Places: The Prairie

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1827

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Adventure

Time of work: 1804

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedPrairie

Prairie. Prairie, TheSet just after the Louisiana Purchase, the novel’s events occur in a vague area of the prairie, about five hundred miles west of the Mississippi River. Cooper had not traveled in these western regions and was dependent on published accounts of others for his descriptions of the prairie areas. Thus, the places in the plot’s development are mostly imagined and generally not tied to identifiable spots on the map. Rather, it is the qualities of the prairie that interest Cooper: its vastness, wildness, emptiness, and sameness. Against this desertlike landscape, even a hero like Natty Bumppo is made to seem less sure and in charge than in the novels which place him in the eastern forests. Here, human efforts appear almost swallowed up by the land itself.

*La Platte

*La Platte. Platte River, whose main branch originates in central Wyoming, flows east, through all of Nebraska, before emptying into the Misssouri River just south of Omaha. The novel’s references to this river, and its suggestion that the action occurs in this river’s vicinity some five hundred miles west of the Mississippi River, lead one to believe that western Nebraska is the likely real-life equivalent of the geographical area Cooper imagined for his narrative. Although Natty Bumppo and his threatened friends, the Bush clan, and the Sioux and Pawnees in the novel are aware of this river and its importance, Cooper never really makes clear that any of the action actually occurs along its banks, preferring instead to rely on unnamed rivers and streams.

First camping area

First camping area. The Bush clan and Natty meet in the desert waste with Natty pictured against the western sunset as a “colossal,” larger-than-life figure, dramatically underscoring his key role in opening up the frontier. The Bushes strip the prairie of its vegetation as they set up camp, thus underscoring their heartless and ruthless disregard for the environment.

Bush fortress

Bush fortress. About three miles from the first camping spot, the Bush clan sets up a more permanent home on a hilly prominence which features “a single naked and ragged rock,” a natural lookout spot to watch for marauders while at the same time being easy to defend. Cooper uses this touchstone spot throughout the first half of the novel as the various parties vie back and forth over the kidnapped Inez, the stolen flocks, and the murder of Ishmael Bush’s son, Asa. Some twenty miles away from this rock, Bumppo manages to set a backfire which saves the day when the Sioux and the Bush clan attempt to eliminate the novel’s “good” characters by means of a prairie fire.

Sioux camp

Sioux camp (sew). Temporary Sioux encampment near a river, to which Bumppo and his friends are taken after being captured by the Sioux. The site is some days away from the rocky fortress. It is here that the warriors of the Sioux and the Pawnee tribes fight, with Hard Heart, the good Pawnee, the winner (good because he seems to recognize and honor certain “white” values). It is also here that Cooper complicates Ishmael Bush’s character by having him mete out prairie justice according to Old Testament principles, freeing Natty and his friends.

Rocky ledge

Rocky ledge. Located on a small hill above the prairie emptiness, this is the spot Ishmael Bush chooses for the final scene of prairie justice. Not trusting civilization’s handling of justice, he determines to execute Abiram, his son’s killer, relying on Old Testament texts as his guide. Unwilling to shoot Abiram, he fetters him on the rocky ledge with a rope placed around his neck for either starvation or a self-hanging from the willow, which in its lifelessness seems an appropriately stark symbol for this death scene. Upon hearing what sounds like a death scream after they leave, Ishmael and his wife, showing some degree of mercy, return to bury the dead, at which point Ishmael pronounces a sort of Old Testament forgiveness over the corpse.

Pawnee village

Pawnee village. Located close to the Missouri River, this village of supportive Native Americans is the spot where Natty Bumppo and his friends separate. The latter return to civilization, while Bumppo remains in the frontier wastes of the prairie. It is also here, about a year later, that Cooper pictures Bumppo’s death, with his hero facing west toward his beloved frontier, gazing into the sunset, the best of human beings, honored by Native Americans and pioneers alike. Bumppo greets his death on his feet with the word “Here!”

BibliographyBrotherston, Gordon. “The Prairie and Cooper’s Invention of the West.” In James Fenimore Cooper: New Critical Essays, edited by Robert Clark. London: Vision Press, 1985. Defines The Prairie as “the most distinctive if not the best written” of Cooper’s novels about Native Americans. Explores the lasting historical and cultural images Cooper helped create.Dekker, George. James Fenimore Cooper: The American Scott. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1967. Argues persuasively that Cooper deserves more respect from scholars and students, although his weaknesses are real and serious. Devotes three chapters to The Prairie, concluding that many ideas in this work were handled better in the other Leatherstocking tales.Fields, Wayne. “Beyond Definition: A Reading of The Prairie.” In James Fenimore Cooper: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Wayne Fields. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979. Compares the prairie and the forest as representational landscapes. Ishmael Bush’s experiences demonstrate that human beings need laws and limits to survive.Överland, Orm. The Making and Meaning of an American Classic: James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Prairie.” New York: Humanities Press, 1973. Discusses biographical and historical contexts, sources and method of composition, and a reading with early critical reception. Accessible for students, and interesting for its Scandinavian approach to American history and culture.Rans, Geoffrey. Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Novels: A Secular Reading. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. The chapter “The Uses of Memory” uses The Prairie to show how a nation uses selective memory of its past, particularly of its past injustices, to move forward.
Categories: Places