Innumerable as the Starrs of Night,
Or Starrs of Morning,
Dew-drops, which the Sun
on every leaf and every flouer
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,
— that is all
Ye know on earth, and all
ye need to know.
E = M
Energy is eternal delight.
Impearls: 2006-07-23 Archive
Followers of Impearls, along with aficionados of insightful French observer of early America Alexis de Tocqueville, are likely aware that this year — commencing on earthdate 2005-07-29 and whose ending is coming up on the 29th of this month — is the bicentennial of Tocqueville’s birth. Many people, however, may not know that 2006 is also the 175th anniversary of Tocqueville’s fateful visit to America, which occurred in 1831. Indeed, at this moment one and three-quarter centuries ago, Tocqueville and his travel companion were slogging their way through swampy, mosquito-ridden backwoods forests in search of the farthest limits of European settlement — seeking insights that would inspire into the very psyche of America.
Moreover, though many people have read part or all of Tocqueville’s great masterpiece Democracy in America, which we’ve quoted numerous times here in Impearls, few I would say have taken note of Tocqueville’s travel diary of his trip to the infant United States, which has been separately published as Journey to America. It’s true, in my judgment, that portions of Journey to America may be considered relatively uninteresting — though even there they provide valuable gems of insight into Tocqueville’s thought processes, in the development of his ideas about America, that one sees full blown in Democracy in America — but many other parts of the travel diary are utterly fascinating.
Included in Journey to America are two narratives Tocqueville has left us of excursions he and his friend took into the American wilderness — one known as “Journey to Lake Oneida,” the other “A Fortnight [i.e., 2 weeks] in the Wilds.” As mentioned before, not only does the bicentennial of Tocqueville’s birth come to an end at his birthday on August 29th, but the latter adventure above occurred precisely a century and three-quarters ago this week. In honor of these dual anniversaries and for the piquant edification of Impearls’ readership, we proceed now to republish Tocqueville’s penetrating account in its entirety.
As usual with lengthy articles at Impearls, the whole thing has been subdivided into sections organized into separate postings. Any blame for the posting names should be directed totally at me. Scroll down naturally to read the whole thing….
A Fortnight in the Wilds
The search for a savage life by Alexis de Tocqueville
Written on the Steamboat “The Superior.”
Begun on (1st August 1831)
One of the things that pricked our most lively curiosity in going to America, was the chance of visiting the utmost limits of European civilisation, and even, if time allowed, visiting some of those Indian tribes who have chosen to retreat into the wildest open spaces rather than adapt themselves to what the whites call the delights of social life. But it is harder than one would have thought to get to the wilds nowadays. Leaving New York, the further we got to the northwest, the further did the end of our journey seem to flee before us. We passed through places celebrated in the history of the Indians; we found valleys that they had named; we crossed rivers still bearing the names of their tribes, but everywhere the savage’s hut had given way to the civilised man’s house. The forest was felled; solitude turned to life.
But still we seemed to be following the tracks of the natives. Ten years ago, we were told, they were here; there, five years; there, two years. In the place where you see the prettiest village church, a man would tell us, “I have cut down the first tree of the forest.” “Here,” another told us, “the grand council of the Confederation of the Iroquois used to be held.” — “And what has become of the Indians,” said I? — “The Indians,” our host replied, “are I do not quite know where, beyond the Great Lakes. It is a race that is dying out; they are not made for civilisation; it kills them.”
Man gets accustomed to everything. To death on the field of battle; to death in hospital; to kill and to suffer. He gets used to every sight. An ancient people, the first and legitimate master of the American continent, is vanishing daily like the snow in sunshine, and disappearing from view over the land. In the same spots and in its place another race is increasing at a rate that is even more astonishing. It fells the forests and drains the marshes; lakes as large as seas and huge rivers resist its triumphant march in vain. The wilds become villages, and the villages towns. The American, the daily witness of such wonders, does not see anything astonishing in all this. This incredible destruction, this even more surprising growth, seem to him the usual progress of things in this world. He gets accustomed to it as the unalterable order of nature.
In this way, always looking for the savages and the wilds, we covered the 360 miles between New York and Buffalo.
The first sight that struck us was a great number of Indians, who had assembled that day in Buffalo to collect the rent for the lands they had handed over to the United States.
I do not think I have ever suffered a more complete disappointment than the sight of those Indians. I was full of memories of M. de Chateaubriand and of Cooper, and I had expected to find in the natives of America savages in whose features nature had left the trace of some of those proud virtues that are born of liberty. I expected to find them men whose bodies had been developed by hunting and war, and who would lose nothing by being seen nude. You can guess my astonishment as I got close to the sight described here:
The Indians that I saw that evening were small in stature; their limbs, as far as could be seen under their clothes, were thin and far from muscular; their skin, instead of being of the copper-red colour that is generally supposed, was dark bronze so that at first sight it seemed very like that of mulattoes. Their shiny, black hair fell with a peculiar stiffness over neck and shoulders. Their mouths were generally disproportionately large, and the expression of their faces ignoble and vicious. Their physiognomy told of that profound degradation that can only be reached by a long abuse of the benefits of civilisation. One would have said they were men from the lowest mob of our great European cities. And yet they were still savages. Mixed up with the vices they got from us, was something barbarous and uncivilised that made them a hundred times more repulsive still. These Indians carried no arms; they wore European clothes; but they did not use them in the same way as we do. One could see that they were not at all made for their use, and they found themselves imprisoned in their folds. To European ornaments they added articles of barbarian luxury, feathers, enormous ear-rings and necklaces of shells. These men’s movements were quick and jerky, their voices shrill and discordant, their glances restless and savage. At first sight one was tempted to think that each of them was but a beast from the forest, to whom education had given the appearance of a man, but who had nonetheless remained an animal. These weak, depraved beings belonged however to one of the most renowned tribes of the ancient American world. We had before us, it is sad to say it, the last rem[n]ants of that famous Confederation of the Iroquois, who were no less well-known for manly wisdom than for courage, and who long held the balance between the two greatest European nations.
But one would be wrong to try and judge the Indian race by this shapeless sample, this straying sucker from a savage tree that has grown up in the mud of our cities. That would be to repeat the mistake that we ourselves commit and of which I shall have occasion to speak later.
We went out from the town that evening and, not far from the last houses, we saw an Indian lying at the edge of the road. He was a young man. He made no movement and we thought him dead. Some stifled sighs that hardly forced their way from his breast made us realise that he was still alive and struggling against one of those dangerous forms of drunkenness that are brought on by brandy. The sun had already gone down and the ground was getting more and more damp. There was every indication that the wretched man would breathe out his last sigh there, at least unless he was helped. It was the time at which the Indians were leaving Buffalo to return to their village; from time to time a group of them came and passed close by us. They came up, roughly turned their compatriot’s body over to see who he was, and then went on their way without deigning to answer our questions. Most of these men were themselves drunk. Finally a young Indian woman arrived, who at first seemed to come up with some interest. I thought that it was the wife or sister of the dying man. She looked at him attentively, called him aloud by his name, felt his heart and, being sure that he was alive, tried to rouse him from his lethargy. But when her efforts were in vain, we saw her burst out in fury against his inanimate body lying in front of her. She struck his head, twisted his face with her hands, and trampled on him. While she applied herself to these ferocious acts, she uttered such inarticulate and savage cries that, at this moment, they still seem to vibrate in my ears. Finally we felt we must intervene and peremptorily ordered her to draw back. She obeyed, but as she went off, we heard her burst into a barbarous laugh.
