The Early 1800s

Cooper shows wagons trains moving across the prairie. Hopkins and Hayden give retrospective glimpses of the slave trade, while Larison and Prince describe travel by slaves on the East coast and the West Indies. Adams relates stories from his grandfathers about the Erie Canal.


Author: James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1831)

Title: The Prairie

Date: 1827

Systems: Wagon

Context: 1805, probably Nebraska

The novel brings together wagons of the first settler families into the Louisiana Purchase territory, the now-old Natty Bumpo (known as Deerslayer in Cooper's novel set in the 1740s), and several groups of Cooper-style Indians who fight each other and disrupt the settlers. The story begins in the autumn, "when a train of wagons issued from the bed of a dry rivulet, to pursue its course across the undulating surface of what, in the language of the country of which we write, is called a 'rolling Prairie.' The vehicles, loaded with household goods and implements of husbandry, the few straggling sheep and cattle that were herded in the rear, and the rugged appearance and careless mien of the sturdy men who loitered at the sides of the lingering teams, united to announce a band of emigrants seeking for the Eldorado of the West. Contrary to the usual practice of the men of their caste, this party had left the fertile bottoms of the low country, and had found its way, by means only known to such adventurers, across glen and torrent, over deep morasses and arid wastes, to a point far beyond the usual limits of civilized habitations." They are between the Rockies and the waters of "La Platte." In this party of twenty people, some wagons have rude furniture and personal effects. Cooper writes, presumably to his late 1820s audience, "Perhaps there was little in this train, or in the appearance of its proprietors, that is not daily to be encountered on the highways of this changeable and moving country. But the solitary and peculiar scenery, in which it was so unexpectedly exhibited, gave to the party a marked character of wildness and adventure" (Ch. 1). "The loaded vehicles were to be drawn by hand across a wide distance of plain, without track, or guide of any sort, except that which the trapper [Leather-Stocking's current guise] furnished, by communicating his knowledge of the cardinal points of the compass" (Ch. 7).

The trapper later asks "What this world of America is coming to, and where the machinations and inventions of its people are to have an end, the Lord, he only knows." In his youth, "Natur' then lay in its glory along the whole coast, giving a narrow stripe between the woods and the ocean to the greediness of the settlers…. Had I the wings of an eagle, they would tire before a tenth of the distance, which separates me from that sea, could passed; and towns, and villages, farms and high ways, churches, and schools, in short all the inventions and deviltries of man are spread across the region!" (Ch. 23).

Cooper explores how wagons, civilization, and women start to change the mythic West, a theme which appears throughout the nineteenth century. The ambiguous figure of the old-timer who leads the train while later regretting its effects also has an early example here.

Edition used: New York: Penguin, 1987.


Author: Pauline Hopkins (1859-1930)

Title: Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South

Date: 1900

Systems: Ship

Context: 1790, Newburne, North Carolina; 1890s, Boston

The action of this historical novel begins on Pamlico Sound, where the bustle of port activity is interrupted by the arrival of the Island Queen. Charles Montfort, a wealthy Bermudan and a plantation owner, has decided to move his family and his slaves to the United States. The abolition movement in England has stepped up, and Montfort decides he and his slaves will be best served by a more gradual emancipation than might occur in islands still held by the British. Montfort intends to relocate, grow richer still and then free his slaves of his own accord. Much of this information is discussed on the wharf as onlookers anticipate the docking of this important vessel.

Hopkins pays attention to the scene at the wharf. Three or four vessels lay in the harbor awaiting their cargo (rice, tobacco, or cotton), and the shore is buzzing with "a motley crowd of slaves, overseers, owners of vessels." She devotes two pages to the work song of the "band of slaves" who unload a recently arrived barge. But all activity stops as the Island Queen "turned her majestic prow and steered for the entrance to the sound." Hopkins depicts the arrival as a grand, romantic spectacle; she details the ship with some care: "The ship came on very slowly, for there was little wind, under topsail, jib and foresail, the British flag at the peak and the American flag at the fore. The people on shore could see the captain standing by the pilot, the anchor ready to be dropped, and the bowsprit shrouds loose" (Ch. 2). Once in port, "a great deal of confusion reigned." There is great todo over the carriage and teams that arrive to transport baggage and an equal todo over the disembarking passengers. Mrs. Grace Montfort, the most lovely type of Southern beauty, provokes "a murmur of involuntary admiration" which "ran through the motley crowd of rough white men and ignorant slaves."

This is the opening spectacle of a novel that will close on board a ship.

