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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 71/November 1907/Peter Kalm's Travels

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 71‎ | November 1907



A STUDENT of our early colonial history once remarked to me that we should have lived some two hundred years before our time, then we might have thoroughly enjoyed the country. By "country" he meant the natural, primitive condition of the land as it appeared to the first generation of Europeans born on its shores. It was far from being the inhospitable wilderness that their fathers had known. Homes of some comfort stood in the midst of cleared land; the fields yielded an abundant harvest; flourishing young towns and the king's highway gave to the new country a semblance of old-world civilization. And yet, withal, the ancient woods and the wild life were but a bow-shot from its door-steps.

This observation of my friend makes a strong appeal to the imagination of those of us who love simple ways and nature undisturbed. We may voice the poet's regret that

The world is too much with us,

but in truth it would doubtless be a great hardship if we should find ourselves, by some trick of a fairy godmother, back in those primitive days. A man's life is so largely made up of the things of the mind that it is the picture of the thing that makes for happiness far more than the reality.

The past is a fine canvas for our pictures. The pigments of fancy blend in pleasing effects, and distance in time as well as in space lends its enchantment. Many things are potent to suggest these pictures—the faded leaves of a diary, a bit of finery, the site of some long-forgotten house, an old book—trifles light as air that turn the hard lines of a modern scene into the soft, hazy light of the past.

The peculiar charm of an old book is the atmosphere that pervades it. Its pages may contain nothing of interest, even to the most curious reader, but with the lapse of time the dullest volume acquires a certain distinctive character. An old book breathes of the past; the scent of its stained and musty leaves penetrates into the dim chambers of the mind where fancy slumbers. And when fancy stirs and awakens its neighbor, long-forgotten memory, mayhap we have here the reason for this endearing quality of old things, for who knows what shreds of ancestral memories were wrapped in the bundle of our inheritances.

This flotsam and jetsam of the literary past, drifted on to the upper shelves and into out-of-the-way places, may yield some bit of treasure—some record vivid with the life of old days and of places long since blotted out.

Among such driftwood is occasionally to be found a rare fragment of Americana—the "Travels into North America," by Peter Kalm, It is a quaint old book with the observations and reflections of an inquisitive naturalist who visited this country in the middle of the eighteenth century. There is no attempt at style or literary finish of any sort—it is the plain narrative of a man whose interests were by no means confined to natural history. The book is charming in the desultory treatment of its subject matter—in its utter lack of logical arrangement. In one place we read of "cyder" making, and in the very next paragraph the author abruptly launches forth in a dissertation on "a certain quadruped which is pretty common, not only in Pensylvania, but likewise in other provinces, both of South and North America, and goes by the name of Polecat among the English. In New York they generally call it Skunk." In another place some peculiarity in the marriage "of widows is followed by a dissertation on divers remedies used against the toothache.

Kalm was omnivorous as to facts. He meant to tell everything about the new country, and sets this forth in the following remarkable title—


A circumstantial Account of its Plantations
and Agriculture in general,


The MANNERS of the INHABITANTS, and several curious
and IMPORTANT REMARKS on various Subjects.

A perusal of the book fully justifies this title. One is convinced that "no circumstance interesting to natural history or to any other part of literature has been omitted." The book was first published at Stockholm in 1753 under the title "En Resa Til Norra America," and it was subsequently translated into both German and English. The English translation, edited by the naturalist, John Reinhold Forster, was first published at London in 1772, in three volumes, and is dedicated to the Hon. Daines Barrington, the same to whom Gilbert White of Selborne addressed so many of his letters.

Kalm, who held the position of "Professor of Œconomy in the University of Aobo in Swedish Finland," was sent out at the instance of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Stockholm to make "such observations and collections of seeds and plants as would improve the Swedish husbandary, gardening, manufactures, arts and sciences." Iceland and Siberia were first proposed as the countries to be explored for this purpose, but Linnæus "thought that a journey through North America would be yet of more extensive utility." What Sweden gained by this change of plan we do not know, but the literary and scientific world of that day gained much, and we of to-day—lovers of old books and quaint recitals—find great store of pleasure in these pictures of the past.

