The Deerslayer

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The Deerslayer
James Fenimore Cooper

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


The Deerslayer, or The First War-Path, by American novelist James Fenimore Cooper, was first published in 1841. It was the last of Cooper's series of five novels featuring the character of Nathaniel (Natty) Bumppo, also known as Deerslayer, Pathfinder, Hawkeye, Leatherstocking, and Trapper. Set in the wilderness area around Lake Otsego, New York, during one week in June between 1740 and 1745, The Deerslayer is an exciting story about the adventures of the woodsman known as Deerslayer and his Delaware Indian friend, Chingachgook. They meet at the lake to plot a rescue of Chingachgook's betrothed, a Delaware girl who has been abducted by the hostile Huron Indians. Deerslayer has never been on the warpath before, and this is a test of his manhood. Deerslayer's impetuous and lawless friend, Hurry March, the grizzled old trapper Thomas Hutter, and his two daughters—one beautiful and vain, the other pious and simple-minded—complete the main cast of characters. The novel presents the violence and unpredictability of life in a place where only a few white hunters and hunting parties of Indians have ever set foot. The interface between the wilderness and civilization, the pristine life of nature and the impact being made on it by human beings, makes this a fascinating story about a clash of values, a conflict which continued to shape the North American continent for the remainder of the century and beyond.

In the early 2000s, The Deerslayer may have far fewer readers than it did one hundred and fifty years before, but it has, together with the other four Leatherstocking Tales, become a classic of American nineteenth-century literature.

Author Biography

Known as the first great American novelist, James Cooper (the middle name Fenimore was added in 1826) was born on September 15, 1789, in Burlington, New Jersey, the twelfth of the thirteen children of William Cooper (a wealthy, landowning judge) and Elizabeth Fenimore Cooper. In 1790, the family moved to Cooperstown, in central New York, a settlement near Otsego Lake. The lake, known also as Glimmerglass, was later to be the setting for Cooper's novel, The Deerslayer.

Cooper entered Yale College in 1803, at the age of thirteen, but was expelled for misconduct two years later. He joined the Merchant Marines and was then a commissioned midshipman in the U.S. Navy. In 1811, after his father died and he inherited a fortune, Cooper married Susan Augusta DeLancey, who would bear him five daughters and two sons. The couple moved to Westchester in 1817.

The publication of his novel Precaution in 1820 marked the beginning of Cooper's literary career. Cooper followed with The Spy (1821), a tale of the American Revolution, which won him a wide readership. In 1823, he published The Pioneers, the first of the frontier novels on which his reputation came to rest. The Pioneers introduced the character Natty Bumppo (also to be known as Hawkeye, Leatherstocking, and Deerslayer), the rugged woodsman and hunter who is presented as a true American hero. The other novels to feature Bumppo are The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), The Pathfinder (1840), and The Deerslayer (1841). These five novels are known collectively as the Leatherstocking Tales.

From 1826 to 1833, Cooper and his family traveled in Europe. They lived in Paris from 1826 to 1828, and then visited London, Switzerland, Italy, and Germany, returning to Paris in 1830 and remaining there until 1832.

In 1833, Cooper returned to the United States, and the following year, he settled finally at Cooperstown, where he continued to write. He published The Monikans in 1835 and five volumes about his

travels (1836-1838), beginning with Sketches of Switzerland (1836).

After his return from Europe, Cooper was frequently embroiled in controversy. In 1834, in A Letter to His Countrymen, he attacked American provincialism and the condition of American democracy. He entered into a legal dispute concerning a piece of land on Otsego Lake that the townspeople had become accustomed to using as a picnic area; Cooper claimed it was private property. He was also regularly attacked in the press as a man who had pretensions to being an aristocrat. This assertion led to a series of lawsuits in which Cooper's motivation was not so much to win damages but to curb what he saw as the irresponsibility of the press.

Cooper wrote over fifty books in all, including sociopolitical and sea novels, naval histories, and travelogues. By the time of his death, he had an international reputation and was probably more honored abroad than he was at home, where he was regarded as reactionary and too litigious, although the Leatherstocking novels were widely read and admired.

Cooper died on September 14, 1851, and was buried in the cemetery of Cooperstown.

Plot Summary

Chapter 1

The Deerslayer begins around noon on a sunny day in June, sometime between 1740 and 1745. It takes place around Lake Otsego, New York, then known as Glimmerglass. Two woodsmen, twenty-six- or twenty-eight-year-old Henry March, often known as Hurry Harry, and his slightly younger companion, Nathaniel (Natty) Bumppo, known as Deerslayer, emerge from a small swamp and behold the lake. As they pause to eat their lunch and talk, they reveal differences in their characters. It soon emerges that Deerslayer has not yet killed a man in war or for any other reason; Hurry, who appears to be the more aggressive and ruthless of the two, says it is about time Deerslayer killed an Indian, since they are at war with them. Deerslayer has more respect for the Indians since he has lived among the Delawares and understands their culture. The two men then discuss three people they will soon be meeting, Tom Hutter, and his two daughters, Judith and Hetty. Tom, a widower, is a former pirate who for fifteen years has been living on the lake. Judith is beautiful but headstrong, and Hurry visits her often; Hetty is more humble, sweet-hearted, and dutiful, but does not possess great intelligence.

Chapter 2

Hurry and Deerslayer recover a canoe hidden in a hollow log. They paddle towards the first of Hutter's two homes, which is facetiously known as Muskrat Castle. It stands a quarter mile offshore, a kind of fortress built on piles driven into a long, narrow shoal. It is relatively safe, since no one can attack it except by boat, and any attacker would be under merciless fire from Hutter's well-stocked armory. When they arrive at the castle, they find it empty. Deerslayer has a good look round, examining every aspect of the interior.

Chapter 3

The two men now paddle in search of Hutter's second home, which is a floating barge called the ark. At one point, Hurry goes ashore and shoots at and misses a deer. Deerslayer reproaches him for his lack of prudence, since the sound of the rifle may alert enemy Indians to their presence. They finally discover the ark concealed in bushes at the source of the Susquehanna River, at the southern end of the lake.

Chapter 4

Hurry leaps onto the ark and starts talking to Judith. Deerslayer climbs aboard more cautiously, and soon notes the presence of Hetty, who is sitting down doing needlework. Hutter realizes that his ark is in a vulnerable position and may be in imminent danger of attack by Indians. With the help of Hurry and Deerslayer, he pulls the ark upstream, using a rope attached to an anchor. As they reach the entrance to Glimmerglass, a band of six Indians in an overhanging tree prepares to leap onto the ark as it passes underneath them. More Indian warriors wait to follow them. But after the attackers make their leap, five fall into the water. Only the first manages to jump onto the ark, and he is immediately pushed overboard by Judith, who has rushed out of her cabin. The ark moves to safety on the open lake.

Chapter 5

Hutter outlines a plan to go on the offensive. He wants to scalp the Indian women and children that he knows are nearby in a hunting party so he can receive the bounty offered for scalps by the colony. Hurry agrees with the idea, but Deerslayer opposes it, saying it does not conform to his religion; Indians practice scalping, but white men do not. He offers to stay behind to protect the women. As Hetty talks to her father, it transpires that Judith does not like Hurry, in spite of his obvious interest in her. On the contrary, Judith shows by the attention she pays to Deerslayer that she is far more attracted to the younger man. She tells him that he is the first man she has met whom she did not regard as an enemy in disguise.

Chapter 6

Hutter, Hurry, and Deerslayer return to Muskrat Castle. Hutter suggests they will enhance their safety if they can collect two more canoes that are hidden in logs on the shore, thus depriving the Indians of the means to approach the castle. At midnight they go ashore in a canoe, locate the canoes and put them in the water so that they drift slowly up the lake, to be collected later. Then, as they paddle their canoe along the south shore of the lake, they locate an Indian encampment. They decide it is not a warriors' encampment and that there will be plenty of women and children there. Hurry and Hutter go ashore in search of scalps, while Deerslayer waits in the canoe to collect them when the expedition is over. But their plans go awry. Hutter and Hurry are captured by Indians, and as Deerslayer, alerted by the sound of a shriek, approaches in the canoe, Hutter tells him to return to the castle to guard the girls.

Chapter 7

After having slept all night in his canoe, Deerslayer collects one canoe and then goes to collect the other, which has drifted ashore. As he approaches the shore, an Indian shoots at him. Deerslayer is unhurt, makes it to the shore, and goes into the bushes. He sees his enemy reloading his rifle and has a chance to shoot him, but he feels this would be unchivalrous, since the man is at a disadvantage. He waits until he can confront the Indian directly on the shore. They talk to each other and appear to have reached an amicable solution, in which the Indian seems to accept that the canoes belong to white men not Indians. The Indian walks away, and Deerslayer is beginning to push the canoe when he sees the Indian preparing to fire at him from behind a bush. Deerslayer readies his rifle and they both fire simultaneously. The Indian is mortally wounded. Deerslayer refuses to scalp the dying man and treats him with respect. The Indian gives Deerslayer a new name, Hawkeye. As Deerslayer paddles out to the drifting canoe, he finds an unarmed Indian in it who is trying to take it to the shore. Deerslayer lets him escape unharmed.

Chapter 8

Back in the castle the following morning, Deerslayer informs Judith and Hetty of what happened. Judith is not too alarmed, as she expects the Indians to release their prisoners unharmed in exchange for a ransom of animal skins or gunpowder. She also continues to show her high regard for Deerslayer. Later that day, Deerslayer and the two girls leave the castle in the ark. Deerslayer has an appointment to meet an Indian friend of his at a large rock near the shore at sunset. The Indian is Chingachgook, a young Delaware chief, whose betrothed, Wah-ta!-Wah, has been abducted by another tribe of Indians, the Hurons. Deerslayer steers the ark in a zigzag fashion so as to confuse the Hurons (often referred to as Mingoes), who are tracking their journey from the shore.

Chapter 9

They arrive at the rock, and Deerslayer hopes he has deceived the Hurons as to his destination. Chingachgook is waiting for them, but as soon as he jumps aboard the ark, twenty hostile Indians leap from the trees and wade into the water, intending to board the ark. Deerslayer and Chingachgook pull hard and take the ark several hundred yards from the shore, leaving the Indians behind. Chingachgook informs them that Hutter and Hurry have not been harmed by their captors, although he also tells Deerslayer that they will be scalped the next day. After Judith says she will offer her finest clothes as ransom, Chingachgook confirms that Wah-ta!-Wah is also being held in the same Indian camp. As the three talk together, Judith feels that she has known Deerslayer for a year rather than a day. She has a confidence in him that she has never felt for another man. All three are then surprised to see a canoe in the water. It is occupied by Hetty, who has set off on a mission of her own to rescue Hurry, with whom she is infatuated, and her father. Deerslayer and the others are deeply concerned, since they fear the canoe will fall into enemy hands and give them the means to attack the castle. They try but fail to stop Hetty.

