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1835 Featherstonhaugh

George William Featherstonhaugh [1780-1866] was the first geologist employed by the federal government. He was on his way to a government geological investigation tour in Minnesota when he stopped in Detroit. William Lass in his Introduction to the Reprint Edition by the Minnesota Historical Society wrote that, "His book captures the essence of American frontier materialism, and it contributes to an understanding of the inexorable westward push of Anglo-American culture." [p. xxvi}

July 30. - About 3 p.m. we were opposite to Grosse Isle, and having left the lake behind, passed sufficiently near to the Canadian shore to see the sentinels at Fort Malden in their scarlet coats. Amherstburg appeared to be a neat little place. The strait here seemed to be about a mile and a half wide; the banks clay and sand, the country extremely flat, and the water a dull blue colour. The farms on the British side, following the Canadian custom, go back some distance into the country, with a narrow frontage on the river; the houses are usually plain framed buildings, and sometimes constructed with squared logs. On the American side no buildings were visible. The country was a dead flat, presenting nothing but a low sedgy shore. The banks of the strait did not appear to be more than 30 feet above the water; and the adjacent lands, so far as the eye could reach, announced an ancient lacustrine deposit, without visible elevation upon it.

As we approached the town of Detroit, the river narrowed to about 1500 yards, and a scene of some animation appeared. I could see half-a-dozen church steeples, with numerous buildings in the distance, and several very neat-looking painting cottages on the American side. On the British side there was Sandwich, not a very neat-looking village, with a small Episcopal church, and a larger wooden edifice, but still unpainted, of an antiquated structure, for the Roman Catholics. In North America, where there are so few localities to which any historical interest attaches, Detroit is conspicuous, for the military incidents connected with it have more than once been rather of a thrilling character; and I landed here for the first time, delighted at having an opportunity of examining a place about which I had read and heard so much.

On reaching a large hotel called the Michigan Exchange, I was so fortunate as to obtain a spacious private room with a clean bed; and having made my arrangements, and enough of daylight remaining to take a look at the place, I wandered about for a couple of hours. What would have pleased many, exceedingly disappointed me. With enthusiastic predilections for the scenes made almost illustrious by the exploits of the early French, the audacious daring of the crafty Indian chief Pondiac, and the inflexible resolution of our own gallant Brock, - scenes than which few places can boast of so exciting and various a character, I could not view without distaste the long street, 80 feet broad, filled with Yankee stores, lawyers' offices, doctors' shops, dens where vulgar justices of the peace hid themselves, and an assemblage of long eager visages eternally talking about dollars and business. In the morning I hastened to look for some vestiges of the ancient fort that Pondiac had beleaguered; but, alas! every thing was razed to the ground; and, indeed, not a vestige was even left of the modern fortification that General Hull so hastily surrendered in 1812 to the resolute Brock, except the house of the commanding officer, that was too good to pull down. The settlements of the United States are spreading so rapidly, and the passion for making money is so absorbing, that there will soon not be a stone or a stick standing where a fort once stood, or a battle was fought. This is deeply to be regretted, as historical monuments assist greatly to elevate the character of a people.

On my return from my walk, Colonel W., a very gentlemanly person, and an officer of great merit in the service of the United States, called upon me, and engaged me to dine with him the next day. I was delighted with this incident, because I had know his lady a great many years before, and because I was sure to receive a great deal of information from so intelligent an officer.

July 31. - Having passed the morning in making observations, at 2 p.m. I dressed for my engagement, and went to Colonel W.'s. We had a very pleasant dinner. Mrs. W. is a lively, well-bred gentlewoman, and received me cordially. There was also a Miss R. and her father, whom I had formerly known, both of them agreeable persons, who resided at Grosse Isle. What a charm agreeable women infuse into society, and what an immense difference education makes in them. The same morning, at the public breakfast table at the hotel, there was a very pretty woman, who, apparently, had not had many of its advantages, stuffing in onions and an immense quantity of nasty-looking trash for her breakfast. I thought I would rather be married to a she codfish, as there would be some chance of her being caught. I found my host, Colonel W., a person of various attainments: he had cultivated letters with success, and would have been considered a most agreeable companion in any society. Besides his other advantages, he possessed some exceedingly fine Chateau Margeaux of one of the best vintages, a merit that few field officers I had lately seen could boast of.

