The Pioneers: or the Source of the Susquehanna

Author: James Fenimore Cooper  | Date: 1823

Author’s Introduction

As this work professes, in its title page, to be a descriptive tale, they who will take the trouble to read it may be glad to know how much of its contents is literal fact, and how much is intended to represent a general picture. The Author is very sensible that, had he confined himself to the latter, always the most effective, as it is the most valuable, mode of conveying knowledge of this nature, he would have made a far better book. But in commencing to describe scenes, and, perhaps, he may add, characters, that were so familiar to his own youth, there was a constant temptation to delineate that which he had known, rather than that which he might have imagined. This rigid adhesion to truth, an indispensable requisite in history and travels, destroys the charm of fiction; for all that is necessary to be conveyed to the mind by the latter had better be done by delineations of principles, and of characters in their classes, than by a too fastidious attention to originals.

New York having but one county of Otsego, and the Susquehanna but one proper source, there can be no mistake as to the site of the tale. The history of this district of country, so far as it is connected with civilized man, is soon told.

Otsego, in common with most of the interior of the province of New York, was included in the county of Albany, previously to the war of the separation. It then became, in a subsequent division of territory, a part of Montgomery; and, finally, having obtained a sufficient population of its own, it was set apart as a county by itself, shortly after the peace of 1783. It lies among those low spurs of the Alleghanies which cover the midland counties of New York; and it is rather east of a meridional line drawn through the centre of the state. As the waters of New York either flow southerly into the Atlantic, or northerly into Ontario and its outlet, Otsego Lake, being the source of the Susquehanna, is, of necessity, among its highest lands. The face of the country; the climate as it was found by the whites; and the manners of the settlers, are described with a minuteness for which the Author has no other apology than the force of his own recollections.

Otsego is said to be a word compounded of Ot, a place of meeting, and Sego, or Sago, the ordinary term of salutation used by the Indians of this region. There is a tradition which says that the neighboring tribes were accustomed to meet on the banks of the lake to make their treaties, and otherwise to strengthen their alliances, and which refers the name to this practice. As the Indian agent of New York had a log dwelling at the foot of the lake, however, it is not impossible that the appellation grew out of the meetings that were held at his council fires: the war drove off the agent, in common with the other officers of the crown; and his rude dwelling was soon abandoned. The Author remembers it a few years later, reduced to the humble office of a smoke-house.

In 1779, an expedition was sent against the hostile Indians who dwelt, about a hundred miles west of Otsego, on the banks of the Cayuga. The whole country was then a wilderness, and it was necessary to transport the baggage of the troops by means of the rivers- a devious but practicable route. One brigade ascended the Mohawk, until it reached the point nearest to the sources of the Susquehanna; whence it cut a lane through the forest to the head of the Otsego. The boats and baggage were carried over this "portage," and the troops proceeded to the other extremity of the lake, where they disembarked, and encamped. The Susquehanna, a narrow though rapid stream at its source, was much filled with "flood wood," or fallen trees; and the troops adopted a novel expedient to facilitate their passage. The Otsego is about nine miles in length, varying in breadth from half a mile to a mile and a half. The water is of great depth, limpid, and supplied from a thousand springs. At its foot, the banks are rather less than thirty feet high; the remainder of its margin being in mountains, intervals, and points. The outlet, or the Susquehanna, flows through a gorge in the low banks just mentioned, which may have a width of two hundred feet. This gorge was dammed, and the waters of the lake collected: the Susquehanna was converted into a rill. When all was ready, the troops embarked, the dam was knocked away, the Otsego poured out its torrent, and the boats went merrily down with the current.

General James Clinton, the brother of George Clinton, then governor of New York, and the father of De Witt Clinton, who died governor of the same state in 1827, commanded the brigade employed in this duty. During the stay of the troops at the foot of the Otsego a soldier was shot for desertion. The grave of this unfortunate man was the first place of human interment that the Author ever beheld, as the smoke-house was the first ruin! The swivel alluded to in this work was buried and abandoned by the troops on this occasion; and it was subsequently found in digging the cellars of the Author’s paternal residence.

