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1836 Martineau

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 American.

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.

See Also:


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.