Maybe some of you have followed our posts on the major Indian trails in Michigan. Of all of them, the Saginaw Trail is considered one of the oldest, and established trails and its route is followed by today’s well-known roads and highways. Starting from Detroit at Woodward, then on to Dixie Highway through Drayton Plains, and Waterford, and then onward on US-10. We have found a special story, The Fortnight in the Wilderness from along that trail, and from the days prior to the major settlement of Michigan. And we think it’s well worth sharing.
In 1831, two 26-year-old, French aristocrats, Alexis De Tocqueville, and Gustave de Beaumont, decided to strike out, in what today’s terms, would be the ultimate road trip. Namely, traveling overland from Detroit, to the last “white” settlement in the Northwest Territories, to Saginaw Michigan.
It’s a fascinating tale, but be forewarned. It contains the ethnocentrism, laced with the tone of superior racism, that was all too common in those days. However, it also offers a historic keyhole view of what Michigan was like in 1831, like no other author has conveyed. So sit back, relax, and enjoy this week’s tale from the end-of-the-road.
Today’s story is taken from, an Extract from the Memoir, Letter, and Remarks of Alexis De Tocqueville. Translated from the French, by the translator of Napoleon’s correspondence with King Joseph. Specifically, “A Fortnight in the Wilderness.” Written on board the Steamboat Superior, August of 1831.
Part One – The desire to see the wilds of the North West Before it was settled.
One of the things we were most curious about on arriving in America, was to visit the extreme limits of European civilization; and, if we had time, even some of the Indian tribes which have preferred flying to the wildest wilderness to accommodating themselves to what the white man calls the enjoyments of social life. But to reach the wilderness has become more difficult than might be supposed. After we left New York and advanced towards the north-east, our destination seemed to flee before us.
We traversed places celebrated in Indian history; we reached valleys named by them; we crossed streams still called by the names of their tribes, but everywhere the wigwam had given way to the house — the forest had fallen — where there had been solitude there was now life. Still, we seemed to be treading in the steps of the aborigines.
Ten years ago we were told they were here; five years ago, they were there; two years ago, there. Where you see the most beautiful church in the village, someone said to us, and I cut down the first tree in the forest. Here, said another, was held the high council of the Iroquois confederation. And what has become of the Indians? I asked. Our host replied,
The Indians are gone, I know not whither, beyond the great lakes; the race is becoming extinct; they are not made for civilization—it kills them.
Man becomes accustomed to everything, to death on the battlefield, in the hospital, to kill and to suffer. Use familiarizes with all scenes. An ancient people, the first and legitimate masters of the American continent, melts away every day from the earth, as snow before the sun, and disappears. Another race rises in its place with still more astonishing rapidity; before this race, the forests fall, the marshes dry up, vast rivers and lakes extensive as seas, in vain oppose its triumph and progress. Wilderness becomes villages— villages towns. The American, who daily witnesses these marvels sees nothing surprising in them. This incredible destruction, and still more astonishing progress, seem to him to be the ordinary course of events. He considers them as laws of nature. It is thus that, always on the search for savages and wilderness, we traveled over the 360 miles between New York and Buffalo.
Observation of Indians in Buffalo New York
A large body of Indians collected at Buffalo, they were to receive payment for the land that they have given up to the United States. This was the first observation that struck us. I do not think that I ever was more completely disappointed, than by the appearance of these Indians. I was full of recollections of Chateaubriand and Cooper, and I expected, in the countenances of these aborigines. of America, to discover some traces of the lofty virtues engendered by the spirit of liberty. I thought to see men whose bodies, developed by war, and the chase, lost nothing by the absence of cover. My astonishment may be estimated, on comparing these anticipations with the following description.
These Indians were short; their limbs, so far as could be seen, under their clothes, were meager; their skins, instead of being, as is generally supposed, a red copper color, were dark, almost like those of mulattoes. Their black and shining hair fell straight down their necks and shoulders. Their mouths were in general immoderately large. The mean and malicious expression of their countenances showed the depth of depravity that prolonged abuse of the benefits of civilization alone can give.
One would have taken them for men from the dregs of our great European towns, and yet they were savages. The vices which they had caught from us were mixed with rude barbarism, which made them a hundred times more revolting. These Indians were unarmed; they wore European clothes but put on differently from ours. It was evident that they were unaccustomed to them, and that they felt imprisoned in their folds. To the ornaments of Europe, they joined barbarous finery, feathers, enormous ear-rings, and necklaces of shells. Their movements were quick and irregular; their voices sharp and discordant; their looks wild and restless. At first sight, they might have been taken for wild animals, tamed to resemble men, but still brutal. These feeble and degraded creatures belonged, however, to one of the most celebrated tribes of ancient America. We had before us, and it is a sad fact, the last remains of the famous confederation of the Iroquois, whose keen sense was as renowned as their courage, and who long held the balance between the two greatest European nations.
Still, it would be wrong to judge the Indian race from this imperfect specimen, like the cuttings of a wild tree that has grown up in the mud of our towns. We made this mistake and afterward had to correct it.
The Impact of Alcohol on the Native Americans
In the evening, we walked out of the town. At a short distance from the last houses, we saw an Indian lying by the side of the road. He was a young man. He lay still, and we thought he was dead. Some stifled sighs which escaped with difficulty from his chest proved to us that he yet lived, and was struggling against the fatal drunkenness produced by brandy. The sun had already set; the ground was growing damper and damper; it was clear that, without help, he would die on the spot.
The Indians were leaving Buffalo for their villages; from time to time, a group of them passed close to us. As they passed, they brutally turned over the body of their countryman to see who it was, and walked on without attending to what we said. Most of them were themselves drunk. At length, came an Indian girl who seemed to approach with some interest. I thought that she was the wife or the sister of the dying man. She looked at him attentively, called him aloud by his name, felt his heart, and, having ascertained that he was alive, tried to rouse him from his lethargy. But as her efforts were fruitless, we saw her become enraged with the lifeless body that lay before her. She struck him on the head, pulled about his face, and trampled on him. With these brutal acts, she mixed wild inarticulate cries, which I seem to have still in my ears. We thought that we ought to interfere, and we ordered her away. She obeyed, but we heard her burst into a fit of savage laughter as she went off.
When we returned to the town, we talked to several people of the young Indian. We spoke of his imminent danger; we offered to pay his expenses in an inn. It was useless. We could persuade no one to care about him. Some said: these men are accustomed to drinking to excess and to sleep on the ground, and they do not die of such accidents. Others owned that the Indian probably would die, but evidently, there rose to their lips the half-expressed thought: —What is the life of an Indian? Such was a general feeling. In this society, so proud of its morality and philanthropy, one meets with complete insensibility, with a cold uncompassionate egotism, when the aborigines are in question. The inhabitants of the United States do not hunt the Indians with cries and horns, as the Spaniards used to do in Mexico. But an unpitying instinct inspires here as elsewhere the European race.
How often in the course of our travels we met with honest citizens, who said to us, as they sat quietly in the evening at their firesides, every day the number of the Indians is diminishing; it is not that we often make war upon them, but the brandy which we sell to them at a low price, carries off every year more than our arms could destroy. This western world belongs to us, they added; God, by refusing to these first inhabitants the power of civilization, has predestined them to destruction. The real owners of this continent are those who know how to turn their resources to account.
Satisfied by this reasoning, the American goes to church to hear a minister of the Gospel repeat to him that all men are- brothers and that the Almighty, who made them all on the same model, has imposed on all the duty of helping each other.
This concludes this week’s special edition story. Thank you for taking the time to listen to Thumb winds end of the road podcast. If you like this kind of story, you are invited to join other monthly visitors on our website at thumb wind dot com. Please watch for, and download next week’s continuation of Alexis De Tocqueville’s Saginaw Trail story next Sunday evening. Please take a moment to subscribe to our podcast and give us a review.
From the End of the Road. Have a great day.
Part Two – Steaming to The Edge of Civilization; Detroit
In 1831, two 26-year-old, French aristocrats, Alexis De Tocqueville, and Gustave de Beaumont, decided to strike out, in what today’s terms, would be the ultimate road trip. Namely, traveling overland from Detroit, to the last “white” settlement in the Northwest Territories, to Saginaw Michigan. This is the second part of our series. So sit back, relax, and enjoy this week’s tale from the end-of-the-road.
Part Two, “A Fortnight in the Wilderness.” Written on board the Steamboat Superior, August of 1831. The Journey to Detroit.
On the 19th of July, at 10, A.M. we embarked on the Ohio steamboat, steering towards Detroit; a strong breeze blew from the north-east and gave to the waters of Lake Erie the appearance of ocean waves. On the right stretched a boundless horizon; on the left, we hugged the southern shores of the lake, and sometimes ran so near as to be within earshot. These shores are flat, and unlike those of all the European lakes that I have seen. Nor do they resemble the shores of the sea; immense forests overshadow them, and surround the lake with a thick belt rarely broken.
Yet sometimes the aspect of the country changes altogether. At the end of wood rises an elegant spire, among white house’s exquisitely clean, and shops. Two steps further the primitive, apparently impervious, forest re-asserts its empire and again throws its shadow on the lake.
Those who have travelled in the United States will find in this a picture of American society. All is abrupt and unforeseen. Extreme civilization and unassisted nature are side by side in a manner scarcely to be imagined in France. Like everyone else, travelers have their illusions. I had seen in Europe that the more or less retirement of a province or of a town, its wealth or its poverty, and its greater or less extent, exercised an immense influence over the ideas, the manners, the whole civilization of its inhabitants, and often made a difference of many centuries between portions of a single country.
I had thought that this rule would apply, and in an even wider sense, to the New World, and that a country peopled gradually and imperfectly, must present every condition of existence, must exhibit society in all its stages, and, as it were, of every different age. I supposed America to be the country in which every phase which the social scale makes man undergo, could be studied; and in which might be seen all the links of a huge chain, reaching from the opulent patrician of the town, to the savage of the wilderness. There, in short, within a few degrees of longitude, I expected to find, as in a frame, the whole story of the human race.
There is no truth in this picture. Of all countries, America is the least fitted to present the scenes that I sought. In America, more even than in Europe, there is but one society, whether rich or poor, high or low, commercial or agricultural; it is everywhere composed of the same elements. It has all been raised or reduced to the same level of civilization. The man whom you left in the streets of New York you find again in the solitude of the Far West; the same dress, the same tone of mind, the same language, the same habits, the same amusements. No rustic simplicity, nothing characteristic of the wilderness, nothing even like our villages. This peculiarity may be easily explained. The portions of territory first and most fully peopled have reached a high degree of civilization. Education has been prodigally bestowed; the spirit of equality has tinged with singular uniformity the domestic habits.
