Peter Kalm's Travels in North America

Publication Year: 
1964

Image retrieved from www.billyrioux.com on July 11th, 2013.

The English Version of 1770

Revised and edited by Adolph B Benson

with a translation of new material from Kalm's diary notes


In 1747, the swedish Academy sent botanist Peter Kalm to North America in seach of seed material of herbs, trees and other plants hardy enough to endure the severity of Swedish climate and to thrive in its soil. Fortunately, Kalm's interests ranged far beyond his profession and the record of his travels is not just fascinating natural history, but important, eye-opening Americana as well.

Kalm's primary concern was , of course, with natural history; in his own words, 'wherever I look on the ground, i find everywhere such plants as i have never seen before." For hundreds of flowers, rare shrubs, lumber trees, cereals plants, medicinal herbs, etc. he provides detailed information on Indian and other local names, similarities with related European species, Physical descriptions, folklore, uses, classifications, and so on. He also discusses dozens of distinctly American animals.

But no scientific preoccupation could obscure Kalm's interest in everything else he saw in three years of wandering through colonial New York, new Jersey, New England and Pennsylvania and southern Canada. His journal brims with observations on public institutions, food, mineral deposits, the width of streets, word formation in the Algonquin language, architecture, building materials, household remedies, Roman Catholicism in Canada, climate, beaver dams, the length of women's skirts, the reason for poor teeth among Americans, servants' wages, Ben Franklin's hospitality, and much much more.

The fullest version of Kalm's first-hand report, the first to include translations from diary notes that Kalm never published, Benson's two-volume edition also includes footnotes, Kalms description of Niagara Falls and his history of the Swedish settlement in Delaware, a bibliography of Kalm's fuller index. The fold-out map reprinted in that edition has been greatly enlarged for this reprint.

Unabridged reprint of Adolph B. Benson's revised (1937) edition, with fold-out map enlarged. Editor's introduction. Addenda: Kalm's History of the Delaware Swedes. Meteorological observations. Bibliography. Index. 18 plates. Map. Total of xxiii = 797pp. 5 3/8 x 8 1/2.

Fever and Remedies. A kind of cold fever, which the English in this country call "fever" and "ague," is very common in several parts of the English colonies. There are, however, other parts, where the people have never felt it. I shall later describe the symptoms of this disease at large. Several of the most prominent inhabitants of this town assured me that the disease was not nearly so common in New York as in Pennsylvania, where ten were seized by it to one in the former province. Therefore they were of the opinion that it was occasioned by the vapors arising from stagnant fresh water, from marshes, and from rivers,1 for which reason those provinces situated on the seashore could not be so much affected by it. However, the carelessness with which people eat quantities of melons, watermelons, peaches and other juicy fruit in summer, was reckoned to contribute much towards the progress of this fever, and repeated examples confirmed the truth of this opinion. The Jesuits'bark was reckoned a good remedy for it. It has, however, often been found to have operated contrary to expectation, though I am ignorant whether it was adulterated or some mistake had been committed in the manner of taking it. Mr. davis van Horne, a merchant, told me that he cured himself and several other people of this fever by the leaves of the common garden sage, or Salvia officinalis of Linne. The leaves are crushed or pounded in a mortar and the juice is pressed out of them. This is continued till they get a spoonful of the liquid, which is mixed with lemon juice. This drought is taken about the time the cold chill comes on, and after taking it three or four times the fever generally disappears.
The Bark of the white oak was reckoned the best remedy which had as yet been found against dysentery. It is reduced to a powder, and then taken. Some people assured me that in cases where nothing would help, this remedy had given a certain and speedy relief. The people in this place also make use of the bark (as i usually done in the English colonies) to dye wool brown, which looks like that of bohea tea, and does not fade by being exposed to the sun...

