At the time of Cooper's writing, many people correctly observed that the Native Americans were disappearing, believing they would ultimately be assimilated or fail to survive. Especially in the East, their numbers continued to decline. At the same time, the author was interested in the theme of the American frontier of transition, when more colonists were increasing pressure on the Native Americans. He grew up in Cooperstown, New York, which his father had established on what was then a western frontier of settlement; it developed after the Revolutionary War.
Cooper set this novel during the Seven Years' War, an international conflict between Great Britain and France, which had a front in North America known by the Anglo-American colonists as the French and Indian War. The conflict arrayed British colonial settlers and minimal regular forces against royal French forces, with both sides also relying on Native American allies. The war was fought primarily along the frontiers of the British colonies from Virginia to Nova Scotia.
In the spring of 1757, Lieutenant Colonel George Monro became garrison commander of Fort William Henry, located on Lake George (New York) in the Province of New York. In early August, Major General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm and 7,000 troops besieged the fort. On 2 August General Webb, who commanded the area from his base at Fort Edward, sent 200 regulars and 800 Massachusetts militia to reinforce the garrison at William Henry. In the novel, this is the relief column with which Monro's daughters travel.
Monro sent messengers south to Fort Edward on 3 August requesting reinforcements, but Webb refused to send any of his estimated 1,600 men north because they were all that stood between the French and Albany. He wrote to Munro on 4 August that he should negotiate the best terms possible; this communication was intercepted and delivered to Montcalm. In Cooper's version, the missive was being carried by Bumppo when he, and it, fell into French hands.
On 7 August Montcalm sent men to the fort under a truce flag to deliver Webb's dispatch. By then the fort's walls had been breached, many of its guns were useless, and the garrison had taken significant casualties. After another day of bombardment by the French, Monro raised the white flag and agreed to withdraw under parole.
When the withdrawal began, some of Montcalm's Indian allies, angered at the lost opportunity for loot, attacked the British column. Cooper's account of the attack and aftermath is lurid and somewhat inaccurate. A detailed reconstruction of the action and its aftermath indicates that the final tally of British missing and dead ranges from 70 to 184; more than 500 British were taken captive.