Now, it is remarkable that the men thus educated are those who every year migrate to the wilderness. In Europe, a man lives and dies where he was born. In America, you do not see the representatives of a race grown and multiplied in retirement, having long lived unknown to the world, and left to its own efforts. The inhabitants of an isolated region arrived yesterday, bringing with them the habits, ideas, and wants of civilization. They adopt only so much of savage life as is absolutely forced upon them; hence you see the strangest contrasts.
You step from the wilderness into the streets of a city, from the wildest scenes to the most smiling pictures of civilized life. If night does not surprise you and force you to sleep under a tree, you may reach a village where you will find everything; even French fashions, and caricatures from Paris. The shops of Buffalo or Detroit are as well supplied with all these things as those of New York. The looms of Lyons work for both alike.
You leave the high road; you plunge into paths scarcely marked out; you come at length upon a plowed field, a hut built of rough logs, lighted by a single narrow window; you think that you have at last reached the abode of an American peasant: you are wrong. You enter this hut, which looks the abode of misery; the master is dressed as you are; his language is that of the towns. On his rude table are books and 2 newspapers; he takes you hurriedly aside to be informed of what is going on in Europe and asks you what has most struck you in his country. He will trace on paper for you the plan of a campaign in Belgium and will teach you gravely what remains to be done for the prosperity of France. You might take him for a rich proprietor, come to spend a few nights in a shooting-box. And, in fact, the log-hut is only a halting-place for the American, a temporary submission to necessity. As soon as the surrounding fields are thoroughly cultivated, and their owner has time to occupy himself with superfluities, a more spacious and suitable dwelling will succeed the log-hut and become the home of a large family of children, who, in their turn, will someday build themselves a dwelling in the wilderness.
To return to our journey. All day we steamed slowly in sight of the coast of Pennsylvania, and afterwards of that of Ohio. We stopped for a minute at Presque Isle, now called Erie. In the evening, the weather had become fair, we quickly crossed the middle of the lake towards Detroit. On the following morning, we sighted the little island called Middle Sister, near to which Commodore Parry gained, in 1814, a celebrated naval victory over the English.
Soon after the flat shores of Canada seemed to approach rapidly; and we saw opening before us the channel of Detroit, and in the distance the walls of Fort Malden. Founded by the French, this town still bears numerous marks of its origin. The houses are The French were then creating the kingdom of Belgium.
Built and situated like those of a French village, and in the center rises a Catholic spire, surmounted by a cock. It might be a hamlet near Caen or Evreux. Whilst we were contemplating, not without emotion, its resemblance to France, a strange object attracted us. On the beach at our right was a Highlander on guard, in full uniform. He wore the dress that Waterloo has made famous; the plumed bonnet, the kilt, all was there; his arms and accoutrements glittered in the sun. On our left, as a contrast, two naked Indians, with painted bodies, and rings in their noses, appeared at the same instant on the opposite bank. They embarked in a little canoe, with a blanket for a sail, committing themselves to the wind and the current. They shot in this frail vessel towards our ship, sailed rapidly round us, and then proceeded quietly to fish before the British soldier, who, still standing motionless in his shining uniform, seemed to represent the gorgeous civilization and the military force of Europe.
Frontier Detroit 1831
We reached Detroit at three o’clock. It is a little town of between 2,000 and 3,000 inhabitants, founded by the Jesuits in the midst of the forest, in 1710, and still containing many French families. We had crossed the State of New York and steamed 400 miles on Lake Erie, we’re now we’re on the frontier of civilization.
Still we did not know what course to take: Information was not obtained so easily as might have been expected. To cross almost impenetrable forests to swim deep rivers; to encounter pestilential marshes; to sleep exposed to the damp air of the woods; —these are efforts which an American easily conceives, if a dollar is to be gained by them—that is the point. But that a man should take such journeys from curiosity, he cannot understand. Besides, dwelling in a wilderness, he prizes only man’s work. He sends you to visit a road, a bridge, a pretty village; but that you should admire large trees, or wild scenery, is to him incomprehensible. We could make no one understand us. You want to see forests, said our hosts to us with a smile: go straight on—you will find them to your heart’s content.
There are fortunately in this neighborhood new roads and well-cleared paths. As for Indians, you will see more than enough of them in our squares and our streets. You need not go far for that. Those whom you see amongst us are beginning at any rate to be civilized. They look less savage. We soon felt that it would be impossible to obtain the truth from them in a straightforward manner, and that we must maneuver.
Major John Biddle – Michigan Land Agent
We therefore went to the United States’ Agent for the sale of wild land, of which there is much in the district of Michigan. We presented ourselves to him as persons who, without having quite made up our minds to establish ourselves in the country, were interested to know the price and situation of the Government lands.
Major Biddle, the officer, now understood perfectly what we wanted, and entered into a number of details, to which we eagerly listened. This part, he said, showing us on the map the river of St. Joseph, which, after many windings, discharges itself into Lake Michigan, it seems to me to be the best suited to your purpose. The land is good, and large villages are already founded there; the road is so well kept up that public conveyance runs every day. Well, we said to ourselves, now we know where not to go, unless we intend to travel post over the wilderness.
We thanked Major Biddle for his advice, and asked him, with an air of indifference bordering on contempt, towards which side of the district the current of emigration had, up to the present time, least tended. This way, he said, without attaching more importance to his answer than we had seemed to do to our question, towards the north-west. About Pontiac and its neighborhood, some pretty fair establishments have lately been commenced. But you must not think of fixing yourselves farther off; the country is covered by an almost impenetrable forest, which extends uninterruptedly towards the north-west, full of nothing but wild beasts and Indians. The United States proposes to open a way through it immediately, but the road has only just begun and stops at Pontiac. I repeat, that there is nothing to be thought of in that quarter.
We again thanked Major Biddle for his good advice, and determined to take it in a contrary sense. We were beside ourselves with joy at the prospect of at length finding a place which the torrent of European civilization had not yet invaded.
Part Three – July 23rd, 1831 – The Start of the Saginaw Trail.
On the next day, July 23rd, we hired two horses; as we intended to keep them about ten days, we wished to leave a specific sum with the owner, but he refused to take it, saying that we should pay on our return; he was not uneasy. Michigan is surrounded on all sides with lakes and woods. Ile turned us as it were into a sort of riding-school, the door of which he held.
Having bought a compass, and some provisions, we set off with our guns over our shoulders, and our hearts as light as if we had been two school-boys going home for the holidays.
Our hosts in Detroit were right in telling us that we need not go far to see woods; for a mile from the town, the road enters the forest, and never leaves it. The ground is perfectly flat, and often marshy. Now and then, we met with newly-cleared lands. As these settlements are all exactly alike, whether they be on the outskirts of Michigan or of New York, I shall try to describe them once for all.
Description of Pioneer Life
The little bell which the pioneer takes care to hang around the necks of his cattle, that he may find them in the dense forest, announces from a great distance the approach to the clearing.
Soon you hear the stroke of the ax; as you proceed, traces of destruction prove the presence of man. Lopped branches cover the road; trunks half calcined by fire, or maimed by steel, are still standing in the path. You go on and reach a wood, which seems to have been struck with sudden death. Even in the middle of summer, the withered branches look wintry. On nearer examination, a deep gash is discovered round the bark of each tree, which, preventing the circulation of sap, quickly kills it. This is generally the planter’s first measure. As he cannot in the first year cut down all the trees on his new property, he kills them to prevent their leaves overshadowing the Indian corn, which he has sowed under their branches.
Next to this incomplete attempt at a field, the first step of civilization in the wilderness, you come suddenly upon the owner’s dwelling. It stands in a plot more carefully cleared than the rest, but in which man still sustains an unequal struggle with nature. Here the trees have been cut down but not uprooted, and they still encumber with their stumps the ground that they formerly shaded; round these withered remnants, corn, oak saplings, plants, and weeds of every kind spring pell-mell, and grow side by side in the stubborn and half-wild soil.
In the center of this diversified and robust vegetation, stands the planter’s log-house. Like the field round it, this rustic dwelling is evidently a new and hasty work. Its length seldom exceeds thirty feet, its width twenty, and height fifteen. The walls, as well as the roof, are composed of half-hewn trees; the interstices are filled up with moss and mud. As the traveler advances the scene becomes more animated; at the sound of his steps a group of children who had been rolling in the dirt jump up hastily, and fly towards the paternal roof, frightened at the sight of man; whilst two great half-wild dogs, with ears erect, and lengthened nose, come out of the hut, and growling, cover the retreat of their young masters.
At this moment, the pioneer himself appears at his door. He casts a scrutinizing glance on the new comerr, bids his dogs go in, and himself set the example immediately without exhibiting either uneasiness or curiosity.
On entering the log-house the European looks around with wonder. In general, there is but one window, before which sometimes hangs a muslin curtain; for here, in the absence of necessaries, you often meet with superfluities. On the hearth, made of hardened earth, a fire of resinous wood lights up the interior better than the sun. Over the rustic chimney are hung trophies of war or of the chase; a long rifle, a doeskin, and eagles’ feathers. On the right hangs a map of the United States, perpetually shaken by the wind which blows through the interstices of the wall.
On a rough shelf near it are placed a few odd volumes, among them a Bible, the leaves and binding of which have been spoilt by the devotion of two generations, a Prayer-book, and sometimes one of Milton’s poems, or Shakespeare’s plays. With their backs to the wall are placed some rude seats, the product of the owner’s industry, chests instead of wardrobes, agricultural tools, and specimens of the crop. In the middle of the room is an unsteady table, the legs of which, still covered with leaves, seem to have grown where they stand. Round this table, the family assembles for their meals; on it is left an English china tea-pot, spoons, generally of wood, a few cracked cups, and some newspapers.
The Pioneer Settler of the Northwest Territory
The appearance of the master of this dwelling is as remarkable as his abode. His sharp muscles and slender limbs, shew him at first glance to be a native of New England; his make indicates that he was not born in the wilderness. His early years were passed in the heart of intellectual and cultivated society. Choice urged him to the toilsome and savage life for which he did not seem intended. But if his physical strength seems unequal to his undertaking, on his features, furrowed by care, is seated an expression of practical intelligence, and of cold and persevering energy.
His step is slow and measured, his speech deliberates, and his appearance austere. Habit, and still more pride, have given to his countenance a stoical rigidity, which was belied by his conduct. The pioneer despises, and this is true, all that most violently agitates the hearts of men; his fortune or his life will never hang on the turn of a die, or the smiles of a woman; but to obtain competence he has braved exile, solitude, and the numberless ills of savage life; he has slept on the bare earth, he has exposed himself to the fever of the woods, and the Indian’s tomahawk.
Many years ago he took the first step. He has never gone back; perhaps twenty years hence he will still be going on without desponding or complaining. Can a man capable of such sacrifices be cold and insensible Is he not influenced by a passion, not of the heart but of the brain, ardent, persevering, and indomitable?
