1837 Jameson

Anna Jameson [1794-1860] was a well known English writer. Her visit to Detroit was part of a longer tour from Toronto and back. Miss Emily Mason, sister of Governor Mason, met Jameson while she was in Detroit and wrote about the visit to her sister. "...I hinted that connected with Mrs. Jameson's visit here there was a story which I was dying to tell you....Last Sunday coming out of church I observed some redhaired, ugly, red faced woman staring at meall the way down the aisle and said to John Sprague who was with me -'do look at that ugly old woman - she is desperately taken with either your or I - who can it be?' Judge my consternation when I saw someone go up to her and was presently informed it was - Mrs. Jameson! One of my greatest admirations - who would ever have supposed from her writings which are everything that is elegant and lady-like that she was red haired and fat! ...I called to see her - accompanied her to the Boat the morning of her departure . . . and after listening a short time I discovered that I had made a great mistake in considering her ugly - she has a charming countenance." [ Thomas. Pp. 117-118]


Detroit, June - .

The roads by which I have at length reached this beautiful little city were not certainly the smoothest and the easiest in the world; nor can it be said of Upper Canada as of wisdom, "that all her ways are ways of pleasantness, and her paths are the paths of peace." On the contrary, one might have fancied oneself in the road to paradise for that matter. It was difficult, narrow, and foul, and steep enough to have led to the seventh heaven; but in heaven I am not yet -

Since my arrival at Detroit, some malignant planet reigns in place of that favourable and guiding star which has hitherto led me so deftly on my way,

"Through brake, through brier,

Through mud, through mire."

Here, where I expected all would go so well, everything goes wrong, and cross, and contrary.

A severe attack of illness, the combined effect of heat, fatigue, and some deleterious properties in the water at Detroit, against which travellers should be warned, has confined me to my room for the last three days. This mal apropos indisposition has prevented me from taking my passage in the great steamer which has just gone up Lake Huron; and I must now wait here six days longer, till the next boat bound for Mackinaw and Chicago, comes up Lake Erie from Buffalo. What is far worse, I have lost, for the time being, the advantage of seeing and knowing Daniel Webster, and of hearing a display of that wonderful eloquence which they say takes captive all ears, hearts, and souls. He has been making public speeches here, appealing to the people against the money transactions of the government; and the whole city has been in a ferment. He left Detroit two days after my arrival, to my no small mortification. I had letters for him; and it so happens that several others to whom I had also letters, have fled from the city on summer tours, or to escape the heat. Some have gone east, some west, some up the lakes, some down the lakes; so I am abandoned to my own resources in a miserable state of languor, lassitude, and weakness.

It is not, however, the first time I have had to endure sickness and solitude together in a strange land; and the worst being over, we must needs make the best of it, and send the time away as well as we can.

Of all the places I have yet seen in these far western regions, Detroit is the most interesting. It is, moreover, a most ancient and venerable place, dating back to the dark immemorial ages, i.e. almost a century and a quarter ago! and having its history and antiquities, and traditions and heroes, and epochs of peace and war. "No place in the United States presents such a series of events interesting in themselves, and permanently affecting, as they occurred, both its progress and prosperity. Five times its flag has changed; three different sovereignties have claimed its allegiance; and since it has been held by the United States, its government has been thrice transferred: twice it has been besieged by the Indians, once captured in war, and once burned to the ground:" - truly, a long list of events for a young city of a century old! Detroit may almost rival her old grandam Quebec, who sits bristling defiance on the summit of her rocky height, in warlike and tragic experience.

Can you tell me why we gave up this fine and important place to the Americans, without leaving ourselves even a fort on the opposite shore? Dolts and blockheads as we have been in all that concerns the partition and management of these magnificent regions, now that we have ignorantly and blindly ceded whole countries, and millions and millions of square miles of land and water to our neighbours, they say we are likely to quarrel and go to war about a partition line through the barren tracts of the east! Well, this is not your affair nor mine - let our legislators look to it. Colonel Talbot told me that when he took a map, and pointed out to one of the English commissioners the foolish bargain they had made, the real extent, value, and resources of the countries ceded to the United States, the man covered his eyes with his clenched hands, and burst into tears.

The position of Detroit is one of the finest imaginable. It is on a strait between Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair, commanding the whole internal commerce of these great "successive seas." Michigan, of which it is the capital, being now received into the Union, its importance, both as a frontier town and a place of trade, increases every day. . . .