Media Adaptations

  • There have been several movie versions of The Deerslayer.
  • The Deerslayer and Chingachgook (1920), starring Emil Mamelok and Herta Heden and directed by Arthur Wellin Ratin, was as of 2006 available on DVD from Alpha Video.
  • The Deerslayer (1957), starring Lex Barker and Rita Moreno and directed by Kurt Neumann, was in 2006 unavailable.
  • The Deerslayer, the 1978 low-budget made-fortelevision version, starring Steve Forrest as Deerslayer and Ned Romero as Chingachgook, was as of 2006 available on VHS from Anchor Bay Entertain.

Chapter 10

Hetty goes ashore and sets the canoe adrift. Deerslayer finds it and secures it to the ark. They locate Hetty on the shore. The simple-minded girl says she plans to go to the Indians and tell them that if they kill her father and Hurry, God will send them to everlasting punishment. She disappears into the forest where she spends the night. At dawn she sets off to find the Indian camp and meets Wah-ta!-Wah, who has been given the freedom to wander around the encampment. They take to each other immediately and tell their stories. Wah-ta!-Wah, whom Hetty calls Hist, is pleased to hear that Chingachgook is nearby. Hist leads Hetty to the camp, knowing that Indians treat the mentally deficient and the mad with a religious reverence that they do not show to others.

Chapter 11

In the camp, Hetty soon finds her father and Hurry, who are allowed to walk around unrestrained. She is pleased to learn that neither of them managed to scalp any Indians before they were captured. Then she is taken to the chiefs to whom she makes her request that her father and Hurry should be released. She gets out her Bible and speaks of the Christian God and the command to forgive enemies. But her words have no effect on the chiefs, who summon Hutter and Hurry and get them to admit that they went to the camp in order to collect scalps. The implication is that they deserve any punishment that may be dealt out to them.

Chapter 12

In the morning, back at the castle, Deerslayer and Judith decide that the best way to free Hutter and Hurry is to offer valuables as a ransom. In searching for something suitable, they open Hutter's old sea chest, which he has always kept locked. He has never spoken about its contents, except to Hetty. They find fine clothes, for both men and women. Judith changes out of her simple frock and into one of the dresses, and she looks so beautiful that Deerslayer remarks on it. But then he says that she looks even better without such finery, and she promptly changes out of it.

Chapter 13

Examining the chest further, they find two loaded pistols inlaid with silver. Chingachgook fires one of the pistols, the bullet going into the lake. Deerslayer fires the other, but it goes off before he was expecting it to, and fragments of the bullet fly in all directions. Judith trembles with fright but is uninjured. Next they find a surveyor's instrument and a set of exquisitely wrought ivory chess pieces in the chest. They decide to offer for ransom two rooks, castle-like shapes that are mounted on elephants. Shortly after this, an Indian boy arrives on a raft, bringing Hetty. Deerslayer allows him to examine two of the rooks, and he is captivated by them. Deerslayer sends him away with a message about the ransom offer. Meanwhile, Hetty informs Chingachgook of the presence of Wah-ta!-Wah at the Indian camp. She tells him that Wah-ta!-Wah has said where she will be an hour after dark and has told him to come to her.

Chapter 14

Two Huron chiefs, one of whom is named Rivenoak, arrive on a raft. They are shown the rook and are entranced by the "beast with two tails," which they have never seen. After lengthy negotiations, which seem at one point to break down, a deal is struck: four rooks will buy the freedom of both Hutter and Hurry. The Hurons depart and return at sunset with the two white men. The Hurons leave on their raft and are about a hundred yards from the castle when Hurry tries to shoot at them. But the quick-moving Deerslayer prevents him.

Chapter 15

Deerslayer finds on the porch of the castle a bundle of sticks, several of which have been dipped in blood. This is a declaration of war. The sticks were delivered by an Indian boy, and Deerslayer and Chingachgook have to prevent Hurry from giving chase in a canoe and trying to scalp the messenger. A decision is then made to abandon the castle and take to the ark. Hutter hoists the sail and the ark is carried in a southerly direction, toward the eastern shore. Hutter, Hurry, and Chingachgook, who have decided to go on another scalping expedition against the Hurons, go ashore in a canoe. But they find the Indian camp deserted and return to the ark, where Deerslayer and Judith have been talking about many things, and Judith has again made plain her affection for him.

Chapter 16

While Hutter and Hurry sleep, Deerslayer and Chingachgook go ashore in a canoe to meet Wahta!- Wah at the place and time the Indian girl had disclosed to Hetty. But when they reach the spot, Wah-ta!-Wah is not there. Deerslayer eventually finds her at a new camp, where she is guarded by an old woman. Chingachgook makes a signal, imitating the sound of a squirrel, that alerts Wah-ta!- Wah to his presence. Deerslayer seizes the old woman by the throat and begins to throttle her, enabling Chingachgook to take Wah-ta!-Wah and run with her to the canoe. Deerslayer allows the woman moments in which to breathe, and during one of these moments, she lets out a shriek that alerts the warriors in the camp. Deerslayer drops her and goes back into the bushes.

Chapter 17

Deerslayer is captured by half a dozen Hurons and brought to their camp, where he engages in a dialog with Rivenoak. Rivenoak wants him to return to the ark and betray his friends, so that the Hurons can enter and kill them, but Deerslayer refuses. Deerslayer explains what brought him and Chingachgook to the camp. As Rivenoak consults his colleagues and Deerslayer talks with the Huron warrior who claims Wah-ta!-Wah as his wife, all of a sudden Hetty appears standing at the side of the fire. Judith has brought her to the camp in a canoe to try to secure his freedom with a ransom. Judith also wants to know what she should do in order to best serve him. Deerslayer replies that they should keep the ark moving and that he will never betray them, even though he knows he faces torture.

Chapter 18

At midnight, Hetty slips away from the camp. Judith collects her in a canoe. She quizzes Hetty about Deerslayer's precarious situation and makes it clear to her sister how she holds Deerslayer in much higher esteem than Hurry, for whom she has only contempt. She is determined to help Deerslayer in whatever way she can. Judith paddles the canoe but is unable to locate the ark. While they are discussing the matter they hear a rifle shot and observe that the shot has killed a Huron girl. Judith steers the canoe to the center of the lake for safety, after which she lets it drift. The two girls spend the night in the canoe.

Chapter 19

In the ark, Hutter and Hurry have no sympathy for Deerslayer, feeling that he brought his predicament upon himself. It transpires that it was a random shot from Hurry that killed the Indian girl, to the great distress of Wah-ta!-Wah. In the pre-dawn, the ark approaches the castle and makes contact with Judith and Hetty who are still in their canoe, with Wah-ta!-Wah. Chingachgook expresses a warning: he believes there are Huron warriors in the castle. Hutter and Hurry take no notice of this, however, and proceed unarmed to the castle. As he enters, Hurry calls out to Hutter that it is safe, but soon Chingachgook, who has remained behind, hears the sounds of a struggle. He steers the ark a hundred yards away from the castle. In the meantime, Hutter has been captured, while Hurry fights on.

Chapter 20

After a ferocious fight with several Hurons, Hurry is defeated and bound. At the suggestion of Wah-ta!-Wah, who is now referred to as Hist (the abbreviated form of the English version of her name), Hurry rolls off the platform of the castle, hoping to fall into the adjacent ark. But he misses the target and falls into the water. He is still bound hand and foot. Hist throws him a rope which he grasps with his teeth and his hands and is dragged to safety. Three Hurons then give chase in a canoe after Judith and Hetty. They are gaining on the girls when they break a paddle and abandon the chase. The Hurons then abandon the castle. When Judith and Hetty return to it they discover that their father, although still alive, has been scalped.

Chapter 21

It transpires that Hutter has also been stabbed, a mortal wound. He dies slowly, as Hetty and Judith tend to him. He confesses that he is not the girls' father, which pleases Judith, since there had never been much love between the two of them. After Hutter dies, his body is lowered into the lake, at the farthest end of the shoal on which the castle stands, near the place where he had buried his wife. After the burial, Hurry approaches Judith and makes her a marriage proposal, which she promptly refuses. Hurry tells her that the area of the lake no longer has any appeal to him, and she tells him to leave it and head for the nearest garrison, from which a party can be sent out to assist the girls. Judith also requests that the soldiers should not include a man named Captain Warley, although she gives no reason for this.

Chapter 22

In a canoe above Hutter's grave, Judith tells Hetty they are no longer safe living on the lake and must move to one of the settlements. Hetty does not want to leave, since she has lived all her life in nature and regards the settlements as places where wickedness flourishes. The women are then surprised to see Deerslayer approaching in a canoe. Deerslayer tells them he has been released on a furlough by the Hurons and has given his word that he will return by noon the following day.

Chapter 23

Deerslayer explains that he has been sent to convey some proposals from the Hurons, who now consider that the inhabitants of the castle lie at their mercy. They are prepared to offer Chingachgook safe passage back to his own tribe but insist that Hist must be returned to the Hurons. They want Judith to live with them and become the wife of a warrior who has recently lost his wife; they offer Hetty safety, too; she will be honored and cared for. The Hurons also offer Hurry the chance to make an easy escape. Judith, Hist, and Chingachgook contemptuously turn down these proposals. Hetty also refuses but more gently. Hurry alone accepts the offer, and Deerslayer takes him ashore in a canoe. Deerslayer tells him to persuade the garrison to send out a force to pursue the Hurons and suggests that he lead it himself, since he knows the area so well.

Chapter 24

Deerslayer and Judith examine the remaining contents of Hutter's chest. Judith is eager to know whether it contains anything that will tell her more of her family history, since she now knows that Hutter was not her father. They find bundles of letters and other papers and piece together the story. Hutter was a pirate whose real name was Thomas Hovey. Judith's mother, who came from an educated family, was deserted by the man who fathered her two children, a European military officer, but who had never married her. Out of resentment and a desire to get back at the man who deserted her, Judith's mother married Hovey/Hutter, even though he was semi-illiterate and her inferior in every way. As Judith and Deerslayer talk, she makes it clear that she would like to be his wife. But Deerslayer cannot take this suggestion seriously, thinking that since he is an illiterate man of the woods he could never be a suitable husband for Judith.

Chapter 25

At dawn the next morning, Chingachgook and Hist agree that they will try to rescue Deerslayer from the Hurons. When Chingachgook makes his intentions clear to Deerslayer, the latter tells him his plan is madness, since he now has Hist to take care of. Deerslayer then talks to Judith, telling her that should he be killed by the Hurons, he would like Killdeer, the rifle formerly owned by Hutter and which Judith has given him, to be passed on to Chingachgook. Then Deerslayer and Chingachgook take turns shooting at ducks. Deerslayer has far greater skill than his Indian friend. Deerslayer then uses Killdeer to shoot and kill an eagle that was flying at a great height.