The old tobacco pipes of the Indians are likewise made of clay, potstone, or serpentine. the first sort is shaped like our tobacco pipes, though much coarser and not so well made. The tube is thick and short, hardly an inch long, but sometimes as long as a finger; its color comes nearest to that of our tobacco pipes which have been long used. Their pipes of potstone are made of the same material as their kettles. Some of them are pretty well made, though they have neither iron nor steel. but besides these kinds of tobacco pipes, we find another kind which is made with great ingenuity of a very fine, red potstone or a variety of serpentine marble. such pipes are very scarce and are seldom used by any other than the Indian sachems or elders. The fine red stone of which these pipes are made is, also, very rare, and is found only in the country of those indians who are called the Aiouez, and who, according to Father Charlevoix, live on the other side of the Mississippi. the Indians themselves commonly value a pipe of this kind as much as a piece of silver of the same size, and sometimes they hold it still more valuable. Of the same kind of stone, commonly, is their pip of peace, which the French call calumet de paix, and which they used in their treaties of peace and alliances. Most authors who have written of these nations mention this article, and I intend to speak of it further when an opportunity offers...

Skunk Cabbage. The Dracontium foetidum grew plentifully in the marshes and was beginning to flower. Mong the stinking plants this is the most foetid; its nauseous scent was so strong that I could hardly examine the flower; and when i smelled it a little too long my head ached. The Swedes call it bjornblad (bear's-leaf) or bjornrotter (bear's root). The English call it polecat-root [polecat weed}, because its effluvia are as nauseous and foetid as those of the polecat, which I have mentioned before. The flowers are purple-colored. When they are in full flower the leaves begin to come out of the ground; in summer the cattle do not touch it. Dr. Colden told me that he had employed the root in all cases were the root of arum is used, especially against the scurvy, etc. The Swedish name it got from the fact that the bears, when they leave their winter quarters in spring, are fond of it. It is a common plant in all North America.
The Draba verna was abundant here, and was now in bloom.
The Veratrum album (hellebore) was very common in the marshes, and in low places over all North America. The Swedes here call it dock, dockor (dolls), or dockrotter, that is, purple root [for dolls] because the children make dolls of its stalks and leaves. The English call it itch-weed or hellebore. It is a poisonous plant, and therefore the cattle never touch it. However, it sometimes happens that the cattle are deceived in the beginning of spring, when the pastures are bare, and eat of the fine broad green leaves of this plant, which come up very early; but such a meal frequently proves fatal to them. Sheep and geese have likewise often been killed by it. By means of its roots the corn is preserved from the greediness of voracious birds in the following manner: the roots are boiled in water, into which the corn is put as soon as the water is quite cool; the corn must lie all night in it and is then planted as usual. Then when the starlings, crows, or other birds, pick up or pluck out the grains of corn, their heads grow delirious, and they fall, which so frightened the rest that they never venture on the field again. When those which have tasted the grains recover, they leave the field, and are no more tempted to visit it again. By thus preparing corn, one must be very careful that no other creatures touch it; for when ducks or fowls eat a grain or two of the corn which is thus steeped, they become very sick, and if they swallow a considerable quantity they die.When the root is thrown away raw, no animal eats it; but when it is put out boiled, its sweet taste tempts the beasts. dogs have been seen to eat a little of it, and have become very sick; however, they have recovered after a vomit, for when animals cannot free themselves of it by this means, they often die. Some people boil the root for medicinal purposes, washing scorbutic pats with the water or decoction. This is said to cause some pain, and even a plentiful discharge of urine, but the patient is said to be cured thereby. When the children here are plagued with vermin, the women boil this root, put the comb into the decoction, and comb the head with it, and this kills the lice most effectually...

