Letter 4 from American Farmer Letters by Crevecoeur

Letters From An American Farmer

J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur



J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur From Lettres d'un cultivateur américain (the French edition of Letters from an American Farmer), published by Cuchet in Paris, 1784, via Wikimedia Commons.

J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur
From Lettres d’un cultivateur américain (the French edition of Letters from an American Farmer), published by Cuchet in Paris, 1784, via Wikimedia Commons.

THE greatest compliment that can be paid to the best of kings, to the wisest ministers, or the most patriotic rulers is to think that the reformation of political abuses and the happiness of their people are the primary objects of their attention. But alas! How disagreeable must the work of reformation be, how dreaded the operation, for we hear of no amendment; on the contrary, the great number of European emigrants yearly coming over here informs us that the severity of taxes, the injustice of laws, the tyranny of the rich, and the oppressive avarice of the church are as intolerable as ever. Will these calamities have no end? Are not the great rulers of the earth afraid of losing, by degrees, their most useful subjects ? This country, providentially intended for the general asylum of the world, will flourish by the oppression of their people; they will every day become better acquainted with the happiness we enjoy and seek for the means of transporting themselves here, in spite of all obstacles and laws. To what purpose, then, have so many useful books and divine maxims been transmitted to us from preceding ages? Are they all vain, all useless? Must human nature ever be the sport of the few, and its many wounds remain unhealed? How happy are we here in having fortunately escaped the miseries which attended our fathers; how thankful ought we to be that they reared us in a land where sobriety and industry never fail to meet with the most ample rewards! You have, no doubt, read several histories of this continent, yet there are a thousand facts, a thousand explanations, overlooked. Authors will certainly convey to you a geographical knowledge of this country; they will acquaint you with the eras of the several settlements, the foundations of our towns, the spirit of our different charters, &c., yet they do not sufficiently disclose the genius of the people, their various customs, their modes of agriculture, the innumerable resources which the industrious have of raising themselves to a comfortable and easy situation. Few of these writers have resided here, and those who have, had not pervaded every part of the country, nor carefully examined the nature and principles of our association.

It would be a task worthy a speculative genius to enter intimately into the situation and characters of the people from Nova Scotia to West Florida; and surely history cannot possibly present any subject more pleasing to behold. Sensible how unable I am to lead you through so vast a maze, let us look attentively for some small unnoticed corner; but where shall we go in quest of such an one? Numberless settlements, each distinguished by some peculiarities, present themselves on every side; all seem to realise the most sanguine wishes that a good man could form for the happiness of his race. Here they live by fishing on the most plentiful coasts in the world; there they fell trees by the sides of large rivers for masts and lumber; here others convert innumerable logs into the best boards; there again others cultivate the land, rear cattle, and clear large fields. Yet I have a spot in my view, where none of these occupations are performed, which will, I hope, reward us for the trouble of inspection; but though it is barren in its soil, insignificant in its extent, inconvenient in its situation, deprived of materials for building, it seems to have been inhabited merely to prove what mankind can do when happily governed! Here I can point out to you exertions of the most successful industry, instances of native sagacity unassisted by science; the happy fruits of a well-directed perseverance. It is always a refreshing spectacle to me when in my review of the various component parts of this immense whole, I observe the labours of its inhabitants singularly rewarded by nature; when I see them emerged out of their first difficulties, living with decency and ease, and conveying to their posterity that plentiful subsistence, which their fathers have so deservedly earned. But when their prosperity arises from the goodness of the climate, and fertility of the soil, I partake of their happiness it is true, yet stay but a little while with them, as they exhibit nothing but what is natural and common. On the contrary, when I meet with barren spots fertilized, grass growing where none grew before, grain gathered from fields which had hitherto produced nothing better than brambles, dwellings raised where no building materials were to be found; wealth acquired by the most uncommon means– there I pause, to dwell on the favourite object of my speculative inquiries. Willingly do I leave the former to enjoy the odoriferous furrow, or their rich vallies, with anxiety repairing to the spot where so many difficulties have been overcome, where extraordinary exertions have produced extraordinary effects, and where every natural obstacle has been removed by a vigorous industry.

I want not to record the annals of the island of Nantucket; its inhabitants have no annals, for they are not a race of warriors. My simple wish is to trace them throughout their progressive steps from their arrival here to this present hour; to enquire by what means they have raised themselves from the most humble, the most insignificant beginnings, to the ease and the wealth they now possess; and to give you some idea of their customs, religion, manners, policy, and mode of living.

