The first chapter sets the scene in the wilderness of upper New York in the eighteenth century, during the colonial wars between England and France. The year is 1757, and the English are hard pressed. In midsummer, the small English contingent at Fort William Henry are informed by an Indian “runner” (scout) that a large French force under Montcalm is advancing on their position. Colonel Munro, the English commander, has requested assistance from an English army of five thousand men stationed less than a day’s march away, at Fort Edward, under the command of General Webb. Fifteen hundred men depart from Fort Edward for Fort William Henry. Munro’s two daughters, Cora and Alice, have requested to visit their father. They are about to depart in a small party, separate from the military contingent. They are accompanied by the Indian scout, whose name is Magua (who travels on foot), and a young army officer named Major Duncan Heyward.
Magua is to guide the small party to Fort William Henry by a quicker but less well known route than the one taken by the military column. Alice does not like the look of the Indian, but Hayward assures her he is trustworthy. The danger is that they may be ambushed in the forest by Indians. The party is joined by David Gamut, a singer and teacher of religious songs from Connecticut. Cora takes a liking to him and allows him to journey with them. David always carries his song book with him, but when he takes it out and begins to sing, Heyward, acting on Magua’s advice, tells David it would be dangerous for him to continue; they need to be as quiet as possible on their dangerous trip. A hostile Indian, undetected, watches them pass.
The first two chapters introduce the setting, several of the major characters and at least one of the major themes. The setting is the wilderness, in which the natural hazards and difficulties presented by mountains, forests and rivers combine with the dangers that arise from the presence of hostile Indians. The prevailing atmosphere of the novel, the immediate presence of deadly danger, is thus established from the beginning.
The theme of Indian savagery, which is also a constant in the novel, is introduced in chapter I. The English colonists have suffered recent massacres in which “the natives of the forests were the principal and barbarous actors.” The racial stereotyping—Indians as savages—is also apparent in the first description of Magua, in which he is presented as “savage and repulsive”; his eye has a quality of “native wildness” to it. His cunning is also emphasized. Also, Cora regards him with a mixture of admiration and horror, and in chapter II, Alice is terrified of Magua. However, in other parts of the book, sometimes in Hawkeye’s comments or in Cooper’s narration, a more respectful view of Indians and their culture is expressed.
The theme of interracial relationships is foreshadowed in Chapter II. Cora asks Heyward whether Magua should be distrusted just because of the color of his skin. Her remark is overheard by Magua, and he openly admires her. This appears to be the beginning of the attraction Magua feels for the white woman, with its disastrous consequences.
Cooper’s description of David Gamut’s ungainly physical appearance in Chapter I is intended to be amusing, although Cooper’s attempts at humor are frequently heavy-handed. Later, Gamut will be the butt for the humor of Hawkeye, the main character in the story who is to be introduced in the next chapter.