In the evening the Colonel drove me to Spring Wells, a place about three miles from Detroit, where General Brock effected his landing, on the 16th of August, 1812. From the account which his own countrymen give of the American General Hull, it appears that he was totally without soldierly qualities. He had commenced hostilities on the declaration of war by invading Canada, with a vapouring proclamation announcing that he would not stop until he had taken Quebec; but advancing no further than the opposite shore, he made an inglorious retreat to Detroit in less than a month, permitting General Brock, with less than one thousand men, principally composed of Indians and militia-men, to invade him in turn without opposition; and although in a strong fort sufficiently garrisoned, and assisted by able and spirited officers, he became so intimidated by the exaggerated view he took of the excesses that the Indians under the British flag might commit if victorious, that he not only withdrew the cannon that could have raked the whole line of approach of the British troops, but neglected to line the fences of the farms, that were on the line by which they were advancing, with troops that could from their cover have cut off almost every man that appeared in sight; so that General Brock, after making his bold dash, had very little trouble after touching the American shore, beyond receiving the capitulation of his enemy upon the very day he landed. In fact, he never approached nearer to Detroit than a mile, and negotiated the capitulation of Hull and his troops from a house where he stopped to breakfast. Everything was signed before he left this house, so extremely eager was Hull to shelter himself and his friends from the dangers his apprehensions had created. It is to the credit of the officers under his command that he never consulted them, and turned a deaf ear to the suggestions they ventured to their commander, to save themselves and their country's flag from dishonour.

This being the last town on the Indian frontier, and the only place where I was likely to find any mechanics, I directed a comfortable tent to be made, and procured a variety of objects that were likely to be useful to me in my projected excursion into the Indian country. It is much better to provide these things at the frontier towns; the tradesmen there are more familiar with the wants of one who is about to travel in the Indian countries; and Detroit is a place full of resources, and much frequented by straggling Indians. I called to give some directions one morning at a boot-maker's, and found an elderly-looking Ojibway Indian there, in company with what I took to be a young-looking squaw, of a fine character of countenance. She was trying a pair of shoes on, which I was rather surprised at, as the squaws always wear mocassins. I asked the tradesman if she was the Indian's daughter or his wife, and understood him to say that she was his wife, and that he had another who was older. The Indian understood English a little, and having been a great deal amongst the Canadians, spoke French tolerably well, as the tradesman told me. I therefore spoke to him in French, and asked him if she had brought him any children, but he would give me no answer, saying something in Indian to his companions; upon which they gave a mortal grunt of dissatisfaction. I saw that they were offended at something, but could not imagine what it was. Whilst she was drawing on one of the shoes, her robe got a little a-side, and her naked thighs were rather too plainly seen; upon which a bystander remarked, that for a young squaw she was not very modest. Just at this time a person happened to come in who knew them, and said we were all under a mistake, that it was a young man of eighteen, and not a squaw. We were all exceedingly surprised, and had a very good laugh; the smooth chin, feminine face, and peculiar dress of this handsome youth having completely deceived us. Female Indians, however, of the common class, are so ugly, that a youth dressed as this one was is easily mistaken for a female; indeed, I have often found it as difficult to conjecture what sex individuals of this race were, by merely looking at their faces, as I should be on looking at the faces of animals.

Having before left my card at the quarters of General B., the commanding office of this district, I called upon him again, in company with Colonel W., and found him at home. He was not particularly polite, and quite ungrammatical enough to make me believe what I had already learnt, that he was an uneducated frontier soldier of great merit in his line, but not remarkably disposed to be useful to a traveller.

