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The Lake Gun by James Fenimore Cooper

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words have been transcribed in FULL CAPITALS.}

{"The Lake Gun" is one of James Fenimore Cooper's very
few short stories, and was written in the last year of his
life. It was commissioned by George E. Wood for
publication in a volume of miscellaneous stories and poems
called "The Parthenon" (New York: George E. Wood,
1850), and Cooper received $100 for it. The story was
reprinted a few years later in a similar volume called
"Specimens of American Literature" (New York, 1866). It
was published in book form in 1932 in a slipcased edition
limited to 450 copies (New York: William Farquhar Payson,
1932) with an introduction by Robert F. Spiller.}

{Introductory Note: The "Lake Gun," though based on
folklore about Seneca Lake in Central New York State (the
"Wandering Jew" and the "Lake Gun"), and on a supposed
Seneca Indian legend, is in fact political satire commenting
on American political demagogues in general, and in
particular on the then (1850) Whig Senator from New York
State, William Henry Seward (1801-1872), who had served
as Governor of New York (1838-1842) and would later
become Secretary of State (1861-1869) under Presidents
Lincoln and Johnson. By 1850 Cooper feared that
unscrupulous political extremists, mobilizing public opinion
behind causes such as abolitionism, were leading America
towards a disastrous Civil War. Cooper probably obtained
his local lore about Seneca Lake while visiting his son Paul,
who attended Geneva College (now Hobart College) on
Lake Seneca from 1840-1844.}

The Lake Gun

by James Fenimore Cooper

The Seneca is remarkable for its "Wandering Jew," and the
"Lake Gun." The first is a tree so balanced that when its
roots are clear of the bottom it floats with its broken and
pointed trunk a few feet above the surface of the water,
driving before the winds, or following in the course of the
currents. At times, the "Wandering Jew" is seen off
Jefferson, near the head of this beautiful sheet; and next it
will appear anchored, as it might be, in the shallow water
near the outlet.

{"Wandering Jew" = The medieval legend of Ahasueras,
who mocked Christ on his way to the cross and was
condemned to live until Judgment Day, is widespread
throughout Europe, though he was only identified as a
"Jew" in the 17th century--students at Geneva College
(now Hobart College) applied the name to a supposedly
unsinkable floating log in Lake Seneca, identified as the
legendary "Chief Agayentha"; Jefferson = I have been
unable to locate any "Jefferson" on Lake Seneca}

For more than half a century has this remnant of the forest
floated about, from point to point, its bald head whitening
with time, until its features have become familiar to all the
older inhabitants of that region of country. The great depth
of the Seneca prevents it from freezing; and summer and
winter, springtime and autumn, is this wanderer to be
observed; occasionally battling with the ice that makes a
short distance from the shore, now pursuing its quiet way
before a mild southern air in June, or, again, anchored, by
its roots touching the bottom, as it passes a point, or
comes in contact with the flats. It has been known to
remain a year or two at a time in view of the village of
Geneva, until, accustomed to its sight, the people began to
think that it was never to move from its berth any more;
but a fresh northerly breeze changes all this; the "Jew"
swings to the gale, and, like a ship unmooring, drags clear
of the bottom, and goes off to the southward, with its head
just high enough above water to be visible. It would seem
really that his wanderings are not to cease as long as wood
will float.

{village of Geneva = now the City of Geneva, at the
northern end of Lake Seneca}

No white man can give the history of this "Jew." He was
found laving his sides in the pure waters of the Seneca by
the earliest settlers, and it may have been ages since his
wanderings commenced. When they are to cease is a
secret in the womb of time.

The "Lake Gun" is a mystery. It is a sound resembling the
explosion of a heavy piece of artillery, that can be
accounted for by none of the known laws of nature. The
report is deep, hollow, distant, and imposing. The lake
seems to be speaking to the surrounding hills, which send
back the echoes of its voice in accurate reply. No
satisfactory theory has ever been broached to explain
these noises. Conjectures have been hazarded about
chasms, and the escape of compressed air by the sudden
admission of water; but all this is talking at random, and
has probably no foundation in truth. The most that can be
said is, that such sounds are heard, though at long
intervals, and that no one as yet has succeeded in
ascertaining their cause.