This happy settlement was not founded on intrusion, forcible entries, or blood, as so many others have been; it drew its origin from necessity on the one side and from good will on the other; and ever since, all has been a scene of uninterrupted harmony. Neither political nor religious broils, neither disputes with the natives, nor any other contentions, have in the least agitated or disturbed its detached society. Yet the first founders knew nothing either of Lycurgus or Solon; for this settlement has not been the work of eminent men or powerful legislators forcing nature by the accumulated labours of art. This singular establishment has been effected by means of that native industry and perseverance common to all men when they are protected by a government which demands but little for its protection, when they are permitted to enjoy a system of rational laws founded on perfect freedom. The mildness and humanity of such a government necessarily implies that confidence which is the source of the most arduous undertakings and permanent success. Would you believe that a sandy spot of about twenty-three thousand acres, affording neither stones nor timber, meadows nor arable, yet can boast of an handsome town consisting of more than 500 houses, should possess above 200 sail of vessels, constantly employ upwards of 2000 seamen; feed more than 15,000 sheep, 500 cows, 200 horses; and has several citizens worth 20,000L. sterling! Yet all these facts are uncontroverted. Who would have imagined that any people should have abandoned a fruitful and extensive continent filled with the riches which the most ample vegetation affords; replete with good soil, enamelled meadows, rich pastures, every kind of timber, and with all other materials necessary to render life happy and comfortable, to come and inhabit a little sand-bank to which nature had refused those advantages, to dwell on a spot where there scarcely grew a shrub to announce, by the budding of its leaves, the arrival of the spring and to warn by their fall the proximity of winter?

Had this island been contiguous to the shores of some ancient monarchy, it would only have been occupied by a few wretched fishermen, who, oppressed by poverty, would hardly have been able to purchase or build little fishing barks, always dreading the weight of taxes or the servitude of men-of-war. Instead of that boldness of speculation for which the inhabitants of this island are so remarkable, they would fearfully have confined themselves within the narrow limits of the most trifling attempts; timid in their excursions, they never could have extricated themselves from their first difficulties. This island, on the contrary, contains 5,000 hardy people who boldly derive their riches from the element that surrounds them and have been compelled by the sterility of the soil to seek abroad for the means of subsistence. You must not imagine, from the recital of these facts, that they enjoyed any exclusive privileges or royal charters or that they were nursed by particular immunities in the infancy of their settlement. No, their freedom, their skill, their probity, and perseverance have accomplished everything and brought them by degrees to the rank they now hold.

From this first sketch, I hope that my partiality to this island will be justified. Perhaps you hardly know that such an one exists in the neighbourhood of Cape Cod. What has happened here has and will happen every where else. Give mankind the full rewards of their industry, allow them to enjoy the fruit of their labour under the peaceable shade of their vines and fig-trees, leave their native activity unshackled and free, like a fair stream without dams or other obstacles; the first will fertilize the very sand on which they tread, the other exhibit a navigable river, spreading plenty and chearfulness wherever the declivity of the ground leads it. If these people are not famous for tracing the fragrant furrow on the plain, they plough the rougher ocean, they gather from its surface, at an immense distance and with Herculean labours, the riches it affords; they go to hunt and catch that huge fish which by its strength and velocity one would imagine ought to be beyond the reach of man. This island has nothing deserving of notice but its inhabitants; here you meet with neither ancient monuments, spacious halls, solemn temples, nor elegant dwellings; not a citadel, nor any kind of fortification, not even a battery to rend the air with its loud peals on any solemn occasion. As for their rural improvements, they are many, but all of the most simple and useful kind.