His whole energies concentrated in the desire to make his fortune, the emigrant at length succeeds in making for himself an entirely independent existence, into which even his domestic affections are absorbed. He may be said to look at his wife, and children only as detached parts of himself. Deprived of habitual intercourse with his equals, he has learned to take pleasure in solitude.
When you appear at the door of his lonely dwelling, the pioneer steps forward to meet you; he holds out his hand in compliance with custom, but his countenance expresses neither kindness nor-joy. He speaks only to question you, to gratify his intelligence, not his heart; and as soon as he has obtained from you the news that he wanted to hear, he relapses into silence. One would take him for a man who, having been all day wearied by applicants and by the noise of the world, has retired home at night to rest.
If you question him in turn, he will give you in a clear manner all the information you require; he will even provide for your wants, and will watch over your safety as long as you are under his roof. But in all that he does there is so much constraint and dryness; you perceive in him such utter indifference as to the result of your undertakings, that your gratitude cools. Still, the settler is hospitable in his own way, but there is nothing genial in his hospitality, because, while he exercises it, he seems to submit to one of the painful necessities of the wilderness; it is to him a duty of his position, not a pleasure.
This unknown person is the representative of the race to which belongs the future of the New World; a restless, speculating, adventurous race, that performs coldly, feats which are usually the result of passionate enthusiasm; a nation of conquerors, who endure savage life without feeling its peculiar charms, value in civilized life only its material comforts and advantages, and bury themselves in the wilds of America, provided only with an axe and a file of newspapers! A mighty race which, as is the case with all great nations, is governed by one idea, and directs its sole efforts to the acquisition of wealth with perseverance and contempt for life which might be balled heroic, if such a term could be applied to any but virtuous efforts. A migratory race, which neither rivers nor lakes can stop, before which the forest falls and the prairie becomes covered with foliage, and which, having reached the Pacific Ocean, will retrace its steps to disturb and to destroy the social communities which it will have formed and left behind.
The Pioneer Woman
In describing the settler, one cannot forget the partner of his sufferings and perils. Look at the young woman who is sitting on the other side of the fire with her youngest child in her lap, superintending the preparations for supper. Like the emigrant, this woman is in the prime of life; she also recollects an early youth of comfort. The remains of taste are still to be observed in her dress. But time has pressed hardly upon her: in her faded features and ‘attenuated limbs it is easy to see that life has to her been a heavy burden. And, indeed, this fragile creature has already been exposed to incredible suffering. At the very threshold of life, she had to tear herself from the tender care of her mother, from the sweet fraternal ties that a young girl can never leave without tears, even when she quits her home to share the luxurious dwelling of a young husband.
The wife of the settler, torn at once and forever from the cradle of her childhood, had to exchange the charms of society and of the domestic circle for the solitude of the forest. Her marriage-bed was placed on the bare ground of the wilderness. To devote herself to austere duties, to submit to unknown privations, to enter upon an existence for which she was not fitted; such has been the employment of her best years; such have been the delights of her married life. Destitution, suffering, and lassitude, have weakened her delicate frame, but have not dismayed her courage. While deep sadness is painted on her chiseled features, it is easy to describe religious resignation, peace, and a simple quiet fortitude enabling her to meet all the ills of life without fearing or defying them.
Round this woman crowd the half-clothed children, glowing with health, careless of the morrow, true children of the wilderness. Their mother turns on them from time to time a mingled look of sadness and of joy. Judging from their strength and her weakness, it would seem as if she had exhausted herself in giving them life, and without regretting the cost. The log-house consists of a single room, which shelters the whole family at night: it is a little world, an ark of civilization in the midst of a green ocean. A few steps off the everlasting forest extends its shades, and solitude again reigns.
The Pontiac Settlement
We did not reach Pontiac till after sunset. Twenty very neat and pretty houses, forming so many well-provided shops, a transparent brook, a clearing of about a square half-mile surrounded by the boundless forest: this is an exact picture of Pontiac, which in twenty years hence may be a city. The sight of this place reminded me of what M. Gallatin had said to me a month before in New York. There are no villages in America, at least, in your meaning of the word. The houses of the cultivators are scattered all over the fields. The inhabitants congregate only in order to set up a sort of market to supply the surrounding population.
In these so-called villages you find none but lawyers, printers, and shopkeepers. We were taken to the best inn in Pontiac, for there are two, and as usual, we were introduced into the barroom; here all, from the most opulent to the humblest shop-keeper, assemble to smoke, think, and talk politics on the footing of the most perfect equality.
The owner of the house, or rather the landlord, was, I must not say a burly peasant, for there are no peasants in America, but at any rate, a very stout gentleman, whose face had about as much of frankness and simplicity as that of a Norman horse-dealer. This man, for fear of intimidating you, never looked you in the face when he spoke, but waited till you were engaged in talking with someone else to consider you at his leisure; he was a deep politician, and, according to American habits, a pitiless querist. They all looked at us at first with surprise; our traveling dress and out guns proved that we were not traders, and traveling for curiosity was a thing never heard of. In order to avoid explanations, we declared at the beginning that we came to buy land. The word had scarcely escaped us, when we discovered that in trying to avoid one evil, we had incurred another still more formidable.
They ceased, indeed, to treat us like extraordinary animals, but each wanted to bargain with us. To get rid of them and their farms, we told our host that before deciding on anything we wished to obtain from him useful information on the price of land, and the course of cultivation. He instantly took us into another apartment, spread out with due solemnity a map of Michigan on the oaken table in the middle of the room, and placing the candle before us, waited in silence for our inquiries. Though the reader has no intention of settling in an American wilderness, he may perhaps be curious to know how the thousands of Europeans and Americans whom every year seek a home in this country, set about it. I shall, therefore, transcribe the information afforded by our host in Pontiac. We often afterward had occasion to verify its accuracy.
The Quest for Land and Opportunity
This country is not like France, said our host, after listening quietly to all our questions, and snuffing the candle. With you labor is cheap, and land is dear. Here the price of land is nothing, but hands cannot be bought: I tell you this to show you that to settle in America as well as in Europe, one must have capital, only it must be differently employed. For my part, I should not advise anyone to seek his fortune in our wilds, unless he has 150 or 200 dollars at his disposal. In Michigan, an acre never costs more than four or five shillings, when the land is waste. This is about the price of a day’s work. In one day, therefore, a laborer may earn enough to purchase an acre. But the purchase made, the difficulty begins. This is the way in which we generally try to get over it.
The settler betakes himself to his newly-acquired property with some cattle, a salted ‘pig, two barrels of meal, and some tea. If there happens to be a hut near, he goes to it, and receives temporary hospitality. If not, he pitches a tent in the middle of the wood which is to be his field. His first care is to cut down the nearest trees; with them, he quickly builds a crude log-house which you must have seen. With us, the keeping of cattle costs nothing. The emigrant fastens an iron bell to their necks and turns them into the forest. Animals thus left to themselves seldom stray far from the dwelling.
The greatest expense is clearing. If the pioneer brings with him a family able to help him in his first labors, the task is easy. But this is seldom the case. The emigrant is generally young, and if he has children they are small. He is, therefore, obliged either himself to supply all the wants of his family or to hire the services of his neighbors. It costs from four to five dollars to clear an acre. The ground once prepared, the new owner lays out an acre in potatoes and the rest in wheat and maize. Maize is a providential gift in the wilderness; it grows in our marshes and flourishes under the shade of the forest better than when exposed to the rays of the sun. Maize saves the emigrant’s family from perishing, when poverty, sickness, or neglect has hindered his reclaiming sufficient land in the first year. The great difficulty is to get over the years which immediately succeeds in the first clearing. Afterward comes competence, and later wealth.
So spoke our host. We listened to these simple details with almost as much interest as if we intended to profit by them ourselves. And when he had done, we said to him: The soil of these forests left to themselves are generally marshy and unwholesome; has the settler who braves the misery of solitude no cause to fear for his life?
Cultivation, at first, is always a dangerous undertaking replied the American, and there is scarcely an instance of a pioneer and his family escaping, during the first year, the forest fever: sometimes while traveling in the autumn you find all the occupants of a hut attacked by fever, from the emigrant himself down to his youngest child. And what becomes of these poor creatures when thus struck by Providence? They resign themselves and hope for better times. But have they no prospect of help from their neighbors? Scarcely any. Can they not, at any rate, procure the aid of medicine?
The nearest Doctor often lives sixty miles off. They do as the Indians do; they die or get well as it pleases God. We resumed: Do the ministrations of religion ever reach them? Very seldom. As yet we have not been able to set up public worship in our forest. Almost every summer, indeed, some Methodist Ministers come to visit the new settlements. The news of their arrival spreads rapidly from dwelling to dwelling: it is the great event of the day. At the time fixed, the emigrant, with his wife and children, makes his way through the scarcely cleared paths in the forest towards the place of meeting. Settlers flock from fifty miles round.
The congregation has no church to assemble in, they meet in the open air under the arches of the forest. A pulpit of rough logs, great trees cut down to serve as seats, such are the fittings of this rustic temple. The pioneers encamp with their families in the surrounding woods.
Here for three days and nights, the people scarcely intermittently their devotional exercises. You should see the fervent prayers and the deep attention of these men to the solemn words of the preacher. In the wilderness, men are seized with a hunger for religion. One more question: among us, it is generally thought that European emigration mainly peoples the wildernesses of America; how is it then that since we have been traveling in your forests we have not happened to meet a single European? In these words, a smile of proud satisfaction spread over the countenance of our host.
None but Americans, he solemnly replied, are brave enough to submit to such privations and is willing to pay such a price for competence. The European emigrant stops in the large towns of the sea-board, or in the surrounding districts. There he becomes a mechanic, a laborer, or a servant. He leads an easier life than in Europe and appears content that his children should follow his example. The American takes possession of the land and tries to create out of it a great social position.
Saginaw is surprise
After pronouncing the last words, our host was silent. He let an immense column of smoke escape from his mouth and seemed prepared to listen to what we had to tell him about our plans. We first thanked him for his valuable information and wise counsels, assured him that someday we should profit by them, and added, before fixing in your country, my dear landlord, we intend to visit Saginaw, and we wish to consult you on this point. At the name of Saginaw, a remarkable change came over his features. It seemed as if he had been suddenly snatched from real life and transported to a land of wonders. His eyes dilated, his mouth fell open, and the most complete astonishment pervaded his countenance.
You want to go to Saginaw. exclaimed he; to Saginaw Bay, Two foreign gentlemen, two rational men, want to go to Saginaw Bay. It is scarcely credible. And why not? we replied. But are you well aware, continued our host, what you undertake? Do you know that Saginaw is the last inhabited spot towards the Pacific; that between this place and Saginaw lies an uncleared wilderness. Do you know that the forest is full of Indians and mosquitoes; that you must sleep, at least, for one night under the damp trees? Have you thought about the fever? Will you be able to get on in the wilderness, and to find your way in the labyrinth of our forests?