{"The Lake Gun" = The "Lake Gun" or "Lake Drum" is a
mysterious booming sound occasionally heard on Lake
Seneca (and on neighboring Lake Cayuga), which has been
given a variety of scientific, literary, and legendary

It is not many lustrums since curiosity induced an idler, a
traveler, and one possessed of much attainment derived
from journeys in distant lands, first to inquire closely into
all the traditions connected with these two peculiarities of
the Seneca, and, having thus obtained all he could, to lead
him to make the tour of the entire lake, in the hope of
learning more by actual personal observation. He went up
and down in the steamboat; was much gratified with his
trip, but could see or hear nothing to help him in his
investigation. The "Gun" had not been heard in a long
time, and no one could tell him what had become of the
"Wandering Jew." In vain did his eyes roam over the broad
expanse of water; they could discover nothing to reward
their search. There was an old man in the boat, of the
name of Peter, who had passed his life on the Seneca, and
to him was our traveler referred, as the person most likely
to gratify his curiosity. Fuller (for so we shall call the
stranger for the sake of convenience) was not slow to
profit by this hint, and was soon in amicable relations with
the tough, old, fresh-water mariner. A half-eagle
opportunely bestowed opened all the stores of Peter's lore;
and he professed himself ready to undertake a cruise,
even, for the especial purpose of hunting up the "Jew."

{lustrum = a period of five years; half eagle = a U.S. gold
coin worth $5.00}

"I haven't seen that ere crittur now"--Peter always spoke
of the tree as if it had animal life--"these three years. We
think he doesn't like the steamboats. The very last time I
seed the old chap he was a-goin' up afore a smart
norwester, and we was a-comin' down with the wind in our
teeth, when I made out the 'Jew,' about a mile, or, at
most, a mile and a half ahead of us, and right in our track.
I remember that I said to myself, says I, 'Old fellow, we'll
get a sight of your countenance this time.' I suppose you
know, sir, that the 'Jew' has a face just like a human?"

"I did not know that; but what became of the tree?"

"Tree," answered Peter, shaking his head, "why, can't we
cut a tree down in the woods, saw it and carve it as we
will, and make it last a hundred years? What become of
the tree, sir;--why, as soon as the 'Jew' saw we was a-
comin' so straight upon him, what does the old chap do but
shift his helm, and make for the west shore. You never
seed a steamer leave sich a wake, or make sich time. If he
went half a knot, he went twenty!"

This little episode rather shook Fuller's faith in Peter's
accuracy; but it did not prevent his making an
arrangement by which he and the old man were to take a
cruise in quest of the tree, after having fruitlessly
endeavored to discover in what part of the lake it was just
then to be seen.

"Some folks pretend he's gone down," said Peter, in
continuation of a discourse on the subject, as he flattened
in the sheets of a very comfortable and rather spacious
sailboat, on quitting the wharf of Geneva, "and will never
come up ag'in. But they may just as well tell me that the
sky is coming down, and that we may set about picking up
the larks. That 'Jew' will no more sink than a well-corked
bottle will sink."

{picking up the larks = "When the sky falls we shall catch
larks" is an old proverb, meaning that an idea or
suggestion is ridiculous}

This was the opinion of Peter. Fuller cared but little for it,
though he still fancied he might make his companion useful
in hunting up the object of his search. These two
strangely-assorted companions cruised up and down the
Seneca for a week, vainly endeavoring to find the
"Wandering Jew." Various were the accounts they gleaned
from the different boatmen. One had heard he was to be
met with off this point; another, in that bay: all believed
he might be found, though no one had seen him lately--
some said, in many years.

"He'll turn up," said Peter, positively, "or the Seneca would
go down bows foremost. We shall light on the old chap
when we least expect it."

It must be confessed that Peter had many sufficient
reasons for entertaining these encouraging hopes. He was
capitally fed, had very little more to do than to ease off, or
flatten in a sheet, the boat being too large to be rowed;
and cigars, and liquors of various sorts were pretty much
at his command, for the obvious reason that they were
under his care. In delivering his sentiments, however,
Peter was reasonably honest, for he had the most implicit
faith, not only in the existence of this "Jew," but in the
beneficent influence of his visits. His presence was
universally deemed a sign of good luck.

