James Fenimore Cooper.

The pioneers or, the sources of the Susquehanna : a descriptive tale online

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" Extremes of habits, manners, time ana space,
Brought close together, here stood face to face,
And gave at once a contrast to the view,
That other lands and ages never knew."



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 5 te 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 com-
mencing 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 lie had known, rather than
that which he might have imagined. This rigid adhesion to
truth, an indispensable requisite in history and travels, destroys
.he 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 ot Otsego, and the Susque-
hanna 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 man, 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 subsequen
division of territory, a part of Montgomery ; and, finally, having


obtained a sufficient population of its own, it was set apart as n
county by itself shortly after the peace of 1783. It lie's among
those low spurs of the Alleganies which cover the midland
counties of New York 3 and it is rather east of a meridional line
drawn through the centre 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

Otsego is said to be a word compounded' Of Ot, a place of
meetingj and Sego, or Sago, the ordinary term of salutation used
by the Indians of this region. There is a tradition which says
that the neighbouring 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 grw 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 smoke-house.

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 S<uquehanna ; 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.


Th Susquehanna, a narrow though rapid stream at its source,
wa* much filled with "flood wood," or fallen trees; and the
troops adopted a novel expedient to facilitate their passage. The
Otaego 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 uilL When all was ready, the
troops embarked, the dam was knocked away, the Otsego poured
out ita torrent^ and the boats went merrily down with the

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 in 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 smoke-house was 'the first ruin t 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.

Soon after the close of the war, "Washington, accompanied by
many distinguished men, visited the scene of this tale, it is said,
with a view to examine the facilities of opening a communication
by water with other points of the country. He stayed but a few

In 1785 the author's lather, who had an interest in extensive
tracts of land in this wilderness, arrived with a party of surveyors.
The manner in which the scene met his eye is described by
Judge Temple. At the commencement of the following year the
settlement began ; and from that time to this the country has


continued to flourish. It is a singular feature in American life,
that when, at the beginning of this century, the proprietor of the
estate had occasion for settlers on a new settlement, and in a
remote county, he was enabled to draw them from among the
increase of the former colony.

Although the settlement of this part of Otsego a little preceded
the birth of the author, it was not sufficiently advanced to render
it desirable that that event, so important to himself, should take
place .in the wilderness. Perhaps his mother had a reasonable
distrust of the practice of Dr. Todd, who must then have been in
the novitiate of his experimental acquirements. Be that as it
may, the author was brought an infant into this valley, and all
his first impressions were here obtained. He has inhabited it at
intervals in later life ; and he thinks he can answer for the
faithfulness of the picture he has drawn.

Otsego has now become one of the most populous districts of
New York. It sends forth its emigrants like any other old
region; and it is pregnant with industry and enterprise. Its
manufactures are prosperous ; and it is worthy of remark that
one of the most ingenious machines known in European art
is derived from the keen ingenuity which is exercised in this
remote region.

In order to prevent mistake, it may be well to say that the
incidents of this tale are purely a fiction. The literal facts are
chiefly connected with the natural and artificial objects and the
customs of the inhabitants. Thus the academy, and court-house,
and gaol, and inn, and most similar things, are exact. They
have all long since given place to other buildings of a more
pretending character. There is also some liberty taken with the
fruth in the description of the mansion-house : the real building
had no "firstly" and "lastly." It was of bricks, and not of
stone ; and its roof exhibited none of the peculiar beauties of
t3'.e ''composite order." It was erected in an age too primitive
lor ,ttr<t ambitious school of architecture. But the author in-
u!ged his recollections freely when he had fairly entered the


door. Here all is literal, even to the severed arm of Wolfe, and
the urn which held the ashes of Queen Dido. 1

The author has elsewhere said that the character of the
Leather-stocking is a creation, rendered probable by such auxili-
aries as were necessary to produce that effect. Had he drawn
still more upon fancy, the lovers of fiction would not have so
much cause for their objections to his work. Still the picture
would not have been in the least true without some substitutes
for most of the other personages. The great proprietor resident
on his lands, and giving his name to, instead of receiving it from
his estates, as in Europe, is common over the whole of New
York. The physician with his theory, rather obtained than
corrected by experiments on the human constitution ; "the
pious, self-denying, laborious, and ill-paid missionary ; the half-
educated, litigious, envious, and disreputable lawyer, with his
counterpoise, a brother of the profession, of better origin and of
better character ; the shiftless, bargaining, discontented seller of
his ''betterments;" the plausible carpenter, and most of the
others, are more familiar to all who have ever dwelt in a new

