78 From Letters from an American Farmer — Letter VII “Manners and Customs at Nantucket”

J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur



As I observed before, every man takes a wife as soon as he chooses, and that is generally very early; no portion is required, none is expected; no marriage articles are drawn up among us, by skilful lawyers, to puzzle and lead posterity to the bar, or to satisfy the pride of the parties. We give nothing with our daughters, their education, their health, and the customary out-set, are all that the fathers of numerous families can afford: as the wife’s fortune consists principally in her future economy, modesty, and skilful management; so the husband’s is founded on his abilities to labour, on his health, and the knowledge of some trade or business. Their mutual endeavours, after a few years of constant application, seldom fail of success, and of bringing them the means to rear and support the new race which accompanies the nuptial bed. Those children born by the sea-side, hear the roaring of its waves as soon as they are able to listen; it is the first noise with which they become acquainted, and by early plunging in it they acquire that boldness, that presence of mind, and dexterity, which makes them ever after such expert seamen. They often hear their fathers recount the adventures of their youth, their combats with the whales; and these recitals imprint on their opening minds an early curiosity and taste for the same life. They often cross the sea to go to the main, and learn even in those short voyages how to qualify themselves for longer and more dangerous ones; they are therefore deservedly conspicuous for their maritime knowledge and experience, all over the continent. A man born here is distinguishable by his gait from among an hundred other men, so remarkable are they for a pliability of sinews, and a peculiar agility, which attends them even to old age. I have heard some persons attribute this to the effects of the whale oil, with which they are so copiously anointed in the various operations it must undergo ere it is fit either for the European market or the candle manufactory.

But you may perhaps be solicitous to ask, what becomes of that exuberancy of population which must arise from so much temperance, from healthiness of climate, and from early marriage? You may justly conclude that their native island and town can contain but a limited number. Emigration is both natural and easy to a maritime people, and that is the very reason why they are always populous, problematical as it may appear. They yearly go to different parts of this continent, constantly engaged in sea affairs; as our internal riches increase, so does our external trade, which consequently requires more ships and more men: sometimes they have emigrated like bees, in regular and connected swarms. Some of the Friends (by which word I always mean the people called Quakers) fond of a contemplative life, yearly visit the several congregations which this society has formed throughout the continent. By their means a sort of correspondence is kept up among them all; they are generally good preachers, friendly censors, checking vice wherever they find it predominating; preventing relaxations in any parts of their ancient customs and worship. They everywhere carry admonition and useful advice; and by thus travelling they unavoidably gather the most necessary observations concerning the various situations of particular districts, their soils, their produce, their distance from navigable rivers, the price of land, etc. In consequence of informations of this kind, received at Nantucket in the year 1766, a considerable number of them purchased a large track of land in the county of Orange, in North Carolina, situated on the several spring heads of Deep River, which is the western branch of Cape Fear, or North-West River. The advantage of being able to convey themselves by sea, to within forty miles of the spot, the richness of the soil, etc., made them cheerfully quit an island on which there was no longer any room for them. There they have founded a beautiful settlement, known by the name of New Garden, contiguous to the famous one which the Moravians have at Bethabara, Bethamia, and Salem, on Yadkin River. No spot of earth can be more beautiful; it is composed of gentle hills, of easy declivities, excellent low lands, accompanied by different brooks which traverse this settlement. I never saw a soil that rewards men so early for their labours and disbursements; such in general with very few exceptions, are the lands which adjoin the innumerable heads of all the large rivers which fall into the Chesapeak, or flow through the provinces of North and South Carolina, Georgia, etc. It is perhaps the most pleasing, the most bewitching country which the continent affords; because while it preserves an easy communication with the sea-port towns, at some seasons of the year, it is perfectly free from the contagious air often breathed in those flat countries, which are more contiguous to the Atlantic. These lands are as rich as those over the Alleghany; the people of New Garden are situated at the distance of between 200 and 300 miles from Cape Fear; Cape Fear is at least 450 from Nantucket: you may judge therefore that they have but little correspondence with this their little metropolis, except it is by means of the itinerant Friends. Others have settled on the famous river Kennebeck, in that territory of the province of Massachusetts, which is known by the name of Sagadahock. Here they have softened the labours of clearing the heaviest timbered land in America, by means of several branches of trade which their fair river, and proximity to the sea affords them. Instead of entirely consuming their timber, as we are obliged to do, some parts of it are converted into useful articles for exportation, such as staves, scantlings, boards, hoops, poles, etc. For that purpose they keep a correspondence with their native island, and I know many of the principal inhabitants of Sherburn, who, though merchants, and living at Nantucket, yet possess valuable farms on that river; from whence they draw great part of their subsistence, meat, grain, fire-wood, etc. The title of these lands is vested in the ancient Plymouth Company, under the powers of which the Massachusetts was settled; and that company which resides in Boston, are still the granters of all the vacant lands within their limits.

