James Fenimore Cooper

The Pioneers

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The Pioneers Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 69-page guide for “The Pioneers” by James Fenimore Cooper includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 41 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Natural Law Versus Human Law and Man’s Relationship to Nature.

The Pioneers, written by James Fenimore Cooper and published in 1823, tells the interlocking story of three characters in the fictional frontier town of Templeton, New York (based on the real Cooperstown, New York) between Christmas Eve 1793 and October 1794. The Pioneers is the fourth chronological story of five novels Cooper wrote about the region, henceforth known as the Leatherstocking Tales series.

The protagonist is Nathaniel “Natty” Bumpo (or Leatherstocking), an elderly but extremely skilled woodsman who resents the encroachment of civilization on his home in nature. Judge Marmaduke Temple is the wealthy landowner, founder of Templeton, and its de facto leader, who attempts to grow civilization while respecting the environment. Oliver Edwards, who lives with Leatherstocking, is a brooding young man with a mysterious past and a grudge against Judge Temple. Much of the plot is devoted to the conflict between Leatherstocking and Templeton over law, as well as unravelling Oliver’s mysterious past.

Plot Summary

The story begins on Christmas Eve, 1793 as the widowed Temple is bringing his young daughter, Elizabeth, home to Templeton in a sleigh after completing her schooling in New York. Temple founded the town due to his connections with Edward Effingham, the son of the wealthy Major Oliver Effingham of the British Army. After the two completed school, Edward placed his considerable wealth under Temple’s control, while remaining a silent partner; however, when the Revolutionary War broke out, they found themselves on opposite side of the conflict. After the Revolution, Temple used this wealth to buy up land confiscated from loyalists, upon which he founded Templeton.

As the sleigh approaches Templeton, a deer runs by and Temple shoots at it—as do Leatherstocking and Oliver, who appear out of the woods. Temple claims that he killed the deer, but Leatherstocking proves that Oliver’s shot killed it. Temple instead shot Oliver in the shoulder. A horrified Temple insists on bringing Oliver to his home, the Mansion House, to be treated by the village doctor. Along the way, they run into a sleigh driven by Richard Jones, Temple’s cousin and secretary, who has come to greet them with several prominent townsfolk. Richard attempts to turn his sleigh around at the nearby quarry but instead nearly drives it off a cliff. Oliver saves the passengers.

At the Mansion House, the town doctor and “Indian” John Mohegan, Leatherstocking’s close friend, treat Oliver’s wound. That evening, the town celebrates Christmas with a sermon given by the new priest, Mr. Grant. Elizabeth becomes close friends with the priest’s daughter, Louisa Grant. On Christmas Day, Richard is promoted to Sherriff, and Temple invites Oliver to replace Richard as his secretary. Oliver reluctantly accepts. Later that day, the town participates in a turkey shoot, which Leatherstocking wins for Elizabeth, beating the favorite: woodcutter Billy Kirby.

In the spring of 1794, a massive crowd of pigeons flies overhead, and the townsfolk run outside to massacre with whatever weapons they have handy, including a swivel cannon left behind by a previous military excursion. Leatherstocking is mortified by this wasteful and pointless slaughter, shooting only a single bird for his supper. Later in the spring, Richard leads a fishing expedition with the members of the Mansion House that involves dragging the lake with a large net. Leatherstocking and Mohegan, who are spearfishing in their canoe, witness Temple’s major-domo, Benjamin Pump, get knocked into the water. Leatherstocking saves him from drowning.

In the summer, Oliver, Leatherstocking, and Mohegan are fishing when they see Leatherstocking’s hounds chase a deer into the water. Despite Temple’s recently passed law that forbids deer killing out of season, Leatherstocking kills the animal. Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Louisa are taking a walk together in the woods when they are attacked by a female mountain lion and its cubs. Elizabeth’s dog, Brave, dies defending them, and their lives are only saved by the timely intervention of Leatherstocking returning to his hut. At the same time, Temple and Richard go on an expedition to Leatherstocking’s secret cave, where Richard believes he is illegally mining silver.

Temple issues a search warrant on Leatherstocking’s hut, which Hiram Doolittle, Richard’s assistant, and Kirby attempt to execute. However, Leatherstocking drives him off, refusing to let anyone inside and threatening their lives. Oliver learns of the search warrant and argues with Temple, who fires Oliver. Richard returns in force to arrest Leatherstocking, and finds that he has burned down his home. Leatherstocking is found guilty of threatening an officer of the law, and is sentenced to a fine, an hour in the stocks, and a month in jail. Ben insists on being jailed alongside Leatherstocking in thanks for earlier saving his life.

Leatherstocking breaks out of jail with the help of Oliver and Elizabeth. Leatherstocking asks Elizabeth to buy him gunpowder and meet him the next day. Elizabeth goes to the meeting spot, but finds only Mohegan. Shortly thereafter, a forest fire starts on the mountain. Oliver arrives, and the encroaching flames soon trap the three. Leatherstocking rescues them and takes them to his cave. Mohegan renounces Christianity and dies of his wounds.

Richard arrives with the Templeton Light Infantry to apprehend Leatherstocking. After a short fight, Oliver surrenders and invites Temple inside to see why Leatherstocking has refused to let anyone into his hut or cave. Inside is the now senile and impoverished Major Effingham; Oliver reveals himself to be Edward Oliver Effingham, the Major’s grandson and the son of Temple’s friend and partner Edward (who passed away two years before the story began). The Mohicans originally gave Major Effingham the lands upon which Templeton now sits. Temple forgives Oliver and tells him that he has left him half of his wealth, with the other half going to Elizabeth.

Major Effingham passes away, and Oliver and Elizabeth are married. Leatherstocking and Ben return to jail, but the governor quickly pardons them. Oliver and Elizabeth go for a walk, where they run into Leatherstocking. He explains that, with the last of the Indians gone, it is time for him to move west to stay ahead of the settlers. He disappears into the forest and is never seen in Templeton again.

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