From circumstances irhich, after this introduction, will be
obvious to all, the author has had more pleasure in writing The
Pioneers than it will probably ever give any of its readers. He
is quite aware of its numerous faults ; some of which he has
endeavoured to repair in this edition : but as he has in inten-
tion at least done his full share in amusing the world, he trusti
to its good nature for overlooking this attempt to please himself-

PABIS, March 1832.

i Though forests still crown the mountains of Otsego, the hear, the wolf, and th
panther are nearly strangers to them. Even the innocent deer is rarely seen
bounding beneath their arches ; for the rifle and the activity of the settlers have
'Iriven them to other haunts. To this change (which, in some particulars, is
melancholy to one who knew the country in its Infancy) It may be added that the
Otsego Is beginning to be a niggard of Its treasures.




See Winter comes, to rale the vantd year,
Sullen, and sad, with all his rising train ;
Vapours, and clouds, ana stonus. THOMSON.

NEAR the centre of the State of New York lies an extensive dis-
trict of country, whose surface is a succession of hills and dales,
or, to speak with greater deference to geographical definitions, of
mountains and vafieys. It is among these hills that th Delaware
takes its rWe ; and flowing from the limpid lakes and thousand
springs of this region, the numerous sources of the "Susquehanna
meander through the valleys, until, uniting their streams, they
form one of the proudest rivers of the United States. The
mountains are generally arable to the tops, although instances
are not wanting where the sides are jutted with recks, that aid
greatly in giving to the country that romantic and picturesque
character which it so eminently possesses. The vales are narrow,
rich, and cultivated ; with a stream uniformly winding through
each. Beautiful and thriving villages are found interspersed
along the margins of the small lakes, or situated at those points
ot the streams which are favourable to manufacturing ; and neat
and comfortable farms, with every indication of wealth about
them, are scattered profusely through the vales, and even to the
mountain-tops. Roads diverge in evejy directiou^from the even
and graceful bottoms of the valleys, to the most rugged and
intricate passes of the hills. Academies, and minor edifices of
learning, meet the eye of. the stranger, j& every few miles, eata
winds las way through this uneven territory ; and places for the


worship of God abound with that frequency which characterizes
a moral and reflecting people, and with that variety of exterior
and canonical government which flows from unfettered liberty
of conscience, in short, the whole district is hourly exhibiting
how much can be done, in even a rugged country, and with a
severe climate, under the dominion of mild laws, and where
every nvn feels a direct interest in the prosperity of a common-
wealth, of which he knows himself to form a part. The expedi-
ents of the pioneers who first broke ground in the settlement
of this country, are succeeded by the permanent improvements
of the yeoman, who intends to leave his remains to moulder
under the sod which he tills, cr perhaps of the son, who, born
in the land, piously wishes to linger around the grave of his
father. Only forty years l have passed since this territory was
H, wilderness.'

Very soon after the establishment of the independence of the
States, by the peace of 1783, the enterprise of their citizens was
directed to a development of the natural advantages of their
widely extended dominions. Before the war of the devolution,
the inhabited parts of the colony of New York were limited to
lesa than a tenth of its possessions. A narrow belt of country,
extending for a short distance on either side of the Hudson, with
a similar occupation of fifty miles on the banks of the Mohawk,
together with the islands of Nassau and Staten, and a few insu-
lated settlements on chosen land along the margins of streams,
composed the country^ which was then inhabited by less than
two nundred thousand souls. Within the short period we have
mentioned, the population has spread itself over five degrees
of latitude and seven of longitude, and has swelled to a million
and a half of inhabitants, 9 who are maintained in abundance, and
can lok forward to ages before the evil day must arrive when
their possessions shall become unequal to their wants.

Our tale begins in 1793, about seven years after the commence-
ment of one of the earliest of those settlements, which have con-
duced to effect that magical change in the power and condition
of the State to which we have alluded.

