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Beyond American Journeys

Going Beyond American Journeys: Finding Other Primary Sources on Early Exploration

About 1020 A.D., Thorfinn Karlsefni discovered on a beach in Newfoundland or Labrador “so many eider-duck. . . that a man could hardly take a step for the eggs” and “no shortage of provisions, for there was hunting of animals on the mainland, eggs in the island breeding-grounds, and fish from the sea.” This was the first and only European description of a North American environment for 500 years. But shortly after Columbus blundered into the Caribbean in the autumn of 1492, the observers who followed in his wake began to catalog the natural resources of the “new” world.

The astonishing number of textual sources that they created about the environmental history of North America is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, testimony of past witnesses about the state of the landscape does exist for many parts of the continent. On the other, its sheer volume can make it quite difficult to discover exactly what may have been said about any given place at any given time. Additional confusion arises because what a text says may seem straightforward while what it means is obscured by cultural assumptions and discursive practices of an earlier age. This short piece is meant to help you address these two challenges.

Because these historical documents were created, disseminated, and preserved according to established conventions of earlier eras, students will have an easier time if they follow these main strategies:

Rule 1: Think geographically. Encourage your students to structure their research around a specific locality or finite region. Because all history happened in some place, writers often shaped their narratives around particular locations. All the documents in American Journeys have been carefully indexed under the names of states, province, or regions, and students can use these terms in their searches. Before beginning research in textual sources, guide your students in compiling a controlled vocabulary of relevant geographic names, starting with the most specific and proceeding to broader ones. You and they should be prepared to encounter archaic spellings or obsolete names, too.

Rule 2: Check regional bibliographies. Encourage students to check bibliographies such as those listed below to identify standard works that cover your area but are not digitized at These bibliographies and the works they cite will be available at large public or academic libraries.

  • Use H. P. Beers, Bibliographies in American History, 1942-1978 to see if a specialized bibliography exists that will lead to primary sources. The two volume set, published in 1982, lists nearly 12,000 bibliographies, with excellent subject and geographic indexing.
  • Examine Laura Arksey, Nancy Pries, and Marcia Reed’s two-volume American Diaries: An Annotated Bibliography of Published American Diaries and Journals to 1980 and L. Kaplan’s A Bibliography of American Autobiographies to find diaries, journals, memoirs, and autobiographies of people who traveled through or settled in your area. American Diaries describes more then 5,000 published diaries kept between 1492 and 1980, and provides geographical access through a very detailed index that also includes occupations such as “naturalists” and general topics such as “explorations” or “loggers and logging.” Kaplan’s work contains more than 6,300 autobiographies and memoirs, all of which are available in full-text on microfiche, with a useful geographical index.
  • Use M. J. Kaminkow’s United States Local Histories in the Library of Congress: A Bibliography to identify local histories of a particular region. It contains citations to more than 87,000 histories of villages, towns, cities, and counties, most of which were published in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Many of these begin with a chapter that surveys the topography and environmental conditions at the time of European contact.
  • Also check the indices to C. Evans’ The American Bibliography: A Chronological Dictionary of All Books Pamphlets and Periodical Publications Printed in the United States of America from the Genesis of Printing in 1639 Down to and Including the year 1800 . . . for a list of 39,000 publications printed in America before 1801. Each volume contains a “classified subject index” that includes sections on history, geography, and travel.

Rule 3: Look for local organizations that may have information your students can use. Consult the American Association for State and Local History’s Directory of Historical Organizations in the United States and Canada, to identify local historical groups that may hold unpublished texts or unique in-house finding aids. For example, every small town in New York has an officially designated historian who knows the local resources. Help your students contact county historical societies or local public libraries in your area, for advice and suggestions.

