This novel introduces Natty Bumppo as "Deerslayer", a young frontiersman in early 18th-century New York. He is contrasted to other frontiersmen and settlers in the novel who have no compunctions in taking scalps in that his natural philosophy is that every living thing should follow "the gifts" of its nature—which would keep European Americans from taking scalps. Two such characters in the work who actually seek to take scalps are Henry March ("Hurry Harry") and floating Tom Hutter.
In the dead of night Hutter and March sneak into the camp of the besieging members of the Huron tribe in order to kill and scalp as many as they can. Their plan fails, and Hutter and March are captured. They are later ransomed by Bumppo, his lifelong friend Chingachgook (the Delaware word for 'Great Serpent'), and Hutter's daughters, Judith and Hetty. Bumppo and Chingachgook come up with a plan to rescue Chingachgook's kidnapped betrothed Wah-ta-Wah from the Hurons; but, in rescuing her, Bumppo is captured. In his absence, the Hurons invade Hutter's home, and Hutter is mortally wounded by being scalped. After the death of Hutter his supposed daughters find out that they were not his natural daughters and he had been a notorious pirate. Bumppo's remaining allies and friends plan how to aid his escape from his Huron captors.