The background in which the narrative for The Last of the Mohicans unfolds is the French and Indian War, otherwise known as the Seven Years’ War, which occurred between 1754-1763. Whereas this conflict was mainly fought by the colonies of British America and New France, with logistical, strategic and tactical aid from Great Britain and France respectively, a crucial aspect of the conflict, and one which gives it its name, as well as explaining the various alliances present in The Last of the Mohicans is that various Indian tribes participated with the French colonists against the British and their own Indian allies. In this regard, the thesis can be suggested that the French and Indian war shows the highly fluid and malleable state of geopolitics in North America during this era. The armed struggles of these times were not merely a case of Native Americans opposing European forces, but also included Native Americans aligning themselves with particular factions. The French and Indian War is thus reflective of the dynamic political and military relations between colonialist countries from Europe and native peoples.
The war thus immediately reflects a number of lines of tension and power that existed in North American political and tribal relations. For example, on the side of France, various native tribes were involved, such as the Wabanaki Confederacy, which consisted of the Abenaki and Mi’kmaq tribes, as well as other tribes such as Alongquin, Lenape, Ojibwa and Ottawa groups. (Cave, 21) In contrast, on the side of British America fought the Iroquois Confederacy and Catawba tribes. (Cave, 21) As reflected in the novel, the war itself demonstrates that when approaching the political situation of the colonized lands, a simple delineation between colonial powers and colonized peoples is insufficient. Relations between these two were not defined by this binary, but rather by interests of each group.
Nevertheless, in the war itself, there were clearly more Native tribes on the side of the French colonists. On the other hand, the Iroquois sided with the British. This decision by the Iroquois has been cited by historians as the result of traditional rivalries with the Algonquian tribes, as well as attempting to earn favor in possible future agreements with the British. (Cave, 60) Accordingly, Native Americans had their own sophisticated system of relations between allies and enemies, which upsets the simplification of colonialist vs. colonized in terms of this war.
Furthermore, at the outset of the conflict, the Cherokee tribe were also allies of British America. However, during the midst of the war the Cherokee themselves decided to break off this alliance. As a result of various infractions by the British, such as broken promises to aid the Cherokee and harsh treatment on various matters when the British disapproved of Cherokee strategy and tactics, alongside a potential partnership with France, the Cherokee decided it would ultimately be of the most benefit to remain neutral. (Cave, 68) This is significant, as it underscores the autonomous political decision making process of the Native Americans: the Cherokee decided to remain neutral in the conflict, obviously deciding it was the best strategic course of action to ensure future success.
Much like the novel The Last of the Mohicans, a closer study of the French and Indian war disables some of our common stereotypes about this historical time period. On the one hand, we tend to think of a struggle between colonialists and native peoples: this myth is exposed upon further research. On the other hand, we tend to not respect the political abilities of the Native Americans. The Native Americans had complex political relationships amongst themselves with the European powers, showing that the sophistication of political grand strategy is not the possession of political actors that follow the European state model.
- Cave, Alfred A. The French and Indian War. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2004.