Thursday, September 29, 2022

On the Trail of the Tale

     Did you bring back some nice Instagram shots from your summer vacation? Maybe you used Facebook to tell friends and family about your travels. For tourists two hundred years ago those weren't options. But what they could do was turn their summer sightseeing into books. That's what one person who visited our area in August of 1824 did. His name was James Fenimore Cooper and his book was The Last of the Mohicans 

     By the time of his death in 1851 Cooper was considered America's 'national novelist'. While he wrote prolifically (32 novels and numerous other works), today he is best known for five books collectively called the Leatherstocking Tales. They revolve around the adventures of scout Natty Bumppo and his Native companion Chingachgook. In The Last of the Mohicans the scout is called Hawkeye and is joined by Chingachgook's son Uncas.

     Mohicans takes place in 1757 during the French and Indian wars and, while fictional, it incorporates actual historical events. During his  tour of the upper Hudson/Lake George area Cooper visited various locations that were subsequently used in the novel. You can see those same sites today by following a Leatherstocking Literary Trail created in a collaboration between Lisa Adamson of the Lake George Historical Association and Jim Brangan of the Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership. The trail consists of eight colorful panels placed where events in the story unfold.

The Creators...

Lisa Adamson


Jim Brangan

     Before hitting the trail let me offer a few caveats. You really should read the book first and maybe trace the route on a map as well. Be up for a challenge. While the signs are entertaining and well done, they are not always easy to find. It took diligent effort and some personal coaching from Lisa before I located all of them. I'm hoping this post will make it a little easier for others. Finally, you might find it awkward to visit the panels in the order they are numbered. The action of the novel begins in Fort Edward before moving on to Glens Falls, then Ballston Spa and Lake George,  eventually  reaching its climax in the Adirondack Mountains. Just remember that compared to the hardships Cooper's characters endured, your tour is going to be a breeze. 

     The trail begins on the front lawn of the Historical Association in the Village of Lake George. Here you will find two panels. One is an introduction while the other details the siege of Fort William Henry, which doesn't happen until mid-way thru the novel. Since they are side by side most people are going to read them both at the same time, but for the sake of continuity we'll return to this spot later in the tour.

     You may want to visit the Museum while you're here. You can buy a copy of The Last of the Mohicans in the Museum's bookshop and see all the Leatherstocking Trail panels assembled together in the Native American Room. That may seem easier than doing the tour but it lacks the context of experiencing them in the landscape where the action took place. 

     The first stop is one of my favorites. It's located several miles south of Lake George along the Warren County Bike Path. The best way to approach it might be by biking or walking south on the path from Bloody Pond Road. It is also accessible by something of a scramble from a pull-off on the east side of Rt. 9. Look for a sign hung between two granite pillars, then walk down past the white obelisk monument to Col. Williams, continuing downhill across an old roadway and abandoned rail bed till you reach the paved bike path. That's where you'll find the Leatherstocking panel beside another dedicated to a former trolley line.

     It's curious that this was chosen as the first stop because the action here doesn't occur until well into the book. Perhaps it's because Hawkeye reminiscences about an earlier (September 8, 1755) battle at this spot that left Col. Williams as well as the Mohawk King Hendrick and many others dead. As you walk in this dark wooded ravine it's easy to imagine war whoops and shots ringing out as the French and their Indian allies spring an ambush on the unprepared company of British and provincial soldiers.

Scene of the battle

Historical markers along Rt. 9

Probably not Bloody Pond

     Bloody Pond plays a ghoulish role in the story here and you can read historical markers by a swampy depression along Rt. 9. But be aware that historians doubt this is the same 'Bloody Pond' mentioned in early accounts of the battle. Nevertheless, it is probably the one Cooper visited and included in his tale.

     The next stop is at the other end of the Military Road that ran from Lake George to the Hudson River. It's located in the Village of Fort Edward near the entrance to Underwood Park. This is where the story begins as the Munro sisters head out to reunite with their father at Fort William Henry. They embarked from a fortification that gives the present village its name. To see the site where the outpost was located head east on Broadway several blocks taking a right on Montgomery and then another quick right onto Old Fort. Look for a boulder and plaque at the end of the street.