Chapter 26

Deerslayer regrets having killed the eagle for mere sport. Then he bids his companions lengthy farewells. He does not expect to see them again, since he presumes that the Hurons will torture and kill him. Hetty paddles the canoe that takes him ashore to return to the Hurons.

Chapter 27

At noon, Deerslayer returns to the Huron camp. Many of the warriors are surprised he honored his promise, but others are not. The senior warriors are seated on the trunk of a fallen log. The most important are Rivenoak and the Panther, the latter being known for his ferocity. After greeting Deerslayer, the chiefs confer for an hour, after which they tell him that he is to take as his wife Sumach, the widow of the warrior, Lynx, whom he killed. Deerslayer refuses, which so angers the Panther, who is Sumach's brother, that he hurls a tomahawk at Deerslayer's head. Deerslayer catches it with his hand and hurls it back, killing the Panther. In the confusion that follows, Deerslayer escapes. The Hurons pursue him; he jumps into a canoe, pushes it off from the shore with all his strength, and lies in the bottom to protect himself from rifle fire.

Chapter 28

Unfortunately for Deerslayer, the wind carries the canoe back to the shore, and he is recaptured. Rivenoak repeats his offer to marry Sumach and become an adopted Huron. Again, Deerslayer refuses. After a long conversation with Hetty, Deerslayer finds himself surrounded by a circle of Huron warriors. Preparations are under way for the commencement of his torture. He is bound and tied to a tree. After he turns down a personal appeal from Sumach, the signal is given for the torture to begin.

Chapter 29

The torture begins when Huron warriors throw tomahawks or knives at Deerslayer, the aim being that the weapon should hit the tree as near to his head as possible without actually striking him. Deerslayer faces his ordeal bravely, winning the respect of his captors. The Hurons are about to perform the same procedure with rifles when Hetty appears and reproaches them for their cruelty. The rifle shots disturb Deerslayer even less than the knives and tomahawks, and after he calmly endures the abuse of the Huron women, the Hurons decide it is time to begin the physical tortures.

Chapter 30

The proceedings are interrupted by the appearance of a beautiful, well-dressed woman who bears herself like a woman of rank. She demands of Rivenoak that Deerslayer be set free and offers more ransom. But then Hetty identifies the woman as Judith, her sister, and her ploy is thus doomed to failure. The torture by fire is about to start in earnest when there is another interruption, this time by the appearance of Hist, who manages to slip a knife to Judith, who passes it to Hetty, who starts to cut Deerslayer's bonds. She is swiftly stopped. Hist hurls abuse at Briarthorn, the Delaware who had abducted her and joined the Hurons. Next, Chingachgook suddenly appears and cuts Deerslayer's bonds and gives him his rifle, Killdeer. Briarthorn throws a knife at Chingachgook, but Hist turns it aside. Then Chingachgook throws a knife at Briarthorn, killing him. Sixty British troops then arrive and massacre the Hurons with their bayonets.

Chapter 31

After the battle, it is discovered that Hetty has been mortally wounded by a rifle shot. Only a few Hurons escaped the massacre. Rivenoak has been injured and taken prisoner. In the castle, Captain Thomas Warley, the leader of the British troops, talks with fellow officers about Judith. It appears that he had an affair with her some time in the past and is now, struck again by her beauty, considering renewing it. A few hours later, Hetty dies peacefully, her last act being to say goodbye to Hurry, of whom she was unusually fond. Judith is grief-stricken at the loss of her sister.

Chapter 32

Preparations are made for everyone to abandon the castle and the lake. Judith and Deerslayer take a canoe out on the lake, and Judith proposes marriage to Deerslayer. Deerslayer thanks her but refuses her offer, saying that they can never marry. Judith goes with the soldiers to the garrison, while Deerslayer rejoins Chingachgook and Hist. The following day, they return to the Delaware tribe, where they are greeted warmly. Fifteen years later, Deerslayer and Chingachgook, Hist, and their son Uncas return to Glimmerglass. The castle and the ark are in ruins, and it appears that no one has visited the lake since the final battle.



Briarthorn is a Delaware who wanted Wah-ta!- Wah (called Hist) as his wife. He abducted her and went over to the Hurons. He tries to serve them well but is distrusted and only tolerated. When Chingachgook appears at the Huron camp in chapter 30, Briarthorn is angry and hurls his knife at the Delaware chief. The knife is deflected harmlessly by Hist, and Chingachgook throws a knife at Briarthorn, killing him instantly.

Natty Bumppo

See Deerslayer


Chingachgook, whose name means Great Serpent, is a close friend of Deerslayer. He is by blood a Mohican, but he grew up among the Delawares. His father was Uncas, a great Mohican warrior. Chingachgook is named for his "wisdom and prudence, and cunning," even though he is still a young man and is on his first warpath. He is steady, dignified, and loyal; he always comes to Deerslayer's aid, as when he pledges to try to rescue him from the Hurons even though the odds against him seem insurmountable. Chingachgook is also courteous and a man of few words. He has traveled from Delaware country to meet with Deerslayer so that together they can rescue Wah-ta!-Wah (called Hist), Chingachgook's bride-to-be, who has been abducted and taken to the Hurons. As the plan is executed, Chingachgook distinguishes himself for his resourcefulness and courage. He also shows that he is deeply in love with Hist and is extremely respectful of her, which surprises Hetty who thinks that Indians always mistreat their women.


Deerslayer, the hero of the tale, was raised by Moravian missionaries and lived for ten years among the Delawares. His real name is Natty Bumppo; he was given the nickname Deerslayer by the Delawares because of his prowess as a hunter. He respects their culture, and his great friend is the Delaware, Chingachgook. They have been hunting together for eight years.

Deerslayer is a few years younger than his friend Hurry March. He is about six feet tall, more slender than Hurry, but possessing great agility. Unlike Hurry, Deerslayer is not considered handsome, but his natural goodness is apparent in his appearance. His face gives the impression of "guileless truth, sustained by earnestness of purpose, and a sincerity of feeling, that rendered it remarkable." Deerslayer has a simple but unshakeable integrity, and everyone he meets quickly recognizes this. Deerslayer has had little formal education and is illiterate. But he does not regret it. He is a man of "strong, native, poetical feeling," and he loves the woods in which he feels completely at home. He has a keen appreciation of the beauty of nature, and everywhere he looks he sees the handiwork of the Creator.

He often points out that he reads the book of nature rather than any printed book, and from nature he acquires all the wisdom and knowledge he needs. Deerslayer has a highly developed moral sense. He seeks always to do the right thing and is clear in his mind about what that is. He is acutely aware of the requirements placed on him as a Christian man. Unlike Hutter and Hurry, for example, he refuses to take part in the practice of scalping, which he says may be lawful for an Indian but is not for a white man. He avoids killing whenever he can but will do so when he believes it is lawful and the situation demands it. For example, he kills Lynx only in self-defense. He has a reverence for life and kills deer only when food or skins for clothing are required. He does not believe in killing for sport, and he is bitterly repentant when just once he forgets his principles and shoots an eagle for the fun of it. "We should know when to use fire-arms, as well as how to use 'em," he says.

Having a straightforward nature, Deerslayer is true to his word, as is demonstrated by his honoring of the furlough given to him by the Hurons. He regards this as a moral duty, and duty "makes that which might otherwise be hard, easy, if not altogether to our liking."


See Wah-ta!-Wah

Thomas Hovey

See Thomas Hutter

Hetty Hutter

Hetty Hutter is Tom Hutter's simple-minded, naive stepdaughter. Innocent, vulnerable, and pious, she relies on her reading of the Bible for her moral compass. She has a love of truth and an intuitive grasp of what is right. She is distressed when her stepfather (whom she believes is her father) goes out with Hurry to take scalps. She abhors violence and has simple faith in the commandments not to kill and to forgive enemies. When the Hurons capture her father, Hetty goes to their camp to tell them about the Christian God who will punish them if they do not forgive their enemies. The Indians do not molest her because they regard such feebleminded creatures with a kind of religious awe.

Without guile, trusting and meek, Hetty is infatuated with Hurry March and thinks the world has never seen anyone more handsome or stronger or braver. However, Hurry barely gives her a second glance. Hetty is rather dominated by her sister Judith, who has an easier command of words, but sometimes Hetty is able to check Judith's impetuosity by the clarity of her moral sense "that [was] so deeply engrafted in all her own thoughts and feelings; shining through both, with a mild and beautiful lustre, that threw a sort of holy halo around so much of what she both said and did." The fact that Hetty is accidentally killed in the final melee shows clearly that she is too pure to survive in the harsh world of reality.

Judith Hutter

Judith Hutter is Tom Hutter's stepdaughter. She speaks pleasingly and has had a good education, for which she is indebted to her deceased mother rather than her illiterate stepfather. Twenty years old, Judith is known for her great beauty and has been much sought after by any man passing through the lake area since she was fifteen years old. Hurry says she is "full of wit, and talk, and cunning." According to the Delawares, Judith is "fair to look on, and pleasant of speech; but over-given to admirers, and light-minded." In other words, she is accustomed to the adulation of men. She is superficial and susceptible to flattery; she admires dashing soldiers and fine uniforms. At some point in the past, she had an affair with Captain Warley and now refuses to speak of him.

Judith also loves fine clothes for herself and immediately puts on the gorgeous dress that is found in Hutter's chest. She is vain and knows how beautiful she looks in it, although as soon as Deerslayer says it does not suit her she changes out of it, since she wants him to think well of her. She has, in fact, taken a fancy to Deerslayer from the moment she first set eyes on him. She much prefers Deerslayer to Hurry March, and she ignores the latter's attempts to befriend her. Hurry is intoxicated by her beauty, but she regards him with disdain. In the end, Judith is deeply hurt by Deerslayer's rejection of her bold proposal of marriage. She feels "Sorrow, deep, heart-felt sorrow," especially when she becomes aware that her reputation for being flighty has caused Deerslayer to be wary of her and unable to love her. It is with "a heart nearly broken by the consciousness of undue erring" that she says goodbye to him. Thus Judith becomes almost a tragic figure; the narrator describes her as "lovely but misguided."

Thomas Hutter

Thomas Hutter, whose original name was Thomas Hovey, is a former pirate who has lived in a virtual fortress facetiously known as Muskrat Castle on Lake Glimmerglass for fifteen years. He claims the entire lake for his own property and lives as a trapper. His wife has been dead for two years, and a son was killed some years earlier in a battle with the Indians, so all Hutter has left are his two daughters, Judith and Hetty. After Hutter's death, however, Deerslayer and the others find documents in an old chest owned by Hutter that reveal he is not the father of Hetty or Judith.

