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Impearls: AFitW: Pontiac

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Earthdate 2006-07-26

Pontiac   by Alexis de Tocqueville

It was only in the evening and after the sun was gone down that we arrived at Pontiac.  Twenty very clean and very pretty houses making up as many well-furnished shops, a transparent stream, a clearing of a quarter of a league square and the ever-lasting forest all around: that is a true picture of the village of Pontiac which in twenty years perhaps, will be a town.  The sight of this place reminded me of what M. Gallatin had said to me a month before in New York: that there is no village in America, at least in the sense which we give to that word.  Here the houses of the cultivators are scattered in the middle of the fields.  People only assemble in a place to establish a sort of market for the use of the surrounding population.  In these so-called villages one only finds lawyers, printers or traders.

We had ourselves taken to the best hotel in Pontiac (for there are two) and were as usual ushered in to what is called the barroom.  That is a room where drinks are served, and in which the humblest labourer and the richest tradesman in the place come to smoke, drink and talk politics together on a basis, so far as externals go, of the most complete equality.  The master of the house, or the landlord, was, I will not say a solid peasant, for there are no peasants in America, but anyhow a very solid gentleman whose features had that openness and simplicity one associates with the people of the maquis in Normandy.  He was a man who for fear of frightening you, never looked you in the face when he was talking to you, but waited until you were talking to someone else to look at you at leisure.  For the rest, a deep politician and, as the American habit is, a pitiless questioner.  This worthy citizen, in common with the others there, at first looked at us with astonishment.  Our travelling clothes and rifles made us not look like business men, and to travel to see the sights was something completely unwonted.  To make short work of explanations, we said straightway that we had come to buy land.  Hardly had we said it than we found that, to escape one evil, we had fallen into a much more formidable one.

It is true that they stopped treating us as extraordinary beings, but each of them wanted to do a deal with us; to get rid of them and their farms, we told our host that before striking any bargain, we wanted useful information from him about the price of land and means of cultivation.  He took us at once into another room, slowly and deliberately spread out a map of Michigan on the oak table which stood in the middle of the room, and putting a candle between us three, waited in impassive silence for what we had to tell him.  The reader, without sharing our desire to settle in the open spaces of America, may yet be interested to know how so many thousands of Europeans and Americans who come every year to seek a new home, deal with the matter.  So I will note down here the information with which our host at Pontiac provided us.  We were often afterwards able to verify how perfectly correct it was.

“It is not like France here,” said our host, when he had quietly listened to all our questions and snuffed the candle; “With you labour is cheap and land is dear; here buying the land is nothing, and men’s labour is beyond price.  I say that in order to make you understand that to settle in America, as in Europe, one needs some capital although one uses it differently.  For my part I should not advise anyone to come and seek his fortune in our wilds, without at least having at his disposal a sum of 150-200 dollars.  An acre in Michigan never costs more than 10 shillings when the land is still uncultivated.  That is about the price of a day’s labour.  So a labourer can earn enough in a day to buy an acre.  But the purchase made, the difficulty begins.  This is how one generally sets about dealing with it.  The pioneer comes to the place he has just bought with a few animals, a salted pig, two barrels of flour and some tea.  If there is a cabin near, he goes there and is given temporary hospitality.  If there is none, he puts up a tent in the middle of the wood that is to be his field.  His first job is to cut down the nearest trees to build quickly a rough dwelling of the type you have already seen.  With us, feeding the animals scarcely costs anything.  the emigrant puts an iron bell on them and lets them run in the forest.  It is very unusual for the animals left like that to themselves to leave the neighbourhood of their home.  The greatest expense is the clearing.  If the pioneer comes into the wilds with a family able to help in the first work, his task is fairly easy.  But that is generally not so.  Usually the emigrant is young, and if he already has children, they are in infancy.  Then he must either see to all the first needs of his family himself, or hire the services of his neighbours.  It will cost 4-5 dollars to clear one acre.  When the land is ready, the new owner puts down an acre under potatoes, and the rest under wheat and corn.  Corn is providential in the wilds; it grows in the water of our marshes and pushes up under the foliage of the forests better than in the heat of the sun.  It is corn that saves the emigrant’s family from inevitable destruction, if poverty, sickness or carelessness prevent him from making an adequate clearing in the first year.  Nothing is harder to survive than the first years after the working of clearing.  Later comes comfort and then wealth.”

That is what our host said, and we listened to these simple details with almost as much interest as if we ourselves had wished to profit from them.  When he had stopped talking, we asked:

“Generally the ground in all the forest left to itself is marshy and unhealthy; does the emigrant exposed to all the wretchedness of solitude not also have reason to fear for his life?”  “Every clearing is a dangerous undertaking,” replied the American, “and it hardly ever happens that the emigrant and his family escape from forest fever in the first year.  Often when one is travelling in the autumn, one finds all the people in a cabin from the emigrant to his youngest son down with fever!” — “And what happens to these unfortunates when Providence strikes them like that?” — “they resign themselves and wait for a better future.” — “But can they hope for any help from their fellows?” — “Hardly any.” — “But can they at least get the help of medicine?” — “The nearest doctor often lives 60 miles away.  They do as do the Indians.  They die or get well as God wills.”  We went on:  “Does the voice of religion sometimes reach them?” — “Very seldom; we have not yet been able to organize any provision for public worship in our forests.  Almost every summer, it is true, some Methodist clergymen come and do a tour of the new settlements.  The news of their coming spreads incredibly quickly from cabin to cabin; it is the day’s great news.  At the time fixed the emigrant, his wife and their children make their way through the almost untrodden paths of the forest to the agreed rendezvous.  People come from 50 miles around.  It is in no church that the faithful meet, but in the open air under the trees.  A pulpit made of ill-shaped trunks and great trees cut down to serve as seats are all the ornaments of this rustic church.  The pioneers and their famil[i]es camp in the surrounding woods; there for three days and three nights the crowd devotes itself to religious observances with but rare intervals.  One needs to see how ardently they pray and with what attention they listen to the solemn voice of the priest.  It is in the wilds that men are seen to hunger after religion.” — “One last question.  It is generally believed in Europe that the wilds of America are being peopled with the help of emigration from Europe.  How then does it happen that since we have been in the forest we have not met a single European?”  A smile of condescension and satisfied pride spread over our host’s face as he heard this question:  “It is only Americans,” he answered emphatically, “who could have the courage to submit to such trials and who know how to purchase comfort at such a price.  The emigrant from Europe stops at the great cities of the coast or in their neighbourhood.  There he becomes a craftsman, a farm labourer or a valet.  He leads an easier life than in Europe and feels satisfied to leave the same heritage to his children.  The American, on the other hand, gets hold of some land and seeks by that means to carve himself a great future.”

When he had said those last words our host stopped.  He blew out a huge column of smoke from his mouth and seemed ready to hear what we had to tell him about our plans.

First we thanked him for his valuable information and wise advice from which we said that we would certainly profit one day, and we added:  “Before settling in your district, my dear host, we intend to visit Saginaw and want to consult you about that.”  At the mention of Saginaw there was a strange and sudden change in the American’s expression; it would seem that we were dragging him off violently from the real world into the realms of imagination; his eyes grew wide and his mouth opened and every feature indicated the greatest astonishment:  “You want to go to Saginaw,” he cried out, “to Saginaw Bay!  Two rational men, two well educated foreigners want to go to Saginaw Bay?  The story is hardly credible.” — “And why not then?” we replied.  “But do you really understand,” our host replied, “what you are undertaking?  Do you know that Saginaw is the last inhabited point until you come to the Pacific Ocean?  Do you know that from here to Saginaw you find hardly anything but wilds and untrod solitudes?  Have you thought that the woods are full of Indians and mosquitoes?  That anyhow you will have to sleep at least one night in the damp forest shade?  Have you thought about fever?  Will you be able to manage for yourselves in the wilds and recognize your path in the labyrinth of our forests?”  After that tirade he paused to judge the impression he had made.  We answered:  “All that may be true.  But we are leaving tomorrow morning for Saginaw Bay.”  Our host reflected a moment, shook his head and said in slow, decided tones:  “Only some great advantage could lead two foreigners into such an undertaking; no doubt you have calculated, very mistakenly, that it is best to settle in the most distant place far from any competition.”  We did not answer at all.  He went on:  “Perhaps also the Canadian fur company has asked you to establish contacts with the Indian tribes on their frontier?”  Silence again.  Our host had come to the end of his guesses and kept silent, but continued in deep meditation on the strangeness of our plan.

“Have you then never been at Saginaw?” we asked.  “I,” he answered, “for my sins I have been there five or six times, but I had something to gain by doing it and I cannot discover that you have anything to gain.” — “But do not forget, my worthy host, that we are not asking you whether we ought to go to Saginaw, but only how we can most easily do so.”  Brought back like that to the question, our American regained all his sang-froid and clarity of vision.  In few words and with admirable practical good sense he explained how we should set about crossing the wilds, went into the smallest details and anticipated even unlikely accidents.  When he had come to an end of his recommendations, he again paused to see if we would finally disclose the mystery of our journey, and seeing that neither of us had any more to say, he took the candle up again, showed us to a room and, when we had very democratically shaken hands, he went back to finish the evening in the public room.

We got up at daybreak and got ready to go.  Our host too was soon up.  The night had not helped him to discover what made us behave in a way so extraordinary in his eyes.  However, as we seemed completely decided to act against his advice, he did not like to return to the charge, but kept continually fussing around us.  From time to time he would mutter under his breath:  “I find it hard to understand what could induce two foreigners to go to Saginaw.”  He repeated that phrase several times, until at last I said as I put my foot into the stirrup:  “There are a great many reasons that take us there, my dear host.”  He stopped short on hearing those words and, looking me in the face for the first time, seemed to get ready to hear the revelation of a great mystery.  But I, quietly mounting my horse, ended the matter with no more than a gesture of friendship and went off at a fast trot.  When I turned my head fifty paces on, I saw him planted like a stack of hay in front of his door.  A little afterwards he went into his house shaking his head.  I suppose he was still saying:  “I can hardly understand what two foreigners are going to do at Saginaw.”

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