101: The Last of the Mohicans

For generations, James Fenimore Cooper’s classic American novel has been recreated in various forms for the big and small screen. As a novel, it’s not entirely factual and yet it’s a film many consider to be true by its mere popularity. This week we’ll learn about the most recent and most popular rendition, the 1992 version of The Last of the Mohicans.

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About The Last of the Mohicans

Last year, one of the movies we covered here on the podcast was Becoming Jane. In that episode we learned about one of England’s greatest authors, Jane Austen.

Three years after Jane’s unfortunate early passing, an American author was heavily inspired by her works in his first novel. I’m speaking, of course, about Precaution, which was published in 1820 by James Fenimore Cooper.

Let’s just say James’s version of Jane Austen’s writing style was, well, not quite to Jane’s level.

Fortunately, he didn’t stick to her writing style and eventually formed his own as he went on to become one of the greatest American writers in the first half of the 19th century. His most famous work was released in 1826, just six years after his first. In fact, it was that story that ended up being told time and time again through the cinema.

Since the first adaptation in 1911, James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans has been turned into a movie or TV show a total of 11 times, including many versions from outside the United States.

Today, we’ll be learning about the latest in that long line, director Michael Mann’s interpretation of the book—the 1992 film starring Daniel Day-Lewis. And while James Fenimore Cooper’s original book is a novel. In other words, it is a work of fiction.

However, there have been many people who think it is entirely true. Perhaps that’s because of the impact that Cooper’s original book had on American literary history. Or perhaps that’s because there are plenty of things in there that are based in truth.

The question is…how much?

Learn the true story behind The Last of the Mohicans

Today’s movie begins by setting up some context for us through some text. According to that text, it’s 1757 and we’re in the American colonies where a war has been raging for three years now. On one side is England. On the other, France. Both are battling for possession of the continent.

Of course, three years before 1757 would mean if the movie was correct, the war between England and France would’ve begun in 1754.

And that is true.

While it was called by many names at the time, today we know of the battles on North America as the French and Indian War.

Although it’s worth pointing out that most historians consider the French and Indian War to be the North American theater of a bigger conflict that exploded in Europe called the Seven Years’ War.

That was in 1756.

A few years before that, though, in 1753, French troops marched south from Canada to claim territory in Ohio. They built forts there, much to the protest of the British—who claimed the Ohio Valley as their own.

So it was in 1754, like the movie says, that the war between the French and British began. One of the events that kicked it off was on May 28th, 1754 when a young Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army got his first taste of combat. That would be none other than George Washington, who was 21 at the time.

He had about 40 troops under his command and, along with help from a member of the Seneca tribe, a chief named Tanacharison, Washington tracked down a French detachment of about 32 troops the night before May 28th.

Then, first thing in the morning, Washington’s men surprised the French. The attack only lasted about 15 minutes. Reports vary about the exact number of French killed, but some say there were 10 killed while others say 12 or 13. One thing the reports agree on, though, was that a majority of the French, 21 of the troops, were captured and taken prisoner.

But this was more than just another battle—there had been plenty of those skirmishes between the British and the French.

After their capture, the stories seemed to differ depending on who you ask.

Tanacharison had killed the French commander, something that led the other Indian warriors under Tanacharison’s command to do the same, resulting in the nine other Frenchmen to be killed and scalped.

Washington—remember this was his first combat—seemed to have been shocked by the brutality of the battle.

For their part, the survivors among the French insisted that they were on a diplomatic mission. That’s why they didn’t post sentries and why they had been so surprised by Washington’s attack.

This 15 minute skirmish, which is still debated by historians today, was the basis for the French vilifying Washington into someone without honor.

As a result of this battle, the French retaliated by defeating Washington where he went after the battle to an outpost he built in Pennsylvania called Fort Necessity. It was that defeat of Washington, which happened to be the only time in his military career that he surrendered, that kicked up the battles and is what many historians refer to as the beginning of the French and Indian War.

Back in the movie, after setting up the context of the war between the French and the British, we’re introduced to the three main characters in the film. There’s Russell Means’ character, Chingachgook, along with Eric Schweig’s character Uncas.

They’re biologically father-son, while Daniel Day-Lewis’s character, Nathanial Poe—or Hawkeye, as he’s also called—is Chingachgook’s adopted son.

In this opening scene, we see the three of them kill a deer and then take it back to the home of some friends on the frontier, the Cameron family. John, Alexandra and James, along with their two kids.

No, not that James Cameron.

Most of those characters, including Chingachgook and Hawkeye, are fictional. They were made up by James Fenimore Cooper for his book that the movie is based on.

