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Fire-water in the frontier romance: James Fenimore Cooper and "Indian nature." (Native Americans and Euro-American Writers)

There is something painful in the reflection that these people were once numerous, and that by our approach they have been reduced to a few. It is natural that we should feel averse to the admission that the true causes of their decline are to be found among us. Hence we have sought for the seat of the disease among them ...(1)

Indiana Senator John Tipton, defending before the Senate in 1838 an appropriations bill augumenting federal support for those Native Americans who had recently been removed to "Indian Territory," identified one of the major features of nineteenth-century Euro-American discussions of intercultural relations in America. Many nineteenth-century Euro-Americans accepted without hesitation the distinction between "savagism" and "civilization" as an explanation for Native Americans' perceived inabilities to assimilate neatly into Euro-American society.(2) The concept of "savagism" was derived from a model of social evolution that situated "barbarous" Native Americans below "civilized" Euro-Americans, characterizing Native Americans according to their apparent cultural "deficits." Nineteenth-century debates concerning interaction between Euro-Americans and Native Americans thus often focused upon "Indian nature"; the presumed inferiority of "Indian nature" became a central rationale for continued Euro-American migration westward and consequent dispossession of Native American lands.(3) Since most nineteenth-century Euro-Americans could conceive of the possibilities only of civilization or extinction for Native Americans, Euro-American visions of Native Americans' future were often determined in large part by how Native Americans were perceived to react to the Euro-American presence.(4) As Tipton noted, many Euro-Americans tended to interpret these reactions more for what they were understood to reveal about "Indian nature" than what they might suggest about Euro-American society.

Some of the most durable stereotypes regarding "Indian nature" have involved alcohol; "the drunken Indian" has long been a distinct type in Euro-American culture. Alcohol undoubtedly has had a profound impact upon Native American peoples; in his American Indian Holocaust and Survival, Russell Thornton asserts that "many native societies were virtually destroyed by the quest for alcohol."(5) Seeking an accurate understanding of Native American drinking behaviors, modern anthropologists have proposed a variety of theories. Indeed, the diversity of plausible explanations has led some anthropologists to conclude that any assumption that there is (or was) such a discrete phenomenon as "Native American drinking" as opposed to various patterns of drinking among different Native American communities--patterns which may or may not be related--may very well itself constitute stereotypical thinking.(6)

Most nineteenth-century Euro-Americans, however, were not so cautious in their speculations concerning alcohol and Native Americans. From the first years of Euro-American colonization in America, Native American drinking had been considered such a hazard that numerous laws were passed that sought to curb what became known as the Indian liquor trade.(7) An 1832 federal regulation declared that "No ardent spirits shall be hereafter introduced, under any pretence, into the Indian country," the beginning of an official federal prohibition of Native American drinking that would last until 1952.(8) However, despite strict federal laws reports still proliferated of whiskey traders selling liquor throughout Native American communities. Euro-American authorities could not effectively enforce the laws prohibiting such trade. In fact, the beliefs, popular among many Euro-Americans, that alcohol was fast destroying Native Americans and that the liquor trade could not effectively be stopped were frequently used to fuel support for removal, the most far-reaching federal policy promulgated concerning Native Americans in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Many pro-removal arguments centered on the perceived inferiority of the character of the "savage" Native American, who was believed to be inordinately susceptible to the "vices" of civilization. Asserting that "the destroying effects of ardent spirits among them is horrid in the extreme," Baptist missionary Isaac McCoy, for example, argued that immediate removal was necessary.(9) Some opponents of removal contended that, once removed past the bounds of civilization, Native Americans would revert to the "savage" state of the hunter and thus all hopes of their assimilation into Euro-American society would be lost. However, the belief that Native Americans were vanishing, unable to survive in close contact with Euro-Americans, sufficed for the federal government as justification of its removal policy. While some Native Americans still existed on reservations in the east, by the late 1830s the eastern border of "Indian country" had been officially and practically redefined as west of the Mississippi River. Assumptions about what Native American drinking supposedly revealed about the deficiencies of "Indian nature" had contributed to "verifying" the presumed incompatibility of "savagism" and "civilization."

For a writer viewed by many of his contemporaries as an advocate for Native Americans, as well as an author deeply concerned with rights of property, James Fenimore Cooper had perhaps surprisingly little to say about contemporary relations between Euro-Americans and Native Americans, especially about the debate over removal of Native Americans from their lands.(10) In several of his historical novels, however, Cooper examines the question of "Indian nature," particularly the possibilities of "civilizing the savage," in ways that mirror nineteenth-century debates over removal and the future of relations between Euro-Americans and Native Americans. Alcohol figures prominently in several of Cooper's most intriguing and complex representations of Native Americans, especially among his "fringe" characters--those of his Native Americans who have had significant contact with Euro-American society, or Euro-Americans who have had contact with Native Americans. One "civilized" trait Cooper typically assigned to his Native American "fringe" characters, one that was often cited as a primary index of how succesfully Native Americans could be assimilated into Euro-American civilization, was drinking--a taste for "fire-water."