When we got back to the town, we told several people about the young Indian. We spoke of the imminent danger to which he was exposed; we even offered to pay his expenses at an inn. All that was useless. We could not persuade anyone to bother about it. Some told us: these men are accustomed to drink to excess and sleep on the ground. They certainly will not die from such accidents. Others admitted that the Indian probably would die; but one could read on their lips this half-expressed thought: “What is the life of an Indian?” That indeed was the basis of the general feeling. In the midst of this society, so well-policed, so prudish, and so pedantic about morality and virtue, one comes across a complete insensibility, a sort of cold and implacable egotism where the natives of America are concerned. The inhabitants of the United States do not hunt the Indians with hue and cry as did the Spaniards of Mexico. But it is the same pitiless feeling that animates the whole European race here as everywhere else.
How many times during our travels have we not met honest citizens who said to us of an evening, sitting peacefully by their fire: the number of the Indians is decreasing daily. However it is not that we often make war on them but the brandy that we sell them cheap every year carries off more than our arms could kill. This world here belongs to us, they add. God in refusing the first inhabitants the capacity to become civilised, has destined them in advance to inevitable destruction. The true owners of this continent are those who know how to take advantage of its riches.
Satisfied with this reasoning the American goes to the church where he hears a minister of the gospel repeat to him that men are brothers and that the Eternal Being who has made them all in the same mould has imposed on them the duty to help one another.
Metropolitan Detroit by Alexis de Tocqueville
At ten o’clock in the morning of the 19th July we boarded the steamboat Ohio going towards Detroit. A strong breeze was blowing from the northwest and gave the waters of Lake Erie the very look of the waves of a stormy ocean. To the right stretched a limitless horizon. To the left we hugged the southern shores of the lake so close that we often came within earshot of it. These shores were perfectly level and different from those of all the lakes I have ever chanced to visit in Europe. Neither were they any more like the shores of the sea. Immense forests shaded them and formed round the lake as it were a thick belt that was seldom broken. From time to time, however, the country suddenly changes its look. Just round a wood one sees the elegant spire of a clock tower, houses striking in their whiteness and cleanness, and shops. Two paces further on, the primeval and apparently impenetrable forest reclaims its dominion and again reflects its foliage in the waters of the lake.
Those who have passed through the United States will find in this picture a striking emblem of American society. Everything there is abrupt and unexpected; everywhere, extreme civilisation borders and in some sense confronts nature left to run riot. That is something that one cannot conceive in France. As for me, in my traveller’s illusions — and what class of man has not its own — I was imagining something quite different. I had noticed in Europe that the more or less withdrawn position in which a province or town is placed, its wealth or its poverty, its smallness or its extent, exercised an immense influence on the ideas, the morals, and whole civilisation of its inhabitants, and often caused a difference of several centuries between the various parts of the same area.
I supposed that it was like that, but to a[n] even greater extent, in the New World, and that a country peopled as is America in an incomplete and partial fashion ought to show all conditions of existence and provide a picture of society in all its ages. America, according to me, was then the only country where one could follow step by step all the transformations which social conditions have brought about for man and where it was possible to discover something like a vast chain descending ring by ring from the opulent patrician of the town right down to the savage in the wilds. It was there, in a word, that I counted on finding the history of the whole of humanity framed within a few degrees of longitude.
Nothing is true in this picture. Of all the countries of the world America is the least adapted to provide the sight that I went to seek. In America, even more than in Europe, there is one society only. It may be rich or poor, humble or brilliant, trading or agricultural, but it is made up everywhere of the same elements; it has been levelled out by an egalitarian civilisation. The man you left behind in the streets of New York, you will find him again in the midst of almost impenetrable solitude: same dress, same spirit, same language, same habits and the same pleasures. Nothing rustic, nothing naive, nothing that smells of the wilds, nothing even that resembles our villages. The reason for this peculiar state of affairs is easy to understand. The parts of the territories which have been longest and most completely peopled have reached a high degree of civilisation. Education has been lavishly and profusely bestowed. The spirit of equality has stamped a peculiarly uniform pattern on the habits of private life. Now, note this well, it is precisely these same men who yearly go to people the wilds. In Europe each man lives and dies on the ground where he was born. In America nowhere does one meet the representatives of a race that has multiplied in isolation having long lived there unknown to the world and left to its own devices. Those who dwell in isolated places arrived there yesterday. They came bringing with them the morals, the ideas and the needs of civilisation. They only compound with savage life to the extent that the nature of things makes absolutely necessary. Hence the oddest contrasts. One goes without transition from the wilds into the street of a city, from the most savage scenes to the most smiling aspects of civilisation. If night overtaking you does not force you to take shelter under a tree, you have a good chance of reaching a village where you will find everything down to French fashions and poor copies of boulevards. The merchant of Buffalo or of Detroit is as well stocked as the one of New York; the factories of Lyon work for the one as for the other. When you leave the main roads you force your way down barely trodden paths. Finally, you see a field cleared, a cabin made from half-shaped tree trunks admitting the light through one narrow window only. You think that you have at last reached the home of the American peasant. Mistake. You make your way into this cabin that seems the asylum of all wretchedness but the owner of this place is dressed in the same clothes as yours and he speaks the language of towns. On his rough table are books and newspapers; he himself is anxious to take you on one side to know exactly what is happening in old Europe and asks you to tell him what has most struck you in his country. He will scribble on the paper a plan of campaign for the Belgians, and will solemnly tell you what still needs to be done to make France prosperous. One might think one was meeting a rich landowner who had come to spend just a few nights in a hunting lodge. And in fact the log cabin is only a temporary shelter for the American, a concession circumstances have forced on him for the moment. When the fields that surround him are in full production, and the new owner has time to concern himself with the amenities of life, a more spacious dwelling and one better adapted to his needs will replace the log-house and make a home for those numerous children who will also go out one day to make themselves a dwelling in the wilds.
But to come back to our journey. We sailed slowly along the whole day in sight of the shores of Pennsylvania, and later of Ohio. We stopped for a moment at Presqu’Ile, now called Erie. It is there that the Pittsburgh canal will end. By means of this undertaking the whole execution of which is, they say, easy and now assured, the Mississippi will be connected to the river of the north, and the wealth of Europe will flow freely along the five hundred leagues of land that lie between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.
In the evening, the weather having turned favourable, we moved quickly towards Detroit across the middle of the lake. On the following morning we were in sight of the little island called Middle Sister, near to which Commodore Perry won a celebrated naval victory over the English. [Footnote: Battle of Lake Erie (10th September 1814) in the war between the United States and Great Britain.]
