Northern Tour of 1791

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

Revision as of 13:16, 21 June 2007 by Bcraig (Talk | contribs)

The Northern Tour of 1791[1] was a tour Jefferson and James Madison took of New England. Tantializing thoughts of the "tranquil pursuits of science" possessed Thomas Jefferson whenever dreary political duties ruled his hours. In May 1791, while serving as George Washington's Secretary of State, Jefferson had to delegate another scientific investigation he would have loved to make himself. He proposed to his son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph a study of the weevil which infested the Virginia wheat crop, remarking that he longed to be free for such pursuits "instead of the detestable ones in which I am now labouring without pleasure to myself, or profit to others."

Before the month was out he would be pleasing himself and benefiting others. On May 21 he and James Madison embarked on a month-long journey to New England and upstate New York, the object of which was not politics, as Hamiltonians and later historians assumed, but, in Madison's words, 'health, recreation & curiosity." Madison's bilious attacks and Jefferson's periodical headaches vanished in the days spent walking over Revolutionary War battlefields, scrutinizing botanical novelties, and fishing on Lake George. The whole, for Jefferson, was fortified by a scientific focus of national utility.

As an envoy of the American Philosophical Society committee to study the Hessian fly, Jefferson filled six pages with notes on the habits and depredations of that northern enemy of wheat, and later raised a family of these pernicious midges at his house in Philadelphia. He also gathered information on the sugar maple. His first sight of natural groves of this tree reinforced his vision of a nation of domestic sugar producers, free from the necessity of impoiting the product of West Indian slavery.

It was inevitable that Jefferson would give his observations on other topics a permanent form as well. His travel notes, occupying slightly more than a single manuscript page, are full of the botanical objects which provided the greatest pleasure of the trip. They reveal Jefferson, the plant lover rather than the scientific botanist, making a touching effort to identify unfamiliar trees and shrubs by a descriptive epithet or two. He later lamented to Madison that they had not collected leaves to enable the Philadelphia experts to determine the species they encountered.

The remaining observations on geography, natural history, and manufactures are similar to those of Jefferson's other travel records, which he clearly viewed as servants to memory not only for his own benefit, but for that of his neighbors and countrymen as well. Only the week before his departuie for New England, at breakfast with Dr. Benjamin Rush and Henry Drinker, he had read aloud portions of a previous travel journal on the cultivation of the olive and peach in southern France. Two months later, he suggested that James Madison might enjoy reading this same 1787 travel diary, "written in the way you seemed to approve on our journey." Although the 1791 journal, which includes fewer agricultural and commercial details of general utility, was probably not circulated as widely, it nevertheless provides an excellent view of Jefferson the observer.

The manuscript, preserved in the [ Library of Congress], begins at a tavern in the Highlands section of the Hudson River above Peekskill, on the day after Jefferson and Madison left New York City. They continued up the valley of the Hudson in Jefferson's phaeton, sailed the length of Lake George and twentyfive miles into Lake Champlain, and examined "Wing's falls & Sandy hill falls," Hudson River cataracts now reduced by the cities of Glens Falls and Hudson Falls. Except for the postscript about a wheel and axle in Middletown, Connecticut, the manuscript is silent about the return journey through Vermont, Connecticut, and the southern coast of Long Island.

May 22. Conklin's in tlie highlands. Found here the Thuya Occidentalis, called White cedar & Silverfir, called hemlock. [Theformer with an imbricated leaf, the latter with single pinnated leaves.] Also the Candle berry myrtle.

23. Poughkeepsie. The white pine [5. leaved] B Pitch-pine [3. leaved] Juniper [a shrub with decumbent stems about 8 f. long, with single aves all round the stem, & berries used for infusing gin.]

24. Claverac. Azalea [wild honeysuckle. rosecoloured, on stems 4. f. high loaded richly with large flowers, of a strong pink fragrance. They say it bears an apple eatable]. Hudson. a manufacture of Duck beginning. 1000. barrels of salted herring exported annually. A distillery from which 1000 hhds. of rum are antlually exported.

27. Waterford. Saw nails made by cutting them with a pr. of sheers from the end of a bar of iron, the thickness of which corresponded with the thickness of the nail, &it's breadth with the length. We saw 120. cut off in a minute, & 24 headed in a minute, which would amount to 20. a minute cut off and headed, but they make habitually about 4000. a day. The iron formed into bars I costs about 50 pr. cent more than nail vod. The sheers cost 9. dollars. The bit is sometimes welded to the sheers, sometimes fixed on with screws so as to be taken off to be ground. They aren made at Lebanon in N. York. The lever vice for heading is very simple. Cohoes. Sugar maple.

