The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 is a historical novel by James Fenimore Cooper, first published in February 1826. It is the second book of the Leatherstocking Tales pentalogy and the best known. The Pathfinder, published 14 years later in 1840, is its sequel.
The story takes place in 1757, during the French and Indian War (the Seven Years’ War), when France and Great Britain battled for control of the North American colonies. During this war, the French called on allied Native American tribes to fight against the more numerous British colonists in this region.
Cooper named a principal character Uncas after a well-known Mohegan sachem (a head chief) who had been an ally of the English in 17th-century Connecticut. Cooper seemed to confuse or merge the names of the two tribes—Mohegan and Mahican. Cooper’s well-known book helped confuse popular understanding of the tribes to the present day. After the death of John Uncas in 1842, the last surviving male descendant of Uncas, the Newark Daily Advertiser wrote, “Last of the Mohegans Gone,” lamenting the extinction of the tribe. The writer did not realize the Mohegan people still existed. They continue to survive today and are a federally recognized tribe based in Connecticut. The Mahican were based in the Hudson River Valley and continue to survive today as a federally recognized Indian tribe as the Stockbridge-Munsee Community in Wisconsin.
The novel was one of the most popular in English in its time, although critics identified narrative flaws. Its length and formal prose style have limited its appeal to later readers, yet The Last of the Mohicans remains widely read in American literature courses.
The character Chingachgook speaks a line that holds the title, saying, “[W]hen Uncas follows in my footsteps, there will no longer be any of the blood of the sagamores, for my boy is the last of the Mohicans.” The title is also referred to near the end of the book, whenTamenund says, “I have lived to see the last warrior of the wise race of the Mohicans
The story takes place during the Seven Years’ War. This conflict, which lasted from 1756 to 1763, involved all of the major European powers of the period, and has been described as the “first World War”. It resulted in some 900,000 to 1,400,000 deaths and significant changes in the balance of power and territories of several of the participants. Also known as the French and Indian War, the North American theater of this conflict occurred between British settlers and colonial forces, and royal French forces together with the variousNative American forces allied with them. The war was fought primarily along the frontiers between the British colonies from Virginia to Nova Scotia.
In the Spring of 1757, Lieutenant Colonel George Munro became garrison commander of Fort William Henry, located on Lake George (New York) in the Province of New York. In early August, Major General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm and 7,000 troops besieged the fort. On 2 August General Webb, who commanded the area from his base at Fort Edward, sent 200 regulars and 800 Massachusetts militia to reinforce the garrison at William Henry. In the novel, this is the relief column with which Monro’s daughters travel.
Monro sent messengers south to Fort Edward on the 3rd, but Webb refused to send any of his estimated 1,600 men north, because they were all that stood between the French and Albany. He wrote to Munro on 4 August that he should negotiate the best terms possible; this communication was intercepted and delivered to Montcalm. In Cooper’s version, the missive was carried by Hawkeye when he, and it, fell into French hands.
On 7 August Montcalm sent to the fort under a truce flag to deliver Webb’s dispatch. By then the fort’s walls had been breached, many of its guns were useless, and the garrison had taken significant casualties. After another day of bombardment by the French, Monro raised the white flag and agreed to withdraw under parole.
When the withdrawal began, some of Montcalm’s Indian allies, angered at the lost opportunity for loot, attacked the British column. Cooper’s account of the attack and aftermath is lurid and somewhat inaccurate. A detailed reconstruction of the action and its aftermath indicates that the final tally of British missing and dead ranges from 69 to 184, although over 500 British were taken captive.
The action takes place around Glens Falls in upstate New York. Cora and Alice Munro, daughters of Lieutenant Colonel Munro, are traveling with a column of reinforcements from Fort Edward to Fort William Henry, where Munro is commanding an army. In the party are David Gamut the singing teacher, and Major Duncan Heyward, the group’s military leader.
The Huron scout, Magua, offers to take the Munro party by a shorter route than that which the column must take. Unknown to them, Magua—who they believe to have been expelled from his tribe in disgrace—has been reinstated as chief of the Huron tribe and is a supporter of the French cause. Magua intends to lead the party into an ambush, but is foiled when they meet Natty Bumppo, also referred to in this novel as Hawkeye, and the two Mohicans, Chingachgook and his son Uncas, on the road.
Magua flees, leaving Hawkeye to explain to his new companions the true allegiance of the Hurons (they are allied to the French forces under Montcalm), and Magua’s reputation for deceit and cunning (Magua’s nickname is the Cunning Fox). Knowing that Magua will return with reinforcements, Hawkeye and the Mohicans lead their new companions into a cave. A group of Hurons sent by Magua chase them into the cave, where the party kills several of them. The party decides to split up for safety, with Hawkeye and the Mohicans hiding in a nearby stream, while Heyward, Gamut, and the Munro sisters retreat back into the cavern.
