The Last of the Mohicans; A narrative of 1757James Fenimore Cooper / Actions & Adventure
Produced by John Horner and David Widger
THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS
A Narrative of 1757
by James Fenimore Cooper
It is believed that the scene of this tale, and most of the informationnecessary to understand its allusions, are rendered sufficiently obviousto the reader in the text itself, or in the accompanying notes. Stillthere is so much obscurity in the Indian traditions, and so muchconfusion in the Indian names, as to render some explanation useful.
Few men exhibit greater diversity, or, if we may so express it, greaterantithesis of character, than the native warrior of North America.In war, he is daring, boastful, cunning, ruthless, self-denying,and self-devoted; in peace, just, generous, hospitable, revengeful,superstitious, modest, and commonly chaste. These are qualities, itis true, which do not distinguish all alike; but they are so far thepredominating traits of these remarkable people as to be characteristic.
It is generally believed that the Aborigines of the American continenthave an Asiatic origin. There are many physical as well as moral factswhich corroborate this opinion, and some few that would seem to weighagainst it.
The color of the Indian, the writer believes, is peculiar to himself,and while his cheek-bones have a very striking indication of a Tartarorigin, his eyes have not. Climate may have had great influence onthe former, but it is difficult to see how it can have produced thesubstantial difference which exists in the latter. The imagery of theIndian, both in his poetry and in his oratory, is oriental; chastened,and perhaps improved, by the limited range of his practical knowledge.He draws his metaphors from the clouds, the seasons, the birds, thebeasts, and the vegetable world. In this, perhaps, he does no more thanany other energetic and imaginative race would do, being compelled toset bounds to fancy by experience; but the North American Indian clotheshis ideas in a dress which is different from that of the African, andis oriental in itself. His language has the richness and sententiousfullness of the Chinese. He will express a phrase in a word, and he willqualify the meaning of an entire sentence by a syllable; he will evenconvey different significations by the simplest inflections of thevoice.
Philologists have said that there are but two or three languages,properly speaking, among all the numerous tribes which formerly occupiedthe country that now composes the United States. They ascribe the knowndifficulty one people have to understand another to corruptions anddialects. The writer remembers to have been present at an interviewbetween two chiefs of the Great Prairies west of the Mississippi, andwhen an interpreter was in attendance who spoke both their languages.The warriors appeared to be on the most friendly terms, and seeminglyconversed much together; yet, according to the account of theinterpreter, each was absolutely ignorant of what the other said.They were of hostile tribes, brought together by the influence of theAmerican government; and it is worthy of remark, that a common policyled them both to adopt the same subject. They mutually exhorted eachother to be of use in the event of the chances of war throwing either ofthe parties into the hands of his enemies. Whatever may be the truth,as respects the root and the genius of the Indian tongues, it is quitecertain they are now so distinct in their words as to possess most ofthe disadvantages of strange languages; hence much of the embarrassmentthat has arisen in learning their histories, and most of the uncertaintywhich exists in their traditions.
Like nations of higher pretensions, the American Indian gives a verydifferent account of his own tribe or race from that which is given byother people. He is much addicted to overestimating his own perfections,and to undervaluing those of his rival or his enemy; a trait which maypossibly be thought corroborative of the Mosaic account of the creation.
The whites have assisted greatly in rendering the traditions of theAborigines more obscure by their own manner of corrupting names. Thus,the term used in the title of this book has undergone the changes ofMahicanni, Mohicans, and Mohegans; the latter being the word commonlyused by the whites. When it is remembered that the Dutch (who firstsettled New York), the English, and the French, all gave appellationsto the tribes that dwelt within the country which is the scene of thisstory, and that the Indians not only gave different names to theirenemies, but frequently to themselves, the cause of the confusion willbe understood.
In these pages, Lenni-Lenape, Lenope, Delawares, Wapanachki, andMohicans, all mean the same people, or tribes of the same stock. TheMengwe, the Maquas, the Mingoes, and the Iroquois, though not allstrictly the same, are identified frequently by the speakers, beingpolitically confederated and opposed to those just named. Mingo was aterm of peculiar reproach, as were Mengwe and Maqua in a less degree.
The Mohicans were the possessors of the country first occupied by theEuropeans in this portion of the continent. They were, consequently,the first dispossessed; and the seemingly inevitable fate of all thesepeople, who disappear before the advances, or it might be termed theinroads, of civilization, as the verdure of their native forests fallsbefore the nipping frosts, is represented as having already befallenthem. There is sufficient historical truth in the picture to justify theuse that has been made of it.
In point of fact, the country which is the scene of the following talehas undergone as little change, since the historical events alluded tohad place, as almost any other district of equal extent within the wholelimits of the United States. There are fashionable and well-attendedwatering-places at and near the spring where Hawkeye halted to drink,and roads traverse the forests where he and his friends were compelledto journey without even a path. Glen's has a large village; and whileWilliam Henry, and even a fortress of later date, are only to be tracedas ruins, there is another village on the shores of the Horican. But,beyond this, the enterprise and energy of a people who have done so muchin other places have done little here. The whole of that wilderness,in which the latter incidents of the legend occurred, is nearly awilderness still, though the red man has entirely deserted this part ofthe state. Of all the tribes named in these pages, there exist only afew half-civilized beings of the Oneidas, on the reservations of theirpeople in New York. The rest have disappeared, either from the regionsin which their fathers dwelt, or altogether from the earth.
There is one point on which we would wish to say a word before closingthis preface. Hawkeye calls the Lac du Saint Sacrement, the Horican.As we believe this to be an appropriation of the name that has itsorigin with ourselves, the time has arrived, perhaps, when the factshould be frankly admitted. While writing this book, fully a quarter ofa century since, it occurred to us that the French name of this lakewas too complicated, the American too commonplace, and the Indian toounpronounceable, for either to be used familiarly in a work of fiction.Looking over an ancient map, it was ascertained that a tribe of Indians,called Les Horicans by the French, existed in the neighborhood of thisbeautiful sheet of water. As every word uttered by Natty Bumppo wasnot to be received as rigid truth, we took the liberty of putting theHorican into his mouth, as the substitute for Lake George. The namehas appeared to find favor, and all things considered, it may possiblybe quite as well to let it stand, instead of going back to the House ofHanover for the appellation of our finest sheet of water. We relieve ourconscience by the confession, at all events leaving it to exercise itsauthority as it may see fit.