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Authors: James Fenimore Cooper

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BOOK: The Pioneers
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Judge Temple's faith in the law runs deep, and not only because he sees in it the hope of environmental protection. The law also backs his ownership of the land and of the resources it contains, despite the fact that others have strong moral claims to assert. Leatherstocking, for instance, had been a resident of the Otsego Lake region for decades before Temple arrived to assert his claim. Temple freely acknowledges Leatherstocking's precedence and the freedom he has hitherto enjoyed to hunt when and where he likes. But the judge insists such claims of “natural” rights must yield to the advance of settlement and to the development of a system of restraints adequate to the protection of a more complex society. When Leatherstocking kills a deer “out of season,” he is dismayed to discover that the law—and Judge Temple himself—will indeed move against him.
Leatherstocking's great friend and companion, the Delaware chief Chingachgook (also known as Indian John and John Mohegan), represents another kind of claim—that of displaced Indian tribes, the hunting cultures of which required an abundance of game. The clearing of the forests for farming has thinned or eliminated animal populations (such as beaver and deer) upon which aboriginal societies depended. Chingachgook is treated as the solitary ghost of a civilization and way of life that the white settlers, including those most sympathetic to the Indian, agree cannot be restored. Even Oliver Edwards, the mysterious and cultivated young man who temporarily shares the modest wigwam of Leatherstocking and Chingachgook, concurs with Elizabeth Temple when she says that, even if they wanted to, they could not “convert these clearings and farms, again, into hunting-grounds, as the Leatherstocking would wish to see them.” Similar forms of resigned nostalgia helped convince white settlers—and readers of Cooper's novel in the 1820s and beyond—that their displacement of Indian tribes was, if lamentable, nevertheless inevitable and irreversible, a belief that was to some extent self-fulfilling.
Oliver Edwards, as it turns out, represents yet another kind of claim on Temple's Patent. His uncertain origins and motives—sources of great curiosity and dramatic tension throughout most of the novel—turn out to be linked closely to the pre-Revolutionary property and estates of the Royalist family of Temple's friend Edward Effingham. Temple was able to gain legal title to the Patent because it was one of many such estates confiscated during the Revolution. In the violent seizure by rebel Colonials of Royalists' property, there was, as Cooper's novel makes plain, a deeply ironic echo of the violence previously used by the British to dispossess American Indians of their lands in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Like Chingachgook, Oliver Edwards (who many in the novel believe to be a blood relative of Chingachgook) stands for preexisting property claims that new American laws have vitiated. The justice of these dispossessions is centrally at issue in
The Pioneers
.
The law of property was centrally at issue in Cooper's own life as well. His father, William, like Judge Temple in
The Pioneers
, was a Quaker from the middle colonies who moved his family to Otsego Lake after acquiring a large tract of land formerly owned by a British Loyalist. After William's death in 1809, his estate, valued at roughly $750,000 (tens of millions in 2006 dollars) was divided among his six surviving children, mostly in the form of widely scattered and heavily encumbered land holdings. Bad investments, burdensome debts, and the economic depression following the War of 1812 steadily sapped the family fortune. When James Cooper (he added the “Fenimore” in 1826) began writing
The Pioneers
in 1821, he was still able to live the life of a wealthy gentleman farmer. But by the time of the novel's publication, less than a year and a half later, he was virtually propertyless. Many readers believe that, during this period of financial calamity, Cooper wrote
The Pioneers
in order to imaginatively reclaim the patrimony that was slipping through his fingers.
