(Covering the period from December, 1817, to July, 1818 [and composed sometime between the latter date and 1833]). 177 x 110 mm. (7 x 4 3/8"). 77 pp.
Original stitched rustic flexible paper wrappers, free endpapers excised from publisher's ads printed on dark gray paper. The manuscript offered with a third edition of Morris Birkbeck's "Notes on a Journey in America, from the Coast of Virginia to the Territory of Illinois" (London: James Ridgway, 1818) in slightly later blue half calf and textured boards (joints and edges rubbed, text toned and slightly spotted, but a solid, presentable copy). Manuscript with a little yellowing and other trivial imperfections in the text, but in remarkable condition for an item of this sort, the sewing firm, the covers scarcely soiled, and the item obviously little handled during the ca. 200 years of its life.
This is the absorbing first-person manuscript account of a journey to the United States written by Thomas Wright, a 37-year-old English druggist, full of incident and providing both penetrating and fascinating insights into American culture in the first part of the 19th century. Done in a careful hand and in the language of an educated and sensitive observer, the narrative begins in Boston in Lincolnshire with an almost boisterous sanguinity: "Having long cherished a strong desire to see America & having repeatedly read accounts which described that country as the seat and center of everything that was happy, great & good, I determined on leaving my native land to become a citizen of the United States of that great & extensive republic." It ends abruptly, some seven months later, in the middle of a sentence, as the narrator approaches his destination, the settlement in the southern part of Illinois Territory established by another English emigré, Morris Birkbeck. The person writing the account does not identify himself, but we learn who he is from clues that are dropped early in his story, combined with external evidence. The first lead from the text comes when the narrator says, "I disposed of my stock in trade fixtures, etc. which was entered upon by my successor, Mr. Robert Obbinson [on] December 1st 1817." Soon after, he tells us that he sailed for America on 26 March aboard the ship "Achilles," bound for Philadelphia. These clues are enough to identify the writer as Thomas Wright (1780-1833). A key piece of external evidence is a newspaper advertisement placed by Obbinson in the "Lincoln, Rutland & Stamford Mercury" on 26 December 1817, announcing that he has taken over the premises of "Mr T. Wright," and that he intends to continue the latter's business as veterinary surgeon, chemist, and druggist (he notes with pride that he will supply "Sheep Ointments of the best quality"). Announcements in the same "Mercury" in 1813 and 1815 indicate that the mercantile and household goods of "Thomas Wright, Chymist and Druggist," were to be sold at a bankruptcy auction. Wright's name among the steerage passengers in the manifest of the "Achilles" confirms his identity. (Parish registers and other records indicate that Thomas' father, also named Thomas, was Master of a Boston parish workhouse, and his mother Mary was a member of a well-to-do Boston family named Kyme. Our Thomas married the spinster Ann Marston of Boston in 1805, but she died, childless, six years later. In addition to seven siblings who died at birth or in infancy, Thomas had an older brother, Charles, who was successful as an ironmonger and became mayor of Boston, and a younger sister who married a Baptist minister.)
The account is full of immediacy, perception, and emotion. As the "Achilles" sails toward the open sea, Wright "could not help feeling . . . melancholy ideas" as he took what he thought might be his "last lingering look at the shores of [his] native land and" faced the prospect of going "to a land where perhaps [he] might not find a single person who would interest himself in [his] welfare." He says, "I took up my flute[!] and played the air 'Adieu my native land, adieu.'" With the help of his generally good-spirited shipmates, he was able to dispose of his "melancholic disposition," and they all "sat down to a cheerful supper in good spirits, & full of hope that [they] were exchanging the old for a new and a better world." Eight weeks at sea follow, and passengers and crew face momentary death multiple times in fierce storms, which Wright describes with literary quotes and with his own notably heightened language: "The gale increased with fury and continued all the day, the ship laboured hard and reeled prodigiously" in the middle of the ocean, at the mercy of the elements, with any accident meaning certain death, still "the sight of the ocean was grand beyond imagination[,] the waves rolling over each other to an immense height, this moment we appe[a]red to be borne on the topmost wave, the next engulphed between the wat[e]ry mountains, it seem'd sometimes, as our immortal Shakespeare says, that 'between the sea and sky you could not thrust a bodkin's point.'" When circumstances were more settled, tension and conflict among those so intimately thrown together inevitably grew, and Wright made something of a shipboard drama out of the bullying captain and the passengers chafing under his subjugation. Sometimes, however, this opposition had a light side, as when a dog owned by one of the cabin passengers urinated through an overhead hatchway onto the captain and two of his villainous friends: when the dog "showered down his benefaction," the narrator had his "risible faculties . . . excited" and "could not forbear indulging them."