Soon after the close of the war, Washington, accompanied by many distinguished men, visited the scene of this tale, it is said, with a view to examine the facilities of opening a communication by water with other points of the country. He stayed but a few hours.

In 1785, the Author’s father, who had an interest in extensive tracts of land in this wilderness, arrived with a party of surveyors. The manner in which the scene met his eye is described by Judge Temple. At the commencement of the following year the settlement began; and from that time to this the country has continued to flourish. It is a singular feature in American life, that when, at the beginning of this century, the proprietor of the estate had occasion for settlers on a new settlement, and in a remote county, he was enabled to draw them from among the increase of the former colony.

Although the settlement of this part of Otsego a little preceded the birth of the Author, it was not sufficiently advanced to render it desirable that that event, so important to himself, should take place in the wilderness. Perhaps his mother had a reasonable distrust of the practice of Dr. Todd, who must then have been in the noviciate of his experimental acquirements. Be that as it may, the Author was brought an infant into this valley, and all his first impressions were here obtained. He has inhabited it, at intervals, in later life; and he thinks he can answer for the faithfulness of the picture he has drawn.

Otsego has now become one of the most populous districts of New York. It sends forth its emigrants like any other old region; and it is pregnant with industry and enterprise. Its manufacturers are prosperous; and it is worthy of remark, that one of the most ingenious machines known in European art is derived from the keen ingenuity which is exercised in this remote region.

In order to prevent mistake, it may be well to say that the incidents of this tale are purely a fiction. The literal facts are chiefly connected with the natural and artificial objects, and the customs, of the inhabitants. Thus the academy, and courthouse, and gaol, and inn, and most similar things, are exact. They have all, long since, given place to other buildings of a more pretending character. There is also some liberty taken with the truth in the description of the mansion-house; the real building had no "firstly" and "lastly." It was of bricks, and not of stone; and its roof exhibited none of the peculiar beauties of the "composite order." It was erected in an age too primitive for that ambitious school of architecture. But the Author indulged his recollections freely when he had fairly entered the door. Here all is literal, even to the severed arm of Wolfe, and the urn which held the ashes of Queen Dido. *001

The Author has elsewhere said that the character of the Leather-stocking is a creation, rendered probable by such auxiliaries as were necessary to produce that effect. Had he drawn still more upon fancy, the lovers of fiction would not have so much cause for their objections to his work. Still the picture would not have been in the least true, without some substitutes for most of the other personages. The great proprietor resident on his lands, and giving his name to, instead of receiving it from, his estates, as in Europe, is common over the whole of New York. The physician, with his theory, rather obtained than corrected by experiments on the human constitution; the pious, self-denying, laborious, and ill-paid missionary; the half-educated, litigious, envious, and disreputable lawyer, with his counterpoise, a brother of the profession, of better origin and of better character; the shiftless, bargaining, discontented seller of his "betterments"; the plausible carpenter, and most of the others, are more familiar to all who have ever dwelt in a new country.

From circumstances which, after this Introduction, will be obvious to all, the Author has had more pleasure in writing "The Pioneers" than it will, probably, ever give any of its readers. He is quite aware of its numerous faults; some of which he has endeavored to repair in this edition: but as he has- in intention, at least- done his full share in amusing the world, he trusts to its good nature for overlooking this attempt to please himself.

PARIS, March, 1832.


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Chicago: James Fenimore Cooper, "Author’s Introduction," The Pioneers: or the Source of the Susquehanna Original Sources, accessed April 22, 2024,

MLA: Cooper, James Fenimore. "Author’s Introduction." The Pioneers: or the Source of the Susquehanna, Original Sources. 22 Apr. 2024.

Harvard: Cooper, JF, 'Author’s Introduction' in The Pioneers: or the Source of the Susquehanna. Original Sources, retrieved 22 April 2024, from