How James Fenimore Cooper Redefined Pioneer


Pioneer. The word often evokes esteem and reverence here in America, and those bold enough to earn the honorific are vaulted to an almost holy, prophet-like status. We cheer technological pioneers like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates; extol political pioneers such as Jeannette Rankin and Barack Obama. Then there are the archetypal pioneers, the Daniel Boones and Kit Carsons: the frontier folk who transformed a rag-tag group of colonies into an international powerhouse, people who made “pioneer” a verb. But “pioneers,” frontier or otherwise, weren’t always lionized. “Pioneers” were originally disdained in America, and they wouldn’t be respected today if it weren’t for the author James Fenimore Cooper.

coverThe people we today call “pioneers” were referred to as many things pre-Cooper—“back-settlers” or “foresters,” chiefly—but rarely “pioneers,” and when they were described as such, the meaning was closer to the word’s French origins, les pionniers, a circa 1520 military term for an army’s vanguard. They were the first wave of foot soldiers sent to absorb the conflict’s initial brunt. In other words, pioneers were poor schlubs sent on a kamikaze mission. These ill-fated men were respected for their sacrifice but were in no way, shape, or form enviable. They were doomed. This nihilistic stink remained after the lexeme “le pionnier” transitioned into civilian vernacular around 1600, and it even stuck around once the word wound its way into English, too. Just consider its usage in 1782 by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, a French-born naturalized citizen who wrote in his tome Letters from an American Farmer: “[Frontier pioneers] are a kind of forlorn hope, preceding by ten or twelve years the most respectable army of veterans which come after them…In all societies there are outcasts; this impure part serves as our precursors or pioneers…”

But, yes, de Crèvecœur’s French, so let’s consider an utterance from a person born in the New World: Dr. Benjamin Rush, surgeon general of the Continental Army and a signatory to the Declaration. Rush who spoke for a generation when he described back-country pioneers in 1787 as “generally a man who has out-lived his credit or fortune in the cultivated parts.” While integral to paving the way for more decent folk down the road—“The small improvements he leaves behind him generally make [his land] an object of immediate demand to a second species of settler…men of some property.”—pioneers were still disposable. They were backward, anti-social weirdos looked at askew for living apart from society proper, begrudgingly respected only for the improvements they made on that land. They’re expendables unfit for emulation, much like les pionniers.

And so it went for even more decades, well after real-life pioneers pushed into new lands in Ohio, Tennessee, and beyond. As late as 1823 we see Yale president and Minister Timothy Dwight noting in his book, Travels in New England and New-York, “The business of [the forester or pioneer] is no other than to cut down trees, build log-houses, lay open forested grounds to cultivation, and prepare the way for those who come after them.” Then, echoing most other mainstream Americans, he sneered, “These men cannot live in regular society. They are too idle…too shiftless, to acquire either property or character.” But Dwight would be one of the last to speak of the pioneer in such a derogatory manner, because just as the pious educator was trash-talking frontier dwellers, the author James Fenimore Cooper was preparing to celebrate them in a novel entitled, simply, The Pioneers.

coverA rising literary star known for his 1821 Revolutionary War thriller The Spy, Cooper’s latest work told the tale of Templeton, an upstate New York hamlet that evolved from an insignificant smattering of log cabins into respectable town. Based on Cooper’s own childhood in a town his father founded—“[Readers] may be glad to know how much of its contents is literal fact,” Cooper wrote in his original introduction—The Pioneers was filled with assiduous and tenacious heroes building a wholly American town out of nothing but wilderness. This wasn’t a place like Boston or New York, tarnished by colonial influence, trod by imperialist boots. It was all-American. And Templeton was a template for countless towns across America; these outposts-turned-hubs were a “singular feature in American life at the beginning of this [18th] century,” wrote Cooper, and he believed they were destined to become the engine and impetus for an expanding American empire, all crafted by pioneers of the highest order.

The Pioneers was a game-changer, both etymologically and culturally. Linguistically speaking, Cooper’s repurposing of the lexeme “pioneer” imbued the figure with heretofore unprecedented honor. They were still the front-line of “civilization,” but this was now an estimable position indeed. Like other post-colonial subjects-turned-citizens, i.e. Noah Webster, Cooper was trying to define a distinct American identity via language, and adapting “pioneers” was a perfect route toward this end—and, apparently, quite palatable, too: the public ate it up. As James D. Wallace notes in Early Cooper and His Audience, “Readers displayed an early and continuing interest in the ‘real-life’ prototypes of Cooper’s fictional heroes.” (Wallace also notes that the “rearguard” literati wrote scathing critiques of Cooper’s mass-marketed novel.) Haters aside, within a few years the word “pioneers” is being used with deference: author Zachariah Allen praises “persevering” pioneers in his 1832 work The Practical Tourist: “It requires a firm heart for a solitary individual to enter the wilderness alone, for the arduous enterprise of clearing up new lands.”

And it was precisely this popularity that gave the pioneers so much power on a broader cultural level, too: pushing Romanticism to the forefront of the American imagination. While the aesthetic movement and its adoration of nature had been subtly eclipsing the reason-based enlightenment for almost two decades, Cooper’s humanistic portrayal of life in the “hinterland” helped usher the movement, and pioneers, into the mainstream. Once portrayed as forbidden and sinister, woods and unvarnished vistas were now divine, and the pioneers within were admired for their place therein.

