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.

5 thoughts on “Rare Book Highlights: Carver’s Travels

  1. This book sounds like a treasure trove of history, a window into the past. I love reading books like this because they are so much more than books. Rather old travelogues, journals, and letters are voices speaking from the dead. Books such as this should be treasured as a time capsule.

  2. Hello, I just finished reading Carver’s book. I must say that I am a wildlife biologist, and Carver describes the “Tyger” as being ‘fallow’ in color and ‘entirely free of spots.”. I don’t mean to argue with you, but he didn’t describe a bobcat. Bobcats have spots. LOTS of them. Not as many as an ocelot, which I believe he saw and calls the “Cat of the Mountain” (although ocelots were never known to be in the upper Midwest, they aren’t found in mountains, and they are pretty much confined to Latin and South America. These days. Back then, maybe???).
    DId he see a lynx? Well, again, no. Lynx are,one spotted, and two, is much larger than a bobcat. THey aren’t as big as a lion, even a small one, though. In addition, both bobcat and lynx have short tails and tufted ears. Knowing that Carver described the cervids in great detail, to include the short tail of an elk, I have trouble thinking he missed the tail on his ‘tyger’.
    So what did he see? I don’t know. He describes the white tailed deer as being fallow, but deer change color..from reddish brown during the summer to the more familiar brownish gray of a winter deer.
    It couldn’t have been a jaguar, as they are heavily spotted (except for the jaguars that live in deep jungle, then they are usually black. Leopards are the same). Jaguars are called “tigre’ in Spanish.

    Carver also mentioned that his ‘tyger’ was smaller than the Asian or African ones. Wellllllll, there are no tigers in Africa, never have been. There are African and Asian lions, and at one time, there was the American lion (Panthera atrox) that made today’s African lion look like a pony. They were half again as large as today’s lions. It would be so cool if what he saw was P. Atrox…but I seriously doubt it.
    I can’t believe he mistook a cougar (or what in the east is called a mountain lion) for a real lion. Cougars have a completely different head shape and body. They look NOTHING like a lion, never mind a tiger, they aren’t even in the same genus.
    But the color…now maybe he had the color right.

    So, in essence, I don’t know what he saw. He is not the first person to describe a strange cat in the Midwest…another explorer of the mid 1700’s claims to have seen what sounds, to me, like the physiology of the American cheetah. Which supposedly was driven to extinction along with all the other megafauna when humans invaded the continent.

    What troubles me with all the reading I’ve done on early Native Americans et al…is there seems to be NOTHING in the reports of Indian oral history about cats, big or small. For that matter, little was said about the wildlife altogether. Perhaps this was a cultural thing: they focused on animals like bears, elk, bison, etc. And, possibly, it’s a artifact of selective reporting by the white men doing the writing. These men seemed to focus on the wars the Indians conducted, their civil structure, their religions, (or lack thereof) and the economies of the tribes. Hunting was hunting. They also seemed to focus almost solely on the masculine side of Indian life, making mention of women’s lives only when it seemed ‘exotic’ or titillating. (as in, sharing one’s wife with a visitor).
    and perhaps it’s an environmental thing. Cats weren’t big players in the plains. It was wolves and bison, elk and antelope, golden eagles, etc.

    Given all that, and reading in Wikipedia that Carver plagiarized much of his book (but then…Wikipedia can’t always be trusted, either), still..I enjoyed the book.

    • Amy

      Thanks for your thought-provoking comment. I am certainly not an expert in wildlife, so I defer to your greater knowledge. What comes to my mind is the medieval bestiary that included all sorts of fantastical creatures. Especially given that Carver was traveling in what was still exotic territory to the European colonists, it is not surprising that his descriptions of animals don’t quite match up with what we know today of the fauna of the plains. You also bring up important points regarding the reporting of white men on native cultures. It is always good to keep in mind who the writer is, and the particular cultural lens through which he (in this case) is viewing the world.

      • It IS important to read history in the context it was written. For instance, if one reads “Robinson Crusoe’, (fiction), written in the late 1600’s, about Robinson Crusoe’s adventures after being marooned on a so called “deserted Island”(conveniently, the ship survived the beaching with all sorts of neato stuff, like livestock, iron tools, and food). Crusoe nevertheless finds a black man whom he dubs Friday, because that’s the day he found the man, immediately makes him his ‘servant’, taking him under his wing to teach him, I suppose, what? how to live like a white man? Notwithstanding the fact that the Friday had lived his entire life on the island without benefit of a supply ship with all the stuff.

        In the case of Carver, the fact that he confuses lions with tigers is quite possibly due to his having never seen one!! They didn’t have zoos in America in the 1700’s.

        The hardest part of reading any of this early exploration of the world, especially America, that is so painful to this tree hugging environmentally conscious biologist is that it no longer exists. What a paradise it was!! Carver talks of trees so big that ‘dozens’ of eagles could nest in them. Waters so pure that one could see to the bottom of Lake Superior and fish were so big (40 pound TROUT!!!) and probably so easy to catch that going hungry was an option. Having grown up in Michigan, I can tell you that the Lakes are no longer so pure, and they are full of invasive species.
        Our world is so much the sadder one for all the things we’ve killed off, spoiled, and generally exploited without thinking..or caring.

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