Cooper's portrayals of Native American drinking thus contributed in their own way to the contemporary debate concerning "Indian nature." Kay Seymour House has observed that "whiskey ... became for Cooper [a] convenient [symbol] of civilization's silent and corroding destruction of native beauty."(11) To illustrate the "corrosion of native beauty" may be one apparent intent of some of Cooper's portrayals of Native American drinking, yet virtually every one of these portrayals also demonstrates the fundamental incongruity of "savagism" and "civilization." While there are significant variations among Cooper's depictions of how drinking affects Native Americans--perhaps reflecting inconsistencies in nineteenth-century stereotypes of "the drunken Indian"--these various portrayals nevertheless converge to underscore Cooper's assumptions about the ultimate moral inferiority of Native Americans.

Perhaps the most famous of Cooper's examples of Native American drinking is Old John Mohegan from The Pioneers (1823). Having resolved not to move west with others of his tribe but to be buried on the lands of his fathers, Old John--Chingachgook at his oldest--is the last of his people in the area surrounding Templeton in 1793. His habits are described as "a mixture of the civilized and savage states" with "a strong preponderance in favor of the latter."(12) Nevertheless, despite this "strong preponderance," John has become a convert to Christianity, a result of Moravian missionaries' work after the French and Indian wars, purportedly forsaking the beliefs of his people and embracing the "white man's religion."

At the outset of the novel Old John uses "Indian medicine" to dress the bullet wound of Oliver Edwards after the young man has been hit by a stray shot from Judge Marmaduke Temple. Temple's wounding of Edwards is broadly symbolic of one of the major concerns in the novel: rights to the land. Judge Temple legally owns much of the land in the area (hence "Templeton"), having bought out his partner Effingham, a Loyalist forced to flee the country at the onset of the Revolutionary War. Leatherstocking openly questions Temple's claim to the land, arguing that the Native Americans, represented now only by Old John Mohegan and Oliver Edwards (whom many in the novel believe to be the old man's grandson and thus the true "last of the Mohicans") have been unfairly dispossessed. Cooper uses alcohol to illustrate one of the major means to this dispossession.

After John draws upon his "savage" habits in order to aid the wounded Edwards, the reader is afforded a look at the Mohican in his "civilized state": John is shown at the Bold Dragoon, one of Templeton's taverns, drinking heavily at the encouragement of several Euro-American men. When they exhort him to join in a drinking song, Old John launches into a "wild, melancholy air" sung in his native language which Leatherstocking recognizes as a song of his old war exploits. Leatherstocking chastises his old friend, "Why do you sing of your battles ... when the worst enemy of all is near you and keeps the Young Eagle from his rights?" (p. 165). Though Leatherstocking here explicitly refers to Euro-Americans as the enemy that has dispossessed John and his "grandson" Edwards, in the context of the scene, the "worst enemy" might also plausibly be understood as alcohol, since it is the immediate agent of the old warrior's insensibility.

Leatherstocking does manage to arouse in his companion a deep, although momentary, indignation at the Euro-American's dispossession of his people's lands. Yet these efforts ultimately fail:

[John] was not himself. His hand seemed to make a fruitless effort to release his tomahawk, while his eyes gradually became vacant. Richard [Jones, who had been encouraging John to drink! at that instant thrusting a mug before him, his features changed to the grin of idiocy, and seizing the vessel with both hands, he sank backward on the bench and drank until satiated, when he made an effort to lay aside the mug with the helplessness of total inebriety (p. 166).

Leatherstocking remarks, "he is drunk and can do no harm. This is the way with all the savages; give them liquor, and they will make dogs of themselves" (p. 166). Even Cooper's most vocal advocate of Native American rights finally focuses his disgust upon the manner in which his companion gives in to his desire for "fire-water"; weak "Indian nature" inevitably succumbs to the vices of civilization.

This graphic illustration of how liquor has contributed to the downfall of Native Americans is given further force when Cooper allows Old John to comment explicitly on how drinking has affected his people. The day after his "revelry" in the Bold Dragoon, Old John mourns to Edwards: "the white man brings old age with him--rum is his tomahawk!" (p. 185). John claims that his people had originally come to the area where Templeton now stands in order to escape just this problem--"They fled before rum" (p. 185)--and John laments that they were not able to keep out the Euro-American traders: "The evil spirit was in their jugs, and they let him loose" (p. 185). Edwards replies, "The curses of heaven light on the cupidity that has destroyed such a race" (pp. 185--86).