Apocynum cannabinum was by the Swedes called Indian Hemp (wild hemp), and grew plentifully in old grain grounds, in woods, on hills, and in high glades. The Swedes have given it the name Indian hemp because the Indians formerly and even now apply it to the same purposes as the Europeans do hemp; for the stalk may be divided into filaments, and is easily prepared, when the Indians were still living among the swedes, in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, they made ropes of this Apocynum, which the swedes bought, and used them as bridles, and for nets. These ropes were stronger and kept longer in water than such as were made of common hemp. The Swedes usually got thirty feet of these ropes for one piece of bread. Many of the Europeans still buy such ropes because they last so well. The indians also make several other articles of their hemp, such as various sizes of bags, pouches, quilts and linings. On my journey through the country of the Iroquois I saw the women employed in the manufacture of this hemp. They made use of neither of spinning wheels nor distaffs, but rolled the filaments upon their bare thighs, and made thread and strings of them, which they died red, yellow, black, etc. and afterwards worked them into goods with a great deal of ingenuity. The plant is perennial, which renders the annual planting of it altogether unnecessary. Out of the root and stalk of this plant, when it is fresh, comes a white milky juice, which is somewhat poisonous. Sometimes the fishing equipment of the Indians consists entirely of this hemp. The Europeans make no use of it that i know of.
Cat-tail. Flax or cat-tail are names given to a grass which grows in bays, rivers, and in deep whirlpools, and which is known to botanists by the name of Typha latifolia. Its leaves are here twisted together, and formed into great oblong rings, which are put upon the horse's neck, between the main and the collar, in order to prevent the horse's neck from being hurt by the collar. The bottoms of chairs (now called rush-bottom chairs) were frequently made of these leaves, twisted together. Formerly the Swedes employed the down which surrounds its seeds and put it into their beds instead of feathers; but as it coalesces into lumps after the beds have been used for some time, they have left off making use of them. I omit the use of this plant in medicine, that being the peculiar province of the physicians...

They sow as much hemp and flax here as they want for home consumption...

Tea, which is brought in great quantities from China, is differently esteemed by different people, and I think we would be as well, and our purses much better, if we were without both tea and coffee. However, I must be impartial, and mention in praise of tea that if it be useful it must certainly be so in summer on such journeys as mine through a vast wilderness, where one cannot carry wine or other liquors and where the water is generally unfit for use, being full of insects. In such cases it is very refreshing when boiled and made into tea, and I cannot sufficiently describe the taste it has under such circumstances. It relieves a weary traveller more than can be imagined, as i myself have experienced, and as have also a great many others who have travelled through the primeval forests of America. On such journeys tea is found to be almost as necessary as food...

