In The Pioneers, James Fenimore Cooper thematically debates the complexity of landscape within a new American frontier. The battle between nature and civilization is a constant and competing force within the minds of the characters and in the general surroundings. Nature replaces history within American culture; writers are left with no romanticized ruins to build upon. Instead, Cooper evaluates his landscape as one that will be established by a civilization unable to escape its own traits of wastefulness and arrogance. The very opening of the novel presents a panoramic view in which the narrator clearly defines the beginning of history with the settlement of the region. "Only forty years have passed since this territory was a wilderness" ( The Pioneers 16). Cooper foreshadows the settlers' inability to conceive the power, life, and autonomy of nature because they feel it cannot truly exist without their influence.
Clearly, Cooper expands the conflict between nature and civilization in his characters. In Chapter III, The Slaughter of the Pigeons, Natty Bumppo emerges as the antithesis of the wastefulness demonstrated by the settlers. He struggles to understand how abusive the Sheriff and Billy Kirby are when they slaughter pigeons just for sport. Instead, he implores the group and the rest of civilization to see that men should only kill and use the wilderness when trying to sustain themselves. In essence, man should only take what he truly needs. However, as the chapter ends with the eyes of the dead pigeons staring up at the men, Natty emerges as the one who understands the virtuous relationship between man and the environment. While the settlers see wilderness as being tamed by their prescence, Natty has a vision of civilized life coexisting with nature. Ideally, he wants to sustain the unique role that this vast unexplored wilderness contributes to the complexity of America. The Pioneers exposes those abuses for what they are and warns that they will eventually destroy the special national landscape bestowed upon America.