28. Still water. polypod. Saratoga. ground oak. Fort Edward. the small red squirrel.

29. Lake George. Honeysuckle [Loniceral wild cherry with single fruit, the black gooseberry, Velvet Aspen, cotton Willow, paper birch or white birch, basswood, wild rose, Spruce pine with single leaves all round the stem 1/2 I. long, with abundance of sugar maple, pitch pine, white pine, silver fir, thuya, red cedar, strawberries now in blossom & young fruit. The Thuya is much covered with a species of long moss of a foot long generally, but sometimes 4,. f. This lake is formed by a coutour of mountains into a bason 36. miles long & from 1. to 4 miles wide, the hill sides shelving down to the water edge & only here & there leaving small intervals of low land, tolerably good. Now & then are precipices of rock forming the bank of the lake, as well as hanging over it in immense heights. One of these is famous &c. It's waters very clear, except just at the North end. abounding with salmon, trout of 7. lb. weight, speckled or red trout, Oswego buss of 6. or 7. Ib. weight, rock bass, yellow perch. There are sea-gulls in abundance, loons, and some wild-ducks. Rattle snakes abound on it's borders. Two which we killed were of a sutty dark colour, obscurely checkered. It is infested with swarms of musketoes & gnats, & 2 kinds of biting flies. It is pretty much interspersed with small islands. [Famed by the name of Rogers's rock, the celebrated partisan officer of that name having escaped the pursuit of Indns. by sliding down it when covered with snow, & escaping across the lake then frozen over. The neighborhood of this lake is healthy, but there are few inhabitants on it.] It closes with ice about the last of December & opens from the 15th. to the 20th. of April. The difference between the height of it's water in spring &fall is about 2. feet. There is no lime stone immediately on the lake but abundance in it's neighborhood on the East side.

31. Lake Champlain is a much larger but less pleasant water than L. George. It is about 110 miles long & from one to 15 miles broad. It is narrow & turbid from Ticonderoga to beyond the Split rock about 30. miles, where it is said to widen & grow more clear. It yeilds catfish of 20 lb. weight, sturgeon, & salmon, also the fish found in L. George except the trout but in smaller quainities, &it is less infested with musketoes & insects. The Eastern bank is of limestone laminated like slate, on the Westem sicle is none, & it is remakable that to the Westwd. of this & L. George, the people are obliged to come to them from great distances for their limestone. The Western side is closed by high mountains of very different lands, on the East side the lands are champaign, the Green mountains rising out of them at the distance of 20 or 25 miles & running parallel with the lake as far as the sight extends. These lands may be called good, & begin to be thickly seated. The growth on both sides the lake much the same as on lake George, to which add the yellow or 2. leaved pine, & the thistle ill such abundance as to embarrass agriculture in a high degree. This lake is conjectured to be about 100 f. lower than L. George; the difference of it's level in spring &fall is about 3 f. It closes with ice about the last of November, &opens a few days before lake George.

It is to he noted that we have seen no poplar, dogwood or redbud since we have passed the highlands, nor any fruit tree but apples, & here & there a cherry tree. We have seen no persimmons in any place since crossing the Hudson.

June 2. From L. George to Sandy hill, the first three or 4. miles are over high hills which would seem avoidable by following a valley on the Eastern side. The hills are sandy & poor. The residue of the road is along a high plain of sand, limestone & round pebble crossed by 2 or 3. creeks which seem sufficiently copious & elevated to admit a canal of navigation to L. George on the North & the Hudson on the South, 8 miles distant in that part. The plains are pine barrens. We pass Wing's falls & Sandy hill falls of about 35. or 40.f. each on a bed of limestone in horizontal strata.

3. From Sandy hill to Fort Edward & Mc- Neal's ferry 14. miles along the river side. Some good lowlands, the high lands indifferent.

Middletown. axis in peritrochio for drawing water. The wheel 6.f. diam. has the rope wouild round it with the bucket, the axis 8. I. diam. has a weight appended sufft. to balance the bucket on the wheel when full of water. This weight descends to the ground outside of the well when the bucket is drawn up, &when you send down the bucket you wind up the weight.


  1. Article based on Lucia S. Goodwin, Monticello Keepsake, November 6, 1981.

Further Sources