Cooper’s “Deerslayer”: View of the Native AmericansCooper’s “Deerslayer”: View of the Native Americans
James Fenimore Cooper was born on September 15, 1789 in Burlington, New
Jersey. He was the son of William and Elizabeth (Fenimore) Cooper, the twelfth
of thirteen children (Long, p. 9). Cooper is known as one of the first great
American novelists, in many ways because he was the first American writer to
gain international followers of his writing. In addition, he was perhaps the
first novelist to “demonstrate…that native materials could inspire significant
imaginative writing” (p. 13). In addition his writing, specifically The
Deerslayer, present a unique view of the Native American’s experiences and
situation. Many critics, for example, argue that The Deerslayer presents a
moral opinion about what occurred in the lives of the American Indians.
Marius Bewley has said that the book shows moral values throughout the
context of it. He says that from the very beginning, this is symbolically made
clear. The plot is a platform for the development of moral themes. The first
contact the reader has with people in the book is in the passage in which the
two hunters find each other. “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” (Cooper, p. 5). Bewley states that this meeting is
symbolic of losing one’s way morally, and then attempting to find it again
through different paths. Says Bewley, “when the two men emerge from the forest
into the little clearing we are face to face with… two opposing moral visions
of life which are embodied in these two woodsmen” (cited in Long, p. 121).
Critic Donald Davie, however, disagrees. His contention is that the
plot is poorly developed. “It does not hang together; has no internal logic;
one incident does not rise out of another” (cited in Long, p. 121). But
according to Robert Long, Bewley has a better grasp of the meaning and
presentation of ideas throughout the book. According to Long, although the plot
development may not be “strictly linear,” it is still certainly coherent and
makes sense. In addition, Long feels that, as Bewley states, the novel is a way
in and through which Cooper presents moral ideas about the plight of the Native
Americans (p. 121).
The story of The Deerslayer is simple. It is novel which tells the
events which occur in the travels of a frontiersman. His name is Natty, and he
is a young man at only twenty years old. Coming from New York of the eighteenth
century, he is unprepared in many ways for what he encounters in the frontier.
But he survives, escapes, and learns many things over the course of his
The two characters of Natty and Hurry are contrasted in such as way that
Cooper presents his view of the Native Americans through them. As earlier
indicated, they symbolize two men with differing moral aptitudes. Throughout
the novel, the differences between the two show Cooper’s feelings about morality
as it relates to the American Indians. As Long states, “The voices of the two
men calling to one another at the beginning introduces the idea of a world that
has lost its coherence, is already reduced to disjunction and fragmentation.
Natty and Hurry search for a point of contact yet move in different directions”
Cooper’s descriptions of Natty and Hurry early in the novel make it
obvious that they stand for opposite moral values. Hurry, for example, is
described by Cooper as having “a dashing, reckless, off-hand manner, and
physical restlessness” (Cooper, p. 6). In fact, it is these characteristics of
him that gave him his nickname by which he is called – Hurry Scurry, although
his real name is Henry March. He is described as tall and muscular, the
“grandeur that pervaded such a noble physique” being the only thing that kept
him from looking “altogether vulgar” (p. 6). The Deerslayer’s appearance, on
the other hand, contrasts with Hurry’s significantly. Cooper indicates that not
only were the two men different in appearance, but also “in character” (p. 6).
A little shorter than Hurry, he was also leaner. In addition, he was not
handsome like Hurry and, says Cooper, he would not have anything exceptional
about his looks had it not been for “an expression that seldom failed to win
upon those who had leisure to examine it, and to yield to the feelings of
confidence it created. This expression was simply that of guileless truth,
sustained by an earnestness of purpose, and a sincerity of feeling” (p. 6).
Cooper contrasts these two characters early in the story so that it is
evident that they will provide examples of contrasting behavior as well. It is
made clear early on that the later actions of both Hurry and the Deerslayer will
contrast in such a way that the moral issues with which Cooper was concerned
would come to light.
Glimmerglass as the setting of the novel allows the contrast between the
two men to be seen even more strongly. As William P. Kelly (1983) states, the
setting created by Cooper allows the story to have a certain myth-like quality,
a quality which makes the teaching of a lesson by Cooper all that much more
acceptable. “Cooper does not locate his narrative within the flux of history,
but evokes a sense of timelessness consistent with the world of myth.For
example, the setting is of “the earliest days of colonial history,” a “remote
and obscure” period, lost in the “mists of time.”In setting the backdrop of
the story in this way, the events become less important in regards to historical
value and accuracy – their importance is derived from their ability to teach one
lessons about morality.
Within this setting, then, the contrasts between Natty and Hurry are
brought across even clearer. But it is another character, Tom Hutter, who also
plays an important role in Cooper’s presentation of the Indians. Hutter’s
significance first involves where he lives. His house is located directly in
the center of Glimmerglass. This suggests, symbolically at least, that he is
involved in the center of activities, whether moral or immoral, within
Glimmerglass. In addition, more than living in the center of the land, Hutter
has also laid claim, however unofficial, to the land. Early on in the novel the
reader learns that this is the case. Shortly after Natty and Hurry meet up,
they are canoeing down the water. Natty comments that the land is so beautiful,
and asks Hurry, “Do you say, Hurry, that there is no man who calls himself
lawful owner of all these glories?’ (p. 22). To this Hurry responds, “None but
the King….but he has gone so far away that his claim will never trouble old
Tom Hutter , who has got possession, and is like to keep it as long as his life
lasts” (p. 22).
