Before any characters appear, the time and geography are made clear. Though it is the last war that England and France waged for a country that neither would retain, the wilderness between the forces still has to be overcome first. Thus it is in 1757, in the New York area between the head waters of the Hudson River and Lake George (the "Horican") to the north. Because only two years earlier General Braddock was disgracefully routed by a handful of French and Indians, the frontier is now exposed to real and imaginary savage disasters as well as to the horrors of warfare. Fear has replaced reason.
Near dusk of a day in July, an Indian runner named Magua arrives at Fort Edward on the upper Hudson. He has come from Fort William Henry at the southern tip of Lake George with the news that the French General Montcalm is moving south with a very large army and that Munro, commander of Fort William Henry, is in urgent need of plentiful reinforcements from General Webb. Early the next morning, a limited detachment of fifteen hundred regulars and colonists departs as if swallowed by the forest.
Shortly afterwards, Major Duncan Heyward and Alice and Cora Munro, guided by Magua on foot, take by horseback a secret route toward William Henry for the girls to join their father. Blonde Alice is doubtful about Magua, covered with war paint and showing a sullen fierceness; but dark-haired Cora is stoically common sense about him, even though Heyward mentions that their father had once had to deal rigidly with the Indian. As the small party pushes on, they are overtaken by David Gamut, a tall, ungainly psalmodist (singing-master) ridiculously dressed and carrying a pitch pipe while riding a mare followed by its young colt. He desires to join them, and after some banter between him and Alice, he pulls out the twenty-sixth edition of The Bay Psalm Book, sounds his pipe, and renders a song "in full, sweet, and melodious tones." At a muttered comment from Magua, Heyward insists upon silence for safety. Then he glances about them and, satisfied that he has seen only shining berries, smiles to himself as they move on. But he is wrong. The branches move and a man peers exultingly after them as they disappear among the dark lines of trees.
These two chapters introduce the reader to the historical and natural settings and are indicative of the extent to which this book, as a historical novel, relates its fictional characters to real history. Only here at the beginning and later at mid-novel will the action coincide in detail with actual events, though the historic war is always somewhere in the near distance. These chapters also present four of the main fictional characters and one secondary one, all of whom will merit our concern henceforth. Major Heyward is the gallant romantic hero, but unlike most sentimental romances where for each hero there is one heroine, here there are two, Alice and Cora, blonde and brunette. And it is immediately apparent that the old tradition of weak-blonde-strong-brunette contrast is at work, stereotyping the fair Alice and dark Cora. These three are rather predictable types which both simplify and stultify the writer's efforts with them. Magua's stealthy eyes and abrupt, furtive actions mark him as a potential villain, while the exaggerated presentation of the simple, single-minded Gamut paints him as the comic and perhaps pitiable adult innocent. At this point, both are something less than realistic and fully vitalized characters, but in comparison to the other three they seem to breathe real air. The stature of originality and verisimilitude that they do show is doubtless due to the fact that they are native characters. One may note, for instance, that Heyward's comment about Munro's once dealing rigidly with Magua not only lends suspense to the situation and points to the theme of revenge but also suggests some depth of motivation for the Indian.
What we call plot — the complications of a situation and the subsequent events and actions that further entangle things before they are finally resolved in some fashion — starts an early ferment in terms of danger and suspense. Four likable and somewhat innocent characters strike into the unknown forest wilderness with a doubtful guide. It is a time of urgency, and movement is swift. Cooper hardly gives the reader time to question seriously why Munro's daughters would push forward their visit at this worst of times and would feel themselves safer almost alone on a dim path in savage-infested territory than in the company of fifteen hundred trained fighting men. This represents a lack in character motivation, but Cooper knows that he must get his people into jeopardy, and he at least partly succeeds in hiding this lack under suspenseful action and a sense of urgency. But in spite of the pace, Cooper also manages a good instance of dramatic irony, a fictional presentation in which the reader is allowed to see or deduce predicaments unknown or only partly known by the characters. It is thus that the first part of the pattern of action — that of pursuit — has begun.