So anytime the main characters in a movie are entirely fictional…well, that probably gives you an indication of the level of historical accuracy in the storyline.

Now you’ll notice I said “most of” the characters are fictional. That’s because one of the ones we’re introduced to here in the beginning of the movie was real.

That would be Uncas.

He was a chief of the Mohican people who was, like the movie shows, allied with the British. Except there’s one big difference between the Uncas we see in the movie and the real one.

Well, maybe two.

First, since Chingachgook was a fictional character, that wasn’t his real father. Secondly, the real Uncas wasn’t alive in 1757.

Of course, we don’t have birth certificates or documents to prove an exact date, but Uncas was probably born somewhere around the year 1588 and died nearly a hundred years later in either 1683 or 1684.

That’s about 95 or 96 years old, in case you were trying to do the math there.

So again, you can see how historically accurate the movie is since the real Uncas lived a very long life.

Speaking of which, if we head back into the movie’s timeline, we’re soon introduced to a couple other characters.

That would be Cora Munro and her younger sister, Alice. Cora is played by Madeleine Stowe while Alice is played by Jodhi May.

Both Cora and Alice are fictional characters, but the movie is correct in showing that Cora’s father, who’s played by Maurice Roëves in the film, was in the British Army. Although his name wasn’t Colonel Edmund Munro like it is in the book.

In truth, the real commander of the British troops at Fort William Henry was a man by the name of Lieutenant Colonel George Monro.

The thing is, we don’t know a lot about the real George Monro.

The movie doesn’t really mention this, but in the original book Cora was actually biracial. I’m only mentioning that to help get a tone for the original book. The character of Cora being biracial would’ve been more significant at the time when James Fenimore Cooper published the book in 1826 than now and, sadly, not in a good way.

Here’s a quote from the original book where we learn about that and I’ll warn you—there is some overt racism in this quote.

To set the scene a little, this is a conversation between Major Duncan Heyward and Colonel Munro about the Major’s interest in Cora.

Oh, and Major Duncan Heyward is played by Steven Waddington in the movie—in case you want to put a face to the conversations.

But this is Colonel Munro, a Scotsman, speaking first:

“You’ll know, already, Major Heyward, that my family was both ancient and honorable,” commenced the Scotsman; “though it might not altogether be endowed with that amount of wealth that should correspond with its degree. I was, may be, such an one as yourself when I plighted my faith to Alice Graham, the only child of a neighboring laird of some estate. But the connection was disagreeable to her father, on more accounts than my poverty. I did therefore what an honest man should—restored the maiden her troth, and departed the country in the service of my king. I had seen many regions, and had shed much blood in different lands, before duty called me to the islands of the West Indies. There it was my lot to form a connection with one who in time became my wife, and the mother of Cora. She was the daughter of a gentleman of those isles, by a lady whose misfortune it was, if you will,” said the old man, proudly, “to be descended, remotely, from that unfortunate class who are so basely enslaved to administer to the wants of a luxurious people. Ay, sir, that is a curse entailed on Scotland by her unnatural union with a foreign and trading people. But could I find a man among them who would dare to reflect on my child, he should feel the weight of a father’s anger! Ha! Major Heyward, you are yourself born at the south, where these unfortunate beings are considered of a race inferior to your own.”

“‘Tis most unfortunately true, sir,” said Duncan, unable any longer to prevent his eyes from sinking to the floor in embarrassment.

“And you cast it on my child as a reproach! You scorn to mingle the blood of the Heywards with one so degraded—lovely and virtuous though she be?” fiercely demanded the jealous parent.

So…as we can tell, there was a big issue of racism here in the original story itself. And as far as the movie, it seems to gloss over this bit since it doesn’t really mention this at all.

The character of Major Duncan Heyward was the one who we saw in the movie lead the two girls from Fort Edward to Fort William Henry. Their party is led by a man named Magua, who’s played by Wes Studi in the movie.

They lose Magua along the way once Hawkeye, Chingachgook and Uncas show up and suggest Magua is actually a Huron scout, an Indian tribe allied with the French.

None of that is real.

As you can probably guess, Magua is a fictional character. That whole plot is just part of the storyline created by James Fenimore Cooper in his novel.

The next part in the movie, though, has some basis in history. I’m talking about the part where, after getting ambushed by Magua and the Hurons, the now much smaller party of three British—Major Duncan Heyward and the two women—continues with the Mohicans leading now until finally arriving at Fort William Henry to find it being bombarded by the French.