Hutter is direct in his speech and knows how to take decisive action. However, he is not exactly an admirable man. According to Hurry, he takes more after the ways of the muskrat than after any other creature. Hutter is ruthless, in part because of his long exposure to the harsh conditions of the wilderness. He lived in civilization before and appears to have had some education, the seeds of which "seemed to be constantly struggling upward, to be choked by the fruits of a life, in which his hard struggles for subsistence and security, had steeled his feelings and indurated his nature."

Although Hutter is not without goodness, which can be seen in the concern he shows over the welfare of his stepdaughters, he is also violent, greedy, and cruel; he thinks mostly of how he can gain from any given situation. For example, he goes on scalping expeditions, looking to scalp Indian women and children so that he can receive the bounty offered by the colony for Indian scalps.

Hutter eventually meets a violent death at the hands of the Hurons, who scalp him and stab him, leaving him to die slowly. He is mourned by Hetty but not by Judith.


Lynx is the Huron warrior killed by Deerslayer, who was acting in self-defense. Lynx was married to Sumach. It is Lynx, as he is dying, who bestows on Deerslayer the name Hawkeye.

Harry March

Harry March is a woodsman and friend of Tom Hutter and Deerslayer. His nickname is Hurry, acquired because of his quick, bold nature. Sometimes he is called Hurry Skurry, because of his "dashing, reckless, off-hand manner." He is constantly on the move. Hurry is somewhere between twenty-six and twenty-eight years old and stands six feet four inches. He is immensely strong and also very handsome, and he is confident and bold in his manner. He holds his opinions fiercely even though they are usually not well thought out or considered.

Hurry is a deeply flawed character. Deerslayer comments that he cares for no one but himself. Like Hutter, Hurry is greedy and sees only what he can gain from any situation. He lacks chivalry and will not "hazard the safety of his own person, unless he could see a direct connection between the probable consequences and his own interest." He is also prejudiced in his views about race. He thinks Indians are no more than half human and regards white men as the superior race. He has committed much violence against the Indians, and he quiets his conscience by arguing that Indians have no human rights. He gets angry when his opinions are challenged.

Hurry is also reckless. In one incident, he fires a random shot in the darkness and kills a young Indian girl who had been acting as a sentinel. He affects an indifferent manner following this act of reckless destruction.

Hurry is attracted to Judith and tries to woo her. But she never shows the slightest interest in him, a rejection he feels keenly. By contrast, Hetty is fond of Hurry. Even though she finds him "rough and rude," she is still captivated by him. She does not really know him well, however, since he lavishes all his attention on her sister.

When Deerslayer conveys to Hurry the Huron offer of an easy escape, he is only too willing to take it, as the Hurons, knowing his character, fully expected him to. As he heads for the garrison, he does not seem to be ashamed of deserting the others. He goes resentfully, angered by Judith's rejection of him, and "as is usual with the vulgar and narrow-minded, he was more disposed to reproach others with his failures, than to censure himself." No one is sorry to see him go except Hetty.


Rivenoak is the cunning old Huron chief. He is a skilled bargainer, as is seen when he negotiates with Deerslayer about the chess pieces. He is known for "eloquence in debate, wisdom in council, and prudence in measures." He admires Deerslayer's skill as a hunter and his fortitude under duress and does his best to persuade Deerslayer to become an adopted Huron, including trying various strategies to end Deerslayer's ordeal before it is too late. Eventually Rivenoak is captured by the British troops and taken to the ark.


Sumach is the widow of Lynx, the Huron warrior killed by Deerslayer, and the sister of the Panther, who is also killed by Deerslayer. Sumach's name is derived from a berry that has an acid taste, which gives a clue to her personality. She is not greatly liked by the Hurons. When Deerslayer is captured, he is offered Sumach, who is much older than he is, as a wife. When he refuses the offer, Sumach is insulted and attacks him, pulling fiercely at his hair. Sumach is killed in the final battle by the British troops that come to the rescue.


Wah-ta!-Wah is a beautiful Delaware girl, also known by the English version of her name, Hist-oh!-Hist, which is abbreviated to Hist. Hist is the betrothed of Chingachgook. Slightly older than Hetty Hutter, she possesses a bright smile and melodious voice, delicate features, and even teeth. She speaks some English because her father had been employed as a warrior by the colony authorities. She has tact and ingenuity and knows how, within the confines of her place as a young woman, "to attract the attention she desired, without wounding the pride of those to whom it was her duty to defer, and respect." Hist has a narrow escape when Tom Hutter, on a scalping expedition, tries unsuccessfully to scalp her. After Hetty comes in search of her captured father, Hist befriends her. She also shows her bravery by playing an active role in the attempted rescue of Deerslayer. She slips a knife to Judith and then bravely admits to it when she is challenged. She can also be outspoken, and she roundly abuses Briarthorn, the man who abducted her from the Delawares. This surprises the onlookers, who had been more accustomed to her gentle ways. Hist also deflects the knife that is thrown by Briarthorn at Chingachgook.

Captain Warley

Captain Warley is a thirty-five-year-old British military officer. He is a confirmed bachelor but also something of a womanizer. In the past he has had an affair with Judith Hutter, and when he sees her again after the British troops carry out their rescue mission, he is again struck by her beauty and thinks about taking up with her once more.


Initiation and Testing

The main theme of the novel is the initiation of the young man Deerslayer, his rite of passage into true manhood. At the beginning he is untried and untested, but he develops into an authentic hero who successfully faces all the challenges presented to him. Deerslayer has been given a civilized upbringing by the Moravian missionaries and the Delawares, and he has proved himself as a hunter, but he is not yet complete. He admits to Hurry March that there is no great valor in killing a deer. Now he must prove himself by going on his first warpath, with his friend Chingachgook, to rescue Hist, the Delaware's betrothed, from the Hurons. Unlike Hurry, his more experienced and ruthless companion, Deerslayer has never killed a man. His deadly encounter with Lynx is, therefore, of the greatest significance. During this incident, Deerslayer shows himself to be calm and self-possessed. He does not seek a quarrel with this Indian whom he encounters by chance, and he makes every effort to settle the matter peacefully. But when Lynx wrongly claims that one of the canoes belongs to the Indians, Deerslayer stands firm, insisting on the actual facts of the matter. He does not become angry, and he has no wish to kill, but he acts quickly when it becomes a matter of kill or be killed. Even then, he is courteous and considerate to the treacherous enemy Lynx, carrying the dying man to the lake, giving him water, taking his head in his lap and trying to comfort him in whatever way he can. He also refuses to scalp Lynx to gain a bounty from the colony, even though many would consider such an act to be legitimate. After the death of Lynx, Deerslayer refuses to exult or boast of his deed. He remains humble. Throughout this long incident he has behaved as a chivalrous warrior.

This key incident sets the tone for everything that follows. Immediately after the death of Lynx, Deerslayer behaves honorably toward the Indian he discovers in the canoe, allowing him to escape. He does not believe that the treachery of Lynx has somehow given him license to kill any Huron who crosses his path. But in the few days of adventure that follow, Deerslayer clearly demonstrates that he is a master of the art of legitimate warfare; he has the skill and the courage to excel. Yet he never sacrifices his principles. He refuses to go on a scalping expedition with Hurry and Hutter, because he does not regard scalping as a legitimate practice for a white man. In all things Deerslayer shows himself to be honest, patient, modest, pure-hearted, and loyal. He speaks the truth but does not speak hastily or without due consideration. He honors his word by returning from the furlough, even though on the surface this would appear not to be in his best interests. When he faces the ultimate test after being captured by the Hurons, he will not betray his friends to save his own life. Facing torture and imminent death, he remains stoic and self-possessed, never wavering for a moment, ready to endure whatever comes to him with courage and equanimity. Also, like the chivalrous hero of a medieval romance, Deerslayer proves his purity by resisting the female seductress in the form of Judith. He does not allow himself to be bewitched by her beauty or to fall victim to her many ploys to win his love. He remains true to himself and his calling as a hunter, a man of the woods, an adventurer, a free and independent man, a man who certainly has obligations to his fellow creatures but whose destiny is not to become a domesticated husband leading a routine, limited life.

Topics For Further Study

  • Research and make a class presentation on the history of the Lenape tribe (referred to in the novel as the Delawares). What happened to the Lenape during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? What were their relationships with the United States' government? Where do they live today?
  • Working with a partner, investigate the issue of Native American-themed mascots in high school and college sports teams. Why do Native Americans object to these? Make a class presentation in which you explain both sides of the issue.
  • As you read the novel, who did you find more sympathetic, Hetty or Judith? Why? Which character would make a better role model for young women today? Is Judith badly treated by Deerslayer? Is she superficial and vain, or is she a bold woman who knows her own mind? Write an essay in which you explore these topics.
  • Write an essay in which you explore the following question: Is Deerslayer too good to be true? Cooper wrote that he had wanted to show some of Deerslayer's weaknesses so as to present "a reasonable picture of human nature, without offering a ‘monster of goodness.’" Did he succeed? What weaknesses does Deerslayer exhibit, and how does he overcome them?
  • Research on the Internet the history and beliefs of the Moravians. Who were the Moravians? Since Deerslayer was raised by Moravians, what would he have learned from them? Write an essay on the topic.
  • Who is Leonard Peltier? What was the reason for the shoot-out on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975? Was it a modern version of the clashes between whites and Indians in the novel? Should Peltier be regarded as a political prisoner? Make a class presentation in which you discuss the case.

Clash of Values

There is a marked contrast in values between the characters, which fall broadly into two groups. In the first group are Deerslayer, Hetty Hutter, Chingachgook, and Hist. Deerslayer is a child of both civilization and wilderness who combines the best qualities of the two. He feels his being is in harmony with nature, but he is also aware of his obligations to God and his fellow man. Hetty Hutter, as an innocent who trusts in her Bible and her faith, who wishes no harm to come to anyone and who loves simply and well, is in some ways Deerslayer's female counterpart, although being simple-minded she lacks Deerslayer's intelligence, practicality, and competence. Chingachgook is the highest example of what an Indian can aspire to. He is not bound by the same divine laws as the Christian white man— it is no sin for Chingachgook, being an Indian, to indulge in scalping, for example, but the young Delaware possesses dignity, sagacity, and loyalty. He is willing to risk his life for his friend Deerslayer. Chingachgook also exhibits a deep and respectful love for Hist, showing her "a manly kindness, equally removed from boyish weakness and haste." For her part, Hist is aware of her duties ("patient and submissive as became a woman of her people"), but also she reveals nobility and courage, telling Chingachgook that she would never be able to laugh again should Deerslayer be killed by the Hurons without her and Chingachgook's trying to save him. She says of herself, "She would rather go back, and start on her long path alone, than let such a dark cloud pass before her happiness."