Soon afterwards the level coast of Canada seemed to be moving quickly towards us, and we saw the Detroit River opening in front of us and the houses of Fort Malden in the distance. This place, founded by the French, still bears many traces of its origin. The houses are placed and shaped like those of our peasants. The Catholic bell-tower with a cock on top rises in the middle of the hamlet. One might think it a village near Caen or Evreux. A strange sight turned our attention away from these sentimental reminders of France: on the bank to our right was a Scotch soldier mounting guard in full uniform. It was the uniform made so famous by the field of Waterloo. Feather in cap, jacket, all complete; his clothes and arms glinted in the sunlight. To our left, as if on purpose to point the contrast, two stark naked Indians, their bodies streaked with dyes, rings in their noses, came up at the same moment from the opposite bank. They were in a little bark canoe with a coverlet for sail. Letting their frail boat run with wind and current, they shot like an arrow towards our ship and in an instant had turned round it. Then they went off quietly to fish near the English soldier who, still glinting and unmoving, seemed put there as the symbol of the high civilisation of Europe in arms.
We reached Detroit at three o’clock. Detroit is a little town of two or three thousand souls, founded by the Jesuits in the middle of the forest in 1710, and still having a great number of French families.
By this time we had crossed the whole State of New York, and gone a hundred leagues over Lake Erie; by now we were touching the limits of civilisation, but we had no idea whatsoever whither to wend our way next. To get information was not as easy as one might have thought. To break through almost impenetrable forests, to cross deep rivers, to brave pestilential marshes, to sleep out in the damp woods, those are exertions that the American readily contemplates, if it is a question of earning a guinea; for that is the point. But that one should do such things from curiosity is more than his mind can take in. Besides, living in the wilds, he only prizes the works of man. He will gladly send you off to see a road, a bridge or a fine village. But that one should appreciate great trees and the beauties of solitude, that possibility completely passes him by.
So nothing is harder than to find anyone able to understand what you want. You want to see forests, our hosts said smiling, go straight ahead and you will find what you want. They are there all right around the new roads and well-trod paths. As for Indians, you will see only too many in our public places and in the streets; there is no need to go very far for that. Those here are at least beginning to get civilised and have a less savage look. We were not slow to realize that we should not get the truth out of them by a frontal attack and that it was necessary to manoeuvre.
So we went to call on the official appointed by the United States to see to the sale of the still uninhabited land that covers the district of Michigan; we represented ourselves to him as people who, without any very decided intention of settling in the country, might yet have distant interest in knowing what land cost and how it was situated. Major Middle, that was his name, this time understood wonderfully well what we wanted to do, and entered at once into a mass of details to which we paid avid attention. “This part here,” he said to us, pointing out on the map the St. Joseph River which, after many a bend, flows into Lake Michigan, “seems to me the best suited for your scheme; the soil is good there; there are already some fine villages established there, and the road leading thither is so well maintained that public conveyances traverse it daily.” “Good”! we said to ourselves. “Now we know where not to go, at least unless we want to visit the wilds in a mail van.” We thanked Mr. Biddle for his advice, and asked him with an air of casualness and a pretended scorn, what part of the district had so far least attracted the attention of emigrants. “In this direction,” he told us without attaching more importance to his answer than we to our question, “towards the northwest. As far as Pontiac and in the neighbourhood of that village some fairly good settlements have been established. But you must not think of settling further on; the ground is covered by almost impenetrable forest which stretches endlessly to the northwest, where one only finds wild beasts and Indians. The United States are always considering opening up a road; but so far it has been barely begun and stops at Pontiac. I say again, that is a part you should not think about.” We thanked Mr. Biddle again for his good advice, and left determined to take it in just the contrary sense. We could not contain ourselves for joy at having at last discovered a place to which the torrent of European civilisation had not yet come.
On the next day, the 23rd July, we hastened to hire two horses. As we contemplated keeping them for ten days or so, we wanted to leave a sum of money with their owner; but he refused to take it, saying that we could pay on our return. He showed no alarm. Michigan is surrounded on all sides by lakes and wilds; he let us in to a sort of riding-school of which he held the door. When we had bought a compass as well as provisions, we set out on our way, rifle on shoulder, as thoughtless of the future and happy as a pair of schoolboys leaving college to spend their holidays at their father’s house.
The American Pioneer 3 by Alexis de Tocqueville
If we had indeed only wanted to see forests, our hosts in Detroit would have been right in telling us that we need not go very far, for, a mile out of the town, the road goes into the forest and never comes out of it. The land it passes over is completely flat and often marshy. From time to time along the road one comes to new clearings. As all these settlements are exactly like one another, whether they are in the depths of Michigan or just close to New York, I will try and describe them here once and for all.
The bells which the pioneer is careful to hang round his beasts’ necks so as to find them again in the dense forest, give warning in the far distance that one is getting near a clearing. Soon one hears the echoes of the axe that is cutting down the forest trees, and as one gets closer, signs of destruction make man’s presence ever more evident. Severed branches cover the road, and trunks half scorched by fire or cut about by the axe, yet stand still erect in our way. As you go on your way, you come to a wood where all the trees seem to have been struck by sudden death. In full summer their withered branches seem the image of winter. Looking at them close-up, you see that a deep circle has been cut in their bark, which, by preventing the circulation of the sap, has brought them to a speedy death. That in fact is usually the planter’s first beginning. 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. After this field which is an unfinished sketch, a first step of civilisation in the wilds, one suddenly sees 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 nature. There the trees have been cut but not grubbed up; their trunks still cover and block the land they used to shade. Round this withered debris, wheat, shoots of oak, plants of all kinds, and weeds of all sorts are scattered pell-mell and grow up together in the untamed 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 rises. Just like the field around it, this rustic dwelling shows every sign of new and hurried work. It is seldom more than thirty feet long. It is 20 feet wide and 15 high. Both its walls and its roof are made of unsquared tree-trunks between which moss and earth have been rammed to keep the cold and rain out from the inside of the house. The closer the traveler gets, the more animated the scene becomes. As they hear his footsteps, the children, playing in the surrounding debris, get up in a hurry and run for shelter to their father’s house, as if they were frightened at the sight of a man, while two great half-wild dogs with ears pricked and long muzzles, come out of the hut and growling cover their young masters’ retreat.
It is then that the pioneer himself appears at the door of his dwelling; he takes a good look at the new arrival; signs to his dogs to go back under cover and himself hastens to give them the example without a sign of curiosity or anxiety.
When he gets to the threshold of the log-house, the European cannot help casting an astonished glance round the sight before him.
Such a cabin generally has but one window, at which perhaps a muslin curtain is hanging; for in these parts where necessities are not seldom lacking, superfluities often abound. A resinous fire crackles on the hearth of beaten earth, and, better than the daylight, lights up the inside of the place. Over this rustic fire one sees trophies of war or hunt: a long rifle, a deerskin, some eagle’s feathers. To the right of the chimney a map of the United States is often stretched, and the draught that blows through the gaps in the wall keeps raising and fluttering it. By it on a single shelf of ill-squared planks are a few tattered books; there one finds a Bible with its cloth and boards already worn out by the piety of two generations, a prayerbook and, sometimes, a poem of Milton or a tragedy of Shakespeare. Along the wall are some rough seats, made by the hands of the owner himself; some trunks instead of cupboards, some agricultural implements and samples of the harvest. In the middle of the room is a rickety table whose legs, still sprouting foliage, seem to have grown by themselves on the ground they cover. One also sees an English china teapot, some spoons usually of wood, some cracked cups and newspapers.
The looks of the master of this dwelling is no less remarkable than the place that gives him shelter.