The island of Nantucket lies in latitude 41� 10′; 100 miles N. E. from Cape Cod; 27 N. from Hyanes, or Barnstable, a town on the most contiguous part of the great peninsula; 21 miles W. by N. from Cape Poge, on the vineyard; 50 W. by N. from Wood’s Hole, on Elizabeth Island; 80 miles N. from Boston; 120 from Rhode Island; 800 S. from Bermuda. Sherborn is the only town on the island, which consists of about 530 houses, that have been framed on the main; they are lathed and plaistered within, handsomely painted and boarded without; each has a cellar underneath, built with stones fetched also from the main; they are all of a similar construction and appearance; plain, and entirely devoid of exterior or interior ornament. I observed but one which was built of bricks, belonging to Mr.—–, but like the rest, it is unadorned. The town stands on a rising sandbank on the west side of the harbour, which is very safe from all winds. There are two places of worship, one for the Society of Friends, the other for that of Presbyterians; and in the middle of the town, near the market-place, stands a simple building which is the county court-house. The town regularly ascends toward the country, and in its vicinage they have several small fields and gardens yearly manured with the dung of their cows and the soil of their streets. There are a good many cherry- and peach-trees planted in their streets and in many other places. The apple-tree does not thrive well; they have therefore planted but few. The island contains no mountains, yet is very uneven, and the many rising grounds and eminences with which it is filled have formed in the several vallies a great variety of swamps, where the Indian grass and the blue bent, peculiar to such soils, grow with tolerable luxuriancy. Some of the swamps abound with peat, which serves the poor instead of fire-wood. There are fourteen ponds on this island, all extremely useful, some lying transversely, almost across it, which greatly helps to divide it into partitions for the use of their cattle; others abound with peculiar fish and sea fowls. Their streets are not paved, but this is attended with little inconvenience, as it is never crouded with country carriages; and those they have in the town are seldom made use of but in the time of the coming in and before the sailing of their fleets. At my first landing I was much surprised at the disagreeable smell which struck me in many parts of the town; it is caused by the whale oil and is unavoidable; the neatness peculiar to these people can neither remove or prevent it. There are near the wharfs a great many storehouses, where their staple commodity is deposited, as well as the innumerable materials which are always wanted to repair and fit out so many whalemen. They have three docks, each three hundred feet long and extremely convenient; at the head of which there are ten feet of water. These docks are built like those in Boston, of logs fetched from the continent, filled with stones, and covered with sand. Between these docks and the town there is room sufficient for the landing of goods and for the passage of their numerous carts; for almost every man here has one. The wharfs to the north and south of the docks are built of the same materials and give a stranger, at his first landing, an high idea of the prosperity of these people; and there is room around these three docks for 300 sail of vessels. When their fleets have been successful, the bustle and hurry of business on this spot for some days after their arrival would make you imagine that Sherborn is the capital of a very opulent and large province. On that point of land which forms the west side of the harbour stands a very neat light-house; the opposite peninsula, called Coitou, secures it from the most dangerous winds. There are but few gardens and arable fields in the neighbourhood of the town, for nothing can be more sterile and sandy than this part of the island; they have, however, with unwearied perseverance, by bringing a variety of manure and by cow-penning, enriched several spots where they raise Indian corn, potatoes, pumpkins, turnips, &c. On the highest part of this sandy eminence, four windmills grind the grain they raise or import; and contiguous to them, their rope walk is to be seen, where full half of their cordage is manufactured. Between the shores of the harbour, the docks, and the town, there is a most excellent piece of meadow, inclosed and manured with such cost and pains as shew how necessary and precious grass is at Nantucket. Towards the point of Shemah, the island is more level and the soil better; and there they have considerable lots, well fenced and richly manured, where they diligently raise their yearly crops. There are but very few farms on this island because there are but very few spots that will admit of cultivation without the assistance of dung and other manure, which is very expensive to fetch from the main. This island was patented in the year 1671, by twenty-seven proprietors, under the province of New-York; which then claimed all the islands from the Neway Sink to Cape Cod. They found it so universally barren and so unfit for cultivation that they mutually agreed not to divide it, as each could neither live on, nor improve that lot which might fall to his share. They then cast their eyes on the sea, and finding themselves obliged to become fishermen, they looked for a harbour, and having found one, they determined to built a town in its neighbourhood and to dwell together. For that purpose they surveyed as much ground as would afford to each what is generally called here a home-lot. Forty acres were thought sufficient to answer this double purpose; for to what end should they covet more land than they could improve, or even inclose; not being possessed of a single tree, in the whole extent of their new dominion. This was all the territorial property they allotted; the rest they agreed to hold in common, and seeing that the scanty grass of the island might feed sheep; they agreed that each proprietor should be entitled to feed on it, if he pleased, 560 sheep. By this agreement, the national flock was to consist of 15,120; that is, the undivided part of the island was by such means ideally divisible into as many parts, or shares, to which nevertheless no certain determinate quantity of land was affixed: for they knew not how much the island contained, nor could the most judicious surveyor fix this small quota as to quality and quantity. Further, they agreed, in case the grass should grow better by feeding, that then four sheep should represent a cow, and two cows a horse: such was the method this wise people took to enjoy in common their new settlement; such was the mode of their first establishment, which may be truly and literally called a pastoral one. Several hundred of sheep-pasture titles have since been divided on those different tracks, which are now cultivated; the rest by inheritance and intermarriages have been so subdivided that it is very common for a girl to have no other portion but her outset and four sheep pastures or the privilege of feeding a cow. But as this privilege is founded on an ideal though real title to some unknown piece of land, which one day or another may be ascertained; these sheep- pasture titles should convey to your imagination something more valuable and of greater credit than the mere advantage arising from the benefit of a cow, which in that case would be no more than a right of commonage. Whereas, here as labour grows cheaper, as misfortunes from their sea adventures may happen, each person possessed of a sufficient number of these sheep-pasture titles may one day realize them on some peculiar spot such as shall be adjudged by the council of the proprietors to be adequate to their value; and this is the reason that these people very unwillingly sell those small rights and esteem them more than you would imagine. They are the representation of a future freehold; they cherish in the mind of the possessor a latent, though distant, hope, that by his success in his next whale season he may be able to pitch on some predilected spot and there build himself a home, to which he may retire and spend the latter end of his days in peace. A council of proprietors always exists in this island who decide their territorial differences; their titles are recorded in the books of the county which this town represents, as well as every conveyance of lands and other sales.