A Sunday intervening during my stay, I went to the Catholic Church about 6 a.m., that I might have an opportunity of forming an opinion of the Canadian population here. Very few persons were present, and I returned again after breakfast to the morning service. The congregation was chiefly composed of the humbler class of French Canadians, dressed in coarse home-spun clothes. With few exceptions, neither men nor women looked much better than the Indians, and most of them seemed to have Indian blood in their veins. A few persons of superior degree, in dress and manners, were present, but very few. The music was good, and the organist was an excellent performer. The Cure was a venerable-looking man with grey hair; and a Bishop, a native of Tyrol, whose name I have forgotten, delivered an admirable sermon: he was a very short, odd-looking little man, but full of talent. As soon as the service was over, the Bishop, with his Cure and his cortege, six in number, made a very episcopal exit into the vestry-room. I was exceedingly pleased with the whole service, and the devout conduct of the congregation. At the door of the church I found several charettes, or little waggons, belonging to the inhabitants of the vicinity, each of them drawn by one horse, and all without seats. In some of them half-a-dozen respectably dressed females squatted themselves down with their children, a male in front driving the "marche donc." Colonel W. told me that the streets of Detroit, not being paved, were sometimes, on the approach of winter and in spring, excessively muddy; but being the season when the Canadian families kept up their bals de societe, each of them had one of these machines to go to their parties in, and that it was not unusual to see ladies upon these occasions, dressed in grand toilet, squatted down in them.

As soon as the Roman Catholic service was over, I crossed the river in the ferry-boat to Sandwich, on the British side, intending to go to the Episcopal Church there, and had an agreeable walk of about a mile and a half along the bank of the river. At the court-house I got into conversation with the person who had charge of the church as well as the gaol, a respectable old English soldier, who had been near half a century in Canada. This interesting man had preserved his loyalty to his sovereign and native country amidst all the changes and temptations he had been exposed to. He conversed with me freely about the state of that part of the country, and observed that it was gradually settling with respectable English families; that demagogues and agitators were not much countenanced by them, and that the whole population, with few exceptions, promised to be as loyal as it was industrious. He said their American neighbours were a very industrious and active race of people, and that they lived on good terms with them. I was struck with this pleasing instance of two people, only divided by a river 1500 yards wide, each living happily under two such different forms of government, in a sincere attachment to each of which they have been respectively brought up.

After dinner Colonel W. called on me, and we took a drive by the river side, along the ancient road to Bloody Bridge, where Major Dalyell's detachment was defeated by Pondiac in 1763, and himself killed. It consists of a few planks laid across a small brook, which here empties itself into the Detroit: the bridge is not more than 5 yards from the river, and there is not a space of more than 6 inches from the under-side of the bridge to the brook; yet the author of "Wacousta," one of the most stirring romances I have ever read, has made it wide enough to conceal a company of soldiers beneath, and to permit a canoe to pass under. Whether that agreeable writer has ever been in the country he describes, I know not; but he has exceedingly distorted probabilities, and misrepresented distances and localities. He makes a schooner perform the distance from old Michilimackinac to the southern extremity of Lake Huron, now Fort Gratiot, which is a distance of 240 miles, betwixt sunrise and sunset, and without a breath of wind; and transforms the Detroit river, which is a magnificent stream 1500 yards wide in the narrowest part, and often a mile and a half, into a confined meandering stream, across which a fallen tree could rest upon both banks, and from the channel of which the yards of the schooner could rake the branches of the trees growing on each side. Such egregious exaggerations in an historical romance more than counterbalance its merit in the eyes of the traveller, for with him the absurdities become the most conspicuous features of the work; and nothing would have been more easy than to have avoided them.

As Detroit is a point on the water communications of this part of North America, by which the first French explorers advanced from Quebec to the discovery of the Mississippi river, and became consequently more conspicuous in the variety of its historical incidents than perhaps any other locality in North America; and as the tour which I am about to narrate is precisely upon the line of advance of the first French adventurers to the extreme points to which they penetrated, and much beyond them; I hope to do an acceptable thing to the reader in suspending for a while the narrative of my journey, in order to make it more interesting and intelligible by a rapid sketch of this part of the country since it was first visited by Europeans. . . .


See Also:

Berkeley, Edmund. George William Feaherstonehaugh: The First U.S. Government Geologist. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1988.

Eyles, Joan M. G. W. Featherstonhaugh (1780-1866) F.R.S., F.G.S., Geologist and Traveller. Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural Science [Great Britain] 1978 8 (4): 381-395.