspired famous artists such as George Catlin to visit and paint the scenes of everyday Indian life. Catlin’s extant paintings remain as some of the best ethnographical evidence regarding the indigenous people of the Great Plains.[11]

1828-1851: Nationalistic Struggles

With his success as a novelist secure, Cooper and his wife moved their four daughters and one son to Europe in 1828. Several reasons prompted Cooper and his family to move. First, he wanted to see Europe as someone other than a tourist. Second, he wanted his family to experience Europe. Third, and perhaps most important, he want to secure copyright of his novels in several European countries. He was losing considerable money to publishers who pirated his works.

Cooper met all of his objectives, and his move to Europe solidified his reputation as the first true American novelist. Throughout Europe, he met with important persons and received a great deal of critical acclaim. The French especially loved Cooper, comparing him favorably to Sir Walter Scott. Cooper took copious notes during his travels, and he even involved himself in revolutionary republican activities, which would get him into considerable trouble with the upper-crust of Europe; A Letter to His Countrymen is a response, in part, to his revolutionary activities.

When Cooper returned to the United States in 1833, America greatly disappointed him. It seemed to Cooper it had changed dramatically since his departure in 1828. The number of immigrants—which he had unwittingly helped precipitate through the popularity of his novels—the drive for material gain, and the demands for radical equality surprised him. Even worse, the Whig opposition to him and his republican activities in Europe stunned him. Distraught, Cooper penned A Letter to His Countrymen. In it, he attacked the Whigs, editors subservient to European literary standards, and the European nobility. He also defended President Andrew Jackson against the Congress, which Cooper saw as America’s conniving aristocracy. Most shocking, though, to his readership was his apology for writing romances such as The Pioneers and The Last of the Mohicans which had borrowed heavily from their European counterparts. Cooper lamented his contribution to “non-American” art forms and promised never to write another romance.

Only a year later, Cooper broke his promise and published a romance novel, but he continued to fight the Whigs, especially in his fiction, which began to include evil or incompetent Whig editors as characters. In return, naturally, the Whigs attacked Cooper at every opportunity. One particularly nasty controversy revolved around a small segment of Cooper’s land that townspeople were using as a public park. When Cooper forbade them from using it, the public was outraged. Not knowing that Cooper owned it, they assumed it was public property and that Cooper was merely playing king over it. Though Whig editors knew better, they exacerbated the controversy, intentionally failing to mention that Cooper did indeed own the land. Cooper successfully sued the editors, but only after much inconvenience to himself and damage to his reputation.

Believing that Whig editors had too much power, encouraging the majority to override the rights—property or otherwise—of the minority, Cooper responded by writing The American Democrat. This third and final non-fiction work of social criticism reveals a maturity in Cooper’s political thinking. Far less giddy than NotionsThe American Democrat offered a realistic yet critical assessment of America and its political institutions. While not as sophisticated in argument as in A Letter, Cooper covered a much greater number of topics in a more straightforward and clearer manner. It balances the best of both previous works without falling into the faults of either. As one of Cooper’s twentieth-century counterparts, Russell Kirk, writes, The American Democrat is “a book full of perspicuity and courage, cogent and dignified.”[12]

Cooper continued to attack Whigs, the press, and democracy run amok in his fiction works. The most significant controversy for Cooper in the late 1830s and early 1840s was the New York Anti-Rent War. Radicals in New York demanded reform of the large estates. In essence, they advocated squatting on already-owned land. Though the battle raged for several years, fought valiantly by Cooper on the side of the landed, the radicals won. The New York landed elite simply ceased to exist, and the leveling tendencies of American democracy, as both Cooper and Alexis de Tocqueville sagaciously noted, increased unabated.

Either avoiding or ignoring political controversies, Cooper spent the majority of the 1840s writing fiction prolifically. He died a day short of his sixty-second birthday on September 14, 1851.

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[1] Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” in Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner: “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” and Other Essays, ed. John Mack Faragher (New York: Holt, 1994), 32-33.

[2] James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers (1823; New York: Signet, 1980), 80.

[3] Cooper, The Pioneers, 81.

[4] James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans (1826; New York: Bantam, 1989), 290.

[5] Cooper, The Pioneers, chapter 12.

[6] Cooper, The Pioneers, 80.

[7] Cooper, Last of the Mohicans, 164-65.

[8] Cooper, Last of the Mohicans, 324.

[9] Paul Johnson, A History of the American People (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 404-5.

[10] Paul Johnson, The Birth of the Modern (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 224.

[11] See, for example, George Catlin, Letters and Notes on the North American Indian (New York: Gramercy, 1975); William H. Goetzmann and William N. Goetzmann, The West of the Imagination (New York: W.W. Norton, 1986), 16-17; and Paul Reddin, Wild West Shows (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 1-52.

[12] Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, 7th revised ed. (Chicago: Regnery, 1986), 200.

The featured image is “American Frontier Life” (1852) by Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (1819–1905) and is in the public domain. It has been brightened for clarity and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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