This island furnishes the naturalist with few or no objects worthy observation: it appears to be the uneven summit of a sandy submarine mountain, covered here and there with sorrel, grass, a few cedar bushes, and scrubby oaks; their swamps are much more valuable for the peat they contain than for the trifling pasture of their surface; those declining grounds which lead to the sea-shores abound with beach grass, a light fodder when cut and cured, but very good when fed green. On the east side of the island, they have several tracks of salt grasses, which, being carefully fenced, yield a considerable quantity of that wholesome fodder. Among the many ponds or lakes with which this island abounds, there are some which have been made by the intrusion of the sea, such as Wiwidiah, the Long, the Narrow, and several others; consequently, those are salt and the others fresh. The former answer two considerable purposes: first by enabling them to fence the island with greater facility; at peculiar high tides a great number of fish enter into them, where they feed and grow large, and at some known seasons of the year the inhabitants assemble and cut down the small bars which the waves always throw up. By these easy means the waters of the pond are let out, and as the fish follow their native element, the inhabitants with proper nets catch as many as they want, in their way out, without any other trouble. Those which are most common are the streaked bass, the blue-fish, the tom-cod, the mackerel, the tew-tag, the herring, the flounder, eel, &c. Fishing is one of the greatest diversions the island affords. At the west end lies the harbour of Mardiket, formed by Smith Point on the south-west, by Eel Point on the north, and Tuckanut Island on the north-west; but it is neither so safe nor has it so good anchoring ground as that near which the town stands. Three small creeks run into it which yield the bitterest eels I have ever tasted. Between the lotts of Palpus on the east, Barry’s Valley and Miacomet pond on the south, and the narrow pond on the west, not far from Shemah Point, they have a considerable track of even ground, being the least sandy, and the best on the island. It is divided into seven fields, one of which is planted by that part of the community which are entitled to it. This is called the common plantation, a simple but useful expedient, for was each holder of this track to fence his property, it would require a prodigious quantity of posts and rails, which you must remember are to be purchased and fetched from the main. Instead of those private subdivisions each man’s allotment of land is thrown into the general field, which is fenced at the expence of the parties; within it, every one does with his own portion of the ground whatever he pleases. This apparent community saves a very material expence, a great deal of labour, and perhaps raises a sort of emulation among them which urges every one to fertilize his share with the greatest care and attention. Thus every seven years the whole of this track is under cultivation, and enriched by manure and ploughing, yields afterwards excellent pasture; to which the town cows, amounting to 500, are daily led by the town shepherd and as regularly drove back in the evening. There each animal easily finds the house to which it belongs, where they are sure to be well rewarded for the milk they give, by a present of bran, grain, or some farinaceous preparation; their oeconomy being very great in that respect. These are commonly called Tetoukemah lotts. You must not imagine that every person on the island is either a landholder or concerned in rural operations; no, the greater part are at sea, busily employed in their different fisheries; others are mere strangers who come to settle as handicrafts, mechanics, &c. and even among the natives few are possessed of determinate shares of land: for engaged in sea affairs or trade, they are satisfied with possessing a few sheep pastures, by means of which they may have perhaps one or two cows. Many have but one, for the great number of children they have has caused such subdivisions of the original proprietorship as is sometimes puzzling to trace; and several of the most fortunate at sea have purchased and realized a great number of these original pasture titles. The best land on the island is at Palpus, remarkable for nothing but a house of entertainment. Quayes is a small but valuable track, long since purchased by Mr. Coffin, where he has erected the best house on the island. By long attention, proximity of the sea, &c., this fertile spot has been well manured and is now the garden of Nantucket. Adjoining to it on the west side there is a small stream, on which they have erected a fulling mill; on the east is the lott, known by the name of Squam, watered likewise by a small rivulet on which stands another fulling mill. Here is fine loamy soil, producing excellent clover, which is mowed twice a year. These mills prepare all the cloth which is made here: you may easily suppose that having so large a flock of sheep, they abound in wool; part of this they export, and the rest is spun by their industrious wives and converted into substantial garments. To the south-east is a great division of the island, fenced by itself, known by the name of Siasconcet lott. It is a very uneven track of ground, abounding with swamps; here they turn in their fat cattle, or such as they intend to stall-feed, for their winter’s provisions. It is on the shores of this part of the island, near Pochick Rip, where they catch their best fish, such as sea bass, tew-tag, or black fish, cod, smelt, perch, shadine, pike, &c. They have erected a few fishing houses on this shore, as well as at Sankate’s Head and Suffakatche Beach, where the fishermen dwell in the fishing season. Many red cedar bushes and beach grass grow on the peninsula of Coitou; the soil is light and sandy and serves as a receptacle for rabbits. It is here that their sheep find shelter in the snow storms of the winter. At the north end of Nantucket, there is a long point of land projecting far into the sea, called Sandy Point; nothing grows on it but plain grass; and this is the place from whence they often catch porpoises and sharks by a very ingenious method. On this point they commonly drive their horses in the spring of the year in order to feed on the grass it bears, which is useless when arrived at maturity. Between that point and the main island, they have a valuable salt meadow, called Croskaty, with a pond of the same name famous for black ducks. Hence we must return to Squam, which abounds in clover and herds grass; those who possess it follow no maritime occupation and therefore neglect nothing that can render it fertile and profitable. The rest of the undescribed part of the island is open and serves as a common pasture for their sheep. To the west of the island is that of Tackanuck, where in the spring their young cattle are driven to feed; it has a few oak bushes and two fresh water ponds, abounding with teals, brandts, and many other sea fowls, brought to this island by the proximity of their sand banks and shallows, where thousands are seen feeding at low- water. Here they have neither wolves nor foxes; those inhabitants, therefore, who live out of town raise with all security as much poultry as they want; their turkeys are very large and excellent. In summer this climate is extremely pleasant; they are not exposed to the scorching sun of the continent, the heats being tempered by the sea breezes, with which they are perpetually refreshed. In the winter, however, they pay severely for those advantages; it is extremely cold; the north-west wind, the tyrant of this country, after having escaped from our mountains and forests, free from all impediment in its short passage, blows with redoubled force and renders this island bleak and uncomfortable. On the other hand, the goodness of their houses, the social hospitality of their fire-sides, and their good cheer make them ample amends for the severity of the season; nor are the snows so deep as on the main. The necessary and unavoidable inactivity of that season, combined with the vegetative rest of nature, force mankind to suspend their toils: often at this season more than half the inhabitants of the island are at sea, fishing in milder latitudes.