His angular muscles and thin limbs make one recognize at first glance the inhabitant of New England. This man has not been born in the solitude where he lives. His temperament alone makes that clear. His first years were passed in a society used to thought and argument. It is the strength of his will that has taken him to do work in the wilds to which he seems little adapted. But if his physical powers seem too slight for this undertaking, his features lined by the cares of life bespeak a practical intelligence, and a cold, persevering energy that strike one at first sight. His movements are slow and stiff, his words measured and his appearance austere. Habit and still more pride have given his features that Stoic stiffness that his deeds belie: it is true that the pioneer scorns things that often move men’s hearts most violently; his goods and life will never depend on the chance of a throw of dice, or the fate of a woman; but to win affluence he has braved exile, the solitude and innumerable wretchednesses of life in the wilds, he has slept on the bare ground and risked fever in the forest and the Indian’s tomahawk. He has one day made that effort, and renewed it through the years; perhaps he will carry on with it for twenty years more without discouragement or complaint. Can a man capable of such sacrifices be a cold, unfeeling being? Should one not rather recognize that he is consumed by some burning, tenacious, implacable passion of the mind? Concentrating on the single object of making his fortune, the emigrant has ended by making an altogether exceptional mode of existence. Even his feelings for his family have become merged in a vast egotism, and one cannot be sure whether he regards his wife and children as anything more than a detached part of himself. Deprived of the usual contacts with his fellow men, he has learnt to make solitude a pleasure.
When one presents oneself on the threshold of his isolated dwelling, the pioneer comes forward to meet you; he shakes hands as custom provides, but his features express neither good will nor pleasure. He only starts talking to ask you questions, satisfying a need of the head rather than of the heart, and, as soon as he has found out the news he wanted to learn from you, he relapses into silence. One might think one was meeting a man who had come back home in the evening tired by the importunities and noise of the world. Ask him questions in your turn, and he will give you the information you lack intelligently, he will even provide for your needs and he will take care of your safety as long as you are under his roof. But there is so much of constraint and pride in all he does, and one is aware of such a profound indifference even about the result of his own efforts, that gratitude is frozen. But the pioneer is hospitable in his way, only his hospitality has nothing about it that touches you, for you feel that he himself in doing what he does, is submitting to an unpleasant obligation of life in the wilds. He sees it as a duty which his situation imposes, not as a pleasure. This unknown man is the representative of a race to whom the future of the New World belongs, a restless, calculating, adventurous race which sets coldly about deeds that can only be explained by the fire of passion, and which trades in everything, not excluding even morality and religion.
A nation of conquerors that submits to living the life of a savage without ever letting itself be carried away by its charms, that only cherishes those parts of civilization and enlightenment which are useful for well-being, and which shuts itself up in the solitudes of America with an axe and a newspaper; a people who, like all great peoples, has but one thought, and presses forward to the acquisition of riches, the single end of its labours, with a perseverance and a scorn of life which one could call heroic, if that word were properly used of anything but the strivings of virtue. It is a wandering people whom rivers and lakes cannot hold back, before whom forests fall and prairies are covered in shade; and who, when they have reached the Pacific Ocean, will come back on its tracks to trouble and destroy the societies which it will have formed behind it.
In speaking of the pioneer one cannot forget the companion of his trials and dangers. Look at that young woman at the other side of the hearth who as she sees to cooking the meal rocks her youngest son on her knees. Like the emigrant this woman is in the flower of her age; like him, she can remember the affluence of her first years. Her dress still shows an ill-suppressed taste for clothes but time has pressed heavily on her. By her features worn before their time, by her wasted limbs it is easy to see that existence has been a heavy burden for her.
In fact this frail creature has already had to face incredible trials. Scarcely embarked on life, she has had to tear herself away from her mother’s tenderness and those dear fraternal links which no young girl gives up without a tear, even when she leaves them to share the opulent home of a new husband. The pioneer’s wife carried off in an instant and without hope of return from her innocent cradle of youth has exchanged the charms of society and the joys of the domestic hearth for the solitude of the forest. Her nuptial couch was on the bare ground of the wilds. To devote herself to austere duties, to submit to privations once unknown to her, to embrace an existence for which she was not made, such has been the work of the best years of her life, such for her have been the delights of conjugal union. Want, suffering and boredom have changed her fragile frame but not broken down her courage. Amid the deep sadness engraved on her delicate features it is easy to see something of religious resignation, a profound peace and I cannot say what natural firmness and tranquility that faces all the trials of life without fear or boast.
Half-naked children bursting with health, thoughtless of the morrow, true sons of the wilds, press round this woman. Their mother looks from time to time at them half in sadness half in joy. To see their strength and her weakness one would say that she has drained herself to give them life and does not regret what they have cost her.
The dwelling in which these emigrants live has no internal division and no storehouse. The whole family comes to seek shelter of an evening in the single room which it contains. This dwelling forms as it were a little world of its own. It is an ark of civilization lost in the middle of an ocean of leaves, it is a sort of oasis in the desert. A hundred paces beyond it the everlasting forest stretches its shades around it and solitude begins again.
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:
Miché-Couté-Ouinque by Alexis de Tocqueville
We had been advised to call on a Mr. Williams who since he had long been trading with the Chippewa Indians and had a son settled at Saginaw, could give us useful information. When we had already gone several miles into the forest, and were beginning to be afraid that we might have missed our man’s house, we met an old man busy working in a small garden. We went up to him. It was Mr. Williams himself. He received us with great kindness and gave us a letter for his son. We asked him if we had anything to fear from the Indian tribes whose territory we were going to cross. Mr. Williams rejected that suggestion with something like indignation: “No! no!” he said, “you can go forward without fear. For my part I should sleep more soundly surrounded by Indians than by whites.” I note this as the first favourable view of the Indians that I have heard since coming to America. In thickly populated parts of the country men only speak of them with a mixture of fear and scorn, and I think that there they do in fact give cause for these two feelings. One can see above what I thought myself when I met the first of them at Buffalo. As you go on in this diary and follow me going among the European population on the frontiers and among the Indian tribes themselves, you will get both a more worthy and a fairer conception of the first inhabitants of America.
When we had left Mr. Williams we went on our way through the forests. From time to time a little lake (the district is full of them) appeared like a silver sheet beneath the leaves of the forest. It is difficult to conceive the charm pervading these pretty places where man has not yet come to live and where profound uninterrupted silence reigns. I have been through terrifying solitudes in the Alps where nature rejects the work of man, and where even in its very horror the sheer grandeur of the scene has something that transports one’s soul with excitement. Here the solitude is as profound but does not bring the same sensations to birth. All that one feels in passing through these flowery wildernesses where everything, as in Milton’s Paradise, is ready to receive man, is a quiet admiration, a gentle melancholy sense, and a vague distaste for civilised life; a sort of primitive instinct that makes one think with sadness that soon this delightful solitude will have changed its looks. In fact already the white race is advancing across the forest that surrounds it, and in but a few years the European will have cut the trees that are now reflected in the limpid waters of the lake, and forced the animals that live on its banks to retreat to new wildernesses.