Fort William Henry was a real place and that bombardment was also a real event.

For some geographical context here, Lake Champlain is a massive lake that goes all the way from Canada on the northern tip of the lake down through a good portion of the border between modern-day Delaware and New York. Just south of Lake Champlain is another lake called Lake George—named after King George II in 1755 after Sir William Johnson led British forces to occupy the land.

At least, that’s its name today. It wasn’t always called that.

The original name was Andia-ta-roc-te…and I’m fairly certain I’ve butchered that pronunciation. In fact, I’m not the only one who butchered the pronunciation of that lake. When James Fenimore Cooper wrote his book, he decided not to call the lake by its real name because, well, he thought it was too tough to pronounce. So he called the lake Horican in the book.

Anyway, on the southern tip of what we now know as Lake George was a fort that William Johnson built. The lake he named after King George II, the fort he named after King George II’s younger brother, Prince William Henry.

While the original Fort William Henry isn’t there anymore, in June of 1855 a luxurious hotel was built on the lands where it once stood. That hotel, called the Fort William Henry Hotel, is still open. Well, not that one. The first hotel burned down in 1909 but then was rebuilt in 1911.

Since then it’s had plenty of additions, upgrades, and so on but you can still visit the historic region or book a stay over at fortwilliamhenry.com.

This isn’t an ad for them at all; I haven’t ever been there…but at the very least I’d recommend hopping on their website to see some of the beautiful pictures of the lake and surrounding land or read more about their history over the years.

But it was there, on the southern tip of Lake George, that the French laid siege to Fort William Henry.

The movie doesn’t mention specific dates at all, but the siege took place between the 3rd and 9th of August in 1757.

Although it’s worth pointing out that the real Fort William Henry didn’t look like the medieval castle we see in the movie. It was actually made mostly with a wall of dirt lined with timber for a total of about 30 feet thick. That’s a little over 9 meters thick.

It was basically a square fortress with bastions, or towers to shoot out of, on each of the corners. Probably the biggest thing to keep in mind was that when it was designed by Major William Eyre under the order of Sir William Johnson, it was built to fight against the American Indians in the region. They didn’t really build it to hold off artillery like the French had.

According to the movie, the fort ends up falling to the French. The British surrender and are allowed to leave, but then afterward Magua and his band of Huron warriors ambush the British, slaughtering all of them except for our main characters, who manage to escape.

Naturally the specifics of that are made up for the fictional plotline of the film, but the overall gist of that is actually true.

The French General Montcalm, who’s played by Patrice Chéreau in the movie, by the way, demanded surrender immediately upon arrival but Monro refused.

They held for a while. The movie doesn’t really show the full scale of the troops on either side but the French had some 8,000 men while the British had about 2,500.

On August 9th, after days of surviving a bombardment in a fort that was never designed to do so, Monro waved the white flag. He came out to talk with General Montcalm, and the latter agreed that Monro and his men could leave peacefully with their weapons provided they leave the ammunition behind.

As the British left the fort, General Montcalm assigned about 200 men to escort Monro’s remaining men to Ford Edward.

If you recall, that’s where we saw Cora and Alice Munro leave from to go to Fort William Henry. For some geographical context, Fort Edward is about 15 miles or 24 kilometers to the south of where Fort William Henry was.

Speaking of the men who surrendered, though, we don’t know exactly how many men were left in Monro’s command after the siege but some estimates have it being somewhere between 1,000 and 1,400 men.

The day after their surrender of Fort William Henry, the column of British were headed back to Fort Edward when they were attacked by a band of Indians. How many? Again, we don’t really know. Some say there were a few hundred. Other say around 1,500 or 1,600.

The number didn’t matter as much because, if you remember, the French had insisted the British leave their ammunition behind. The British were effectively unarmed.

So was the massacre like what we saw in the movie? Well, again, we don’t really know. But probably not. Some historians suggest perhaps about 40 men were killed. Colonel Monro himself would report later that, in all, he’d lost 129 men. That wasn’t just the attack after the siege but during the siege as well. So 129 men total.

But even that is hard to prove. And it’s not like there were only soldiers at the fort. There were women and sutlers, or traders, there as well.

According to a great book by Ian K. Steele called Betrayals: Fort William Henry and the Massacre, there were more like 2,300 soldiers who left Fort William Henry on August 9th and on August 14th about 500 arrived with Monro and the French guard at Fort Edward.

But that doesn’t mean 1,800 people were killed in the 15 miles between the two forts—more people trickled into Fort Edward after Monro arrived. It’d seem the surprise attack caused so much confusion that a lot of people fled into the woods. Some made their way back to the fort. Some didn’t. Ultimately, we don’t really know how many people were killed.