After this tirade, he paused, in order to judge the effect which he had produced. We replied: All that may be true, but we start to-morrow for Saginaw Bay.
Our host reflected for an instant shrugged his shoulders, and said slowly and positively, some paramount interest alone can induce two strangers to take such a step. No doubt you have a mistaken idea, that it is an advantage to fix as far as possible from any competition. We do not answer.
He continues: Perhaps you are sent by the Canadian fur company to establish relations with the Indian tribes on the frontier? We maintain our silence. Our host had come to an end of his conjectures, and he said no more, but he continued to muse on the strangeness of our scheme.
Have you never been to Saginaw? We resumed. I, he answered, I have been so unlucky as to go thither five or six times, but I had a motive for doing it, and you do not appear to have any. But you forget, my worthy host, that we do not ask you if we had better go to Saginaw, but only how we can get there most easily.
Brought back thus to the matter in hand, our American recovered his presence of mind and the precision of his ideas. He explained to us in a few words and with excellent practical good sense, how we should set about our journey through the wilderness, entered into the minutest details, and provided for every possible contingency. At the end of his recommendations he paused once more, to see if at length we should unfold the mystery of our journey, and perceiving that neither of us had anything more to say, he took the candle, showed us a bedroom, and after giving us a truly democratic shake of the hand, went to finish his evening in the common room.
Part 4 – July 24th, 1831, Striking out into the Wilderness Toward the Flint River.
On the next day, we rose with the dawn and prepared to start. Our host was soon stirring: the night had not revealed to him the motives of our extraordinary conduct. As, however, we appeared quite determined to despise his advice, he dared not return to the charge; but he always kept at our side, and now and then reflected, in an undertone. I do not well make out what can take two strangers to Saginaw. Till at last, I said to him as I put my foot into the stirrup, we have many reasons for going there, my dear landlord.
He stopped short at these words, and, looking me in the face for the first time, seemed prepared to receive the revelation of the great mystery. But I, quietly mounting my horse, gave him no other solution than a friendly wave of the hand, after which I trotted off as fast as I could.
We had been advised to apply to Mr. Williams, who, as he had long dealt with the Chippewa Indians, and had a son established at Saginaw, so might give us useful information. After riding some miles in the forest, just as we fancied that we had missed our friend’s house, we saw an old man working in a little garden. We spoke to him and found that he was Mr. Williams.
He received us with much kindness and gave us a letter to his son. We asked him if we had anything to fear from the Indian tribes through whose territories we were about to pass. Mr. Williams rejected this idea with a sort of indignation. No, no, he said, you may proceed without fear. For my part, I sleep more fearlessly among Indians than among white people.
I note this as the first favorable impression given to me of the Indians since my arrival in America. In the thickly-peopled districts, they are always spoken of with a mixture of fear and contempt; and I think that in those places, they deserve both. A few pages back may be seen what I myself thought of them when I met the first specimens at Buffalo. If the reader, however, will go on with this journal and follow me among the European settlers on the frontier, as well as among the Indian tribes, he will form a higher, and at the same time, a jester idea of the aborigines of America. After we left Mr. Williams, we pursued our road through the woods. From time to time, a little lake (this district is full of them) shines like a white tablecloth under the green branches. The charm of these lonely spots, as yet untenanted by man, and where peace and silence reign undisturbed, can hardly be imagined.
I have often climbed the wild and solitary passes of the Alps, where nature refuses to obey the hand of man, and, displaying all her terrors, fills the mind with an exciting and overwhelming sensation of greatness.
The solitude here is equally profound, but the emotions it excites are different. In this flowery wilderness, where, as in Milton’s Paradise, all seems prepared for the reception of man, the feelings produced are tranquil admiration, a soft melancholy, a vague aversion to civilized life, and a sort of savage instinct which causes you to regret that soon this enchanting solitude will be no more. Already, indeed, the white man is approaching through the surrounding woods; in a few years, he will have felled the trees now reflected in the limpid waters of the lake and will have driven to other wilds the animals that feed on its banks.
Still traveling on, we reached a country of a different aspect. The ground was no longer flat but thrown into hills and valleys. Nothing can be wilder than the appearance of some of these hills.
In one of these picturesque passes, we turned suddenly to contemplate the magnificent scene which we were leaving behind, and, to our great surprise, we saw close to us, and apparently following us step by step, a red Indian. He was a man of about thirty, tall, and admirably proportioned. His black and shining hair fell down upon his shoulders, with the exception of two tresses, which were fastened on the top of his head. His face was smeared with black and red paint. He wore a sort of very short blue blouse. His legs were covered with red mittas, a sort of pantaloons that reaches only to the top of the thigh, and his feet were defended by moccasins. At his side hung a knife. In his right hand, he held a long rifle, and in his left two birds that he had just killed.
The first sight of this Indian made on us a far from agreeable impression. The spot was ill-suited for resisting an attack. On our right, a forest of lofty pines, on our left a deep ravine, at the bottom of which a stream brawled among the rocks, hidden by the thick foliage, so that we approached it, as it were, blindfold! To seize our guns, turn round and face the Indian in the midst of the path was the affair of an Instant. He halted in the same manner, and for half a minute, we all were silent.
His countenance presented the characteristics of the Indian race. In his deep black eyes sparkled the savage fire which still lights up those of the half-caste, and is not lost before two or three crossings of white blood, His nose was aquiline, slightly depressed at the end; his cheek-bones very high; and his wide mouth showed two rows of dazzlingly-white teeth, proving that the savage, more cleanly than his neighbor, the American, did not pass his day in chewing tobacco-leaves.
I said that when we turned around, arms in hand, the Indian stopped short. He stood our rapid scrutiny with perfect calmness, and with a steady and unflinching eye. When he saw that we had no hostile intentions, he smiled: probably he perceived that we had been alarmed.
I never before had remarked how completely a mirthful expression changes the savage physiognomy; I have a hundred times since I had occasion to notice it. An Indian grave and an Indian smiling are different men. In the motionless aspect of the former, there is a savage majesty that inspires involuntary fear. But, if the same man smiles, his countenance takes an expression of simplicity and benevolence, which is really captivating.
When we saw our Indian thus unbend, we addressed him in English. He allowed us to talk as long as we liked, and then made signs that he did not understand us. We offered him brandy, which he readily accepted without thanking us. Still making signs, we asked him for the birds which he carried; he gave them to us for a little piece of money. Having made acquaintance, we bid him adieu, and trotted off.
At the end of half an hour of fast riding, on turning round, once more, I was astounded by seeing the Indian still at my horse’s heels. He ran with the agility of a wild animal, without speaking a single word or seeming to hurry. We stopped; he stopped: we went on; he went on. We darted on at full speed; our horses, natives of the wilderness, leaped quickly every obstacle: The Indian doubled his pace: I saw him, sometimes on the right, sometimes on the left of my horse, jumping over the brushwood and alighting on the ground without the slightest noise. He was like one of the wolves of the North, which are said to follow horsemen in the hope of their falling and thus becoming more easy prey.
The sight of this strange figure, now lost in the darkness of the forest, and then again appearing in the daylight, and seeming to fly by our side, became at last an annoyance. As we could not imagine what induced him to follow us at such a rapid rate (he might, indeed, have long accompanied us before we perceived him for the first time), it occurred to us that he was leading us into an ambush.
We were full of these thoughts, when we discovered, right in front of us in the wood, the end of another rifle: we soon came alongside the bearer. We took him at first for an Indian. He wore a kind of short frock-coat, tight at the waist, showing an upright and well-made figure. His neck was bare, and his feet covered by moccasins. When we were close to him, he raised his head; we at once saw that he was a European, and we stopped short. He came to us, shook us ‘cordially by the hand, and we entered into conversation.
Do you live in the wilderness? Yes, here is my house. And he showed us, among the trees, a hut even more miserable than the ordinary log-house. Alone? Alone. And what do you do with yourself here? I roam about the woods, and I kill right and left the game, which comes in my way; but the shooting is not good here now. And you like this sort of life? Better than any other. But are you not afraid of the Indians? Afraid of the Indians! I had rather live among them than in the society of white men. No, no, I am not scared of the Indians; they are better people than we are unless we have brutalized them with strong liquors, poor creatures!
We then showed to our new acquaintance the man who followed us so obstinately, and who at that moment was standing stock still a few paces off. He is a Chippewa, said our friend, or, as the French would call him, a sauteur or cavalier: I would lay a wager that he is returning from Canada, where he has received the annual presents from the English. His family cannot be far off.
So speaking, the American signed to the Indian to approach and began to talk to him in his language with high fluency. The pleasure that these two men, so different in race and in habits, took in exchanging their ideas, was a striking sight. The conversation evidently turned upon the relative merit of their arms. After examining the rifle of the savage carefully, the white man said to us, — This is an excellent musket; the English no doubt gave it to him, that he might use it against -us, and he will certainly do so in the first war. This is how the Indians call down upon their own heads their misfortunes, —but they know no better, poor things. Are the Indians skillful in the use of these long heavy guns? There are no shots like the Indians, replied our new friend, in a tone of- the greatest admiration. Look at the little birds which he sold you, sir; there is but one shot in each, and I am sure that he fired at them only twice. Oh! He added, there is no man so happy as an Indian in the districts whence we have not yet frightened away the game; but the larger sorts scent our approach at a distance of more than 300 miles; and, as they retire, they leave the country before us a waste, incapable of supporting the poor Indians, unless they cultivate the ground.
As we were resuming our journey, our new friend called out to us: When you pass, here again, knock at my door. It is a pleasure to meet white faces in this place.
I have reported this in itself unimportant conversation, in order to give an idea of a description of a man that we often met on the borders of the habitable world: they are Europeans, who, despite the habits of their youth, have become enamored of the liberty of the wilderness. Attached to the wilds of America by taste and inclination, to Europe by their religion, principles, and ideas, they unite a love for a simple life with the pride of civilization, and prefer the Indians to their own countrymen, though without acknowledging them as equals.
We proceeded on our way. We maintained the same rapid pace, and in half-an-hour, reached the house of a pioneer. Before the door of the hut, an Indian family had encamped. An old woman, two young girls, and several children were crouching around a fire, to the heat of which were exposed to the still palpitating limbs of a whole kid. A few steps off, an Indian was lying entirely naked on the grass, basking in the sun, while a little child was rolling about in the dust by his side. Here our silent companion stopped: he left us without bidding us adieu, and sat down gravely among his countrymen.
