The true story behind The Last of the Mohicans


On the 260th anniversary of the fall of Fort William Henry, Richard Eggington examines the historical background to James Fennimore Cooper’s classic tale.

The Last of the Mohicans is often thought of as one of the classic tales of the American West – even though it was set in the east, almost a hundred years before the concept of the West fully emerged. Nevertheless it has many of the hallmarks of the classic Western tale: the brave, lone woodsman; noble, and savage, red men and bungling military authorities.

Much of the story’s power derives from the way it intermingles a thrilling fictional narrative with the disturbing account of a real-life tragedy. As a result, it has made millions of people aware of the awful saga of the siege of Fort William Henry, but in the same way our understanding of what happened may be coloured by the fiction. When we think of the Fort we are prone to envisage the terrified Cora and Alice Munro trapped within its besieged walls – even though no such people existed.

August 2017 marks the 260th anniversary of the siege of Fort William Henry. It is also 25 years since the release of the last, and most spectacular, movie adaptation, starring Daniel Day-Lewis. Thus, it is a good time to reflect on the true nature of the events that took place during that bloody and violent phase of American frontier history.

The War

During the previous century both Britain and France had established substantial colonial interests in North America. The English colonies had begun in 1607 and over the following decades had rapidly expanded as waves of settlers fled England to escape religious intolerance, famine and poverty. As much as they were glad to leave, the government in England was happy to see them go. Even though the colonies expanded to occupy all the land between the Atlantic and the Appalachian Mountains, England (Britain, as it became in 1707) maintained a laissez-faire attitude towards its American colonies.

In contrast, France never sought to settle New France, later to become Canada, in the same way. The land was too densely forested and plagued by long severe winters, to make agriculture viable. They found instead that huge wealth could be extracted from the territory by a small number of Frenchmen forming alliances with the native Indians. In return for basic European goods the tribes would trade huge quantities of highly valuable furs for export back to Europe.  A French Canadian population would emerge as trading posts grew into cities, but it was tiny compared to the English colonies to the south.

Whereas the booming English population pushed back and displaced the native peoples in what is now the USA, the French sought to nurture the Indians in what today we might term a partnership arrangement. Although that had many strengths its one key weakness was that the French, hugely outnumbered by the native tribes, were never able to control or rule them. In a sense, they had a tiger by the tail.

This difference in approach was one of two key reasons why the separate “empires” had largely ignored each other up to the middle of the 18th century. This began to change when both sides needed additional land, targeting the fertile Ohio valley country just west of the Appalachians. France needed its Indian partners to expand trapping into that country as the supply of furs was beginning to diminish; and the English colonists needed more land for an ever-expanding population.

Tentative forays into the Ohio valley country sparked tension, which led to conflict and laid the foundations for all-out war.

The Lake Champlain Corridor

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Two World Wars: The Hero Connection

Seventy years ago this past June, the armies of the Allies — young men who had grown up in the shadow of the previous war — landed on the beaches of Normandy to put an end to what had begun, in a sense, 30 Junes earlier on the streets of Sarajevo when Franz Ferdinand lost his life to an assassin’s bullet.

WW2 US heroesThe connections between the two world wars are myriad but one that most Americans never consider is this: both conflicts were fought with courage if not heroism. Americans make an immediate association between the concept of hero and the Second World War thanks, in part, to a continuous stream of related television and film productions featuring our Greatest Generation. But the First World War? Most of us know too little about it to make that connection.

And heroism requires a cause. World War II clearly had it. World War I did not, at least initially. The nationalism and related territorial claims that stirred Europe to war in 1914 hardly constituted a good vs. evil situation.

Brave Little Belgium

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Custer’s Last Stand – the Battle of Little Bighorn

Mad, bad or misunderstood? Little Bighorn and the Custer enigma.

On a hot Sunday afternoon in June 1876, the most notorious battle in American history took place among the remote high plains of present-day Montana.

Battle of Little BighornThe word “battle” does little justice to the violent and brutal events of that fateful day. Suddenly surrounded by an overwhelming force of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, 221 men of the US 7th Cavalry were swiftly annihilated. Helplessly encircled on an exposed hilltop, many of the young men fought bravely; some threw down their weapons and lay on the ground crying; others made a desperate charge down the hill to escape, only to plunge straight into the mouth of the Indian village. It made no difference. There were no survivors.