The collapse of the Cooper family fortune played out against a backdrop of national and local debates over the laws of property. In 1821, as Cooper was writing his novel, New York State was rewriting its constitution, lowering property-holding requirements for voters, and thereby opting for a less paternalistic, more democratic form of government. But paternalistic conservatism remained a strong value for Cooper, and the central characters of
The Pioneers
reflect this. “The poor are always prodigal,” says Judge Temple, who believes, therefore, that the poor must be “protected” from their own extravagance and lack of foresight by lords of the soil like himself. Even the highly individualistic Natty Bumppo—who would become, thanks to
The Pioneers
and to the four ensuing Leatherstocking novels, one of the great mythic heroes of American democratic romance—spends much of his time and energy helping to restore the property of the family of the dispossessed British officer he dutifully served as a frontier scout before the Revolution. In his role in preserving hereditary rights and pre-Revolutionary interests, Leatherstocking turns out to have a great deal in common with Cooper in his own real-life struggle to preserve his father's estate and to defend the claims of landholding elites. Leatherstocking's idiosyncratic nature (he's a town-shunning illiterate woodsman who snaps his fingers in the face of property rights while nevertheless championing the cause of a dispossessed aristocrat!) owes much to the complexity of Cooper's own shifting, uneasy relation to what often seemed like contradictory democratic and republican values. Did American individualism require less government, or more? Was universal suffrage good or bad for agrarianism? What about the commercialization of agriculture? Did the leveling of society promote civic virtue, or moral degeneration? Should concentrations of family wealth be discouraged by law and by custom, or should hereditary inheritance be zealously protected?
Despite the Cooper family's money troubles of the early nineteenth century, the success of James Cooper as a novelist soon made him a wealthy man again, and with his earnings as a writer he continued throughout his life to pursue the reacquisition of old family property—pursuits that resulted in various public disputes and lawsuits, as well as a series of novels, published in the 1840s, that championed the interests of landed proprietors and opposed tenant rights. Cooper's intensive study of political history and time spent living in Europe strengthened his allegiance to republican principles, which he praised at length in
Notions of the Americans
(1828), a Jeffersonian paean to the “natural” aristocracy of the independent farmer, the justice of the popular will, and the sovereignty of the law. But his return to the U.S. after seven years abroad (he and his family lived chiefly in Paris from 1826 to 1833) was profoundly disillusioning. What had looked from afar like the bastion of freedom had, from Cooper's perspective, become a country where unchecked, coercive egalitarianism threatened the liberty of the individual.
Two novels published in 1838,
Homeward Bound
and
Home as Found
, extended Cooper's deeply ambivalent quarrel with democracy and the Jacksonian transformation of American society (D. H. Lawrence wrote that Cooper “felt the democratic American tomahawk wheeling over his uncomfortable scalp all the time”) by extending the story of the Effingham family begun in
The Pioneers
. These two novels are, indeed, sequels to
The Pioneers
—much more truly than most of the other Leatherstocking novels, which are prequels rather than sequels (the one exception is
The Prairie
, in which Natty Bumppo dies).
Homeward Bound
and
Home as Found
are extensions, not of Leatherstocking's story, but of the Effingham family's—the story of the descendants of the British Major Effingham, whose confiscated estate becomes Templeton in
The Pioneers
. They are stories of the disappointments of homecoming, disappointments Cooper himself experienced upon his return from Europe. He found home—Cooperstown in particular—to have changed into something recognizable only in its declension from its former state, which, for Cooper, was largely a state of mind: an expression of deep-rooted longings under the pressure of present anxieties.
One thematic hallmark of
The Pioneers
is its obsession with change, with mutability. The seasonal transformations of the landscape, the more abrupt changes wrought by storm and fire, the bloom and decay of human life, the slapdash construction of a booming frontier town, the unceasing alterations to ways of living that new people, new laws, new tastes, and new threats required—Cooper describes all of this with wonderful detail and deep pathos. The opening scene of the novel, in which Judge Temple and his daughter Elizabeth, on Christmas Eve day, return home to Templeton through a world of white in a horse-drawn sleigh is a tour de force of American pastoralism. The fact that the very first character we encounter is neither Elizabeth nor her father, but rather their slave Agamemnon driving the sleigh, is no insignificant index of the violence that so often lies at the heart of such visions.