This last remark admits a twofold interpretation; the context does not fully establish whether the reader is to criticize the cupidity of the Euro-American traders or of the Native Americans themselves. Again, the implied attitude is ambivalent. Euro-Americans are to be blamed for pushing liquor on Native Americans, just as the men who filled Old John's cups in the Bold Dragoon are considered in part responsible for his intoxication. Yet the Native American character is censured for so fully indulging his vice, for changing into a disgusting "Christian beast," as John denounces himself.

Cooper resolves, or dodges, this dilemma of the discordant mixture of "civilized" and "savage" in The Pioneers in a telling fashion. At the conclusion of the novel Edwards, long suspected to be the descendant of Chingachgook, is discovered actually to be the son of Judge Temple's original partner, and thus, like Leatherstocking, without any "cross of blood." Edwards/Effingham is restored to his rightful ownership of the land, yet his claim is not as a Native American; the "savage" is revealed to be actually "civilized."

As far as Old John, the real "savage," is concerned, Cooper resolves his problem by killing him off--but not before John is allowed to regain his "savage" dignity. Near the conclusion of the novel, Old John strongly renounces all connections with Euro-Americans. When Elizabeth Temple, the Judge's daughter, encounters him in the forest, painted in a manner "exhibiting an Indian warrior" (p. 400), Old John declares, "John has lived till all his people have left him for the land of spirits; his time has come and he is ready" (p. 402), and launches into a description of the hereafter modeled on a vision of what the land was like before the advent of Euro-Americans. Elizabeth is horrified at such outright blasphemy: "John! This is not the heaven of a Christian ... You now deal in the superstition of your forefathers" (p. 403). Yet the old Indian will not resume his "civilized" role. Meditating upon his past exploits as a "noble" warrior and upon the "happy hunting grounds" now awaiting him, John refuses to save himself from the fire started by a careless party of searchers for the fugitive Leatherstocking. As Leatherstocking and Edwards arrive on the scene, John orders them to "Save her--leave John to die" (p. 405), following the convention, which recurs in many frontier romances, of the "noble Indian" sacrificing him- or herself for the Euro-American hero or heroine.(13) John escapes the degradation resulting from his contact with Euro-Americans only by rejecting all aspects of Euro-American civilization. The image of the "Christian beast" is replaced by that of the stoic pagan, who ironically (and conveniently) is most admirable at his moment of death. The "drunken Indian" redeems himself only through reaffirming his "savagism."

Cooper drew upon assumptions about alcohol and Native Americans again in the next of his Leatherstocking novels, The Last of the Mohicans (1826). The subject is first introduced in a conversation early in the novel between a younger Leatherstocking and Chingachgook. Explaining why his people had migrated to the western part of the country, Chingachgook states:

The Dutch landed, and gave my people the fire-water; they drank until the heavens and the earth seemed to meet, and they foolishly thought they had found the Great Spirit. Then they parted with their land. Foot by foot, they were driven back from the shores, until I, that am a chief and a Sagamore, have never seen the sun shine but through the trees, and have never visited the graves of my fathers.(14)

Yet instead of simply contributing yet again to this image of liquor debasing the "noble savage," The Last of the Mohicans offers another variation to the range of portrayals of Native American drinking behavior. Set during the French and Indian War, Mohicans traces the exploits of the treacherous Magua, who in his pose as a trustworthy guide, has been assigned the duty of escorting Colonel Munro's two daughters, Cora and Alice, to Fort William Henry. Before the party arrives at the fort, however, Magua abducts his charges. In a notable conversation between this "ignoble savage" and Cora Munro, Cooper presents a view of the "drunken Indian" quite different from the pathetic Old John of The Pioneers. When Magua orders Euro-American soldier Duncan Heyward to send Cora to him, Heyward, assuming that Magua will demand some ransom, warns her, "You understand the nature of an Indian's wishes ... and must be prodigal of your offers of powder and blankets. Ardent spirits are, however, the most prized, by such as he" (p. 101).

Cora receives no such demands, however. Instead, the "ignoble savage" first attempts to entreat her sympathy: "Magua was born a chief and a warrior among the red Hurons of the lakes; he saw the suns of twenty summers make the snows of twenty winters run off in the streams, before he saw a pale-face; and he was happy! Then his Canada fathers came into the woods, and taught him to drink the fire-water, and he became a rascal" (p. 102). The narrator notes that Magua had labored to "suppress those passions" which arose when he "recalled the recollection of his supposed injuries" (p. 102; emphasis added). Magua continues, "Was it the fault of Le Renard that his head was not made of rock? Who gave him the fire-water? Who made him a villain? 'Twas the pale faces, the people of your own color" (p. 102).

