Item of the Day: Imlay’s Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America (1797)

Full Title: A Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America: Containing A succinct Account of its Soil, Climate, Natural History, Population, Agriculture, Manners, and Customs. With an ample Description of the several Divisions into which the Country is partitioned . . . By Gilbert Imlay, A Captain in the American Army during the War, and Commissioner for laying out Lands in the Back Settlements. Illustrated with correct Maps of the Western Territory of North America; of the State of Kentucky, as divided into Counties, from actual Surveys by Elihu Barker; a Map of the Tenasee [sic] Government; and a Plan of the Rapids of Ohio. The Third Edition, with Great Additions. London: Printed for J. Debrett, 1797.





THE task you have given me, however difficult, I udnertake with the greatest pleasure, as it will afford me an opportunity of contrasting the simple manners and rational life of the Americans, in these back settlements, with the distorted and unnatural habits of the Europeans: which have flowed, no doubt, from the universally bad laws existing on your continent, and from that pernicious system of blending religion with politics, which has been productive of universal depravity.

While ignorance continued to darken the horizon of Europe, priestcraft seems to have forged fetters to the human mind, and, in the security of its own omnipotence, to have given a stamp to the writings and opinions of men, that rivetted the tyranny of those ingenious sophists — The consequence has been lamentable in the extreme.

There are aeras favourable to the rise of new governments; and though nature is governed by invariable laws, the fortunes of men and states appear frequently under the dominion of chances: but happily for mankind, when the american [sic] empire was forming, philosophy pervaded the genius of Europe, and the radiance of her features moulded the minds of men into a more rational order.

It was the zenith of your power, and the inflated grandeur of visinary plans for dominon, which the remains of gothic tyranny produced, that gave occasion to the rise of our independence. We claim no merit or superior wisdom in avoiding the complication of laws which disgraces the courts of Great Britain, as well as the rest of Europe. We have only approprated the advantages of new lights, as they have shone upon us; which you have an equal chance of doing; and your not doing it, must remain a monument of your folly, calculated to excite the astonishment and indiganation of a more manly progeny. However, I shall leave this subject for the present, and proceed in order in the history, &c. which you request; hoping that you will be content to receive my remarks by letter, from time to time, as I may find an opportunity of sending them.

The vestiges of civilizatin described by Carver and others on this side of the Allegany mountains, are entirely imaginary. Every mark that is human has the feature of barbarism, and in every comparison of the natives and animals, with those of the old world, tends to confirm the opinion of those sensible men (some of whom wrote more than a century agao) who thought that America was peopled from Scythia, by the streights of Kamtschatka: which opinion has been followed by your judicious natural historian Pennant, in his preface to his Arctic Zoology. They say, first, “America has always been better peopled on the side towards Asia, than on that towards Europe: Secondly, The genius of the Americans has a greater conformity to that of the Tartars, who never applied themselves to arts: Thirdly, The colour of both is pretty much alike; it is certain that the difference is not considerable, and is perhaps the effect of the climate, and of those mixtures with which the Americans rub themselves: Fourthly, The wild beasts which are seen in America, and which cannot reasonably be supposed to have been transported thither by sea, could only have come by the way of the Tartary.” An addition to these arguments is, that the bison of Scythia, and what is called the buffalo in America, are precisely the same species of animal; besides, the animals of both countries bear the strongest resemblance to each other.

Every thing tends to convince us, that the world is in an infant state. If it is subject to change only from the gradual wear which the operations of the elements necessarily produce, and which is so insensible as to require us to contemplate the immensity of time and space to comprhend a cause for the alterations we discover, still the various phaenomena, which are everywhere to be found, both on the surface and in the bowels of the earth, afford sufficient proof that there has been a recent alteration upon the face of the globe. Whether or not mankind came originally from the East, signifies little. It is however certain, that Europe was in its infancy three thousand years ago; and that America was still less advanced to maturity, I believe also will be acknowledged; though the barbarism of the one, and the comparative civiliztion of the other, is no argument: for, let our hemisphere have been peopled as it would, it had the disadvantage of having no polished country in the neighbourhood of its vast extent of dominion; and if it received emigrants from Tartary, they wer equally savage with themselves; or if from the wreck of a chinese or japanese vessel, they seem to have been too rare (if ever) to have been productive of much good to the Americans. The idea of the incas in Peru being of chinese origian merits no consideration.

That man possesses from nature the talents necessary to his own civilization, and that perfection of philosophy and reason which dignifies his nature, admits, I should conceive, of no dispute.

In all the countries that wear the marks of age, men seem always to have been advancing their improvements for the comfort and order of society. Adventitious circumstances have rapidly increased them in modern times in the old world, while they have retarded them in the new, among the natives. The improvements in navigation led to the overthrow of two empires in America which had attained considerable improvements; and if the natives which still remain are barbarous, we must, in justice to human nature, allow that the contempt with which the whites have always treated them, and the nefarious policy of encourageing their fury for intoxication, have proved the only cause of it. They produced such an effect, that the population of the indian nations had decreased more than a twentieth nearly a century ago, according to the account of Charlevoix. . . .



1 Comment

Filed under 1790's, Culture, Early Republic, Posted by Caroline Fuchs, Travel, Travel Literature, United States

One response to “Item of the Day: Imlay’s Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America (1797)

  1. Interesting to me. I am fond of history, but not this kind of history was I expecting. However, impressive.

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