After 400 pages spent unraveling the mixed racial genealogies of the Montforts' descendants, we arrive back on board a ship in the 1890s. This time the ship is a "Cunarder bound for Europe." While one son of Charles Montfort moved to England and raised his family to be white, the other son and his descendants remained in the U.S. and lived as blacks. The novel depicts physical violence and economic injustice that separate the American branch of this family from their English cousins. In the end the white Britisher Montfort Withington claims the American clan and grants them their rightful inheritance (which has been reserved until such time as the Montfort Smiths were identified.)

The final, highly symbolic voyage carries the weight of colonial and imperial legacy. It resonates with the many earlier and momentous voyages that have created this family history; the first voyages that brought English settlers to the American colonies; the Middle Passage that brought slaves to the Americas; Montfort's relocation aboard the Island Queen in an effort to circumvent British abolition. This final voyage is a return to England and Europe, and it is meant literally to bring home the legacy of slavery and early modern imperialist expansion. Hopkins's novel is written at the close of the nineteenth-century - a time of increased American imperialism abroad and violence against African Americans at home. The romantic return to England of the multi-racial Montfort clan suggests that only international cooperation could bring to a close what international imperialism began.

Edition used: Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers. New York: Oxford, 1988.


Author: Robert Hayden (b. 1913)

Title: "Middle Passage"

Date: 1966

Systems: Slave ship

Context: 1800, Atlantic ocean; African-American perspective

The poem in the form of ships' logs recounts a slave revolt, starvation, contagious blindness with the victims thrown overboard, and other horrors. On The Bella J, a "cargo of five hundred blacks and odd" are like "cattle stowed spoon-fashion." The Captain and crew use the women for sex; when fire breaks out, the crew abandons ship, leaving the Captain and the slaves to perish.

Shuttles in the rocking loom of history, 
the dark ships move, the dark ships move, 
their bright ironical names 
like jests of kindness on a murderer's mouth; 
plough through thrashing glister toward 
fata morgana's lucent melting shore, 
weave toward the New World littorals that are 
mirage and myth and actual shore. 
Voyage through death.

The poem ends with a successful revolt on The Amistad. Hayden's motivation for the poem, "Deep in the festering hold thy father lies," is a comment on the forced migration.

Edition used: Charles Kaplan, ed. Literature in America: The Modern Age. New York: The Free Press, 1971.


Author: Cornelius W. Larison, M.D. (1837-1910)

Title: Silvia Dubois, A Biografy of the Slav Who Whipt Her Mistres and Gand Her Fredom [sic]. Edited by Jared C. Lobdell

Date: 1883 (Oral history)

Systems: Ferry, skiff, turnpike

Context: 1800-1830 New Jersey and Great Bend, PA; 1880s Sourland Mountain, NJ

Sylvia Dubois lived for a full century (1788-1889) as both slave and tavern owner on the New Jersey and Pennsylvania frontiers. She offers an account of wilderness travel from a rare point of view - that of the social degenerate. According to Dr. Larison, her story demonstrates the results of "a life of dissoluteness...[it shows] what unbridled passions lead to, how abject and squalid a person can be and yet live not far from the fairest phases of civilized life" (Foreword).

The slave of a tavern keeper and eventually the keeper of her own tavern, Dubois lived at the commercial hub of the frontier of her day. Boatmen, those "driving beasts," those moving west, and those conducting all manner of commerce stop with her master, Dominicus Dubois, in Great Bend, Pennsylvania on the Susquehanna river (p. 55). Well aware that there is money to be made in accommodating travelers - which means taking them through your own land - Dominicus and his brother, Abraham, form the Great Bend-Cohecton-Newburgh (Pennsylvania to New York) Turnpike Company. Their letters, which include minor details on turnpike transactions, are included in Appendix II to this volume.

Sylvia details the operations of her master's ferry on the Susquehanna. This brief section (pp. 58-59) shows the competition among ferry operators for business. Sylvia's speed and skill on the water earn her a large clientele and "many a shilling and many a good drink too." Sylvia, who excels at stealing customers from other ferrymen, at age 14 could "manage a boat as well as anyone." She also claims that in racing a skiff she could (and did) "beat any man on the Susquehanna." A letter in Appendix 2 to this edition describes building an ice bridge for crossing the half-frozen Susquehanna in the winter. This letter also tells us that in 1814 the Great Bend bridge put the ferry out of commission.

Even as a young girl, Dubois was a clever entrepreneur and a hard drinker. In 1808 she "whipt her mistress - throwing her down in the middle of a crowded tavern and then offering the same to any who dared approach her." As a rather bizarre result of this episode, her master set her free, and Sylvia tramped alone with a child through the rugged forest country between Great Bend, Pennsylvania and Flagtown, New Jersey. (She took a brief raft trip down the Delaware river with the Brink family - from Easton to the area north of Trenton.) Back in New Jersey, she eventually inherited one of the most disreputable taverns in the state from her grandfather Harry Put. She operates Put's Tavern with great success until it was burned to the ground in 1840 by "those damned Democrats."