On 18 May, land was sighted off Long Island, and the moment "operated like electricity," with everyone "rushing on deck at once to behold what [they] had for nearly 8 weeks been strangers to." Wright's eager eyes are filled with images of fruit trees in full bloom, and in Philadelphia he experiences his first American meal (enormous) and lodgings (very "mean"). The party he has contracted with to journey to Illinois leaves Philadelphia, but he needs to remain behind to rehabilitate feet and legs that the sea journey had left impaired; in the following two weeks, he tells us a great deal about his new country's second largest metropolis. He is impressed with the handsome and well-built city, and the druggist in him comments that its residents seem healthy, in part because "the streets [are] entirely free from filth and putrifying substances." In the manuscript's most technical moment, Wright notes that "the inhabitants are generally thin and long-featured with sallow complexions," an appearance partly resulting from their "recourse to Emeric Tartar which they take frequently to the content of six grains, or else take a large dose of Calomel & Jala, say twelve grains of the former and fifteen of the latter." He is struck by unfamiliar and cruel racial behaviors: although slavery had long been officially abolished in Pennsylvania, our writer says that "a white person thinks himself disgraced by speaking to a negro, and they will by no means frequent a store or tavern which afford accommodation to the poor persecuted African"; some blacks have shops (even some that are "elegant" and visited by "respectable people") but these blacks are not more highly esteemed than the others. Wright turns his attention to conditions in boarding houses: boarders who want cheap lodgings can opt to sleep two in a bed, with multiple beds in the room, and he finds the rooms "are well filled with bugs."
His legs rehabilitated, Wright sets out, intending to overtake the others in his party at Pittsburgh. He engages a place in a mail coach, which leaves Philadelphia on 7 June with 10 passengers in all, including a female, four storekeepers, and an attorney. His aesthetic sensibilities are charmed by the appearance of a "great number of fire flies, . . . thousands of small sparkling lights" that give "a wonderful relief to the darkness," and he chastises himself for forgetting their classical name(!). The coach makes frequent stops to deliver and pick up mail and to let off and pick up passengers, and it struggles over brutally crude roads (an axle breaks during the trip, and passengers are forced for a time to ride the horses). Meals and sleep are short and taken at odd hours. In the middle of the night early in the journey, passengers who had reached their destination are let out of the coach, and their places (between our narrator and the lawyer) are taken by a woman and her two children. Wright says, "as it was dark when she got in it was not known who, or what she was, but as soon as daylight discovered her countenance the poor attorney appeared horror struck & broke forth vehemently," protesting that putting such a woman into the stage without first consulting the passengers was an outrage--"for she had the misfortune to be a woman of colour. . . . It appeared afterwards that the proprietor of the last tavern we stopped at was obliged to smuggle her into the carriage as the poor woman had been waiting there for ten days for a conveyance to Pittsburgh & tho a stage went thro every day yet not any would consent to her being taken up notwithstanding the poor woman had made use of the most persuasive and humiliating entreaties." The dispute reignited the next day: "The rage of our poor mortified attorney broke forth violently, [as] he endeavoured to bring the rest of the passengers to consent with him to leave our sable companions behind, but [I] was happy to observe they strongly opposed his suggestions remarking at the same time that tho it was very degrading and extremely unpleasant to travel with a person of color they could not commit so great a piece of inhumanity and injustice, he then asked me if I did not feel hurt in having her as a companion, I replied we did not think ourselves in England disgraced by conversing with any color[ed person] provided their reputation was fair[;] he seemed almost incredulous at the assertion and declared with great vehemence that no reputation they could possess could ever reconcile him to the situation he was then placed in." The lawyer ended up sitting "in sullen silence."