Here are very different consequences of Native American drinking than in The Pioneers; where Old John drops into a sedate state of "total inebriety," Magua declares that drinking makes him more impassioned, more volatile. Indeed, Magua recalls a time when, despite Munro's orders, he had stormed into the colonel's quarters and had "foolishly opened his mouth," as he claims, led by "the hot liquor." Magua rants against his punishment for this deed: "is it justice to make evil, and then punish for it? Magua was not himself; it was the fire-water that spoke and acted for him!" (p. 103).

Yet despite Magua's pointed attack on Euro-Americans for providing liquor to his people, Cooper clearly undermines Magua's criticism. First there are the immediate consequences of drinking to which Magua alludes; though Le Renard himself seems not to have done anything terribly destructive while intoxicated (entering Munro's quarters uninvited), still his own description (as well as his own example) of an excited, unpredictable force spurred on by "fire-water" is hardly calculated to elicit unmitigated sympathy for the "drunken Indian."

More important is the function of Magua in the narrative. Immediately after he absolves himself from responsibility for any of his actions while he was drunk, he demands that Cora live with him as a "concubine." Cora recoils with horror from such a suggestion, declaring that she far prefers death. As the novel's repetitive plot twists of capture and rescue proceed, Magua periodically repeats his offer to Cora, until at the climax of the novel, he insists, "the wigwam or the knife of Le Subtil!" (p. 337). When Cora refuses "the wigwam," one of Magua's attendants stabs her. Magua is in large part discredited as a spokesman against Euro-American wrongdoings; despite the apparent justness of his argument considered in isolation from the novel's plot, his criticism of the Euro-Americans for providing liquor to Native Americans loses much of its persuasive power. Rather, Magua is portrayed as doubly "ignoble"--for succumbing to the vice of intemperance and for giving way to his "savage" passions in threatening the Euro-American heroines.

Cooper's last frontier romance, The Oak Openings (1848), set in Michigan territory at the beginning of the war of 1812, highlights yet another Euro-American attitude towards Native American drinking, another variation on the "drunken Indian" sterotype. At the outset of the novel, the protagonist Ben Boden, a bee-hunter nicknamed Le Bourdon, encounters near his wilderness cabin the Yankee Gershom Waring, nicknamed "Whiskey Centre" because of his thriving liquor trade with Native Americans and Euro-American soldiers and because of his own frequent drunkenness. Though, like Leatherstocking, Boden prefers the forests to the Euro-American settlements, the news of the imminent frontier warfare convinces him to return to the settlements, on the way stopping with Waring at his cabin. No teetotaller himself, Boden nevertheless tries to persuade Waring to curb his excessive drinking in order to save his health; Waring responds, "I know as well as you do, Bourdon, that sobriety is a good thing, and dissipation a bad thing, but it's hard to give up, all at once."(15)

Cooper's sharp contrast of the temperate Boden and the tippling Waring may have been designed in part to please contemporary temperance reformers; the novel was published only three years before the Maine Law of 1851. Yet more to the point than his depiction of the sottish Yankee is Cooper's portrayal of drinking by Native Americans in The Oak Openings. Upon arriving at Whiskey Centre's shack, at which Waring had left his wife Dolly and sister Margery, Boden resolves to help Waring "dry out," hauling Waring's two casks of whiskey away from the cabin and breaking them open, letting the liquor seep into the ground. When a party of Native Americans is seen approaching, Boden and the Warings conceal themselves and observe the Native Americans approaching Whiskey Centre. Boden notices a commotion away from Waring's hut where he had smashed one of the whiskey kegs: "As I live they scent the whiskey! There is a rush toward, and a powwow in and about the shed--yes, of a certainty they smell the liquor! Some of it has escaped in rolling down the hill, and their noses are too keen to pass over a fragrance that to them equals that of roses" (p. 75).

Describing the Native Americans' attempts to make sense of this mystery, Cooper treats the scene virtually as farce: "All the movements, gestures, and genuflections of the savages were plainly seen by the bee hunter. We say the genuflections, for nearly all of the Indians got on their knees and applied their noses to the earth, in order to scent the fragrance of the beloved whiskey; some out of curiosity, but more because they loved even this tantalizing indulgence, when no better could be had" (p. 103). As he steals closer to the Native Americans in order better to assess their strength, Boden is discovered and captured by this group, who are revealed as hostile Potawatomis called to assemble by Onoah, alias "Scalping Peter," in order to drive all Euro-Americans from the continent. Yet the bee hunter bluffs his way to safety by posing as a "medicine man" who has the power to detect "whiskey springs." With a mock dousing rod, he leads the Potawatomis to the spot of ground where the second cask of whiskey had broken, a spot which they had not yet discovered, and in amazement the Potawatomis again fall to their knees at the smell of the liquor. Cooper depicts these previously hostile warriors at the nadir of their degradation, literally rooting their noses into the ground: one, "not satisfied with gratifying the two senses connected with the discoveries named [sight and smell] ... began to lap with his tongue, like a dog, to try the effect of taste" (p. 118).

