The Deerslayer is the story of Natty Bumppo, an eighteenth-century woodsman and trapper who believes strongly in the inherent dignity of human life. Trapping and hunting in New York State, Bumppo's philosophy clashes with the brutal ethics of his fellow woodsmen who profit by killing and scalping Native Americans. Bumppo becomes embroiled in the violence of his compatriots as he struggles to help a Native man reunite with his captured wife.
This novel introduces Natty Bumppo as "Deerslayer": a young frontiersman in early 18th-century New York, who objects to the practice of taking scalps, on grounds that every living thing should follow "the gifts" of its nature, which would keep European Americans from taking scalps.
Two characters who actually seek to take scalps are Deerslayer's foil Henry March (alias "Hurry Harry") and the former pirate 'Floating Tom' Hutter, to whom Deerslayer is introduced en route to a rendezvous with the latter's lifelong friend Chingachgook (initially apparent in The Last of the Mohicans ). Shortly before the rendezvous, Hutter's residence is besieged by the indigenous Hurons, and Hutter and March sneak into the camp of the besiegers to kill and scalp as many as they can; but are captured in the act, and later ransomed by Bumppo, Chingachgook, and Hutter's daughters Judith and Hetty.
Bumppo and Chingachgook thereafter plan to rescue Chingachgook's kidnapped betrothed Wah-ta-Wah (alias 'Hist') from the Hurons; but, in rescuing her, Bumppo is captured. In his absence, the Hurons invade Hutter's home, and Hutter is scalped alive. On his deathbed, he confesses that Judith and Hetty were not his daughters by birth, and Judith determines to discover her natural father's identity; but her search reveals only that her late mother had been of aristocratic descent, and had married 'Floating Tom' after the collapse of an illicit affair.
Later, Judith attempts and fails to rescue Deerslayer; and they are all saved at last when March returns with English reinforcements, who massacre the Hurons and mortally wound Hetty. After Hetty's death, Judith proposes marriage to Deerslayer, but is refused, and is last described as the paramour of a soldier. Fifteen years later, Bumppo and Chingachgook return to the site, to find Hutter's house in ruins.