Issac Weld's
Travels Through the States of North America, and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, During the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797 (4th ed.: London: John Stockdale, 1807)
Isaac Weld, Jr. visited the North America to determine if "any part of those territories might be looked forward to as an eligible and agreeable place of abode." He returned to his native Ulster after writing two volumes of letters that he later published, remarking that "I shall leave it without a sigh, and without entertaining the slightest wish to revisit it."
Character of Americans
Their basic surliness    Distrust of government
Americans and their Guns
Rifled barrel guns    Pistols and swords    Militia and para-military groups    Bear hunting    Game management   
George Washington
Appearance and deportment   

Their Basic Surliness

I must here observe, that amongst the generality of the lower sort of people in the United States, and particularly among those of Philadelphia there is a want of good manners which excite the surprize of almost very foreigner; I wish also that it may not be thought that this remark has been made, merely because the same deference and the same respectful attention which we see so commonly paid by the lower orders of people in Great Britain and Ireland to those who are in a situation somewhat superior to themselves, is not also paid in America to persons in the same station; it is the want of common civility I complain of, which it is always desirable to behold between man and man, let their situations in life be what they may, and is not contrary to the dictates of nature, or to the spirit of genuine liberty, as it is observable in the behaviour of the wild Indians that wander through the forests of this vast continent, the most free and independent of all human beings. In the United States, however, the lower classes of people will return rude and impertinent answers to questions couched in the most civil terms, and will insult a person that bears the appearance of a gentleman, on purpose to show how much they consider themselves upon an equality with him. Civility cannot be purchased from them on any terms; they seem to think that it is incompatible freedom, and that there is no other way of convincing a stranger that be is really in a land of liberty, but by being surly and ill mannered in his presence.

Isaac Weld,Travels Through the States of North America, and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, During the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797, Volume I, Letter II. (emphasis added).

Distrust of Government

It is the spirit of dissatisfaction which forms a leading trait in the character of the Americans as a people, which produces this malevolence at present, just as it did formerly; and if their public affairs were regulated by a person sent from heaven, I firmly believe his acts, instead of being treated with universal approbation, would by many be considered as deceitful and flagitious.

Isaac Weld,Travels Through the States of North America, and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, During the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797, Volume I, Letter VII.

Rifled Barrel Guns

Several different kinds of articles are manufactured at Lancaster [Pennsylvania] by German mechanics, individually, principally for the people of the town and the neighbourhood. Rifled barrel guns however are to be excepted, which, although not as handsome as those imported from England, are more esteemed by the hunters, and are sent to every part of the country.

The rifled barrel guns, commonly used in America, are nearly of the length of a musket, and carry leaden balls from the size of thirty to sixty in the pound. Some hunters prefer those of a small bore, because they require but little ammunition; others prefer, such as have a wide bore, because the wound which they inflict is more certainly attended with death; the wound, however, made by a ball discharged from one of these guns, is always very dangerous. The inside of the barrel is fluted, and the grooves run in a spiral direction from one end of the barrel to the other, consequently when the ball comes out it has a whirling motion round its own axis, at the same time that it moves forward, and when it enters into the body of an animal, it tears up the flesh in a dreadful manner. The best of powder is chosen for a rifled barrel gun, and after a proper portion of it is put down the barrel, the ball is inclosed in a small bit of linen rag, well greased at the outside, and then forced down with a thick ramrod. The grease and the bits of rag, which are called patches, are carried in a little box at the butt end of the gun. The best rifles are furnished with two triggers, one of which being first pulled sets the other, that is, alters the spring so that it will yield even to the slightest touch of a feather. They are also furnished with double sights along the barrel, as fine as those of a surveying instrument.