Ginseng is the current French name in Canada of a plant, the root of which has a very great value in China. It has been growing since time immemorial in the Chinese Tartary and in Korea, where it is annually collected and brought to China. Father Du Halde says it is the most precious and the most useful of all the plants in eastern Tartary, and attracts every year a number of people into the deserts of that country. The Mantchou-Tartars call it Orhota, that is, the most noble or the queen of plants. The Tartars and Chinese praise it very much, and ascribe to it the power of curing several dangerous diseases and that of restoring to the body new strength and supplying the loss caused by the exertion of the mental and physical faculties. An ounce of ginseng brings the surprising price of seven or eight ounces of silver at Peking. When the French botanists in canada first saw a picture of it, they remembered to have seen a similar plant in this country. They were confirmed in their conjecture by considering that several settlements in Canada lie in the same latitude as those parts of the Chines Tartary, and China, where the true ginseng grows wild. They succeeded in their attempt and found the same plant wild and abundant in several parts of North America, both in the French and English plantations, in level parts of the woods. It is fond of shade, and of a deep rich earth, and of land which is neither wet nor high. It is not common every where, for sometimes one may search the woods for the space of several miles without finding a single plant of it, but in those spots where it grows it is always found in great abundance. It flowers in May and June and its berries are ripe at the end of August. It bears transplanting very well, and will soon thrive in its new ground. Some people here who have gathered the berries and put them into their kitchen gardens told me that they lay one or two years in the ground without coming up. The Iroquois call the ginseng roots Garangtoging which it is said signifies a child, the roots bearing a faint resemblance to one: but others are of the opinion that they mean the thigh and leg by it, and the roots look very much like that. The French use this root for curing asthma, as a stomachic, and promoting fertility in women. The trade which is carried on here with it is very brisk, for they gather great quantities of it and send them to France, whence they are brought to China and sold there to gread advantage. It is said that the merchants in France met with amazing success in this trade at the first outset, but by continuing to send the ginseng over to China its price has fallen considerabley there and consequently in France and Canada; however, they still find some profit in it. In the summer of 1748 a pound of ginseng was sold for six francs or livres at Quebec; but its common price here is one hundred sols or five livres. During my stay in Canada all the merchants at Quebec and Montreal received orders from their correspondents in France to send over a quantity of ginseng, there being an uncommon demand for it this summer. The roots were accordingly collected in Canada with all possible haste. The Indians especially travelled about the country in order to collect as much as they could and to sell it to the merchants at Montreal. The Indians in the neighborhood of this town were likwise so much taken up with this business that the French farmers were not able during that time to hire a single Indian, as they commonly do to help them in the harvest. Many people feared lest by continuing for several successive years to collect these plants without leaving one or two in each place to propagate their species, there would soon be very few of them left, which I think is very likely to happen, for by all accounts they formerly grew in bundance round Montreal, but at present there is not a single plant of it to be found, so effectually have they been rooted out. This obliged the Indians this summer to go far within the Enlish boundaries to collect these roots. From the merchants in Montreal one received 40 francs a minot (39 liters) of these fresh roots. After the Indians have sold the fresh product to the merchants, the latter must take a great deal of pains with them. They are spread on the floor to dry, which commonly requires two months or more , according as the season is wet or dry. During that time they must be turned once or twice every day, lest they should spoil or moulder. Ginseng has never been found far north of Montreal. The father superior of the clergy here and several other people assured me that the Chinese value the Canada ginseng as much as the Tartrian and that no one ever had been entirely acquainted with the Chinese method of preparing it. However, it is thought that amongst the other preparation they dip the roots in a decoction of leaves of ginseng. The roots prepared by the chinese are almost transparent and look like horn inside, and the roots which are fit for use must be heavy, solid or compact inside.
"Maiden Hair". The plants which throughout Canada bear the name of Herba capillaris is like wise one of those with which a great trade is carried on in Canada. The English in their plantations call it "maiden hair"; it grows in all their North American colonies which I travelled through and likewise in the southern parts of Canada; but I never found it near Quebec. It grows in the woods in shady places and in a good soil. Several people in Albany and Canada assured me that its leaves were very much used instead of tea, in consumption, cough, and all kinds of pectoral diseases. This they have learnt from the Indians who have made use of the plant for these purposes since ancient times. This American maiden hair is reckoned preferable in surgery to that which we have in Europe and therefore they send a great quantity of it to France every year. The price varies and is regulated according to to the grade of the plant, the care in preparing it, and the quantity which is to be gotten. For if it is brought to Quebec in great abundance, the price falls, and on the contrary it rises when the quantity gathered is but small. Usually the price at Quebec is between five and fifteen sols a pound. The Indians went into the woods about this time and travelled far above Montreal in quest of this plant...

The reindeer moss (Lichen rangiferinus) grows plentifully in the woods round Quebec. M. Gautier, and several other gentlemen, told me that the French, on their long journeys through the woods, on account of their fur trade with the Indians, sometimes boil this moss and drink the decoction for want of better food, when their provisions are at an end, and they say it is very nutritive. Several Frenchmen who have been in the Terra Labrador, where there are many reindeer (which the French and Indians here call cariboux, related that all the land there is in most places covered with this reindeer moss, so that the ground looks white as snow...