Set against these characters, who embody all the most noble and desirable character traits, are those in the second group, consisting of Thomas Hutter, Hurry March, and Judith Hutter. Hurry is Deerslayer's opposite in every way. He is "loud, clamorous, dogmatical," in contrast to Deerslayer's even, prudent temperament. Hurry puts his trust in material rather than moral or spiritual values. He adheres to no higher principles that might impede his reckless pursuit of his own interests, and he has no regard for the rights of others, especially Indians, whom he views with absolute contempt. He desires only personal gain and financial profit, and he shares these unattractive qualities with Thomas Hutter. A key incident takes place when Hurry and Hutter— the latter a ruthless, violent man—set out on their scalping expedition to the Huron camp. The narrator explains that they go because of "a heartless longing for profit." Hurry has a "habitual love of gold, which he sought with the reckless avidity of a needy spendthrift." As for Hutter, he is expecting to find only women and children in the camp, who will be easy prey for what he has in mind. When the two men are disappointed to find the camp empty, they go prowling around "as if they expected to find some forgotten child"—a poor innocent whom they could murder. When they fail to find anyone, they fall to quarreling fiercely with each other. Appropriately enough, Hutter meets a violent end when he is himself scalped, and Hurry reveals his lack of moral values when he prefers to take the easy way out and head to the British garrison rather than help Chingachgook and Hist rescue Deerslayer.

As for Judith, she resembles Hurry in the sense that she values superficial qualities. Just as Hurry puts his trust in his own physical strength—and when that fails he has no strong will to sustain him—Judith identifies mostly with the physical level of life. She knows her own beauty, she loves fine clothes, and her head is easily turned by a shiny military uniform on a British soldier. She thinks that the mere presence of beauty confers some kind of merit on a person. She therefore stands in clear contrast to Deerslayer and Hetty, for whom inner qualities are more important than outer ones.



The most prominent aspect of the setting is the lake, which has a symbolic as well as literal function in the novel. Together with the surrounding woods, Glimmerglass (Lake Otsego) represents the purity of nature, before the hand of man has touched it:

On a level with the point lay a broad sheet of water, so placid and limpid, that it resembled a bed of the pure mountain atmosphere, compressed into a setting of hills and woods.… the most striking peculiarities of this scene, were its solemn solitude, and sweet repose. On all sides, wherever the eye turned, nothing met it, but the mirror-like setting of the lake, the placid void of heaven, and the dense setting of wood.… The hand of man had never yet defaced, or deformed any part of this native scene, which lay bathed in the sunlight, a glorious picture of affluent forest grandeur, softened by the balminess of June, and relieved by the beautiful variety afforded by the presence of so broad an expanse of water.

The above is the description given when Deerslayer sees Glimmerglass for the first time. He is transfixed with wonder by the scene, which is as fresh and untouched as the day it was first created by God. It therefore represents origins, the primal reality, the pure wilderness that was present before the arrival of human civilization. As a backdrop to the action and adventure described in the novel, it represents a kind of transcendence, a reality far removed from the savagery of war and the specter of human greed. Glimmerglass is, therefore, an aspect of eternity present in the temporal world. It represents what never changes, no matter what turbulence takes place among humans. This level of symbolism becomes clear in the description of the scene after the massacre of the Hurons by the British soldiers:

When the sun rose the following morning, every sign of hostility and alarm had vanished from the basin of the Glimmerglass. The frightful event of the preceding evening had left no impression on the placid sheet, and the untiring hours pursued their course in the placid order prescribed by the powerful hand that set them in motion. The birds were again skimming the water, or were seen poised on the wing, high above the tops of the tallest pines of the mountains … In a word, nothing was changed.

Thus, Cooper suggests that human events are temporal, but there is something eternal and constant in nature, something that remains untouched and which refuses to record mortal strife.

Historical Romance

The novel belongs to the genre of romance. It has been variously described as an epic romance, a forest romance, an historical romance, and a pastoral romance. In romantic rather than realistic fiction, the characters and situations are more idealized and less true to real life. Medieval romance, for example, featured knights who went through a series of adventures—slaying monsters, for example— in which they proved their valor and their chivalry. In this respect Deerslayer, who has to prove himself on his first warpath, resembles a medieval knight.

Romances can often be allegorical, such as Edmund Spenser's verse romance, The Fairie Queene, in which virtues and vices are personified in the characters. The Deerslayer is allegorical in the sense that Hurry March and Hutter personify the qualities such as greed, violence, and selfishness, while Deerslayer personifies virtues such as courage, prudence, and integrity.

M. H. Abrams's description of prose romances in A Glossary of Literary Terms clearly puts The Deerslayer in that category. Such romances feature:

Simplified characters, larger than life, who are sharply discriminated as heroes and villains, masters and victims; the protagonist is often solitary, and isolated from a social context; the plot emphasizes adventure, and is often cast in the form of a quest for an ideal, or the pursuit of an enemy.

The novels of Sir Walter Scott and Nathaniel Hawthorne are also examples of prose romance.

Historical Context

French and Indian Wars

The historical background of The Deerslayer is the periodic conflict between English and French forces for control of the North American colonies. The War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748), was fought mostly in Europe, but for England the chief interest lay in its overseas conflict with France and Spain over trading and colonial ambitions. In North America this period is known as King George's War (1744-1748), the most notable feature of which was the capture by the English colonists of the French fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island. However, Louisbourg was handed back to the French in the peace settlement of 1748. King George's War was the third of what became known as the French and Indian wars; the Indians became involved by forming alliances either with the French or the English. Such conflicts with France continued until the decisive Seven Years War (1756-1763) in which England overthrew French power in Canada and established itself as the controlling colonial power in North America.

Indians and Cooper

For information about Indians in colonial America a hundred years earlier, Cooper turned to the work of a historian, John Heckewelder, whose book, Account of the History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations, Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighboring States, was published in 1819. Heckewelder was a Moravian missionary to the Delawares (also known as Lenape), and he developed great sympathy for and understanding of Delaware life and culture. Moravian missionaries from Germany had arrived in colonial Pennsylvania about 1740, working with the Delawares and traveling with them as they moved west. Many Delawares converted to Christianity. This historical fact helps to explain Deerslayer's background in the novel, since he was taught by Moravians and lived for ten years with the Delawares. It was Heckewelder who supplied Cooper with this background. Also, as Paul A. W. Wallace points out in "Cooper's Indians," it was Heckewelder who presented the model of Indians split into good and bad tribes that permeates not only The Deerslayer but also Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans. In the former group Heckewelder placed the Delawares and the Mohicans, presenting them in the tradition of the noble savage, a popular nineteenth-century idea about the innate nobility of indigenous people. Heckewelder heard and accepted the Delaware version of their history in which they were tricked by the Iroquois into disarming and becoming mediators and peacemakers with their Indian neighbors, following which the Iroquois induced other Indian tribes to attack the Delawares. This situation weakened the Delawares, greatly depleting their numbers, which explains the reference in The Deerslayer to the Delawares as "disparsed and diminished, that chieftainship among 'em has got to be little more than a name."

On the other side of the Indian divide, according to Heckewelder, were the Mingoes, or Iroquois (also known as the Five Nations and later the Six Nations), who were savage and treacherous. Following Heckewelder's lead, Cooper created Chingachgook as the chief representative of the noble, dispossessed Delawares, while Lynx, Rivenoak, and dozens of anonymous Indian warriors represent the treacherous Mingoes. Interestingly, although Cooper usually refers to the hostile Indians as Mingoes and Hurons, he once (at the beginning of Chapter 5), refers to them as Iroquois. This is an historical error, since the Iroquois were, in fact, allies of the English not the French during the French and Indian wars. Cooper was correct, however, in presenting the Hurons, who were allied with the French, as the enemy of the English and their allies. The Hurons were traditional enemies of the Iroquois.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1740s: Lake Otsego and its environs are visited only by a few hunters. Indians also visit the area, but no one Indian tribe lays claim to it. The first white pioneers of what will become Otsego County, New York, establish a settlement at Cherry Valley in 1739.

    1840s: Due to its many natural attractions of hills, valleys, streams, and lakes, the Otsego area gradually becomes established as a summer retreat. Great estates and houses are built there, and Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales make the area famous.

    Today: The town of Cooperstown, founded by James Fenimore Cooper's father in the 1780s and situated at the southern end of Lake Otsego, is a popular tourist destination. The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown attracts thirty thousand visitors each year.

  • 1740s: War between England and France includes skirmishes in the North American colonies. In 1745, the French attack and burn Saratoga, New York. Indian tribes maneuver for advantage by allying themselves to England or to France.

    1840s: Westward expansion of the United States results in battles between U.S. forces and various Indian tribes, as the government attempts to clear the way for further white expansion. These Indian wars continue into the 1880s.

    Today: According to the 2000 Census, 4.3 million people, or 1.5 percent of the total U.S. population, report that they are American Indian and Alaska Natives. The largest Indian tribes are Cherokee (302,569), Navajo (276,775), Sioux (113,713), and Chippewa (110,857). Twenty-six percent of American Indians live in poverty, according to the 2000 Census. About 34 percent of the American Indian and Alaska Native population live on reservations, officially known as American Indian areas.

  • 1740s: The United States of America does not exist. The American colonists of New England (Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire), the Middle Colonies (Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania) and the Southern Colonies (Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina) are subjects of the king of England. However, during the 1740s, an influx of Scottish and Irish immigrants following the failed Jacobite uprisings in England fuel anti-English sentiment. The colonies gradually grow more unified amongst themselves and less loyal to the English government.

    1840s: The U.S. population in 1840 is 17,069,453. Population growth and territorial expansion continue rapidly. In 1845, Texas joins the Union as the twenty-eighth state. In 1846, war with Mexico begins, and the United States annexes New Mexico, formerly part of Mexico. The Mexican War ends in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, under which Mexico cedes five hundred thousand square miles of its territory in the western and southwestern United States.

    Today: The 2006 Census estimates U.S. population as 297,821,175, which is up 2,713,518 or 0.9 percent from the previous year. The population increases by one person every fourteen seconds. The United States is the preeminent military power in the world but faces stern challenges from international terrorism and the rapid growth of illegal immigration.

Critical Overview

On publication, The Deerslayer received mostly favorable reviews, some of which are quoted in George Dekker's and John P. McWilliams's Fenimore Cooper: The Critical Heritage and others of which are cited in James Franklin Beard's "Historical Introduction" to the 1987 edition of the novel. Dekker and McWilliams quote an unsigned review in the New-York Mirror that presents an almost entirely

positive view of the novel: "He [Cooper] is the most original thinker of any of our American novelists … unrivalled in descriptive powers, and unapproached in the heartiness of his patriotic feelings." The reviewer praises Cooper's "sketches of Indian character" and adds that "throughout the work there is more knowledge of human nature and more successful delineation of character than Mr. Cooper has generally had credit for." The only fault in the novel that the reviewer brings attention to is in the way the relationship between Deerslayer and Judith is presented. It seemed unlikely to the reviewer that such an admirable young woman would throw herself at such a rough character as Deerslayer and that he would not have become aware of her feelings much sooner than he does. This criticism aside, the reviewer concludes that Cooper "has shown a genuine American feeling which is unfortunately too seldom met with in American writers."