An experienced marksman, with one of these guns, will hit an object not larger than a crown piece, to a certainly, at the distance of one hundred yards. Two men belonging to the Virginia rifle regiment, a large division of which was quartered in this town during the [Revolutionary] war, had such a dependence on each other's dexterity, that the one would hold a piece of board, not more than nine inches square, between his knees, whilst the other shot at it with a ball at the distance of one hundred paces. This they used to do alternately, for the amusement of the town's people, as often as they were called upon. Numbers of people in Lancaster can vouch for the truth of this fact. Were I, however, to tell you all the stories I have heard of the performances of riflemen, you would think the people were most abominably addicted to lying. A rifle gun will not carry shot, nor will it carry a ball much farther than one hundred yards with certainty.

Isaac Weld,Travels Through the States of North America, and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, During the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797, Volume I, Letter VIII.

Here Weld provides a wonderfully concise description of U.S. rifle manufacture at the close of the 18th century that reveals persistent features of the American character:
  • American emphasis on functionality and disregard for useless ornamentation. As observed by Tocqueville and others, omitting the otiose ornamentation customary in Europe lowered the price of consumer goods and permitted more people to have them. This has been a persistent theme in American firearms manufacture. To this day, American rifles are generally more accurate and reliable than European rifles, though less finely detailed.
  • American fetish for accuracy. This, too, has been a persistent feature of American gun manufacture. Americans have always understood that range is more important than killing power, a lesson that the Europeans in general, and the British in particular, have never quite understood.
  • American love for tall tales. Well, this hasn't changed in the last 200 years, either.

Pistols and Swords

...I met with a great number of people from Kentucky and the new state of Tenassee [sic] going towards Philadelphia and Baltimore, and with many others going in a contrary direction, "to explore," as they call it, that is, to search for lands conveniently situated for new settlements in the western country.

The people all travel on horseback, with pistols and swords, and a large blanket folded up under their saddle, which last they use for sleeping in when obliged to pass the night in the woods. There is but little occasion for arms now that peace has been concluded with the Indians; but formerly it used to be a very serious undertaking to go by this route to Kentucky, and travellers were always obliged to go forty or fifty in a party, and well prepared for defence. It would still be dangerous for any person to venture singly; but if five or six travel together, they are perfectly secure. There are houses now scattered along nearly the whole way from Fincastle to Lexington in Kentucky, so that it is not necessary to sleep more than two or three nights in the woods in going there.

Of all the uncouth human beings I met with in America, these people from the western country were the most so; their curiosity was boundless. Frequently have I been stopped abruptly by one of them in a solitary part of the road, and in such a manner, that had it been in another country, I should have imagined it was a highwayman that was going to demand my purse, and without any further preface, asked wher I came from? if I was acquanted with any news? where bound to? and finally, my name?

Isaac Weld,Travels Through the States of North America, and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, During the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797, Volume I, Letter XVII. (Paragraphism added.)

Isaac Weld was seldom without a brace of pistols himself, though he never put them to use against his fellow man. He did, however, use them to signal for a ferry, to measure the depth of a cave (using the echo of the report), etc. For hunting he used long arms.

Militia and Para-military Groups

In every part of America a European is surprised at finding so many men with military titles, and still more so at seeing such numbers of them employed in capacities apparently so inconsistent with their rank; for it is nothing uncommon to see a captain in the shape of a waggoner, a colonel the driver of a stage coach, or a general dealing out penny ribbon behind his counter; but no where, I believe, is there such a superfluity of these military personages as in the little town of Staunton [Virginia]; there is hardly a decent person in it, excepting lawyers and medical men, but what is a colonel, a major, or a captain.

This is to be accounted for as follows: in America, every freeman from the age of sixteen to fifty years, whose occupation does not absolutely forbid it, must enrol himself in the militia. In Virginia alone, the militia amounts to about sixty-two thousand men, and it is divided into four divisions and seventeen brigades, to each of which there is a general and other officers.