Always keeping on our way, we came to a district of a different aspect. The ground was no longer level, but cut by hills and valleys. Some of these hills have the wildest possible look. It was in one of these picturesque spots, when we had suddenly turned round to admire the imposing sight behind us, that we saw to our great surprise close to our horses’ crupper an Indian who seemed to be following on our tracks. He was a man of about thirty, large and wonderfully well proportioned as they almost all are. His shining black hair fell long his shoulders except for two tresses fixed on top of his head. His face was striped with black and red. He was dressed in a sort of very short blue blouse. He wore red mittas: they are a sort of trousers that only come to the thighs, and his feet were clad in moccasins. A knife hung at his side. In his right hand he held a long carbine, and in his left two birds that he had just killed. The first sight of this Indian made no agreeable impression on us. The place was ill-chosen to resist an attack: on our right a pine forest rose to immense heights, and on our left a deep ravine led down to a stream that flowed over rocks hidden by the dense foliage, towards which we were descending like blind men! It was a matter of a moment to put our hands on our rifles, turn round and face the Indian across the road. He stopped, too. We stayed half a minute in silence. His face had all the characteristic traits that distinguish the Indian race from all others. In his black eyes shone that savage fire which still lights up the eyes of half-castes and is not lost until the second or third generation of white blood. His nose was arched in the middle and slightly blunt at the tip; his cheekbones were very high and his well defined mouth exposed two rows of shining white teeth which proved well enough that the savage, cleaner than his American neighbour, did not spend his day chewing tobacco leaves. I have said that when we turned and put our rifles at the ready, the Indian had halted. As we quickly looked him over, he remained completely impassive, with steady, unmoved gaze. When he saw that we had no hostile feeling on our side, he began to smile; probably he saw that he had frightened us. That was the first time that I had seen how completely gaiety changes the physiognomy of these savage men. I have later noticed the same a hundred times. An Indian in serious mood and an Indian smiling, are two entirely different beings. There is something of savage majesty in the immobility of the former which, against one’s will, inspires fear. When the same man breaks into a smile, his whole face assumes an expression of naïveté and goodwill that gives it real charm.
When we saw our man had cheered up, we spoke to him in English. He let us talk on undisturbed, and then made a sign that he did not understand a word. We offered him a little brandy which he accepted at once and without thanks. Still talking in sign language we asked for his birds which he gave in exchange for a small piece of money. Having made his acquaintance like that, we gave him a wave and went off at a fast trot. After a quarter of an hour’s rapid going, when I turned again, I was amazed to see the Indian. He moved with the agility of a wild animal without uttering a single word or seeming to quicken his pace. We stopped, he stopped. We went on again, he went on again. We broke into a full gallop. Our horses brought up in the wilderness went over all obstacles. The Indian broke into a double; I saw him sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left of my horse, leaping over the bushes and landing again noiselessly. One would say it was one of those wolves of Northern Europe who follow riders in the hope that they will fall from their horses and be the more easily devoured. The sight of this unchanging figure who, sometimes lost in the darkness of the forest, sometimes appearing in broad daylight, seemed to hover at our side, ended by getting on our nerves. As we could not think what could induce this man to follow us at such a rate — and perhaps he had been doing so for a very long time before we first noticed him — it came into our heads that he might be leading us into an ambush. While worrying about that idea, we saw in the wood in front of us the muzzle of another carbine. Soon we came up to the man who carried it. At first we took him for an Indian. He was dressed in a sort of short frock-coat which, fastened round his loins, outlined an upright, well made body; his neck was bare and there were moccasins on his feet. When we got near and he raised his head, we saw at once that he was a European, and we stopped. He came up to us: shook hands warmly, and entered into conversation: “Do you live in the wilderness?” — “Yes, there is my house,” he pointed through the leaves to a hut much more wretched than ordinary log-houses. “Alone?” — “Alone.” — “And what then are you doing here?” — “I go through the forest and kill the game I meet to right and left of my path, but one does not get good shots now.” — “And you like this sort of life?” — “More than any other.” — “But are you not afraid of the Indians?” — “Afraid of the Indians! I would rather live among them than in the society of the whites. No! no! I am not afraid of the Indians. They are worth more than we, provided we have not brutalized them with our strong drinks, the poor creatures!” We then pointed out to our new acquaintance the man who was following us so persistently and who then had stopped a few paces from us and stood as still as a milestone. “He is a Chippewa,” said he, “or as the French call them a Sauteur. I bet he is coming back from Canada where he has received the yearly presents from the English. His family should not be far from here.” This said, the American made a sign to the Indian to come up, and began to talk very fluently to him in his language. It was strange to see what pleasure these two men, so different in birth and manners, took in exchanging ideas with one another. Clearly they were discussing the respective merits of their weapons. The white, having looked at the savage’s rifle very carefully: “There is a fine carbine,” said he. “No doubt the English have given it to him to use against us, and he will not fail to do so as soon as there is a war. That is how the Indians draw on their heads all the ills that weigh them down. But they know no better, the poor fellows.” — “Are the Indians skilled in using these long, heavy rifles?” — “There are no shots like the Indians,” our new friend answered warmly in tones of the greatest admiration. “Look at the little birds he sold to you, sir. They are pierced by a single bullet and I am very sure that he only fired two shots to get them. Oh!” he added, “there is nothing happier than an Indian in the country from which we have not yet driven the game. But the big animals sense our coming more than three hundred miles off, and as they retreat they make as it were a desert in front of us, in which the poor Indians cannot live unless they cultivate the ground.”
As we started on our way again: “When you pass this way again,” our new friend called out, “knock on my door. It is a pleasure to see white faces in these parts.”
I have recorded this conversation which in itself has nothing remarkable in it, to introduce the reader to a type of man whom we met very frequently thereafter on the verge of the inhabited land. They are Europeans who despite the habits of their youth, have ended up by finding inexpressible charm in the freedom of the wilderness. Taste and passion draw them to the solitudes of America, while their religion, principles and ideas attach them to Europe, so that they combine love of the savage life with the pride of civilisation, and prefer the Indians to their compatriots without however looking on them as their equals.
So we went on our way again, and still making the same rapid progress, in half an hour we reached a pioneer’s house. An Indian family had established their temporary dwelling in front of this cabin. An old woman, two young girls and several children were crouched round a fire by whose heat the remains of a whole roebuck were cooking. On the grass a few paces away a stark naked Indian was basking in the sun, while a small child rolled in the dust near him. It was that that brought our silent companion to a halt; he left us without saying good-bye, and went to sit sedately down by his compatriots. What can have induced that man to follow our horses’ tracks like that for two leagues? That is something we never could guess. After we had lunched in that place, we mounted our horses and went on our way through high but not dense forest trees. The copse had been burnt sometime before, as one could see by the charred remains of some trees lying on the ground. The soil is now covered with ferns which stretched away as far as one could see under the foliage of the forest.
A few leagues further on my horse cast a shoe, which caused us keen anxiety. Luckily near there we found a planter who succeeded in shoeing it again. Had it not been for that meeting, I doubt if we could have gone any further, as we were nearing the end of the clearings. This same man who thus enabled us to go on our way, advised us to press our pace, as the sun was beginning to sink and there were two good leagues between us and Flint River where we intended to pass the night.