After five days, and some 300 miles, the coach arrives at Pittsburgh, which Wright notes is "called the Birmingham of America" because of its iron and copper industries. The city's 8,000 "kind and hospitable" as well as "industrious" residents are unfortunately shrouded in smoke from its smelters; there are a number of breweries and glass manufacturers; and, significantly, Wright notes the presence of eight druggists. He says that the city is a great trading center because of the confluence of its three rivers, and he says that this is a place where many immigrants are to be found, ready to head west to Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and elsewhere. The party purchases a flat-bottomed boat, and on 19 June, they head down the Ohio River toward Birkbeck's colony in Illinois. An eerie encounter takes place later that day at Steubenville (where Wright had gone on shore to take a bath): he "saw a man standing on the bank who was a German, he asked our destination and when he understood we were going to Birkbeck he shook his head and said he would advise us to return, I replied as we had come so far we might as well proceed & we could only then return if we were not satisfied[;] 'very well sir' said he 'use your own discretion, but you will probably sometime recollect the advice I have just given you.'" The party make their way through dangerous currents and submerged trees, arriving at Cincinnati, "a very spirited and flourishing town of 12,000 inhabitants" and "by far the most important town for business between Pittsburg and New Orleans." On 30 June, the boat reaches Louisville (beautiful, though unhealthy because of pools of stagnant water) and its treacherous rapids, but the water is high enough for the party to pass safely, albeit with the help of a hired pilot. Six days later, Wright reaches Shawneetown, Illinois, 16 days and 1,013 miles by water from Pittsburgh and just 60 miles by land from his destination; in the middle of a sentence discussing the town's susceptibility to flooding, his account suddenly ends.
The manuscript has the immediacy and verisimilitude of a journal, but it had to have been written after the fact, as it shows none of the inevitable physical damage it would have incurred in the unprotected day-to-day environment of the narrator's adventure. Also, the text has a handful of moments when Wright looks back at a time stretching beyond the conclusion of the text. He says, for example, that Illinois is no longer a Territory, but a State, which means that the manuscript must have been written following the granting of statehood on 3 December 1818, after the end of the journey he is recounting. Another example: Wright says that "during my stay in America I saw several . . . [persons] who had extolled this country very much but who were laboring under difficulties & would be glad if they had the means of returning home." It is clear from this passage that he is one of those who did, in fact, return to his home country. Records show that our Thomas Wright died in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, near the southern border of Lincolnshire, in 1833. We know it is our Thomas because he is identified in a death notice as a druggist and that an executor of his estate is (his older brother) Charles Wright, identified as a Boston merchant.
Due in large part to Birkbeck's "Notes on a Journey . . . to the Territory of Illinois" (which went through 11 editions in English and appeared in German and Swedish) and a sequel ("Letters from Illinois"), the Birkbeck settlement at first experienced a substantial influx of disaffected and hopeful newcomers who had left behind harsh or disappointing lives. There were reportedly more than 1,000 English and American settlers at work there in 1819. But soon the bloom left the rose, and a noticeable decline had set in even before Birkbeck drowned in 1825. Those he left behind could not sustain the colony, and all that is left now of the expansive settlement encompassing some 26,000 acres in Edwards County and the town of Wanborough that had occupied part of it is a small cemetery. Clearly, Wright, who not surprisingly had read "Notes on a Journey," went to Illinois for a new start. He also no doubt went partly because he saw commonalities between himself and Birkbeck: both were Non-Conformists, both educated and high-minded men with cultural proclivities. Unfortunately, while the settlement Birkbeck had envisioned in Illinois was to support a utopian society and was meant to be a proving ground for advanced agricultural methods, it turned out to be well short of a land of milk and honey. Wright was a man of considerable depth, but he was not a good man of business, and it is difficult to imagine that Birkbeck's agrarian settlement would have been a place for him to flourish. (After reading his account, we wonder if he may have missed his calling as a writer.)
Manuscripts like the present one that deal with settlers coming to America in the first part of the 19th century are very uncommon in the marketplace, and those written by discerning, sensitive, and articulate observers are significantly rarer still. There is much left here to research, and the editing and publishing of this account is surely a valuable undertaking to contemplate. (For considerable help in documenting the identity of the manuscript's author, we are indebted to Susan Payne, independent Archivist & Historical Researcher for Lincolnshire.). (ST1117)
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