Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) traveled to the United States
with Gustave de Beaumont in 1831. Their official mission was to study
the penitentiary system in the United States but they traveled and
observed everything and everywhere they could. These travel observations
form the background for deTocqueville's most famous work, Democracy in
America. It is interesting to note that de Tocqueville in going to
Michigan thought he was visiting the "utmost limits of European
Pocket Notebook Number 2
July. At sunrise we are sailing through the middle of the lake towards
the North West, the shores are only to be seen in the distance, but a
great many little islands surround us. We are passing beside the little
island of 'Middle Sister' near which took place the naval battle in
which the English were defeated.
Entry of the Detroit River. An island; two passages. We take
the English channel. House of Fort Malden. French appearance of the
village. Catholic Church. Cock on the church tower. Scottish soldier in
full dress on the bank; on the other side two stark naked savages in a
canoe, twisting as fast as a whirlpool round our boat. Rings hanging on
the nose. Under the trees on the bank, huts of a sort with a fire in the
middle. Naked children around. On one side extreme civilization, on the
other the extreme opposite.
We arrived at Detroit at 4 o'clock. A fine American village.
Many French names on the houses; French bonnets. We went to see Mr.
Richard, the priest in charge of the Catholic church in Detroit. We
found him busy teaching at school. His story: brought up by the Irish in
Paris; studied theology at Saint Sulpice; ordained priest at the last
ordination of 1791; went into exile; came to Detroit; a few years ago
was Congress representative for the territory of Michigan. An old man
whose religion seems to be ardent and sincere. Desultory conversation,
but interesting. The Protestant population begins to be preponderant in
Michigan on account of emigration. But Catholicism gains some converts
among the most enlightened men. Mr. Richard's opinion about the extreme
coolness of the upper classes in America towards religion. One of the
reasons for the extreme tolerance; anyhow tolerance complete. Nobody
asks you of what religion you are, but if you can do the job.
The greatest service one can do to religion is to separate it from
temporal power. The slightest nuance of ill feeling towards popular
government, intrigues and cabals; the elections are even made by the
central government. United States systems for the new States. They are
made to get accustomed by degrees to governing themselves. Colony of
native Christians at Michilimackinac. Their zeal, their ardour, their
On leaving Mr. Richard our embarrassment about which way to
set out. All the Americans wanted us to choose the best roads and oldest
settlements. We wanted the wilderness and savages but did not like to
say so too clearly.
Saginaw Bay was proposed and, to put an end to the argrument, we decided on that.
23rd July. We bought pillows, a compass, brandy, sugar, and ammunition. We hired two horses.
Conversation with Mr. Biddle.
We left at 11 o'clock. Our dress. Our way of travelling.
Birds killed. Our joy at advancing at last into the wilds. Perfectly
flat ground. One league without trees and under cultivation around
A Fortnight in the Wilds
In the evening, the weather having turned favorable, we
moved quickly towards Detroit across the middle of the lake. On the
following morning we were in sight of the little island called Middle Sister, near to which Commodore Perry won a celebrated naval victory over the English.
Soon afterwards the level coast of Canada seemed to be
moving quickly towards us, and we saw the Detroit River opening in front
of us and the houses of Fort Malden in the distance. This place,
founded by the French, still bears many traces of its origin. The houses
are placed and shaped like those of our peasants. The Catholic
bell-tower with a cock on top rises in the middle of the hamlet. One
might think it a village near Caen or Evreux. A strange sight turned our
attention away from these sentimental reminders of France: on the bank
to our right was a Scotch soldier mounting guard in full uniform. It was
the uniform made so famous by the field of Waterloo. Feather in cap,
jacket, all complete; his clothes and arms glinted in the sunlight. To
our left, as if on purpose to point the contrast, two stark naked
Indians, their bodies streaked with dyes, rings in their noses, came up
at the same moment from the opposite bank. There were in a little bark
canoe with a coverlet for sail. Letting their frail boat run with wind
and current, they shot like an arrow towards our ship and in an instant
had turned round it. Then they went off quietly to fish near the English
soldier who, still glinting and unmoving, seemed put there as the
symbol of the high civilisation of Europe in arms.
