|An early French edition of Lahontan’s travelogue.|
I’ve spent the last week in UT Austin’s Harry Ransom Center reading a book that was once sensationally famous but has since fallen into obscurity: the Baron de Lahontan’s Nouveux Voyages dans L’Amerique Septentrionale, published in English as New Voyages to North America (London, 1703). After reading less than half, I can safely say that this is an extraordinary book, sparkling with unusual details, spectacular engraved illustrations and a unique narrative voice. Indeed, there’s almost something post-modern about the moral ambiguity of Lahontan as narrator – on the surface he appears to scorn the “silly” ways of the “Savages,” but the work is also suffused with concealed admiration for what Lahontan calls the “most Natural of Natural Philosophers” who populated the vast North American forests, and the book concludes with a dialogue between the Baron and a semi-imaginary Huron Indian chief (Lahontan calls him ‘the Rat’) which paints European Christians and their money-driven ethos in a distinctly unfavorable light.
|The English title page.|
A bit more information about the somewhat mysterious Loius Armand, Baron of Lahontan (9 June 1666 – c. 1716) can be garnered from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, where an informative entry by David M. Hayne tells us that he was born to a noble French family in the environs of the town of Pau, on the border near the Pyrenes. Lahontan came to French Canada at a young age, around 17, and moved throughout New France for ten years as a soldier, translator and traveler. Upon return to France he seems to have been deprived of his large inheritance, but he won fame for his writings and maintained a friendship with the great Liebniz (and also, it would seem, with Sir Hans Sloane, the botanist, founder of the British Museum and co-inventor of hot chocolate — on whom more in a later post). Lahontan’s Voyages, Hayne notes,
were based on personal observation of events and practices in New France, of Indian customs, and of flora and fauna. They included an impressive wealth of detail and, except for some exaggeration in the numbers of persons involved, were remarkably accurate in their information. The infrequent occasions on which Lahontan retailed hearsay – for example in his jesting page on the marriageable girls sent out to New France, or in his tale of the Long River – have drawn refutations which by their violence bear witness to his relative veracity elsewhere.
|The cartographer Hermann Mole’s depiction of the mythical ‘Longue River’ linking the Great Lakes with the Pacific, seemingly invented by Lahontan along with details of cultures and ecosystems that lay along it.|
Quite apart from the information and opinions they communicated about North America, moreover, Lahontan’s works were a compendium of early 18th-century “philosophic” ideas about the folly of superstitions, the vices of European society, the illogicalities of Christian dogma and the virtues of the “noble savage.” The same ideas, better expressed, would be found in the writings of major 18th-century authors: in the fourth book of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), in Rousseau’s Discours sur les origines de l’inégalité . . . (1755), in Voltaire’s L’Ingénu (1767), or in Diderot’s posthumously published Supplément au voyage de Bougainville…
Below are a random sampling of quotations from the English translation of Lahontan’s Voyages, with two engraved plates from the French edition. These are some of the earliest written accounts of the native tribes — Ottawa, Huron, Iroquois, Illinois, and many more — that populated New France, and the haunting sense of a vanished world and culture is palpable here.
On property and inequality: “They think it unnaccountable that one Man should have more than another, and that the Rich should have more Respect than the Poor. In short, they say, the name of Savages which we bestow upon them would fit our selves better, since there is nothing in our Actions that bears an Appearance of Wisdom… They brand us for Slaves, and call us miserable Souls, whose Life is not worth having, alledging, That we degrade our selves in Subjecting our selves to one Man who possesses the whole Power…” (421).
On food: “Their Victuals are either Boild or roasted, and they lap great quantities of the Broath, both of Meat and of Fish: They cannot bear the taste of Salt or Spices, and wonder that we are able to live so long as Thirty Years, considering our Wines, our Spices, and our Immoderate Use of Women.” (422)
|A similar illustration from the English edition, with more details.|
On widows: “When the Husband or Wife comes to dye, the Widowhood does not last above six Months ; and if in that space of time the Widow or Widower dreams of their deceas’d Bedfellow, they Poyson themselves in cold Blood with all the Contentment imaginable ; and at the same time sing a sort of tune that one may safely say proceeds from the Heart.” (459)
On men who ‘go in a Woman’s Habit’: “Among the Illinese there are several Hermaphrodites, who go in a Woman’s Habit, but frequent the Company of both Sexes. These Illinese are strangely given to Sodomy, as well as the other Savages that live near the River Missisipi.” (462)
|“Savages going to the hunt,” an “infant attached to a branch of a tree,” and a “female savage carrying her child.”|
And one of my favorite passages, on ‘Hunting Women’ who ‘will not hear of a Husband’: “To justify their Conduct, they alledge that they find themselves to be of too indifferent a temper to brook the Conjugal yoak, to be too careless for the bringing up of Children, and too impatient to bear the passing of the whole Winter in the Villages… Their Parents or Relations dare not censure their Vicious Conduct; on the contrary they seem to approve of it, in declaring, as I said before, that their Daughters have the command of their own Bodies and may dispose of their Persons as they think fit… The Jesuits do their utmost to prevent the Lewd Practices of these Whores, by preaching to their parents that their Indulgence is very disagreeable to the Great Spirit, that they must answer before God for not confineing their Children to the measures of Continency and Chastity, and that a Fire is Kindled in the other World to Torment ’em for ever, unless they take more care to correct Vice. To such Remonstances the Men reply, That’s Admirable; and the Woman usually tell the Good Fathers in a deriding way, That if their Threats be well grounded, the Mountains of the other World must consist of the Ashes of souls.” (464)
An excellent answer from the women, in my opinion! (And we must be careful not to take Lahontan too much at his word in his own censure of these practices – the Baron seems often to tacitly approve of the un-Christian yet spirited and clever responses of his native interlocutors, though he can never admit it outright.) These passage raise some profound questions about gender in North American indigenous societies — Lahontan’s ‘Hunting Women’ and ‘Hermaphrodites’ are fascinating and almost entirely unstudied, based on what I’ve read — but sadly the documentation for these practices is so fragmentary that they may never be fully understood by historians.
|A detail from the 1707 French edition showing what is probably the earliest European depiction of the bison hunts of the Plains Indians – early French travelers like Lahontan called them ‘boeufs sauvages,’ or wild cows.|
Lahonta’s Voyages are on Amazon and can also be found on Archive.org. Those interested in the larger context of Indian, French and British interaction in the colonial American frontier would be wise to start with Richard White’s famous work The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires and Republics in the Great Lakes Region (1991), which is the authoritative work on the subject and an amazing piece of scholarship, if at times a bit daunting. Maps and engravings from Lahontan’s works, which by and large were extremely well-illustrated, can be found on auction sites throughout the web, but the best site to browse is probably Early Images of Canada, which has over one hundred images from different editions of Lahontan’s travels online in a searchable database.