Kalm's book is full of local color and redolent of the soil and the air of the country. The simplicity and directness of statement put one at once in sympathy with the man. His personality is in every page, but there is no striking of the literary attitude. He is entirely simple-minded, almost child-like—a gentle, companionable man. Listen to this naïve rehearsal on the first day of his setting foot ashore at Philadelphia:

I found that I was now come into a new world. Whenever I looked to the ground, I everywhere found such plants as I had never seen before. When I saw a tree, I was forced to stop, and ask those who accompanied me, how it was called. The first plant which struck my eyes was an Andropogon, or a kind of grass, and grass is a part of Botany I always delighted in. I was seized with terror at the thought of ranging so many new and unknown parts of natural history. . . . At night I took up lodging with a grocer who was a quaker, and I met with very good, honest people in this house, such as most people of this profession appeared to me; I and my Yungstraem, the companion of my voyage, had a room, candles, beds, attendance, and three meals a day, if we chose to have so many, for twenty shillings per week in Pensylvania currency. But wood, washing and wine, if required, were to be paid for besides.

Kalm had numerous letters of recommendation—

Mr. Benjamin Franklin, to whom Pensylvania is indebted for its welfare, and the learned world for many new discoveries in electricity, was the first v%-ho took notice of me, and introduced me to many of his friends. He gave me all necessary instructions, and shewed me his kindness on many occasions.

A Swede himself, Kalm naturally spent much of his time among the Swedes, descendants of the first Swedish settlers on the Delaware. At the village of Raccoon on the New Jersey shore, he sojourned with his brethren for many weeks during the winter and spring of 1749. The village has long since disappeared; the place where it once stood is now not certainly known, but Raccoon Creek still falls into the Delaware, nearly opposite the Pennsylvania town of Chester, and the searcher after old sites may spend some pleasant hours, if only with the haunting sense of the vanished hamlet that once stood somewhere in this neighborhood. Here Kalm gained much information from the mouths of old Swedes who remembered the land in the earlier days of its settlement.

The first houses that the Swedes built consisted of but one little room, with the door so low that one had to stoop in order to get in. "As they had brought no glass with them, they were obliged to be content with little holes, before which a movable board was fastened." The cracks and crannies were stopped with clay. Clay was also used, in many instances, in the construction of their chimneys.

Before the English came to settle here, the Swedes could not get as many cloaths as they wanted; and were therefore obliged to make shift as well as they could. The men wore waistcoats and breeches of skins. Hats were not in fashion; and they made little caps, provided with flaps before. They had worsted stockings. Their shoes were of their own making. Some of them had learnt to prepare leather, and to make common shoes with heels; but those who were not shoemakers by profession, took the length of their feet, and sewed the leather together accordingly; taking a piece for the sole, one for the hind-quarters, and one more for the upper-leather. At that time, they likewise sowed flax here, and wove linen cloth. Hemp was not to be got; and they made use of flaxen ropes and fishing tackle. The women were dressed in jackets and petticoats of skins. Their beds, excepting the sheets, were skins of several animals; such as bears, wolves, etc.

Such "superfluities" as tea, coffee and chocolate were unknown to these first settlers on the Delaware, but rum they had at "moderate price" and "sugar and treacle they had in abundance. . . . Almost all the Swedes made use of baths; and they commonly bathed every Saturday." Their carts must have been remarkable constructions, the wheels sawed from thick pieces of the liquidambar tree.

These old Swedes had a small idea of the value of land and sold large tracts to English settlers for a mere song. One old Swede told Kalm that his father sold an estate, which at the time of Kalm's visit was reckoned at three hundred pounds value, "for a cow, a sow and a hundred gourds."