We reached Detroit at three o'clock. Detroit is a little
town of two or three thousand souls, founded by the Jesuits in the
middle of the forest in 1710, and still having a great number of French
By this time we had crossed the whole state of New York, and
gone a hundred leagues over Lake Erie; by now we were touching the
limits of civilisation, but we had no idea whatsoever whither to wend
our way next. To get information was not as easy as one might have
thought. To break through almost impenetrable forests, to cross deep
rivers, to brave pestilential marshes, to sleep out in the damp woods,
those are exertions that the American readily contemplates, if it is a
question of earning a guinea; for that is the point. But that one should
do such things from curiosity is more than his mind can take in.
Besides, living in the wilds, he only prizes the works of man. He will
gladly send you off to see a road, a bridge or a fine village. But that
one should appreciate great trees and the beauties of solitude, that
possibility completely passes him by.
So nothing is harder than to find anyone able to understand
what you want. You want to see forests, our hosts said smiling, go
straight ahead and you will find what you want. They are there all right
around the new roads and well-trod paths. As for Indians, you will see
only too many in our public places and in the streets; there is no need
to go very far for that. Those here are at least beginning to get
civilised and have a less savage look. We were not slow to realize that
we should not get the truth out of them by a frontal attack and that it
was necessary to manoeuvre.
So we went to call on the official appointed by the United
States to see to the sale of the still uninhabited land that covers the
district of Michigan; we represented ourselves to him as people who,
without any decided intention of settling in the country, might yet have
distant interest in knowing what land cost and how it was situated.
Major Biddle, that was his name, this time understood wonderfully well
what we wanted to do, and entered a once into a mass of details to which
we paid avid attention. 'This part here', he said to us, pointing out
on the map the St. Joseph River which, after many a bend, flows into
Lake Michigan, 'seems to me the best suited for your scheme; the soil is
good there; there are already some fine villages established there, and
the road leading thither is so well maintained that public conveyances
traverse it daily.' 'Good'! we said to ourselves. 'Now we know where not
to go, at least unless we want to visit the wilds in a mail van.' We
thanked Mr. Biddle for his advice, and asked him with an air of
casualness and a pretended scorn, what part of the district had so far
least attracted the attention of emigrants. 'In this direction', he told
us without attaching more importance to his answer than we had to our
question, 'towards the northwest. As far as Pontiac and in the
neighbourhood of that village some fairly good settlements have been
established. But you must not think of settling further on; the ground
is covered by almost impenetrable forest which stretches endlessly to
the northwest, where one only finds wild beasts and Indians. The United
States are always considering opening up a road; but so far it has
barely been begun and stops at Pontiac. I say again, that is a part you
should not think about.' We thanked Mr. Biddle again for his good
advice, and left determined to take it in just the contrary sense. We
could not contain ourselves for joy at having at last discovered a place
to which the torrent of European civilisation had not yet come.
On the next day, the 23rd July, we hastened to
hire two horses. As we contemplated keeping them for ten days or so, we
wanted to leave a sum of money with their owner; but he refused to take
it, saying that we could pay on our return. He showed no alarm. Michigan
is surrounded on all sides by lakes and wilds; he let us in to a sort
of riding-school of which he held the door. When we had bought a compass
as well as provisions, we set out on our way, rifle on shoulder, as
thoughtless of the future and happy as a pair of schoolboys leaving
college to spend their holidays at their father's house.
If we had indeed only wanted to see forests, our hosts in
Detroit would have been right in telling us that we need not go very
far, for, a mile out of the town, the road goes into the forest and
never comes out of it. The land it passes over is completely flat and
often marshy. From time to time along the road one comes to new
From: JOURNEY TO AMERICA by Alexis de Tocqueville.
Translated by George Lawrence. Edited by J. P. Mayer. New Haven: Yale
University Press, [1959.]: 134-135; 334-337.
Jardin, Andre. Tocqueville: A Biography. Translated from the French by Lydia Davis with Robert Hemenway. NY: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1988.
ezierski, John. A Fortnight in the Wilds. Michigan History 1980 64 (3): 28-34.
Kilar, Jeremy. Tocqueville's Companion Traveler Gustave de Beaumont and the Journey to the Michigan Wilderness in 1831. Michigan History 1984 68 (1): 34 -39.
iebersohn, Harry. Discovering Indigenous Nobility: Tocqueville, Chamisso, and Romantic Travel Writing. American Historical Review 1994 99 (3): 746- 766.
Lively, Jack. The Social and Political Thought of Alexis de Tocqueville. Oxford: Clarenden Press, 1962.
Nash, Roderick. American Cult of the Primitive. American Quarterly 1966 18 (3): 517-537.