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  • The Red Man Has Left No Mark Here:Graves and Land Claim in the Cooperian Tradition
  • Sarah Klotz (bio)

At the start of James Fenimore Cooper’s first Leatherstocking Tale, he marvels at how quickly settlers improved the wilderness to make way for the “yeoman, who intends to leave his remains to moulder under the sod which he tills, or . . . the son, who, born, in the land, piously wishes to linger around the grave of his father.”1 For Cooper, there is a fundamental relationship between improvement, piety, and a presence on the land that lasts for generations. The sign and symbol of that presence will be the grave, both a site of sentimental power and a permanent mark on the landscape. This essay examines the gravesite as a central trope through which land rights were understood during the years when Indian Removal policies profoundly altered the territorial boundaries of the United States and displaced tens of thousands of indigenous Americans. By analyzing texts from what Stephen Germic has called the Cooperian tradition, I argue that territorial and intellectual sovereignty were deeply intertwined for Native and Euro-Americans; marks on the land and marks in the print public sphere worked hand in hand to shape rights to land and nation between 1820 and 1850. [End Page 331]

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Indian Burying Grounds. Postcard showing Native American burial structures made of planks. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. LC-DIG-ppms-ca-23603 (digital file from original).

[End Page 332]

Writing Grief; Writing Nation

This essay takes cultural meanings of literacy to be one of the primary modes through which antebellum Native and Euro-Americans negotiated land rights. I am concerned not merely with whether Native Americans used complex sign systems to leave substantive marks on the landscape and in print culture (they inarguably did), but also with how those marks accrued meaning in legal and political idioms. Birgit Rasmussen has argued that the European bias towards alphabetic literacy has generated and sustained the myth of indigenous illiteracy prior to contact. She calls for a broader definition of writing to include non-alphabetic modes in order to “disrupt a whole complex of cultural meanings, as well as dynamics of dominance” and “make visible the presence, agency, and knowledge of America’s indigenous peoples.”2 In a similar vein, Phillip Round uses a book history approach to argue that “print mattered in Indian country” and that Native peoples have a long history self-conscious engagement with print technologies.3 Hilary Wyss too has argued that early Native American Christians used writing not merely as a response to colonialism, but as a means of building and sustaining community.4 Indigenous literacies have a complex history that has been actively elided in the cultural productions of Euro-Americans. To trace one such erasure, I examine the Cooperian tradition (three generations of the Cooper family) as a key example of the relationship between literacy and land in antebellum America.

Before James Fenimore Cooper was widely recognized as a distinctly American writer and before he inscribed lasting myths about disappearing Natives into the national imagination, he was the son of William Cooper, a wheelwright who [End Page 333] became a member of New York’s landowner class. According to historian Alan Taylor, William never received formal literacy education.5 Rather, he struggled as an adult to obtain a literacy that would mark him as a member of the landed gentry.6 When he established himself as a prominent landowner and judge in Cooperstown, he made sure that his children received the formal education that he never had; thus an upwardly mobile family in terms of land holdings also became a more literate family in the space of a single generation.

Social and historical realities of the early American republic worked side by side with advancing access to literacy to secure William Cooper’s role as a member of the landed gentry.7 Vast tracts of land became available for purchase after the Revolution when Iroquois tribes allied with the British were gradually forced from their ancestral lands by settlers and the governments of New York and the United...


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