It was near the setting of the sun, on a clear, cold day in
December, when a sleigh "was moving slowly up one of the
mountains, in the district we have described. The day had been
fine for the season, and but two or three large clouds, whose
colour seemed brightened by the light reflected from the mass ol
snow that covered the earth, floated in a sky of the purest blue.
The road wound along the brow of a precipice, and on one side
was upheld by a foundation of logs, piled one upon the other,
while a narrow excavation in the mountain, in the opposite

The bOflfc/was written in 1838.

Th population of New York la now (1P.31) quite 2,000,000.


direction, bad made a passage of sufficient width for the ordinary
travelling of that day. But logs, excavation, and everything'
that .did not reach several feet above the earth, lay alike buried
beneath the snow. A single track, barely wide enough to receive
the sleigh, 1 denoted the route of the highway, and this was
sunken near two feet below the surrounding surface. In the
vale, which lay at a distance of several hund/ed feet lower, there
was what in the language of the country was called a clearing,
and all the usual improvements of a new settlement ; these even
extended up the hill to the point where the road turned short
and ran across the level land, which lay on the summit of the
mountain ; but the summit itself remained in forest. There
was a glittering in the atmosphere, as if it were filled with
innumerable shining particles, and the noble bay horses that
drew^the sleigh were covered, in many parts, with a coat of hoar
frost. The vapour from their nostrils was seen to issue lik
smoke ; and every object in the view, as well as every arrange-
ment of the travellers, denoted the depth of a winter in the
mountains. The harness, which was of a deep dull black,
differing from the glossy varnishing of the present day, was
ornamented with enormous plates and buckles of brass, thaf;
shone like gold in those transient beams of the sun, which found
their way obliquely through the tops of the trees. Huge saddles,
studded with nails, and fitted with cloth that served as b?
to the shoulders of the cattle, supported four high, square- topped
turrets, through which the stout reins led from the moutlis of
the horses to the hands of the driver, who was a negro, of
apparently twenty years of age. His face, which nature had
coloured with a glistening black, was now mottled with the cold,
and his large shining eyes filled with tears ; a tribute to its
power, that the keen frosts of those regions always extracted
from one of his African origin. Still there was a smiling ex-
pression of good humour in his happy countenance, that w?<
created by the thoughts of hone, and a Christmas fireside, with
its Christmas frolics. The sleigh was one of those large, com-
fortable, old-fashioned conveyances, which would admit a whole
family within its bosom, but which now contained only two
passengers besides the driver. The colour of its outside was a

I Sleigh is the word used in every part of the United States to denote a t raineau.
It la of local use in the west of England, whence it is most probably derived by
the Americans. Th latter draw a distinction between a sled, or sleJge, and a
sleigh ; the sleigh being shod with metal. Sleighs are also sub-divided into two-

for temporary purposes in the new countries.

Many of the American sleighs are elegant, though the use of this mode of con-
veyance is much lessened with the melioration of the c'tmate, counequnnt on the
clearing of the forest*.


modest gieen, and that of its inside a fiery red.- The latter was
intended to convey the idea of heat in that cold climate. Large
buffalo skins, trimmed around the edges with red cloth, cut into
festoons, covered the back of the sleigh, and were spread over its
bottom, and drawn up around the feet of the travellers one of
whom, was a man of middle age, and the other a female, just
entering upon womanhood. The former was of a large stature ;
but the precautions he had taken to guard against the cold left
but little of his person exposed to view. A greatcoat that was
abundantly ornamented by a profusion of furs, enveloped the
whole of his figure, excepting the head, which was covered with
a cap of marten skins, lined with morocco, the sides of which
were made to fall, if necessary, and were now drawn close over
the ears, and fastened beneath his chin with a black riband. The
top of the cap was surmounted with the tail of the animal whose
skin had furnished the rest of the materials, which fell back,
not ungracefully, a few inches behind the head. From beneath
this mask were to be seen part of a fine manly face, and par-
ticularly a pair of expressive, large blue eyes, that promised
extraordinary intellect, covert humour, and great benevolence.
The form of his companion was literally hid beneath the gar-
ments she wore.' There were furs and silks peeping from tinder
a large camlet cloak, with a thick flannel lining, that, by its cut
and size, was evidently intended for a masculine wearer. A huge
hood of black silk, that was quilted with down, concealed the
whole of her head, except at a small opening in front for breath,
through which occasionally sparkled a pair of animated jet-black