Rule 4: Search two important databases. OCLC WorldCat and America: History & Life, for texts that may not appear in the tools mentioned above. OCLC WorldCat contains descriptions of 40,000,000 books and journals owned by tens of thousands of libraries. It is available at nearly every academic library and most large public libraries, but is not accessible to the public over the Internet. To find texts that appeared as articles, search the database America: History & Life, which will help your students gain access to articles published since 1982 in more than 2,000 periodicals devoted to North American history. Like OCLC WorldCat, it is not offered to the general public over the Internet but can be found at most large public and academic libraries

Early textual sources that students will find helpful can usually be divided into general categories such as: classic early explorations, the Jesuit Relations, travelers’ accounts, Native American sources, official United States government expedition reports, local histories, and early scientific investigations.

1. Classic early explorations. Seventy-five years before the English stepped ashore at Jamestown, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto camped across the Mississippi River from present-day Memphis, Tennessee. One of his officers noted that, “This land is higher, drier, and more level than any other along the river that had been seen until then. In the fields were many walnut trees, bearing tender-shelled nuts in the shape of acorns, many being found stored in the houses. . . . There were many mulberry trees, and trees of plums (persimmons), having fruit of vermillion hue, like one of Spain, while others were grey, differing, but far better. All the trees, the year round, were as green as if they stood in orchards, and the woods were open.”

As this demonstrates, eyewitness accounts from the classic exploring expeditions can be fruitful sources of first-hand data on North American landscapes. The most important of them, covering all regions of the U.S., can be read, searched, printed, or downloaded from the American Journeys Web site.

For a summary of what happened on the expeditions themselves, consult John B. Brebner, The Explorers of North America, 1492-1806, New York: Macmillan, 1933. D. W. Meinig, The Shaping of America, A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History in two volumes, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986, is a geographer’s history that continually bears environmental issues in mind and puts the classic accounts in proper geographical perspective. The works of Carl O. Sauer, The Early Spanish Main, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966; Northern Mists. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968; 1971. Sixteenth Century North America, the Land and People as Seen by Europeans, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971; and Seventeenth Century North America, Berkeley: Turtle Island Press, 1980, provide a superb synthesis of their environmental data. Your students may also find it helpful to keep an atlas such as G. Roberts, Atlas of Discovery, New York: Crown, 1973, close at hand to lay out the routes and dates of the major expeditions.

The amount and quality of ecological description in early explorations varies considerably, though you can usually find helpful imagery, such as this 1609 description of New York Harbor: “[A crew sent toward shore by Henry Hudson] caught ten great mullets, of a foote and a halfe long a peece, and a ray as great as foure men could hale into the ship. . . . They went into the woods, and saw great store of very goodly oakes and some currants. . . . The lands, they told us, were as pleasant with grasse and flowers and goodly trees as ever they had seene, and very sweet smells came from them.”

2. The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents ( Starting in 1610, Jesuit priests traveled an arc stretching from Maine and Nova Scotia in the east, through Quebec, Ontario, and the Great Lakes, then down the Mississippi Valley to Louisiana. While the spiritual effect of their missionary work may be debatable, the historical value of the extremely detailed annual reports they sent back to France is unquestioned. Long before the habitats in those regions were disrupted by modern civilization, the missionaries submitted very personal, meticulously detailed, and highly anecdotal accounts of their activities. These texts are known collectively as the Jesuit Relations because their original titles usually begin Relation de ce c’qui se passe dans la nouvelle France . . . (“Report of what happened in New France . . .” during the preceding year). They often shed unique light on the historical ecology of a specific area. First published in English in 1900, many are included in American Journeys and the full French and English texts of all of them are now available for free at the URL above.

3. Travelers’ Accounts. The Jesuit missionaries were only one type of traveler to follow in the footsteps of the first explorers. People in all walks of life, from European noblemen to semi-literate fur traders, left written records of various parts of North America. The number of these published accounts, tourists’ letters, travelers’ diaries, emigrant pamphlets, and early settlers’ reminiscences is staggering. The most famous and often cited of these travelers’ accounts are included on the American Journeys Web site. To help your students find others, locate copies of the following regional bibliographies in the nearest large public or academic library:

  • Use R. Parks’ New England, A Bibliography of Its History Prepared by the Committee for a New England Bibliography, Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1989, for the northeastern United States. With six companion volumes dedicated to individual states, this set provides access to thousands of primary and secondary sources.
  • For East Coast sources, see R. W. G. Vail’s The Voice of the Old Frontier, Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1933. It cites about 1,000 accounts published before 1800 and written by settlers, Indian captives, and promoters of areas within the United States.
  • For sources on the Midwest, turn to R. Hubach’s Early Midwestern Travel Narratives: An Annotated Bibliography, 1634-1850, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1961; reprinted 1998. This volume describes and annotates more than 1,000 primary sources covering the region from Pennsylvania west to the Great Plains and north to the Canadian border. Very detailed annotations describe each work’s content and a comprehensive index pinpoints geographical names.
  • Thomas D. Clark covers much of the Southeast in Travels in the Old South: A Bibliography, three volumes, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1956-1959. His work lists and comments upon more than 1,000 books published before 1860 and additional volumes cover later periods. Index entries in each volume on specific place-names and “flora and fauna” lead to first-person descriptions of natural environments.
  • For the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains regions, see The Trail: a Bibliography of the Travelers on the Overland Trail to California, Oregon, Salt Lake City, and Montana During the Years 1841-1864, by L. W. Mintz, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987 and M. J. Mattes’ Platte River Road Narratives: A Descriptive Bibliography of Travel Over the Great Central Overland Route to Oregon, California, Utah, Colorado, Montana, and Other Western States and Territories, 1812-1866, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988, describe more than 2,000 first-person accounts of travels across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains between 1812 and 1866. Although each is thoroughly annotated, geographical indexing is superficial.
  • Sources for the study of the Western United States are included in H. R. Wagner and Charles L. Camp’s The Plains & the Rockies: A Critical Bibliography of Exploration, Adventure and Travel in the American West, 1800-1865, 4th ed., revised, enlarged and edited by Robert H. Becker. San Francisco: John Howell-Books, 1982.
  • J. D. Rittenhouse’s classic Southwestern bibliography, The Santa Fe Trail; A Historical Bibliography, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971, lists and annotates more than 700 eyewitness accounts, including Spanish and American government reports.
  • R. E. Cowan and R. G. Cowan, A Bibliography of the History of California, 1510-1930 in 4 volumes, Los Angeles: (no publisher), 1933, contains more than 7,500 citations relating to California with title, subject, and chronological indexes.
  • Searching for information on the Pacific Northwest may prove difficult. The best bibliography is that of C. W. Smith called Pacific Northwest Americana: A Checklist of Books and Pamphlets Relating to the History of the Pacific Northwest, 3rd edition. It was revised and extended by Isabel Mayhew and published in Portland: Oregon Historical Society, 1950. Despite the word “checklist,” the volume contains citations to more than 11,000 sources arranged, unfortunately, only by author. Subject access is only available in a typescript index prepared by Mayhew that has been microfilmed and is available at a handful of libraries in the region. However, B. Bjoring, et. al., Explorers’ and Travellers’ Journals Documenting Early Contacts with Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, 1741-1900, compiled by Bob Bjoring and Susan Cunningham may also be available. It was published in Seattle: University of Washington Libraries Bibliography Series, number 3, 1982. It is arranged geographically, so this handy list of 682 items provides good citations to overland trips, Russian coastal expeditions, and government reports that detail not only native peoples but also the environments they inhabited.