This island, as has been already hinted, appears to be the summit of some huge sandy mountain, affording some acres of dry land for habitation of man; other submarine ones lie to the southward of this, at different depths and different distances. This dangerous region is well known to the mariners by the name of Nantucket Shoals: these are the bulwarks which so powerfully defend this island from the impulse of the mighty ocean and repel the force of its waves; which, but for the accumulated barriers, would ere now have dissolved its foundations and torn it in pieces. These are the banks which afforded to the first inhabitants of Nantucket their daily subsistence, as it was from these shoals that they drew the origin of that wealth which they now possess, and was the school where they first learned how to venture farther, as the fish of their coast receded. The shores of this island abound with the soft-shelled, the hard-shelled, and the great sea clams, a most nutricious shell-fish. Their sands, their shallows are covered with them; they multiply so fast that they are a never failing resource. These and the great variety of fish they catch, constitute the principal food of the inhabitants. It was likewise that of the aborigines, whom the first settlers found here; the posterity of whom still live together in decent houses along the shores of Miacomet pond, on the south side of the island. They are an industrious, harmless race, as expert and as fond of a seafaring life as their fellow inhabitants, the whites. Long before their arrival they had been engaged in petty wars against one another, the latter brought them peace, for it was in quest of peace that they abandoned the main. This island was then supposed to be under the jurisdiction of New-York, as well as the islands of the Vineyard, Elizabeth’s, &c., but have been since adjudged to be a part of the province of Massachusetts-Bay. This change of jurisdiction procured them that peace they wanted, and which their brethren had so long refused them in the days of their religious frenzy: thus have enthusiasm and persecution, both in Europe as well as here, been the cause of the most arduous undertakings, and the means of those rapid settlements which have been made along these extended sea-shores. This island, having been since incorporated with the neighbouring province, is become one of its counties, known by the name of Nantucket, as well as the island of the Vineyard, by that of Duke’s County. They enjoy here the same municipal establishment in common with the rest, and therefore every requisite officer, such as sheriff, justice of the peace, supervisors, assessors, constables, overseer of the poor, &c. Their taxes are proportioned to those of the metropolis; they are levied as with us by valuations, agreed on and fixed, according to the laws of the province, and by assessments formed by the assessors, who are yearly chosen by the people and whose office obliges them to take either an oath or an affirmation. Two thirds of the magistrates they have here are of the Society of Friends.