Fuller passed most of the nights in a comfortable bed,
leaving Peter in the boat; sometimes asking for lodgings in
a farm-house, and, at others, obtaining them in an inn.
Wherever he might be, he inquired about the "Wandering
Jew" and the "Lake Gun," bent on solving these two
difficult problems, if possible, and always with the same
success. Most persons had seen the former, but not lately;
while about one in ten had heard the latter. It occurred to
our traveler that more of the last were to be found nearer
to the northern than to the southern end of the lake.

The cruise continued a fortnight in this desultory manner,
with the same want of success. One morning, as Fuller was
returning to the boat, after passing the night in a farm-
house, he was struck by the statue-like appearance of a
figure which stood on the extreme point of a low, rocky
promontory, that was considerably aside from any dwelling
or building. The place was just at the commencement of
the hill country, and where the shores of the Seneca cease
to offer those smiling pictures of successful husbandry that
so much abound farther north. A somber, or it might be
better to say a sober, aspect gave dignity to the
landscape, which, if not actually grand, had, at least, most
of the elements that characterize the noble in nature.

But Fuller, at the moment, was less struck with the
scenery, charming as that certainly was, than with the
statue-like and immovable form on the little promontory. A
single tree shaded the spot where the stranger stood, but
it cast its shadows toward the west, at that early hour,
leaving the erect and chiseled form in clear sun-light.
Stimulated by curiosity, and hoping to learn something
that might aid him in his search from one as curious as
himself, Fuller turned aside, and, instead of descending to
the spot where Peter had the boat ready for his reception,
he crossed a pleasant meadow, in the direction of the tree.

Several times did our traveler stop to gaze on that
immovable form. A feeling of superstition came over him
when he saw that not the smallest motion, nor relief of
limb or attitude, was made for the ten minutes that his eye
had rested on the singular and strange object. At he drew
nearer, however, the outlines became more and more
distinct, and he fancied that the form was actually naked.
Then the truth became apparent: it was a native of the
forest, in his summer garb, who had thrown aside his
blanket, and stood in his leggings, naked. Phidias could not
have cut in stone a more faultless form; for active,
healthful youth had given to it the free and noble air of
manly but modest independence.

{Phidias = a very famous Greek sculptor of the 5th
century B.C.}

"Sago," said Fuller, drawing near to the young Indian, who
did not betray surprise or emotion of any sort, as the
stranger's foot-fall came unexpectedly on his ear, using
the salutation of convention, as it is so generally practiced
between the two races. The Indian threw forward an arm
with dignity, but maintained his erect and otherwise
immovable attitude.

{Sago = a term of greeting, as Cooper believed, among
American Indians}

"Oneida?" demanded Fuller, while he doubted if any young
warrior of that half-subdued tribe could retain so
completely the air and mien of the great forests and
distant prairies.

"Seneca," was the simple answer. The word was uttered in
a tone so low and melancholy that it sounded like
saddened music. Nothing that Fuller had ever before heard
conveyed so much meaning so simply, and in so few
syllables. It illuminated the long vista of the past, and cast
a gloomy shadow into that of the future, alluding to a
people driven from their haunts, never to find another
resting-place on earth. That this young warrior so meant to
express himself--not in an abject attempt to extort
sympathy, but in the noble simplicity of a heart depressed
by the fall of his race--Fuller could not doubt; and every
generous feeling of his soul was enlisted in behalf of this
young Indian.

"Seneca," he repeated slowly, dropping his voice to
something like the soft, deep tones of the other; "then you
are in your own country, here?"

"My country," answered the red man, coldly, "no; my
FATHER'S country, yes."

His English was good, denoting more than a common
education, though it had a slightly foreign or peculiar
accent. The intonations of his voice were decidedly those of
the Indian.

"You have come to visit the land of your fathers?"

A slight wave of the hand was the reply. All this time the
young Seneca kept his eye fastened in one direction,
apparently regarding some object in the lake. Fuller could
see nothing to attract this nearly riveted gaze, though
curiosity induced him to make the effort.