Although this part of the province is so fruitful, and so happily situated, yet it has been singularly overlooked and neglected: it is surprising that the excellence of that soil which lies on the river should not have caused it to be filled before now with inhabitants; for the settlements from thence to Penobscot are as yet but in their infancy. It is true that immense labour is required to make room for the plough, but the peculiar strength and quality of the soil never fails most amply to reward the industrious possessor; I know of no soil in this country more rich or more fertile. I do not mean that sort of transitory fertility which evaporates with the sun, and disappears in a few years; here on the contrary, even their highest grounds are covered with a rich moist swamp mould, which bears the most luxuriant grass, and never-failing crops of grain.

If New Gardens exceeds this settlement by the softness of its climate, the fecundity of its soil, and a greater variety of produce from less labour; it does not breed men equally hardy, nor capable to encounter dangers and fatigues. It leads too much to idleness and effeminacy; for great is the luxuriance of that part of America, and the ease with which the earth is cultivated. Were I to begin life again, I would prefer the country of Kennebeck to the other, however bewitching; the navigation of the river for above 200 miles, the great abundance of fish it contains, the constant healthiness of the climate, the happy severities of the winters always sheltering the earth with a voluminous coat of snow, the equally happy necessity of labour: all these reasons would greatly preponderate against the softer situations of Carolina; where mankind reap too much, do not toil enough, and are liable to enjoy too fast the benefits of life. There are many I know who would despise my opinion, and think me a bad judge; let those go and settle at the Ohio, the Monongahela, Red Stone Creek, etc., let them go and inhabit the extended shores of that superlative river; I with equal cheerfulness would pitch my tent on the rougher shores of Kennebeck; this will always be a country of health, labour, and strong activity, and those are characteristics of society which I value more than greater opulence and voluptuous ease.

Thus though this fruitful hive constantly sends out swarms, as industrious as themselves, yet it always remains full without having any useless drones: on the contrary it exhibits constant scenes of business and new schemes; the richer an individual grows, the more extensive his field of action becomes; he that is near ending his career, drudges on as well as he who has just begun it; nobody stands still. But is it not strange, that after having accumulated riches, they should never wish to exchange their barren situation for a more sheltered, more pleasant one on the main? Is it not strange, that after having spent the morning and the meridian of their days amidst the jarring waves, weary with the toils of a laborious life, they should not wish to enjoy the evenings of those days of industry in a larger society, on some spots of terra firma, where the severity of the winters is balanced by a variety of more pleasing scenes, not to be found here? But the same magical power of habit and custom which makes the Laplander, the Siberian, the Hottentot, prefer their climates, their occupations, and their soil, to more beneficial situations, leads these good people to think, that no other spot on the globe is so analagous to their inclinations as Nantucket. Here their connections are formed; what would they do at a distance removed from them? Live sumptuously, you will say, procure themselves new friends, new acquaintances, by their splendid tables, by their ostentatious generosity, and by affected hospitality. These are thoughts that have never entered into their heads; they would be filled with horror at the thought of forming wishes and plans so different from that simplicity, which is their general standard in affluence as well as in poverty. They abhor the very idea of expending in useless waste and vain luxuries, the fruits of prosperous labour; they are employed in establishing their sons and in many other useful purposes: strangers to the honours of monarchy they do not aspire to the possession of affluent fortunes, with which to purchase sounding titles, and frivolous names!

Yet there are not at Nantucket so many wealthy people as one would imagine after having considered their great successes, their industry, and their knowledge. Many die poor, though hardly able to reproach Fortune with a frown; others leave not behind them that affluence which the circle of their business and of their prosperity naturally promised. The reason of this is, I believe, the peculiar expense necessarily attending their tables; for as their island supplies the town with little or nothing (a few families excepted) every one must procure what they want from the main. The very hay their horses consume, and every other article necessary to support a family, though cheap in a country of so great abundance as Massachusetts; yet the necessary waste and expenses attending their transport, render these commodities dear. A vast number of little vessels from the main, and from the Vineyard, are constantly resorting here, as to a market. Sherburn is extremely well supplied with everything, but this very constancy of supply, necessarily drains off a great deal of money. The first use they make of their oil and bone is to exchange it for bread and meat, and whatever else they want; the necessities of a large family are very great and numerous, let its economy be what it will; they are so often repeated, that they perpetually draw off a considerable branch of the profits. If by any accidents those profits are interrupted, the capital must suffer; and it very often happens that the greatest part of their property is floating on the sea.