Before I enter into the further detail of this people’s government, industry, mode of living, &c., I think it necessary to give you a short sketch of the political state the natives had been in a few years preceding the arrival of the whites among them. They are hastening towards a total annihilation, and this may be perhaps the last compliment that will ever be paid them by any traveller. They were not extirpated by fraud, violence, or injustice, as hath been the case in so many provinces; on the contrary, they have been treated by these people as brethren, the peculiar genius of their sect inspiring them with the same spirit of moderation which was exhibited at Pensylvania. Before the arrival of the Europeans, they lived on the fish of their shores, and it was from the same resources the first settlers were compelled to draw their first subsistence. It is uncertain whether the original right of the Earl of Sterling or that of the Duke of York was founded on a fair purchase of the soil or not; whatever injustice might have been committed in that respect cannot be charged to the account of those Friends who purchased from others who no doubt founded their right on Indian grants; and if their numbers are now so decreased, it must not be attributed either to tyranny or violence, but to some of those causes, which have uninterruptedly produced the same effects from one end of the continent to the other, wherever both nations have been mixed. This insignificant spot, like the sea-shores of the great peninsula, was filled with these people; the great plenty of clams, oysters, and other fish on which they lived, and which they easily catched, had prodigiously increased their numbers. History does not inform us what particular nation the aborigines of Nantucket were of; it is, however, very probable that they anciently emigrated from the opposite coast, perhaps from the Hyannees, which is but twenty-seven miles distant. As they then spoke and still speak the Nattick, it is reasonable to suppose that they must have had some affinity with that nation, or else that the Nattick, like the Huron, in the north-western parts of this continent, must have been the most prevailing one in this region. Mr. Elliot, an eminent New England divine and one of the first founders of that great colony, translated the Bible into this language in the year 1666, which was printed soon after at Cambridge, near Boston; he translated also the catechism and many other useful books, which are still very common on this island, and are daily made use of by those Indians who are taught to read. The young Europeans learn it with the same facility as their own tongues and ever after speak it both with ease and fluency. Whether the present Indians are the descendants of the ancient natives of the island, or whether they are the remains of the many different nations which once inhabited the regions of Mashpe and Nobscusset, in the peninsula now known by the name of Cape Cod, no one can positively tell, not even themselves. The last opinion seems to be that of the most sensible people of the island. So prevailing is the disposition of man to quarrel and shed blood, so prone is he to divisions and parties, that even the ancient natives of this little spot were separated into two communities, inveterately waging war against each other, like the more powerful tribes of the continent. What do you imagine was the cause of this national quarrel ? All the coast of their island equally abounded with the same quantity of fish and clams; in that instance, there could be no jealousy, no motives to anger; the country afforded them no game; one would think this ought to have been the country of harmony and peace. But behold the singular destiny of the human kind, ever inferior, in many instances to the more certain instinct of animals, among which the individuals of the same species are always friends, though reared in different climates; they understand the same language, they shed not each other’s blood, they eat not each other’s flesh. That part of these rude people who lived on the eastern shores of the island had from time immemorial tried to destroy those who lived on the west; those latter inspired with the same evil genius, had not been behind hand in retaliating: thus was a perpetual war subsisting between these people, founded on no other reason but the adventitious place of their nativity and residence. In process of time both parties became so thin and depopulated that the few who remained, fearing lest their race should become totally extinct, fortunately thought of an expedient which prevented their entire annihilation. Some years before the Europeans came, they mutually agreed to settle a partition line which should divide the island from north to south; the peo- ple of the west agreed not to kill those of the east, except they were found transgressing over the western part of the line; those of the last entered into a reciprocal agreement. By these simple means, peace was established among them, and this is the only record which seems to entitle them to the denomination of men. This happy settlement put a stop to their sanguinary depredations; none fell afterward but a few rash, imprudent individuals; on the contrary, they multiplied greatly. But another misfortune awaited them: when the Europeans came, they caught the small pox, and their improper treatment of that disorder swept away great numbers. This calamity was succeeded by the use of rum; and these are the two principal causes which so much diminished their numbers, not only here but all over the continent. In some places whole nations have disappeared. Some years ago, three Indian canoes, on their return to Detroit from the falls of Niagara, unluckily got the small pox from the Europeans with whom they had traded. It broke out near the long point on lake Erie; there they all perished; their canoes and their goods were afterwards found by some travellers journeying the same way; their dogs were still alive. Besides the small pox and the use of spirituous liquors, the two greatest curses they have received from us, there is a sort of physical antipathy, which is equally powerful from one end of the continent to the other. Wherever they happen to be mixed, or even to live in the neighbourhood of the Europeans, they become exposed to a variety of accidents and misfortunes to which they always fall victims: such are particular fevers, to which they were strangers before, and sinking into a singular sort of indolence and sloth. This has been invariably the case wherever the same association has taken place, as at Nattick, Mashpe, Soccanoket in the bounds of Falmouth, Nobscusset, Houratonick, Monhauset, and the Vineyard. Even the Mohawks themselves, who were once so populous and such renowned warriors, are now reduced to less than 200 since the European settlements have circumscribed the territories which their ancestors had reserved. Three years before the arrival of the Europeans at Cape Cod, a frightful distemper had swept away a great many along its coasts, which made the landing and intrusion of our forefathers much easier than it otherwise might have been. In the year 1763, above half of the Indians of this island perished by a strange fever, which the Europeans who nursed them never caught; they appear to be a race doomed to recede and disappear before the superior genius of the Europeans. The only ancient custom of these people that is remembered is that in their mutual exchanges, forty sun-dried clams, strung on a string, passed for the value of what might be called a copper. They were strangers to the use and value of wampum, so well known to those of the main. The few families now remaining are meek and harmless; their ancient ferocity is gone; they were early christianized by the New England missionaries, as well as those of the Vineyard, and of several other parts of Massachusets, and to this day they remain strict observers of the laws and customs of that religion, being carefully taught while young. Their sedentary life has led them to this degree of civilization much more effectually than if they had still remained hunters. They are fond of the sea, and expert mariners. They have learned from the Quakers the art of catching both the cod and whale, in consequence of which five of them always make part of the complement of men requisite to fit out a whale-boat. Many have removed hither from the Vineyard, on which account they are more numerous on Nantucket than any where else.