"You admire this sheet of water, by the earnest manner in
which you look upon it?" observed Fuller.

"See!" exclaimed the Indian, motioning toward a point
near a mile distant. "He moves! may be he will come

"Moves! I see nothing but land, water, and sky. What

"The Swimming Seneca. For a thousand winters he is to
swim in the waters of this lake. Such is the tradition of my
people. Five hundred winters are gone by since he was
thrown into the lake; five hundred more must come before
he will sink. The curse of the Manitou is on him. Fire will
not burn him; water will not swallow him up; the fish will
not go near him; even the accursed axe of the settler can
not cut him into chips! There he floats, and must float,
until his time is finished!"

{Swimming Seneca = though I have been unable to
discover any genuine Native American origin for this
legend, a detailed variation of it can be found in a poem,
"Outalissa", by Rev. Ralph Hoyt, published in "Sketches by
Rev. Hoyt, Vol. VIII" (New York. C. Shepard, n.d. [ca.
1848] (the Geneva College library copy of which is
inscribed "DeLancey" and may have belonged to the family
of Cooper's brother-in-law, Episcopal Bishop of Western
New York William Heathcote De Lancey (1797-1865), who
lived in Geneva)--a somewhat different version forms the
Geneva (Hobart) College student legend of Chief
Agayentha or "The Floating Chief."}

"You must mean the 'Wandering. Jew?' "

"So the pale-faces call him; but he was never a Jew. 'Tis a
chief of the Senecas, thrown into the lake by the Great
Spirit, for his bad conduct. Whenever he tries to get upon
the land, the Spirit speaks to him from the caves below,
and he obeys."

"THAT must mean the 'Lake Gun?' "

"So the pale-faces call it. It is not strange that the names
of the red man and of the pale-faces should differ."

"The races are not the same, and each has its own
traditions. I wish to hear what the Senecas say about this
floating tree; but first have the goodness to point it out to

The young Indian did as Fuller requested. Aided by the
keener vision of the red man, our traveler at length got a
glimpse of a distant speck on the water, which his
companion assured him was the object of their mutual
search. He himself had been looking for the "Jew" a week,
but had asked no assistance from others, relying on the
keenness of his sight and the accuracy of his traditions.
That very morning he had first discovered the speck on the
water, which he now pointed out to his companion.

"You think, then, that yonder object is the 'Wandering
Jew?' " asked Fuller.

"It is the Swimming Seneca. Five hundred winters has he
been obliged to keep in the chilled waters of the lake; in
five hundred more the Manitou will let him rest on its

"What was the offense that has drawn down upon this
chief so severe a punishment?"

"Listen to our traditions, and you shall know. When the
Great Spirit created man, He gave him laws to obey, and
duties to perform--"

"Excuse me, Seneca, but your language is so good that I
hardly know what to make of you."

An almost imperceptible smile played about the
compressed lip of the young Indian, who, at first, seemed
disposed to evade an explanation; but, on reflection, he
changed his purpose, and communicated to Fuller the
outlines of a very simple, and, by no means, unusual
history. He was a chief of the highest race in his tribe, and
had been selected to receive the education of a pale-face
at one of the colleges of that people. He had received a
degree, and, yielding to the irrepressible longings of what
might almost be termed his nature, he no sooner left the
college in which he had been educated, than he resumed
the blanket and leggings, under the influence of early
recollections, and a mistaken appreciation of the
comparative advantages between the civilized condition,
and those of a life passed in the forest and on the prairies.
In this respect our young Seneca resembles the white
American, who, after a run of six months in Europe,
returns home with the patriotic declaration in his mouth,
that his native land is preferable to all other lands. Fuller
soon understood the case, when both reverted to their
common object in coming thither. The young Seneca
thereupon resumed his explanation.

{the young Indian = almost certainly based on Abraham
La Fort or De-hat-ka-tons (1799-1848), an Oneida Indian
who attended Geneva College in the late 1820s, but who
later abandoned Christianity and returned to his traditional
way of life}

"These laws of the Great Spirit," continued the Seneca,
"were not difficult to obey so long as the warrior was of a
humble mind, and believed himself inferior to the Manitou,
who had fashioned him with His hands, and placed him
between the Seneca and the Cayuga, to hunt the deer and
trap the beaver. But See-wise was one of those who
practiced arts that you pale-faces condemn, while you
submit to them. He was a demagogue among the red men,
and set up the tribe in opposition to the Manitou."