Magua is unhappy with his losses but does not give up. Later, he returns with more Hurons and captures Cora, Alice and the two men in the cave. The Hurons take their captives to a stream with mineral water, where they rest briefly while watchful of the others. The Hurons interrogate Heyward, who tells them that Hawkeye and the Mohicans have escaped and learns from them that Uncas’s nickname is the Bounding Elk and that Hawkeye is referred to as the Long Rifle or La Longue Carabine.
When Cora demands why the Hurons were so eager to capture them, Magua tells his captives that Colonel Munro and other white officers came to the Huron village one day and introduced him to fire-water (whiskey) and his drunken misbeavior caused the Hurons to expel him from the tribe. He subsequently allied himself with the Mohawks (allies of the British) and went to war with them against the French and their Huron allies. Magua continued to drink the fire-water during the fighting and after one act of disorder, Munro ordered him tied to a post and whipped, wounding him both physically and spiritually. He has since gone back to the Hurons and is seeking revenge against Munro. He offers to spare the others in return for Cora following him to the Huron village as his wife, but Cora flatly refuses.
Hawkeye, Uncas, and Chingachgook surprise the Hurons and kill most of them with Heyward’s assistance, but Magua escapes once more. Hawkeye tells the former hostages that they had been secretly trailing the Hurons after their capture. After a short chase they decided to take action after the Hurons threatened to kill the captives. Heyward and Hawkeye lead the Munro women to Fort William Henry, which is by now surrounded by the French.
Munro sends Hawkeye to Fort Edward to request reinforcements but, bearing General Webb’s reply, he is captured by the French, who deliver him to Fort William Henry without the letter. Heyward attempts to parley with the French, but learns nothing. He then returns to Colonel Munro and announces his love for Alice. Munro reveals Cora’s heritage—the Colonel’s first wife was of mixed race—then gives his permission for Heyward to pay court to Alice.
The French general, Montcalm, invites Munro to a parley. He shows him Webb’s letter: the English general has refused to send further reinforcements. Realizing that his cause is lost, Munro reluctantly agrees to Montcalm’s terms. The British soldiers, together with their wounded, and women and children, are allowed to leave the fort and withdraw. Outside the fort, the column is set upon by 2000 French allied Indian warriors. In the chaos of the massacre, Magua finds Cora and Alice, and leads them away towards the Huron village. David Gamut follows at a distance.
Three days later, Hawkeye and the Mohicans, Heyward and Colonel Munro enter the ruins of Fort William Henry, where they plan their next move by the council fire. The next morning they set off for Lake George on canoes where they encounter a group of Hurons and escape after a brief but intense chase. Upon reaching shore they hide the canoe and follow Magua’s trail. Outside the Huron village, they come across David Gamut, teaching beavers to sing psalms. The Huron have not killed him as they will not harm a madman. Gamut tells them that Alice is in the village, Cora is in another village belonging to the Lenni Lenape (Delaware) tribe, and Magua has gone moose hunting. Heyward disguises himself as a French medicine man and enters the village with Gamut, intending to rescue Alice. Hawkeye and Uncas set out to rescue Cora. Chingachgook remains with Colonel Munro, who has become somewhat deranged as a result of events.
Heyward’s disguise is successful, but before he can find Alice, Uncas is led into the village, having been captured by the Hurons. Magua returns, and demands that Uncas be put to death, but does not recognise Heyward in his guise as a medicine man. Hawkeye steals a bearskin from a village shaman and uses it to disguise himself while he follows Heyward. They rescue Alice after finding her in a cave, taking her out of the village by wrapping her in cloth and convincing the Hurons she is a sick woman Heyward, as a French medicine man, had been asked to heal of an evil spirit. As Heyward carries Alice towards the Lenni Lenape village, David Gamut and Hawkeye (still disguised in bear skin of the village shamen) return to the village to rescue Uncas. Uncas’s guards recognize the bear suit and allow the two to pass, believing Gamut will perform some magic to torture Uncas. Once reunited, Uncas dons the bear skin while Hawkeye dresses as Gamut and begins to sing. Gamut stays behind while Uncus and Hawkeye pass the guards, who did not notice a different white man exited than had entered. The pair flee to the Delaware village.
The Hurons discover Gamut and realize that Uncas has escaped. When they enter the cave, they find Magua, who had been left bound and gagged by Heyward and Hawkeye as they rescued Alice. Magua tells them everything about Hawkeye’s and Heyward’s deception, enraging the other Hurons, who vow revenge against Hawkeye and his companions and quickly reaffirm Magua as their chief.
Magua then makes his way to the Delaware village, demands the return of his prisoners, warning that one of the white captives is La Longue Carabine, the infamous killer of natives. At the council of chiefs, the venerable sage Tamenund is called on to make the final judgement. He asks which of the prisoners is La Longue Carabine. Hawkeye initially remains silent, since he does not claim the title for himself (His weapon is a smoothbore), so Heyward, mistaking Hawkeye wishes to be undiscovered, claims he is the man in question. Hawkeye then also claims the title, explaining the delay. To resolve the issue a shooting match is organised, at which Hawkeye outshoots the Major.
