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Impearls: The American Pioneer

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Earthdate 2004-03-26

The American Pioneer   by Alexis de Tocqueville

Tamara and I have been watching Stephen Ives' fascinating video series The West1, and I was reminded of Alexis de Tocqueville's discussion (in an appendix to his famous Democracy in America) of a visit he made (one among many during his progress across the United States in the 1830s) to a frontier homestead.  Here's how Tocqueville described it — beginning near the end of his chapter concerning the character of American women, itself quite intriguing: 2
 

In no country of the world are private fortunes more unstable than in the United States.  It is not exceptional for one man in his lifetime to work up through every stage from poverty to opulence and then come down again.

American women face such upheavals with quiet, indomitable energy.  Their desires seem to contract with their fortune as easily as they expand.

Most of the adventurers who yearly go to people the empty spaces of the West belong, as I have noted in my earlier book, to the old Anglo-American stock of the North.  Many of these who launch out so boldly in search of wealth have already gained a comfortable living in their own land.  They take their wives with them and make them share the dangers and innumerable privations that always go with such undertakings.  In the utmost confines of the wilderness I have often met young wives, brought up in all the refinement of life in the towns of New England, who have passed almost without transition from their parents' prosperous houses to leaky cabins in the depths of the forest.  Fever, solitude, and boredom had not broken the resilience of their courage.  Their features were changed and faded, but their looks were firm.  They seemed both sad and resolute.  (See Appendix I, U.)

I am sure that it was the education of their early years which built up that inner strength on which they were later to draw.

So, in America the wife is still the same person that she was as a girl; her part in life has changed, and her ways are different, but the spirit is the same.  (See Appendix I, U.)
 

Appendix I, U

I find the following passage in my travel diary, and it will serve to show what trials are faced by those American women who follow their husbands into the wilds.  The description has nothing but its complete accuracy to recommend it.

“… From time to time we came to new clearings.  As all these settlements are exactly like one another, I will describe the place at which we stopped tonight.  It will provide a picture of all the others.

“The bells which the pioneer is careful to hang round his beasts' necks, so as to find them again in the forest, warned us from afar that we were getting near a clearing.  Soon we heard the sound of an ax cutting down the forest trees.  The closer we got, the more signs of destruction indicated the presence of civilized man.  Our path was covered with severed branches; and tree trunks, scorched by fire or cut about by an ax, stood in our way.  We went on farther and came to a part of the wood where all the trees seemed to have been suddenly struck dead.  In full summer their withered branches seemed the image of winter.  Looking at them close up, we saw that a deep circle had been cut through the bark, which by preventing the circulation of the sap had soon killed the trees.  We were informed that this is commonly the first thing a pioneer does.  As he cannot, in the first year, cut down all the trees that adorn his new property, he sows corn under their branches, and by striking them to death, prevents them from shading his crop.  Beyond this field, itself an unfinished sketch, or first step toward civilization in the wilds, we suddenly saw the owner's cabin.  It is generally placed in the middle of some land more carefully cultivated than the rest, but where man is yet sustaining an unequal fight against the forest.  There the trees have been cut, but not grubbed up, and their trunks still cover and block the land they used to shade.  Around these dry stumps wheat and oak seedlings and plants and weeds of all kinds are scattered pell-mell and grow together on rough and still half-wild ground.  It is in the midst of this vigorous and variegated growth of vegetation that the planter's dwelling, or as it is called in this country, his log house, stands.  Just like the field around it, this rustic dwelling shows every sign of recent and hasty work.  It is seldom more than thirty feet long and fifteen high; the walls as well as the roof are fashioned from rough tree trunks, between which moss and earth have been rammed to keep out the cold and rain from the inside of the house.

“As the night was coming on, we decided to go and ask the owner of the log house to put us up.

“At the sound of our steps the children playing among the scattered branches got up and ran to the house, as if frightened at the sight of a man, while two large, half-wild dogs, with ears prickled up and outstretched muzzles, came growling out of the hut to cover the retreat of their young masters.  Then the pioneer himself appeared at the door of his dwelling; he looked at us with a rapid, inquisitive glance, made a sign to the dogs to go indoors, and set them the example himself, without showing that our arrival aroused either his curiosity or apprehension.

“We went into the log house; the inside was quite unlike that of the cottages of European peasants; there was more that was superfluous and fewer necessities; a single window with a muslin curtain; on the hearth of beaten earth a great fire which illuminated the whole interior; above the hearth a good rifle, a deerskin, and plumes of eagles' feathers; to the right of the chimney a map of the United States, raised and fluttering in the draft from the crannies in the wall; near it, on a shelf formed from a roughly hewn plank, a few books; a Bible, the first six cantos of Milton, and two plays of Shakespeare; there were trunks instead of cupboards along the wall; in the center of the room, a rough table with legs of green wood with the bark still on them, looking as if they grew out of the ground on which they stood; on the table was a teapot of English china, some silver spoons, a few cracked teacups, and newspapers.

“The master of this dwelling had the angular features and lank limbs characteristic of the inhabitants of New England.  He was clearly not born in the solitude in which we found him.  His physical constitution by itself showed that his earlier years were spent in a society that used its brains and that he belonged to that restless, calculating, and adventurous race of men who do with the utmost coolness things which can only be accounted for by the ardor of passion, and who endure for a time the life of a savage in order to conquer and civilize the backwoods.

“When the pioneer saw that we were crossing his threshold, he came to meet us and shake hands, as is their custom; but his face was quite unmoved.  He opened the conversation by asking us what was going on in the world, and when his curiosity was satisfied, he held his peace, as if he was tired of the importunities and noise of the world.  When we questioned him in our turn, he gave us all the information we asked and then turned, with no eagerness, but methodically, to see to our requirements.  Why was it that, while he was thus kindly bent on aiding us, in spite of ourselves we felt our sense of gratitude frozen?  It was because he himself, in showing his hospitality, seemed to be submitting to a tiresome necessity of his lot and saw in it a duty imposed by his position, and not a pleasure.

“A woman was sitting on the other side of the hearth, rocking a small child on her knees.  She nodded to us without disturbing herself.  Like the pioneer, this woman was in the prime of life; her appearance seemed superior to her condition, and her apparel even betrayed a lingering taste for dress; but her delicate limbs were wasted, her features worn, and her eyes gentle and serious; her whole physiognomy bore marks of religious resignation, a deep peace free from passions, and some sort of natural, quiet determination which would face all the ills of life without fear and without defiance.

“Her children cluster around her, full of health, high spirits, and energy; they are true children of the wilds; their mother looks at them from time to time with mingled melancholy and joy; seeing their strength and her weariness, one might think that the life she has given them exhausted her own, and yet she does not regret what they have cost her.

“The dwelling in which these immigrants live had no internal division and no loft; its single room shelters the whole family in the evening.  It is a little world of its own, an ark of civilization lost in a sea of leaves.  A hundred paces away the everlasting forest spreads its shade, and solitude begins again.”
 

Reference

1 Ken Burns presents The West, a film by Stephen Ives, 1996, PBS Home Video, Turner Home Entertainment, ISBN 0-7806-1350-3.

2 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 12th Edition, 1848, edited by J. P. Mayer, translated by George Lawrence, Anchor Books, Doubleday and Co., Inc., New York, 1969; pp. 593-594, 731-733.

Note too the previously presented Alexis de Tocqueville acknowledgments and links.



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