Edition used: Schomburg Library Edition, NY: Oxford UP, 1988.


Author: Mary Prince

Title: The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave. Related by Herself

Date: 1831

Systems: Ship

Context: 1800-30, Bermuda and London, England

Born a slave in the Caribbean, Mary Prince is transferred from Bermuda to "Turk's Island," travels back to Bermuda, and eventually crosses the sea to England. Yet, in contrast to the symbolic treatment of transportation in the narratives of Frederick Douglass and Sylvia Dubois, this registers only the physical conditions and the duration of travel, and carries only muted social and psychological significance.

Shipping, though peripheral, shapes the contents of Prince's narrative in particular ways. Prince's first two masters are ship's captains, Captain Williams and Captain I - . Because their trade means they are often absent from plantation life in Bermuda, the mistresses become the central antagonists in this narrative. She spends four weeks on board a sloop, sailing from Bermuda to her third master who lives on Turk's Island. Prince's narrative expresses no anticipation or dread concerning the transition between masters, and the only details she records are the names - not of the sloop and its captain - but of "the black man called Anthony, and his wife" who shared their food with her and kept her from starving en route.

Similarly, she extended sea voyage to England (with her fourth set of owners) is presented only in terms of her treatment as a passenger. For this reason it stands out when Prince tells us, "The steward of the ship was very kind to me. He and my husband were in the same class in the Moravian Church." Her mistress however, "was not kind to me on the passage; and she told me, when she was angry, that she did not intend to treat me any better in England than in the West Indies."

Edition used: The Classic Slave Narratives. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., New York: New American Library (Penguin), 1987.


Author: Samuel Hopkins Adams (1871-1958)

Title: Grandfather Stories

Date: 1959 Written: 1947-1955 mostly for The New Yorker

Systems: Erie canal, railroad

Context: 1820s, New York state

Adams, writing in the mid-twentieth century reports on stories he heard from his grandfathers in the 1870s and 1880s about events in the 1820s, thus getting us almost a century and a half into the past. Grandfather Myron Adams was involved as a financier and administrator of the Erie Canal from its start under Governor De Witt Clinton in 1828 and he was also involved in the early railroad in upstate New York in the mid-1830s. Grandfather Miles Hopkins, a minister was involved in steamboats and the Southern Central Railroad on and near Lake Owasco.

The stories give details about Erie Canal construction and maintenance. "A Deal in Gems" talks about the physics of locks, Irish diggers working for $1 a day. The Canal was expected to bring prosperity to merchants along the route, diggers, equipment suppliers, food suppliers for workers, but it was heralded by political opposition to Gov. Clinton and the $6 million in taxes (the overrun added another million). The tax investment was paid off in less than ten years, and early skepticism vanished. "The Big Break" discusses the damaging effect which muskrats have on the tow path and berm, the role of the pathmaster in routine maintenance, the patrol and repair boats for every ten miles of canal, and the ways local people and canal users worked together to repair major leaks in the system.

"Canal Bridge" is presented as a diary of a very observant woman who was on a boat with her husband. Here we find that larger barges carried relief teams on board; only the rich packets could afford relays every 12 to 15 miles, that the Albany to Buffalo rate was $100 per ton by wagon and $6 per ton by barge, that the canal was closed in winter and on Sundays. The anonymous (and, perhaps, fictional) diarist reports on the social life in great detail with accounts of the merchants, vagrants, dirty-picture salesmen, cheap whiskey, patent medicine sellers who met the boat in Rochester, the protest meeting against allowing a Lake Erie steamboat on the canal, and apprentices who deserted their positions and used the Canal to escape to the west. A Hamilton College professor and his wife were charged 2 1/2¢ a mile to hitch a ride; Irish immigrants 1 1/2¢ a mile to get out of New York City.

"The Parlous Trip" gives Grandfather Adams' views on trains. It is "dirty, sooty, bumpy, uncomfortable, dangerous, and faithless to its schedule." Boiler explosions, wheels falling off, and "snake rails" coming up through the cars were mentioned, as was stopping at all curves to clear debris and livestock off the tracks. Gamblers take odds on whether the train will arrive on time. The Auburn Railroad does 76 miles in 3 hours and 40 minutes with lots of stops, to Rochester. Troy, NY, banned locomotives, so trains were pulled into town by horses.

While these are framed as authentic accounts from the distant past, the literary device of having young Adams listen to his grandfather's yarns is quite different from a traditional or academic historical account of these events.

Edition used: New York: Signet, 1959.


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