News of the disaster reached the East on 4th July, as Americans were proudly celebrating the 100th Anniversary of their independence from Britain. The realisation that the cream of their armed forces had been massacred by what were seen as primitive savages caused a deep sense of outrage as well as grief.

Even after the Indian “problem” had been resolved, the traumatic events of that day would leave a lasting scar on America’s psyche. The chief casualty of that was the man who had led the troops to their doom – 7th Cavalry commander George Armstrong Custer. For somebody who had always courted fame, the Little Big Horn would guarantee immortality – but for all the wrong reasons.

Custer, the man

George Armstrong CusterTwo things ‘made’ Custer – his family background and the American Civil War. An inveterate practical joker and risk-taker from a poor but happy family, Custer was thrust straight into the reality of war, leaving WestPoint as the North-South conflict began. Though initially frightened by action, he quickly learned that being on the front foot, being the aggressor, gave him a huge psychological advantage over his opponents. His battle philosophy rapidly developed into “Attack! Attack! Attack!” and it brought him sensational success, winning victory after victory. In a Union army beset by incompetence and failure, Custer shot to the top, becoming a ‘brevet’ General at the age of 21. He was also a celebrity with articles about the “Boy General” in newspapers as far apart as New York and London.

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Harriet Beecher Stowe – a summary

Born into a family of ministers and abolitionists who worked with the Underground Railroad, it would have been surprising for Harriet Beecher Stowe not to have been a bold free thinker. Stowe is credited with writing the fictional story that threw the spark that ignited the American Civil War. Even Abraham Lincoln himself spoke of her as the “little lady who started this great big war.”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Harriet Beecher StoweHer novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was the best selling novel of the nineteenth century. Based on stories that Stowe heard told by escaped slaves, the story depicts a variety of slave situations. The main character is Uncle Tom, a slave who is sold by his owners due to their financial troubles. His new owner is a kind man. But when Tom is sold again, he falls into the hands of the evil Simon Legree who is determined to break Tom and his faith in God.

Another character, Eliza, is owned by the same family. But upon learning that she might be torn from her son by the sale, she takes the child and runs away. She has the good fortune to encounter abolitionists along the Underground Railroad who help to keep her from being captured by a slave catcher.

Stowe’s book enraged Southern slaveholders. Some Southern authors retaliated with their own “Anti-Tom” literature, defending slavery and condemning Stowe’s work. One of the most popular “Anti-Tom” novels of its day was The Planter’s Bride by Caroline Lee Hentz. The story is seen through the eyes of a Northern abolitionist’s daughter who marries a slave owner.

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Harry S Truman – a brief summary

From Missouri farming stock, Harry S. Truman was at one time the least popular US president on record, yet is now regarded as one of the twentieth century’s more successful leaders. Truman never went to university, the last US President not to have done so. Nonetheless he was a widely read and largely self-taught man, modest in his demeanour and habits.

Harry S TrumanThe ‘S’ in Harry S Truman actually stood for nothing, for he had no middle name, but, following the example of Franklin D Roosevelt (D for Delano), Truman felt the additional S gave his name a degree of gravitas or respectability.

After a series of menial jobs and work on his father’s farm, Harry S Truman went to the Western Front in the First World War as a member of the Missouri National Guard. He had cheated his way through the sight test, so anxious was he to go. The war brought out the leader in Truman, who was a popular and successful artillery officer.


In 1919 he married Bess Wallace, also from Missouri. Various business ventures came to nothing and the Trumans fell into debt. It was only through the sponsorship of a local contact that Truman found his niche in public office. Tom Pendergast, a wealthy ‘fixer’ for the Democratic Party, was to secure Truman’s nomination for minor elected roles and, in 1934, as a senator for the state. By this time he had become a keen advocate of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, befriending the President’s close advisor Harry Hopkins.

