The Last of the Mohicans: story background and setting
Background to the novel: Last of the Mohicans
"The Last of the Mohicans: A novel of 1757", is set during the French and Indian War in North America. James Fenimore Cooper wrote the popular novel as part of a series which was first printed in 1826.
Some may only be aware of the story through the numerous film versions that have been produced. The 1992 film version featuring Daniel Day Lewis and Madeleine Stowe was a box office success and one of the most popular film versions of the story.
However, Last of the Mohicans is just one of the five books which feature the novel's protagonist Nathaniel "Hawkeye" Bomppo.
The books in Fenimore Cooper's series are, in order of publication are:
The Pioneers: The Sources of the Susquehanna, A Descriptive Tale (set in the year 1793)
The Last of the Mohicans: A narrative of 1757 (unsurprisingly set in the year 1757)
The Prairie: A tale (set in the year 1804)
The Pathfinder: The Inland Sea (set in the 1750s)
The Deerslayer: The First Warpath (set in the year 1744)
Needless to say, the books are best enjoyed in chronological order, rather than in the order with which they were originally published.
The books sympathetically portray American Indians and American pioneers. The character of Nathaniel Bomppo allowed Fenimore Cooper to create a hero who could interact fluently and actively between both Indians and the American pioneers. Bomppo was a white man who had been bought up by an adopted Indian family. He thus enjoyed a rich heritage from both cultures. The books outline his life from upbringing, middle and old age against the historic setting of pioneer America.
The Historic Setting of Last of the Mohicans: The French and Indian War, 1754 - 1763
The French and Indian War in North America was essentially a spillover of fighting between Britain and France in Europe. The conflict was carried over to North America and manifested itself as the British attempting to takeover French-held land. A strong motivation for the war was British interest in furthering the lucrative fur trade business. The Native American Indians generally allied with the French in the conflict, because they saw the British as threatening their lands.
However, at the end of the war, the British had succeeded in taking large tracts of French-owned lands.
The war during 1757, the year of The Last of the Mohicans
The action in The Last of the Mohicans takes place in 1757. During August 1757 General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, beseiged and succesfully took Fort William Henry from the British, who were led by General Munro. The fort was located on a frontier between French-Canadian and British-American held territories.
The siege of Fort WIlliam Henry was a military success for the French, but not so for French honour. Tragically, General Montcalm's allies, a group of Algonquin and other Indian peoples, massacred the British as they retreated from the fort. This massacre violated the terms of agreement for the British surrender, in which the French had guaranteed protection for the defeated British.
The exact numbers of British killed in this battle are unconfirmed, but vary from a few hundred to 1,500. Most contemporary histories say the number was more likely to be around 200 than some of the higher estimates.
In the novel, the massacre was carried out by a group of Huron Indians led by Magua, a maleveolent character, bent on revenging himself for past wrongs done to him by the British. In Fenimore Cooper's story, the British soldiers are uncomfortable and out of place in the foreign wilderness of America and Canada. Their European fighting tactics are ineffective against the American Indians style of fighting.
Cora Munro was General Munro's eldest daughter. She is the love interest for Nathaniel in the novel. Cora adopts a protective mothering role for her younger sister Alice, who also features strongly in the story.
Fenimore Cooper's narrative takes place around these historic events. Most histories say that Fenimore Coper's story exaggerates the extent of the massacre and brutality of the Indians. However, at the same time his novels do provide a sympathetic and romantacised view of pioneer families and American Indians, as well as portraying the hardships of settling America.