The Light in the Forest

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The Light in the Forest

by Conrad Richter


A novel sel in Pennsylvania and wilderness to the west (in present-day Ohio) in 1765; published in 1953.


A boy who has been raised by Delaware Indians is forced to return to his while parents and finds himself caught between two worlds.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

A native of Pine Grove, Pennsylvania, Conrad Richter (1890-1968) had a natural love for the woodsy countryside in which he grew up and a deep appreciation of the region’s history. As both a journalist and a novelist, he focused on the lives of pioneers and American Indian tribes affected by colonial expansion. Richter had deep feelings for both the Indians and the immigrant-pioneers and saw a distinct connection between American events in the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. The Light in the Forest reveals the adverse impact that immigrant development had on native peoples and landscapes. Through the novel, Richter attempted to show that U.S. domination of third world countries in the 1950s was producing many of the same negative results as the colonization of the American wilderness in the 1750s.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Lenapes

The Lenape, or Delaware, Indians thrived in the mid-Atlantic region of North America, which they called “Lenapehoking,” for more than three thousand years. By approximately 700 a.d. they had developed a culture and lifestyle that would persist until European settlers arrived on the East Coast in the 1500s.

The Lenapes lived in small independent communities located on waterways of the region. These communities are thought to have been made up of clans, or family groups, based on the mother’s family lineage. In Lenape society, children took the last name of their mother rather than their father, and all property belonged to the females. While males served as chiefs, leadership was usually transferred in such a way that the leadership of the community remained in the mother’s family line.

The Lenapes farmed, hunted, fished, and trapped for food and trade. Women performed most of the farming and domestic chores, while men took care of hunting, fishing, and trading duties. A religious people, they held deep spiritual beliefs based on the worship of nature. They developed the land only to a limited degree and killed no more than was needed to survive.

The Lenape people built permanent dwellings—wigwams and longhouses—and planted various crops (corn, beans, pumpkins, squash, and tobacco). But the men also migrated with the seasons, to follow herds and to fish. Women and children often went along on these trips, leaving the elderly behind in the village.

The Lenapes, who centered their lives around the family, highly valued children and showed deep respect for elders. Because the Lenapes prized the family so greatly, the premature death of a child often prompted the parents to adopt an outside child—usually a white boy or girl taken during a raid on a colonial township. They proceeded to raise the child as a full-blooded clan member. In The Light in the Forest, True Son is an example of an adopted child taken to replace a deceased son. Raised as a full member of the clan, he comes to cherish his family and culture. His unwillingness to adapt to a colonial lifestyle when forced to return to white society illustrates the strong bonds formed in such relationships and the vast differences between the colonial and Lenape cultures.


Often the Lenapes were cheated outright. In a well-recorded incident known as “The Walking Purchase.” Lenapes were forced to sell William Pern’s sons as much land as could be walked on in one-and-a-half days. Hiring professional runners and clearing a road beforehand, the Penns acquired more than twice the land the Lenapes intended to sell.


The Lenapes experienced peace and prosperity until Europeans arrived in North America in 1524. Dutch, English, French, and Swedish colonists, lured to the New World by promises of instant wealth, religious freedom, and unlimited opportunity, competed for land throughout the mid-Atlantic region. They drove the Lenapes further and further west, out of Lenapehoking and into the wilderness of present-day Ohio. By 1650 there were more than five thousand Europeans in the region, and over the next hundred years their members would grow to 750,000. Meanwhile, Lenape numbers drastically declined due to diseases such as smallpox and measles, warfare, and alcoholism—all elements that were introduced or intensified by contact with the Europeans. By 1700 the Lenape population had dwindled from 24,000 to less than 3,000.

European immigrants took Lenape land by barter and by force. Superior in number and military strength, the immigrants physically drove the Indians from their land and purchased property—most often paying nominal fees because the Lenapes did not comprehend land ownership in the same way as Europeans. The Lenapes believed they retained hunting, fishing, and migrating rights on the land they sold because, according to their faith, all land belonged to the Creator, Kishelemukong. People could develop the land but no one could “own” the earth—that was as ludicrous a concept to the Lenapes as owning a star. When the Lenapes were killed for hunting on or traveling through sold land, however, they realized they had made a fatal mistake in selling the land. By the 1760s most of the Lenape homeland had been lost to the European settlers.

French and Indian War, 1754-1763

Pushed back into the wilderness that became present-day Ohio, the Lenapes established a trading partnership with French fur traders who trapped there. When armed conflict erupted in 1754 between Great Britain and France—a clash that became known as the French and Indian War—the Lenapes of the Ohio River Valley naturally sided with the French. Lenape warriors were among those who killed British General Edward Brad-dock at Fort Duquesne in an early French victory. Soon they began raiding English townships in their former homeland in Pennsylvania. Terrorizing English settlers, the Lenape raiders drove them from western Pennsylvania and back east across the Allegheny Mountains.