     If you've read the story you'll know that the evil Magua led the sisters astray to the point where they ended up on a rocky island at the foot of a thundering falls in the Hudson River. This limestone ledge and the thrilling action that takes place here became so popular that it was forever after known as Cooper's Cave. To see it for yourself, cross the bridge from Glens Falls to South Glens Falls and take the first right. A Leatherstocking panel is at this corner and by following a lane back under the road you'll come to a viewing platform with several more informative signs. You can also walk back across the bridge to an alcove with a birdseye view of the cave and several more explanatory panels. Some of us old-timers remember when there was a spiral staircase here and you could climb down to stand on the rock with the mighty Hudson roaring all around you. Liability lawyers, perhaps wisely, put an end to that. 

     From Glens Falls the plot of the novel takes us south to present day Ballston Spa. Here Hawkeye and the Mohicans must once again rescue Cora and Alice from Magua and his band of Huron warriors. The panel describing these events is on the lawn of the Brookside Museum. It's interesting to note that Cooper stayed in the Brookside (then an inn) while doing his summer tour.

The Brookside with panels to the left by flag pole

     I'm not sure I should mention this but it's possible to climb the hill where the fictional skirmish takes place. It's in back of the Museum and involves a steep scramble thru brambles and blowdown. I'm sure Cooper scoped this out and being on top gives you a real sense of the action. You'll also want to stop by the springs below the Museum because they too figure into the story.

Magua propositions Cora  on the hilltop

The same scene today

Looking down on the brook from the hill
in back of the Museum

The gentrified springs of today with the Museum
in the background

     For Cooper's heroes it's a case of 'from the frying pan, into the fire'. After Ballston Spa they head north to Fort William Henry. But the fort is under attack by Montcalm's army of French soldiers and Indian allies. It's a place to run from, not go to. The characters actions don't always make sense and the Literary Trail also seems to lose some coherence at this point. In the book this is where Hawkeye's party arrive at Bloody Pond and the scene of the 1755 battle. But haven't we already been there at Stop 1 of the Trail?

     In any case, the next stop in the Trails established order is the one beside the introductory panel in front of the Lake George Historical Museum. It and the following one tell of the siege and subsequent massacre at Fort William Henry. These were actual historical events but as you walk thru the touristy Village of Lake George they can be a little hard to picture.

Fort William Henry
(web image)

     Fort William Henry was destroyed in 1757 but it has been rebuilt as an attraction and its imposing ramparts now rise above Beach Road and the head of the lake. There is a Leatherstocking panel, somewhat difficult to find, near the forts northeast corner by what I believe is called 'the Festival Commons'. If you do find the 'Massacre Panel' then it's just a short walk to your journey's end. The last one, entitled Into the Mountains, is between Beach Road and the waters that Cooper called Horicon.

     Looking down the lake towards the Narrows, try to imagine the epic canoe chase and the further adventures that await. At just over halfway thru the book there is much more to the story but other than saying it unfolds in the mountains, it's hard to pinpoint precise locations. Perhaps that's why the Literary Trail ends here. 


     If you've found it rewarding to immerse yourself in the world of The Last of the Mohicans thus far, then there's one more thing left to do. Drop a copy of the book into your pack and head out on an Adirondack trail ... maybe the one to Sleeping Beauty or Inman Pond or Rogers Rock. Walk past beaver ponds and thru dark forests until you come out on a rocky cliff top. Then lean back against a tree and read the tales frantic, tragic end. And do this while trying not to look nervously over your shoulder.

Final thoughts...

     * Coopers book has been made into over a dozen different films and TV shows. One from 1911 was actually filmed in the Lake George area. A BBC serial from 1971 is well regarded and available on DVD from the local library system. There was also a popular 1992 version starring Daniel Day-Lewis and directed by Michael Mann.

     * For an historically accurate account of the events that Mohicans is based on I would recommend Russell P. Bellico's Empires in the Mountains or any of several books by archeologist David Starbuck.

     * I read a used rag-tag Bantam Classics copy I found online for a couple of bucks but you really ought to look for the edition illustrated by N.C. Wyeth. They are readily available and the artwork adds so much to the story.

N.C. Wyeth illustration

     * Cooperstown: it's not just for baseball. This central New York village was founded by William Cooper, James Fenimore's father. Our author lived here at various times during his life and used the surrounding countryside in his novels. The Fenimore Art Museum is located in town as well as several breweries. When are we going!

     * On the other hand ... 
     Not everyone is ga-ga for Cooper's writing. It can be a bit, shall we say, overwrought. Maybe way overwrought in Mark Twain's opinion. Here's a link to the famous humorist's essay pillorying Fenimore Cooper and his Leatherstocking novels.

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