It is strange what revolution has happened among them in less than two hundred years! What is become of those numerous tribes which formerly inhabited the extensive shores of the great bay of Massachusets? Even from Numkeag (Salem), Saugus ( Lynn), Shawmut (Boston), Pataxet, Napouset (Milton), Matapan (Dorchester), Winesimet ( Chelsea), Poiasset, Pokanoket (New Plymouth), Suecanosset (Falmouth), Titicut (Chatham), Nobscusset (Yarmouth), Naussit (Eastham), Hyannees (Barnstable), &c., and many others who lived on sea-shores of above three hundred miles in length; without mentioning those powerful tribes which once dwelt between the rivers Hudson, Connecticut, Piskataqua, and Kennebeck, the Mehikaudret, Mohiguine, Pequods, Narragansets, Nianticks, Massachusets, Wamponougs, Nipnets, Tarranteens, &c.–They are gone, and every memorial of them is lost; no vestiges whatever are left of those swarms which once inhabited this country, and replenished both sides of the great peninsula of Cape Cod: not even one of the posterity of the famous Masconomeo is left (the sachem of Cape Ann); not one of the descendants of Massasoit, father of Metacomet (Philip), and Wamsutta (Alexander), he who first conveyed some lands to the Plymouth Company. They have all disappeared either in the wars which the Europeans carried on against them, or else they have mouldered away, gathered in some of their ancient towns, in contempt and oblivion; nothing remains of them all, but one extraordinary monument, and even this they owe to the industry and religious zeal of the Europeans, I mean, the Bible translated into the Nattick tongue. Many of these tribes, giving way to the superior power of the whites, retired to their ancient villages, collecting the scattered remains of nations once populous, and in their grant of lands reserved to themselves and posterity certain portions which lay contiguous to them. There forgetting their ancient manners, they dwelt in peace; in a few years their territories were surrounded by the improvements of the Europeans, in consequence of which the grew lazy, inactive, unwilling, and unapt to imitate, or to follow any of our trades, and in a few generations either totally perished or else came over to the Vineyard, or to this island, to re-unite themselves with such societies of their countrymen as would receive them. Such has been the fate of many nations, once warlike and independent; what we see now on the main or on those islands may be justly considered as the only remains of those ancient tribes. Might I be permitted to pay perhaps a very useless compliment to those at least who inhabited the great peninsula of Namset, now Cape Cod, with whose names and ancient situation I am well acquainted. This peninsula was divided into two great regions: that on the side of the bay was known by the name of Nobscusset, from one of its towns; the capital was called Nausit (now Eastham); hence the Indians of that region were called Nausit Indians, though they dwelt in the villages of Pamet, Nosset, Pashee, Potomaket, Soktoowoket, Nobscusset (Yarmouth).