As in other of Cooper's frontier romances, Native Americans are portrayed here at the mercy of their uncontrollable desire for liquor; at one point in The Oak Openings Cooper comments, "Whiskey had unfortunately obtained a power over the red men of this continent ... which can only be likened to that which is supposed to belong to the influence of witchcraft" (pp. 105--06). Yet unlike Old John in The Pioneers, the "drunken Indians" in The Oak Openings, who are defying Euro-American claims to the land on the contested frontier as opposed to being isolated in a developing Euro-American settlement, are not portrayed as objects of immediate sympathy. Uniting in order to plot the destruction of Euro-Americans throughout all of North America, Native Americans are seen less as victims than as aggressors. Cooper describes one especially belligerent chief, Weasel, as "particularly addicted to intemperance; lying, wallowing like a hog, for days at a time, whenever his tribe received any ... ample contribution of fire-water" (p. 279). Though the portrayal of Gershom Waring suggests that Euro-Americans are not immune to the temptations of alcohol, Cooper's Ben Boden helps point up differences between Native American and Euro-American drinking behavior. Boden strongly discourages Waring from drinking, reminding him that when he is drunk, he is an inadequate protector of Dorothy and Margery, the heroines. Yet in order to save his neck when he is caught spying on the Potawatomis, Boden capitalizes on his knowledge of Native Americans' fascination with alcohol, playing the "medicine man" leading the gullible Potawatomis to "whiskey springs." In the context of Cooper's narrative--hundreds of hostile Native Americans conspiring indiscriminately to slaughter all Euro-Americans they encounter--Native American drinking is depicted as an incapacitating weakness that Boden may justifiably exploit, a fortunate flaw in "Indian nature."

Perhaps the most intriguing of Cooper's portrayals of Native American drinking--indeed, perhaps Cooper's most intriguing Native American character, who "embodies most clearly the weaknesses and strengths inherent in Indian temperament"(16)--is Saucy Nick, alias Wyandotte, in Wyandotte, or The Hutted Knoll (1843). In the novel, retired British Captain Hugh Willoughby decides to build on frontier land granted to him for his service in the French and Indian Wars. He asks the Tuscarora Saucy Nick,(17) one of his former scouts, to find suitable land for his projected wilderness homestead, and Nick declares, in a parody of Euro-American land claims, that he himself has land to sell: "How 'e pale face come to own America? Discover him--ha!--Well, Nick discover land down yonder, up dere, over here."(18) Cooper maintains this mildly cynical perspective on Euro-American rights to the land as he describes how Willoughby's hired surveyor acquires the "title" of his New York homestead; the surveyor "collected a few chiefs of the nearest tribe, dealt out his rum, tobacco, blankets, wampum and gun powder, got the Indians to make their marks on a bit of deer skin, and returned to his employer with a map, a field book, and a deed by which the Indian title was 'extinguished'" (p. 11).

Like Old John Mohegan, Saucy Nick is portayed as drinking heavily and frequently. Saucy Nick "was born a chief, and had made himself an outcast from his tribe more by the excess of ungovernable passions, than from any act of base meanness" (p. 33). Indeed, Nick's major fault is a lack of self-restraint: when he first meets Willoughby's servant, the Irish immigrant Mike O'Hearn, Saucy Nick invites him to share Santa Cruz rum, an inversion of the Euro-American debauching the Native American. Captain Willoughby remarks of Nick, "the principal mischief he does here is to get Mike ... deeper in Santa Cruz than I could wish" (p. 97).

Yet Nick does more in the novel than debauch Mike O'Hearn. The "white rabble" throughout the colonies and especially around Willoughby's Hutted Knoll have become increasingly resentful of British rule, and as an ex-officer in the British Army (and the father of Bob Willoughby, currently a major in His Majesty's Royal American forces), Hugh Willoughby is suspected as a Tory by many of his Yankee employees and tenants, though he maintains a strict neutrality in public and privately admits his sympathy for the "rebel cause." In this precarious situation Nick maintains his role as trusty scout, loyal to the Willoughby family, succeeding in safely escorting Bob Willoughby through the forest to the Hutted Knoll, protecting him from discovery by the lower-class "anarchists."