Beard cites reviews in other American magazines that largely echo these sentiments. For example, he quotes The United States Magazine and Democratic Review as asserting that

by his admirable description and narrative talent, [Cooper] can keep the interest of his readers agreeably excited … recording the adventures and vicissitudes of not more than four or five days spent on the waters, and about the shore, of a little inland lake in the heart of the howling wilderness.

Beard also quotes from the English publication The Examiner, which declares that "The book is full of fine description and vigorous character; no compromise is made with the wild and savage features of the time or of the scene." This reviewer also notes that "The heroine of the tale is, perhaps, somewhat harshly dealt with," a verdict on the fate of Judith that other contemporary reviewers echo and which has been repeated by modern critics of the novel.


Bryan Aubrey

Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English. In this essay, he analyzes The Deerslayer in terms of the contrast between Deerslayer and Hurry Harry and what that signifies for the future of the American colonies, soon to become the United States of America.

Visitors in the early 2000s to the crowded Lake Otsego area, one of New York's popular tourist destinations, need an effort of the imagination to recreate for themselves Cooper's vision of the Glimmerglass, the pristine lake at the heart of the virgin wilderness where he set his final (although first in chronology) Leatherstocking Tale. As Cooper noted in his 1850 preface to The Deerslayer, it was not until 1760 that the first settlements appeared on the banks of Lake Otsego, so setting the story twenty years earlier than that gave him a sound basis for what in effect is a story about the origins of a nation, the choices it faces, the direction it is to take.

Many commentators remark on the symbolism of the Glimmerglass itself, the descriptions of which suggest a setting that is in some sense beyond time or change; it represents the eternity from which all temporal life emerges. The following description, which occurs as Deerslayer steers the ark, under the watchful, hostile eyes of the Hurons, to the rock where he is to meet Chingachgook, is typical:

It was a glorious June afternoon, and never did that solitary sheet of water seem less like an arena of strife and bloodshed. The light air scarce descended as low as the bed of the lake, hovering over it, as if unwilling to disturb its deep tranquility, or to ruffle its mirror-like surface. Even the forests appeared to be slumbering in the sun, and a few piles of fleecy clouds had lain for hours along the northern horizon, like fixtures in the atmosphere.

Everything here, from the tranquil water to the slumbering forests and the stationary clouds, contributes to the feeling of time arrested or not yet born. Yet in the midst of this lake, which is serenity and beauty, is already the presence of something else, some intrusion on pristine nature: the Muskrat Castle of Thomas Hutter. Tom's castle is a human dwelling rising up from the placid waters of the lake a full quarter of a mile from the nearest shore. So here are two aspects of life juxtaposed: nature untouched and nature already feeling the imprint of the human hand. Muskrat Castle is constructed as a fortress, much stronger and more formidable than the average log cabin of the era; it immediately suggests that now, the human world of opposing and competing values, of good and evil, with all its accompanying dangers, has arrived and taken up residence on the serene, undifferentiated surface of the lake. Indeed, the outer appearance of Muskrat Castle, because it is made up of logs of different sizes, is described as "rude and uneven"; it is as if the balance of nature has been upset.

When the reader gets to know Tom Hutter, it becomes clear how much disruption has been introduced into the natural order. Tom is an old rogue, a former buccaneer rumored to have associated with the notorious pirate Captain Kidd. He fled to the wilderness to escape the reach of the authorities and to cheat the hangman's noose. Lake Glimmerglass's first human guest is no Adam in a Garden of Eden. Although he treats his daughters well, Tom Hutter is a quarrelsome man whose previous dwellings were burned down on three occasions either by other hunters or Indians. Hutter reveals his character early in the story, with his bloodthirsty plan to scalp Indian women and children merely to collect the bounty offered by the colony. This is an example of humanity motivated by greed and material values to the exclusion of all decent feelings. As he puts it, "If there's women, there's children, and big and little have scalps; the Colony pays for all alike."

In this base desire to kill the innocent for monetary reward, Hutter is joined by Harry March, known for good reason as Hurry Harry. If there are two types of men who now wander in the formerly pristine wilderness, they are ably represented by Hurry, on the one hand, and Deerslayer, on the other. It is in the struggle between what these two represent that the soul of the emerging nation lies. The contrast between them is clearly and very deliberately laid out in the first three chapters. A clue lies in the first passage alluding to the two men, as they call out to each other in the woods: "The calls were in different tones, evidently proceeding from two men who had lost their way, and were searching in different directions for their path."

Different directions, indeed. As they talk with each other, Deerslayer declares it unlawful to take human life, except in warfare. Hurry, by contrast, takes the law into his own hands; he will kill anyone who robs him. (It saves the magistrates the trouble, he says.) Deerslayer has a religious sensibility that measures all things by how they conform to a moral law given by God. His thinking reflects his upbringing by the Moravian missionaries; he values truth above anything else. He even says that if Hurry were to kill any future husband of Judith (which Hurry says he would be prepared to do) he would inform on him to the colony, a comment which so angers Hurry that he seizes the younger man by the throat. Deerslayer remains calm and states his point again. They may be in the lawless woods, but that does not mean they are beyond the law of God: "there is a law, and a law maker, that rule across the whole continent. He that flies in the face of either, need not call me fri'nd." This religious attitude toward life shows itself again when Deerslayer, in stark contrast to Hurry, says he opposes the colony's practice of paying a bounty for the scalps of Indians. A law that runs counter to God's law should not be obeyed, he says. In contrast to Deerslayer's concern with God, law, and morality, Hurry thinks he has the right simply to do what he wants and take what he wants, regardless of obligations to others, whether human or divine. Unlike Deerslayer, he has little appreciation of the beauty of nature. When Deerslayer expresses his wonder at the loveliness of the lake, which soothes his mind, Hurry replies, "Lakes have a general character, as I say, being pretty much water, and land, and points, and bays." In other words, as far as Hurry is concerned, if you have seen one lake, you have seen them all. In contrast, Deerslayer's love of nature means that he is wary and even hostile to the spread of civilization, since he has seen some of the ill effects that such development brings. He tells Hurry that no one should be allowed to cut town timber without good reason, and he likes the fact that Glimmerglass has no name, "or at least no pale face name, for their christenings always foretel waste and destruction."

The differences between the two men are seen most tellingly in their attitude toward Indians. Hurry regards Indians as "half devil" and "half human." They are "murdering savages" who have "neither souls, nor reason." (When he utters the last remark he has apparently forgotten that only a couple of days earlier he had gone with Hutter to the Huron camp intending to murder women and children.) In contrast, Deerslayer, referring to the three races, white, black and Indian, replies, "God made all three, alike," although he allows each race its different "gifts," which means he is aware of cultural differences and does not judge the Indians adversely because their traditions and laws differ from those of the white man.

No modern reader with even a passing knowledge of Native American history since the coming of the white man can contemplate Hurry's sentiments, which are shared by Tom Hutter, without something of a shiver. Here are white settlers, proto-Americans still at this point under the British crown, declaring that Native Americans are less than human and regarding them as a "natural enemy," creatures that are "only a slight degree removed from the wild beasts that roam the woods." Bearing in mind the harsh policies and atrocities that would follow over the next century and a half, including massacres and even genocide of whole Indian tribes, it is hard not to be reminded, as twentieth-century European history has also reminded people, that defining another race as subhuman lays the groundwork for committing acts against them that would be unimaginable in any other circumstances. The differences between Hurry and Deerslayer, laid out so clearly in the first three chapters, are apparent throughout the remainder of the novel. Whereas Deerslayer is "thoughtful," Hurry is "reckless." Deerslayer kills a man for the first time when he has no choice; he kills in self-defense. Hurry, by contrast, in an act of "unthinking cruelty," shoots a Huron girl who was acting as a sentinel. On several occasions, Deerslayer has to restrain Hurry from killing Indians when the situation does not warrant it. For example, in chapter 15, Hurry wants to kill the Indian boy who has delivered the declaration of war. Since he only understands motives relating to personal gain, Hurry cannot grasp the moral principle that compels Deerslayer to honor his furlough and return to the Hurons. Also, unlike Deerslayer, Hurry is not bound by feelings of loyalty and thinks nothing of deserting Hetty and Judith and returning to the garrison.

Here then, in the land that would within two generations become the United States of America, are two distinct types of men, with two radically different approaches to life. They are like the seeds that will determine how the young nation will develop and the principles that will govern its conduct. Although adventures in the wilderness of New York province in the 1740s may at first seem remote from the world of the twenty-first century, perhaps the thoughtful reader of The Deerslayer might consider the possibility that these representative types live on in the United States of the early 2000s: on the one hand, the determination to meet one's responsibilities to others, to the environment, and to God, and, on the other hand, the belief in the primacy of the individualistic for-profit motive, the valuing of self-interest above all. In the 1740s, this was the concern only of the American colonies; in the early 2000s, since the United States is the global superpower whose actions have effects far beyond its borders, it is the concern of all people around the world. What then is the essential soul of the United States: the humble, modest sincerity and truth of a Deerslayer, with his respect for nature and other cultures, or the recklessness of a Hurry Harry, who sees only what he wants and is aware of no moral law that might prevent him from seizing it?

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on The Deerslayer, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.

Donald Darnell

In the following essay, Darnell explores social hierarchy and the tragedy that can follow aspirations to rise above "one's place."

The Deerslayer: Cooper's Tragedy of Manners

Beginning with D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature in 1922, criticism of The Deerslayer for more than fifty years has ultimately examined it as a romance, emphasizing its mythic and pastoral qualities. While the persistence of this approach is not surprising considering the quest plot and Edenic setting of the work, what is remarkable is the absence of commentary on the strong textual evidence of a radically different dimension of the novel. This other dimension is most sharply focused in the ninth chapter when, following their rendezvous with Chingachgook and escape from the Hurons, Deerslayer explains to Judith Hutter an expected sound in the water:

What Do I Read Next?