Soon, in fact, we began to be enveloped in deep darkness. We had to keep going. The night was clear but freezing. So deep a silence, so complete a calm, prevailed in these forests that one might say that all the forces of nature were, as it were, paralysed. One could only hear the unwelcome buzz of mosquitoes and the noise of our horses’ hoofs. From time to time one could see an Indian fire with an austere, unmoving profile outlined against the smoke. At the end of an hour we came to a place where the road forked. Two paths opened there. Which to choose? The choice was crucial. One of them led to a stream the depth of which we did not know, the other to a glade. The moon which was then coming up showed us a valley full of debris. Further on we saw two houses. It was so important not to lose out way in such a place at such an hour, that we decided to make inquiries before going any further. My companion stayed to look after the horses, and I, throwing my rifle over my shoulder, went down the valley. Soon I realized that I was coming into quite a recent clearing; immense trees with their branches still on them covered the ground. Jumping from one to another I succeeded in getting fairly quickly close to the houses, but the same stream we had seen before came between me and them. Luckily its course was blocked at this spot by huge oaks felled, no doubt, by the pioneer’s axe. I managed to slide along these trees and reach the other bank at last. I moved cautiously up to the two houses, being afraid that they might be Indian wigwams. They were still not yet finished, I found the doors open and no one answered my voice. I came back to the banks of the stream and could not forbear stopping a few minutes in admiration of the sublime horror of the scene. This valley was shaped like an immense arena and, like a black drapery, the foliage of the woods surrounded it on all sides, while in the middle the moonlight breaking through formed the shadows into a thousand fantastic shapes dancing in silence over the brash of the forest. No other sound whatsoever, no breath of life broke the silence of this solitude. At length I thought about my companion, and called him at the top of my voice to tell him the result of my search, and get him to cross the stream and come and join me. My voice long re-echoed in the surrounding solitudes. But I got no answer. I shouted again and listened again. The same silence of the dead reigned in the forest. I became anxious and ran along the stream to find the way across it lower down. When I got there I heard the horses’ hoofs in the distance and soon after Beaumont himself appeared. Surprised at my long absence, he had decided to come down to the stream; he had already got into the shallows when I called him. My voice could not reach him then. He told me that he too had made every effort to make himself heard, and, like me, had got frightened at not receiving any answer. Without the ford that served as a meeting place, perhaps we should have spent a great part of the night looking for one another. We set out once more on our way promising each other firmly that we would not separate again, and three-quarters of an hour on from there at last we saw a clearing, two or three cabins, and what gave us greatest pleasure, a light. The stream that ran like a violet thread along the bottom of the valley, sufficed to prove that we had arrived at Flint River. Soon the barking of dogs echoed through the wood and we found ourselves opposite a log-house and only separated from it by a fence. Just as we were getting ready to get over it, the moon revealed a great black bear on the other side, which standing upright on its haunches and dragging its chain, made as clear as it could its intention of giving us a fraternal welcome. “What a devil of a country is this,” I said, “where one has bears for watch dogs.” — “We must call out,” said my companion. “If we try to pass the fence, we shall have difficulty in making the porter listen to reason.” So we shouted our heads off so successfully that at last a man appeared at the window. Having looked at us in the moonlight he said, “Come in, gentlemen. Trinc, go to bed. To your kennel I tell you. Those are not robbers.” The bear went waddling back, and we went in. We were half dead with fatigue. We asked our host if we could have some oats. “Certainly,” he answered; and at once started mowing the nearest field with complete American calm, and just as if he was doing it in the very middle of the day. In the meanwhile we dismounted and for want of stables tied our horses to the fence over which we had just passed. Having thus taken thought for the companions of our journey, we thought about our own sleeping arrangements. There was only one bed in the house. Beaumont having won the toss for it, I wrapped myself in my cloak and lying down on the floor, fell into the deep sleep befitting a man who has done fifteen leagues on horseback.
In the Wilds by Alexis de Tocqueville
On the next day, the 25th July, our first care was to ask for a guide. Fifteen leagues of wilderness came between Flint Rock and Saginaw, and the road leading there is a narrow path that the eye can hardly see. Our host approved our plan, and soon brought along two Indians in whom, he assured us, we could place entire trust. One was a child thirteen or fourteen years old. The other a young man of eighteen. The latter’s body, though it had not yet acquired the full vigour of ripe manhood, nonetheless gave an impression of agility combined with strength. He was of medium height, his body was upright and slender, his limbs supple and well proportioned. Long tresses fell from his bare head. Besides he had been at pains to paint his face as symmetrically as possible with black and red lines. A ring through his nose, a necklace and ear-rings completed his attire. His warlike gear was equally remarkable. At one side a battle axe, one of the celebrated tomahawks; at the other a long sharp knife with which the savages cut off the scalps of the defeated. Round his neck was hung a bull’s horn that served him as powder-flask and he held a rifle in his right hand. As is usual with most Indians his gaze was fierce and his smile kind. By his side, to complete the picture, went a dog with ears pricked up and a long muzzle, more like a fox than any other sort of animal, and whose fierce appearance was in perfect harmony with the countenance of his leader. When we had looked at our new companion with an attention which he did not for a moment seem to notice, we asked him how much he wanted to be paid for the service he was going to do for us. The Indian answered a few words in his language, and the American quickly said that what the savage asked could be valued at two dollars. “As these poor Indians,” our host kindly added, “do not know the value of money, you give me the dollars and I will gladly see to getting him the equivalent.” I was curious to see what the good man considered the equivalent of two dollars and quietly followed him to the place where the deal was done. I saw him give our guide a pair of moccasins and a pocket handkerchief, objects whose total value certainly did not amount to half that sum. The Indian went back thoroughly satisfied, and I escaped noiselessly, saying to myself like La Fontaine: “Ah! if lions knew how to paint!”
Besides it is not only the Indians whom the pioneers make their dupes. We ourselves were daily victims of their extreme greediness for gain. It is very true that they do not rob at all. They are too enlightened to do anything so imprudent, but otherwise I have never seen a hotel-keeper in a great city overcharge more impudently than these dwellers in the wilderness among whom I expected to find the primitive honesty and simplicity of a patriarchal way of life.
Everything was ready; we mounted and passing by a ford across the stream that forms the ultimate boundary between civilisation and the wilderness, we went in earnest into solitude.
Our two guides walked or rather jumped like wild cats over all the obstacles in the way. If we came across a tree blown over, a stream or a marsh, they pointed a finger to show the best path, went across and never turned to see how we got through the difficult place; accustomed to rely on himself, the Indian finds it hard to conceive that anyone needs help. If needs be, he knows how to do you a service, but no one has yet taught him to add to its value by obligingness and taking trouble. At other times we would have protested on our side at this way of behaving, but it was impossible for us to make our companions understand a single word. And besides! we felt ourselves completely in their power. There in fact the order was reversed; plunged into deep darkness, reduced to his own resources the civilised man walked like the blind, incapable not only of being his own guide in the labyrinth that surrounded him, but even of finding the means to sustain life. It is in the heart of the same difficulties that the savage triumphs; for him the forest obscured nothing; he felt at home there; he walked with his head high, guided by an instinct more sure than the navigator’s compass. In the tops of the highest trees, under the densest foliage, his eye could see the prey close to which the European had passed and repassed a hundred times in vain.
From time to time our Indians halted; they put their fingers to their lips to show that we must keep silence and signalled to us to get off our horses. Led by them we came to a place where one could see the game. It was a strange sight to see the scornful smile with which they took us by the hand like children and led us at last close to the object that they had seen a long time ago.
Now as we advanced further the last signs of man disappeared. Soon there was nothing even to indicate the presence of savages, and we had before us the spectacle which we had been so long pursuing, the depths of a virgin forest.