The climax of the novel occurs when a party of "Indians" lays siege to the Hutted Knoll, attackers whom Nick later reveals are comprised of twenty-seven actual Native Americans (mostly Mohawks) and forty-seven Euro-Americans dressed as Indians. Captain Willoughby and Chaplain Woods discuss how they should react to the besieging "savages":

"In this respect, we are at their mercy. If they ask for rum, or cider, that may bring matters to a head; for, refusing may exasperate them, and granting either, in any quantity, will certainly cause them all to get intoxicated."

"Why would not that be good policy, Willoughby?" exclaimed the chaplain. "If fairly disguised once, our people might steal out upon them, and take away all their arms. Drunken men sleep very profoundly."

"It would be a canonical mode of warfare, perhaps, Woods," returned the captain, smiling, "but not exactly a military. I think it safer that they should continue sober, for, as yet, they manifest no greater intentions of hostility" (pp. 168--9).

Here Cooper presents conflicting hypotheses about how liquor affects Native Americans (the Captain is not yet aware that most of the force are Euro-American); whereas earlier in the novel drinking has made Nick the boon companion of Mike O'Hearn--the Native American and the Euro-American communing in their drunken revelry--here Willoughby seems to think of liquor as a catalyst for possible Native American violence, one that might possibly exacerbate the aggressions of the surrounding "Indians." Indeed, as the Captain discusses Nick's loyalty with his Yankee overseer Joel Strides (who he later learns is in large part responsible for this white "uprising," planning to seize Willoughby's territory when the suspected Loyalist is killed or chased off(19)), Cooper introduces another perspective on Nick's drinking. Responding to Strides's suggestion that Nick resents him, the captain states, "If I have had occasion to flog him, a few times, I have also had occasion to give him more rum than has done him good" (p. 253). Strides replies:

There I think the captain miscalculates.... No man is thankful for rum when the craving is off, sin' he knows he has been taking an inimy into his stomach, and as for the money, it was much the same as giving the liquor, seein' that it went for liquor as soon as he could trot down to the mill. A man will seek his revenge for rum, as soon as for anything else, when he gets to feel injuries uppermost. Besides, I s'pose the captain knows an injury will be remembered, long a'ter a favor is forgotten (p. 253).

Though Cooper has clearly demonstrated Strides's treachery, the reader is not led to dismiss his reasoning here, for Cooper has also established that Saucy Nick does hold a deep grudge against the Captain for the three times, now many years since, that Willoughby had ordered him to be publicly flogged (recalling Magua's resentment of Munro in The Last of the Mohicans). In fact, Nick's loyalty to the Willoughby family is deeply divided: though he resents his floggings at the hand of Captain Willoughby, he is grateful to the Captain's wife for at one time inoculating him against smallpox, thus saving his life. This deep ambivalence in Nick's character is highlighted throughout the novel. Indeed, Nick himself emphasizes the great division in himself. When at one point Captain Willoughby offers him a glass of liquor, Nick indignantly refuses, declaring, "Nick always dry--Wyandotte, know no thirst. Nick, beggar--ask for rum--pray for rum t'ink of rum, talk of rum, laugh for rum, cry for rum. Wyandotte do n't know rum, when he see him. Wyandotte beg not'in; no, not his scalp" (pp. 246--47).

The Tuscarora describes himself virtually as a split personality: "Saucy Nick" is degraded by "fire-water" and has had to submit himself repeatedly to floggings; "Wyandotte" is a proud chief, immune to the seductions of liquor, and permits no one to lay a hand on him. The line between these two self-conceptions is tested several times throughout the novel, particularly when Captain Willoughby threatens to flog Nick for some perceived transgression and Nick struggles to restrain himself from taking out revenge for the insult. The climax of this strand of the plot occurs when, with Nick's assistance, Captain Hugh Willoughby attempts to rescue his son Bob, who has been captured by the besieging "Indians." When Captain Willoughby inadvertently alludes to the past floggings, Nick--his old resentment resurfacing--fatally stabs the Captain and immediately after, prompted by his sincere devotion to the rest of the Willoughby family, proceeds to help free the murdered man's son. When, unaware that he has just slain his father, Bob calls him by the name "Wyandotte," the Tuscarora puffs up in great satisfaction: "Wyandotte come--Nick gone away altogeder. Nebber see Sassy Nick ag'in" (p. 338).