Botanizing. In the morning we continued our journey through the woods to the high mountains, in order to see what scarce plants and curiosities we could get there. The ground was flat at first and covered with a thick wood all round, except in marshy places. nearly half the plants which are to be found here grow in the woods and morases in Sweden.
We saw wild cherry trees here of two kinds which are probably mere varieties, though they differ in several respects. Both are pretty common in Canada and both have red berries. One kind which is called cerisier by the French tastes like our Alpine cherries and their acid contracts the mouth and cheeks. The berries of the other sort have an agreeable sourness and a pleasant taste.
The three-leaved hellebore (Helleborus trifolius) grows in great quantities in the woods, and in many places it covers the ground by itself. However, it commonly chooses mossy places that are not very wet, and the wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella L.), with the mountain enchanter's nightshade (circaea alpina L.) are its companions. Its seeds were not yet rip and most of the stalks had no seeds at all. This plant is called Tissavoyanne jaune by the French in Canada. Its leaves and stalks are used by the Indians for giving a fine yellow color to several kinds of work which they make of prepared skins. The French who have learnt this from them, dye wool and other things yellow with this plant.
We climbed with a great deal of difficulty to the top of one of the highest mountains here, and i was vexed to find nothing at its summit but what i had seen in other parts of Canada before. We had not even the pleasure of a view, because the trees with which the mountain is covered obstructed it, the trees that grow here are a kind of hornbeam, or Carpinus ostrya L., the American elm, the red maple, the sugar maple, that kind of maple which cures scorched wounds (which I have not yet described), the beech, the common birch tree, the sugar birch (Betula nigra L.) the mountain ash, the Canada pine, called persusse, the mealy tree with donated leaves (Viburnum dentatum L.), the ash, the cherry tree (cerisier) just before described and the berry-bearing yew (Taxus baccata)...

Thuya in Medicine. This Thuya is used for several medicinal purposes. the commandant of Fort St. Frederic, M de Lusignan, could never sufficiently praise its excellence for rheumatic pains. he told me he had often seen it tried with remarkably good success upon several persons in the following manner. The fresh leaves are pounded in a mortar in mixed with hog's grease or any other grease. This is boiled together till it becomes a salve, which is spread on linen and applied to the part where the pain is. The salve gives certain relief in a short time. Against violent pains which move up and down in the thighs and sometimes spread all over the body, they recommend the following remedy. Take of the leaves of a kind of polypody four-fifths, and of the cones of the Thuya one-fifth, both reduced to a coarse powder by them selves, and mixed together afterwards. Then pour milk warm water on it so as to make a poultice, spread it on linen, and wrap it around the body: but as the poultice burns like fire, they commonly lay a cloth between it and the body, otherwise it would burn and scorch the skin. I have heard this remedy praised beyond measure, by people who said they had experienced it's good effects. Among these was a woman who said that she had applied such a poultice for three days, after which her severe pain passed away entirely. An Iroquois Indian told me that a decoction of Thuya leaves was used as a remedy for a cough. In the neighborhood of Saratoga, they use this decoction in the intermittent fevers.
The Thuya tree keeps its leaves, and is green all winter. Its seeds are ripe towards the end of September, old style. The fourth of October of this year, 1749, some of the cones, especially those which stood much exposed to the heat of the sun, had already dropped their seeds, and all the other cones were opening in order to shed them. This tree has, in common with many other American trees, the quality of growing plentifully in marshes and thick woods, which may with certainty be called its native habitat. However, there is scarcely a single Thuya tree in those places which bears seeds; if, on the other had, a tree accidentally stands on the outside of a wood, on the seashore, or in a field where the air can freely get to it, it is always full of seeds. I have found this to be the case with the Thuya on innumerable occasions. It is the same with the sugar maple, the maple which is good for healing scorched wounds, the white fir tree, the pine called perusse, the mulberry tree, the sassafras and several others. In England this tree is everywhere called arbor vitae by the farmers...

The bear berries (Arbutus uva ursi L.) grow in great abundance here. The Indians, French, English and Dutch, in those parts of North American which I have seen , called them sagackhomi, and mix the leaves with tobacco for their use, Even the children use only the Indian name for these berries...

