As someone who hasn't read much about Native Americans, the variety of nations in The Last of the Mohicans felt overwhelming.

I understand that Iroquois fought by the British side, and Hurons fought by the French side. Also, Iroquois are enemies of the Mohicans (and Hawkeye) which are kind of the British side.

So my question is... who were the Indians lead by Magua in the attack of Glens Falls? Were they Hurons or Iroquois (more specifically Mohawks)? If they were Iroquois, why were they taking British prisoners?

I remember that later in the book, there a couple of Oneidas (another Iroquois nation) were part of the Siege of Fort William Henry. Why were they doing this if they were British allies?

1 Answer 1


In the battle at the falls, the attackers are given a variety of names:

“Little powder, light lead, and a long arm, seldom fail of bringing the death screech from a Mingo! At least, such has been my experience with the creatur’s. Come, friends: let us to our covers, for no man can tell when or where a Maqua will strike his blow.” […]

The lightning is not quicker than was the flame from the rifle of Hawkeye; the limbs of the victim trembled and contracted, the head fell to the bosom, and the body parted the foaming waters like lead, when the element closed above it, in its ceaseless velocity, and every vestige of the unhappy Huron was lost forever. […]

“You but little know the craft of the Iroquois, lady, if you judge they have left the path open to the woods!” returned Hawkeye.

James Fenimore Cooper (1826). The Last of the Mohicans, chapters VIIVIII. Project Gutenberg.

What did Cooper mean by using all these different names? In the author’s introduction, he explained that he had simply divided the native nations into two groups, the first allied with the British and the second allied with the French, and then used the names more or less indifferently:

In these pages, Lenni-Lenape, Lenope, Delawares, Wapanachki, and Mohicans, all mean the same people, or tribes of the same stock. The Mengwe, the Maquas, the Mingoes, and the Iroquois, though not all strictly the same, are identified frequently by the speakers, being politically confederated and opposed to those just named. Mingo was a term of peculiar reproach, as were Mengwe and Maqua in a less degree.

Cooper, Introduction.

However, as correctly pointed out in the question, this arrangement is a distortion of history:

As became an historical novelist, Cooper researched the history of the Battle of Fort William Henry with some thoroughness. […] However, as far as Indian history is concerned, Cooper does not appear to have been so scrupulous. Because he has decided in advance that the Delawares are “good” and the Iroquois are “bad,” he wishes to give the impression that Montcalm was supported at Fort William Henry by both the Hurons and the Iroquois. This desire runs counter to the historical facts as reported by historians from Cadwallader Colden in the eighteenth century, through Heckewelder and De Witt Clinton, down to modern authorities: all agree that the Iroquois were either pro-British or neutral throughout the eighteenth century.

The weight of history that Cooper is trying to invert perhaps needs emphasis. The association of the Iroquois with British interests may be said to have begun when Champlain entered the St. Lawrence in 1603 and formed an allegiance with the Hurons who then lived on the northern shore of Lake Ontario. Having been forced out of their original homelands by the Iroquois, the Hurons enlisted French help against them, thereby forcing the Iroquois into alliance with any European power to the south. First the Dutch, then the British, benefitted from Iroquois-Huron antagonism, for the Iroquois had vested interests in preventing the French and Hurons moving down Lakes Champlain and George onto the Hudson. In the French and Indian War this was especially apparent, the Iroquois in general trying to stay out of Franco-British conflict but the Mohawks in particular siding with the British and saving the colonies from a thrust at Lake George in 1755. In the same years the Delaware, who were normally pacific, decided to seize the opportunity of revenging themselves on both the dominant Iroquois and the expansionist British, and joined the French side. Thus, if Cooper’s novel were to be basically concordant with the historical record of 1757, it should represent an alliance of the French, the Hurons, and the Delawares arrayed against the Iroquois and the British. Since even Heckewelder himself tells us that the Iroquois favored the British at this time, and that the Delawares had gone over to the French and Hurons, it is evident that Cooper has reversed historical alliances in a manner yet more extreme than that allowed by his principal historical source.

Robert Clark (1982). ‘The Last of the Iroquois: History and Myth in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans’. Poetics Today 3:4, pp. 119-120.

Clark goes on to speculate about the personal reasons that might have led Cooper to misrepresent the role of the Iroquois in the war: in particular, he notes that the source of the Cooper family fortune was real estate at Cooperstown, New York, founded by the author’s father William Cooper on land formerly inhabited by the Iroquois.

It would therefore seem probable that Cooper’s representation of the Iroquois as the most savage of all Indians, and his tendency to displace them into allies of the French and Hurons, results from two psychological forces: the need to repress personal knowledge of their cultural sophistication so that the conquest would seem just, and the desire to remove them from their homelands so that the patriarchal estate would appear to have been a wilderness before the arrival of the White man.

Clark, p. 124.

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