What could have induced this man to follow our horses for five miles? We never could guess. After breakfast in this spot, we remounted and pursued our journey through a wood of thinly scattered lofty trees. The underwood had been burnt away, as was evident from the calcined remains on the grass. The ground was covered with fern, extending under the trees as far as the eye could reach. Some miles further on, my horse lost a shoe, which caused us great embarrassment. Not far off, happily, we met a planter, who succeeded in putting it on again. If we had not fallen in with him, I doubt if we could have gone on further, for we had nearly reached the end of the clearings. The settler who enabled us to continue our journey, advised us to make haste, as the daylight was beginning to fail, and we were at least five miles from Flint River, where we intended to sleep.
Soon, indeed, we were enveloped in perfect darkness. We were forced to push on. The night was fine but intensely cold. The silence of the forest was so deep, the calm so complete, that the forces of nature seemed paralyzed. No sound was heard but the annoying hum of the mosquitoes, and the stamp of our horses’ feet. Now and then, we saw the distant gleam of fire, against which we could trace, through the smoke, the stern and motionless profile of an Indian.
At the end of an hour, we reached a spot where the roads separated; two paths opened out in different directions—which should we take? The choice was difficult. One led to a stream; we did not know how deep; the other to a clearing. The moon just rising showed us a valley full of fallen trees: further on, we described two houses.
It was of so much consequence not to lose our way in such a place and at such an hour, that we determined to take advice before proceeding. My companion remained to take care of the horses, whilst I, with my gun over my shoulder, descended into the valley.
Soon I perceived that I was entering a new settlement. Immense trunks of trees, their branches as yet unlopped, covered the ground. By jumping from one to another, I soon was near the houses. But the stream separated me from them. Happily, its course was impeded in this place by some huge oaks that the pioneer’s ax had no doubt thrown down. I succeeded in crawling along with these trees, and at last, reached the opposite side.
I warily approached the two houses, which I could see but indistinctly. I feared they might prove Indian wigwams. They were unfinished. The doors were open, and no voice answered mine. I returned to the edge of the stream whence I could not help admiring for a few minutes the awful grandeur of the scene.
The valley seemed a vast amphitheater, surrounded on all sides by the dark woods as if by a black curtain. In its center, the moonlight played among the shattered remnants of the forest, creating a thousand fantastic shapes. No sound of any kind, no murmur of life was audible.
At last, I remembered my companion and called loudly to tell him of the result of my search, to advise him to cross the rivulet and to join me. The echo repeated my voice over and over again in the solitary woods, but I got no answer. I shouted again and listened again. The same death-like silence reigned.
I became uneasy, and I ran by the side of the stream until I reached the place lower down where it was fordable.
When I got there, I heard in the distance the sound of horses’ feet, and soon after, Beaumont himself appeared. Surprised by my long absence, he had proceeded towards the rivulet. He was already in the shallow when I called him. The sound of my voice, therefore, had not reached him. He told me that he, too, had tried by every means to make himself heard, and, as well as I, had been alarmed at obtaining no answer. If it had not been for this ford, which had served us as a meeting place, we should perhaps have been looking for each other half the night.
We resumed our journey with the full resolution of not again separating, and in three-quarters of an hour, we, at last, came upon a settlement, consisting of two or three huts and, what was still more satisfactory a light. A violet-colored line of water in the hollow of the valley proved that we had arrived at Flint River. Soon, indeed, a loud barking echoed in the woods, and we found ourselves close to a log-house, separated from us only by a fence. As we were preparing to climb over it, we saw in the moonlight a great black bear that, standing on his hind-legs and at the very extremity of his chain, showed as clearly as he could his intention to give us a fraternal embrace.
What an infernal country is this, said I, where they keep bears for watchdogs. We must call, replied my companion; if we attempted to get over the fence, it would be difficult to make the porter listen to reason.
We haloed at the top of our voices and with such success that at last, a man appeared at the window. After examining us by the light of the moon: Enter, gentlemen, he said, Trink, go to bed! To the kennel, I say, they are not robbers.
The bear waddled off, and we got in. We were half dead with fatigue. We asked our host if we could have oats for our horses. Certainly, he replied, and began to mow the nearest field with American sang frond, and as if it were noon-day. Meanwhile, we unsaddled our horses, and as there was no stable, fastened them to the paling which we had just passed through.
Having provided for our traveling companions, we began to think of our own rest. There was but one bed in the house; it was allotted to Beaumont. I wrapped myself in my cloak and lay down on the floor, slept as soundly as a man does who has ridden forty miles.
Part Five – July 25th, 1831 – From the Flint River to Saginaw.
On the next day, July 25th, our first care was to inquire for a guide. A wilderness of forty miles separates Flint River from Saginaw, and the road is a narrow pathway, hardly perceivable. Our host approved of our plan and shortly brought us two Indians whom he assured us that we could perfectly trust. One was a boy of twelve or fourteen; the other a young man of eighteen. The frame of the latter, though it had not yet attained the vigor of maturity, gave the idea of agility united with strength.
He was of middle height; his figure was tall and slender, his limbs flexible and well-proportioned. Long tresses fell from his bare head. He had also taken care to paint his face with black and red in symmetrical lines; a ring was passed through his nose, and a necklace and earrings completed his attire. His weapons were no less remarkable. At one side hung the celebrated tomahawk; on the other, a long sharp knife, with which the savages scalp their victims. Round his neck hung a cow-horn, containing his powder; and in his right hand, he held a rifle. As is the case with most Indians, his eye was wild, and his smile benevolent. At his side, to complete the picture, trotted a dog, with upright ears and long nose, more like a fox than any other animal, with a look so savage as to be in perfect harmony with the countenance of his master.
After examining our new companion with attention which he did not seem to notice, we asked him his price for the service that he was about to render to us. The Indian replied in a few words of his native tongue, and the American immediately informed us that what he asked was about equivalent to two dollars. As these poor Indians, charitably added our host, do not understand the value of money, you will give the dollars to me, and I will willingly give him what they represent.
I was curious to see what this worthy man considered to be equal to two dollars, and I followed him quietly to the place where the bargain was struck. I saw him give to our guide a pair of moccasins and a pocket-handkerchief, that certainly together did not amount to half the sum. The Indian withdrew quite satisfied, and I made no remark, saying to myself, with Lafontaine, Ah I if the lions were painters.
However, the Indians are not the only dupes of the American pioneers. Every day we were ourselves, victims, to their extreme cupidity. It is true that they do not steal. They are too intelligent to commit any dangerous breach of the law; but I never saw an innkeeper in a large town overcharge so impudently as these tenants of the wilderness, among whom I fancied I should find primitive honesty and patriarchal simplicity.
All was ready: we mounted our horses, and wading across the rivulet (Flint River) which forms the boundary of civilization, we entered the real wilderness.
Our two guides ran or rather leaped like a wild cat’s over the impediments of the road. When we came to a fallen tree, a stream, or a bog, they pointed to the right path but did not even turn round to see us get out of the difficulty. Accustomed to trust only to himself, the Indian can scarcely understand that others need help. He is willing to serve you in an emergency, but as yet he has not been taught the art of adding value to his services by kindness and solicitude. We might have ventured on some reproofs, but it was impossible to make our companions understand a word. Besides, we felt that we were entirely in their power. Here, in fact, the scale was reversed. Plunged in this impenetrable gloom, reduced to rely on our personal strength, we children of civilization groped blindly on, incapable, not only of threading the labyrinth but even of finding in it the means of sustenance. In these difficulties lay the triumph of the savage. For him the forest had no secrets, to him, it was a home; he walked through it with head erect, guided by instinct more unerring than the navigator’s compass. At the top of the loftiest tree, under the densest foliage, his eye discovered the game, close to which the European would have passed a hundred times in vain.
From time to time our Indians halted. They placed their fingers on their lips, in token of silence, and signed to us to dismount. Guided by them, we reached the spot whence we could see the bird for which we were searching. It was amusing to observe the contemptuous smile with which they led us by the hand like children, and at last, brought us near to the object they themselves had discovered long before.
As we proceeded, we gradually lost sight of the traces of man. Soon all proofs even of savage life disappeared, and before us was the scene that we had so long been seeking—a virgin forest. Growing in the middle of the thin brushwood, through which objects are perceived at a considerable distance, was a single clump of full-grown trees, almost all pines or oaks. Confined to so narrow space, and deprived of sunshine, each of these trees had run up rapidly, in search of air and light. As straight as the mast of a ship, the most rapid grower had overtopped every surrounding object; only when it had attained a higher region did it venture to spread out its branches, and clothe itself with leaves. Others followed quickly in this elevated sphere; and the whole group, interlacing their boughs, formed a sort of immense canopy. Underneath this damp, motionless vault, the scene is different.
Majesty and order are overhead—near the ground, all is chaos and confusion: aged trunks, incapable of supporting any longer their branches, are shattered in the middle, and present nothing but a sharp jagged point. Others, long loosened by the wind, have been thrown
unbroken on the ground. Torn up from the earth, their roots form a natural barricade, behind which several men might easily find shelter. Huge trees, sustained by the surrounding branches, hang in mid-air, and fall into dust, without reaching the ground.
There is no district with us so scantily peopled as to make it possible for a forest to be so completely abandoned that the trees, after quietly fulfilling the purpose of their existence, attain old age undisturbed, and at last perish from natural decay. Civilized man strikes them while yet in their prime, and clears the ground of their remains. In the solitude of America, all-powerful nature is the only instrument of ruin, as well as of reproduction. Here, as well as in the forests over which man rules, death strikes continually; but there is none to clear away the remains; they accumulate day by day. They fall, they are heaped one upon another. Time alone does not work fast enough to reduce them to dust, so as to make way for their successors. Side by side lay several generations of the dead. Some, in the last stage of dissolution, have left on the grass a long line of red dust as the only trace of their presence; others, already half-consumed by time, still preserve their outward shape. Others, again, fallen only yesterday, stretch their long branches over the traveler’s path.
When at sea I have often enjoyed one of the calm, serene evenings, when the sails, flapping idly from the mast, leave the crew in ignorance even of the quarter whence the breeze will rise. The perfect repose of Nature is as striking in the wilderness as on the ocean. When at noon-day the sun’s rays penetrate the forest, there is often heard a long sob, a kind of plaintive cry echoing in the distance. It is the last breath of the expiring breeze. Deep silence ensues, and such absolute stillness fills the mind with a kind of superstitious awe. The traveler stops to contemplate the scene.
Pressed against one another, their boughs interlaced, the trees seem to form one vast indestructible edifice, under whose arches reign eternal darkness. Around are violence and destruction, shattered trees, and torn trunks; the traces of long elemental war. But the struggle is suspended. It seems to have been suddenly arrested by the order of a supernatural Being. Half broken branches seem to hold by some invisible link to the trunk that no longer supports them; trees torn from their roots hang in the air as if they had not had time to reach the ground.
The traveler holds his breath to catch the faintest sound of life. No noise, not even a whisper reaches him. You may be lost in a European forest, but some noise belonging to life is audible. You hear a church-bell, or a woodman’s ax, or the report of a gun, or the barking of a dog, or, at any rate, the indistinct hum of civilized life.