Were there no officers therefore, excepting those actually belonging to the militia, the number must be very great; but independent of the militia, there are also volunteer corps in most of the towns, which have likewise their respective officers. In Staunton there are two or three corps, one of cavalry, the other of artillery. These are formed chiefly of men who find a certain degree of amusement in exercising as soldiers, and who are also induced to associate, by the vanity of appearing in regimentals. The militia is not assembled oftener than once in two or three months, and as it rests with every individual to provide himself with arms and accoutrements, and no stress being laid on coming in uniform, the appearance of the men is not very military.

Numbers also of the officers of these volunteer corps, and of the militia, are resigning every day; and if a man has been a captain or a colonel but one day either in the one body or the other, it seems to be an established rule that he is to have nominal rank the rest of his life. Added to all, there are several officers of the old continental army neither in the militia nor in the volunteer corps.

Isaac Weld,Travels Through the States of North America, and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, During the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797, Volume I, Letter XVII. (Paragraphism added.)

Occasionally you can find various boneheads who think that the term "militia" when used in the U.S. 200 years ago referred to something analogous to the modern National Guard. It did not. When used without qualification, it signified the entire free male population in arms, rather like the Anglo Saxon fyrd, with which the founding fathers, being students of English legal and constitutional history, were intimately familiar.

The amateurish character of the militia, and its poor performance in pitched battles, has led some imperceptive people to question its usefulness. Such people fail to understand that the strength of irregular forces is not in face, but in depth. The exploits of Francis Marion and Ethan Allen provide examples of this principle. One would think that after our experiences in Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, this obvious fact would be more widely appreciated.

Bear Hunting

At day break the next morning I took the boat, and went on shore [near Point Abineau, about 10 miles west of Fort Erie on the Canadian shore] to join a party that, as I had been informed the previous evening, was going a bear-hunting. On landing, I found the men and dogs ready, and having loaded our guns we advanced into the woods.

The people here, as in the back parts of the United States, devote a very great part of their time to hunting, and are well skilled in the pursuit of game of every description. They shoot almost universally with the rifle gun, and are as dexterous at the use of it as any men can be. The guns used by them [i.e. by the Canadians, not the Americans] are all imported from England. Those in most estimation carry balls of the size of thirty to the pound; in the States the hunters commonly shoot with balls of a much smaller size, sixty of them not weighing more than a pound; but the people of Canada are of opinion that it is better to use the large balls, although more troublesome to carry through the woods, as they inflict much more destructive wounds than the others, and game seldom escapes after being wounded with them.

Isaac Weld,Travels Through the States of North America, and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, During the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797, Volume II, Letter XXXII. (Paragraphism added.)

This attests to the American love of hunting, well-devloped from the earliest periods of U.S. history. Equally interesting is the distinction between the Canadian use of large-bore English guns, and the American preference for guns of smaller caliber and domestic manufacture (see Rifled barrel guns). The British preference for large calibers, like the American preference for small calibers, has persisted for hundreds of years.

Game Management

Immense quantities of grouse and deer are found amidst the brushwood with which it [Brushy Plain, Long Island, New York] is covered, and which is so well calculated to afford shelter to these animals. Laws have been passed, not long since, to prevent the wanton destruction of the deer; in consequence of which they are beginning to increase most rapidly, notwithstanding such great numbers are annually killed, as well for the New York market, as for the support of the inhabitants of the island; indeed it is found that they are now increasing in most of the settled parts of the state of New York, where there is sufficient wood to harbour them; whereas in the Indian territories the deer, as well as most other wild animals, are becoming scarcer every year, notwithstanding that the number of Indian hunters is also decreasing; but these people pursue the same destructive system of hunting formerly practised on Long Island, killing every animal they meet, whether young or full grown. Notwithstanding the strong injunctions laid upon them by the Canadian traders, to spare some few beavers at each dam, in order to perpetuate the breed, they still continue to kill these animals wherever they find them, so that they are now entirely banished from places which used to abound with, and which still are in a state to harbour them, being far removed from the cultivated parts of the country.

Isaac Weld,Travels Through the States of North America, and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, During the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797, Volume II, Letter XXXVIII.