The implications are especially telling. Saucy Nick is closest in spirit to Euro-Americans when he drinks: his revels with Mike O'Hearn erase, temporarily, all barriers between Euro-American and Native American (though Cooper does not celebrate this particular aspect of intercultural communion). Yet when Wyandotte is at his "noblest"--when he renounces his alter-ego Saucy Nick--he demonstrates the great disparity between Euro-American and Native American cultures; proud Wyandotte will revenge himself, on his friend and on the novel's protagonist, for any "supposed" injury. Cooper suggests that when he slays Captain Willoughby, Wyandotte is only adhering to his "Indian nature": "Let not the self-styled christians [sic] of civilized society affect horror at this instance of savage justice, so long as they go the whole length of the law of their several communities, in avenging their own fancied wrongs" (p. 349). Unlike Old John's reversion at the conclusion of The Pioneers, however, Wyandotte's demonstration of his "savage nature" inspires more revulsion than admiration, serving to illustrate just how alien the values of the "noble Indian" are from those of the Euro-American.(20)

Just as there are significant variations among different incarnations of the "Cooper Indian," so are there differences between Cooper's "drunken Indians." These various depictions--the pathetic Old John, the sinister Magua, the comical Potawatomis, the schizoid Saucy Nick/Wyandotte--do not add up to any coherent stereotype of Native American drinking in Cooper's frontier romances. Yet despite these differences, Cooper's images of Native Americans drinking consistently draw upon the popular nineteenth-century assumption that Native Americans tended to be "addicted" to alcohol and that such an "addiction" was one virtually inevitable result of intercultural contact. Indeed, Cooper seems so influenced by this belief that he goes out of his way repeatedly to emphasize the temperance of Susquesus, a Native American character in The Redskins (1846)--Cooper's only novel including Native American characters which is set in his own day--who has not been "morally degraded" by his close contact with Euro-American society. Nearly every reference to Susquesus in The Redskins underscores his refusal ever to "taste any intoxicating drink," which, Cooper's narrator assures us, is "by no means an every-day virtue among the red-men who dwelt with the whites."(21) Cooper's portrayals of Native American drinking generally serve to exemplify the contention of his "Traveling Bachelor" that "as a rule, the red man disappears before the superior moral and physical influence of the White."(22)

Even Cooper's "drunken Indians" who renounce alcohol do so finally to illustrate the antipathy between Native American and Euro-American cultures. Old John Mohegan spurns liquor and Euro-American civilization only as he anticipates his death and his passage into a "happy hunting ground" completely separate from the Christian notion of heaven. Wyandotte rejects "fire-water" as he disowns his alter-ego Saucy Nick; yet the subsequent actions of the Tuscarora chief prove the incongruity between the values of the "noble Indian" and Euro-Americans, showing that morally "civilization" transcends "savagism."

Commenting upon how Native Americans are typically depicted in frontier romances, Louise Barnett observes: "Contact with whites only makes bad Indians worse, transforming them into degraded and drunken derelicts on the fringes of a prosperous society, but it operates beneficially on the exceptional Indian."(23) Yet for Saucy Nick/Wyandotte and Old John Mohegan, contact with Euro-Americans serves mainly to suppress many of their "native virtues" and to encourage the vice of intemperance. Though drinking does not make them villainous (indeed, it has nearly the opposite effect), it does demonstrate that Euro-American society has not "operated beneficially" upon them. Cooper does display a certain ambivalence in accounting for the perceived phenomenon of the "drunken Indian": he frequently criticizes Euro-American whiskey traders for their contributions to the problem. Yet, reflecting the nineteenth-century tendency to explain the dynamics of interaction between Native Americans and Euro-Americans in terms of "savagism" and "civilization"--and particularly to use the concept of "Indian nature" to interpret Native Americans' perceived reactions to the Euro-American presence in America--Cooper's depictions of Native American drinking ultimately highlight most the presumed "moral weakness" of the "red man." Cooper's "drunken Indians" thus tacitly support the widespread belief, which had become federal policy, that for the good of both Euro-Americans and Native Americans, Native Americans should be kept removed from all but the most closely supervised contact with "civilization."


(1)Congressional Globe Appendix, 25th Cong. 2nd sess. (April 18, 1838), p. 269.

(2)For a discussion of the terms "savagism" and "civilization," see Roy Harvey Pearce, Savagism and Civilization: A Study of the Indian and the American Mind (1953; Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988).

(3)See Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr.'s The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present (New York: Knopf, 1978) and Brian W. Dippie's The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy (Middletown: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1982) on correlations between prevalent Euro-American images of Native Americans and Euro-American policy.

(4)See Lucy Maddox, Removals: Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the Politics of Indian Affairs (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1991), p. 24.

(5)Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492 (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1987), p. 66.