British troops greatly outnumbered the Lenape and French forces, however, and it seemed likely that they would eventually gain the upper hand in the conflict. Aware of this, the Lenapes signed a peace treaty in 1758. They agreed to stop the fighting and return all prisoners taken during colonial raids (a term of the treaty that was not followed through on until several years later). The truce with the Lenapes helped the British troops to defeat the French. They captured Fort Duquesne (which they renamed Fort Pitt) and pushed the French north, out of the Ohio River Valley, effectively ending the war in 1763.

The 1763 Paxton Boys massacre

After the war ended, British troops remained in the Ohio River Valley and Lenape territory. As a result, area tribes led by Chief Pontiac of the Ottawas rallied and attacked in an attempt to oust the British from Indian land once and for all. They captured three key forts, including Fort Pitt, and killed and captured many English settlers. Unable or unwilling to fight the tribes on their territory, the British responded by killing innocent Indians who lived among them in Pennsylvania. A notorious group known as the Paxton Boys murdered a band of unarmed Conestogo Indians—including their children—who had not been involved in any of the fighting. The incident inspired others to attack peaceful Indians throughout the colonies, outraging the tribes of the area. In The Light in the Forest, True Son is forced to live with his birth family in Paxton, but detests the town and its citizens because of this incident. The Pax-ton massacre is legendary among his clan and is recalled to reinforce their hatred for colonists.

Bouquet expeditions

Fighting against part of Pontiac’s forces, Colonel Henry Bouquet, a Swiss officer in the British army, attacked and defeated a group made up largely of Lenapes at Bushy Run in August 1764. From there, he led a series of successful forays against the Lenapes. In November 1764 he forced the Lenapes to surrender and return all prisoners taken since the start of the war in 1754. The prisoner return that had been promised in the treaty of 1758 finally occurred in 1765. This was more than ten years after many of the prisoners had been captured. Most of the young prisoners, like the character of True Son, had lived the bulk of their lives as Lenapes and did not want to return to their European families. Bouquet enforced the terms of surrender, however, and “weeping Indian families led crying children or gently pushed sullen, reluctant teenagers toward waiting soldiers, church officials, and families of settlers hoping to recognize and reclaim loved ones lost to Indian raiders” (Grumet, pp. 59-60).

The Novel in Focus

The plot

As the novel opens, fifteen-year-old True Son is being sent back to his white parents after living for eleven years with his Lenape Indian family. True Son’s Lenape father and mother, Cuyloga and Quaquenga, are the only family he has known, and he is terribly distraught over being forced to leave them and his Indian way of life. Though his skin is white, he is thoroughly Lenape; he treasures his Indian lifestyle of hunting and fishing and living in harmony with nature in the lush woods and rugged terrain of western Pennsylvania. True Son has learned to hate the white man and his so-called civilization and abhors even the sight or smell of him. Although he is being returned because he is considered a “white prisoner,” he decides that he will never give up his Indian life (Richter, Light in the Forest, p. 4).

After trying to hide in the woods, True Son is tracked by his Lenape father, who tells him he must “go like an Indian” and give his father no more shame (Light in the Forest, p. 6). Clearly the father does not want to lose his son, but he intends to keep his promise to return the boy. He accompanies True Son to a British military camp and places him in the care of a soldier assigned to bring the boy to eastern Pennsylvania. Outwardly, True Son complies with the plan, but inwardly he vows: “Once my hands are loose, I’ll get his knife. Then quickly I’ll kill him” (Light in the Forest, p. 8).

The soldier assigned to True Son, Del Hardy, is on an expedition with Colonel Bouquet, a well-known officer from the French and Indian War. Presently, Bouquet is leading a mission to reclaim white prisoners taken prior to and during the war. Hardy was himself captured by Indians as a boy and has seen the tremendous emotional torment both Indian families and the so-called “prisoners” go through upon being separated. But while he empathizes with the Indian families affected by his mission, he is a loyal soldier and has in fact volunteered for duty. Like most other soldiers, he has a deep dislike of the “Injuns,” whom he considers his enemy. He brands them as “devils” who have “scalped plenty of our people in their time” (Light in the Forest, p. 11).

Of all the prisoners Hardy has seen, True Son is the wildest. Speaking to him in the Delaware language, Hardy tells him he had better not try to escape; he is a white boy and should be happy to be returning to his parents. True Son retorts that his parents are Cuyloga and Quaquenga and that he is Indian, adding, “I spit on white people!” (Light in the Forest, p. 14). He boldly announces that he will never go back to Pennsylvania, and Hardy realizes it will not be an easy task returning this boy to his white parents.