In having the characters of Natty and Hurry speak of Hutter like this,
referring to him in an almost mythological sense as though he is a legend,
Cooper is setting the stage for the development of Hutter’s character, also in
contrast to Natty’s. It is in Tom Hutter’s home, when Natty and Hurry first
arrive in the beginning of the book, that they begin to talk about hunting and
the killing of both animals and men. Natty comments that he has the reputation
as being the only man “who had shed so much blood of animals that had not shed
the blood of man” (p. 28). He says this with pride, obviously not looking with
high regard upon the savage slaughter of other men. But Hurry’s response shows
that he looks at this in a totally different perspective. He says that he is
afraid that people will think that Natty is “chicken-hearted.” Then he goes on
to comment that “For my part I account game, a redskin, and a Frenchman as
pretty much the same thing…one has no need to be over-scrupulous when it’s the
right time to show the flint” (p. 28).
Cooper presents this dialogue between Natty and Hurry in order to
obviously contrast their moral characters. First, he has Natty speak, with
apparent pride, about the fact that in all the land, he has the reputation for
killing more deer than anyone else, while never having taken one single human
life. But Hurry’s response to this is that Natty is a “chicken-hearted”
individual. In Natty’s point of view, animals, Indians, and Frenchman are all
the same, and killing one is the same as killing another.
In this, Cooper is clearly presenting a view about the worth of Indians
within the society of this time. Natty’s view that killing other men should be
avoided is the correct and “right” view. He sets Natty up as a moral character,
specifically in comparison to Hurry to which he compares Natty often. Hurry,
then, blatantly states that he thinks that there is nothing which separates the
killing of a deer from the killing of a man. Cooper presents this view in order
to show what he feels is the correct way. It is obvious that Cooper wants Natty
to present Cooper’s view of the Native Americans. Natty’s inability to look at
them as mere animals shows that he believes that they are good people, just the
same as anyone else. In fact, Hurry is depicted more as the villain, while
Natty is presented as the hero.
As their conversation continues, Natty asks Hurry if the lake has a name.
When Hurry tells him that it, in fact, does not, Natty thinks of this as
positive. “I’m glad it has no name, or, at least, no paleface name; for their
christenings always foretell waste and destruction” (p. 30). Here, we can see
Natty’s thoughts on the significance of whether an Indian or a white man has
named the water. He comments that he would mind if a white man had named it.
He believes that white men traditionally bring with them environmental damage –
they would have ruined the natural beauty of it. The Indians, on the other hand,
treated land with much more respect. Cooper makes it apparent that this is the
way he feels in having Natty comment on the land as such.
Hurry, however, responds in a different way. He tells Natty that the
Indian name for it is “Glimmerglass.” Then he goes on to state that the white
men decided to keep this name, at least unofficially. “I am glad they’ve been
compelled to keep the redmen’s name, for it would be too hard to rob them of
both land and name!” (p. 30).
In other words, Hurry is stating the obvious fact that everything will
eventually be taken away from the Native Americans. Any land that they might
value and care for today will be confiscated and fought for by the white men
tomorrow. But the exclamation point at the end of the sentence suggests that,
rather than a sad comment accepting the inevitable, Hurry says this with glee
and excitement. To him it is like a joke, that the Indians will be allowed to
keep the name for the land but lose the land itself.
Cooper, in the above dialogue between Natty and Hurry, is presenting a
view of the immorality involved in the interactions between the Native Americans
and the white men. In Cooper’s mind, the Native Americans respected and cared
for the land much more than the white men did. This is apparent in his quote
from Hurry, that white men always brought “waste and destruction” to land.
Secondly, Cooper also thought that the constant fighting, oppression, and
killing of the American Indians was wrong. To Cooper, Natty represented the
good and moral point of view on this issue, while Hurry represented the immoral
and cruel side, laughing about the horrible truths of the land.
All throughout the book The Deerslayer, Cooper contrasts the characters
of Hurry and Natty in order to present his views of Native Americans. With
Hurry as the one who has a racist attitude, believing that the deaths of Indians
are deaths which do not matter, Natty is the moral one. The contrast between
these two characters allows Cooper to show the contrast between morality and
immorality. Hurry goes around killing Indians, believing that their deaths are
insignificant. Natty, killing his first Indian in a matter of self-defense,
holds the man in his arms as he dies feeling a sense of bonding and brotherhood
with the dying Indian. Throughout the book, Natty is shown learning many
different things, such as woodcraft, and increasing in moral stature. Hurry, on
the other hand, is presented as becoming more and more selfish, until his
comments by themselves reveal his ignorance and he loses credibility as a
The book The Deerslayer is a story in which James Fenimore Cooper
presents a view of the Native Americans. His idea is that they were natural
owners to the land, being there first. In addition, they loved, valued and
respected the land in a way that was not common to most white men. Finally, he
believed that they were human beings, entitled to live their lives freely just
as anyone else. In showing the two sides of opinion on this issue – Hurry and
Natty – Cooper sets the book up as a story of good and evil, right and wrong.
His ideas, through the thoughts and actions of Hurry and Natty, are clearly
Cooper, James Fenimore. The Deerslayer. New York: The Heritage Press, 1961.
Kelly, William P.Plotting America’s Past. Illinois: Southern Illinois
University Press, 1983.
Long, Robert Emmet. James Fenimore Cooper. New York: Continuum Publishing