Through undergrowth that was not thick and across which one could see objects at a considerable distance, the high forest rose straightway, composed entirely of pines and oaks. Forced to grow in a narrowly limited area and almost entirely hidden from the light of the sun, each tree grows quickly upwards looking for air and light. Straight as a ship’s mast, it soon rises above everything surrounding it. It is then when it gets into this higher region that it quietly spreads its branches and envelopes itself in their shade. Others soon follow it in this high sphere, and they all, interlacing their branches, form as it were a huge dais above the ground that bears them. Below this damp and unmoving vault the look of things changes and the scene takes on a new character. Majestic order reigns above your head. But near the ground there is a general picture of confusion and chaos. Trunks that can no longer support the weight of their branches, are split half-way up and left with pointed and torn tops. Others, long shaken by the wind, have been thrown all complete on the ground; torn out of the soil, their roots form so many natural ramparts behind which several men could easily take cover. Immense trees, held up by the surrounding branches, stay suspended in the air, and fall to dust without touching the ground. With us there is no district so thinly populated and no forest so completely left to itself, that the trees, when they have quietly come to an end of their days, fall at last from decay. It is man who strikes them down in the vigour of their maturity, and rids the forest of their debris. In the solitudes of America nature in all her strength is the only instrument of ruin and also the only creative force. As in forests subject to man’s control, death strikes continually here; but no one is concerned to clear the debris away. Every day adds to the number; they fall and pile up one on top of the other; time cannot reduce them quickly enough to dust and make fresh places ready. There many generations of the dead lie side by side. Some that have come to the last stage of dissolution, show as no more than a train of red dust along the grass. Others already half consumed by time, still yet preserve their shape. Then there are those that, fallen yesterday, still stretch their long branches on the ground, and hold the traveller up by an obstacle he had not expected. In the midst of all this debris the work of new creation goes ceaselessly forward. Offshoots, creepers and plants of every sort press across every obstacle to the light. They ramp along the trunks of fallen trees, they push their way into the rotten wood, and they lift and break the bark still covering them. Life and death meet here face to face as if they wished to mingle and confuse their labours.
We have often admired one of those calm and serene evenings on the ocean, when the sails flap quietly by the mast leaving the sailor doubtful whence the breeze will arise. This repose of all nature is no less impressive in the solitudes of the new World than on the immensity of the sea. At midday when the sun darts its beams on the forest, one often hears in its depths something like a long sigh, a plaintive cry lingering in the distance. It is the last stir of the dying wind. Then everything around you falls back into a silence so deep, a stillness so complete that the soul is invaded by a kind of religious terror. The traveller halts and looks round; pressed one against the other and with their branches interlaced, the forest trees seem to form but one whole, an immense and indestructible edifice under whose vaults eternal darkness reigns. On whatever side he looks, he sees nothing but a field of violence and destruction. Broken trees and torn trunks, everything testifies that the elements are here perpetually at war. But the struggle is interrupted. One would say that at the behest of a supernatural power, movement is suddenly halted. Half broken branches seem still held by secret ties to the trunks that no longer support them; uprooted trees have not yet had time to reach the ground, and stay suspended in the air. He listens and holds his breath in fear to better catch the least echo of life; no sound, no murmur reaches him.
More than once in Europe we have found ourselves lost deep in the woods; but always some sound of life came to reach our ears. Perhaps the distant tinkle of the nearest village bell, a traveller’s footstep, the woodcutter’s axe, a gunshot, the barking of a dog or just that confused sound that pervades a civilised country. Here not only is man lacking, but no sound can be heard from the animals either. The smallest of them have left these parts to come close to human habitations, and the largest have gone to get even further away. Those that remain stay hidden from the sun’s rays. So all is still in the woods, all is silent under their leaves. One would say that for a moment the Creator had turned his face away and all the forces of nature are paralysed.
But that is not the only occasion on which we noticed the strange analogy between the sight of the ocean and that of a wild forest. In both the one and the other you are assailed by a sense of immensity. The continuity and monotony of like scenes both astonishes and overwhelms the imagination. Again in the solitudes of the New World we felt, perhaps more strongly and more poignantly, that sense of isolation and of abandonment that had weighed on us so heavily in the middle of the Atlantic. On the sea at least the traveller looks toward the vast horizon on which his eyes and hopes are set. But in this ocean of leaves who could point out the way? Whither turn one’s looks? In vain to climb to the top of very high trees, for others still higher surround you. It is useless to climb the hills, for everywhere the forest seems to walk in front of you, and this same forest stretches before your feet right up to the Arctic Pole and the Pacific Ocean. You can travel on for thousands of leagues under its shade, and you go forward the whole time without appearing to change place.
But I must get back to the road to Saginaw. We had already been going forward for five hours in the most complete ignorance of where we were, when our Indians halted, and the elder, who was called Sagan Cuisco, drew a line in the sand. He pointed to one of the ends saying “Miché-Couté-Ouinque” (that is the Indian name for Flint River), to the other pronouncing the name Saginaw, and, making a point in the middle of the line, he showed us that we had come half-way and ought to rest for a few moments. The sun was already high in the sky, and we would gladly have accepted the suggestion he made to us, if we had seen any water within reach. But seeing none anywhere near, we made a sign to the Indian that we wanted to eat and drink at the same time. He understood at once, and set off again as rapidly as before. An hour on from there he halted again, and pointed to a spot thirty paces away in the wood where his gestures indicated that there was water. Without waiting for our answer or helping us to dismount, he went there himself; we hastened to follow him. A great tree had recently been blown over by the wind on that spot. In the hole where its roots had been there was a little rain water. That was the fountain to which our guide had led us without appearing to think that one could hesitate to make use of such a drink. We opened our knapsack; another blow! The heat had completely ruined our provisions, and we were reduced to a very small piece of bread, all that we had been able to find at Flint River, for all our dinner. Add to that a cloud of mosquitoes congregating near the water, so that one had to fight them off with one hand while one put a bite into one’s mouth with the other, and you will have some idea of a picnic in a virgin forest. While we were eating, our Indians stayed sitting with arms crossed on the trunk of the fallen tree I mentioned before. When they saw that we had finished, they made a sign that they were hungry too. We showed our empty knapsack. They shook their heads without saying a word. The Indian has no conception of what regular hours for meals are. He gorges himself on food when he gets the chance, and then fasts until he gets another chance of satisfying his appetite. Wolves behave the same in like circumstances. We soon thought of mounting our horses, but saw with great alarm that our mounts had disappeared. Stung by the mosquitoes and pricked by hunger they had strayed from the path where we left them, and it was only with difficulty that we succeeded in getting on their tracks. If we had stayed for a quarter of an hour more without paying attention, we should have woken up, like Sancho, with the saddle between our knees. We heartily blessed the mosquitoes that had made us think so soon of moving, and set off again. Every moment our horses had to force their way through thick bushes or jump over the trunks of huge trees that barred our way. At the end of about two hours of very difficult going, we came to a stream that was not very deep but had very high banks. We crossed it by a ford and when we had climbed up to the top of the opposite bank, we saw a field of corn and two cabins very like log-houses. We realised as we came close that we were in a little Indian settlement. The log-houses were wigwams. Otherwise the deepest solitude prevailed there as in the surrounding forest.
