Rare Book Highlights: Carver’s Travels

Title page of Carver’s Travels through the Interior Parts of North America in the Years 1766, 1767, and 1768.

Carver, Jonathan. Travels through the Interior Parts of North America, in the Years 1766, 1767, and 1768. London, 1781. Call number: F597 .C32 1781x

This month I would like to highlight one of our recent acquisitions. For those of us living in the Upper Midwest, this book gives a glimpse of the region just before the time of the American Revolution.

Portrait of Jonathan Carver from the fontispiece of his Travels.

Jonathan Carver was born in Massachusetts in 1710 when it was still an English colony. He joined the Massachusetts militia in 1755 and fought in the French and Indian War. At the end of the war, he set out west to explore the new territory that the British acquired as a result of the war.

He traveled into modern day Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and the Dakotas, finding his way to the headwaters of the Mississippi River and traveling around the Great Lakes.

His book is part travelogue, part natural history text. He describes not only the land he passes through, but also the native peoples he meets, including their customs and way of life. The second half of the book describes the animals and plants he discovers along the way.

Colored illustration of a male Native American on the left, dressed in a loin-cloth and leggings and carrying a musket and ax, with a woman and child on the right. The child is nake, and the woman is wearing a white dress with a pink skirt underneath.

Colored plate depicting “A Man and Woman of the Ottagaumies.”

In the text, Carver describes coming upon “the Great Town of the Saukies,” or Sauk people–one of the Native American tribes that moved into Iowa in the 1700s. This particular town was located on the Wisconsin River (“Ouisconsin River”) in that what is now Wisconsin, but perhaps it gives a sense of how these same people may have lived in Iowa (through the lens, of course, of a European colonial of the time). He writes,

“This is the largest and best built Indian town I ever saw. It contains about ninety houses, each large enough for several families. These are built of hewn plank neatly jointed, and covered with bark so compactly as to keep out the most penetrating rains. Before the doors are placed comfortable sheds, in which the inhabitants sit, when the weather will permit, and smoak their pipes. The streets are regular and spacious; so that it appears more like a civilized town than the abode of savages. The land near the town is very good. In their plantations, which lie adjacent to their houses, and which are neatly laid out, they raise great quantities of Indian corn, beans, melons, &c. so that this place is esteemed the best market for traders to furnish themselves with provisions, of any within eight hundred miles of it” (46-47).

Detailed view of map showing Carver’s planned travel area. In the lower right quadrant of the image is shown “Saukies Chief Town.”

Carver also describes the animals he encountered, including the “Tyger of America,” which, he says, “resembles in shape those of Africa and Asia, but is considerably smaller. Nor does it appear to be so fierce and ravenous as they are. The colour of it is a darkish fallow, and it is entirely free from spots” (442). Which American cat is he describing, do you think? My guess is the bobcat.

Colored image shows the stalk, leaves, and flowers of the tobacco plant, as well as the caterpillar that feeds on the plant.

Although there are no plates illustrating the animals listed in the book, there is a colored plate illustrating the Tobacco Plant.

In addition to describing the native plants and animals of the region, Carver also describes the starchy plants that the Native Americans grew or harvested, including maize, wild rice, beans, and squash. The New England colonists may have been familiar with corn from their early interactions with the natives in the area, but for Carver’s audiences in England, the plant was likely still a strange exotic. Given its importance to the Iowa economy, it may be interesting to see how he describes this early species of “MAIZE or INDIAN CORN.” The stalks grow “six to ten feet high.” The kernals he calls “seeds,” describing them as “large as peas, and like them quite naked and smooth, but of a roundish surface, rather compressed. One spike generally consists of about six hundred grains, which are placed closely together in rows to the number of eight or ten, and sometimes twelve.”  “This corn is very wholesome,” he continues, “easy of digestion, and yields as good nourishment as any other sort” (522).

Wouldn’t Carver be surprised to see Iowa today with its acres and acres of corn fields?

This book was purchased with funds from the Margaret Mae Gross Memorial Endowment.

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