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1796 Weld

Isaac Weld Junior (1774-1856) was from Ireland. He was traveling "for the purpose of examining with his own eyes into the truth of the various accounts which had been given of the flourishing and happy condition of the United States of America, and ascertaining whether, in case of future emergency, any part of those territories might be looked forward to, as an eligible and agreeable place of abode." (Introduction, p.1)

At sunset, on the last day of September, we left the islands, and the next morning entered the Detroit River, The river, at its mouth, is about five miles wide, and continues near the same breadth for a considerable distance. The shores are of a moderate height, and thickly wooded; but there is nothing particularly interesting in the prospect till we arrived within four or five miles of the new British post. Here the banks appeared diversified with Indian encampments and villages, and beyond them the British settlements were seen to great advantage. The river was crowded with Indian canoes and bateaux, and several pleasure boats belonging to the officers of the garrison, and to the traders, that had come out in expectation of meeting us, were seen cruizing about backwards and forwards. The two other vessels of war, which we had left behind us at Fort Erie, as well as the trading vessels, had overtaken us just as we entered the river, and we all sailed up together with every bit of canvas, that we could muster, full spread. The day was uncommonly clear, and the scene altogether was pleasing and interesting.

The other vessels proceeded up the river to the British post; but ours, which was laden with presents for the Indians, cast anchor opposite to the habitation of the gentleman in the Indian department, whom I before mentioned, which was situated in the district of Malden. He gave us a most cordial invitation to stay at his house, whilst we should remain in this part of the country; we gladly accepted of it, and accordingly went with him on shore.


Malden is a district of considerable extent, situated on the eastern side of the Detroit River, about eighteen miles below the town of Detroit. At the lower end of the district there are but few houses, and these stand very widely asunder; but at the upper end, bordering upon the river, and adjoining to the new British post that has been established since the evacuation of Detroit, a little town has been laid out, which already contains more than twenty houses, and is rapidly increasing. Hither several of the traders have removed who formerly resided at Detroit. This little town has as yet received no particular name, neither has the new post, but they merely go under the name of the new British post and town near the island of Bois-Blanc, an island in the river near two mile in length, and half a mile in breadth, that lies opposite to Malden.

When the evacuation of Detroit was first talked of, the island was looked to as an eligible situation for the new post, and orders were sent to purchase it from the Indians, and to take possession of it in the name of his Britannic Majesty. Accordingly a party of troops went down for that purpose from Detroit; they erected a small block house on the northern extremity of it, and left a serjeant's guard there for its defence. Preparations were afterwards making for building a fort on it; but in the mean time a warm remonstrance against such proceedings came from the government of the United States, who insisted upon it that the island was not within the limits of the British dominions. The point, it was found, would admit of some dispute, and as it could not be determined immediately, the plan for the building the fort was relinquished for the time. The block house on the island, however, still remains guarded, and possession will be kept of it until the matter in dispute be adjudged by the commissioners appointed, pursuant to the late treaty, for the purpose of determining the exact boundaries of the British dominions in this part of the continent, which were by no means clearly ascertained by the definitive treaty of peace between the States and Great Britain.. . . .

We remained for a short time in Malden, and then set off for Detroit in a neat little pleasure boat, which one of the traders obligingly lent to us. The river between the two places varies in breadth from two miles to half a mile. The banks are mostly very low, and in some places large marshes extend along the shores, and far up into the country. The shores are adorned with rich timber of various kinds, and bordering upon the marshes, where the trees have full scope to extend their branches, the woodland scenery is very fine. Amidst the marshes, the river takes some very considerable bends, and it is diversified at the same time with several large islands, which occasion a great diversity of prospects.

Beyond Malden no houses are to be seen on either side of the river, except indeed the few miserable little huts in the Indian villages, until you come within four miles or thereabouts of Detroit. Here the settlements are very numerous on both sides, but particularly on that belonging to the British. The country abounds with peach, apple, and cherry orchards, the richest I ever beheld; in many of them the trees, loaded with large apples of various dies, appeared bent down into the very water. They have many different sorts of excellent apples in this part of the country, but there is one far superior to all the rest, and which is held in great estimation, called the pomme caille; I do not recollect to have seen it in any other part of the world, though doubtless it is not peculiar to this neighborhood. It is of an extraordinary large size, and deep red colour; not confined merely to the skin, but extending to the very core of the apple; if the skin be taken off delicately, the fruit appears nearly as red as when entire. We could not resist the temptation of stopping at the first of these orchards we came to, an for a few pence we were allowed to lade our boat with as much fruit as we could well carry away. The peaches were nearly out of season now, but from the few I tasted, I should suppose that they were of a good kind, far superior in flavour, size, and juiciness to those commonly met with in the orchards of the middle states.

