Cooper's setting is that of the American frontier with its physical background of wild and virgin nature, its human cross-purposes and conflicts. It is a place of primeval forests, mountains, caves, and waterfalls; a place of great beauty and of constant potential threat from its terrain and its native Indians; a place where a man, if he chooses, can be a Deist letting religion be "revealed" to him through nature and his own reason, sacred writings being unnecessary. But the time is that of the American pre-revolution (1757), when white men are exploring and ruthlessly pushing westward. Thus man, though in general an inextricable part of nature, becomes a blot on what nature would be without him on its landscape, for man feels he must possess — must own — nature physically whether he does so spiritually or not. Human nature exerting itself at this time and in this place generates Cooper's setting, the American frontier in New York State.
Human nature, of course, is not all bad. Though most people in the novel seem to be caught up, either directly or indirectly, in conflict for holding or gaining the land, there is Gamut, who is ineptly concerned with religious values, and there is especially Hawkeye, who does possess the landscape spiritually and who despoils its produce (plant, animal, or man) only to defend or feed himself. But these two are doomed to failure: Gamut because he is too narrow-mindedly conventional ever to understand another culture enough to reshape it, Hawkeye because (even if Cooper had never made it eminently clear, as he did, in other novels of the series, especially The Prairie) it is obvious in The Last of the Mohicans that the frontier condition will finally pass off the scene and carry with it the man and his virtues which that condition fostered. This is clearly indicated by the recurrent theme of finality which gathers like darkness at the end with the Indians being slowly dispossessed of land, sustenance, and existence. The white invaders are already winning. The setting, then, is not merely that of time and place (though these are historical, convincing, and necessary to the novel's basic reality about life) but is also one of atmosphere, that aura which encompasses, permeates, and unifies — and somehow at the same time comes from — all the living elements of a novel. In this case, it is the atmosphere of conquest and dispossession.
Critically, one can easily isolate the time and place of the novel, but doing so with atmosphere is less easy because atmosphere is intimately intertwined with all aspects of the novel. Lucy Lockwood Hazard, in The Frontier in American Literature (1927), says: "The frontier affords the setting; it occasions the plot; it offers the theme; it creates the character." After a reader mentally vivisects the novel to examine its parts, such as elements of setting, these parts come back together with new focus, scope, and meaning in a thematic atmosphere for which we fortunately have the name of American frontier.