Tobacco Every farmer plants a quantity of tobacco near his house, in proportion to the size of his family. It is necessary that one should plant tobacco, because it is so universally smoked by the common people. boys of ten or twelve years of age, as well as the old people, run about with a pipe in their mouth. Persons of the better class do not refuse either to smoke a pipe now and then. In the northern parts of canada they generally smoke pure tobacco; but further north and around Montreal, they take the inner bark of the red Cornelian cherry (Cornus sanguinea L.),crush it, and mix it with the tobacco, to make it weaker. People of both sexes, and of all ranks, use snuff very much. Almost all the tobacco which is consumed here is the product of the country, and some people prefer it even to virginian tobacco: but those who pretend to be connoisseurs reckon the last kind better than the other...

The biennial oenothera (Oenothera biennis L.) grows in abundance on open woody hills, and fallow fields. An old Frenchman, who accompanied me as I was collecting its seeds, could not sufficiently praise its property of healing wounds. The leaves of the plant must be crushed and then laid on the wound...

I recall an herb which grew here and which I called Dentarioides umbellifera. There was one plant only. I called it "dentarioides" because its seeds resembled those of the toothwort, though attached to the end of the branches, and "umbellifera"because it is said to be in the shape of an umbel. The seeds were labelled with the former name and the herb was preserved.
The bulrush (,i>Scirpus culmo triquetro
) grew on the whore here and there i the damp sand. The spikelet was on the upper side; it was now full grown. Seeds were gathered and a few specimens of this, a perennial, were preserved.
Of the bog rush (,i>Juncus
) I took two varieties, one which resembled somewhat the Juncus capit. Psyllii, but had round leaves, the other had a cluster or clusters on the sides. Both wet growing in wet sand on the shore. seeds were taken from both.
A small St. John's wort came forth through the wet soil, (Hypericum majus in humidis proveniens). Seeds were gathered and a specimen prepared. This wort always grows in the very wet places and is about four inches high, perhaps lightly taller. Leaves are close to one another on the stem, and the creeping root here and there sends forth new shoots.
A larger St. John's wort came forth through the wet soil. (Hypericum majus in humidis proveniens). This wort grew in the same places as the former. It was not only very large, but also eleven times larger, and among the largest Hyperica. I gathered some seed but could not save a specimen, as the leaves fell off as soon as I touched them...

Tobacco Pouches. The native's way of protecting and carrying their tobacco with them was to cut it up and place it in the skin of an otter, a marten or of some other small animal. The feet, where they join the body, had been sewed up and an opening left under the chin. In other respects the skin was complete, as it had been taken from the animal, with head, legs and feet. The hairy side was on the outside. These skin pouches were adorned on the outside with red tassels, tin and brass trimmings. The Indian Carried this tobacco pouch upon his arm, along with his tinder-box and pipe, wherever he went. As a rule the ordinary Frenchman made use of this same custom and the pouch of otter-skin was most commonly used. A skin prepared thus cost thirty sous...

Here and there in the woods was found the moosewood (or leatherwood) which the French generally called bois de plomb it was used as cord for binding. One of the men said that if the root of this shrub was boiled in water and drunk, it acted as a strong purgative.
In the afternoon the storm abated somewhat and people began to venture forth on the lake. We saw first a few natives sail by us, and shortly thereafter the two English boats with the Englishmen on board who had escorted home the French prisoners captured in the last war with the English. This made me indignant, as i had left three days before they reached Montreal. But the treacherous weather made my journey to begin with a slow one, and now we had put our boat in such an inlet that the weather prevented our leaving it. We were compelled to remain until toward evening when the gale moderated and we eventually got away from there.
Wild ginger (Asarum Canadense),/i> was found here and there in the woods where we stopped. The root had a strong aromatic odor and was said to be good to use in food. The French called it gingembre...

pp. 127-128, 231-232, 256-258, 277-278, 335, 370, 435-438, 447-448, 461, 468, 488-489, 510-511, 538, 571, 573, 579Travels in North America by Peter Kalm (1964)

peter kalm travels in north america
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