The houses in this part of the country are all built in a similar style to those in Lower Canada; the lands are laid out and cultivated also similarly to those in the lower province; the manners and persons of the inhabitants are the same; French is the predominant language, and the traveller may fancy for a moment, if he pleases, that he has been wafted by enchantment back again into the neighbourhood of Montreal or Three Rivers. All the principal posts throughout the western country, along the lakes, the Ohio, the Illinois, &c. were established by the French; but except at Detroit and in the neighbourhood, and in the Illinois country, the French settlers have become so blended with the greater number who spoke English, that their language has every where died away.

Detroit contains about three hundred houses, and is the largest town in the western country. It stands contiguous to the river, on the top of the banks, which are here about twenty feet high. At the bottom of them there are very extensive wharfs for the accommodation of the shipping, built of wood, similar to those in the Atlantic sea-ports. The town is surrounded by a strong stockade, through which there are four gates; two of them open to the wharfs, and two others to the north and south side of the town respectively. The gates are defended by strong block houses, and on the west side of the town is a small fort in form of a square, with bastions at the angles. At each of the corners of this fort is planted a small field-piece, and these constitute the whole ordnance at present in the place. The British kept a considerable train of artillery here, but the place was never capable of holding out for any length of time against a regular force: the fortifications, indeed, were constructed chiefly as a defence against the Indians.

Detroit is at present the head-quarters of the western army of the States; the garrison consists of three hundred men, who are quartered in barracks. Very little attention is paid by the officers to the minutiae of discipline, so that however well the men have acquitted themselves in the field, they make but a poor appearance on parade. The belles of the town are quite desepoir at the late departure of the British troops, though the American officers tell them they have no reason to be so, as they will find them much more sensible agreeable men than the British officers when they know them, a style of conversation, which, strange as it may appear to us, is yet not uncommon amongst them. Three months, however, have not altered the first opinion of the ladies. I cannot better give you an idea of the unpolished, coarse, discordant manners of the generality of the officers of the western army of the States, than by telling you, that they cannot agree sufficiently amongst themselves to for a regimental mess; repeated attempts have been made since their arrival in Detroit to establish one, but their frequent quarrels would never suffer it to remain permanent. A duellist and an officer of the western army were nearly synonimous terms, at one period, in the United States, owing to the very large number of duels that took place amongst them when cantoned at Grenville.

About two thirds of the inhabitants of Detroit are of French extraction, and the greater part of the inhabitants of the settlements on the river, both above and below the town, are of the same description. The former are mostly engaged in trade, and they all appear to be much on an equality. Detroit is a place of very considerable trade; there are no less than twelve trading vessels belonging to it, brigs, sloops, and schooners, of from fifty to one hundred tons burthen each. The inland navigation in this quarter is indeed very extensive, Lake Erie, three hundred miles in length, being open to vessels belonging to the port, on the one side; and lakes Michigan and Huron, the first upwards of two hundred miles in length, and sixty in breadth, and the second, no less than one thousand miles in circumference, on the opposite side; not to speak of Lake St. Clair and Detroit River, which connect these former lakes together, or of the many large rivers which fall into them. The shores and shops in the town are well furnished, and you may buy fine cloth, linen, &c. and every article of wearing apparel, as good in their kind, and nearly on as reasonable terms, as you can purchase them at New York or Philadelphia.

The inhabitants are well supplied with provisions of every description; the fish in particular, caught in the river and neighboring lakes, are of a very superior quality. The fish held in most estimation is a sort of large trout, called the Michilimakinac white fish, from its being caught mostly in the straits of that name. The inhabitants of Detroit and the neighbouring country, however, though they have provisions in plenty, are frequently much distressed for one very necessary concomitant, mainly, salt. Until within a short time past they had no salt but what was brought from Europe; but salt springs have been discovered in various parts of the country, from which they are now beginning to manufacture that article for themselves. The best and most profitable of the springs are retained in the hands of government, and the profits arising from the sale of the salt are paid into the treasury of the province. Throughout the western country they procure their salt from springs, some of which throw up sufficient water to yield several hundred bushels in the course of one week.

There is a large Roman catholic church in the town of Detroit, and another on the opposite side, called the Huron Church, from its having been devoted to the use of the Huron Indians. The streets of Detroit are generally crowded with Indians of one tribe or other, and amongst them you see numberless old squaws leading about their daughters, ever ready to dispose of them, pro tempore, to the highest bidder. At night all the Indians, except such as get admittance into private houses, and remain there quietly, are turned out of the town, and the gates shut upon them.