Kalm was evidently much impressed by the spirit of liberty that prevailed amongst the 'people. Speaking of the decrease of certain wild birds, as compared with their former abundance, he says:

But since the arrival of great crowds of Europeans, things are greatly changed; the country is well peopled, and the woods are cut down; the people increasing in this country, they have by hunting and shooting in part extirpated the birds, in part scared them away; in spring the people still take both eggs, mothers and young indifferently, because no regulations are made to the contrary. And if any had been made, the spirit of freedom which prevails in the country would not suffer them to be obeyed.

In another place he refers to the freedom displayed in taking fruit from the orchards.

The orchards, along which we passed today, were only enclosed by hurdles. But they contained all kinds of fine fruit. We wondered at first very much when our leader leaped over the hedge into the orchards, and gathered some agreeable fruit for us. But our astonishment was still greater when we saw that the people in the garden were so little concerned at it, as not even to look at us. But our companion told us, that the people here were not so exact in regard to a few fruits, as they were in other countries where the soil is not so fruitful in them. We afterwards found very frequently that the country people in Sweden and Finland guarded their turnips more carefully, than the people here do the most exquisite fruits.

Among the many customs of the people which Kalm noted are the following curious passages relating to marriage—

There is a great mixture of people of all sorts in these colonies, partly of such as are lately come over from Europe, and partly of such as have not yet any settled place of abode. Hence it frequently happens that when a clergyman has married such a couple, the bridegroom says he has no money at present, but would pay the fee at the first opportunity; however, he goes off with his wife, and the clergyman never gets his due. This proceeding has given occasion to a custom which is now common in Maryland. When the clergyman marries a very poor couple, he breaks off in the middle of the Liturgy, and cries out. Where is my fee? The man must then give the money, and the clergyman proceeds; but if the bridegroom has no money, the clergyman defers the marriage till another time, when the man is better provided. People of fortune, of whom the clergyman is sure to get his due, need not fear this disagreeable question, when they are married. . . . There is a very peculiar diverting custom here, in regard to marrying. When a man dies, and leaves his widow in great poverty, or so that she can not pay all the debts with what little she has left, and that, notwithstanding all that, there is a person who will marry her, she must be married in no other habit than her shift. By that means, she leaves to the creditors of the deceased husband her cloaths, and everything which they find in the house. But she is not obliged to pay them anything more, because she has left them all she was worth, even her cloaths, keeping only a shift to cover her, which the laws of the country cannot refuse her. As soon as she is married, and no longer belongs to the deceased husband, she puts on the cloaths which the second has given her. The Swedish clergymen here have often been obliged to marry a woman in a dress which is so little expensive, and so light.

There are various references in Kalm's book to the aboriginal inhabitants of the country, though at the time of his visit the Indians had retired from the immediate vicinity of the seaboard. "It is very possible," says Kalm, "for a person to have been at Philadelphia and other towns on the sea shore for half a year together, without so much as seeing an Indian." Most of Kalm's observations concerning the natives, their manners, customs and food, are at second hand, but may be regarded as fairly reliable, his information being obtained from the older Swedes, who, in the earlier days of the settlement, had been well acquainted with the Indian people that dwelt by the Delaware.

What pleases the reader most in Kalm's book, I think, is the general picture of the country and the local color which he gets from the scattered observations and descriptions throughout the pages. Naturally Kalm was much impressed with the extent of forest in this new world. Furthermore be was a botanist, and had an eye for the various kinds of trees, the remarks upon which, and upon the great variety of plants that he observed and collected, occupy a considerable portion of the narrative. Pie tells us in one place that grass formerly grew in the woods which were then quite open, with little or none of the underwood growth which characterize our woodlands to-day. The settled parts of the country must have had a wild and shaggy look, even in Kalm's time, for he speaks of the stumps of trees in the corn-fields—a real backwoods' picture—and notes that the farms were widely separated from one another:

The greatest part of the land, between these farms so distant from each other, was overgrown with woods, consisting of tall trees. However, there was a fine space between the trees, so that one could ride on horseback without inconvenience in the woods, and even with a cart in most places; and the ground was very plain and uniform at the same time. . . . In some parts of the country the trees were thick and tall, but in others I found large tracts covered with young trees, only twenty, thirty, or forty years old; these tracts, I am told, the Indians formerly had their little plantations in. . . . The woods consisted chiefly of several species of oak. and of hiccory.