(6)For surveys of recent research concerning Native American drinking behaviors, see Laurence French and Jim Hornbuckle, "Alcoholism among Native Americans: An Analysis," Social Work, 25 (1980), 275--80; Dwight B. Heath, "Alcohol Use among North American Indians: A Cross-Cultural Survey of Patterns and Problems," in Research Advances in Alcohol and Drug Problems, Vol. 7, ed. Reginald G. Smart, et al. (New York: Plenum Press, 1983), pp. 343--96; and Joan Weibel-Orlando, "Indians, Ethnicity, and Alcohol: Contrasting Perceptions of the Ethnic Self and Alcohol Use," in The American Experience with Alcohol: Contrasting Cultural Perspectives, ed. Linda A. Bennett and Genevieve M. Ames (New York: Plenum Press, 1985), pp. 201--26.

(7)For examples, see Laws of the Colonial and State Governments, Relating to the Indians and Indian Affairs, from 1633 to 1831 Inclusive (Stanfordville: Earl M. Coleman, 1979), and James F. Mosher, "Liquor Legislation and Native Americans: History and Perspective" (unpublished paper, Univ. of California, Berkeley, Boalt School of Law, 1975).

(8)Quoted in Francis Paul Prucha, American Indian Policy in the Formative Years: The Indian Trade and Intercourse Acts 1790--1834 (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1962), p. 127. See Prucha, Chapter 4 ("The Crusade against Whiskey") for an extensive discussion of the challenges in enforcing the "Indian Prohibition," including a detailed discussion of the inventive ways in which traders often circumvented the laws.

(9)Isaac McCoy, Remarks on the Practicability of Indian Reform, Embracing Their Colonization, 2nd ed. (New York: Gray and Bunce, 1829), p. 13. For similar examples of this reasoning, see Lewis Cass, "Documents and Proceedings Relating to the Formation and Progress of a Board in the City of New York, for the Emigration, Preservation, and Improvement of the Aborigines of America," North American Review, 30 (1830), 62--121, and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, "Our Indian Policy," Democratic Review, 14 (1844), 169--84.

(10)See W. H. Gardiner, review of The Last of the Mohicans, North American Review, 23 (1826), 150--97, for a contemporary evaluation of Cooper's work as advocacy. Cooper was in Europe from 1826--33, during much of the most heated debate concerning "Indian Removal," but his 1828 Notions of the Americans indicates that he was well aware of (indeed, perhaps sympathetic to) many of the proremoval arguments. See Notions of the Americans: Picked up by a Travelling Bachelor, ed. Gary Williams (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1991), pp. 483--91.

(11)Kay Seymour House, Cooper's Americans (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1965), p. 251.

(12)James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers, ed. James F. Beard, Lance Schachterle and Kenneth M. Anderson, Jr. (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1980), p. 85. Hereafter cited parenthetically.

(13)See, for example, Lydia Maria Child's Hobomok (1824), Catherine Maria Sedgwick's Hope Leslie (1827), and Cooper's own The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish (1829).

(14)James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757, ed. James A. Sappenfield and E. N. Feltskog (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1983), p. 33; hereafter cited parenthetically. See John Heckewelder's History, Manner, and Customs of the Indian Nations Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighboring States, ed. William C. Reichel (Philadelphia: Historical Society of Philadelphia, 1876), p. 93, for a possible source for Cooper's account of the decline of the Mohicans. Heckwelder considered alcohol abuse to be such a problem among the Native American communities he visited that he devoted an entire chapter of the History to "Drunkenness."

(15)James Fenimore Cooper, The Oak Openings (New York: Fenno, 1900), p. 59. Hereafter cited parenthetically.

(16)House, p. 49.

(17)Perhaps based on a character of the same name who appeared in an 1838 New York newspaper sketch by Pomeroy Jones. See Thomas Philbrick and Marianne Philbrick, Introduction to Wyandotte, or The Hutted Knoll, ed. Thomas Philbrick and Marianne Philbrick (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1982), p. xxxi.

(18)James Fenimore Cooper, Wyandotte, or The Hutted Knoll, ed. Thomas Philbrick and Marianne Philbrick (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1982), p. 10. Hereafter cited parenthetically.

(19)Thomas and Marianne Philbrick claim that "Wyandotte is ... the first of Cooper's fictional treatments of the anti-rent controversy ... the book injects the social conflicts of 1843 into the tumults of 1776" (p. xviii).

(20)In a tacked-on conclusion set twenty years after the Revolution, greatly incogruous with the bulk of the narrative, Wyandotte converts to Christianity, accepting the "white" value of forgiveness. Cooper includes a similarly incongruous epilogue to The Oak Openings.

(21)James Fenimore Cooper, The Redskins, in The Works of J. Fenimore Cooper, Vol. 6 (1893; New York: Greenwood Press, 1969), p. 684.

(22)Cooper, Notions, p. 483.

(23)Louise K. Barnett, The Ignoble Savage: American Literary Racism, 1790--1890 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1975), p. 91.
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Author:Davis, Randall C.
Publication:Studies in American Fiction
Date:Sep 22, 1994
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