Merchants and Indian agents sometimes collected important information from Native American trading partners. For example, Pierre Gaultier de Varennes de la Verendrye (American Journeys documents AJ-108 and AJ-109) left this account of the region northeast of Lake Winnipeg, as described by the Cree in 1737: “The country is very open-no mountains. They found a shrub the wood and leaves of which are odoriferous, and which might be the laurel; another which bore seeds like the pepper I showed them; also a tree which produced a kind of cocoa from which exude drops like blood when it is in flower. There are also mines, all kind of wild beasts in abundance, and snakes of a prodigious size.” Fifty years later the intrepid Scottish trader Alexander Mackenzie-who crossed from the Atlantic to the Pacific two decades before Lewis and Clark-noted of the area that is today’s Wood Buffalo National Park, in northern Alberta (AJ-142), “The Indians informed me, that, at a very small distance from either bank of the [Slave] river, are very extensive plains, frequented by large herds of buffaloes; while the moose and reindeer keep in the woods that border on it. The beavers, which are in great numbers, build their habitations in the small lakes and rivers, as, in the larger streams, the ice carries everything along with it, during the spring. The mud-banks in the river are covered with wild fowl; and we this morning killed two swans, ten geese, and one beaver, without suffering the delay of an hour. . . .”

The quite different experiences and intentions of the various authors make travelers’ accounts especially liable to problems of nomenclature, geography, and interpretation. In addition, the publishers of their manuscripts also had specific goals that sometimes led to indices listing every human being mentioned, but failing to mention any other species of animal or plant. Consequently, your students should be prepared to carefully comb traveler’s accounts to extract environmental data that obviously seemed inconsequential to the people who wrote or issued the text. Notwithstanding these difficulties, the reminiscences, diaries, letters, and narratives of travelers can provide a very rich, unfiltered, source of information on very early American landscapes.

4. Native American sources. Long before the National Enquirer, Americans’ appetite for the bizarre and horrific was partly met by a literary genre known today as “captivity narratives.” These first-person narratives of hardship and torture fed the demand for titillation among curious white readers, and despite their ephemeral nature, more than 200 such texts survive today. They generally provide colorful and intimate descriptions-albeit often culturally biased-of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century frontier environments and the ways that native peoples inhabited them. Their plots usually follow a predictable course: Indians capture the frontier narrator; he or she undergoes a traumatic journey to a native community in the depths of the wilderness; after surviving a period of life among the Indians, he or she eventually escapes or is repatriated. We read these stories today for glimpses into how Native Americans interacted with each other and the landscapes that surrounded them.

To find captivity narratives that may shed light on your area, start by visiting the University of Pennsylvania’s Online Books page ( where you will be led to free Web versions of many. For those not yet available electronically, consult A. T. Vaughn’s Narratives of North American Indian Captivity: A Selective Bibliography, New York: Garland Publishers, 1983, which was the basis for “The Garland Library of Narratives of North American Indian Captivities,” a 225-volume series of books issued in the 1970s.

5. Official United States Government Expeditions. ( and Almost as fast as the federal government came into possession of the landscape, it sent soldiers and surveyors to explore and report upon it. The best-known United States government explorations that crossed the interior during the nineteenth century-those of Lewis and Clark, Pike, Long, and Fremont-were intended in large part to gather scientific data. Their personnel were ordered to maintain detailed journals. Because scientists were deliberately recruited to record zoological, botanical, and meteorological data, these reports can be extremely useful to students doing environmental history on the Great Plains or western United States. The most famous of these, including the journals of Lewis and Clark, and reports by Pike and Fremont, are included on the American Journeys site at

Not as well-known, but typical of this genre, are the “Pacific Railroad Surveys” of 1853-1855. The federal government financed six separate expeditions to locate the best route for constructing a railroad from St. Louis to the Pacific. Reports on the six expeditions were published in twelve massive volumes of scientific reports that are available at Cornell University’s Making of America project on the Web at

With a title almost as long as the three volume work, M. Meisel’s A Bibliography of American Natural History; the Pioneer Century, 1769-1865; the Role Played by the Scientific Societies; Scientific Journals; Natural History Museums and Botanic Gardens; State Geological and Natural History Surveys; Federal Exploring Expeditions in the Rise and Progress of American Botany, Geology, Mineralogy, Paleontology and Zoology, in three volumes, Brooklyn, New York: The Premier Publishing Co. 1924-29; reprinted New York: Hafner, 1967, provides comprehensive access to all early American scientific literature, especially to the many articles and papers in nineteenth-century scholarly journals and supplies an overview of the scientific data collected on all those surveys undertaken before 1865. Although nineteenth-century government publications can be found in dozens of libraries in their original formats or on microfilm, they often lack useful indices.