Half Arrow, True Son’s Indian cousin, accompanies him on the journey, along with an Indian friend named Little Crane. The journey back to Fort Pitt is an arduous trek through untamed wilderness. While True Son must sleep next to the British soldiers in tents at night, the Indians who are accompanying him sleep in the woods next to their mother, earth. During the day, they walk alongside True Son to the next encampment. To pass the time and relieve anxiety brought on by their impending separation, True Son, Half Arrow, and Little Crane discuss their lives and the beliefs of their people.

As they near Fort Pitt, Little Crane and Half Arrow must return to their home. It is not safe for Indians to be inside the colony of Pennsylvania, especially near a military camp, just as it is not safe for whites to be in “Indian country” outside the colony’s western boundary. A sad parting follows; the boys will perhaps never see each other again.

At Fort Pitt, True Son is introduced to his birth father and told that his own name is really John Butler. He is defiant and hostile toward his “father,” who sends him on to the Butler home in Paxton township in western Pennsylvania. The only thing True Son knows about Paxton is that a group of men from the town murdered some young Conestogo Indian boys.

When True Son arrives at the Butler home, he is introduced to his birth mother, brother and sisters, and an aunt. He does not remember any of them and is cold to all except Gordie, his younger brother, whom he has never met before. His “mother,” Myra, tells him that he has a lot of lost time to make up for. Concerned that he has been raised as an uneducated savage, his parents intend for him to embark on a rigorous educational program. He is given white peoples’ clothes and shoes and told to change his ways.

True Son tries to explain to his white family his Lenape philosophy of life, his elaborate spiritual beliefs, and the well-rounded education he has received. But the Butlers cannot understand what he is saying. Only his young brother Gordie admires his Indian ways.

For the next year, the Butlers try to “civilize” True Son, but to no avail. Although he is forced to wear pants and button-down shirts, his soul remains pure Lenape. He has few people to talk to—only a black slave who knows some of his native language. His white uncles, who are Indian fighters, kill Little Crane when he comes with Half Arrow to rescue True Son. Half Arrow finds True Son, and the two avenge Little Crane’s murder. They nearly scalp True Son’s white uncle but are forced to flee before he dies. They escape through the woods and travel the long distance back to the wilderness of Ohio to their Lenape homeland.

But when True Son returns to his village, he is not wholly welcomed. Greeted with suspicion, he must prove his loyalty to his Lenape tribe. He goes on a scalping expedition with the male leaders of the tribe; his role is to act as a decoy to lure whites into ambush. When he is asked to stop a boat filled with a group of women and children, however, he cannot do it. He thinks about his little brother and decides that he cannot willingly allow a youngster he spots in this group to be murdered. He warns the whites of the ambush and they escape downriver. His Indian brothers and father cannot believe what he has done. They immediately hold a meeting to decide what should be done to punish him. True Son’s father saves him from being killed, but he is told to leave the tribe and never return. He has truly disgraced himself and is now considered an enemy to all Lenapes, including his father. The novel ends with True Son left in the forest alone, caught between the white and Indian worlds. Homeless and without a family or culture to call his own, he is left to wander in solitude or assimilate into the white world he detests.

Culture clash

Richter gives insight into the Lenape culture and its sharp contrast to European society through the dialogue of Little Crane, Half Arrow, and True Son. En route to Fort Pitt, they discuss how the “Indians are an original people”—pure of stock and therefore superior to the whites, who are mixed and sickly-looking (Light in the Forest, p. 27). They discuss how the whites must be hard of hearing because they never listen and blind because they see building sites rather than beauty when they look at nature. “They are young and heedless like children,” Little Crane says. “You can see it in the way they heap up treasures like a child, although they know they must die and can’t take such things with them” (Light in the Forest, p. 28). True Son, Little Crane, and Half Arrow consider the puzzling behavior of the white man, but the Lenapes are unable to comprehend the ways of the colonists. They puzzle over concepts such as locks, which are part of white society. Little Crane concludes, “They’re a peculiar race and no sensible man can understand them” (Light in the Forest, p. 29). By revealing the views of True Son and his family, Richter illustrates the near if not total impossibility of a Lenape adapting to the white way of life. He further indicates, through his description of the long and rich history of the tribe and their acquired wisdom, that contemporary American society could learn a great deal from this ancient culture.