—Max Cavitch
AUTHOR'S INTRODUCTION
 
 
As this work professes, in its title page, to be a descriptive tale, they who will take the trouble to read it may be glad to know how much of its contents is literal fact and how much is intended to represent a general picture. The author is very sensible that had he confined himself to the latter, always the most effective as it is the most valuable, mode of conveying knowledge of this nature, he would have made a far better book. But in commencing to describe scenes, and perhaps he may add characters, that were so familiar to his own youth, there was a constant temptation to delineate that which he had known, rather than that which he might have imagined. This rigid adhesion to truth, an indispensable requisite in history and travels, destroys the charm of fiction; for all that is necessary to be conveyed to the mind by the latter had better be done by delineations of principles, and of characters in their classes, than by a too fastidious attention to originals.
New York having but one county of Otsego, and the Susquehanna but one proper source, there can be no mistake as to the site of the tale. The history of this district of country, so far as it is connected with civilized men, is soon told.
Otsego, in common with most of the interior of the province of New York, was included in the county of Albany, previously to the war of the separation. It then became, in a subsequent division of territory, a part of Montgomery; and, finally, having obtained a sufficient population of its own, it was set apart as a county by itself, shortly after the peace of 1783. It lies among those low spurs of the Alleghanies which cover the midland counties of New York; and it is a little east of a meridional line drawn through the center of the state. As the waters of New York either flow southerly into the Atlantic or northerly into Ontario, and its outlet, Otsego Lake, being the source of the Susquehanna, is, of necessity, among its highest lands. The face of the country, the climate as it was found by the whites, and the manners of the settlers are described with a minuteness for which the author has no other apology than the force of his own recollections.
Otsego is said to be a word compounded of Ot, a place of meeting, and Sego, or Sago, the ordinary term of salutation used by the Indians of this region. There is a tradition which says that the neighboring tribes were accustomed to meet on the banks of the lake to make their treaties, and otherwise to strengthen their alliances, and which refers the name to this practice. As the Indian agent of New York had a log dwelling at the foot of the lake, however, it is not impossible that the appellation grew out of the meetings that were held at his council fires; the war drove off the agent, in common with the other officers of the crown; and his rude dwelling was soon abandoned. The author remembers it a few years later, reduced to the humble office of a smokehouse.
In 1779 an expedition was sent against the hostile Indians who dwelt about a hundred miles west of Otsego on the banks of the Cayuga. The whole country was then a wilderness, and it was necessary to transport the baggage of the troops by means of the rivers—a devious but practicable route. One brigade ascended the Mohawk until it reached the point nearest to the sources of the Susquehanna; whence it cut a lane through the forest to the head of the Otsego. The boats and baggage were carried over this “portage,” and the troops proceeded to the other extremity of the lake, where they disembarked and encamped. The Susquehanna, a narrow though rapid stream at its source, was much filled with “floodwood,” or fallen trees; and the troops adopted a novel expedient to facilitate their passage. The Otsego is about nine miles in length, varying in breadth from half a mile to a mile and a half. The water is of great depth, limpid, and supplied from a thousand springs. At its foot, the banks are rather less than thirty feet high; the remainder of its margin being in mountains, intervals, and points. The outlet, or the Susquehanna, flows through a gorge in the low banks just mentioned, which may have a width of two hundred feet. This gorge was dammed, and the waters of the lake collected: the Susquehanna was converted into a rill. When all was ready, the troops embarked, the dam was knocked away, the Otsego poured out its torrent, and the boats went merrily down with the current.
General James Clinton, the brother of George Clinton, then governor of New York, and the father of De Witt Clinton, who died governor of the same state in 1827, commanded the brigade employed on this duty. During the stay of the troops at the foot of the Otsego a soldier was shot for desertion. The grave of this unfortunate man was the first place of human interment that the author ever beheld, as the smokehouse was the first ruin! The swivel alluded to in this work was buried and abandoned by the troops on this occasion; and it was subsequently found in digging the cellars of the author's paternal residence.
BOOK: The Pioneers
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