The region on the Atlantic side was called Mashpee, and contained the tribes of Hyannees, Costowet, Waquoit, Scootin, Saconasset, Mashpee, and Namset. Several of these Indian towns have been since converted into flourishing European settlements, known by different names; for as the natives were excellent judges of land, which they had fertilized besides with the shells of their fish, &c., the latter could not make a better choice, though in general this great peninsula is but a sandy pine track, a few good spots excepted. It is divided into seven townships, viz., Barnstable, Yarmouth, Harwich, Chatham, Eastham, Pamet, Namset, or Province town, at the extremity of the Cape. Yet these are very populous, though I am at a loss to conceive on what the inhabitants live besides clams, oysters, and fish, their piny lands being the most ungrateful soil in the world. The minister of Namset or Province Town, receives from the government of Massachuset a salary of fifty pounds per annum; and such is the poverty of the inhabitants of that place that, unable to pay him any money, each master of a family is obliged to allow him two hundred horse feet (sea spin), with which this primitive priest fertilizes the land of his glebe, which he tills himself: for nothing will grow on these hungry soils without the assistance of this extraordinary manure, fourteen bushels of Indian corn being looked upon as a good crop. But it is time to return from a digression, which I hope you will pardon. Nantucket is a great nursery of seamen pilots, coasters, and bank-fishermen; as a country belonging to the province of Massachusets, it has yearly the benefit of a court of Common Pleas, and their appeal lies to the supreme court at Boston. I observed before, that the Friends compose two thirds of the magistracy of this island; thus they are the proprietors of its territory and the principal rulers of its inhabitants; but with all this apparatus of law, its coercive powers are seldom wanted or required. Seldom is it that any individual is amerced or punished; their jail conveys no terror; no man has lost his life here judicially since the foundation of this town, which is upwards of an hundred years. Solemn tribunals, public executions, humiliating punishments, are altogether unknown. I saw neither governors, nor any pageantry of state; neither ostentatious magistrates, nor any individuals cloathed with useless dignity: no artificial phantoms subsist here, either civil or religious; no gibbets loaded with guilty citizens offer themselves to your view; no soldiers are appointed to bayonet their compatriots into servile compliance. But how is a society composed of 5000 individuals preserved in the bonds of peace and tranquility ? How are the weak protected from the strong? I will tell you. Idleness and poverty, the causes of so many crimes, are unknown here; each seeks in the prosecution of his lawful business that honest gain which supports them; every period of their time is full, either on shore or at sea. A probable expectation of reasonable profits or of kindly assistance if they fail of success renders them strangers to licetious expedients. The simplicity of their manners shortens the catalogues of their wants; the law, at a distance, is ever ready to exert itself in the protection of those who stand in need of its assistance. The greatest part of them are always at sea, pursuing the whale or raising the cod from the surface of the banks; some cultivate their little farms with the utmost diligence; some are employed in exercising various trades; others, again, in providing every necessary resource in order to refit their vessels, or repair what misfortunes may happen, looking out for future markets, &c. Such is the rotation of those different scenes of business which fill the measure of their days, of that part of their lives at least which is enlivened by health, spirits, and vigour. It is but seldom that vice grows on a barren sand like this, which produces nothing without extreme labour. How could the common follies of society take root in so despicable a soil; they generally thrive on its exuberant juices; here there are none but those which administer to the useful, to the necessary, and to the indispensable comforts of life. This land must necessarily either produce health, temperance, and a great equality of conditions, or the most abject misery. Could the manners of luxurious countries be imported here, like an epidemical disorder they would destroy every thing; the majority of them could not exist a month; they would be obliged to emigrate. As in all societies except that of the natives, some difference must necessarily exist between individual and individual, for there must be some more exalted than the rest either by their riches or their talents; so in this, there are what you might call the high, the middling, and the low; and this difference will always be more remarkable among people who live by sea excursions than among those who live by the cultivation of their land. The first run greater hazard, and adventure more; the profits and the misfortunes attending this mode of life must necessarily introduce a greater disparity than among the latter, where the equal divisions of the land offers no short road to superior riches. The only difference that may arise among them is that of industry, and perhaps of superior goodness of soil: the gradations I observed here are founded on nothing more than the good or ill success of their maritime enterprizes and do not proceed from education; that is the same throughout every class, simple, useful, and unadorned like their dress and their houses. This necessary difference in their fortunes does not, however, cause those heart burnings which in other societies generate crimes. The sea which surrounds them is equally open to all and presents to all an equal title to the chance of good fortune. A collector from Boston is the only king’s officer who appears on these shores to receive the trifling duties which this community owe to those who protect them, and under the shadow of whose wings they navigate to all parts of the world.

Letter IIITable of Contents | Letter V


Text: Letters From an American Farmer, by J. Hector St. John Crèvecoeur, reprinted from the original ed., with a prefatory note by W.P. Trent and an introduction by Ludwig Lewisohn. New York, Fox, Duffield, 1904.

Original Scan: Jill Spearman, University of Virginia, 5/1/95

Formatted and linked to Home Page: Alan B. Howard, 9/1/95

Copy edited and checked against original: Dan Backer, University of Virginia, 10/14/95

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