Cooper’s “Deerslayer”: View Of The Native Americans Essay, Research Paper

Cooper’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”

(p. 122).

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


Works Cited

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

Company, 1990.

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