The Last of the Mohicans | Study Guide

James Fenimore Cooper

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The Last of the Mohicans | Context

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The French and Indian War

Events in The Last of the Mohicans take place during the French and Indian War. The conflict began in 1754 in the Ohio Valley and ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, pitting British soldiers against French soldiers and their respective Native American allies. Both sides wanted to protect their interests—land claims and the valuable fur trade—and to expand their empires in eastern North America.

In 1757 the year in which Cooper set his fictional story The Last of the Mohicans, the French were winning the war. After French forces including 1,600 Native American allies from 33 nations surrounded Fort William Henry, real-life Lieutenant Colonel George Monro surrendered to Montcalm after a six-day siege. As the novel suggests, the French did nothing to protect the British afterward, and the massacre described in Chapter 17 did happen. On August 10, Native American allies of the French slaughtered about 185 men, women, and children and captured more than 300.

In The Last of the Mohicans, the French and Indian War is a dramatic backdrop for Cooper's tale. The war proved to be a turning point in American history. After nine years of fighting, Great Britain won. According to the terms of the treaty, the French turned over Canada and lands east of the Mississippi River to the British. To raise money to pay for the war, Great Britain raised taxes on colonists. As a result, the colonists rebelled, which contributed directly to the American Revolution.

Removal of Native Americans

The French and Indian War marked a turning point in relations between Native Americans and whites in North America. It disrupted the balance of European power and increased tensions between Native Americans and white settlers eager for land. After the war, the British tried to ease tensions by passing the Proclamation of 1763, which created a boundary and declared the land west of the Appalachian Mountains as reserved for Native Americans.

Clashes between white settlers and Native Americans continued after the Revolutionary War ended in 1783. The US government pursued a policy of removal under Presidents James Monroe and Andrew Jackson in the early 1800s. Native Americans were forced from their homelands in the East and moved to lands west of the Mississippi River to make way for white settlement. The Indian Removal Act, passed in 1830, resulted in the forced removal of thousands of Native Americans.

Cooper relied on historical sources that were themselves misleading at times, and he also distorted history for dramatic purposes. For these reasons, his portrayal of the various Native tribes, their customs, and their alliances, cannot be assumed to be accurate.

The Rise of American Literature

In 1820 Reverend Sydney Smith, a literary critic, wrote these scathing words in the Edinburgh Review: "In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?" American literature was viewed as neither original nor important early in the 19th century. Typically, American authors borrowed settings, characters, and themes from British or European works. As the new nation grew in the 1800s, however, it developed a sense of its own identity. American authors including Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper created a national literature firmly rooted in the American experience. Popular around the world, Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans helped change the way readers and critics viewed American literature.

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