By guest contributor JT Jamieson
A braggadocio writing in The New-England Magazine in 1832 asked his Northern audience, “Is it possible that no one in these parts has seen a Gopher? I have seen a thousand; and some other animals, too, that are not to be found in New-England[.]” Having apparently spent time “somewhere between the Mississippi and the Missouri,” the author was eager to bring all the “rare beasts” he had encountered in the West to New Englanders. Unable to deliver the actual specimens, though, he resolved to rely instead on print and gave his readers a virtual tour among the beasts of the West: “I cannot bring them to you, reader, and, therefore, I must e’en carry you, in imagination, to them.” The author nonetheless asserted his credibility, reliability, and expertise along his virtual zoological tour – and once more, of gophers, reminded readers of the thousand he’d seen (“Rare Beasts,” New-England Magazine, March, 1832).
His emphasis on sight and first-hand experience was likely designed to allay the suspicions early nineteenth-century Americans harbored concerning the transmission of information about the West. Two months earlier, The New-England Magazine had taken up the topic of gophers in order to question the veracity of a Western guidebook author’s geographical information. Reviewers of J.M. Peck’s A Guide for Emigrants, Containing Sketches of Illinois, Missouri, and the Adjacent Parts nitpicked a passage on gophers because Peck, though he described the animal and its dirt mounds, failed to adequately verify his empiricism and expertise:
although one would suppose from this description that the author had inspected the animal, yet we shall venture to say that he knows it only by the works of which he speaks…he does not intimate that he has ever seen one, nor do we know that any of the many Western historians have been so fortunate as to discover the animal before describing it; and the nearest approach we have been able to make towards certainty, after wondering over many of their mounds, is the word of a friend in Illinois, who was told by a neighbor that his father had seen a hunter, who had the skeleton of a Gopher.
The precariousness of knowledge, in a guidebook, no less, coupled with Peck’s “enthusiasm” for Western geography would likely cause the New Englander to “read…with a smile of incredulity”(New-England Magazine, January, 1832).
Believability was one important tool for early nineteenth-century Americans’ mental maps of the West. A sizeable portion of Easterners’ geographic imaginations came from the information for prospective Western emigrants inundating newspapers, periodicals, satires, advertisements, and of course guidebooks. In the press, boosters and anti-emigrationists argued about what emigrants might find in the West. The volume of deceptive, hard-to-believe, and incomplete information generated a dynamic conversation about credulity, distortion, and objectivity in geographic representation. Boosters extolled the West in a typically cartoonish fashion. Anti-emigrationists, who often fretted about their population draining to the West, promoted incredulity as a means to keep enterprising inhabitants east of the Appalachians. Guidebook authors published erroneous information but also found a market in objectivity. Despite the fact that print took on new dimensions of authority in the early nineteenth century, Americans were still living in a world where “books as well as men are fallible,” as an 1839 guidebook put it (Steele’s Western Guidebook and Emigrant’s Directory, 1839). Demonstrating the objectivity of one’s own guidebook made it stand out among the crowd of misleading or untruthful information.
Discerning a ‘truth’ was important to several genres of early nineteenth-century American writing, from gazetteers and censuses to histories to personal narratives. The preoccupation with authenticity, objectivity, or impartiality in these genres reflected the growth of numeracy, an influence of Scottish Common Sense Realism, the marketability of honest and true stories, and, for emigrants, the want of practical or useful information. Emigration commentators engaged in a war of words and Wests, convincing readers either of rosy western fantasies, or of the ruination inevitably awaiting emigrants who strayed from home. Was New England land really as stony and unproductive as boosters said? Did the West – or, could it – have schools? Churches? Locals with sufficient geographic knowledge? Food amenable to Eastern bellies? Ghosts? On that last point, at least, James Hall seemed to give a definitive answer to magazine readers in 1828: “No respectable and truly aristocratic ghost would put up with a log cabin,” no spirit would bother to endure the daily discordant music of Western settlements – the axe and rifle echoing incessantly and annoyingly. Nor would specters be so stupid as to room with the “backwoodsmen, who would as soon scalp a ghost, if a ghost could be scalped, as they would shoot a panther or an Indian” (Letters from the West, 1828).