Vice President

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John Wilkes Booth – a summary

Even before he became famous as the first man to assassinate a United States president, John Wilkes Booth was a well-known name. Born into one of the most famous acting families in America, Booth was the ninth of ten children of Junius Brutus Booth. Booth was born in Bel Air, Maryland. His mother was Mary Ann Holmes, his father’s mistress until 10 May 1851 when they were married.

John Wilkes BoothBooth and his brother Edwin were athletic young men who loved fencing and horses. Booth attended Bel Air Academy for a time, but was described as an ‘indifferent’ student. He later attended Saint Timothy Academy, an Episcopal military academy, where he studied the classical arts.

Booth’s father died when Booth was fourteen. At sixteen, he began to take an interest in the stage and in politics, on 14 August 1855, aged seventeen, he made his stage debut in Baltimore, Maryland.

Leading Man

John Wilkes Booth was often described as handsome and athletic. By the time the American Civil War broke out, he was earning as much as $20,000 a year, a sum equal to about half a million dollars today. During the war, he performed primarily in the Union and in the border states. When Booth T. Ford reopened his theatre in Washington, DC, in 1863, Booth was one of the first leading men to appear there in a play entitled The Marble Heart. Sitting in a box seat just above the stage was President Abraham Lincoln. Booth’s final appearance at Ford’s would be 18 March 1865 in a play entitled The Apostle.

While his acting career and fame grew, Booth’s political views did as well. He was so strongly opposed to abolition that he joined the Richmond Grays, a 1,500-man volunteer militia group that traveled to Charlestown, Virginia, (now West Virginia) in order to guard the hanging of John Brown on 2 December 1859 and prevent any rescue attempts.

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The Bloodstoppers of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

One winter’s evening in the late 1930s, in the town of Shingleton, a small logging community in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, or U.P., two local laborers, one by the name of Mike Bobic, the other George White, got into a knife fight over an old dispute aggravated by an evening of heavy drinking. When White, by far the larger of the two, challenged his opponent, Bobic slashed him across the chest, leaving a deep wound from which White lost a lot of blood.

Staggering through the snow, the injured White collapsed into the doorway of a local tavern, where patrons quickly dragged him inside and sent for the doctor. Although they tried to make him as comfortable as they could, nobody in the tavern believed the wounded man would survive; the doctor lived almost ten miles away and at night, in the snow, he would surely be unable to reach them before White bled to death.

Suddenly, a man named Archie Clark, of Native American descent and who just happened to be in town, stood up, walked toward White and, according to witnesses, uttered a prayer that immediately stopped the flow of blood. When the doctor eventually arrived several hours later and was told of this feat, he simply replied ‘Oh, I see.’ The people of Shingleton and the doctor were impressed but not surprised, they recognized Archie Clark as one with ‘the power’. He was a Bloodstopper of the U.P.

The land time forgot

Michigan Upper Peninsula 1849The state of Michigan was the 26th state to enter the union of the United States of America on January 26 1837, and is the only US state to consist of two separate peninsulas. It was just before statehood, following a boundary dispute with Ohio known as the Toledo War, that Michigan was awarded the Upper Peninsula as concession for territorial losses to the south.

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Franklin D Roosevelt and Churchill – a summary

America’s longest serving, President, Franklin D Roosevelt, proved an absolutely crucial ally to Winston Churchill and Britain during the early years of World War Two. Later disagreements about strategy meant that the relationship between the two men cooled from 1943, and Churchill declined to attend Roosevelt’s funeral. They shared an understanding of the threat posed by Nazi Germany, although in Roosevelt’s case, operating in a society deeply isolationist in sentiment. Despite this, he facilitated American rearmament, lend-lease, and a robust naval policy towards Germany that came very close to war.

Franklin D RooseveltIt was Roosevelt who struck up the personal correspondence with Churchill which proved so productive. In those years they had a strong rapport, sharing an interest in naval affairs. Like Churchill, Roosevelt had been responsible for naval policy prior to and during World War One. Hence, once he became Prime Minister, Churchill’s famous  ‘former naval person’ sign-off. In fact, they were both former naval persons.