When the intolerable heat of the day has subsided, I sometimes take a languid stroll through the streets of the city, not unamused, nor altogether unobserving, though unable to profit much by what I see and hear. There are many new houses building, and many new streets laid out. In the principal street, called Jefferson Avenue, there are rows of large and handsome brick houses; the others are generally of wood, painted white, with bright green doors and windows. The footway in many of the streets is, like that of Toronto, of planks, which, for my own part, I like better than the burning brick or stone pave. The crowd of emigrants constantly pouring through this little city on their way to the back settlements of the west, and the number of steamers, brigs, and schooners always passing up and down the lakes, occasion a perpetual bustle, variety, and animation on the shore and in the streets. Forty-two steamers touch at the port. In one of the Detroit papers (there are five or six published here either daily or weekly) I found a long column, headed MARINE INTELLIGENCE, giving an account of the arrival and departure of the shipping. Last year the profits of the steamboats averaged seventy or eighty per cent., one with another: this year it is supposed that many will lose. There are several boats which ply regularly between Detroit and some of the new-born cities on the south shore of Lake Erie - Sandusky, Cleveland, Port Clinton, Monroe, &c. The navigation of the Detroit river is generally open from the beginning of April to the end of November. In the depth of the winter they pass and repass from the British to the American shore on the ice.

There are some excellent shops in the town, a theatre, and a great number of taverns and gaming-houses. There is also a great number of booksellers' shops; and I read in the papers long lists of books, newly arrived and unpacked, which the public are invited to inspect.

Wishing to borrow some books, to while away the long solitary hours in which I am obliged to rest, I asked for a circulating library, and was directed to the only one in the place. I had to ascend a steep stair-case - so disgustingly dirty, that it was necessary to draw my drapery carefully round me to escape pollution. On entering a large room, unfurnished except with bookshelves, I found several men sitting or rather sprawling upon chairs, and reading the newspapers. The collection of books was small; but they were not of a common or vulgar description. I found some of the best modern publications in French and English. The man - gentleman I should say, for all are gentlemen here - who stood behind the counter, neither moved his hat from his head, nor bowed on my entrance, nor showed any officious anxiety to serve or oblige; but, with this want of what we English consider due courtesy, there was no deficiency of real civility - far from it. When I inquired on what terms I might have some books to read, this gentleman desired I would take any books I pleased, and not think about payment or deposit. I remonstrated, and represented that I was a stranger at an inn - that my stay was uncertain, &c.; and the reply was, that from a lady and a stranger he could not think of receiving remuneration: and then gave himself some trouble to look out for the books I wished for, which I took away with me. He did not even ask the name of the hotel at which I was staying; and when I returned the books, persisted in declining all payment from "a lady and a stranger."

Whatever attention and politeness may be tendered to me, in either character, as a lady or as a stranger, I am always glad to receive from any one, in any shape. In the present instance, I could indeed have dispensed with the form: a pecuniary obligation, small or large, not being much to my taste; but what was meant for courtesy, I accepted courteously - and so the matter ended. . . .

If you look upon the map, you will find that the Detroit River, so called, is rather a strait or channel about thirty miles in length, and in breadth from one to two or three miles, dividing the British from the American shore. Through this channel all the waters of the upper lakes, Michigan, Superior, and Huron, come pouring down on their way to the ocean. Here, at Detroit, the breadth of the river does not exceed a mile. A pretty little streamer, gaily painted, with streamers flying, and shaded by an awning, is continually passing and re-passing from shore to shore. I have sometimes sat in this ferry-boat for a couple of hours together, pleased to remain still, and enjoy, without exertion, the cool air, the sparkling redundant waters, and green islands: - amused, meantime, by the variety and conversation of the passengers, English emigrants, and FrenchCanadians; brisk Americans; dark, sad-looking Indians folded in their blankets; farmers, storekeepers, speculators in wheat; artisans; trim girls with black eyes and short petticoats, speaking a Norman patois, and bring baskets of fruit to the Detroit market; over-dressed, long-waisted, damsels of the city, attended by their beaux, going to make merry on the opposite shore. The passage is not of more than ten minutes duration, yet there is a tavern bar on the lower deck, and a constant demand for cigars, liquors, and mint julep - by the men only, I pray you to observe, and the Americans chiefly; I never saw the French peasants ask for drink.