Richter was a careful student of history and pored over early documents to compile his novels. He read newspaper articles, uncovered scrapbooks, maps, and manuscripts, and spoke to older residents of the region—Indian and white—to form an accurate picture of frontier life in the 1700s. Drawing from actual events as well as from a personal boyhood desire to live among the Indians, Richter blended fact and fiction to make The Light in the Forest realistic. His stated aim, as described in his acknowledgments, was “to give an authentic sensation of life in early America” and, through the trials of True Son, encompass the true stories of “the numbers of returned white captives who tried desperately to run away from their flesh-and-blood families and return to their Indian foster homes and the Indian mode of life” (Richter, p. viii).

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

American empire and global expansion

America emerged as the leading world power after World War II. The United States exerted its influence commercially, economically, and militarily throughout the world. Under the postwar Marshall Plan, the United States helped war-forn countries in Europe by lending them money and shipping supplies to the region. Furthermore, the U.S. took an active role in many underdeveloped or “third world” nations, shaping and maintaining political systems that seemed to be favorable for American interests. With the increasing cold war tensions between the U.S. and the major communist powers, American intervention often sought to counter the danger of growing Soviet or Chinese influence in specific areas. In the Korean War (1950-53), the United States brought its power to bear in Asia, with American forces promoting democracy and seeking to destroy communism on the Korean peninsula.

There was also a commercial aspect to the U.S. role in world affairs. The American economy benefited from increased exports to of her countries. Corporations based in the U.S. often became powerful forces in foreign lands, sometimes influencing the political situation so that their trade interests would be protected. Along with this commercial dominance came American cultural influences that changed foreign countries. From India to South America, Coca-Cola became a household word, its popularity signaling the extent of U.S. influence on developing and developed nations. American music and fashions gained favor around the world, especially among the wealthier citizens of foreign countries. Just as in Light in the Forest, however, American influence was not always welcomed. Some groups in foreign countries wanted U.S. products, from soft drinks to blue jeans, removed from their markets; in their view, the goods were hateful symbols of American cultural penetration. Resistance to these items was also a means of voicing opposition to the political and economic power of the U.S. The immigrant-pioneers of the 1700s and 1800s had displaced tribes and eradicated American Indian cultures from mainstream life in America; foreign nationals of the 1950s feared that a similar scenario would unfold on a global scale.

Baby boom

Along with a thriving economy, the postwar baby boom—the great increase in the number of children born in the United States in the years following the conclusion of World War II—caused massive growth nationwide. Suburban housing developments sprang up from Maine to California, and communities initiated extensive building programs. Schools, high-rises, highways, and shopping malls were built en masse to meet the needs of a rapidly growing population. Similar to the colonial era, the 1950s in America were years of rapid expansion and change. Most of the population viewed the development as progress, but some, like Richter, did not. Richter saw the potential dangers of overdevelopment and argued for preservation of wildlife and land.

American Indian rights

The 1950s marked a major turning point in U.S. government policy regarding American Indian tribes. Since 1934, the government had promoted the survival of reservations. In 1953 it reversed this position in an attempt to extract the national government from some of its involvement in Indian affairs. It ended federal jurisdiction over tribes and relegated regulation to the states.

In 1953, the year that Richter’s novel was published, the U.S. government adopted the “termination policy.” In essence, this policy set out to eliminate all reservations by offering money to Indians who agreed to relocate to cities. The plan was to do away with the Indian nations and merge their members into the mainstream society. The Light in the Forest, however, shows how difficult it is to meld such vastly different cultures.

From the ideas and characters in Richter’s novel, a view of Indian life emerges that argues against homogenization of tribal members and for the preservation of native lifestyles. Not until 1970, however, would the policy be reversed and the U.S. government again support the separate existence of the American Indian tribes.


Though it is not regarded as Richter’s strongest work, The Light in the Forest received mostly positive reviews when it was published in 1953. The book was described as a thought-provoking study of conflicting loyalties. Lewis Gannett of The Nation hailed the work as a study of so-called “civilization,” which “presents a sorry contrast to the Indians’ oneness with nature” (Gannett, p. 176). Although some reviewers felt that the novel’s portraits of white colonists were one-sided and shallow, Richter’s detailed description of frontier life was highly praised. It was reprinted eleven times from 1953 to 1972, an indication of its enduring popularity.

For More Information

Gannett, Lewis. “Indian Idyl.” The Nation, June 6, 1953.

Grumet, Robert S. The Lenapes. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.

Levernier, James. The Indians and Their Captives. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1977.

McCutchen, David. The Red Record. Garden City Park, N.Y.: Avery, 1989.

Richter, Conrad. The Light in the Forest. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972.

Rockland, Michael Aaron. America in the Fifties and Sixties. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1972.

Stevens, S. K. The Pennsylvania Colony. London: Crowell-Collier, 1970.

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The Light in the Forest

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