For early 19th century Europeans, whose minds were filled with images from Chateaubriand and James Fenimore Cooper, the idea of a voyage to America inevitable elicited images of wild landscapes, solitary vistas, and Indians living in nature as if in the primitive cradle of humanity. Tocqueville and Beaumont were no exception to this, and they also dreamed of extending their travels to reach this "frontier" that marked the boundary of civilization. As soon as they were able, the two friends decided to escape from their penal obligations, and to strike out into the country across the immense American wilderness. Leaving Albany on July 6th, they traveled to Buffalo and then to Detroit, which they reached on July 23rd. During this first part of their travels, they were disappointed to discover that European civilization had spread very quickly, erasing in its passage traces of the Old World they wanted to discover. In Detroit, they thus decided to travel alone and on horseback in order to reach Saginaw, the furthest outpost of civilization. Their escapade was a dangerous one, and the account that Tocqueville wrote, entitled Two Weeks in the Wilderness, paints a picture of the two friends being tracked by unknown Indians, coming face to face with a bear, and becoming separated in the pitch-black night at the risk of losing their way.
« We very much wanted to see a wilderness area only recently conquered by man. »(Letter to Abbé Lesueur, August 3, 1831)
They ended up letting themselves be guided by Indians through the virgin forest all the way to Saginaw, which they finally reached on July 26th. Along their way, the majestic spectacle of nature that presented itself fascinated them by the feeling of harmony and solitude that it emanated, as certain parts of Tocqueville's text show. On the other hand, the eclectic Saginaw society of "exiles from the great family of humanity" painted a rather darker picture through the inability of French, English, and those of mixed race to live together, and all under the distant regard of the Indians.
Cedars, photograph taken by William Notman
© RMN/Christian Jean