UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The Leatherstocking tales and Indian removal : a study of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales in the light of United States policy towards the American Indian Manly, James Douglas


Because of his portrayal of noble and heroic Indians in the Leatherstocking Tales, James Fenimore Cooper has often been regarded as a writer very sympathetic to the Indian people in their struggle against dispossession by white society. Because they include many statements which support concepts of aboriginal land rights for the Indians, the Leatherstocking Tales appear to support this understanding of Cooper. However during the time in which Cooper wrote and published the five Leatherstocking Tales, Pioneers (1823), Last of the Mohicans (1826), Prairie (1827), Pathfinder (1840), and Deerslayer (1841), the United States debated and adopted a policy of Indian removal. As a result of this policy, most Indian peoples living east of the Mississippi were removed to unfamiliar lands west of the Mississippi. While some Indians agreed to this policy, others, most notably the Cherokee, objected and tried to maintain themselves as a people on their traditional lands. A treaty, endorsed by an unrepresentative minority of the Cherokee people, ceded these lands and the Cherokee were expelled from their homeland; some four thousand Cherokee people died on this "Trail of Tears" to their new home. Although Cooper was politically active and aware, he did not protest the actions of the government. In Notions of the Americans (1828), a fictional travel narrative, the presumed author, who, in many respects, can be identified with Cooper, speaks of removal as a "great, humane, and . . . rational project." Otherwise, Cooper does not appear to have addressed himself to the removal controversy. The thesis, therefore, re-examines the Leather-stocking Tales in the light of the removal controversy; it seeks to determine what understanding these novels give of the Indian people, of Indian-white relations, and of Indian rights to the land. The first three Leatherstocking novels were written during the debate on Indian removal. Although Indian rights to the "land are frequently mentioned, other aspects of these novels work to deny the validity of the Indian claim. The last two Leatherstocking novels, written after the removal policy had come into effect, do not have as much rhetoric about Indian land rights; like the earlier Leatherstocking Tales, however, they see the Indian and white civilization as mutually exclusive. Although Cooper presents good and noble Indians, in opposition to his Indian villains, they lack the necessary qualities to become a happy and worthwhile part of American life and culture. Critics accused Cooper of patterning his Indians too much after those described by Rev. John Heckewelder, one of Cooper's major sources. However, as this thesis shows, Cooper significantly altered Heckewelder's view of the Indians and of Indian-white relations; Cooper plays down the importance of white savagery, which Heckewelder had stressed and detailed, and, in contrast, emphasizes and details Indian acts of savagery and cruelty. The thesis concludes that Cooper saw the Indian primarily as material for romance; wrongs done to the Indian and statements about Indian rights to the land are included in the novels because they added to the picture of the Indian as a romantic figure. Basically, Cooper did not have any political or social commitment to the Indian people.

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