On a beautiful June day in the early 1740s, two travelers arrive at Otsego Lake in upstate New York. One is Henry March, or Hurry Harry, about 28 years old; and the other is Nathaniel, or Natty, Bumppo — Deerslayer — who is several years younger than his companion. Both men proceed very cautiously because the Iroquois, or Mingos, are on the warpath. Deerslayer, raised by the Delaware (Mohican) nation, has more respect for the qualities of the Indians than his reckless comrade, who despises the natives. Hurry Harry taunts Deerslayer about the latter's reluctance to take any life, animal or human, without good cause; and he finally obtains from Natty the admission that the young man has never killed another person.
Hurry Harry relates some of the background and gossip about Tom Hutter who claims the lake as his property toward which they are now approaching. Floating Tom Hutter has lived on this lake for 15 years and has buried his wife there. He has two daughters, Judith and Hetty, who are discussed in some detail by Hurry Harry. Judith is attractive and vivacious; Hurry characterizes her as a "light-minded jilting jade"; Hetty is plain and somewhat mentally retarded. Hurry Harry wants to marry Judith, although she has already rejected his offer of marriage. Angry at the memory of this rejection, Harry threatens to kill any man Judith may have married during his absence. Deerslayer calmly replies that he would be morally obligated to inform the authorities about such a crime. Seizing Deerslayer by the throat, Harry is on the verge of injuring his companion until he realizes that Deerslayer is not to be bullied. Hurry then releases his grip, saying that he will tell no more secrets to his young companion.
After they have eaten, the two men continue their trek to Otsego Lake. Deerslayer proves that he has keen eyesight by spotting a certain tree that Harry has described. Inside the fallen, rotting tree is a hidden canoe. As the travelers start to paddle the canoe on the lake, Deerslayer is visibly moved and impressed by the lake, commonly called Glimmerglass. They reach Muskrat Castle, the permanent home and fortification of Tom Hutter on the lake, but the castle is deserted. Hurry Harry explains that the ark, the second lodging of Floating Tom, is probably at the other end of Glimmerglass. Deerslayer mentions that he is to meet Chingachgook, his friend and the son of the chief of the fallen nation of the Mohicans, at a rock near the lake outlet, where Floating Tom's ark is located.
Cooper, proceeding leisurely in building up conflict, first devotes considerable time to the physical setting of his story and the description of characters. Stylistically, this procedure allows Cooper to indulge in a rich, flowing language, characterized also by poetic prose in the reactions of Deerslayer to nature, and to Glimmerglass in particular. There is an additional sound purpose behind the slow, lengthy descriptive passages of the novelist. All the action will take place on and around the lake, and some exciting episodes will occur in Muskrat Castle. Then Cooper will be able to plunge quickly into the narrative when this conflict develops without the need for any interruptions to describe the physical background.
A favorite romantic device, used abundantly by Cooper, is the pairing of opposites. Hurry Harry and Deerslayer are compared and contrasted repeatedly, and there are many differences indicated between the two men. Hurry Harry is immediately and sharply depicted as the antithesis of Deerslayer. The two characters become hero and villain, respectively, as the plot unfolds. They are at odds early in the novel, although they journey together and require each other's help against any attack by roving bands of Indians. The two daughters of Tom Hutter have not appeared as yet, but Judith and Hetty have been described in such a way by Hurry Harry that they emerge as very different — and opposite — types, psychologically and physically.
An air of mystery already surrounds the figure of Floating Tom when Hurry Harry repeats the rumor that Hutter was a pirate, perhaps a member of Captain Kidd's crew. Also, the description of Muskrat Castle resembles that of a medieval castle. The chest in the castle, for example, is "dark" and "massive," indicating its later importance. The skill of Floating Tom in constructing a permanent castle and a moving ark shows that a forceful character will be presented. Hurry Harry, anxious to rejoin Hutter, provides another clue that this alliance is between forces opposed to Deerslayer's ideals.
Natty Bumppo stands out from the first chapter as the major character, and several important facts are explained. The most important piece of information is that Deerslayer has never killed any human being. He is, as Hurry Harry understands, anxious about this first inevitable test of moral and physical courage. One should of course remember that the full title of Cooper's romance is The Deerslayer, or The First Warpath. The main theme is then emphasized by Natty's own introspective nature. One should note the repetition throughout the story of this aspect of Deerslayer's character, especially when he must make a decision or answer a difficult question — "he stood leaning on his rifle." Three other traits are mentioned in the first chapter about the hero: "guileless truth," "an earnestness of purpose," and "a sincerity of feeling."
Otsego Lake, or Glimmerglass, is the center of the action, and another view of "the reign of nature." Deerslayer's reactions in the second chapter are preceded by two paragraphs about the lake, "its solemn solitude and sweet repose." The large lake, nearly nine miles long and a mile wide, provides Natty with glimpses of the Divine immensity, and of the smallness of man. Cooper's — and Deerslayer's — philosophy is particularly revealed in the many descriptive passages about Glimmerglass in various chapters.