Upstate New York, Mid-1700s
History time, Shmoopeople!
So the Mohicans originally lived in an area that covered a lot of what is now New England—parts of Massachusetts and Connecticut were Mohican land. By the time The Last of the Mohicans takes place, during the French and Indian War, Mohican land was relegated to a small area in upstate New York.
The setting in super-important in this novel; the novel even opens with a mention of the scene and historical moment in which the characters find themselves:
It was a feature peculiar to the colonial wars of North America, that the toils and dangers of the wilderness were to be encountered before the adverse hosts could be met. (1.1)
Okay, but why upstate New York? Why Mohicans? Why the French and Indian War? Why not set a novel about wilderness adventuring somewhere else?
Because The Last of the Mohicans isn't just about adventuring in the wilderness. It's about American history at a crucial junction. It's about history being made.
We'll answer the questions we posed above backwards. Why the French and Indian War? Because it was that war, more than even the Revolutionary War, that decided the fate and predominant cultural identity of the USA. Because of the outcome of the French and Indian War, we speak English and not French, and not one of many Native American languages.
Why Mohicans? For the same reason—we see the Mohican people die out, essentially, in this novel. We're shown how and why Native Americans were overpowered by European settlers.
And why upstate New York? Because we're being shown the boundaries, the turning point, of American history—we see an area that is today a borderland (at the edge of the U.S. and Canada) but back then was being hotly contested. Setting a novel during the French and Indian War in upstate New York is like setting a WWII-era novel on the border between Poland and Germany—it's where the action was.