The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

I. Travellers and Observers, 1763–1846

§ 6. Jonathan Carver

The dubious personal history of Carver, and questions as to the authenticity of his book, will excuse the introduction of certain details in his biography. Jonathan Carver, the ostensible author of Travels through the Interior Parts of North America in the Years 1766, 1767, and 1768, was not the great-grandson of the first colonial Governor of Connecticut, but was probably born in humble circumstances at Canterbury in that state. In 1746 he married Abigail Robbins, by whom he had seven children; he later contracted a bigamous marriage in England. The extent of his education has been disputed; but he seems to have had some knowledge of surveying and map-making, with perhaps a smattering of medicine. His title-page calls him “J. Carver, Esq., Captain of a Company of Provincial Troops during the Late War with France”; and he probably was captured with Burk’s company of rangers in 1757, when he was “wounded in his Leg at the bloody Massacree of the un-happy Garrison of Fort William Henry at Lake George.” The war over, he says he began to think of exploring the most unknown parts of England’s new territory. In the opinion of a severe critic, Professor Edward G. Bourne, Carver’s actual journey was limited to this: he went from Boston to Michilimackinac, thence by way of the Fox River and the Wisconsin to the Mississippi, and thence up the Minnesota; returning, he explored northern Wisconsin and the northern shore of Lake Superior. Failing in Boston to publish an account of his discoveries, in 1769 he went to England with a project for further exploration in the North-west. The pecuniary aid accorded him as a needy person by the Government would argue some recognition of his services. He evidently enlisted the sympathy of Dr. Lettsom and others who took an interest in his schemes, and, like many another, no doubt received help with the manuscript before his Travels were published in 1778. But he failed in his main endeavour, and is said to have “died in misery, in 1780, at the age of 48.”

His book instantly became popular, and it so remained, as twenty-three editions and translations bear witness. The author or compiler, whoever he was, understood the public, was a man of some imagination, and knew how to combine Carver’s own material with observations from previous writers; nor does he fail to mention, in the casual way of the time, authorities like Charlevoix and Adair, from whom, as we now look at things, we must say he unblushingly filches. Here is one of the examples pointed out by Professor Bourne. Charlevoix had said of the Indians in the English translation:

  • On the smoothest grass, or the hardest earth, even on the very stones, they will discover the traces of an enemy, and by their shape and figure of the footsteps, and the distance between their prints, they will, it is said, distinguish not only different nations, but also tell whether they were men or women who have gone that way.
  • And in Carver we read:
  • On the smoothest grass, on the hardest earth, and even on the very stones, will they discover the traces of an enemy, and by the shape of the footsteps, and the distance between the prints, distinguish, not only whether it is a man or woman who has passed that way, but even the nation to which they belong.
  • In spite of his borrowings, and in spite of incredible and monstrous stories, even worse than the sordid actualities of savage life, Carver maintains that he is strictly veracious:
  • I shall in no instance exceed the bounds of truth, or have recourse to those useless and extravagant exaggerations too often made use of by travellers, to excite the curiosity of the public, or to increase their own importance. Nor shall I insert any observations but such as I have made myself, or, from the credibility of those by whom they were related, am enabled to vouch for their authenticity.
  • These false pretensions easily lead one to underestimate the element of truth in the narrative, and Carver’s share in its production. Carver was too uneducated to make notes and gather materials for a book. He could write a long coherent letter to his first wife, and specimens of his writing are not in the hand of an ignorant man. He, not less than his assistant or assistants in publication, could have met with the works of Charlevoix, Adair, and Lahontan in London book-stalls. But it was hardly his pen that made reference to Plato and Grotius.

    The volume is dedicated “To Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society.” Then follows, in the second edition, a magniloquent Address to the Public. The journal proper occupies but a third of the volume. Next come seventeen chapters on the origin, physique, and dress of the Indians, their manners and customs, their government, their food, dances, methods of warfare and games, and their language. The eighteenth deals with animals, birds—as, for example, “the Whipperwill, or, as it is termed by the Indians, the Muckawiss”—fishes, reptiles, and insects; the nineteenth, with the vegetable kingdom. There is an Appendix on the future of discovery, settlement, and commerce. In his Introduction Carver says:

  • What I chiefly had in view, after gaining a knowledge of the Manners, Customs, Languages, Soil, and natural Productions of the different nations that inhabit the back of the Mississippi, was to ascertain the Breadth of that vast continent which extends from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, in its broadest part between 43 and 46 Degrees Northern Latitude. Had I been able to accomplish this, I intended to have proposed to Government to establish a Post in some of those parts about the Straits of Annian, which, having been first discovered by Sir Francis Drake, of course belong to the English. This I am convinced would greatly facilitate the discovery of a North-West Passage, or a communication between Hudson’s Bay and the Pacific Ocean.… A settlement on that extremity of America … would open a passage for conveying intelligence to China and the English settlements in the East Indies, with greater expendition than a tedious voyage by the Cape of Good Hope or the Straits of Magellan will allow of.
  • This was the dream that foreshadowed the present development of the entire North-west. It worked in the mind of Jefferson, took shape in the Lewis and Clark expedition and in the enterprise of John Jacob Astor, and reappeared in Irving’s Astoria. Carver’s volume still fastens upon the imagination, as it did in the time of Schiller, Wordsworth, and Chateaubriand.