Tamenund grants Magua’s wish to keep his prisoners, but as she is being taken away Cora falls at the great sage’s feet and begs him to reconsider. Unable to convince him to free either her sister or herself, she eventually begs him to hear her side of the story from a Delaware warrior, referring to Uncas. The tribe did not realize Uncas’s heritage, and so he is summoned to speak.
Upon arrival, Uncas offends the Delaware, who tear off his clothing in preparation to beat him. They stop upon discovering a turtle tattoo on his chest, identifying his people. At this point, Tamenund accedes to all Uncas asks and frees the prisoners, except he cannot free Cora as it was Magua who brought her to the village. Magua reluctantly also agrees to Uncas’s demands but announces his intention to keep Cora as his wife, spurning Hawkeye’s offer to allow Magua to take him prisoner instead in exchange for releasing Cora. Uncas and Heyward both vow to hunt down and kill Magua and rescue Cora as the Huron chief leaves with his captive.
According to custom, Tamenund has agreed to give Magua a three-hour head start before permitting the Delaware to pursue in attempt to rescue Cora. As the Delawares use this time to prepare for battle and equip themselves with tomahawks and rifles, David Gamut finds his way to the Delaware village, and tells the group that he saw Magua and Cora return to the Huron village, where he sent Cora into the same cave where Heyward rescued Alice before ordering the Huron warriors into battle. With this in mind, the Delawares led by Uncas march into the forest to confront the Hurons.
A battle breaks out between the Hurons and the Delaware, who are in three parties: one led by Hawkeye and Heyward, one by Uncas, and one by Chingachgook and Munro. During the course of battle the Hurons are forced back to their village with heavy losses and ultimately are defeated when the Delaware capture the village. Magua escapes with Cora and two of his warriors with Uncas, Hawkeye, and Heyward in pursuit, and they seek to flee by a mountain path which has a precipitous drop on one side, but Cora stops on a rocky ledge and refuses to go further. Uncas attacks the Huron, but both he and Cora are killed in the fight. Hawkeye arrives too late, and shoots Magua, who then falls to his death from a nearby cliff.
The novel concludes with a lengthy account of the funerals of Uncas and Cora. The Lenni Lenape sing that Uncas and Cora will marry in the afterlife. Hawkeye does not believe this, but he renews his friendship with Chingachgook. Tamenund foresees that “The pale-faces are masters of the earth, and the time of the red-men has not yet come again….”
Style and themes
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A notable feature of the novel is that Cooper uses more than one name for many of the characters and groups of people. For example, Nathaniel Bumppo refers to himself as Natty. The Mohicans call him Hawkeye, and the French and their Huron allies use the term La Longue Carabine (Long Rifle) for both Bumppo and his rifle, Kildeer. The Iroquois are referred to as the Maquas and the Mingos, the Delaware are also known as the Leni-Lenape.
Another feature is Cooper’s detailed and extended descriptions of places—some of which he was familiar with—characters, and events.
- Magua (ma-gwah) – the villain of the piece; a Huron chief driven from his tribe for drunkenness and later whipped by the British Army (also for drunkenness), for which he blames Colonel Munro. Also known as “Le Renard Subtil” or “Sly Fox.”
- Chingachgook (chin-GATCH-gook) – last chief of the Mohican tribe; escort to the traveling Munro sisters, father to Uncas. Unami Delaware word meaning “Big Snake.”
- Uncas – the son of Chingachgook and the titular “Last of the Mohicans” (meaning the last pure-blooded Mohican born).
- Natty Bumppo/ Hawkeye – Oeil de Faucon; a frontiersman who, by chance meeting in the forest, becomes an escort to the Munro sisters. Also known to the Indians and the French as “La Longue Carabine” on account of his long rifle and shooting skills.
- Cora Munro – dark-haired daughter of Colonel Munro. Her mother, whom Munro met and married in the West Indies was a mulatto, half-white half-African-Caribbean. In the novel, Cora is termed a quadroon at one point.
- Alice Munro – Cora’s younger, blonde half-sister, the daughter of Alice Graham, who was the love of Munro’s life when he was young, but whom he was able to marry only much later in life.
- Colonel Munro – the sisters’ father, a British army colonel in command of Fort William Henry.
- Duncan Heyward – a British army major from Virginia who falls in love with Alice Munro.
- David Gamut – a psalmodist (teacher of psalm singing) also known as “the singing master” due to the fact that he sang for every event.
- General Daniel Webb – Colonel Munro’s commanding officer, originally stationed at Albany, who later takes command at Fort Edward (from where he cannot or will not come to Colonel Munro’s aid when Fort William Henry is besieged by the French).
- General Marquis de Montcalm – the French commander-in-chief, referred to by the Hurons and other Indian allies of the French as “The great white father of the Canadas”.
- Tamenund – An ancient, wise, and revered Delaware Indian sage who has outlived three generations of warriors. He is the “Sachem” of the Delaware.