The most notable and immediate example of this evolution is Thomas Cole’s seminal 1826 painting, “Daniel Boone Sitting at the Door of His Cabin on the Great Osage Lake.” Admittedly inspired by Cooper’s work, Cole’s the first major portrayal of Boone in such a respectable, almost gentlemanly manner. The iconic countryman had already been a folk hero for decades, ever since John Filson’s 1784 reportage The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke, but where Filson highlighted the gruffer, authentic bits of frontier life—infamously louse-ridden log cabins were realistically described as “not extraordinary good houses”—Cole’s rendition was purposefully rosy: a ray of heavenly light shines upon Boone and his pooch, a sturdy and charming cabin keeping the darkness at bay. This was Romanticism on full blast, and it was just getting started.

coverWithin a few short years the literary and artistic markets were filled with prose, poems, paintings, and lithographs dedicated to the pioneer Cooper helped reinvent: painters Asher Durand and Jasper Francis Cropsey were some of the early American artists to imitate Cole, depicting handsome and strapping pioneer families nestled into the woods, and Cooper himself spun off an entire franchise: The Leatherstocking Series, the most famous installment of which is The Last of the Mohicans. While earlier Americans had bashfully compared themselves to their estranged but still more “civilized” cousins in England, they now proudly celebrated themselves as a unique nation, and the forests and the pioneers were integral to this self-conception. They were an American-styled Moses, forging forests into towns that begot cities that begot states, propelling the American people into promised lands. They were pushing the country westward, toward what journalist John O’Sullivan would later call “Manifest Destiny.”

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And this idea that whites were “destined” to conquer the continent of course brings us to a crucial aspect of American pioneering: the displacement and annihilation of Native Americans. Like les pionniers marching into battle, the American pioneers so many idolized were the first wave in the white man’s seizure of land occupied by First Nations, or “red-skins,” another term Cooper’s work popularized. Though it was first recorded in 1815, in a speech by Meskwaki tribal leader The Black Thunder, Cooper’s usage in such a wide-read tome as The Pioneers cemented it in the American vernacular. Wayne Franklin notes in his biography of Cooper that linguist Ives Goddard defended Cooper’s usage of red-skin, describing it as “an affectless designation for Native Americans,” but intention aside, the effect was very real: Cooper’s work graphically explains how Europeans “dispossessed” Indians of their land and decimated them with violence and alcohol, but he nevertheless described America’s first nations as “animal” and “savage.” He bestows upon them a certain naïve grace, a detail that helped fuel the tenacious “noble savage” narrative, but Cooper’s work primarily perpetuated the idea that Indians would always be outmatched by the unparalleled, unbeatable pioneer, figuratively and literally.

Not incidentally, it was this post-Pioneers cultural shift that laid the groundwork for Andrew Jackson’s presidency and the subsequent Trail of Tears. The nation’s fresh admiration for the rural helped “Old Hickory” trounce scion John Quincy Adams in 1828, an electoral victory aided in part by a campaign narrative hyping Jackson’s childhood in the country’s “interior,” away from the Europeanized East, and it was this same fervor that built support for Jackson’s crusade against Native people. And we see less malignant outgrowths of the Pioneers elsewhere in the political realm, too: Congressman Henry Clay sang the pioneers’ praises in the House of Representatives in 1832: “Pioneers of a more adventurous character, advancing before the tide of emigration, penetrate into the uninhabited regions of the West;” and during the presidential campaign of 1840, the so-called “log cabin election,” newspaper editors bent over backward to trumpet candidate William Henry Harrison’s youth as a “pioneer in the wilderness.” This was an outright lie: Harrison grew up wealthy on a Virginia plantation and didn’t move to Ohio until he was 39, and once there he converted a preexisting log cabin into a 16-room mansion. And though his political opponents publicized this fact far and wide, the truth didn’t matter to the average voter. The idea of the pioneer was already so much bigger, so much more alluring than any reality: Even eye-witnesses described Harrison’s mansion as a “log cabin” during that reality-warping campaign, a contest that established a winning formula for Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and, yes, even Abraham Lincoln’s White House runs.

And thus, frontier pioneers became an integral part of the American identity, portrayed in art high and low for generations to come, from Currier & Ives lithographs to Disney-branded Davy Crocketts; pioneers inspired iconic fashions like coonskin caps and buffalo plaid; and the archetype defined the American character in ways more profound and deeper than even the cowboy. “The most characteristic figure of the New World for the first two centuries was the man of the ‘trace’ or trail: the settler who, carrying a rifle and an axe, adventured into the wilderness and there hewed out a clearing, built a cabin,” historian Hamlin Garland wrote in his 1923 biography of Crockett, the “typical pioneer.” And as for the term “pioneer” itself, it ventured into new territories, attaching itself to the likes of aviation vanguard Amelia Earhart, education titan Booker T. Washington, and space age pioneer John Glenn. And almost always the word’s invoked with awe and held up as a template for those that follow. And it all started thanks to one author’s decision to reclaim and redefine a word. By recasting the pioneer, Cooper elevated a lamentable, pitiable character into a hero who shaped the American identity, for better or for worse.

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