The narrator begins the novel by describing the landscape of the region “between the head waters of the Hudson and the adjacent lakes.” This is the region in which the novel takes place, in upstate New York, 1757, during the Seven Years’ War, also called the French and Indian War. In this conflict, England and its Native American allies fought with France and its Native American allies for control of “the American colonies,” which included parts of what is now the northeast US and Canada. It is the third year of this conflict, and English colonists and soldiers are worried that the long-term war with the French and natives cannot be won.
This geographic location will feature prominently in the remainder of the novel. Much of the characters’ struggle, as they attempt to sort through the numerous native and colonial alliances of the Seven Years’ War, will be played out against the backdrop of a difficult, remote terrain, filled with trees, caverns, streams, and lakes. These are areas very few men—native or white—travel frequently, and larges swaths of this country have not yet even been fully mapped.
As the novel opens, a small group of soldiers are marching from Fort Edward, south of Lake George, to Fort William Henry, just adjacent to that lake, in order to aid Munro, the officer in charge of Fort William Henry, which lies close to the French lines. Munro wonders whether a larger detachment will later be sent by General Webb, stationed at Fort Edward, to support his fort against possible French attack. An “ungainly man” is described, waiting in front of Webb’s quarters, quoting Biblical verses to describe a beautiful horse he sees tied off nearby.
The primary conflict of the book revolves around the possibility that Heyward, leader of this small band, will be able to convey Munro’s two daughters to another English fort, Fort William Henry, which is then subjected to a famous siege. Cooper has here blended both a fictional plot with a real-life, historical event—the siege of the fort—in order to create his “historical fiction.”
A young officer exits the quarters of General Webb with two young women, named Alice and Cora, whom he is to escort through the wilderness, on horseback, from Fort Edward to Fort William Henry. The officer, named Duncan Heyward, promises Webb and the two young women that he will get them to Fort William Henry safely. They mount their horses and proceed behind an “Indian runner,” or guide, whom the narrator does not yet name, but who is described as being “swarthy” looking, perhaps untrustworthy. The band of Heyward, Alice, and Cora depart on horseback, with the runner staking out the trail ahead.
One of the ingenious tricks of the novel’s plot is that Magua, the book’s antagonist, is placed, from the beginning, in close proximity to Heyward, Alice, and Cora, three of the novel’s heroes. From the beginning, too, there is a tension between Magua and the rest of the band, and this is later explained, by Hawkeye, as having derived from the fact that Magua was born a Mingo but is not supposedly faithful to the Delawares. Hawkeye believes this kind of switching of loyalties to be “unmanly.”