George Catlin painting a Chief

Customs of the Country
Part I of III

A Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library Exhibition. Organized by William S. Reese and George Miles
Last Revised September 4, 1996

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Local customs have always fascinated travelers and travel writers, and consequently form an important part of most travel narratives. In some cases the observation of folkways or ceremonies was the primary motivation of a traveler and so form a central part of a book and its illustrations. In others the customs of the country represented mere local color, a source of amusement or annoyance. In any case, seeing how people live and depicting the typical scenes of unfamiliar places is an important function of many illustrated travel accounts.

Unless otherwise noted the author of the work is also the artist of the illustrated plate.

Thomas Pownall. Scenographia Americana: or, a Collection of Views in North America and the West Indies....from Drawings Taken on the Spot.... London, 1768.

The beginning and completion of an American farm

"A Design to represent the beginning and completion of an American Settlement or Farm." (Mezzotint)

The first great series of North American views was the Scenographia Americana, organized by the British colonial administrator and amateur artist Thomas Pownall. Twenty-eight plates showed scenes from the St. Lawrence to the Caribbean by various artists. Originally executed during the French & Indian War and published in fascicles, the prints were issued under a single title in 1768. Governor Pownall himself contributed a scene that showed the evolution of an American farm from its crude beginnings (with one of the earliest published pictures of a log cabin on the left of the picture) to more elegant prosperity on the right.

Georges Henri Victor Collot. Voyage Dans L'Amerique Septentrionale, ou, Description des pays arroses par le Mississippi, L'Ohio, le Missouri et autres rivieres affluentes.... Paris, 1826 [actually printed in 1804].

A French home in the Illinois Country

"French Habitation in the Country of the Illinois." (Engraving)

A log cabin

"An American Log-house." (Engraving)

Indiand of the Kaskaskias

"Indian of the Nation of the Kaskaskia." (Engraving)

Another traveler with a keen eye for local building customs was Gen. Victor Collot, who traveled in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys in 1796 as a French spy, compiling maps and observing the growing American influence in the Middle West. The plate of a traditional French house in the Illinois country shows a structure of planks with a hipped roof and surrounding piazzas, a form of dwelling that evolved in the semi-tropical heat of the Caribbean and Louisiana. Collot's plate of a log cabin is among the earliest images of the prototypical Anglo-American frontier dwelling. Collot also sketched several Native American subjects.

Isaac Weld, Jr. Travels through the States of North America, and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, during the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797. London, 1799.

An American stage wagon

"American Stage Waggon." (Engraving)

Weld's account of his travels in the United States and Canada enjoyed great popularity and went through numerous editions. His plate of a stagecoach pulling away from a tavern is more charming than his printed views on either; he found the taverns in the United States "very indifferent" and Pennsylvanians brutal in their care of stagecoach horses. While modes of transportation were not radically different from Europe, the great distances of American travel and the innovations practiced in the United States were frequently unpleasant surprises.

Christian Schultz. Travels on an Inland Voyage through the States of New-York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and through the Territories of Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, and New-Orleans, Performed in the Years 1807 and 1808.... New York, 1810.

A boat on the Mohawk River

"A View of the Boats & manner of navigating on the Mohawk River." (Engraving)

Schultz, an American investor who set out to investigate the potential of the Ohio Country, went westward across New York in 1807. Like most travelers of the era he went by water where possible, and supplied this evocative, if somewhat off-scale, illustration on the methods used to navigate upstream on the Mohawk River. Schultz observed that the flat boats were similar to those he had seen on the Susquehanna, but longer, and that the method of poling upstream was so slow as to be perfectly safe.

Francis Castelnau. Vues et Souvenirs de L'Amerique du Nord. Paris, 1842.

Tallahassee, Florida

"Tallahassee." (Lithograph)

The French traveler Francis Castelnau visited the Gulf Coast, the Mississippi Valley, and the area around Lake Michigan during his 1838 tour of the United States. His extensively illustrated narrative includes the first view of Chicago and numerous scenes of Indians in Wisconsin, as well as life in Florida. This street scene in Tallahassee shows slave life and the crude ramshackle look of a town in the rural South, popular themes for ante-bellum travelers.

Customs of the Country, Part II

Valor and Endurance
An Analytic Eye
The Sublime and the Picturesque
The Spirit of Place
Encountering Native Americans

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Send comments to George Miles, William Roberston Coe Curator of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

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