When he came to the first of these abandoned dwellings, Sagan Cuisco stopped; he paid close attention to all the objects around, and then putting his carbine down, he came up to us. First he drew a line in the sand, showing us in the same manner as before that we had not yet covered more than two-thirds of the way; he then got up, pointed to the sun and made signs to indicate that it was descending rapidly to the horizon. He then looked at the wigwam and shut his eyes. This language was very easy to understand; he wanted us to sleep on that spot. I admit that the proposition surprised us a lot, and did not please us at all. We had not eaten since the morning, and were but moderately anxious to go to bed without supper. The sombre and savage majesty of the sights we had seen since the morning, the complete isolation in which we were, the fierce countenances of our guides with whom it was impossible to make any contact, in all that there was nothing to inspire us with confidence. Moreover there was something strange in the Indians’ behaviour that was far from reassuring us. The way we had gone for the last two hours seemed even less frequented than that we had travelled on before. No one had ever told us that we should have to pass an Indian village, and everyone had on the contrary assured us that one could go in one day from Flint River to Saginaw. So we could not conceive why our guides wanted to keep us for the night in this wilderness. We insisted on going on. The Indian made a sign that we should be surprised by darkness in the forest. To force our guides to continue the journey would have been a dangerous attempt. We decided to tempt their cupidity. But the Indian is the most philosophic of all men. He has few needs and so few desires. Civilisation has no hold on him; he is unaware of, or scorns its charms. But I had noticed that Sagan Cuisco had paid particular attention to a little wicker-covered bottle that hung at my side. A bottle that does not get broken. There was an object whose usefulness struck his senses, and which had aroused his real admiration. My rifle and my bottle were the only parts of my European gear that had seemed able to rouse his envy. I made a sign that I would give him my bottle, if he would take us at once to Saginaw. The Indian then seemed to be struggling violently with himself. He looked at the sun again and then at the ground. Finally making up his mind, he seized his carbine, and putting his hand to his mouth raised a cry of “Ouh! ouh!” and darted in front of us into the bushes. We followed him at fast trot, and forcing a way through for ourselves, had soon lost sight of the Indian dwellings. Our guides ran like that for two hours faster than they had yet gone; but night gained on us, and the last rays of the sun were beginning to disappear behind the forest trees, when Sagan Cuisco was suddenly seized with a violent nose-bleed. Accustomed though this young man, like his brother, seemed to be to bodily exercise, it was clear that fatigue and want of food were beginning to drain his strength. We ourselves began to be afraid that they would give up the undertaking and want to sleep under a tree. So we took the decision to make them ride in turns on our horses. The Indians accepted our offer without surprise or difference. It was an odd sight to see these half-naked men solemnly seated on an English saddle, and carrying our game-bags and our slung rifles with bandoliers, while we laboured along on foot in front of them. At length night came on and a freezing damp began to spread under the foliage. Then darkness gave a new and terrible aspect to the forest. All around one could see nothing but gatherings of confused masses, without shape or symmetry, strange disproportionate forms, incoherent sights and fantastic images that seemed to come from the sick imagination of a fever bed. (The gigantic and the ridiculous rubbed shoulders there as close as in the literature of our day.) Never had our footsteps raised more echoes; never had the silence of the forest seemed more fearsome. One might say that the buzzing of the mosquitoes was the only breathing of this sleeping world. The further we went on, the darker did the shadows grow, and nothing but the occasional flight of a firefly through the woods traced a thread of light in their depths. Too late we realized how right the Indian’s advice had been, but there was no question now of retreat. So we pressed on as quickly as our strength and the night would allow. After an hour we came out of the wood and into a vast prairie. Three times our guides yelled out a savage cry that echoed like the discordant notes of a tom-tom. An answer came from the distance. In five minutes we came to the edge of a river in such darkness that we could not see the opposite bank. The Indians made a halt at this spot; they wrapped themselves up in their blankets to escape the mosquitoes’ stings, and, lying down on the grass, they soon formed no more than a scarcely perceptible heap of wool in which no one could have recognised the shape of a man. We, too, got to the ground, and patiently waited what was going to happen. A few minutes later a faint sound could be heard, and something approached the bank. It was an Indian canoe, about ten feet long, and shaped out of a single tree. The man who crouched in the bottom of this fragile bark, was dressed and looked completely like an Indian. He spoke to our guides who at his order hastened to take our saddles off and put them in the canoe. As I was getting ready to get into it myself, the supposed Indian came up to me, put two fingers in my shoulder, and said in a Norman accent that made me jump: “Don’t go too fast, sometimes people get drowned here.” If my horse had spoken to me, I do not think I should have been more surprised. I looked at the man who spoke to me and whose face lighted by the first rays of the moon shone like a ball of copper: “Who are you then,” I said to him, “French seems to be your language, and you look like an Indian?” He told me that he was a bois-brulé, that is to say the son of a French Canadian and an Indian woman. I shall have frequent occasion to speak of this race of half-castes that covers all the frontiers of Canada and part of those of the United States. For the moment I only thought of the pleasure of speaking my mother tongue. Obeying the advice of the savage, my compatriot, I sat down in the bottom of the canoe and kept balance as well as might be. The horse went into the water and began to swim, while the French Canadian propelled the little boat with an oar, singing under his breath the while an old French song of which I only caught the first two lines:
We reached the further bank without mishap. The canoe went back at once to fetch my companion. All my life I shall remember the moment when it came up to the bank for the second time. The moon which then was full, rose at that very moment above the prairie we had just crossed. Only half its orb showed above the horizon; one might have thought it a mysterious gate from which light flowed towards us from another sphere. Its rays reflected in the water glinted close around me. The Indian canoe slid forward right along the line of the pale moonbeams; one saw no oars; one heard no sound of rowing; it glided on quickly and effortlessly, long, narrow and black, like an alligator on the Mississippi that makes for the bank to seize its prey. As he crouched in the tip of the canoe with his head on his knees, one could only see the shining tresses of Sagan Cuisco’s hair. At the other end the French Canadian rowed in silence, while behind him the horse’s plunging chest sent the water of the Saginaw splashing. The whole scene had something of savage grandeur in it, which then made and has since left an enduring impression on our souls. Landing on the bank we hurried up to a house which we saw in the moonlight a hundred paces from the stream, where the French Canadian assured us we could find accommodation for the night. We did in fact get ourselves suitably fixed up, and probably sound sleep would have restored our strength, if we had been able to get rid of the myriads of mosquitoes in which the house abounded. But that is something we never achieved. What is called a “mosquito” in English and “maringouin” by the French Canadians, is a little insect like to its French cousin in everything except size. It is generally bigger, and its sting is so strong and sharp that only woollen stuffs can protect one from its attacks. These little gnats are the scourge of the solitudes of America. Their presence is enough to make a long stay unbearable. For my part I avow that I have never suffered torments like those they inflicted on me throughout the journey and particularly during our stay at Saginaw. By day they stopped us sketching, writing or staying one moment in the same place; by night they circled in their thousands round us; any bit of your body that you left uncovered at once became their rendezvous. Woken by the pain of their stings we covered our heads in the sheets, but their needles went through them; thus hunted and harried by them we got up and went to breathe the air outside until fatigue at last brought on troubled and interrupted sleep.
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