Here, not only man is absent, but the voice of no animal is to be heard. The smaller ones have sought the neighborhood of human dwellings, and the larger have fled to a still greater distance; the few that remain hidden in the shade. Thus all is motionless, all is silent beneath the leafy arch. It seems as if the Creator had for a moment withdrawn his countenance, and all Nature had become paralyzed.
This was not the only time that we noticed the resemblance of the forest to the ocean. In each case the idea of immensity besets you. The succession of similar scenes; their continual monotony overpowers the imagination. Perhaps even the sensation of loneliness and desolation which oppressed us in the middle of the Atlantic was felt by us still more strongly and acutely in the wilderness of the New World.
At sea, the voyager sees the horizon to which he is steering. He sees the sky. His view is bounded only by the powers of the human eye. But what is there to indicate a path across this leafy ocean? In vain you may climb the lofty trees; others still higher will surround you. In vain you climb a hill; everywhere the forest follows you, the forest which extends before you to the Arctic Pole, and to the Pacific Ocean. You may travel thousands of miles beneath its shade, and, though always advancing, never appear to stir from the same spot.
But it is time to return to our journey to Saginaw. We had been riding for five hours in complete ignorance of our whereabouts when our Indians stopped short, and the elder, whose name was Sagan-Cuisco, traced a line in the sand. He showed us one end, exclaiming, Mehl, Conte-ouingue, the Indian name for Flint River, and pointing to the other, pronounced the name of Saginaw. Then, marking a point in the middle, he signed to us that we had achieved half the distance, and that we must rest a little.
The sun was already high, and we should gladly have accepted his invitation, if we could have seen water within reach; but as none was near we motioned to the Indian that we wished to halt where we could eat and drink. He understood us directly and set off with the same rapidity as before. An hour later he stopped again and showed us a spot where we might find water about thirty paces off in the forest.
Without waiting for us to answer, or helping us to unsaddle our horses, he went to it himself; we followed as fast as we could. A little while before the wind had thrown down a large tree in this place; in the hollow that had been filled by the root was a little reservoir of rainwater. This was the fountain to which our guide conducted us. Without the thought has occurred to him that we should hesitate to partake of such a send our bag. Another misfortune I entirely spoilt our provisions, and we were reduced to the small piece of bread, in all that we had been able to procure at to this, a cloud of mosquitoes, attracted by the unity of water, which we were forced to fight with one hand while we carried our bread to our mouths with the other, and an idea may be formed of a rustic dinner in a virgin forest.
While we were eating, our Indians sat cross-legged on the prostate trunk that I have mentioned. When they saw that we had finished, they made signs that they, too, were hungry. We showed them our empty bag, and they shook their heads without speaking. The Indian has no fixed hours for his meals; he gorges food when he can, and fasts afterward, until he finds where to satisfy his appetite: wolves have similar habits. We soon began to think of starting, but we were dismayed to see that our horses had disappeared. Goaded, no doubt, by hunger, they had strayed from the road in which we had left them, and it was not without trouble that we succeeded in tracing them; we blessed the mosquitoes that had forced us to continue our journey.
The path soon became more and more difficult to follow. Every moment our horses had to force their way through thick brushwood or to leap over the large fallen trees that barred our progress. At the end of two hours of an extremely difficult ride, we at length reached a stream, which though shallow, was deeply embanked. We waded across it, and from the opposite side, we saw a field of maize and two huts that looked like log-houses. As we approached, we found that we were in a little Indian settlement and that the log-houses were wigwams. The solitude was no less perfect than in the surrounding forest.
When we reached the first of these abandoned dwellings, Sagan-Cuisco stopped. He examined attentively everything around him, then laying down his rifle and approaching us, he again traced a line in the sand and showed us by the same method as before that we had accomplished only two-thirds of the road; then he rose and pointing to the sun, signed that it was quickly sinking into the west, next, he looked at the wigwam and shut his eyes.
This language was easy to understand, he wished us to sleep in this place. I own that the proposal astonished as much as it annoyed us. It was long since we had eaten, and we were but moderately inclined to sleep without supper. The somber savage grandeur of scene that we had been contemplating ever since the morning, our utter loneliness, the wild faces of our guides, and the difficulty of communicating with them, all conspired to take away our confidence.
There was a strangeness too in the conduct of the Indians. Our road for the last two hours had been even more untrodden than at the beginning. No one had told us that we should pass through an Indian village, and everyone had assured us that we could go in one day from Flint River to Saginaw. We could not therefore imagine why our guides wanted to keep us all night in the wilderness.
We insisted upon going on. The Indian signed that we should be surprised by darkness in the forest. To force our guides to proceed would have been dangerous. I am determined to have recourse to their cupidity. But there is no such a philosopher as the Indian. He has few wants and consequently few desires. Civilization has no hold over him. He neither knows nor cares for its advantages.
I had, however, remarked that Sagan-Cuisco had paid particular attention to a little wicker bottle that hung by my side. A bottle that could not be broken. Here was a thing that he had the sense to appreciate. He really admired it. My gun and my bottle were my only European implements that excited his desires. I signed to him that I would give him the bottle if he would take us immediately to Saginaw. He then seemed to undergo a violent struggle. He looked again at the sun; then on the ground. At last, he came to a decision, seized his rifle, exclaimed twice, with his hand on his mouth, OH I Oh! and rushed off before us through the bushes.
We followed him at a quick pace, and we soon lost sight of the Indian settlement. Our guides continued to run for two hours faster than before. Still, the night was coming on, and the last rays of the sun had disappeared behind the trees when Sagan-Cuisco was stopped by violent bleeding at the nose. Accustomed as the young man, as well as his brother, was to bodily exertion, it was evident that fatigue and want of food had exhausted their strength. We began to fear lest our guides should renounce the undertaking, and insist on sleeping under a tree. We, therefore, proposed to mount them in turns on our horses.
They accepted our offer without surprise or shame. It was curious to see these half-naked men gravely seated on English saddles, carrying our game-bags and guns slung over their shoulders, while we were toiling on before them.
At last, night came. The air under the trees became damp and icy cold. In the dark, the forest assumed a new and terrible aspect. Our eyes could distinguish nothing but confused masses without shape or order; strange and disproportioned forms; the sort of fantastic images which haunt the imagination in fever. The echo of our steps had never seemed so loud, nor
the silence of the forest was so awful The only sign of life in this sleeping world was the humming of the mosquito.
As we advanced the gloom became still deeper. Now and then a fire-fly traced a luminous line upon the darkness. Too late we acknowledged the wisdom of the Indian’s advice, but it was no longer possible to recede.
We, therefore, pushed on as rapidly as our strength and the night permitted. At the end of an hour, we left the woods and entered a vast prairie. Our guides uttered three times a savage cry, that vibrated like the discordant notes of the tam-tam. It was answered in the distance. Five minutes afterward we reached a stream, but it was too dark to see the opposite bank. The Indians halted here. They wrapped their blankets around them, to escape the stings of the mosquitoes; and hiding in the long grass, looked like balls of wool, that one might pass by without remarking, and could not possibly be men.
We ourselves dismounted and waited patiently for what was to follow. In a few minutes we heard a faint noise, and something approached the bank. It was an Indian canoe, about ten feet long, formed out of a single tree. The man who was curled up at the bottom of this frail bark wore the dress and had the appearance of an Indian. He spoke to our guides, who, by his
direction, took the saddles from our horses, and placed them in the canoe.
As I was preparing to get into it, the supposed Indian touched me on the shoulder, and said, with a Norman accent which made me start, Ah, you come from Old France!. . stop—don’t be in a hurry—people sometimes get drowned here.
If my horse had addressed me, I should not, I think, have been more astonished. I looked at the speaker, whose face shone in the moonlight like a copper ball. Who are you, then? I said. You speak French, but you look like an Indian. He replied, that he was a Bois-Brule, which means the son of a Canadian and an Indian woman.
I shall often have occasion to mention this singular race of half-castes, which extends over all the frontiers of Canada, and, in fact, over the borders of the United States. At that time, I felt only the pleasure of conversing in my mother-tongue. Following the advice of my countryman, the savage, I seated myself in the bottom of the canoe, and kept as steady as possible; my horse, whose bridle I held, plunged into the water and swam by my side, meanwhile, the Canadian sculled the bark, singing in an undertone to an old French tune some verses, of which I caught only the first couplet, Between Paris and Saint-Denis There lived a maid….
We reached the opposite bank without any accident; the canoe immediately returned, to bring over my companion. All my life I shall remember the second time that it neared the shore. The Moon, which was full, was just then rising over the prairie behind us, half the disk
only appeared above the horizon; it looked like a mysterious door, through which we could catch a glimpse of the light of another world. Its rays were reflected in the stream, and touched the place where I stood. Along the line of their pale, tremulous light, the Indian canoe was advancing. We could not see any sculls, or hear the sound of rowlocks. The bark glided rapidly and smoothly—long, narrow, and black, resembling an alligator in pursuit of his prey. Crouching at the prow, Sagan-Cuisco, with his head between his knees, showed only his shiny tresses. Further back, the Canadian was silently sculling, while behind followed Beaumont’s horse. With his powerful chest throwing up the waters of the Saginaw in glittering streams.
In the whole scene there was a wild grandeur which made an impression upon us which has never been effaced.
When all had landed, we immediately proceeded to a house that had just become visible in the moonlight about a hundred yards from the river, and which the Canadian assured us would afford us shelter. ‘We contrived, indeed, to establish ourselves tolerably, and we should probably have repaired our strength by a sound sleep if we could have got rid of the myriads of mosquitoes that filled the house; but this was impossible.
The tormentor that in English is called a mosquito, and in Canadian French, a maringouin, is a little insect much resembling the French cousin, the gnat. It differs only in size. It is generally bigger, and t trunk is so sharp, and so strong, that only woolen garments can save you from its sting. These insects are the curse of the American wilderness. They render a long stay unendurable. I never felt torments such as those which I suffered from them during the whole of this expedition, and especially at Saginaw. In the day they prevented us from drawing, or writing, or sitting still for an instant; in the night thousands of them buzzing around us, settling on every spot in our bodies that was uncovered. Awakened by the irritation of the bite, we hid our heads under the sheets; their sting went through. Thus persecuted and chased by them we rose and went into the air till extreme fatigue at last procured for us an uneasy and broken sleep.
Part Six – The Wilderness hamlet of Saginaw
We went out very early, and the first objects that struck us were our Indians, rolled up in their blankets near the door, and sleeping by the side of their dogs. This was our first daylight view of the village of Saginaw, which we had come so far to see. A small, cultivated plain, bounded on the south by a beautiful and gently flowing river; on the east, west, and north by the forest; constitutes at present the territory of the embryo city.