This passage shows the beneficial effects game management as practiced in the 18th century U.S.

Weld had much sympathy for the Indians, as his remarks elsewhere make clear. The explanation for the Indians hunting in manner he describes might be traced to several causes. First, hunters on the edge of starvation will generally kill the first animal they see. Second, when hunting heavers for the pelt market, the Indian would surely know that others would kill any beavers he left, so why would he not kill them himself? Third, one would need to take a beaver census at each dam to ensure that one did not kill to many of the critters -- something most hunters, Indian or white, were not willing to do.

George Washington

Few persons find themselves for the first time in the presence of General Washington, a man so renowned in the present day for his wisdom and moderation, and whose name will be transmitted with such honour to posterity, without being impressed with a certain degree of veneration and awe; nor do these emotions subside on a closer acquaintance; on the contrary, his person and deportment are such as rather tend to augment them. There is something very austere in his countenance, and in his manners he is uncommonly reserved. I have heard some officers, that served immediately under his command during the American war, say, that they never saw him smile during all the time that they were with him. No man has ever yet been connected with him by the reciprocal and unconstrained ties of friendship; and but a few can boast even of having been on an easy and familiar footing with him.

The height of his person is about five feet eleven; his chest is full; and his limbs, though rather slender, well-shaped, and muscular. His head is small, in which respect be resembles the make of a great number of his countrymen. His eyes are of a light grey colour; and, in proportion to the length of his face, his nose is long.

Mr. Stewart, the eminent portrait painter, told me, that there are features in his face totally different from what he ever observed in that of any other human being; the sockets of eyes, for instance, are larger than what he ever met with before, and the upper part of the nose broader. All his features, he observed, were indicative of the strongest and most ungovernable passions, and had he been born in the forests, it was his opinion that he would have been the fiercest man amongst the savage tribes. In this Mr. Stewart has given a proof of his great discernment and intimate knowledge of the human countenance; for although General Washington has been extolled for his great moderation and calmness, during the very trying situations in which he has so often been placed, yet those who have been acquainted with him the longest and most intimately, say, that he is by nature a man of a fierce and irritable disposition, but that, like Socrates, his judgment and great self-command have always made him appear a man of a different cast in the eyes of the world.

He speaks with great diffidence, and sometimes hesitates for a word; but it is always to find one particularly well adapted to his meaning. His language is manly and expressive. At levee, his discourse with strangers turns Principally upon the subject of America; and if they have been through any remarkable places, his conversation is free and particularly interesting, as he is intimately acquainted with every part of the country. He is much more open and free in his behaviour at levee than in private, and in the company of ladies still more so than when solely with men.

General Washington gives no public dinners or other entertainments, except to those who are in diplomatic capacities, and to a few families on terms of intimacy with Mrs. Washington. Strangers, with whom he wishes to have some conversation about agriculture, or any such subject, are sometimes invited to tea. This by many is attributed to his saving disposition; but it is more just to ascribe it to his prudence and foresight; for as the salary of the president, as I have before observed, is very small, and totally inadequate by itself to support an expensive style of life, were he to give numerous and splendid entertainments, the same might possibly be expected from subsequent presidents, who, if their private fortunes were not considerable, would be unable to live in the same style, and might be exposed to many ill-natured observations, from the relinquishment of what the people had been accustomed to; it is most likely also that General Washington has been actuated by these motives, because in his private capacity at Mount Vernon every stranger meets with a hospitable reception from him.

General Washington’s self-moderation is well known to the world already. It is a remarkable circumstance, which redounds to his eternal honour, that while president of the United States he never appointed one of his own relations to any office of trust or emolument, although he has several that are men of abilities, and well qualified to fill the most important stations in government.

Isaac Weld,Travels Through the States of North America, and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, During the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797, Volume I, Letter VII.

An excellent description of the person that George III had, a few years earlier, called the "greatest living man".

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