Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) was a successful writer when she
decided to spend two years traveling in America. She wrote Society in
America about her experiences.
We landed at Detroit, from Lake Erie, at seven o'clock in the morning of the 13th
of June, 1836. We reached the American just in time for breakfast. At
that long table, I had the pleasure of seeing the healthiest set of
faces that I had beheld since I left England. The breakfast was
excellent, and we were served with much consideration; but the place was
so full, and the accommodations of Detroit are so insufficient for the
influx of people who are betaking themselves thither, that strangers
must patiently put up with much delay and inconvenience till new houses
of entertainment are opened. We had to wait till near one o'clock before
any of us could have a room in which to dress; but I had many letters
to write, and could wait; and before I had done, Charley came with his
shining face and clean collar, to show me that accommodation had been
provided. In the afternoon, we saw what we could of the place, and
walked by the side of the full and tranquil river St. Clair. The streets
of the town are wide and airy; but the houses, churches, and stores,
are poor for the capital city of a Territory or State. This is a defect
which is presently cured, in the stirring northern regions of the United
States. Wooden planks, laid on the grass, form the pavement, in all the
outskirts of the place. The deficiency is of stone, not of labour.
Thousands of settlers are pouring in every year; and of these, many are
Irish, Germans, or Dutch, working their way into the back country, and
glad to be employed for a while at Detroit, to earn money to carry them
further. Paving-stones will be imported here, I suppose, as I saw them
at New Orleans, to the great improvement of the health and comfort of
the place. The block-wood pavement, of which trial has been made in a
part of Broadway, New York, is thought likely to answer better at
Detroit than any other kind, and is going to be tried.
The country round Detroit is as flat as can be imagined; and,
indeed, it is said that the highest mountain in the State boasts only
sixty feet of elevation. A lady of Detroit once declared, that if she
were to build a house in Michigan, she would build a hill first. The
Canada side of the river looks dull enough from the city; but I cannot
speak from a near view of it, having been disappointed in my attempts to
get over to it. On one occasion, we were too late for the ferry-boat;
and we never had time again for the excursion.
A cool wind from the northern lakes blows over the whole face of the
country, in the midst of the hottest days of summer; and in the depth
of winter, the snow never lies deep, nor long. These circumstances may
partly account for the healthiness of the row of faces at the table of
The society of Detroit is very choice; and, as it has continued so
since the old colonial days, through the territorial days, there is
every reason to think that it will become, under its new dignities, a
more and more desirable place of residence. Some of its inferior society
is still very youthful; a gentleman, for instance, saying in the
reading room, in the hearing of one of our party, that, though it did
not sound well at a distance, Lynching was the only way to treat
Abolitionists: but the most enlightened society is, I believe, equal to
any which is to be found in the United States. Here we began to see some
of the half-breeds, of whom we afterwards met so many at the north.
They are the children of white men who have married squaws; and may be
known at a glance, not only by the dark complexion, but by the high
cheek-bones, straight black hair, and an indescribable mischievous
expression about the eyes. I never saw such imps and Flibbertigibbets as
the half-breed boys that we used to see rowing or diving in the waters,
or playing pranks on the shores of Michigan.
We had two great pleasures this day; a drive along the quiet Lake
St. Clair, and a charming evening party at General Mason's. After a
pilgrimage through the State of New York, a few exciting days at
Niagara, and a disagreeable voyage along Lake Erie, we were prepared to
enjoy to the utmost the novelty of a good evening party; and we were as
merry as children at a ball. It was wholly unexpected to find ourselves
in accomplished society on the far side of Lake Erie; and there was
something stimulating in the contrast between the high civilisation of
the evening, and the primitive scenes that we were to plunge into the
next day. Though we had to pack and write, and be off very early in the
morning, we were unable to persuade ourselves to go home till late; and
then we talked over Detroit as if we were wholly at leisure.
The scenery of Lake St. Clair was new to me. I had seen nothing in
the United States like its level green banks, with trees slanting over
the water, festooned with the wild vine; the groups of cattle beneath
them; the distant steam-boat, scarcely seeming to disturb the grey
surface of the still waters. This was one of the first of many scenes in
Michigan which made me think of Holland; though the day of canals had
not yet arrived.
15th. An obliging girl at the American provided us with
coffee and biscuits at half-past five, by which time our "exclusive
extra" was at the door. Charley had lost his cap. It was impossible that
he should go bare-headed through the State; and it was lucky for us
that a store was already open where he was furnished in a trice with a
willow-hat. The brimming river was bright in the morning sun; and our
road was, for a mile or two, thronged with Indians. Some of the
inhabitants of Detroit, who knew the most about their dark neighbours,
told me that they found it impossible to be romantic about these poor
creatures. We, however, could not help feeling the excitement of the
spectacle, when we saw them standing in their singularly majestic
attitudes by the road-side, or on a rising ground: one, with a bunch of
feathers tied at the back of the head; another, with his arms folded in
his blanket; and a third, with her infant lashed to a board, and thus
carried on her shoulders. Their appearance was dreadfully squalid.
From: SOCIETY IN AMERICA by Harriet Martineau. New York: Saunders and Otley, 1837. 2 volumes. 1: 232 - 235.
ick, Valerie K. Harriet Martineau, the Woman and her Work. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1980.
Webb, R. K. Harriet Martineau: A Radical Victorian. NY: Columbia University, 1960.