From Stephen Railton's Introduction to The Last of the Mohicans
We must not fall for the fiction Cooper uses to organize the story he tells in The Last of the Mohicans. There has never been a “last” Mohican. The tribe Cooper refers to by that name survives to this day, on a small reservation in Wisconsin. According to Cooper’s version of the Mohicans’ story, the death of Uncas in the middle of the eighteenth century is the last act in the tragedy of a once-mighty nation. There are a number of tragic elements in the real history of the people who, when they learned to write English, referred to themselves as the Muhheakunnuk or Moheakunnuk, but the story they have written with their actions is that of a people who, while remaining true to key elements of their heritage, made great efforts to adapt to and earn a place in the new world that descended on them with the arrival of the traders and settlers from Europe.
As Patrick Frazier recounts that story in The Mohicans of Stockbridge, the tribe accepted Christianity about two decades before the events Cooper dramatizes in the novel; two decades after the supposed death of the last Mohican, they fought on the American side during the Revolutionary War. When the tribe relocated from Massachusetts to the vicinity of New York’s Oneida Lake in the mid-1780s, just a few years before the infant James Cooper was carried to Cooperstown on the banks of nearby Lake Otsego, they took with them a letter from George Washington attesting that the Muhheakunnuks “have fought and bled by our side . . . as our friends and brothers . . . [and] as friends and subjects to the United States of America.” No efforts could stop the tide of white pioneers from diminishing their population and driving them farther west, but like nearly all the original Native American tribes, they survived despite the centuries of cultural loss, economic dispossession, white aggression, discrimination, and neglect.
That true story, however, is one the United States is still reluctant to tell, and repressed almost completely throughout the nineteenth century as the pioneers moved westward across the continent. On the other hand, Americans loved the story Cooper tells in Mohicans. Published in 1826, it was Cooper’s sixth novel; he was already America’s most successful novelist, a position he held through most of his career, and among the thirty-two novels he wound up writing before his death in 1851 were a number of best-sellers. The Last of the Mohicans was first among them all: his most popular book, and one of the most widely read American novels ever. Like most of Cooper’s novels, especially those he wrote in the first half of his career, it derives from the model of the historical romance that Walter Scott established in Waverley (1814). The subtitle of Cooper’s novel—A Narrative of 1757—echoes Waverley’s subtitle, ’Tis Sixty Years Since, and in his preface to the book’s first edition Cooper warns mere novel readers that by “narrative” he means historical fact, not imaginative fancy. But the project of The Last of the Mohicans is myth making, not history writing, and the myth it makes served contemporary readers precisely by replacing history as the nation was enacting it with a story about the fate of the Indians that both moved and reassured the whites who were in fact (but not in Cooper’s fiction) the agents of that fate.
As Cooper tells the story, the first person to label Uncas “the last of the Mohicans” is actually his own father. Chingachgook himself is still a vigorous warrior, and the narrative repeatedly refers to Uncas as “young” and “youthful”—that such a father would be anticipating the death of such a son rather then looking forward to his eventual marriage and children seems to violate the truths of the human heart, but as Cooper tells the story, even Uncas accepts his ominous title. In fact, he enters the narrative exactly at the moment in chapter III when Chingachgook tells Hawkeye that when Uncas dies the whole tribe will be extinct, “for my boy is the last of the Mohicans.” “Uncas is here!” is the next line, as “a youthful warrior” steps out of the woods to join the conversation. “Here,” this introduction to him implies, “but not for long”—Uncas will figure throughout the novel as a character with an expiration date. As a rescuer of the story’s two white heroines and as the lost prince of the Delaware nation, Uncas is regarded by both the narrator and the white characters with considerable admiration. His head may be naked except for its “scalping tuft,” but the narrative calls it “noble.” Alice looks upon him as a heathen, “a being partially benighted in the vale of ignorance,” but she also associates his “graceful,” “dignified,” “pure,” and “proud” form with classical ideals, “some precious relic of the Grecian chisel.” Cora goes further: “Who that looks at this creature of nature, remembers the shade of his skin!” To her, that’s a rhetorical question, but her companions’ “short and embarrassed silence” in reply keeps the line between races firmly in place. Combined with the epithet “the last,” that racial boundary lets readers know that all the sympathetic admiration they bestow on Uncas is extended provisionally. Within those limits, the narrative allows Uncas to grow increasingly heroic. After the first rescue scene, for example, while his father scalps the Mingoes they’ve slain, Uncas hurries with Duncan, the white officer and gentleman, to the side of the two white maidens. Duncan is not ashamed to cry at the sight of their deliverance. Uncas doesn’t go that far, but his eyes nonetheless “beam with a sympathy that elevated him far above the intelligence and advanced him probably centuries before the practices of his nation.”
While that sentence doubtless sounds patronizing, if not racist, to most twenty-first century readers, Cooper’s books display more respect and admiration for Indian characters like Uncas than was the norm in his culture. Indeed, his depiction of Uncas as so noble a savage came under attack from a number of critics. A novel like Robert Montgomery Bird’s Nick of the Woods (1837), also a best-seller, was written expressly to contest Cooper’s “poetical illusions” and “beautiful unrealities” by describing instead what Bird in his preface calls “real Indians,” who are unrelievedly “ignorant, violent, debased, brutal.” Mark Twain made the same argument in Roughing It (1872), and began a sequel to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) that takes Huck and Tom into the Indian Territory so he can debunk Cooper’s romances by exposing the boys to a series of atrocities committed by treacherous Indians. In 1851, shortly before Cooper’s death, the Chippewa chief and activist George Copway publicly thanked the novelist for having created Uncas as a “hero” who “possesses all the noble traits of an exalted character,” an Indian whom Native Americans could read about with pride. Yet although Cooper advances Uncas centuries ahead of his tribesmen, he is careful never to suggest that the last Mohican could progress to the point where he belongs inside American civilization. He lifts Uncas high enough to make his passing tragic—but readers mourn for him at the end, as they admire him throughout, from within the safety of a world out of which he has already disappeared.