  • The Last of the Mohicans, first published in 1826, is the most famous of Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. Set in 1757, it describes the adventures of Deerslayer, now called Hawkeye, during the French and Indian wars. Hawkeye roams again in upper New York state with Chingachgook and also with Uncas, Chingachgook's son. The story contains the familiar mix of battle, pursuit, capture, and escape, and a dramatic massacre of an English garrison by Indians.
  • Sir Walter Scott's historical romance, Ivanhoe (1819), is set in medieval England. Ivanhoe, the great chivalrous knight, returns from the Crusades in disguise and goes through many adventures that bring him into contact with the likes of Robin Hood and King Richard the Lion- Hearted before he ends up happily married to a noble lady.
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne's psychological romance, The Scarlet Letter (1850), which is considered the masterpiece of this great American novelist, is set in Boston in the early days of the Massachusetts colony. It tells the story of a woman's adulterous relationship with a clergyman and explores issues of sin and spiritual redemption.
  • 500 Nations: An Illustrated History of North American Indians (new edition, 2002), by Alvin M. Josephy Jr., tells the stories of the diverse Indian nations of North and Central America, going back to the ancient Maya and Olmec civilizations of Mexico. Of particular relevance to readers of The Deerslayer are the sections that show how the lives of North American Indians were irreversibly changed by contact with white traders.

"Sartainly something did move the water, oncommon like; it must have been a fish. Them creatur's prey upon each other like men, and animals on the land; osne has leaped into the air, and fallen hard, back into his own element. 'Tis of little use, Judith, for any to strive to get out of their elements, since it's natur' to stay in 'em, and natur' will have its way.'"

Readers familiar with previous Leather-Stocking Tales will be inclined to identify Deerslayer's speech as another of his characteristic sententious commonplaces. In point of fact, however, Cooper with conscious artistry has metaphorically identified a central conflict in The Deerslayer and developed the leitmotiv that structures and organizes one half the novel. Natty's remark is about knowing one's place, and The Deerslayer, its rich romantic, mythic, and pastoral elements notwithstanding, is, in a very substantial way, about social hierarchy and class, and the tragedy inherent in attempts to rise above one's social position. Cooper had ridiculed levelers and climbers earlier in Homeward Bound and Home as Found and would attack them with scathing sarcasm in the Littlepage trilogy and subsequent works. But in The Deerslayer he discovers that frustrated social aspiration can also be a source of tragedy and in the process creates his most memorable heroine in Judith Hutter.

The appearance of such a theme in a romance of the forest is incongruous, to say the least. Yet, the evidence is there in The Deerslayer's romantic world interpenetrated throughout by the assumptions, values, and mores appropriate to the novel of manners. Equally paradoxical is the fund of information about propriety, appropriateness of dress to social rank, and the dangers of attempting to rise above one's class—in short about manners, shared by persons with the most unlikely claims to such knowledge: Tom Hutter, Harry March, even Deerslayer. The result, then, is a striking and paradoxical fusion of romantic and novelistic worlds in which the values of the latter determine the fate of the heroine and give this last novel of the Leather- Stocking Tales, the most idyllic work Cooper wrote, its dark and somber cast. In an Edenic setting with a plot of violent forest warfare in which killing, scalping, and torture are the rule, the author finds his most tragic effects resulting from a young woman's frustrated social aspirations—the favorite subject of that most civilized of genres, the novel of manners.

The problem of manners is introduced early in chapter 1 in the dialogue between Deerslayer and Harry March concerning Judith Hutter's behavior when officers from the forts on the Mohawk visit the Glimmerglass. To March's declaration that Judith seems "beside herself," wearing finery and giving herself airs with "the gallants," Deerslayer observes that such conduct is "unseemly in a poor man's darter, … the officers are all gentry, and can only look on such as Judith with evil intentions." As precise knowledge of the ways of the social world is not typical information stored in the minds of Adamic heroes, one might well ask whence comes such wisdom to this child of nature. It is obvious that here and throughout the novel Cooper uses Deerslayer as the spokesman for his themes of the conflict between manners and morals, returning to a theme he had introduced twenty years earlier in The Spy, his first American novel.

In that work, the American Sarah Wharton, gentry herself, is bewitched by the savior-faire of the English officer Colonel Wellmere, who has a wife in England but is not deterred from marrying an attractive American girl of means. The wedding between Wellmere and Sarah is aborted, however, by the deus ex machina intervention of Harvey Birch. In The Deerslayer Cooper found the theme of betrayal across class lines still a powerful subject for literary examination, but in twenty years his perception of the theme had significantly deepened and his treatment had become more effective.

The dialogue between March and Deerslayer that introduces the theme of class differences also establishes "gallant" as synonymous with upper-class seducer of lower-class girls. "Gallant" and its synonyms "officer" and "gentry" appear throughout the novel in a highly specialized context to indicate members of a separate social class with a penchant for seduction and betrayal. With the exception of Hetty Hutter, every white character in the novel is aware of the connotation. The implications of the term established early, Cooper develops his theme of social aspiration and its consequences in the emphasis he gives to Judith's involvement with the gallants of the garrison. Having spent her winters in the neighborhood of the fort, Judith has "caught more than is for her good, from the settlers, and especially from the gallantifying officers," Harry tells Deerslayer. According to Hetty "Judith likes soldiers, and flaring coats, and fine feathers.… She says the officers are great, and gay, and of soft speech …" Tom Hutter admits his daughter has been "spoilt by the flattery of the officers who sometimes find their way up here …" What confirms beyond question the seriousness and significance of Judith's relationship with the officers, however, is Cooper's own assessment of her conduct, especially its implications in the social world: "She had many causes deeply to regret the acquaintance—if not to mourn over it, in secret sorrow—for it was impossible for one of her quick intellect not to perceive how hollow was the association between superior and inferior, and that she was regarded as the play thing of an idle hour, rather than as an equal and a friend, by even the best intentioned and least designing of her scarletclad admirers."

The passage is particularly important to the theme of the novel. It analyzes the caste system, continues the scarlet coat metaphor that permeates all discussions pertaining to rank and class, and sounds the motif of betrayal, the basis for the somber and tragic tone of the novel. It is significant that Cooper's assessment of Judith's plight precedes by only a page the quotation which introduced this study: "'Tis of little use, Judith, for any to strive to get out of their elements, since it's natur' to stay in 'em, and natur' will have its way."

Three chapters later nature has its way as Judith excitedly dons the beautiful brocaded gown from Hutter's chest, a gown that appears to have been made for her. While the ostensible reason for opening the locked chest is to secure articles to ransom Hutter and Harry March from the Hurons, Cooper uses the situation to discuss the validity of social separation. Consequently, chapter 12 becomes a key chapter in establishing the theme of caste and the important symbols and motifs which advance it. The reader learns that the large chest, which has never been opened in Judith's presence, had stood "a sort of tabooed relic before her eyes, from childhood to the present hour." When she attempts to open it she feels "resisted in an unhallowed attempt by some supernatural power." Having described the awe Judith feels regarding the chest, Cooper gives a detailed description of two articles found there, a scarlet coat and a beautifully brocaded gown. The coat with buttonholes worked in gold thread is "not military, but … part of the attire of a civilian of condition, at a period when social rank was rigidly respected in dress." Urged by Judith to try on the coat, Deerslayer is incredulous that she wishes to see him in a "coat fit for a lord," and he refuses, declaring his gifts are his own, and he will live and die in them. More important to the social theme of the novel is the description of Judith's response to the gown and the dialogue it elicits: "Her rapture was almost childish, nor would she allow the enquiry to proceed, until she had attired her person in a robe so unsuited to her habits and her abode." Precisely why the gown is inappropriate is explained by Deerslayer. Judith should not keep the gown because "there's gifts in clothes, as well as in other things." His elaboration on this point comes by analogy from his own knowledge of Indian practice:

"Now I do not think that a warrior on his first path, ought to lay on the same awful paints as a chief that has had his virtue tried, and knows from exper'ence he will not disgrace his pretentions. So it is with all of us, red or white. You are Thomas Hutter's darter, and that gownd was made for the child of some governor, or a lady of high station, and it was intended to be worn among fine furniture, and in rich company. In my eyes, Judith, a modest maiden never looks more becoming, than when becomingly clad, and nothing is suitable that is out of character."

Explicit as the dialogue and authorial commentary are, when examined in light of subsequent events in the novel, they raise important questions of interpretation: Specifically, where does Cooper stand on the issue of natural "gifts" vis-à-vis one's position in the social hierarchy, an issue that must be addressed in any final evaluation of the novel? The issue becomes further complicated when Cooper invests Judith Hutter's story of aspiration with tragedy and gives what might appear as an incidental plot embellishment a significant meaning in its own right. For if The DeerslayerThe First War-Path—is about Natty Bumppo's quest for a name in the heroic world, it is no less about Judith Hutter's search for identity in the social world. The reader will recall that the scalped and dying Tom Hutter tells Judith and Hetty he is not their real father and orders them to search his chest for information of their parentage. At this revelation Judith feels "an uncontrollable impulse of joy" and forbears to question Hutter further "lest something he should add, in the way of explanation, might disturb her pleasing belief that she was not Thomas Hutter's child." She grasps this notion and maintains it with passion to Harry March, who refers to her as Hutter's daughter: "I cannot tell you, Harry, who my father Was.… I hope he was an honest man, at least." With this expectation of finding an honest father, Judith again searches Hutter's chest in chapter 24, as crucial an initiation chapter for her as chapter 7 is for Deerslayer.

Within the chest, Judith and Deerslayer discover a small locked trunk. Forcing the lock, they find letters, fragments of manuscripts, and documents, all with the signatures carefully cut out and all names erased. Nor are there any addresses. In the account that follows, Cooper details his tragedy of class. Judith is gratified by the first group of letters, correspondence between her mother and her maternal grandmother indicating gentility and position. As she reads on, however, she discovers warnings and admonitions from the mother to the absent daughter in a letter coldly commenting on the "propriety of the daughter's indulging in as much intimacy, as had evidently been described in one of the daughter's own letters, with an officer ‘who came from Europe, and who could hardly be supposed to wish to form an honorable connection in America’."

The next packet of letters, those by Judith's father to her mother, while "filled with the protestations of love [and] written with passion," exhibit "that deceit which men so often think it justifiable to use to the other sex." In them Judith discovers "a few points of strong resemblance between these letters and some it had been her own fate to receive." This "sad history of gratified passion, coldness, and finally of aversion" concludes after alluding to the births of Judith and Hetty and recording the mother's anguish at her lover's desertion. Thus Judith, the aspirant for a position and for recognition among the gallants of the garrison, discovers again the solid barriers of class. Her own mother, a genteel woman whose station in life was far higher than Judith's, was herself rejected by an English officer who would not marry a Colonial. The letters between her parents are but the prologue to the sordid story of the relationship between her mother and Thomas Hutter explained in the next packet of letters Judith examines. In that correspondence, arranged "letter and answer, side by side," Judith learns that her mother made the first advances toward a marriage with Hutter, an ex-buccaneer with a price on his head. Hutter's letters, "coarse and illiterate," express a willingness to overlook her mother's "great error" for the "advantage of possessing one, every way so much his superior, and, who, it also appeared was not altogether destitute of money." In what has amounted to a nightmare vision, a descent into the underworld analogous to Ike McCaslin's reading of the old McCaslin ledgers with their history of bondage, miscegenation, and incest in Faulkner's The Bear, Judith has pondered her mother's fate and her own destiny. She discovers class hierarchy, seduction, betrayal, and desertion with impunity by one's social betters—all of which actions have their basis in the social world, the source of Judith's tragedy.