An old Swede, Nils Gustafson by name, ninety-one years of age, told Kalm that

he could very well remember the state of the country, at the time when the Dutch possessed it, and in what circumstances it was before the arrival of the English. He added, that he had brought a great deal of timber to Philadelphia, at the time it was built. He still remembered to have seen a great forest on the spot where Philadelphia now stands.[1]

Kalm had a practical turn of mind. Being a professor of "Œconomy," he was at all times on the look-out for the uses of things. Whatever contributed to human welfare seemed to him of the first moment. What a particular plant or tree yielded in the way of dyes, or food, or timber, or remedies against sickness; the nature of soils, the qualities of rocks and stones for building purposes; the thrift, or want of it, on the part of the people; how they clothed and housed themselves; how prolific they were, what they ate, how they cooked their food, how they cared for their stock and crops—all such matters find a conspicuous place in his pages. And so he goes rambling delightfully on—describing and commenting upon everything that he saw, or even heard of—here about wine-making, or fences, or s)ring-houses; there about some curious custom, or remarkable occunrence. He was forever putting a question—"quere," as he called it—"where did the Swedes here settled get their several sorts of corn, and likewise their fruit-trees and kitchen-herbs?" "Whence did the English in Pensylvania and New Jersey get their cattle?" "Where did these Swallows [Chimney Swifts] build their nests before the Europeans came and made houses with chimneys?" He had much to say about the more familiar birds[2] and beasts that he met with and heard of—their peculiarities and habits, and occasionally a grotesque story concerning some one of them. The weather, too, took up a large share of his attention, and he appears to have kept a careful record which is inserted as an appendix to the second volume of the translation.

Kalm constantly refers to his friend Dr. Linnæus, who evidently held the author of the "Travels" in high esteem. The generic name of our laurels—Kalmia—was bestowed by the great naturalist in honor of his humble friend, and Kalm, in speaking of the laurel, refers to this fact. John Bartram, the first American botanist, and whose house, built in 1731, is still standing, surrounded by its delightful old garden, was another to whom Kalm constantly refers in terms of friendship. His intercourse with Bartram and with Benjamin Franklin during his sojourn in Philadelphia was evidently a great source of satisfaction to Kalm, for he makes frequent allusion to his visits to and conversations with these worthies.

The "Travels" were not confined to the neighborhood of Philadelphia, though the author spent much of his time in this vicinity. He visited New York on one or two occasions, and made an arduous journey to Montreal, by way of the Hudson, and was at one time in some danger from an attack by the Iroquois. He seemed particularly struck with the French women of Montreal—their looks, dress, and good manners—and draws some rather invidious comparisons between them and their English sister residents. "In their knowledge of œconomy." he says, "they greatly surpass the English women in the plantations, who indeed have taken the liberty of throwing off the burthen of housekeeping upon their husbands, and sit in their chairs all day with folded arms." These remarks brought forth a defensive foot-note on the part of the English translator.

The "Travels into North America" is to be read in a spirit of simplicity, for in such a spirit it was conceived. One reads it as he reads "The Compleat Angler," or "The Natural History of Selborne," or Sir Thomas Browne—books that exhale a perennial fragrance, having their roots deep in the soil of things personal.
PSM V71 D426 Husavik.png
PSM V71 D426 Snow mountains on skjalfandi.png
Snow Mountains on Skjalkandi.

  1. According to Heckwelder, this site was called by the Indians Kùequenáku, which means the "grove of the long pine trees."
  2. See article by the writer in the Auk Vol. XX., No. 3. July. 1903.