For the prospective emigrant, Western information was fragile – it was debatable and prone to errors, with a general air of uncertainty and incompleteness. Guidebooks might acknowledge – and apologize for – any errors readers detected. An Ohio gazetteer noted that Western states and territories were, after all, too large to describe with “perfect accuracy” – the best the reader could hope for was that the “work may generally be pronounced correct”(John Kilbourn, The Ohio Gazetteer, 1831). If reading newspapers, Easterners would have been aware that Western geographic information was always in a volatile state of becoming. Emigration societies’ advertisements demonstrated that their first task was to build a public archive of geographic knowledge. The Western Emigrant Society requested information by mailing questionnaires around the country, information that would then be reproduced in the press. Other emigration societies exhibited their dearth of geographic knowledge by naming their destinations with as much specificity as “the West.” In 1819, the New York Emigration Society stated that if it had to choose a more specific location based on “all the sources of information to which your committee have had access,” it would be Illinois. That opinion, however, “would be given with much hesitation and subject to be changed as their information should increase” (“Emigration Society,” National Advocate, August 4, 1819).
If information was uncertain, erroneous, or deceptive, then credulousness, according to anti-emigrationists, was the only rational explanation for emigration from the East. Maine’s American Advocate concluded that if Easterners indeed “hurried away from a comfortable home,” it was only because they’d “swallowed every strange report with a credulity unexampled.” Hoping to enlighten “the eyes of the credulous,” the Advocate asserted that upon an examination “into the real facts…opinions will change into a sober admiration of our own favored territories, and the desire to migrate will die away with the credulity and ignorance that produced it” (“Reflections on Emigration,” American Advocate, October 18 and November 8, 1817). Often, as was the case with Peck’s Illinoisan gophers, the “real facts” could only be furnished from personal observation, not from the books and accounts of others. Too often Western information was derived in the forms of “fancy” or “whim” from the scheming and interested speculator. So, the author of A Caution to Emigrants clarified in 1819 that “fancy or whim…can neither produce or destroy a fact.” His ultimate caution to readers was this: “let no man, on any condition, or under any circumstances, whatever, be induced to remove his family to a distant country, until he has seen, examined and judged of it for himself” (John Stillman Wright, Letters from the West, or, A Caution to Emigrants, 1819).
Some guidebook authors took advantage of the fact that deceptive or insufficient material came into readers’ orbit. Authors justified writing guidebooks by stating that others writing about Western geography offered either unsatisfactory or untruthful information. In doing so they promised untainted accuracy in their own works. William Darby, a surveyor who penned a major early emigrant guide in 1819, was among the most ardent of guidebook authors to embrace objectivity. Even friendly reviewers of his Guide noted the “difficulty of acquiring satisfactory information” and the “suspicion with which we are obliged to view all accounts of the different parts of the United States,” and derided his failure to clearly point out what information wasn’t derived from personal observation (North American Review, July 1818). Nevertheless, Darby asserted his hatred of the erroneous and untruthful. He engaged in an angry debate in 1817, for example, with Hezekiah Niles, well-known editor of Baltimore’s Niles’ Weekly Register, over mistakes in their descriptions of Louisiana. As the two got in a spat over topographical errors and misrepresentations in each others’ work, Darby took the opportunity to proclaim his philosophy of geographic writing: “In every stage of my advance as a writer, however humble may be my attempts, I have constantly endeavored to present facts as they really are in nature. The mischief is incalculable that has been done by high wrought pictures of rapid gain held out to persons moving into the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. There seems to exist a kind of mania to swell every thing relating to those places beyond the measure of common sense” (“Darby’s Louisiana, &c.” Niles’ Weekly Register, November 22, 1817).
It’s true that in many cases words won the West in the nineteenth century. But early emigrant propaganda never reached readers without first being filtered through a series of public debates about the veracity and usefulness of information. As much as the creation of the Euro-American West depended on far-flung readers’ aspirations and dreams, it depended too on their suspicions, on trials and errors.
J.T. Jamieson is a PhD candidate in history at the University of California, Berkeley and studies nineteenth-century America.