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New York Folklore Quarterly, Vol. XVI, No. 2, Summer 1960

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Vol. XVI, No. 2, Summer, 1960

Warren S. Walker

JUST ahead of the settlers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries moved another breed of men almost as exotic as the Indians with whom they associated but far more believable. These were the frontiersmen—the Boones, the Crocketts, the Carsons—advance scouts thrown out by civilization for one of its longest overland marches in history. Driven by a variety of motives— discontent, misanthropy, restiveness, adventurousness—these individuals separated from the main body of society to live alone in the still uncharted reaches of the forest. But the knowledge and skills they acquired there put their services in high demand, and they were often called upon, ironically, to be the agents for a way of life they had tried to flee. They blazed trails, hunted game, located potable water, negotiated with the Indians, and, in general, taught the pioneer families how to survive in the great American wilderness. Then when the crush of humanity and the restrictions of society became unbearable in the new settlements they had helped to establish, they pushed still farther westward, only to be overtaken again and again till the land gave way to the sea and the cycle was finally halted. As if according to some master plan, they stepped forth at the moment they were needed, fulfilled their purpose, and then were consumed by the creature they served.
Civilization [Parkman observed] has a destroying as well as a creating power. It is exterminating the buffalo and the Indian....It must, moreover, eventually sweep from before it a class of men, its own precursors....so remarkable both in their virtues and their faults that few men will see their extinction without regret.
And it is of this class of men, whose passing the historian here laments, that James Fenimore Cooper’s Leather-Stocking is the beau ideal. He is at once a sharply individualized representative of the type, and beyond that a mythical hero who symbolizes the whole phase of history in which the type flourished. ...

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