{See-wise = intended to represent William Henry Seward's

"How," exclaimed Fuller, "did the dwellers in the forest
suffer by such practices?"

"Men are every where the same, let the color, or the tribe,
or the country be what it may. It was a law of our people,
one which tradition tells us came direct from the Great
Spirit, that the fish should be taken only in certain
seasons, and for so many moons. Some thought this law
was for the health of the people; others, that it was to
enable the fish to multiply for the future. All believed it
wise, because it came from the Manitou, and had
descended to the tribe through so many generations: all
but See-wise. He said that an Indian ought to fish when
and where he pleased; that a warrior was not a woman;
that the spear and the hook had been given to him to be
used, like the bow and arrow, and that none but cowardly
Indians would scruple to take the fish when they wished.
Such opinions pleased the common Indians, who love to
believe themselves greater than they are. See-wise grew
bolder by success, until he dared to say in council, that the
red men made the world themselves, and for themselves,
and that they could do with it what they pleased. He saw
no use in any night; it was inconvenient; an Indian could
sleep in the light as well as in the darkness; there was to
be eternal day; then the hunt could go on until the deer
was killed, or the bear treed. The young Indians liked such
talk. They loved to be told they were the equals of the
Great Spirit. They declared that See-wise should be their
principal chief. See-wise opened his ears wide to this talk,
and the young men listened to his words as they listened
to the song of the mocking-bird. They liked each other,
because they praised each other. It is sweet to be told that
we are better and wiser than all around us. It is sweet to
the red man; the pale-faces may have more sober minds--

The Seneca paused an instant, and Fuller fancied that a
smile of irony again struggled about his compressed lip. As
the traveler made no remark, however, the youthful
warrior resumed his tale.

"I hear a great deal of what demagogues are doing among
your people, and of the evil they produce. They begin by
flattering, and end by ruling. He carries a strong hand, who
makes all near him help to uphold it. In the crowd few
perceive its weight until it crushes them.

"Thus was it with See-wise. Half the young men listened to
him, and followed in his trail. The aged chiefs took counsel
together. They saw that all the ancient traditions were
despised, and that new conduct was likely to come in with
new opinions. They were too old to change. What was done
has never been said, but See-wise disappeared. It was
whispered that he had gone down among the fish he loved
to take out of season. There is one tradition, that he
speared an enormous salmon, and the fish, in its struggles,
drew him out of his canoe, and that his hands could not let
go of the handle of his spear. Let this be as it may, no one
ever saw See-wise any more, in the form in which he had
been known to his people. At length the trunk of a tree
was seen floating about the Seneca, and one of the oldest
of the chiefs, pointing to it, pronounced the name of 'See-
wise.' He would fish out of season, and his spirit is
condemned, they say, to float among the salmon, and
trout, and eels, for a thousand winters. It was not long
after this that the lake began to speak, in a voice loud as
the thunder from the clouds. The Seneca traditions say this
is the Manitou calling to See-wise, when he goes down
after the fish, out of season."

"And do you, an educated man, believe in this tale?" asked

"I can not say. The things learned in childhood remain the
longest on the memory. They make the deepest marks. I
have seen the evil that a demagogue can do among the
pale-faces; why should I not believe the same among my
own people?"

"This is well enough, as respects the curse on the
demagogue; but lakes do not usually--"

Fuller had got thus far, when the Seneca, as if in mockery,
emitted the sound that has obtained the name of the "Lake
Gun" among those who have lived on its banks in these
later times. Perhaps it was, in part, the influence of the
Seneca's legend, united to the opinions and statements of
the inhabitants of that region, which conspired to make our
traveler start, in awe and surprise; for, certainly, the deep-
mouthed cannon never gave forth a more impressive and
sudden concussion on the ear.

"It does, indeed, sound very like a gun!" said Fuller, after a
long pause had enabled him to speak.

