Fortnight In The Wilderness Alexis De Tocqueville

A Fortnight in the Wilderness by Alexis De Tocqueville

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. 

Walk-On Water
Sidewheel Steamers like the Walk on Water and Superior operated alone until 1825.

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. 

Three Iroquois Indians - 1861 - National Art Gallery  - Fortnight In The Wilderness
Three Iroquois Indians, Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

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. 

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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

Eagle Tavern - Buffalo New York - Fortnight In The Wilderness
Eagle Tavern. Lithograph by George Catlin. Albany: Rawdon, Clark & Co., 1825. Courtesy of Buffalo History Museum

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.

Walk on Water - A Fortnight in the Wilderness
Steamer Walk On Water

Yet sometimes the aspect of the country changes altogether. At the end of a 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 ploughed 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 in-formed 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.

Buffalo from Lake Erie 1836
Buffalo from Lake Erie – Courtesy National Gallery of Art

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

City of Detroit, Michigan: Taken from the Canada Shore near the Ferry
City of Detroit, Michigan: Taken from the Canada Shore near the Ferry

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 now were 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.

Woodworth’s Steamboat Hotel, located on the corner of Woodbridge and Randolph Streets in Detroit.

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.

Thomas Sully's Portrait of Major John Biddle
Thomas Sully’s Portrait of Major John Biddle

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 propose 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

Emil Baur Cabin
Emil Baur Cabin

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

Chief Pontiac in 1763
Chief Pontiac in 1763

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.

Pioneer Religion

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.

End Of the Road In Michigan Podcast
End Of the Road In Michigan Podcast

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