The novel takes place during the third year of the French and Indian War. The narrator explains that the land itself, populated by hostile Indian tribes, is as dangerous as the war. The armies do not want to battle, and the unpredictability of the terrain unnerves them. The French general Montcalm has allied himself with several of the Indian tribes native to America and is moving a large army south in an attempt to take Fort William Henry from the British. Magua, an Indian scout, intercepts the information about the impending attack on the fort and relays it to the British General Webb, to whom he is loyal. Webb decides to send reinforcements to Fort William Henry to help Colonel Munro, who commands the fort. Shortly after the reinforcements leave for Fort William Henry, Webb dispatches the young Major Heyward to accompany Alice and Cora Munro, the colonel’s daughters, who insist upon visiting their father. As they leave, an Indian runner dashes by them. Alice watches him with mixed admiration and repulsion.
The Indian runner, whose name is Magua, agrees to guide Heyward and the young women to Fort William Henry by means of a shortcut known only to the Indians. Soon after they leave Fort Edward, they meet a stranger. We later learn his name is David Gamut. Gamut is a psalmodist, a man who worships by singing Old Testament psalms. The mincing and dainty Gamut is out of place in the menacing forest. He left Fort Edward and lost his way. He announces his intention to join the group. Annoyed at Gamut’s presumption, Heyward nevertheless shows interest in Gamut’s claim to be an instructor, and asks Gamut if he is a mathematician or a scientist. Gamut replies humbly that he knows only the limited insights of psalmody, the then-popular practice of setting biblical teachings to music.
Cora is amused by the stranger. Gamut joins their party and sings a religious song native to New England. He behaves seriously and venerably, as though delivering a sermon, and accompanies his psalmody with dramatic hand gestures. Magua eventually interrupts this performance, muttering a few words to Heyward, who translates his words to the others: they must be silent since hostile Indian tribes fill the forest.
Major Heyward quickly and confidently scans the forest, pleased that he sees no sign of Indians. His unfamiliarity with the forest makes him unable to see what the trees hide, and he does not notice a wild-eyed Indian peering out at them through the branches.
The opening two chapters of The Last of the Mohicans establish war, both historical and imagined, as the novel’s foundation. Cooper uses historical facts, rooting his narrative in actual, lived events in the colonial history of the United States. However, he also roots his narrative in his own imagined war. Cooper wants to emphasize the tensions between mankind and the land, between natives and colonists, and between nature and culture. He does this by using history as a frame and filling that frame with fictional events.
Cooper’s characters illustrate the various ways that national cultures interact. The chronology of the first two chapters foreshadows the eventual colonial domination over the Indian frontier. In Chapter I, friendly and hostile Indian tribes rule the terrain that so daunts the whites. In Chapter II, Gamut gives a sophisticated biblical performance, ignoring the Indians as he sings. Although Cooper gestures at the eventual dominance of the whites, he also makes the white Gamut a figure of fun. Gamut behaves prissily in the menacing forest and then puts the lives of his companions at risk. Even Gamut’s biblical knowledge does not dignify him; he is identified as a New England religious psalmodist only because Magua, the Indian informant, is familiar with psalmody. Heyward, although less foolish than Gamut, also acquits himself badly. He has a greatly inflated sense of his own skill and wrongly determines that no danger exists after taking a cursory glance around the woods.
Cooper’s characters embody some of the broad stereotypes held during the colonization of America. Racial tensions underlie The Last of the Mohicans. At this point in the novel, Magua represents the nineteenth-century stock figure called the noble savage, an Indian for whom the white population feels both sympathy and horror. Whites may celebrate Magua for his willingness to help them, but they also fear his cultural differences and his familiarity with a terrain they find fearsome. Cora embodies the typical white reaction to Indians—terror and fascination. Cooper also suggests that Cora feels a sexual attraction to Magua. Attractions like Cora’s, or even the imagined possibility of such attractions, terrified white males, who feared intermarriage and interracial sexual contact between Indian men and white women. This fear of interracial contact partially motivated the widespread removal of Native Americans during the nineteenth century. Cooper complicates the stereotype of the white woman attracted to the Indian man by making Cora dark, her hair black like a raven. Cora transgresses society’s rules when she looks at Magua with desire, but in some ways, Cooper suggests, her desire for him seems natural.
These two chapters both begin with epigraphs from Shakespeare’s plays—one from Richard II and the other from The Merchant of Venice. By invoking the lofty language of Shakespeare, Cooper announces his intention to write serious literary fiction. In the early nineteenth century, when Cooper was writing, the American novel was a fairly new form and its respectability uncertain. Cooper aims to give the American novel credence by quoting Shakespeare. Richard II chronicles the fall of a king, an appropriate subject for The Last of the Mohicans, which depicts a society that will one day shake off kingly rule and become democratic. The Merchant of Venice is famous for its treatment of anti-Semitism in the Jewish figure of Shylock; quoting from that play suggests that the novel will explore racism.