"It is the voice of the Great Spirit, forbidding See-wise to
fish," answered the Seneca. "For a time the demagogue
has all the talking to himself, but, sooner or later, the
voice of truth is heard, which is the voice of the Manitou.
But I must go nearer to the tree--ha! what has become of

Fuller looked, and, sure enough, the speck on the water
had vanished. This might have been by an unobserved
movement in a current; or it might have been owing to a
sudden variation in the light; certain it was, no tree could
now be seen. Fuller then proposed to use his boat, in
endeavoring to get nearer to the "Jew." The Seneca gave a
very cheerful assent, and, throwing his light summer
blanket, with an air of manly grace, over a shoulder, he
followed to the water-side.

"Most red men," resumed the young warrior, as he took
his place in the boat, "would see something marvelous in
this appearance and disappearance of the swimming
Seneca, and would hesitate about going any nearer to him;
but this is not my feeling--error is strengthened by
neglecting to look into truth. I hope yet to go near See-

Fuller hardly knew what to think of his companion's
credulity. At times he appeared to defer to the marvelous
and the traditions of his tribe; then, again, the lights of
education would seem to gleam upon the darkness of his
superstition, and leave him a man of inductive reason. As
for himself, he was probably not altogether as much of the
last as his pride of race would have led him to hope.

Peter had seen nothing, but he had heard the "Gun."

" 'T was a mere flash in the pan to what I have heard,
when the lake is in 'arnest," said the old fellow, with the
love of exaggeration so common with the vulgar. "Still, it
was a gun."

"A signal that the 'Wandering Jew' is near by; so, haul aft
the sheets, and let us depart."

In a quarter of an hour the boat was lying with her
foresheet hauled over, and her helm down, within a
hundred yards of the object of the long search of the whole
party. It was deep water, and a slight ripple under what
might be termed the cutwater of the tree indicated a
movement. Perhaps a lower current forced forward the
roots, which, in their turn, urged the trunk ahead. As often
happens in such cases, the accidental formation of the
original fracture, aided by the action of the weather, had
given to the end of the trunk a certain resemblance to a
human countenance. Peter was the first to point out the
peculiarity, which he looked upon uneasily. Fuller soon
observed it, and said the aspect was, in sooth, that of a
demagogue. The forehead retreated, the face was hatchet-
shaped, while the entire expression was selfish, yet
undecided. As for the Seneca, he gazed on these signs
with wonder, mingled with awe.

{hatchet shaped = William Henry Seward was famous for
his angular, hatchet-shaped nose}

"We see here the wicked See-wise. The Great Spirit--call
him Manitou, or call him God--does not forget what is
wrong, or what is right. The wicked may flourish for a
while, but there is a law that is certain to bring him within
the power of punishment. Evil spirits go up and down
among us, but there is a limit they can not pass. But
Indians like this Swimming Seneca do much harm. They
mislead the ignorant, arouse evil passions, and raise
themselves into authority by their dupes. The man who
tells the people their faults is a truer friend than he who
harps only on their good qualities. Be that only a tree, or
be it a man bound in this form, for a thousand winters, by
the hand of the Great Spirit, it tells the same story. See-
wise did once live. His career comes to us in traditions, and
we believe all that our fathers told us. Accursed be the
man who deceives, and who opens his mouth only to lie!
Accursed, too, is the land that neglects the counsels of the
fathers to follow those of the sons!"

"There is a remarkable resemblance between this little
incident in the history of the Senecas and events that are
passing among our pale-faced race of the present age.
Men who, in their hearts, really care no more for mankind
than See-wise cared for the fish, lift their voices in shouts
of a spurious humanity, in order to raise themselves to
power, on the shoulders of an excited populace.
Bloodshed, domestic violence, impracticable efforts to
attain an impossible perfection, and all the evils of a civil
conflict are forgotten or blindly attempted, in order to raise
themselves in the arms of those they call the people."

"I know your present condition," answered the young
Seneca, openly smiling. "The Manitou may have ordered it
for your good. Trust to HIM. There are days in which the
sun is not seen--when a lurid darkness brings a second
night over the earth. It matters not. The great luminary is
always there. There may be clouds before his face, but the
winds will blow them away. The man or the people that
trust in God will find a lake for every See-wise."

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