Yesterday and to-day, feeling better, I have passed some hours straying or driving about on the British shore.

I hardly know how to convey to you an idea of the difference between the two shores; it will appear to you as incredible as it is to me incomprehensible. Our shore is said to be the most fertile, and has been the longest settled; but to float between them (as I did to-day in a little canoe made of a hollow tree, and paddled by a half-breed imp of a boy) - to behold on one side a city, with its towers and spires and animated population, with villas and handsome houses stretching along the shore, and a hundred vessels or more, gigantic steamers, brigs, schooners, crowding the port, loading and unloading; all the bustle, in short, of prosperity and commerce; - and on the other side, a little straggling hamlet, one schooner, one little wretched steamboat, some windmills, a catholic chapel or two, a supine ignorant peasantry, all the symptoms of apathy, indolence, mistrust, hopelessness! - can I, can any one, help wondering at the difference, and asking whence it arises? There must be a cause for it surely - but what is it? Does it lie in past or in present - in natural or accidental circumstances? - in the institutions of the government, or the character of the people? Is it remediable? Is it a necessity? is it a mystery? what and whence is it? Can you tell? or can you send some of our colonial officials across the Atlantic to behold and solve the difficulty ?

The little hamlet opposite to Detroit is called Richmond. I was sitting there to-day on the grassy bank above the river, resting in the shade of a tree, and speculating on all these things, when an old French Canadian stopped near me to arrange something on his cart. We entered forthwith into conversation; and though I had some difficulty in making out his patois, he understood my French, and we got on very well. If you would see the two extremes of manner brought into near comparison, you should turn from a Yankee storekeeper to a French Canadian! It was quite curious to find in this remote region such a perfect specimen of an old-fashioned Norman peasant - all bows, courtesy, and good-humour. He was carrying a cart-load of cherries to Sandwich, and when I begged for a ride, the little old man bowed and smiled, and poured forth a voluble speech, in which the words enchante! Honneur! and madame! were all I could understand; but these were enough. I mounted the cart, seated myself in an old chair surrounded with baskets heaped with ripe cherries, lovely as those of Shenstone -

"Scattering like blooming maid their glances round,

And must be bought, though penury betide!"

No occasion, however, to risk penury here; for after permission asked, and granted with a pleasant smile and a hundredth removal of the ragged hat, I failed not to profit by my situation, and dipped my hand pretty frequently into these tempting baskets. When the French penetrated into these regions a century ago, they brought with them not only their national courtesy, but some of their finest national fruits, - plums, cherries, apples, pears, of the best quality - excellent grapes, too, I am told - and all these are now grown in such abundance as to be almost valueless. For his cart-load of cherries my old man expected a sum not exceeding two shillings. . . .

So, as I have said, my business here being not to dream, but to observe, and this morning being Sunday morning, I crept forth to attend the different church services merely as a spectator. I went first to the Roman Catholic church, called the Cathedral, and the largest and oldest in the place. The catholic congregation is by far the most numerous here, and is composed chiefly of the lower classes and the descendants of the French settlers. On entering the porch, I found a board suspended with written regulations, to the effect that all Christians, of whatever denomination, were welcome to enter; but it was requested that all would observe the outward ceremonial, and that all gentlemen ( tous les messieurs) would lay aside their pipes and cigars, take off their hats, and wipe their shoes. The interior of the church was similar to that of many other provincial Roman Catholic churches, exhibiting the usual assortment of wax tapers, gilding, artificial flowers, and daubed Madonnas. The music and singing were not good. In the course of the service, the officiating priest walked up and down the aisles, flinging about the holy water on either side, with a silver-handled brush. I had my share, though unworthy, of this sprinkling, and then left the church, where the heat and the smell of incense, et cetera, were too overpowering. On the steps, and in the open space before the door, there was a crowd of peasants, all talking French - laughing, smoking, tobacco chewing, et cetera, et cetera. One or two were kneeling in the porch. Thence I went to the Methodist chapel, where I found a small congregation of the lower classes. A very ill-looking man, in comparison to whom Liston's Mawworm were no caricature, was holding forth in a most whining and lugubrious tone; the poor people around joined in sobs and ejaculations, which soon became howling, raving, and crying. In the midst of this woful assembly I observed a little boy who was grinning furtively, kicking his heels, and sliding bits of apple from his pocket into his mouth. Not being able to endure this long with proper seriousness, I left the place.