Overwhelmed by this knowledge of her mother's past, yet unaware at this point that it foreshadows her own destiny, Judith, purged of social aspiration, turns to Deerslayer as one who will be faithful in a false world. Despite the fact that Deerslayer does not recognize her feeling for him nor understand that she has posed the possibility of marriage, Judith is not defeated. Rather she plans to win his love by rescuing him from the Hurons, to whom he must return at noon to honor his furlough. Joining "fertility of invention" and "decision and boldness" of character with reliance on her own and the Hurons' class sense, she dons the brocaded gown and demands Deerslayer's release by pretending to be an emissary from the English Queen. Except for Hetty's identification of Judith as her sister, the plan would have succeeded.

With the introduction of Captain Thomas Warley, Judith's former lover, who leads the rescue party from the fort, Cooper gives his final underlining to the theme of social hierarchy and social barriers. In a conversation with a junior officer, Warley, the arch-gallant of the garrison, resplendent in red coat, expounds the code of the wardroom, providing a dramatic illustration of Cooper's theme. He speaks for all "gentlemen," himself explicitly, for Judith's real father implicitly. "A hard featured, red faced, man, of about five and thirty; but of a military carriage, and with an air of fashion that might easily impose on the imagination of one as ignorant of the world, as Judith," Warley will make capital out of the expedition: "It shall not be my fault if she [Judith] is not seen and admired in the Parks!" To his ensign's question whether he contemplates matrimony, Warley answers, "I do suppose there are women in the colonies, that a captain of Light Infantry need not disdain; but they are not to be found up here, on a mountain lake; or even down on the Dutch river where we are posted." He "would not marry a princess, unless she were handsome," nor would he marry a handsome woman if she were a beggar. He concludes, "We are not a marrying corps."

The dialogue establishes the raison d'être of gallants. Against such a view and the overwhelming attraction of class, innocence and impressionable beauty are no match. A more accomplished woman would not have been seduced. None of Cooper's ladies, who know their own identities—an Eve Effingham or an Anneke Mourdaunt—would have been attracted. But when Judith seeks the identity of her real father, she discovers a gallant of the garrison who seduced and deserted her mother, and caused her out of desperation and a desire for vengeance to marry a man far beneath her. In the "wardroom scene" the reader discovers the reembodiment of Judith's father in Captain Warley.

But though Judith can now properly evaluate the Warleys of the world, her fate is to be linked with them. Sincerely preferring the honesty and moral worth of Deerslayer, she is nevertheless rejected by him because of her former intimacy with Warley and his own commitment to the heroic life. Alone in the forest world, she turns to her former lover, not out of attraction but out of a need to survive. At the novel's conclusion, fifteen years after her farewell to Deerslayer, we have our last word of Judith. An old sergeant at a garrison on the Mohawk who has recently returned from England informs Deerslayer, now Hawkeye, that "Sir Robert [Thomas] Warley lived on his paternal estates, and that there was a lady of rare beauty in the Lodge, who had great influence over him, though she did not bear his name." While the hero has lived up to his own nom de guerre and has an identity won on the shores of the Glimmerglass, Judith is still without a name.

Despite its finely rendered conclusion—the return of Deerslayer and Chingachgook fifteen years later to the scene of their first warpath, their discovery of the ruined castle and the stranded ark, and Deerslayer's inquiry after Judith—there is something troubling about the novel. Ideas introduced and dramatically rendered have not been worked out to their logical conclusions nor examined fully for their implications. If "'Tis of little use … for any to strive to get out of their elements, since it's natur' to stay in 'em, and natur' will have its way," has Judith Hutter not, in fact, followed nature? The point the novel makes again and again is that nature does have its way. Judith was clearly born for the drawing room and boudoir, not the solitude of the forest. She instinctively aspires to what is her natural realm—the social world. And while Cooper understands this, he cannot bring himself to forgive her presumption and provides constant reminders of her ill-advised departures from her place.

When the reader reexamines the account of Judith's discovery of the brocaded gown in light of subsequent events in the novel, he perceives the tension between Cooper's antipathy to social aspiration and his recognition of his heroine's legitimate claims to position in the social world. As Cooper speaking through Deerslayer explains: "There's gifts in clothes, as well as in other things.… You are Tom Hutter's darter, and that gownd was made for the child of some governor … and nothing is suitable that is out of character." Yet a few pages earlier Cooper in his own voice comments, "The dress happened to fit the fine, full, person of Judith, and certainly it had never adorned a being better qualified by natural gifts, to do credit to its really rich hues and fine texture" (italics added). The argument of gifts becomes complex when Judith wears the gown into the Huron camp while posing as an emissary of the English Queen. By the hero's own admission "'Twas a bold idee, and fit for a general's lady." The irony is compounded when the reader recalls Deerslayer's first sight of Judith in the gown at the Muskrat Castle: "I do'n't know a better way to treat with the Mingos, gal … than to send you ashore, as you be, and to tell 'em that a queen has arrived among 'em!" And it is precisely as a queen that Judith acts—adding courage and resolution to beauty. The awe with which Judith is regarded by the Indians (always unerring judges of character in Cooper's fiction) and Cooper's own commentary further complicate the issue: "Judith, in addition to her rare native beauty, had a singular grace of person, and her mother had imported enough of her own deportment, to prevent any striking or offensive vulgarity of manner; so that, sooth to say, the gorgeous dress might have been worse bestowed in nearly every particular. Had it been displayed in a capital, a thousand might have worn it, before one could have been found to do more credit to its gay colors, glossy satins, and rich laces, than the beautiful creature whose person it now aided to adorn."

Perhaps the proper gloss on this conflicting and confusing treatment of Judith Hutter is the commentary of another American also interested in the implications of rank and class, the letter of Thomas Jefferson to John Adams on the true aristocracy (October 28, 1813). In that letter Jefferson poses the qualities of genius and virtue to Adams's claims for birth, beauty, and wealth as the qualities necessary for aristocracy. Her lack of wealth and her sexual intimacy with Warley notwithstanding, Judith would seem to satisfy admirably the criteria of both men. Like Henry James, Cooper has endowed his heroine with natural beauty, grace, intelligence, boldness, courage, loyalty, and style (both natural and learned). Yet he has made it unmistakably clear that these qualities do not outweigh "low birth" and to think and act otherwise, to aspire to rise, is to know frustration and grief. In fact there is strong reason for believing that Judith is punished more for her social presumption than for her intimacy with Warley. So committed to pointing out the impropriety of transgressing class lines (no matter the quality of the aspirant), Cooper allows a double standard for sexual conduct. There is no explicit indictment of Warley by Cooper, nor does he risk complicating his presentation of the gallants of the garrison by making the kind of distinction between a Christian and a gentleman he makes in subsequent novels. The reader is left finally with the story of a young woman whose punishment exceeds her guilt. To his credit Cooper has made her fall comprehensible and forgivable, skillfully showing that the attraction the red coat held for both Judith and her mother was its symbolization of the beau monde they by their "gifts" and training were meant to inhabit. Their tragedy was that the Warleys were such inferior embodiments of their aspirations.

Perhaps Cooper's decision not to judge the Warleys himself stemmed from his instinct as a novelist which led him to recognize the dramatic effect to be achieved from Judith's rendering the judgment out of her feelings of frustration and anger. Whatever his motive, Cooper's decision results in the portrayal of a more fully developed heroine and a further underlining of his theme of class separation. For it is in those speeches denouncing the gallants of the garrison, in which scarlet coats and betrayal are always inextricably linked, that Judith emerges as Cooper's most passionate character: "if all men had as honest tongues [as Deerslayer], and no more promised what they did not mean to perform, there would be less wrong done in the world, and fine feathers and scarlet cloaks would not be thought excuses for baseness and deception!" More telling is the judgment she makes between the scalping mission of Hutter and March against the Hurons and the false promises of the officers: "Men will be men, and some even that flaunt in their gold and silver, and carry the king's commission in their pockets, are not guiltless of equal cruelty."

Desire for the richer life, the attraction of elegance and scarlet coats, seduction, class barriers, and betrayal—these are the themes that stir The Deerslayer no less than warpaths, courage, truth-telling,

loyalty, and mythic quests. It is significant that in his last novel to treat his forest hero Cooper gave the conflict of manners and classes—a theme explored earlier in Precaution, The Spy, and Home novels—a tragic dimension in the portrayal of a lovely young woman destroyed by her society's assumptions about class. Though she speaks of her own feeblemindedness, Hetty Hutter provides the epigraph for Judith's story: "'Tis hard to live in a world where all look upon you as below them."

Source: Donald Darnell, "Deerslayer: Cooper's Tragedy of Manners," in James Fenimore Cooper: Novelist of Manners, Associated University Presses, 1993, pp. 58-67.


Abrams, M. H., A Glossary of Literary Terms, 4th ed., Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1981, p. 120.

Beard, James Franklin, "Historical Introduction," in The Deerslayer or, The First War-Path, State University of New York Press, 1987, pp. xlvi, xlviii.

Cooper, James Fenimore, The Deerslayer or, The First War-Path, "Historical Introduction" and Explanatory Notes by James Franklin Beard, State University of New York Press, 1987.

Dekker, George, and John P. Williams, eds., Fenimore Cooper: The Critical Heritage, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973, pp. 205-06.

Wallace, Paul A. W., "Cooper's Indians," in James Fenimore Cooper: A Re-Appraisal, edited by Mary Cunningham, New York State Historical Association, 1954, pp. 447-556.

Further Reading

Darnell, Donald, James Fenimore Cooper: Novelist of Manners, Associated University Presses, 1993, pp. 58-67.

Darnell argues that in addition to its mythic and pastoral elements, The Deerslayer is about social hierarchy and class and the inability of a person to rise above his or her social position.

Long, Robert Emmet, James Fenimore Cooper, Continuum, 1990, pp. 120-31.

Long analyzes The Deerslayer in terms of the failure of the characters to connect material and spiritual reality. He also shows how all the characters are tested and subjected to judgment.

Railton, Stephen, Fenimore Cooper: A Study of His Life and Imagination, Princeton University Press, 1978.

In a study that encompasses all of Cooper's creative life, Railton argues specifically that this novel's themes are rite of passage and the right of possession. Deerslayer is constantly confronted with the question of which authority to obey and which to resist.

Ringe, Donald A., James Fenimore Cooper, updated edition, Twayne's United States Authors Series, No. 11, Twayne Publishers, 1988, pp. 64-69.

Ringe regards The Deerslayer as the best of the Leatherstocking Tales for its complexity of meaning and its affirmation of the value of American life.

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The Deerslayer

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