Going back to the movie, some people escape the attack when we see Chingachgook, Uncas and Hawkeye manage to flee the scene with Cora, Alice and Major Duncan Heyward. There’s a couple more soldiers with them, and together they hop into a couple conveniently-placed canoes and head down the river. Then they stop just before a waterfall and hide out behind the falls.

But, alas, that doesn’t last too long. The three Mohicans, I’ll call them that even though Hawkeye wasn’t technically a Mohican, leave through the waterfall just as Magua and his warriors find them, capturing Duncan, Cora and Alice.

That’s how they end up back at the Huron village where Hawkeye walks in, unarmed, in an attempt to convince the Sachem, or chief of the Hurons, to release the women. Duncan insists the chief take his life instead of the women. The chief agrees and they burn Duncan at the stake—Hawkeye mercifully shooting him later as he leaves with the women.

None of that is true.

Remember those are all fictional characters and, well, so is this storyline.

The movie ends on a sad note when Magua catches up with the women and the Mohicans, killing Uncas and throwing him off a cliff. Then he corners Alice, who throws herself off the cliff following Uncas—who she apparently loves.

Of course, none of that is true either, but interestingly the filmmakers made a change here to the original story. It wasn’t Alice who threw herself off a cliff like this.

In fact, this whole scene is quite different in the book than it was in the movie. According to the book, the Indians who held the captives weren’t Magua’s Huron, but rather the Delaware. They’re the people the state is named after. Magua managed to convince the chief there that Hawkeye and his friends were their enemies—and racists at that. But then the Delaware found out that Uncas, who was there, too, was Mohican. The Mohican and Delaware were friends, so they agree to what Uncas demands—release all of the prisoners except Cora. Apparently she belongs to Magua.

Which, again, is quite different than the movie. There’s no love interest between Hawkeye and Cora in the book. It’s Magua who loves Cora while a racist Major Heyward doesn’t like the biracial Cora but rather likes the younger sister, Alice.

So Magua leaves with Cora, but then Uncas wants to free Cora anyway so they attack Magua after leaving the Delaware village. It’s here that Cora is killed, which doesn’t happen in the movie at all, and not in the way that we saw Alice die in the movie. She’s stabbed by one of the Huron warriors with Magua, and then after Uncas tries to exact his revenge on the warrior who killed Cora, Magua stabs Uncas in the back.

Then Magua dies after he tries to escape, but ends up falling down a cliff.

And as you can probably guess, none of that is true since that’s the book’s fictional version of the story, but that’s still different than what we saw in the movie.

In the end, the movie correctly shows that it’s Chingachgook who—mourning the loss of his son—is the last of the Mohicans. Well, we already learned that Chingachgook is a fictional character so it’s probably not a surprise to learn that’s not true.

But if the Mohicans were a real people and they aren’t around anymore, who was the last of the Mohicans?

Well, as you can probably guess, when a people’s culture is lost—it usually doesn’t happen that quickly.

Like many cultures who were gobbled up by an ever-expanding colonial empire—first England and then the United States—the Mohicans were just one of the American Indian tribes who were forced to leave their homes and move west.

For the Mohicans, along with some other Indians from Massachusetts, they were given a reservation of about 300,000 acres near Stockbridge, New York. That might sound like a lot, but they had over 6,000,000 acres in their former territory.

They started a new town, calling it New Stockbridge, and adopted Christian beliefs from American missionaries who further continued to distance them from their former way of life. Part of that was their language, which has been lost to time.

They didn’t stay in New York for long. Around the same time that James Fenimore Cooper’s book was published in the mid-1820s, the Mohicans were part of the Stockbridge Indians who were forced to move to Wisconsin—the U.S. government moving them further west to make room for new, white, settlers in New York.

In Wisconsin, their lands shrunk again. This time to 23,000 acres. There’s still a reservation there, today, including the North Star Mohican Resort Casino that helps provide a much-needed source of income for the tribe.

In 2011, the Seneca Nation of Indians sued the state of New York trying to get back some of their original lands in what is now Madison County—the Seneca Nation of Indians including descendants of the Mohicans.

New York agreed to give them a little bit of land in Madison County as long as the tribe agreed to settle for most of it, 330 acres, about a 133 miles to the south in Sullivan County.

How much land did they get in Madison County? Well, certainly not the 6,000,000 acres the American Indians once roamed. In the settlement, the Seneca Nation of Indians was given a total of 1.84 acres.

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