We start with an epigraph from Richard II. Each chapter in this book, as it turns out, begins with a different epigraph. Check out "What's Up with the Epigraph?" for more epigraphy goodness.
But let's move on to the text.
The first sentence reads: "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."
Right away we know that Cooper is fond of SAT words—yikes.
Perhaps more important, we learn that the story takes place sometime during the "colonial wars of North America"—otherwise known as the French and Indian War.
(Oh, BTW: Cooper uses the word "Indian" so we're going to as well, for the purposes of quotes.)
In short, the French were fighting the British in the New World (that would be modern-day America), and the Native Americans were caught in between. Cooper points out that during the French and Indian War combatants often had to deal with the dangers of the wilderness before they could even start worrying about other humans trying to kill them.
While France owned a chunk of America, and England owned another chunk, vast forests separated the two chunks, forcing combatants to struggle against Mother Nature before they could earn any medals for military conquest. Or, you know, get blown to bits.
Eventually the colonists and the Europeans took a few cues from the Native Americans and learned to expertly navigate the forest.
The author then directs our attention to a particular region: "the country which lies between the head waters of the Hudson and the adjacent lakes." As best we can determine, that would be upstate New York, or more specifically, the site of the modern-day Adirondack State Park.
Now get ready for some fun geography facts. They're actually important, so don't doze off.
As it turns out, the geography of the region is good for travel. Lake Champlain is long and stretches from Canada into New York, enabling the French easy passage across half the distance they need to travel to fight the English.
Another lake flows into the southern end of Lake Champlain. The waters of this lake are so calm that Jesuit missionaries use it for baptism, earning it the name of "du Saint Sacrement." The English named the lake after their reigning prince, while the Native Americans call it "Horican."
At this point the author has inserted an asterisk. He is fond of doing this to provide valuable (or sometimes worthless) historical information.
We learn that "Horican" literally means "The Tail of the Lake." The lake is now known as Lake George.
This lake—which we now know by lots of different names—extends further south and eventually runs into the Hudson. At this point a hardy adventurer can take off and go kill some enemy soldiers.
OK, now the author tells us the point of this geography lesson: this region of the colonies has lots of natural advantages and the French are well aware of this fact. We learn that the area has become "the bloody arena, in which most of the battles for the mastery of the colonies were contested." In other words, this is prime fighting ground. Forts and other assorted military structures were built and then fought over as one side or another won dominance.
We also learn that the forests are filled with groups of men who are hiding out.
The author informs us that he was merely setting the scene for the story he is about to relate.
He's a wordy guy, this author. But now he's ready to begin:
The story takes place during the third year of the colonial war between France and England. The author points out the obvious irony—neither France nor England was to retain the land that eventually became these United States of America.
We learn that Great Britain used to be great, but now it's kind of stupid. The colonists, failing to realize this, pick the stupidest leader of all to command their troops, and he ends up getting his butt kicked by a small group of Frenchmen and Indians.
A Virginian boy named George Washington eventually saves the remaining group of Brits, and goes on himself to greater fame and glory. Maybe you've heard of him?
This particular fight strikes fear into the colonists' hearts as they become increasingly terrified of Indians (and Frenchmen too). Instead of being courageous manly men, the colonists are convinced England will lose the war.
(We interrupt this summary to point out that the "real story" hasn't begun yet. This chapter is all about setting the stage.)
A giant French army has been spotted moving up the Champlain, and instead of being received with manly courage the news is received at the fort with some "craven reluctance."
The news is brought in midsummer by an Indian, who also bears a request from Munro (a commander at the "holy lake") for reinforcements. It took the Indian two hours to get to the fort from Munro, so it would take soldiers about a day to march the same distance.
We learn that Munro is a Scotchman who holds a fort named William Henry, and that he requested reinforcements from a fort called Fort Edward. The two are named after princes in the reigning family. Munro has only a smattering of soldiers, while General Webb at Fort Edward commands over five thousand men.
The approaching French army will hit William Henry first, so it's no wonder that Munro wants reinforcements: he doesn't want to freakin' die.
The British are at first disposed to simply wait for the French to show up, but after a while decide to send fifteen hundred men to Munro. The chosen men begin their preparations for battle.
The men are awakened in the morning to rolling drums and the whole camp turns out to watch the chosen fifteen hundred depart. The regular soldiers of the British army are all arrogant and take positions on the right side of the road, while the more humble colonists position themselves on the left.
They take off.
The area displays signs of another imminent departure, however. Based on the horses waiting outside a log cabin of "unusual size and accommodations," persons of high rank are preparing to leave. Two of the horses are clearly meant for well-born ladies, and one of the other horses is prepared for an officer. Remaining horses are meant for servants.
Two groups of people have gathered to watch the preparations. The first group consists of procrastinators, and the second group consists of stupid people. (Our narrator isn't the nicest dude ever.)
One spectator is obviously neither a procrastinator nor stupid. Apparently he's just awkward. His physical features are ungainly and his clothes call for some serious work by the fashion police. He carries an odd weapon strange to the Europeans.
Although all the spectators are maintaining a respectful distance, this particular stranger approaches the horses and begins giving a little lecture on horseflesh. Yum?
No one replies. He exchanges a look with the Indian runner who happens to be lounging nearby. The Indian runner, by the way, looks a bit unkempt and not quite what a warrior should look like.
A young officer escorts two young ladies to their prepared horses. One of the ladies appears to be younger than the other. Wind sweeps aside her veil to reveal that she is blond and quite pretty. The older lady manages to keep her features hidden, although clearly she has a better figure than her traveling companion.
The three bow to General Webb and take off for the north.
Before they have quite left, the younger woman exclaims as the Indian runner unexpectedly races past her. The older woman doesn't say anything, but her veil blows open to reveal "pity, admiration, and horror." She is a beautiful brunette.