Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 556
The Pioneers, the first published of the Leatherstocking Tales (but the fourth in Deerslayer’s chronology), though containing some of the usual Scott influences, is essentially a mirror of American history. Deerslayer, now known as Leatherstocking, has advanced to his early seventies, and the action takes place in 1793 and 1794. The setting is Templeton, which Cooper identifies in his introduction to the novel as representing the customs and inhabitants of early Cooperstown. Although the plot concerns the Temple-Effingham feud (complete with Romeo and Juliet lovers, Oliver and Elizabeth), the novel’s strength is its re-creation of daily scenes from late eighteenth century American life (such as lake fishing and a turkey shoot) and its central theme of economic change and the law.
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Cooper’s basic conflict is still between two differing ways of life, but this time they are not the Indians’ and whites’. Templeton is a farming community that survives by cutting trees, planting crops, and turning hunting grounds into pastures. As such, it represents the new American agrarian economy. In order to prosper, it has to create a new system of laws as, in a larger sense, the United States must.
The living embodiment of this emerging system is Judge Marmaduke Temple (modeled upon Cooper’s father), who, though fallible, tries to apply these laws equitably. Built into the system are its flaws, including political patronage and the sometime destruction of personal freedom for the greater good. Opposing this new system is that of Leatherstocking. As the hunter, he lives in a cabin on the outskirts of the community. He represents the old America whose day, at least in the East, is slowly fading. Cooper uses the time passage in the novel—from opening on Christmas Eve to closing in autumn—to suggest such change is both natural and inevitable.
The community conflicts with the hunter. Lacking the time to learn to kill game with a single ball, the farmers have resorted to mass slaughter and waste of the forest denizens, In April, the Templetonians shoot thousands of pigeons that are migrating in sky-darkening flocks, In counterpoint, Leatherstocking kills the one bird he needs and calls the townsfolk sinful for their waste. In chapters 23 and 24, the townspeople employ a huge seine to catch fish, also slaughtering more than they need.
Leatherstocking spears only one fish. Ultimately he kills a deer, but the townspeople have created a new law that claims he has done so out of season. When they come to arrest him, he forcibly opposes them. Leatherstocking is convicted of assault and battery as well as resisting a search warrant. For this crime he is imprisoned and fined, but not before burning his long-standing home so that it cannot be entered against his will.
Another theme-reinforcing subplot involves Leatherstocking’s oldest companion: Chingachgook has become Christianized by civilization and given the name John Mohegan. Civilization has also provided him with alcohol and turned him into a hopeless drunk. Finally, after donning his battle garb, the once-noble chief is killed by an exploding canister of gunpowder—another product of civilization. The Pioneers, then, concludes with the only possible resolution of the major conflict. Unable to triumph against inevitable progress, Leatherstocking heads westward to the new frontier; the future belongs to the Templetons and Judge Temple. The Pioneers has been called the first genuinely American novel.