The American officers here have endeavoured to their utmost to impress upon the minds of the Indians an idea of their own superiority over the British; but as they are very tardy in giving these people any presents, they do not pay much attention to their words. General Wayne, from continually promising them presents, but at the same time always postponing the delivery when they came to ask for them, has significantly been nicknamed by them, General Wabang, that is General To-morrow.

The country around Detroit is very much cleared, and so likewise is that on the British side of the river for a considerable way above the town. The settlements extend nearly as far as Lake Huron; but beyond the River La Trenche, which falls into Lake St. Clair, they are scattered very thinly along the shores. The banks of the River La Trenche, or Thames, as it is now called, are increasing very fast in population, as I before mentioned, owing to the great emigration thither of people from the neighborhood of Niagara, and of Detroit also since it has been evacuated by the British. We made an excursion, one morning in our little boat, as far as Lake St. Clair, but met with nothing, either amongst the inhabitants, or in the face of the country, particularly deserving of mention. The country around Detroit is uncommonly flat, and in none of the rivers is there a fall sufficient to turn even a grist mill. The current of the Detroit River itself is stronger than that of any others, and a floating mill was once invented by a Frenchman, which was chained in the middle of that river, where it was thought the stream would be sufficiently swift to turn the water wheel: the building of it was attended with considerable expence to the inhabitants, but after it was finished it by no means answered their expectations. They grind their corn at present by wind mills, which I do not remember to have seen in other parts of North America.

The soil of the country bordering upon Detroit River is rich though light, and it produces good crops both of Indian corn and wheat. The climate is much more healthy than that of the country in the neighbourhood of Niagara River; intermittent fevers however are by no means uncommon disorders. The summers are intensely hot, Fahrenheit's thermometer often rising about 100; yet a winter seldom passes over but what snow remains on the ground for two or three months.

Whilst we remained at Detroit, we had to determine upon a point of some moment to us travellers, namely, upon the route by which to return back towards the Atlantic. None of us felt much inclined to cross the lake again to Fort Erie, we at once therefore laid aside all thoughts of returning that way. Two other routes then presented themselves for our consideration; the one was to proceed by land from Detroit, through the north western territory of the United States, as far as the head waters of some one of the rivers which fall into the Ohio, having reached which, we might afterwards have proceeded upwards or downwards, as we found most expedient; the other was to cross by water to Presqu' Isle, on the south side of Lake Erie, and thence go down French Creek and the Alleghany River, as far as Pittsburgh on the Ohio, where being arrived we should likewise have had the choice of descending the Ohio and Mississippi, or of going on to Philadelphia, through Pennsylvania, according as we should find circumstances most convenient. The first of these routes was most suited to our inclination, but we soon found that we must give over all thoughts of proceeding by it. The way to have proceeded would have been to set out on horseback, taking with us sufficient provisions to last for a journey through a forest of upwards of two hundred miles in length, and trusting our horses to the food which they could pick up for themselves amongst the bushes. There was no possibility of procuring horses, however, for hire at Detroit or in the neighbourhood, and had we purchased them, which could not have been but at a most exorbitant price, we should have found it a difficult matter perhaps to have got rid of them when we ended our land journey, unless indeed we chose to turn them adrift in the woods, which would not have been perfectly suitable to our finances. But independent of this consideration there was another obstacle in our way, and that was the difficulty of procuring guides. The Indians were all preparing to set out on their hunting excursions, and had we even been able to have procured a party of them for an escort, there would have been some risk, we were told, of their deserting us before we reached our journey's end. If they fell in on the journey with a hunting party that had been very successful; if they came to a place where there was great abundance of game; or, in short, if we did not proceed just according to their fancy, impatient of every restraint, and without caring in the least for the hire we had promised them, they would perhaps, leave us in the whim of moment to shift for ourselves in the woods, a situation we had no desire to see ourselves reduced to; we determined therefore to proceed by Presqu' Isle. But now another difficulty arose, namely, how we were to get there: a small vessel, a very unusual circumstance indeed, was just about to sail, but it was so crowded with passengers, that there was not a single birth vacant, an moreover, if there had been, we did not wish to depart so abruptly from this part of the country. One of the principal traders, however, at Detroit, to whom we had carried letters, soon accommodated matters to our satisfaction, by promising to give orders to the master of one of the lake vessels, of which he was in part owner, to land us at that place. The vessel was to sail in a fortnight; we immediately therefore secured a passage in her, and having settled with the master that he should call for us at Malden, we set off once more for that place in our little boat, and in a few hours, from the time we quitted Detroit, arrived there.

From: TRAVELS THROUGH THE STATES OF NORTH AMERICA AND THE PROVINCES OF UPPER AND LOWER CANADA, DURING THE YEARS 1795, 1796, AND 1797. By Isaac Weld, Junior. London: Printed for John Stockdale, 1799: 343 - 356.