Near us was a house whose character announced the easy circumstances of its owner. It was the one in which we had passed the night. A similar dwelling was visible at the other extremity of the clearing. Between them, and on the skirts of the woods, two or three log-houses were half-hidden in the foliage.
On the opposite side of the river stretched the prairie, resembling a boundless ocean on a calm day. A column of smoke was curling towards the sky. Looking whence it came, we discovered the pointed forms of two or three wigwams, which scarcely stood out from the grass of the prairie. A plow that had upset, its oxen galloping off by themselves to the field, and a few half-wild horses, completed the picture.
On every side, the eye searches in vain for a Gothic spire, the moss-covered porch of a clergyman’s house, or a wooden cross by the road-side. These venerable relics of our religion have not been carried into the wilderness. It contains as yet nothing to remind one of the past, or of the future. No consecrated home even for those who are no more. Death has not had time to claim his domain, nor to have his close marked out. Here, man still seems to steal into life. Several generations do not assemble around the cradle to utter hopes often deceitful, and rejoicings which the future often belies. The child’s name is not inscribed in the register of the city; religion does not mingle its affecting ceremonies with the solicitude of the family. A woman’s prayers, a few drops sprinkled on the infant’s head by its father’s hand, quietly open to it the gates of Heaven.
The village of Saginaw is the furthest point inhabited by Europeans to the north-west of the vast peninsula of Michigan. It may be considered as an advanced post; a sort of watch-tower, placed by the whites in the midst of the Indian nations.
European revolutions, the continual noisy clamor of politics, reach this spot only at rare intervals and as the echoes of a sound, the source of which the ear can no longer distinguish nor comprehend.
Sometimes an Indian stop’s on his journey to relate, in the poetical language of the wilderness, some of the sad realities of social life; sometimes a newspaper dropped out of a hunter’s knapsack, or only the sort of indistinct rumor which spreads one knows not how, and which
seldom fails to tell that something strange is passing in the world.
Once a year a vessel steams up the Saginaw to join this stray link to the great European chain which now binds together the world. She carries to the new settlement the products of human industry, and in return takes away the fruits of the soil.
Thirty persons, men, women, old people, and children, at the time of our visit composed this little society, as yet scarcely formed—an opening seed thrown upon the wilderness, there to germinate.
Chance, interest, or inclination, had collected them in this narrow space. No common link existed between them, and they differed widely. Among them were Canadians, Americans, Indians, and half-castes.
Philosophers have thought, that human nature is everywhere the same, varied only according to the laws and institutions of different states of society. This is one of the opinions to which every page of history gives the lie. Nations, under all circumstances, have their peculiar physiognomy and their characteristic features, as well as individuals. Laws, manners, and religion may alter, wealth and power may change; places, dress, and external appearance may differ; prejudices may disappear, or be substituted by others.
In the midst of these diversities, you still recognize the same race. Though human nature is flexible, it contains elements that are fixed.
The inhabitants of this little oasis belong to two nations which for more than a century have occupied the same country and obeyed the same laws. Yet they have nothing in common. They still are as distinctly English and French as if they lived on the banks of the Seine and the Thames.
Within yonder trellised hut you will find a man whose cordial welcome and open countenance show immediately a taste for social pleasures and careless indifference to life. At first, you may take him for an Indian. Forced to submit to savage life,’ he has willingly adopted its dress, its customs, and almost its morals: he wears moccasins, an otter-skin cap, and a blanket. He is an indefatigable hunter; he sleeps underarms and lives on wild honey and bison’s flesh. This man is, nevertheless, still French. He is gay, adventurous, proud of his origin, passionately fond of
military glory, vainer, than selfish, the creature of impulse rather than of judgment, preferring renown to wealth.
In order to fly to the wilderness, he has broken every social tie. He has neither wife nor children. He may not like this, but he easily submits to it, as he does to everything else. By nature, his tastes are domestic. He loves his own fireside and the sight of the steeple of his village. But he was torn from his peaceful occupations, his imagination fired by novel scenes; another hemisphere became his home: and he was suddenly seized with an insatiable desire for violent emotions, vicissitudes, and perils. The most civilized of Europeans is now a worshipper of savage life. He prefers the savannah to the street, the chase to the plow. He sports with life, and never thinks of the future. The white men from France, said the Canadian Indians, are as good hunters as we are. They despise the conveniences of life and brave danger and death as we do; God created them to live in the hut of the savage and to dwell in the wilderness.
A few steps off live another European who, exposed to the same difficulties, has hardened himself against them. This man is cold, unyielding, and disputatious. He devotes himself to his land and submits to savage life only so far as is necessary. He is always fighting against it, and every day strips it of some of its attributes. He imports one by one into the wilderness his laws, his manners and customs, and as much as possible every’ detail of advanced civilization. The emigrant: from the United States cares only for the results of victory; glory is to him an empty name, and he considers that man is born only to obtain fortune and comfort. He is brave, but his bravery is the result of calculation; brave because he has discovered that there are many things harder to bear than death; though an adventurer he is surrounded by a wily, and yet cares little for intellectual or social enjoyments. Encamped on the other side of the river, amid the beds of the Saginaw, the Indian from time to time casts a stoical glance on the habitations of his brothers from Europe. Do not think that he admires their industry or envies their lot. Though for nearly 300 years’ civilization has invaded and surrounded the American savage, he has not yet learned to know or to appreciate his enemy. In vain, in both races, is one generation followed by another. Like two parallel rivers, they have flowed for three centuries side by side towards the same ocean, only; a narrow space divides them, but their waters do not mingle.
It is not natural talent that is wanting in the aborigines of the New World, but their nature seems obstinate to repel our ideas and our arts. From the interior of his smoky hut, wrapped in his blanket, the Indian contemplates with scorn the convenient dwelling of the European. He has a proud satisfaction in his poverty, his heart swells and triumphs in his barbarous independence. He smiles bitterly when he sees us wear out our lives in heaping up useless riches. What we term industry he calls shameful subjection. He compares the workman to the ox toiling on in a furrow, what we call necessaries of life, he terms childish playthings or womanish baubles. He envies us only with our arms. If a man has a leafy hut to shelter his head by night, a good fire to warm him in winter and to banish the mosquitoes in summer if he has good dogs and plenty of game, what more can he ask of the Great Spirit?
On the opposite bank of the Saginaw, near the European clearings, on the frontier that separates the Old from the New World, rises a hut, more convenient than the wigwam of the savage, ruder than the house of the civilized man: it is the dwelling of a half-caste.
When for the first time we presented ourselves at the door of this half-barbarous cabin, we were surprised at hearing a soft voice from within chanting the penitential psalms to an Indian air. We Stopped a moment to listen. The sounds were slowly modulated and deeply melancholy; it was easy to recognize the plaintive harmony which characterizes the songs of the wilderness.
We entered: the owner was absent. Seated cross-legged on a mat, in the middle of the room, was a young woman making moccasins. With her foot, she rocked an infant, whose copper hue and European features announced a mixed origin. She was dressed like one of our peasants, except that her feet were bare and her hair fell unbound over her shoulders. When she saw us, she left off and looked at us with a mixture of fear and respect. We asked her if she were French. No, she replied with a smile. English? No, neither, dropping her eyes, she added, I am only a savage. Child of both races, taught to use two languages, brought up in different creeds and nursed in opposite prejudices, the half-caste forms a compound as inexplicable to himself as to others. The ideas currently in the world when reflected in his confused brain, seem to him inextricable chaos from which he can find no escape.
Proud of his European origin, he despises the wilderness, and yet loves its savage freedom; he admires civilization, but cannot completely submit to its restraints. His tastes contradict his ideas; his convictions are opposed to his habits. Unable to guide his steps by the uncertain light of his reason, his mind struggles painfully in the toils of universal doubt: he adopts opposite customs, he prays at two altars; he believes in the Redeemer of the World and in the amulets of the juggler, and he arrives at the term of his days without having been able to solve the mystery of his existence.
Thus, in this unknown corner of the earth, Providence has sowed the seeds of diverse nations. Already many distinct races are to be found here side by side. A few exiles from the great human family have met in these vast forests. They have the same wants. They have to resist wild animals, hunger, and rough weather. Scarcely thirty of them are collected in one spot in this intractable wilderness, and they look upon each other with nothing but hatred and suspicion. Diversity of color, poverty or comfort, ignorance or cultivation, have already set up amongst them ineffaceable distinctions. National prejudices, and those of education and birth, divide and isolate them. Thus a narrow frame contains a complete picture of the contemptible side of our nature. Still, one feature is wanting.
The strong lines of demarcation, traced by birth and prejudice, are not confined to the present life. They reach beyond the grave. Six different religions, or sects, share the faith of this infant society. Catholicism, with its formidable immutability, its absolute dogmas, its terrible anathemas, and its vast rewards; the reformed faith, with its movement and continual changes; and even the old paganism, all find here their disciples. They adore in different ways the One Eternal Being who made man in His own image. They fight for the heaven to which each sect claims to be exclusively entitled. Even amidst the privations of exile, and actual suffering, a man exhausts his imagination in conceiving indescribable horrors for the future. The Lutheran damns the Calvinist, the Calvinist the Unitarian, and the Catholic includes them all in one common reprobation.
More tolerant in his rude faith, the Indian is content with excluding his European brother from the happy hunting-fields reserved for himself. Constant to the traditions bequeathed to him by his ancestors, he easily consoles himself for the evils of life and dies dreaming of the ever-verdant forest untouched by the ax of the pioneer, where he will chase the deer and the beaver through the unnumbered days of eternity.
After breakfast, we went to see the richest landowner in the village, Mr. Williams. We found him in his shop engaged in selling to the Indians a number of little articles of small value, such as knives, glass necklaces, earrings, and so forth. It was sad to see how these poor creatures were treated by their civilized brother from Europe.
All, however, whom we saw there were ready to do justice to the savages. They were kind, inoffensive; a thousand times less given to stealing than the whites. It was only a pity that they were beginning to understand the value of things. But why a pity? Because trade with them became every day less profitable.’ Is not the superiority of civilized man appears in this remark? The Indian in his ignorant simplicity would have said, that he found it every day more difficult to cheat his neighbor; but the white man finds in the refinement of language, a shade which expresses the fact, and yet saves his conscience.
On our return from Mr. Williams’, we went a short way up the Saginaw to shoot wild-ducks. A canoe left the reeds, and its Indian occupants came up to us to examine my double-barreled gun. This weapon, which is common enough, always attracted special attention from the savages. A gun that can kill two men in a second, can be fired in the wet and damp, was to them a marvel, a masterpiece beyond all price. These men showed, as usual, great admiration. They asked whence my gun came. Our young guide replied, that it was made on the other side of the great water, where the Fathers of the Canadians lived: and, as may be supposed, this answer did not make it less precious in their eyes. They remarked, however, that, as the aim was not in the center of the barrel, it could not be sure: an observation which, I own, I could not answer.