Roosevelt came from a wealthy New York family and was a lawyer by profession. Both he and his wife Eleanor were active Democrats. In 1910 he entered the New York Senate and in 1913, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Roosevelt as Assistant Secretary for the Navy. By 1920 he was on the vice-presidential ticket for the Democrats, though they lost the election. The following year he contracted the polio which was to partially paralyse him.   Roosevelt tried to hide his condition whenever he could, yet it changed him psychologically as well as physically. Many around him noted a much more compassionate, less arrogant man.


As Governor of New York state during the Great Depression, Roosevelt was critical of the Hoover administration and introduced a raft of policies to actively tackle unemployment. Notwithstanding this, he fought the 1932 Presidential election on a platform of national deficit reduction. It was only once in office, as the 32nd US president, confronted with the enormity of the economic slump, that Roosevelt was persuaded by his advisors to change tack. His famous New Deal measures included employment programmes, bank reform and public works. He also scrapped the Prohibition laws.

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Edwin Stanton – a summary

Edwin Stanton was the son of an Ohio physician and a storekeeper.  Born 19 December 1814 in Steubenville, Ohio, Stanton’s father, also named Edwin, died in 1827.  Stanton, who was the oldest of four children, was fourteen years old.  He quit school to help support the family by assisting his mother in running her general store.  Stanton later returned to school, attending Kenyon College.

Edwin StantonIn 1833, Stanton returned to Steubenville where he studied law and was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1836.  He married Mary Lamson on 31 May 1836.  Stanton built a home in Cadiz, Ohio, where he and Mary had two children, Lucy and Edwin.  Lucy died in 1841.  Edwin survived his father, dying in 1877.  Mary Stanton died 13 March 1844.  Stanton’s brother, Darwin, committed suicide in 1846.  The loss of five loved ones in five years sent Stanton into a depression so deep that it changed him.  The good-humored Stanton became an intense man.


After Mary’s death, Stanton moved from Cadiz to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he met his second wife, Ellen Hutchinson.  Stanton then moved to Washington, DC, in 1856 where he practiced law before the United States Supreme Court.  He was one of the first attorneys to successfully use the insanity defense.  Stanton gave up his law practice in 1860 when he was appointed Attorney General of the United States under President James Buchanan.

Stanton was a Democrat who strongly opposed secession.  During the Lincoln administration, Stanton was legal advisor to Secretary of War Simon Cameron.  When Cameron was accused of corruption, Lincoln reassigned him and replaced him with Stanton on 15 January 1862.

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George Ball – a brief summary

A diplomat easy to dub ‘the man who was always right’, George Ball’s reputation as a critic of US policy towards South East Asia during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations often cast him to the fringes of decision-making, but eventually saw him vindicated when the ‘Wise Men’ group of senior advisors decided to halt US escalation in the Vietnam War following the 1968 Tet Offensive.

George BallBelieving that the main arena for USA Cold War policy should be Europe, George Ball argued against growing escalation from 1961. When the Taylor-Rostow Report recommended the dispatch of 8,000 US troops in October, Ball predicted that 500,000 would be required within four years. Although President Kennedy famously described him as being crazy as hell for this prognosis, the experience of Americanization 1965-68 vindicated Ball’s original fears.

In spite of his attitude to the Vietnam War, Ball was not a pacifist, but argued that developing strong relationships with her western European partners should be America’s prime objective, which in turn would lead to a rapprochement with the Soviet Union. He also claimed that the US should build closer relationships with China, whose threat to US interests was seriously over-estimated in Washington.

After resigning in 1966, George Ball maintained a strict silence over the administration’s approach to the war, only returning to his critical theme after Lyndon B Johnson had left office. Ball became US Ambassador to the UN for a brief period during the last few months of Johnson’s presidency, before working as an investment. He continued to write and speak on international issues, gaining a new reputation as a critic of America’s relations with Israel.

George Ball died aged 84 on 26 May 1994.

Vietnam WarNeil Smith

For more about the Vietnam War, see The Vietnam War: History In An Hour published by Harper Press, and available in various digital formats, and as downloadable audio.

See also articles on William Westmoreland, Ho Chi Ming, Ngo Dinh Diem and Domestic opposition to the Vietnam War.