I then went into the Baptist church, on the opposite side of the road. It is one of the largest in the town, plain in appearance, but the interior handsome, and in good taste. The congregation was not crowded, but composed of most respectable, serious, well-dressed people. As I entered, the preacher was holding forth on the unpardonable sin, very incoherently and unintelligibly; but on closing his sermon, he commenced a prayer; and I have seldom listened to one more eloquently fervent. Both the sermon and the prayer were extemporaneous. He prayed for all people, nations, orders and conditions of men throughout the world, including the king of Great Britain; but the prayer for the president of the United States seemed to me a little original, and admirably calculated to suit the two parties who are at present divided on the merits of the gentlemen. The suppliant besought the Almighty, that "if Mr. Van Buren were a good man, he might be made better, and if a bad man, he might be speedily regenerated."

I was still in time for the Episcopal church, a very spacious and handsome building, though "somewhat Gothic." On entering, I perceived at one glance that the Episcopal church is here, as at New York, the fashionable church of the place. It was crowded in every part: the women well dressed - but, as at New York, too much dressed, too fine for good taste and real fashion. I was handed immediately to the "strangers' pew," a book put into my hand, and it was whispered to me that the bishop would preach. Our English idea of the exterior of a bishop is an old gentleman in a wig and lawn sleeves, both equally de rigueur; I was therefore childishly surprised to find in the Bishop of Michigan a very young man of very elegant appearance, wearing his own fine hair, and in a plain black silk gown. The sermon was on the well-worn subject of charity as it consists in giving - the least and lowest it may be of all the branches of charity, though indeed that depends on what we give, and how we give it. We may give our heart, our soul, our time, our health, our life, as well as our money; and the greatest of these, as well as the least, is still but charity. At home I have often thought that when people gave money they gave counters; here, when people give money they are really charitable - they give a portion of their time and their existence, both of which are devoted to money-making.

On closing this sermon, which was short and unexceptionable, the bishop leaned forward over the pubpit, and commenced an extemporaneous address to his congregation. I have often had occasion in the United States to admire the ready, graceful fluency of their extemporaneous speakers and preachers, and I have never heard anything more eloquent and more elegant than this address; it was in perfect good taste, besides being very much to the purpose. He spoke in behalf of the domestic missions of his diocese. I understood that the missions hitherto supported in the back settlements are, in consequence of the extreme pressure of the times, likely to be withdrawn, and the new, thinly-peopled districts thus left without any ministry whatever. He called on the people to give their aid towards sustaining these domestic missionaries, at least for a time, and said, among other things, that if each individual of the Episcopal Church in the United States subscribed one cent per week for a year, it would amount to more than 300,000 dollars. This address was responded to by a subscription on the spot of above 400 dollars - a large sum for a small town, suffering, like all other places, from the present commercial difficulties.

July 18. This evening the Thomas Jefferson arrived in the river from Buffalo, and starts early to-morrow morning for Chicago. I hastened to secure a passage as far as the island of Mackinaw. . . .

On board the Jefferson, River St. Clair, July 19.

This morning I came down early to the steamboat, attended by a cortege of amiable people, who had heard of my sojourn at Detroit, too late to be of any solace or service to me, but had seized this last and only opportunity of showing politeness and good-will. General Schwarz and his family, the sister of the governor, two other ladies and a gentleman, came on board with me at that early hour, and remained on deck till the paddles were in motion. The talk was so pleasant, I could not but regret that I had not seen some of these kind people earlier, or might hope to see more of them; but it was too late. Time and steam wait neither for man nor woman; all expressions of hope and regret on both sides were cut short by the parting signal, which the great bell swung out from on high; all compliments and questions "fumbled up into a loose adieu;" and these new friendly faces - seen but for a moment, then to be lost, yet not quite forgotten we soon left far behind.

From: WINTER STUDIES AND SUMMER RAMBLES IN CANADA by Mrs. Jameson. New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1839: 68 -105.

See Also:

Johnston, Judith. Anna Jameson: Victorian, Feminist, Woman of Letters. Hants: Scolar Press, 1997.

Massie, Larry. Jameson's Mackinac. Michigan History 1994 78 (1): 15 -17.

Thomas, Clara. Love and Work Enough: The Life of Anna Jameson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967.