There are but two congregations in this town. They assemble every Sunday in meeting houses, as simple as the dwelling of the people; and there is but one priest on the whole island. What would a good Portuguese observe?—But one single priest to instruct a whole island, and to direct their consciences! It is even so; each individual knows how to guide his own, and is content to do it, as well as he can. This lonely clergyman is a Presbyterian minister, who has a very large and respectable congregation; the other is composed of Quakers, who you know admit of no particular person, who in consequence of being ordained becomes exclusively entitled to preach, to catechise, and to receive certain salaries for his trouble. Among them, every one may expound the Scriptures, who thinks he is called so to do; beside, as they admit of neither sacrament, baptism, nor any other outward forms whatever, such a man would be useless. Most of these people are continually at sea, and have often the most urgent reasons to worship the Parent of Nature in the midst of the storms which they encounter. These two sects live in perfect peace and harmony with each other; those ancient times of religious discords are now gone (I hope never to return) when each thought it meritorious, not only to damn the other, which would have been nothing, but to persecute and murther one another, for the glory of that Being, who requires no more of us, than that we should love one another and live! Every one goes to that place of worship which he likes best, and thinks not that his neighbour does wrong by not following him; each busily employed in their temporal affairs, is less vehement about spiritual ones, and fortunately you will find at Nantucket neither idle drones, voluptuous devotees, ranting enthusiasts, nor sour demagogues. I wish I had it in my power to send the most persecuting bigot I could find in——to the whale fisheries; in less than three or four years you would find him a much more tractable man, and therefore a better Christian.

Singular as it may appear to you, there are but two medical professors on the island; for of what service can physic be in a primitive society, where the excesses of inebriation are so rare? What need of galenical medicines, where fevers, and stomachs loaded by the loss of the digestive powers, are so few? Temperance, the calm of passions, frugality, and continual exercise, keep them healthy, and preserve unimpaired that constitution which they have received from parents as healthy as themselves; who in the unpolluted embraces of the earliest and chastest love, conveyed to them the soundest bodily frame which nature could give. But as no habitable part of this globe is exempt from some diseases, proceeding either from climate or modes of living; here they are sometimes subject to consumptions and to fevers. Since the foundation of that town no epidemical distempers have appeared, which at times cause such depopulations in other countries; many of them are extremely well acquainted with the Indian methods of curing simple diseases, and practise them with success. You will hardly find anywhere a community, composed of the same number of individuals, possessing such uninterrupted health, and exhibiting so many green old men, who show their advanced age by the maturity of their wisdom, rather than by the wrinkles of their faces; and this is indeed one of the principal blessings of the island, which richly compensates their want of the richer soils of the south; where iliac complaints and bilious fevers, grow by the side of the sugar cane, the ambrosial ananas, etc. The situation of this island, the purity of the air, the nature of their marine occupations, their virtue and moderation, are the causes of that vigour and health which they possess. The poverty of their soil has placed them, I hope, beyond the danger of conquest, or the wanton desire of extirpation. Were they to be driven from this spot, the only acquisition of the conquerors would be a few acres of land, inclosed and cultivated; a few houses, and some movables. The genius, the industry of the inhabitants would accompany them; and it is those alone which constitute the sole wealth of their island. Its present fame would perish, and in a few years it would return to its pristine state of barrenness and poverty: they might perhaps be allowed to transport themselves in their own vessels to some other spot or island, which they would soon fertilise by the same means with which they have fertilised this.