When evening came, we returned to our canoe, and trusting to the experience that we had acquired in the morning, we rowed, unaccompanied, up an arm of the Saginaw, of which we had had only a glimpse.
The sky was without a cloud, the atmosphere pure and still. The river watered an immense forest: it flowed so gently that we could scarcely tell the direction of the current.
We always thought that to have an accurate idea of the American forests, we ought to follow the course of some of their rivers. These rivers are the great highways with which Providence has pierced the wilderness and rendered it accessible to man. In the roads cut through the woods, the view is circumscribed, and the path itself is the work of human hands. Rivers do not show the traces of human labor, and you see freely the grandeur of the wild and luxurious vegetation of their banks.
The wilderness was before us just as, six thousand years ago, it showed itself to the fathers of mankind. It was a delicious, blooming, perfumed, gorgeous dwelling, a living palace made for man, though, as yet, the owner had not taken possession. The canoe gilded noiselessly and without effort. All was quiet and serene. We ourselves soon felt softened by the scene. Our words became fewer and fewer; our voices sank to a whisper ; at last, we lapsed into silence ; and, raising our oars, we each fell into a peaceful and inexpressibly delicious reverie. How is it that language, which finds an equivalent for every sorrow, is incapable of expressing the simplest and sweetest emotions?
How is it possible adequately to describe those rare moments when the luxury of sensation leads to mental calm, and universal harmony seems to pervade creation; when the mind, only half awake, fluctuates between the present and the future, the actual and the possible; when, amidst the exquisite repose of nature, inhaling the soft still air, a man listens to the even beating of his own heart, every pulse marking the lapse of time flowing drop by drop into eternity!
Many men may have added one year to another of long life without once having felt anything resembling what I have just described. They will not understand me. But there are others, I am sure, who will fill up my sketch from their hearts and memories, and in whom these lines will awaken the remembrance of some fleeting hours which neither time nor the real cares of life have been able to obliterate.
The report of a gun in the woods roused us from our dream. At first it sounded like an explosion on both sides of the river; the roar then grew fainter, till it was lost in the depth of the surrounding forest. It sounded like the prolonged and fearful war-cry of advancing civilization.
One evening in Sicily we lost ourselves in the extensive marsh, the site of the ancient Himera. The impression produced on us by the wilderness, all that was left of that famous city, was deep and strong. It was a striking testimony to the instability of human creations, and to the imperfection of human nature.
Here also was solitude; but the imagination, instead of recurring to the past, sprang forward, and lost itself in a boundless future. We asked ourselves, by what singular fate it happened that we, to whom it had been granted to look on the ruins of extinct empires and tread the wilderness made by human hands, —we children of an ancient people, should be called on to witness this scene of the primitive world and to contemplate the as yet unoccupied cradle of a great nation.
These are not the more or less probable speculations of philosophy. The facts are as certain as if they had already taken place. In a few years these impenetrable forests will have fallen; the sons of civilization and industry will break the silence of the Saginaw; its echoes will cease; the banks will be imprisoned by quays; its current, which now flows on unnoticed and tranquil through a nameless waste, will be stemmed by the prows of vessels. More than 100 miles sever this solitude from the great European settlements; and we were, perhaps, the last travelers allowed to see its primitive grandeur. So strong is the impetus that urges the white man to the entire conquest of the New World.
It is this idea of destruction, with the accompanying thought of near and inevitable change, that gives to the solitudes of America their peculiar character, and their touching loveliness. You look at them with mournful pleasure. You feel that you must not delay admiring them. The impression of wild and natural greatness so soon to expire mingles with the lofty thoughts to which the progress of civilization gives rise—you are proud of being a man; and yet you reflect, almost with remorse, on the dominion which Providence allots to you over nature. You are distracted by conflicting ideas and feelings. But every impression received is sublime and leaves a deep trace.
We wished to quit Saginaw on the next day, the 27th of July, but one of our horses was galled by the saddle, and we resolved to remain a day longer. To pass the time, we shot over the prairies which border the Saginaw below the clearings.
These prairies are not marshy as might have been expected. They are more, or less extensive plains on which no tree grows, though the soil is excellent; the grass is dry and springs to a height of three or four feet. We found a little game, and we came back early. The heat was stifling as if a storm were in the air, and the mosquitoes more annoying than usual. As we walked we were enveloped in a cloud of these insects and had to fight our way. Woe betide the loiterer he is abandoned to a merciless enemy. I remember being forced to load my gun-running, it was so painful to stand still for an instant.
As we were returning across the prairie we remarked that our Canadian guide followed a narrow path, and looked very carefully where he placed his feet. Why are you so cautious, I said, are you afraid of the damp? No, he replied, but when I walk in the prairie I have acquired the habit of always looking at my feet lest I should tread on a rattle-snake. Devil! I exclaimed, with a start, are there any rattle-snakes here? Oh, yes, indeed! answered my American Norman with perfect indifference, the place is full of them.
I found fault with him for not telling us sooner; he declared that as we were well shod, and the rattle-snake never bites above the heel, he did not think that we ran any great danger. I asked him if the bite of the rattlesnake was mortal; he replied, always in less than twenty-four hours, unless recourse is had to the Indians. They know of a remedy which, given in time, saves the patient. However, that might be, during the rest of the way we imitated our guide, and looked, as he did, at our feet.
The night which followed this burning day was one of the most disagreeable that I ever passed. The mosquitoes had become so troublesome, that though overpowered with fatigue, I could not close my eyes.
Towards midnight the storm which had long been threatening broke. As there was no longer any hope of sleeping, I rose and went to the door of our hut to breathe the cool night air. The rain had not begun. The air seemed still. But the forest was already in motion—from time to time a deep sigh or a long cry escaped from it. Now and then a flash of lightning illuminated the sky. The gentle flow of the Saginaw, the little clearing on each side of its banks, the roofs of five or six huts, and the belt of trees that surrounded us, appeared then for a moment like a revelation of the future, all vanished again in perfect darkness, and the awful voice of the wilderness was once more heard.
I was looking with emotion at this grand spectacle when I heard a sigh close to me, and the lightning showed to me an Indian leaning, as I was, against the wall of our dwelling. No doubt the storm had disturbed him, for he cast a fixed and perturbed glance on all around.
Was he afraid of the lightning? or, could he see in the shock of the elements something beyond a passing convulsion of nature? Those fleeting pictures of civilization springing up, as it were, of themselves in the wilderness, were they to him prophetic? Those sobs of the forest which seemed to struggle in unequal combat, did they reach his ears like a secret warning from Heaven; a solemn revelation of the fate finally reserved for the savage races? It was impossible to say. But his trembling lips appeared to murmur a prayer, and his features were stamped with superstitious terror.
At five A.M. we resolved to start. Every Indian from the neighborhood of Saginaw had disappeared. They were gone to receive the annual presents from the English; the Europeans were engaged in the harvest. We were, therefore, obliged to make up our minds to re-cross the forest without a guide.
The undertaking was not so arduous as it might appear. In general, there is but one path through these vast wildernesses; if you do not lose sight of it you must reach your journey’s end.
So, at five, we re-crossed the Saginaw. We received the farewell and last advice of our host, and turning our horses’ heads, found ourselves alone in the forest.
I own that it was not without a solemn sensation that we began again to penetrate its damp recesses. The forest stretched behind us to the Pole and to the Pacific. But one inhabited spot was between us and the boundless wilderness, and we had just quitted it. These thoughts, however, made us only press on our horses, and in three hours we reached a wildernesses wigwam on the lonely banks of the river Cass. A grassy bank overhanging the water, shaded by large trees, served for a table; and we breakfasted, looking on the reaches of the river, which wound among the trees as clear as crystal.
On leaving the wigwam, we found several paths. We had been told which we were to take. But such directions are not always full or precise. We had been told of two paths: there were three. It was true that of these three roads two, farther on, joined together in one; but of this, we were not aware, and our perplexity was great.
After due examination and discussion, we could think of nothing better than to throw the bridle on our horses’ necks to leave them to solve the difficulty. In this way, we forded the river as well as we could and were carried rapidly in a south-westerly direction. More than once the roads became nearly invisible in the brush-wood. In other places the path appeared so untraveled, that we could hardly believe that it led to more than an abandoned wigwam; our compass indeed showed that we were proceeding in the right direction, yet we were not completely reassured till we reached the spot where we had dined three days before. We knew it again by a gigantic pine, whose trunk, shattered by the wind, we had before admired. Still, we rode on with undiminished speed, for the sun was getting low. Soon we reached the clearing which usually betokens a settlement. As night was coming on, we came in sight of the river Flint; half-an-hour later we were at the door of our house. This time the bear received us like old friends and rose up on his hind legs to greet our happy return.
During the whole day, we had not met a single human face.; the animals, too, had disappeared. No doubt they had retired from the heat. All that we saw, and that at rare intervals, was now and then, on the bare top of a withered tree, a solitary hawk standing motionless on one leg, and sleeping quietly in the sun as if cut out of the wood on which he was resting.
In this absolute solitude, our thoughts suddenly recurred to the revolution of 1830, the first anniversary of which fell on this day. I cannot describe the violence with which the recollection of the 29th of July seized my mind. The cries and the smoke of the battle, the booming of the cannon, the rattle of musketry; the still more awful peal of the tocsin; that whole day enveloped in its flaming atmosphere, seemed suddenly to rise out of the past and become a living picture before my eyes. It was as instantaneous as it was vivid, fleeting as a dream; for when I lifted my head and looked around me, the vision had disappeared. But the silence of the forest had never struck me as so frigid, the shadows as so black, or the solitude so absolute.
This concludes our special edition story of Alexis De Tocqueville’s A Fortnight in the Wilderness. Thank you for taking the time to listen to Thumb winds end of the road podcast. If you like this kind of story, you are invited to join other monthly visitors on our website at thumb wind dot com. Please watch for, and download the next special story that covers an amazing settler, Jacob Parkhurst, who lived in the Ohio Valley in the late 1700s. It’s an amazing tale of survival and life in pioneer America. Please take a moment to subscribe to our podcast and give us a review.
From the End of the Road. Have a great day.
2 thoughts on “A Fortnight in the Wilderness by Alexis De Tocqueville”
Learned something new! Don’t know why I didn’t pick up on the fact when I read Democracy in America in high school (a Christmas gift from my Dad) that deTocqueville declined visiting our village of Niles along the St. Joseph River because it was already too civilized . . so didn’t fit into his preconceived notions
Hi Mary, creating this into a podcast gave me an opportunity to really digest Alexis’s observations. Your comment about him not wanting to go to Niles via the St. Joeseph’s trail by “post” or stagecoach made sense. Much of the lower Michigan had already been surveyed and speculation was beginning. These boys want to see the wild.