Both the father and daughter (for such was the connection be-
tween the travellers) were too much occupied with their reflections
to break a stillness, that received little or no interruption from
the easy gliding of the sleigh, by the sound of their voices. The
former was thinking of the wife that had held this their only
child to her bosom, when, four years before, she had reluctantly
consented to relinquish the society of her daughter, in order
that the latter might enjoy the advantages of an education
which the city of New York could only offer at that period. A
few months afterwards, death had deprived him of the remain-
ing companion of his solitude ; but still he had enough of real
regard for his child, not to bring her into the comparative
wilderness in which he dwelt until the full period had expired
to which he had limited her juvenile labours. The reflections
of the daughter were less melancholy, and mingled with a pleased
astonishment at the novel scenery she met at every turn in. the

The mountain on which they were journeying was covered
with pines, that rose \rthout a branch some seventy or eighty


feet, and which frequently doubled that height, by the addition
of the tops. Through the innumerable vistas that opened
beneath the lofty trees tho eye could penetrate, until it was
met by a distant inequality in the ground, or was stopped by
a view of the summit of the mountain, which lay bn the opposite
side of the valley to which they were hastening. The dark
trunks of the trees rose from the pure white of the snow, in
regularly formed shafts, until, at a great height, their branches
ehot forth horizontal limbs that were covered with the meagre
foliage of an evergreen, affording a melancholy contrast to the
torpor of nature below. To the travellers tjiere seemed to be no
wind ; but these pines waved majestically at their topmost
boughs, sending forth a dull, plaintive sound, that was quite in
consonance with the rest of the melancholy scene.

The sleigh had glided for some distance along the even surface,
and the gaze of the female was bent in inquisitive, and peihaps
timid glances, into the recesses of the forest, when a loud and
continued howling was heard, pealing under the long arches of
the woods, like the cry of a numerous pack of hounds. The
instant the sounds reached the ears of the gentleman, he cried
aloud to the black,

" Hold up, Aggy ; there is old Hector ; I should know his
bay among ten thousand ! The Leather-stocking has put his
hounds into the hills, this clear day, and they have started their
game. There is a deer-track a few rods ahead ; and now, Bess,
if thou canst muster courage enough to stand fire, I will give thee
a saddle for thy Christmas dinner.

The black drew up, with a cheerful grin upon his chilled
features, and began thrashing his arms together, in order to re-
store the circulation to his fingers, while the speaker stood erect,
and, throwing aside his outer covering, he stepped from the
sleigh upon a bank of snow, which, sustained his weight without

In a few moments the speaker succeeded in. extricating a
double-barrelled fowling-piece from among a multitude of trunks
and band-boxes. " After throwing aside the thick mittens which
had encased his hands, that now appeared in. a pair of leather
gloves tipped with fur, he examined his priming, and was about
to move forward, when the light bounding noise of a*n animal
plunging through the woods was heard, and a fine buck darted
into the path, a short distance ahead of him. The appearance
of the animal was sudden, and his flight inconceivably rapid ;
but the traveller appeared to be too keen a sportsman to be dis-
concerted by either. As it came first into view he raised the
fowling-piece to his shoulder, and, with a practised eye and
steady hand, drew a trigger. The deer dashed forward un-
daunted, an* apparently unhurt Without lowering his piece,


the traveller turned his muzzle towards his victim, and fired
again. Neither discharge, however, seemed to have taken effect.

The whole scene had passed with a rapidity that confused the
female, who was unconsciously rejoicing in the escape of the
buck, as he rather darted like a meteor, than ran across the road,
when a sharp, quick sound struck her ear, quite different from
the full, round reports of her father's gun, but still sufficiently
distinct to he known as the concussion produced by fire-air ,
At the same instant that "he heard this unexpected report, the
buck sprang from the snow, to a great height in the air, ami
directly a second discharge, similar in sound to the first, followed,
when the animal came to the earth, falling headlong and roDIng
over on the crust with its own velocity. A loud shout was given
t>y the unseen marksman, and a couple of men instantly appeared
from behind the trunks of two of the pines, where thoy 3r.;d
evidently placed themselves in expectation of the passage of the

Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperThe pioneers or, the sources of the Susquehanna : a descriptive tale → online text (page 1 of 40)