One single lawyer has of late years found means to live here, but his best fortune proceeds more from having married one of the wealthiest heiresses of the island, than from the emoluments of his practice: however he is sometimes employed in recovering money lent on the main, or in preventing those accidents to which the contentious propensity of its inhabitants may sometimes expose them. He is seldom employed as the means of self-defence, and much seldomer as the channel of attack; to which they are strangers, except the fraud is manifest, and the danger imminent. Lawyers are so numerous in all our populous towns, that I am surprised they never thought before of establishing themselves here: they are plants that will grow in any soil that is cultivated by the hands of others; and when once they have taken root they will extinguish every other vegetable that grows around them. The fortunes they daily acquire in every province, from the misfortunes of their fellow-citizens, are surprising! The most ignorant, the most bungling member of that profession, will, if placed in the most obscure part of the country, promote litigiousness, and amass more wealth without labour, than the most opulent farmer, with all his toils. They have so dexterously interwoven their doctrines and quirks with the laws of the land, or rather they are become so necessary an evil in our present constitutions, that it seems unavoidable and past all remedy. What a pity that our forefathers, who happily extinguished so many fatal customs, and expunged from their new government so many errors and abuses, both religious and civil, did not also prevent the introduction of a set of men so dangerous! In some provinces, where every inhabitant is constantly employed in tilling and cultivating the earth, they are the only members of society who have any knowledge; let these provinces attest what iniquitous use they have made of that knowledge.

They are here what the clergy were in past centuries with you; the reformation which clipped the clerical wings, is the boast of that age, and the happiest event that could possibly happen; a reformation equally useful is now wanted, to relieve us from the shameful shackles and the oppressive burthen under which we groan; this perhaps is impossible; but if mankind would not become too happy, it were an event most devoutly to be wished.

Here, happily, unoppressed with any civil bondage, this society of fishermen and merchants live, without any military establishments, without governors or any masters but the laws; and their civil code is so light, that it is never felt. A man may pass (as many have done whom I am acquainted with) through the various scenes of a long life, may struggle against a variety of adverse fortune, peaceably enjoy the good when it comes, and never in that long interval, apply to the law either for redress or assistance. The principal benefit it confers is the general protection of individuals, and this protection is purchased by the most moderate taxes, which are cheerfully paid, and by the trifling duties incident in the course of their lawful trade (for they despise contraband). Nothing can be more simple than their municipal regulations, though similar to those of the other counties of the same province; because they are more detached from the rest, more distinct in their manners, as well as in the nature of the business they pursue, and more unconnected with the populous province to which they belong. The same simplicity attends the worship they pay to the Divinity; their elders are the only teachers of their congregations, the instructors of their youth, and often the example of their flock. They visit and comfort the sick; after death, the society bury them with their fathers, without pomp, prayers, or ceremonies; not a stone or monument is erected, to tell where any person was buried; their memory is preserved by tradition. The only essential memorial that is left of them, is their former industry, their kindness, their charity, or else their most conspicuous faults.

The Presbyterians live in great charity with them, and with one another; their minister as a true pastor of the gospel, inculcates to them the doctrines it contains, the rewards it promises, the punishments it holds out to those who shall commit injustice. Nothing can be more disencumbered likewise from useless ceremonies and trifling forms than their mode of worship; it might with great propriety have been called a truly primitive one, had that of the Quakers never appeared. As fellow Christians, obeying the same legislator, they love and mutually assist each other in all their wants; as fellow labourers they unite with cordiality and without the least rancour in all their temporal schemes: no other emulation appears among them but in their sea excursions, in the art of fitting out their vessels; in that of sailing, in harpooning the whale, and in bringing home the greatest harvest. As fellow subjects they cheerfully obey the same laws, and pay the same duties: but let me not forget another peculiar characteristic of this community: there is not a slave I believe on the whole island, at least among the Friends; whilst slavery prevails all around them, this society alone, lamenting that shocking insult offered to humanity, have given the world a singular example of moderation, disinterestedness, and Christian charity, in emancipating their negroes. I shall explain to you farther, the singular virtue and merit to which it is so justly entitled by having set before the rest of their fellow- subjects, so pleasing, so edifying a reformation. Happy the people who are subject to so mild a government; happy the government which has to rule over such harmless, and such industrious subjects!

While we are clearing forests, making the face of nature smile, draining marshes, cultivating wheat, and converting it into flour; they yearly skim from the surface of the sea riches equally necessary. Thus, had I leisure and abilities to lead you through this continent, I could show you an astonishing prospect very little known in Europe; one diffusive scene of happiness reaching from the sea-shores to the last settlements on the borders of the wilderness: an happiness, interrupted only by the folly of individuals, by our spirit of litigiousness, and by those unforeseen calamities, from which no human society can possibly be exempted. May the citizens of Nantucket dwell long here in uninterrupted peace, undisturbed either by the waves of the surrounding element, or the political commotions which sometimes agitate our continent.



Becoming America, Wendy Kurant, ed., CC-BY-SA


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