6. Local histories. Only twenty years after the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock, their leader, William Bradford, sat down to write a history of the town ( document AJ-025). Since then every community-village, town, county, or state-seems to have nurtured its sense of identity by researching and publishing at least one monograph on its own history. Although many exist from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in the nineteenth did the local history genre truly came into its own. Sparked by centennial celebrations of the American Revolution in 1876, communities all across the continent began to display incredible civic pride at having grown from a puny hamlet to a substantial settlement. Between 1880 and 1920, hundreds of stout, sometimes multi-volume works - their ponderous, self-important outsides belying the mundane historical approach and the pedestrian prose snoring within - appeared from commercial and vanity presses.

Since these works incline toward self-promotion, remind your students to read their descriptions with caution. The land that became “our town” may either be portrayed as an idyllic Eden, or be depicted as a hostile wilderness that had to be conquered and “improved” by the first sturdy settlers. Somewhere between those extremes-between the lines, so to speak-readers can usually gather a reliable account of the environment as seen by those who were first on the scene.

In addition to standard histories, at one time or another most communities also produced at least one local newspaper. If your students can gain access to a collection of the back issues at their local public library or historical society, such sources are likely to contain a great wealth of information about the settlement of their area, and environmental characteristics. However, they are rarely indexed, which means one has no choice but to turn every page of every issue!

The magazines and serial publications of local historical societies are another source that can be extraordinarily helpful. A hundred years ago many communities had an “Old Settlers Society” or “Pioneer Settlers Association” many of which published the recollections of people who arrived in the area before it was transformed by industry and agriculture. Suggest that your students check with the local historical society or public library for advice on such sources.

Many of these local historical resources can be found at the Making of America Web site or the Library of Congress American Memory Web site

7. Early Scientific Investigations. Modern science is often said to date from the founding of the Royal Society in London in 1660, and only a few decades later English-speaking Americans also embraced the methods of their proto-scientific colleagues across the Atlantic. The most important of these can be found on the American Journeys site. To find other early scientific works, start with G. Bridson, The History of Natural History: An Annotated Bibliography, New York: Garland Publishers, 1994. Although international in scope, these 7,500 citations provide access to the most authoritative secondary sources on American scientists. For citations to American works for the earliest periods, consult Andrea Tucher, Natural History in America, 1609-1860: Printed Works in the Collections of the American Philosophical Society, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Library Company of Philadelphia, New York: Garland, 1985. K. Harkanyi, The Natural Sciences and American Scientists in the Revolutionary Era: A Bibliography, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1990, provides good access to more than 5,000 primary and secondary sources on late-eighteenth-century American natural history. Meisel (mentioned earlier) is especially helpful for its itemized accounts of the contents of scientific journals.

By the mid-nineteenth century, a handful of naturalists in the Eastern and Midwestern United States were sensitive to the ecological effects of the human migration and development occurring around them. R. Brewer, A brief history of ecology: Part I-Pre-Nineteenth Century to 1919, Occasional Papers of the C.C. Adams Center for Ecological Studies, no. 1, Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University, 1960, will lead your students back to the pioneering texts. By the end of the century, scientific approaches to agriculture and forestry had led scholars to cast a retrospective look toward the state of nature prior to modern management. The bibliographies by P. W. Bidwell and J. I. Falconer, History of Agriculture in the Northern United States, 1620-1860, Carnegie Institute Publication no. 358, New York: Peter Smith, 1941; D. Bowers,. A List of References for the History of Agriculture in the United States: 1790-1840, Davis: Agricultural History Center, University of California, Davis, 1969; R. J. Fahl, North American Forest and Conservation History, A Bibliography, Santa Barbara: Clio Press, 1977; and C. L. Harvey, Agriculture of the American Indian: A Select Bibliography, Washington: U.S.D.A., 1979, yield many useful citations to early scientific work in these two areas.

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